Notes on a Public Art Commission

Image: Marianne Heier’s ACT (2020) © KORO / Kristine Jakobsen

1st ACT The untangling

In late summer 2017, I was invited to participate in a closed competition for a commission of a public artwork to be installed in the new building of Domus Juridica (Faculty of Law) in Oslo together with fellow artists Tiril Hasselknippe, Steinar Haga Kristensen and Lotte Konow Lund. The project was initiated by KORO Public Art Norway and curated by Elisabeth Byre. It was a prestigious project in a newly built university building in the middle of the expensive and extremely gentrified city center of Oslo, and as such a rare occasion. We were to compete for a budget of 2 million Norwegian kroner, a medium-sized budget in the context of Norwegian public art.

Selecting an artist for a public commission is obviously a big responsibility and the competition format may seem sensible given the often relatively large budgets involved and the expectation that the art should function for an unspecialized audience for a long time. It is no easy task. Public art is precisely that: public. Unprotected by white cubes it interacts with a broad, unspecialized audience who mostly are not looking for it. Understandably communication is a core challenge for public art in general, and competitions may cast a veneer of controllability and common sense over a field that will always have as one of its main goals to challenge and transcend precisely these notions. But as a communication tool it feels like a quick fix, a reductive shortcut that, rather than actually introducing the art to an unspecialized audience, it sneaks it in disguised as something less unknown, unpredictable and unstable.

Of course, it can be said that the artist, by virtue of our economic vulnerability and the traditional association with the idea of ​​the solitary genius, is always competing. We compete for resources, space, and attention, and we stand in the competition alone and unprotected. We are the precariat’s original model. Brutality is not new to us. But still: I hate it, and here was an occasion to challenge it.

I had worked with the curator Elisabeth Byre before, and I knew how inspiring and productive it is to share a work process with her. But a competition sets sharp limits on the kind of conversations you can have in the development of the proposal. If the characteristics of the competition format, borrowed from sports and market mechanisms are to be transferred to art, organic, open conversations during the development of a work have to be banned. The process has to be closed, and communication rinsed of almost everything except information about budgets, logistics and architectonic conditions. All information must be shared in real time with all participants. Doubt, risk and wonder, typical ingredients in an artistic process, are left to each individual participant. The curator, reduced to a mix of a bureaucrat and a producer, cannot build up interests in the individual projects before they are presented as that would violate the most important argument for the competition format: fair play.

Thus the paradoxical situation arose where we the artists spoke freely among ourselves, but none of us could speak to the curator. It felt frustrating and absurd. When we eventually proposed to divide the budget into four parts and step away from the competition format, it was based on a desire to continue the conversations among us, and to free our work and ourselves from the anxiety that follows the competition’s strategy of pitting one against the other. It felt like we subverted a hierarchy and took back control over our own process. I remember feeling immensely relieved.

Rejecting the idea of winners and losers was not about a naive dream of a world without conflict and friction, but rather the acceptance of risk and unpredictability as a resource and artistic necessity. But it was also about sprinkling a little sand in the machinery of a system that produces ever narrower and more authoritarian forms, and where the dangers of falling-out are ever increasing. An ideology that permeates everything and turns objects into goods and actions into services, and which ultimately impacts our very lives. Instead, this was an untangling.

Image: Marianne Heier’s ACT (2020) © KORO

2nd ACT The Work

Inspired by the discussions around the withdrawal from the competition, I chose to pass almost the entirety of my part of the production budget on to NOAS (Norwegian Organization for Asylum Seekers). They have used the funds to produce legal cases for several lawsuits brought against the government on behalf of stateless persons currently living in Norway.

Like most other nations in the world, Norway has ratified the UN Convention on Statelessness, but as a direct effect of the politicization of Norwegian immigration policy, after more than 60 years, this has still not been implemented in actual legal practice. As one of few European nations, Norway lacks an identification procedure for statelessness, which leaves a group of people stranded in our country, deprived of even the most basic rights and unable to stay here or return anywhere.

Through a series of court cases the goal of the project is to create a legal precedent for the recognition of the rights of stateless persons in Norway. In this way the work treats the legislation as plastic, sculptural material in constant change. The project illuminates and activates the mechanisms governing legislation and pushes the boundaries of the law in a concrete study of how the legal system and the legislation work, what shapes them and what their consequences are.

The physical work consists of hardcover books containing all the documents produced within the legal cases in question (more than 3500 pages so far), on a Larvikite stone plinth in the faculty’s library, a speech, a seminar, a poster in 300 copies, a contribution to a possible law change, and perhaps a concrete change in some people’s lives. The project is still ongoing as the matter is not settled.

Image: Marianne Heier’s ACT (2020) © KORO / Kristine Jakobsen

3rd ACT The opening speech [1]

(Holding a piece of black larvikite) This is a small part of our planet. Larvikite, the national rock of Norway, carved out from the mountain at Lundh’s quarry in Stålaker near Larvik. From out of the bedrock, territory protected by Norwegian law.

Everything is in motion, even the very surface of the Earth. The enormous tectonic plates in the crust of the Earth are always shifting, floating on the glowing mass below them. They move away from and smash into one another with tremendous force. Impossible to tame. If you found yourself safely on top of a tectonic plate you wouldn’t feel the movement. Everything around you is moving in the same direction and at the same speed as you. There it seems that everything is in order and the world is neat and simple. But pity the one who ends up between two tectonic plates. They would crush you without even feeling it. And should you attempt to stand with one leg on each plate, you would be torn to pieces.

(Gives the rock to the Dean) This is for you. Here you are!

(Holds up passport) I am Norwegian, born in Norway. I have done my duty and exercised my rights since July 5 1969. I am one of the lucky ones. My voice is heard in this kingdom. I am one of US. My foremothers paved the way for me, I am a SUBJECT, an ‘I’, described in and protected by Norwegian law. My name, my number, ingrained in law, surround me like another skin. They walk ahead of me through the bureaucracy and shield me from the paper cuts from stray documents. ‘Strict and fair’ does not apply to me.

These are some of the events that made space for the part of the population that I belong to:

(reads from a list)

1863: The legal age of consent for women is changed to 25.

1866: All unmarried, divorced and widowed women over the age of 21 are granted the right to engage in a professional craft. Married women are granted this right in 1894.

1888: Married women are granted legal status, but the husband still presides over shared property.

1912: Women are granted the right to work as judges, district doctors and professors.

1913: Women’s suffrage is granted, on equal terms with men.

Each of these victories cost years of thought and work, interpretation and re-interpretation, personal risk and shared effort. Each one of them is a monument to those who keep the ice at bay, who stretch the concept of WE so it encompasses all the bedrock, those who keep the law alive, those who unceremoniously reject the shamelessness and horror, those who let in the stark light, who let it cut straight lines through the dust and the old, crooked hierarchies.

Between the people and the population lies a no-man’s-land, a limbo without the protection of the law, populated by THE OTHERS. Those who cannot vote in elections, who have no passport, who cannot study, cannot work, cannot rent, cannot own, cannot start a family. If they fall ill they don’t have the right to medical attention. Naked life.

Last year I met three young men. Born to mothers who love them the way mothers love their children, as if the heart is ejected from the body and runs into the future on its own legs. I had coffee with the first one. I asked if I had written his name right, and he cried. It didn’t matter, it wasn’t registered anywhere anyway, there was no original document to compare it to.

You can’t understand, he said.
We are creatures of dust. We live in the shadows.
You can’t understand.
There is so much hope in Norway. Just not for us.

I had tea with the next two men. They said: You don’t have the death penalty in Norway. The state lets us do that job ourselves.

The vote during the meeting of the Storting started at 1:00 PM on Thursday October 11 1956.

Proposition no. 75 p. 4:

(reading from paper) “The convention hereby in general gives stateless persons the same rights and the same protection as are granted to refugees by the convention of 1951 regarding the status of refugees.”

This resolution was passed more than 63 years ago. Stateless people in Norway still have practically no protection. This is the borderline. This is where we draw the line. They are not allowed to stay and they cannot leave. They are sitting in our reception centers, sleeping under our bridges, and walking our streets. We who are on the right side, we who are part of the WE, can only try to understand. How the boundaries we draw cut through someone else’s life. How exposed you are when you have neither rights nor duties. How cold and hard and gray it is outside the law, when the entire world becomes a prison. How it feels to see our world, our hope and opportunities glimmer like a starry sky through tiny holes in the thin, yet impenetrable membrane that separates THEM from US. That separates THEM from the life they should have lived.

Deprived of the right to be a subject.
Or rather: have never BEEN a subject.
Can never BECOME a subject.

We draw a line between inside and outside.
Without an outside there is no inside.
Outside gives a form to inside, THEY give us OUR form.

So WE need the clear-thinking lawyers, the sharp-minded barristers, the thorough judges, the brave witnesses. The caseworkers who ask the same questions again and again, and who listen openly every time, as if they are hearing the response for the first time. Those who read the law with magnifying glasses, who look for loose ends and doors left ajar.

It is they who keep the ice at bay, they who keep their minds open and the country free. It is they who invest their hopes in the law, who give it a name.

Thank you.

Text: Marianne Heier
Images: Marianne Heier, KORO, Kristine Jakobsen


[1] Speech held at the opening of the new Faculty of Law on 16th of January, 2020