The battle of meaning
Its going to be a compact text. In the very beginning a few examples of art,
activism, hacking and journalism, before I will present a few of the concepts that
will be discussed in the text. In the following I will try to link some of the terms
together with the themes from the first chapter. The examples from the beginning
of the text will be revisited. Towards the end of the text I will mention some of
my own works in relation to the topic.
Caucasian male is sitting comfortably in the train when a group of new-nazis
enter the wagon. This could have been just another nice afternoon in Günthers
life. But on this day Günther Walraff is wearing a black wig and black body paint
on his face and arms.
On a chilly autumn morning in New York city Andy Bichlbaum and Mike
Bonanno are handing out freshly printed editions of The New York Times. It is
their own boot-legged version of the newspaper, and it contains stories such as:
"The war is over" and "Public universities to be free of charge".
In the middle of the Red Square in Moscow, Pyotr Pavlensky is undressed. All
he is carrying with him is a hammer and a nail. Russian police officers surrounds
him for two hours trying to figure out how to remove this naked man, who
managed to nail his scrotum to the ground.
Jennifer Louise Lopez takes a rock in her hand and meets up at a Harlem church.
The sign outside reads: "Jesus would stone homos." Lopez presents the stone to
the man in the door of the church and proposes that he stones her.
June 2011, the internet, hacker group Anonymous begins "Operation Antisec". In
this action Arizona Department of Public Safety is being targeted and have many
of their documents released online. Hackers also stole police officer credit card
information to make donations to various causes.
Art in public space, undercover journalism or good old fashion civil disobedient
activism. The boundaries between these genres are illusive. Some actions
include braking the law and provoking the public while others are safely within
their known spheres and on the right side of the legislative majority.
The tactic of exposing the methods of domination is known as cultural jamming.
It is tactic of imitation of mainstream media and used by for example the activist
group Adbusters to distort the commercials of big corporations.
Assumptions of personal freedom within the system of consumption is being
questioned with cultural jamming. It is a protest against the rise of the
consumerist society. A movement that do not believe in the sustainability of
eternal economic growth and the pursuit of happiness through ever growing
demand for products and brands.
Jonah Peretti created a lot of attention when he published he's e-mail
correspondence with a custom Nike web shop. In this chain of letters back and
forth Peretti is trying to order a pair of Nike shoes with the word “sweatshop”
Art in public space may reefer to any art outside the gallery or the museum and
in the public domain. It could be large metal sculptures or unseen public
performances hidden in plain view like Manit Sriwanichpoom rolling a pink
shopping cart through the streets of Bangkok, humoristically pointing to the cute
Many art works have been made concerning the future of public space. The
creation of private public space like shopping malls and even street pavements in
London and other cities are provoking activists. Staging a gathering or a protest
in such a place can prove problematic as private security firms have permissions
to evict persons on grounds of private property ownership.
Private property of public space manifests itself through strict control and bans
on certain activities in these places. Skating, bicycling, selling Big Issue or
sitting on the steps, and off course the ban on film, photography and political
Public space is the scene of the battle of meaning
In 1957 Leon Festinger did a ground breaking experiment on the human psyche.
He invited two groups of students to do a tedious task in a clinical setting. After
the tasks the students were asked by the experimenters to tell a lie. They were
told to tell the next subject waiting outside that the tasks were fun and not at all
boring. One of the groups of students were given 20 dollars (1957-dollars) to tell
the lie. The other group got only one dollar. After the students had sold the
experiment to the next participant and lied about how much fun it was, they
were taken in to a final interview. The ones that had been compensated with a
generous 20 dollars had felt no big inner conflict about lying, since they were
motivated by the salary. The group that received only one dollar however, had
felt a higher degree of inner conflict. Because the money alone was not a
sufficient reason for them to deceive their fellow students, they had to alter their
cognition. The interviews revealed that in the group of highly compensated
students, the majority still believed that the tasks they had completed earlier had
been tedious. But in the other group, the dissonance between what they knew,
and what they had been asked to tell the next student, was too conflicting. One
of the two had to be changed. In the following Interview, most of these students
had altered their cognition and now believed that the tasks previously
undertaken was not that boring after all. This was the first time the term
cognitive dissonance were used, and it has since become a much used theory to
explain human behavior. A good example being nurses smoking.2
Such conflicts exists not only within our personal behavior but also in society at
large. The American author Henry David Thoreau made us conscious of this in
his 1848 essay "Resistance of Civil Government". Later renamed to "Civil
Disobedience". He argues that even if you as a citizen of a state do not agree
with the policy of that state, you are still responsible for passively supporting the
regime by not opposing it. If you were told to deny illegal immigrants access to
a doctor, or if you were asked to go to another sovereign state to murder their
regime leaders, you would refuse. But the system has found a way around that,
through the paying of tax you are still the instrument allowing this to happen. In
his own time, Thoreau refused to pay tax to the state as a protest against slavery.
He felt there was a "gross inconsistency" in denying to partake in the abuses of
the state, but still indirectly help maintaining the system.3
Most famously these ideas were adopted by Mahatma Gandhi in he's nonviolent
resistance, respectfully refraining from obeying the laws of the british occupants.
Gandhi sparked the Indian resistance with he's salt march in 1930, where he in a
direct action of braking the british laws produced salt himself without paying
Society of the spectacle is the name of Guy Debords much influential 1967
manifest. It reads surprisingly up to date, and might be much more true today
than what it was when it was first published.4
Commodity have taken over the role of social life by the inverted image that is
the spectacle. Authentic life has been replaced by the representation of it.
The situationist movement, of which Debord was a contributor, aimed to disrupt
the images of the spectacle through the construction of situations with a
revolutionary reordering of the social life.
In the modern world, the alienation of labour together with the glorification, not
of the commodity itself, but of the representation of the commodity. Has
removed man from his own life. The constant desire for new meaning given only
by the identification with the spectacle. The spectacle takes on the role of
religion mediated through images of superstars with wealth and perfect lives.
The illusion of choice between many goods that are ultimately the same. It is no
bad diagnosis to the present time.
When undercover journalist Günther Walraff takes on one of he's time-
consuming breakneck projects, it is maybe to unmask some of the illusions of
the present. He's claim to fame bestseller book about Ali the Turkish immigrant
worker had him sweating as an underpaid bakery assistant enduring abuses from
employers, landowners and the german bureaucracy. In his latest project, “Black
on white”, he has been undercover as a black man in Germany. The incident on
the train, encountering the nazis, left him scared but unharmed. He also exposed
racism from the various private and official persons. But he has been heavily
criticized for his methods in this project, and it has been claimed that he never
let the actual black people of Germany have their voice in his documentary.5
Although not presenting himself as an artist, Walraffs methods are influential
outside the frame of journalism. The American duo “The Yes Men” has taken a
After setting up the mock website for then president George W. Bush, The Yes
Men, Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, spawned another Idea. The satirical
website mimicking the digital home of the World Trade Organization landed
them a few opportunities to speak their mind about the neoliberal economic
One of their least spectacular, but to me most memorable stunts is featured in the
very beginning of their first movie, “The Yes Men” from 2003. Posing as
representatives from the WTO they attend an economic conference in Austria
proposing an online solution for buying and selling votes to help “streamline the
grotesquely inefficient system of elections”.
Taking on various roles of the corporate America, The Yes Men mix satire with
examples of what could be the right thing to do, but which in the capitalist
system is close to absurd. In a famous appearance posing as an official from
Dow Chemical, Andy Bichlbaum promises a generous compensation to the
victims of the Bhopal gas disaster of 1984. This caused the real board of Dow
Chemical to make a decision and after a long wait the victims finally received a
compensation from the company.6
Russian law forbids the assembly of more than one protester. This has given
artist activists lots of food for innovation. Tackling the intricate system of
repression hidden in the capitalist hegemony on freedom, it could make a
western artist envious.
Pyotr Pavlensky is using his naked body to metaphor the disempowerment he
feels exists in the Russian social life. When Russian Punk Group slash activists
“The Pussy Riot” were arrested in 2012, he sewed together his lips in protest,
creating an iconic and acclaimed photography.
While the russian authorities are celebrating the national police day, Pavlenski
successfully nails he's own scrotum to the ground on the Red Square. Naked and
freezing in November 2012 he gets himself arrested and lets himself be an image
of apathy, political indifference, and fatalism of Russian society.7
During the winter olympics of 2014 in Sochi, Russia, Pussy Riot was arrested
again, protesting the law that forbids education about homosexuality. A law that
sparked massive protests from world leaders, mass media and global
organizations. Symptomatically, 12 years earlier, when the winter games were
held in a state that forbids homosexuality by law, there was no such protests.
That state was Utah.
It is in America, that Jennifer Louise Lopez, impulsively confronts her
neighborhood church, suggesting they put their money where their mouths are.
She takes on the role of the body performance artist, putting her own flesh in the
line of fire to measure the temperature of the religious nuts. The man who
answers the door cowardly stutters that they have no stones and that she would
have to return another time.8
Well-funded activists in California has opened their own museum: “The
Dinousaurs of Cabazon”. In this fun family-park you can visit and learn about
how dinosaurs and humans lived together, not so many thousands of years ago.
Critics complain that they are undermining the education of children, when they
suggest that most of the stuff you learn in school are just evil lies.9
Coming together from hundreds or maybe thousands of darkly lit boys rooms all
over the world, hacker group Anonymous has got the corporations scared. They
can be recognized by the Guy Fawkes masks, commemorating the pioneer of
religious terrorism in England. Anonymous have had several operations
ongoing, targeting the Church of Scientology, and the government of Tunisia
during the uprising in 2011. Protesting the corporate boycott of Wikileaks,
Anonymous targeted the servers of Paypal, Visa and Mastercard disrupting their
services and costing them millions of dollars.
In my own work I have been aiming to illuminate the conflicts in our own
peaceful corner of the western world, at home in Norway. Ive heard artist
colleagues complaining that there are no real battles to be fought. And that they
would rather have lived in the seventies. Ive heard colleagues in the child
protection services claim that there are no problems in Norway. And it is a
challenge seeing past the picture perfect facade of the wealthy cities and
beautiful landscape of this country.
Henrik Ibsens Norwegian arch-type Peer Gynt is a powerful character in his
plays, portraying the well-wishing and social charmer. But when judgement day
comes Peer Gynt finds himself not good enough for heaven, but not bad enough
for hell either.
In 2004 I made a video where I was trying to raise funds for Americas newest
investment, the war on terror. As Norway willingly dove into the unlawful
occupation of Afghanistan and later also gave our helping hand to invade Iraq.
The state miraculously maintained the self image of peace-keeper and do-gooder
of the planet. Skillfully renaming the invasion of Afghanistan to the “Un-
International Armed Conflict” suggesting it was all just another civil war.
Trough a number of videos I have tried to take on a conflicting part of the
Norwegian perception of self. The last video I made in 2014 called “Restore
Balance” is dealing with the cognitive dissonance of a people and a nation
seeing themselves as a force of good in the world, while simultaneously being
one of the planets biggest polluters.
Restore Balance is presented as one part solution and one part symptom. It plays
on the pain of the well meaning Norwegian trying to do good but substituting
real change for quick fixes and naive actions. It is not the failure to buy c02
emission certificates when we fly that creates pollution, it is that we fly. And it is
not that we all do not have electrical cars that creates pollution, Rather it is the
fact that we still subscribe to the idea that every single person should have their
very own 2tons metal box the size of a small Japanese apartment, to carry us
back and forth to the grocery store.
For my bachelor exhibition I will present a sculpture and a video. It is a custom
bicycle with three wheels with a sculpture of a dinosaur mounted on it. The
video is a documentation of last summers journey, riding the dinosaur through
the bible belt of Norway. It is an investigation of the split of consciousness
between the secular urban communities and the landscape reminiscent of the
dark religious roots of our past.
To point at the spectacle, to try and invert the images and protest against the
system may very quickly, and quietly, land you within the system itself. As
Norwegian artist Amund Sjølie Sveen argues in his performance lecture “The
Norwegian Way” there is a close to unavoidable dependence of oil money within
the art community of Norway. And Statoil is proud sponsor of Festspillene in
Bergen and indirectly to the whole of the Norwegian welfare system.10
Commenting on the occupy wall street protests in 2011, Slavoj Žižek suggested
that we look at protest and activism, not as something claiming to be offering a
solution. But rather that we see it as a form of a symptom to something that is
not right in the economy, in politics or in social life.11
Art, activism, journalism, religion, corporate public relations, state propaganda,
academics, hackers and voices of the social media comes together in the public
space, fighting for their territories, for the right to define and for the creation of
2. Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA:
Stanford University Press.
3. Thoreau, Henry David (1849). Civil Disobedience.
4. Debord (1994)  The Society of the Spectacle, translation by Donald
Nicholson-Smith (New York: Zone Books).
6. http://theyesmenfixtheworld.com/story.htm 10.04.2014
7. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Petr_Pavlensky 10.04.2014
9. http://www.cabazondinosaurs.com/ 10.04.2014
10. http://www.amundsveen.no/AMUND/OilForArt.html 10.04.2014
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