In 2009, Bergen’s art community organised a series of talks titled ‘To Biennial or not to Biennial’—typical, I’m told, of a traditionally Norwegian sense of thoughtfulness and a tendency to plan rigorously. The conclusion was: yes, Bergen will host a biennial, but it will be slower, longer, and more focused than the now-ubiquitous multi-artist format popping up around European cities.
Bergen Assembly, now in its second edition, chooses 3 convenors to plan a 10-month-long schedule of exhibitions, talks, and performances. This year’s convenor panel consists of freethought, a loose collective of thinkers, curators, researchers, educators and activists, Tarek Atoui, an artist and composer known for his work with sound, and Praxes, an initiative dedicated to in-depth material research and collaborative investigations revolving around specific artists for an extended period of time. This year, Praxes chose Lynda Benglis and Marvin Gaye Chetwynd as their focus, and their episodic unpacking of the two artists’ quite distinct practices leads viewers from exhibitions in the city’s Kunsthall and City Hall to performances in bunkers and artist/curator talks across town.
A highlight of the Praxes talks programme was Judith Tannenbaum’s unravelling of the stories behind both Benglis’ 1971 work ‘Phantom’, and also the reasons why the curatorial team were unable to acquire it for the exhibition at Bergen Kunsthall (namely, that is was too delicate to be transported). The five-part piece, made from Polyurethane foam with phosphorescent pigments, was split up for decades, with one piece becoming damaged due to exposure to cigarette smoke and natural light. Having worked with Benglis for many years, Tannenbaum had wonderful insight into her practise, and was able to illuminate the process of acquiring artworks for international shows.
This selection of convenors from different parts of the art world—universities, galleries, theatres—ensured a real diversity in terms of the type of work shown. Marvin Gaye Chetwynd’s absurdist comic performance The Cell Project Episode 2 involved a tiny pink Chewbacca, women making cakes, and a chirpy man with golden wings singing Outkast’s ‘Hey Ya’—and it kicked off in a cave on one side of the city whilst freethought‘s academic research conference Infrastructure (complete with talks from award-winning author Tom McCarthy and artist Wu Tsang) was wrapping up on the other.
Perhaps the most considered and exciting of the projects is WITHIN—Atoui and Council’s exploration into the deaf experience and the transformation of hearing. Hosted in the fantastically playful Sentralbadet (the city’s disused swimming pool), the project brings together hearing and non-hearing communities to consider the question, “what is sound?”
The exhibition includes a slideshow of archive photographs of old hearing apparatus, instruments able to be played by those not able to hear, and bookable therapy sessions such as a ‘sound massage’. The White Cat café, situated just up from the steps of the old pool, is a social space that offers a drinks menu on which each item corresponds to a different sound. Atoui explains, ‘we collected sound phenomena that is usually unheard’—including the ripples of the collision of the black holes that created the Big Bang; sounds of people hunting ghosts in cemeteries, and the emanations from minerals like gold. Atoui plays us one of these sounds (insects photosynthesising underwater) and it resembles someone slowly letting air out of a balloon whilst pinching the neck. It can be heard by hearing persons, and felt by those unable to hear via vibration points on the café benches.
Bergen Assembly’s programme continues on until December but the majority of the events happen this month. So grab your raincoat (seriously—the city had just 2 sunny days last month) and experience the art world at a different pace.