A Fjord, a Stavechurch and a Glacier
So, this is my journal of my (our) residency in Norway, which I will be updating every couple of days, bandwidth permitting.
Day 1 -2 Oslo
For the first couple of days we’ve been hanging out in Oslo, catching up with some friends and colleagues and getting some meetings done, before we go ‘over the mountain’ to Urnes, which we’re looking forward to immensely. We wandered relatively aimlessly around town for a while, which was exhausting.
We then snuck in to the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, as we had a friend working there – we’re not massive fans of temporary con galleries on the whole, this was basically a rich persons vanity project – but we had fun demonstrating to people how to truly appreciate the work.
Oslo, like many large western cities, is suffering from a lot of ‘development’ – a large part of the centre of the city is that genericised architecture – you really could be anywhere. There’s a fair bit of public art about, mostly awful, and Sofie pointed out that almost all the male statues are fully clothed, whereas all the female statues are naked, which definitely says a lot about our world.
It’s ‘fresher’s week’ here, so we ended up going to an art history pub quiz organised by Sofie’s sister, Andrea, which was loads of fun. Not least because we wiped the floor with the competition and won easily – possibly a bit of a cheat as Sofie has an MA in art history and we’ve been making the bloody stuff longer than most of them have been alive. One of the students confessed he’d been trying to listen to our answers – but couldn’t understand our Brummie accents. We decided that we’d just given them something to aspire to, whilst we enjoyed munching our prize though we only bought one drink, this is Norway….
On Thursday we went to meet with our official hosts, the Norwegian Society for the Preservation of National Monuments – which is probably all one word in Norwegian – in their beautiful headquarters in Oslo. (Edit, it is one word, that I will try and share when I’ve learned how to spell it).
We had a great, wide-ranging conversation about their expectations, and what they wanted for the church, the village and the new heritage centre they are planning. As ever, working alongside a community, there’s a lot of complicated history to unpick and agendas to discover, but they were really informative and seemed to have a passion for what they do. Ola even got out his chopper,
We’re leaving for the fjord, across the country and over the mountain in the morning to get our first glimpse of where we’ll be working for the next four weeks. I expect we’ll get a jaw dropping journey courtesy of our local guide, expect lots and lots and lots of pictures popping up over the next couple of days.
Day 3 – Day 3 1/2 possibly
So, we’re here at Sofie, Dag and Julius’s house near Gjerde, just a little down the road from the Jostadalsbreen glacier, and much more about all that later. We arrived late last evening after what can only be described as an epic journey, planned and executed to perfection by our host, Sofie. Sofie had taken us on a longer than usual route, so we could get a sense of the landscape, taking us over a mountain so that we ‘landed’ the other side at the very end of ‘her’ fjord – the Sognadalsfjorde – the longest in the country, I believe, 200k or so inland there is saltwater. We had a great soundtrack to accompany us, from site-specific folk music, to medieval singing, Sammi joiks and sweet laments from Americanised Norwegians, ‘pining for the fjords’ – as it were. Continually awestruck on the journey through the incredible ever-changing landscapes, there’s not much to say, so here’s a few pics, so you get the general idea.
We’re having a bit of a rest day today, as we’ve either been travelling or navigating the capital for most of the last four days – and we’re being treated to some rather damp weather at the moment – which doesn’t detract from how beautiful this place is, see pics below. Tomorrow we’ll start exploring the area where we’ll be working, meeting the locals and generally making a nuisance of ourselves. We’ll let you know how we get on.
The weather looked like it was brightening up, so we decided to pop up the road to the Jostedalbreen glacier, as you do. We weren’t really prepared for what came next. I’m not sure what we were expecting, but it wasn’t what we got. As we drove up along the valley, the mountains enclosing us, up ahead, across a huge cliff face, the glacier arm appeared.
We took a hike along the valley, towards the glacier – to give you a sense of scale we were still about a kilometre away when we took this photograph. Those white, scar-like streaks you can see below the glacier are actually torrents of water, running off the glacier – some of them look like you could surf down them, though you’d have to be reasonably hardcore to give it a go. Unfortunately the weather took a serious turn for the worse at this point and we had to call it a day, we got completely soaked through. The trail was more stream than path mostly, but by this time there wasn’t much we could do about it so stopped off to have a drink of glacier water and munch on wild blueberries and raspberries.
The rest of our photographs didn’t turn out that well, as you can see, but we’re hoping for better weather down the line.
The sight of the glacier, in all it’s scale and this was just a tiny bit of it – thinking of its age and looking at the results of it’s actions was gobsmacking and very thought-provoking. The boulder-strewn valley we walked through would once have been covered by the glacier, though climate does change naturally and a glacier is a (slow) moving beast, in recent years it has been visibly shrinking. This is what we want to look at while we’re here, as well as the stavechurch, and we’re hoping to find out what people who live in the shadow of the glacier think. We’ll let you know.
Day 5 possibly, losing track already
Today we took a trip down/up or at least along the fjord to visit the derelict former hospital at Harastolen (Norwegian friends please excuse the odd spelling mistake, we’re doing our best). The hospital has had a few different ‘lives’, beginning as a sanitarium for TB sufferers, it later became a ‘lunatic’ asylum (in historical parlance). Later it was home to Norway’s first big influx of refugees from Iraq in the 90s, before closing in 1993. The hospital is on the side of a mountain overlooking the fjord in a very beautiful location, but the last 25 years or so haven’t been terribly kind to it. It’s a bit dangerous and, surrounded by heras fencing to keep out the curious, so of course we didn’t go inside. Pictures below.
There are plans to try and restore the building, but it seems to be a struggle to raise the money to do so, in the meantime it’s been used for various films, theatre shows and graff artists.
Later we traveled back ‘up north’ for another visit to the glacier, at the Glacier Centre at Nigardsbreen. Unlike many visitors centres it isn’t just for the tourists, and it was full of local families and their kids, and pleasingly noisy. We got some chats in with some of the locals including Kjellrun (in below picture) who had worked at the centre for many years. We’ll be visiting with some of the people we met in more depth (and with fewer kids around) to get their views on their glacier and the issues around climate change. We’re also organising a trip right up to the glacier sometime soon. Already by talking to people we’re getting a sense of how present the issue of climate change is to them – the results are right in front of them, as the glacier visibly shrinks, season by season.
Today we had a couple of great visits, really great. First thing we set out for our first encounter IRL with the church. It was a truly glorious day as we set out for the ferry across the fjord. We were a little early for the first ferry, so spent some time exploring the village of Solvorn, Sofie as ever giving us all the backstage knowledge we wanted. These villages have been around for a looong time, trading across the fjord, using the water in preference to the land trails. The reason the church is there at all is because it lies on an important trade route and it made us think about the birth of our own city of Birmingham, founded on the trade from the markets where we’ve just worked for the last three years or so.
Then we got on the ferry and headed over to Urnes, for our first encounter with the church and some of the locals. We stopped off at the bottom of the hill to grab a punnet of locally grown plums and plonk some dosh in the nearby honesty box – they were delicious. On the way up the hill we stopped off at the former schoolhouse. Local residents are putting on an exhibition here and there are plans to make it a kind of ‘chill out zone’ for people, locals and tourists to drop in, look around and maybe get their hands dirty with a bit of writing or some arts and crafts activities. We’re hoping to help them get things fixed up and add some Friction flavour to the mix. It’s important that the whole experience in Urnes is not only about the church, but also about the village and villagers, many of whom have been there for generations, though as Ole put it ‘we’re not here to curate the village’.
Then it was on up the hill to the church. I think some pics before I go any further – the church is gobsmackingly gorgeous.
Sofie gave us a great tour, explaining a lot of the socio-political background to why the church was there in the first place, and what kept it there. We came away with our heads spinning, ideas starting to form about what we might do in response in the relatively short time we have here.
We had some great chats with some of the local people – I’m particularly interested in how the 35 or so people who inhabit the village deal with the tens of thousands of visitors that rock up every Summer, and how they see the future of the place. Despite many rural places right across Europe suffering abandonment as the young people leave for the cities and they become second home havens for the wealthy or sometime just die, this place feels like there’s a continuity through time and a vitality – is this because of, or despite the church and what it brings to the place? We’ll be returning lots over the next few weeks and are trying to sort out a local billet, so we can get properly stuck in, we’ll let you know how we get on.
Our next stop saw us rocking up at some nearby resident’s house for coffee and chinwags. Rudolpho and Maria literally welcomed us with open arms, inviting us into their beautiful home, where we hit it off spectacularly – we’re really going to get to know these people. Rudolpho is from Mexico and a really accomplished drummer. Most of the first floor of his house is taken over by his amazing drum kit collection – I think I counted four – recording equipment and musical accessories, which he clearly loves. He’s been a drummer for over forty years and shared his encyclopaedic knowledge of the craft with us, we know someone at home that would have loved his ethnomusicology knowledge and passion and we could see real similarities between his ideas around how music should be taught and our own. That was before we got on to the philosophy. We came away buzzing and are confident that we’ll be hooking both of them into whatever it is we are doing here.
The last few days we’ve been busy having colds and unfortunately having to catch up on UK-related stuff, particularly having to complete a large funding bid – which we got in with a massive 15 minutes to spare, which I think might be a record. We’ve also been exploring and planning what we’ll be doing in Urnes over the next couple of weeks. We’re going to be helping Sofie and the villagers put together the exhibition in the schoolhouse, which is going to be permanent – as much as anything is. It’s really great that we’ll be leaving a long-lasting legacy to the project, through our practical interventions as well as artworks we’ll be making ourselves in response to the village, the church and their mutual history and interconnections. We’re still processing, researching and poking our noses in. We got to have a go at the excellent local archive – you can have a look yourself here – and tomorrow (Sunday) we’ve invited the villagers to meet us at the schoolhouse in Urnes so we can make sure that whatever we put together for the exhibition fits in to their vision, too. As usual, we’ll let you know how we get on, in the meantime, here’s some archive pics,
We are apples, we endure
Sometimes we look inward
Sometimes we look outward
Sometimes we are looked at
But we make our own weather
Through plague and exodus we endure
Whether made of wood
Or made of flesh
We return, by never leaving
We are apples , we endure
We float along the river
We fall down the waterfall
To land, broken
We sow our seeds and grow again
Day 14/15 I don’t know anymore
Things are developing apace on the project, we’ve had a great couple of days, both at the glacier, and at Urnes.
Firstly, we decided to get as close to the glacier as we felt appropriate. We started out just past the Glacier Centre at Nigardsbreen, deciding to take the walk through the valley, rather than the easier option of the short boat ride across. It was a lot of fun rock-hopping our way through the trail towards the glacier – the scale of it confusing us continually as to how far away it was. It seemed to recede as we got closer to it, before suddenly looming over us like some grey, white and blue slumbering beast.
We got there reasonably early, and there weren’t many other folks about, but as we hung around taking in the sight and sound of the glacier, taking photographs, film and audio recordings, more and more tourists arrived. We didn’t like it. Lots of people want to go walking on the glacier, and groups of them, tied together, crampons crunching into the glacier as local guides hacked steps into the ice for them, appeared in their primary coloured cold weather gear. We couldn’t help but hate them, and were almost (but not quite) hoping that they would all fall down some crevasse. Why, when the environment is so fragile, do you need to go tramping over it, for what, a selfie? Why can’t you just stand back and respect nature? I also noticed that previous visitors had made little cairns out of stacked rocks, like graffiti on the landscape – I found myself a new hobby, kicking the bloody things over. Tourists, of course, add a lot to the local economy, they’re massively important to the local people and the area would literally be a lot poorer without them, but it would be a lot better if they could just suspend their selfie stream for a bit, leave nothing but their footprints and let the landscape work it’s magic.
Later we went round to Olav and Anne-lise’s place, just up the valley from where we are staying. As I vaguely understand it, Olav is the head of the local equivalent of the chamber of commerce, a local lad, and passionate about the district of Jostedal and its development (and, I gather, a socialist, which is refreshing) – we got on like a house on fire. He was born in his house which lies just down the valley from the glacier, which is highly visible from his back porch. He showed us a painting of the glacier from 1999 – it was shocking how much smaller the glacier is compered to the image depicted in the painting. He was like, ‘maybe in 50 years there will be no glacier’.
We had a busy day on Wednesday, starting with an early meeting with the principal of the local primary school. We’re trying to hook up some of the local children with children we work with back in Brum. Climate change is high on both party’s agenda, for our young ‘uns it’s a bit more of an abstract idea, inhabiting an urban jungle, as they do. But for the kids here, it’s present, something that can be visually measured – so we’re trying to find ways for them to share their experiences and their ideas. we’re going to start with getting responses to some stuff – the Brumkids to the glacier, its shrinkage and what that entails. For the children here we’re going to ask them to respond to images we’re going to send them of some of the early industrial engines and objects in Birmingham Museum Trust’s fantastic collection. We’re hoping that this will lead to dialogue between them and for us to eventually lead to us delivering on Brum’s behalf an apology for being one of the kickstarters of the industrial revolution, which has led to the increased level of cack in the atmosphere, and ultimately to hastening the change in our climate. We’ll deliver this to next year’s Jostedal Climate Change Festival and see how it is received and responded to.
We then headed over to Urnes for a meeting with a journalist from the local paper. We travelled together across the fjord on the ferry, and then spent a couple of hours chatting about our project here – which we still haven’t explained here – we’ll get round to it soon, promise.
The next couple of hours was spent having an amazing tour around the local boatyard, with Oyvind, the gaffer of the yard. He’s an Urnes native and an amazing storyteller and was incredibly generous with his time, showing us around his various boatsheds and telling us of life in Urnes over the past half-century or so. Oyvind proudly told us of his work, building wooden boats from scratch – a dying art – and the times he built a couple of full-scale Viking longships – some pictures to follow. We had a fantastic time and learned so much about the past of the place, when the fjords were the roads, carrying people, materials and livestock around, well before there were any land roads to be had in the area. Lots of food for thought and material for our exhibition in the schoolhouse, which we’re opening next Thursday – more about that soon.
We’re on our way back to Blighty now, and I’m finally getting a chance to catch up. A combination of not having much net access and being up to our necks in the work has meant I haven’t been able to post as often as I’ve liked. I’ll attempt to stick to chronological order, but forgive me if my attempt in any ways fails.
So. We were learning a lot about Urnes and it’s folks and were beginning to think more about what we might do as an intervention. The exhibition in the schoolhouse became our main focus – we didn’t want to make a big, posh ‘art’ – this wasn’t about our egos as artists, it was about the village, and the villagers. We wanted to ensure we left something behind, something that the village could take ownership of, and something that might possibly make a difference to the village and the lives lived within it. We had a lot of fun exploring the schoolhouse, and particularly the attic, where we found boxes of schoolbooks, textbooks and projects and work by students going back over 50 years. It was a treasure trove and told us a lot about life in the village and how it has changed – not least that there were no longer sufficient children to populate the school, instead having to take the ferry across the fjord every day to attend school in another district.
The next week was spent ordering equipment, unearthing materials from the second-hand shop in the ‘big city’ of Sogndal (or Soggy Noodle as we came to call it) and making photographs and other content for the exhibits. One of the reasons we became focused on this as the project was in response to tragedy. The villagers themselves had the idea of the exhibition in the schoolhouse a couple of years previously. They were inspired by a local powerhouse of a woman, Valborg, who had been pushing the project forward, and was a bundle of energy, ideas and excitement. She was unfortunately killed in a car accident, which had a huge effect on the village and the villagers and also caused the project to stall. So, in her honour, we felt that we should enable her legacy to continue. The extract from the poem I posted earlier was written in response to Valborg and her story – more about that and my performance of it in front of most of the village, later.
We had various trials and tribulations of our own as the project developed. Sourcing stuff became a real problem – we couldn’t just nip out and get things, materials and equipment had to be specially ordered and brought in. We ordered a projector for instance, and it turned out that it would only arrive on the day of the launch, which was tight, but we had to go with it. In the end the supplier erroneously sent it to Trondheim, for no apparent reason, so we had to make do without – this was one example of some of the difficulties we faced in making the work – but we’re very experienced and flexible so always had a Plan B and C on the backburner. It taught us a lot about working in a relatively remote, rural context, when popping to the shops meant waiting for the ferry, taking a 20 minute ferry ride, a half our drive and rinse and repeat. So, planning carefully what we were doing was omniportant.
We started to edit some of the 1000s of photographs we’d taken for inclusion in the exhibition – which in it’s final form would take the shape of:
- in the entrance foyer small frames, exhibited ‘salon-style’ containing images of small details from the village – echoing the way people often display family photographs, mis-matched frames dotted around seemingly randomly
- In the main room Sofie has written up some panels detailing the history of the village through the Bronze and Viking ages, right up the modern times. Simon worked his graphical magic to make pretty with them. It took Sofie, assisted by ourselves a couple of evenings of brain-bending (and a few beers) to get them translated into English. These were also accompanied by old maps of the village – it’s amazing how little has changed over the last hundred years or so.
- We made a ‘Tree of Knowledge’ – this was a direct response to one of Valborg’s ideas. Unfortunately no one knows what she intended for this, so we have just provided a tree, and tied labels onto it – leaving it up to the villagers and visitors to decide how it works.
- Some archive images of the village – we were a little disappointed on how tightly the archivists ‘hold’ them – we had to obtain permission to show them in the exhibition which took time to come through (the day before launch, as I remember) which meant we had to use relatively low resolution copies as we didn’t get time to print the high-res copies. Apparently these had been ‘fast-tracked’. See below –
- Contemporary photographs of the village – the village is historically very strongly religious, and still is. This is also reflected on the local landscape – the stavechurch, of course, dominating the village from the top of the hill for nigh-on a thousand years, the Bedehus, or prayer house and even in the cross-shaped stakes the raspberries grow on and we wanted to (not so) subtly reflect this in this collection of images – which was also next to the windows overlooking the spectacular view of the fjord.
- AR – we took portraits of villagers, and used AR to trigger audio recordings of interviews we made with them – as the exhibition would be permanently on, but largely unattended, this was a great way of adding a media element, without leaving equipment lying around.
- Artefacts and interactives – we found lots of objects up in the attic of the schoolhouse, including some old desks, text books, exercise books and pictures which we placed around the exhibition place, along with art materials
On the evening of the launch we had around 30 visitors – in a village of 35-40 inhabitants, that was like getting 750000 to a launch in Brum (sort of). Lee treated them to a short, poetic performance, involving a version of the poem above, among other things, which people watched attentively, if more or less bemusedly. We had a brief chat with Sandra explaining the idea around the exhibition and making clear that this was a framework, a beginning and that the exhibition belonged to them. This was followed by Sofie explaining the connections to the heritage society and UNESCO, followed by some more poetry.
Once the more formal part of proceedings were over, people really got engaged with the work. There were lots of conversations provoked by the archive photographs, we had our first donation when one of the neighbours handed us a framed photograph of the schoolhouse, which Simon duly fixed straight onto the wall. People really engaged with the AR as well, which bodes well for our approach to using it in this context. We had some great chats with people about continuing to use the schoolhouse – both to help the exhibition evolve and as a general meeting place – a place for the village to do things together.
We were very pleased when this label turned up a few days later. It comes from a heritage professional and roughly translates as ‘what an amazing place, who is behind it’.