In Northern Norway, they have a festival that cracks the iron curtain
»This is the world's most important festival«.
The grandeur was palpable in the last of the opening speeches for the 19th edition of the Barents Spectacle in the northern Norwegian city of Kirkenes. It was obvious that the speaker Knut Olav Åmas from the press freedom organization Fritt Ord was aiming to make the newspaper headlines. At times it almost seemed as if he was speaking directly to me – meaning the foreign press, which had been invited 400 km north of the Arctic Circle to the border town with its complicated relationship with its neighbor to the east.
It was close to an overstretch, when Åmas elevated journalism to »history’s first draft«. I guess that was the minimum one could do on this date: February 24 – one year after the Putin regime's full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Most of us who stood in the bitter arctic cold waiting for the opening show to start had just come from a torchlight procession starting at the Russian Consulate General. In addition to the condemnations of the war, a large part of the demonstration speeches were filled with sympathy for the Russian population. Like Ukraine, Russia is also occupied, people said several times.
As if possessed, the tall men in ties stood and screamed so much that they were foaming at the mouth
In a city where the road signs are both in Russian and Norwegian, it is perhaps not surprising that sympathy for regime-critical Russians is about as great as for the Ukrainian population. Still, the conversation the festival had set out to facilitate under the theme of »trust« felt like a dare. Because doesn't it leave a bad taste in the mouth to talk about cooperation with the Russians while the war is still raging?
At the Barents Spektakel, organized by the association Pikene på Broen, art experiences and debate forums were woven together in a varied pattern, where there were neither borders between nations nor art forms. Although the context ended up overshadowing the content, there were strong moments of artistic intent that lifted the works above their immediate role as an ice breaker.
If in the past the Barents Spektakel has mainly functioned as a showcase for cooperation policy, this year there was a problem with the premise itself. Nevertheless, it made the festival even more topical. What do you stand for when the iron curtain is drawn between the cultural exchanges you are put into the world to activate?
A line dance on flames
If you were still hungry for sensationalism after Åmas' speech, you should probably get your fill of the raucous opening show, which really took the festival's name seriously. It was, well, pretty spectacular.
The stage was centered around a large wooden structure. On each side of the sculpture, reminiscent of a reconstructed medieval fortress, torches had been ignited and pointed outward as if ready to launch. Two choirs entered: one a sweater-clad mixed municipal choir and the other an aging men's choir in suits. Steadily, the sweater choir marched towards its line-up on either side of the structure, while the suits stepped onto the planks in unison.
But they weren't supposed to sing. They had come to shout.
The hair stood up when we were called by the sect-like male choir. As if possessed, the tall men in ties stood and screamed so much that they were foaming at the mouth. It was like a tightly rhythmic cannon attack arranged for lodge brothers. The second choir intensified the atmosphere with mesmerizing multilingual strips, while two performers sauntered around on top of the wooden structure and rotated a huge burning wheel. What kind of ragnarok did we witness? Absurd-comic and occult at the same time.
Just when you thought it couldn't get any more nerve-wracking, a line dancer stepped onto a long slack line stretched over doomsday. Now the symbolism really began to reveal itself. Even when the bridges are burning, we must make an effort to cross borders. The men's choir raised megaphones and the performers swung their torches to obstruct the line dancer, and he too fell once – a gasp went through the audience – but thankfully made it to the other side unscathed.
Slightly dizzy, I breathed a sigh of relief. The festival kicked off with something of a thriller, which probably weighed on the symbol-heavy side, but still remained as a riveting action overture to some intense days at the historical junction between East and West.
Being friends with Russia is – if we are to stay in the line dancer symbolism – a difficult balancing act. It was also clear for the opening debate, which started with Norwegian Tine Surel Lange and Russian Pavlo Grazhadanskij, who talked about their sound art project Two Sides of the River (2022). During last year's festival, the work had a different fate than they had imagined.
According to the plan, Surel Lange was to send audio material on a 10-kilometer journey across the border, where Grazhadanskij would answer the call. Sound knows no borders, does not travel with a passport. And so anyway. An hour before the performance, Grazhadanskij had his permission to perform revoked by the authorities in Nikel. Risk of blizzard, the message read, even though the sun was shining. The invasion of Ukraine was a few days old, and it was probably more of a »political storm«, as Astrid Fadnes, press officer for Pikene på Broen, has expressed. In the noisy silence, Surel Lange said, she and the audience stood on the Norwegian side and listened resolutely to the sound that never came.
Thus, the course was chalked up to a panel debate, which largely came to be about the censorship's leg lock on the Russian resistance. Two positions in particular stood out. On the one hand, there was Norwegian-Russian Aurora Stetskevitvh Møllersen, born in Kirkenes, who introduced herself as part of the generation that only knows the border town in light of the willingness to cooperate experienced after the fall of the wall. Close relations with the Russians were everyday things in her upbringing: You played in an orchestra together, learned each other's language, etc. It is important that we do not frame the individual Russian in a larger picture of the enemy, was her point. The focus must be on organizing the many exiled Russians, and giving them a mouthpiece that can infiltrate the censorship apparatus.
On the other hand, there was Ukrainian Oleksandro Hrybenko from Donetsk, who is researching the risks for female journalists covering the war. She put it straight: A resistance that only takes place outside of Russia is a shout that sounds void of substance. »Let's be realistic,« she said, »Russia will never become a democracy if the Russian people are not willing to take a risk. You also support the regime by not saying anything. A total showdown with Putin can only be violent, and it will cost long prison terms and death. But it is no different from the fight the Ukrainians have been fighting for years.«
As many as 30 exiled Russians were invited to display the art that could get them imprisoned in their homeland, a stone's throw away
What is Russian shame?
The day after the opening, Hrybenko's sharp opening still echoed in my head. Was it perhaps to be a bit blind to privilege to stand on the other side of the border and pretend that »trust« should be the solution to anything?
On my walk around town, I stopped in front of the Liberation Monument from 1944: a sculpture of an armed Red Army soldier. »To the brave soldiers of the Soviet Union«, it says on the pedestal. You probably look at the friendship between Russia and Norway a little differently in Oslo than you do here in Kirkenes, a Norwegian performing arts writer had told me. Since 1954, the liberation has been marked at the monument – not entirely without friction, when it was the only NATO country with a border with Russia. In the wake of the Kirkenes declaration in 1993, 29 years of »Barents excitement« followed, where bilateral cooperation in the new large region by the Barents Sea created a whole new world of possibilities.
What’s more, Russia is an unbreakable part of the city's cultural genetics. The Russian fishing industry continues to employ a large part of the city's citizens at the large Kimek shipyard. These are just some of the reasons why a total boycott of Russia is probably not the prevailing attitude in town. The Barents Spectacle was, in any case, an expression of the opposite: As many as 30 exiled Russians were invited to display the art that could get them imprisoned in their homeland, a stone's throw away.
Pavel Borisov's industrial techno was based on samples of ancient Russian protest songs. Conversely, Russian rock legend Boris Grebenshikov didn't play music that sounded like it was out for trouble.
As part of the exhibition work To the FSB Officers Who Attended My Events (2023), you could read correspondences about spies in the art world and write an anonymous letter yourself to an FSB agent.
Confessions of the Streets (2023) was an AR exhibition where you could use your phone to see protesting Russian street art on various buildings in the city. All thought-provoking, but without significant aesthetic resonance.
At the festival exhibition in the city's charismatic old fire station, Russian-Dutch Polina Medvedeva, on the other hand, had created an installation that both opened the sensory apparatus and hooked itself with critical barbs. A knock from below heard from the bottom (2022) was interactive in the sense that the visitor had to experience the work as a kind of ghost hunter. At the entrance to a spartan furnished room, you were handed an old-futuristic detector unit that could capture sound. With headphones on, the room had to be probed: a claustrophobic magnetic field of oppressive electronic noise. There were voices at the sockets, you soon found out, and they got louder the closer you got to them.
A basic uneasiness arose at the spy role one had suddenly assumed. At times it was even nauseating to eavesdrop on the various accounts along the wall. Somewhere a voice almost became noise itself as it whispered: »Russian shame is when someone says it's not your fault, but you know people support the war.« It was impossible to deny the distastefully enticing pull of overhearing the voices. The forbidden, disgusting curiosity. Medvedeva's double grip on the surveillance motif was an obsessive plague, where shame and impotence met in one oppressive migraine.
At the Barents Spektakel, art was juxtaposed in the debate. The program was packed with conversation starters. Just take the countless panel debates, the sauna excursion to the Barents Sea and the festival bar Nomadic Base, which also served as a gallery and nightclub. There was to be mingling, and in that regard the festival made an honorable effort.
The cat he was looking for was gone, but instead he found a handheld video projector
But occasionally the audience-engaging additions made the art a flat experience. The theater performance 80° was a so-called kvartirnik at a private home address: a Soviet-era concept where many pieces had to be built under the radar. No more than a handful of audience members sat in the dark living room when an actor entered the front door with an empty cat cage.
The cat he was looking for was gone, but instead he found a handheld video projector. Zealously, he searched every nook and cranny with the video projection of a sparkling flame. But we had to be in several places at once, it turned out. In a podcast, we heard about marine geologist Alena, who was frozen to death on a ship in the Arctic. The shifting meta-grip completely punctured the intimacy that had otherwise been established. When we were subsequently led upstairs to write a letter to Alena, the excitement was gone and the atmosphere slightly awkward.
In the work Zøvnzaun (2022) by the transnational performance group TBA, audience participation was incorporated with a significantly greater degree of top management. It worked wonders. We were received in the Sør-Varanger Kultursal by a pleasant smock-wearing researcher type who, with a plastered smile, asked us to fill in a curious questionnaire about our sleeping habits. There was something woolly about it all: What was it that we had set ourselves up for? An experiment, it turned out. A full night's sleep can now be achieved in just 40 minutes, explained another researcher character, setting the tone for the work's post-ironic capitalism critique with a pronounced rigor behind the false kindness. In the best Matrix style, a pill should prepare us for the dive down the rabbit hole.
At the Barents Spektakel, the Putin resistance was armed with confidence, and that ambivalence made the festival something very special
We were ushered into a large dome-shaped tent and given a mattress and a set of headphones. Before you knew it, you were lulled into a synesthetic hypnosis. The soothing colors in the vault of the dome were like the inside of an eyelid, spreading its stupor along with massaging vibrations from the mattress and an ambient soundtrack. But the narcosis was constantly invaded by salesmen's voices that hijacked the euphoric weightlessness. The voices were like a ticking pointer that put the timeless state in order, and thus the work held a mirror between utopia and dystopia in a breathtaking way.
Armed with confidence
When a festival is introduced as »the most important in the world«, there should be natural skepticism. Of course, the artistic visions could not measure up to such an exaggeration. The densely packed program – which, for example, also included a silent film concert and sauna readings – was too scattered in its coverage of the whole culture. After four festival days out of six, I was still empty-handed in my search for an artistic profile. It was like a big inviting buffet that wasn't seasoned strongly enough.
Still, there was a useful vitality present in the discussion the festival framed. While the rest of the world is busy putting as much distance from Russia as possible, the Barents Spektakel guaranteed a different perspective. Here they took a stand against »Russophobia«. Right now it might seem like a showdown that comes a bit too soon. But nevertheless, as a Russia researcher pointed out, it is imperative that we do not give Putin an excuse to feed the narrative that the West does not like Russians. At the Barents Spektakel, the Putin resistance was armed with confidence, and that ambivalence made the festival something very special.
Barents Spektakel took place 24 Fabruary - 1 March in Kirkenes, Norway
English translation: Andreo Michaelo Mielczarek