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Is something rotten in the state of Denmark?

[December 2nd 2004]

Soeren Pold

Soeren Pold's presentation at the Electrohype conference in Malmoe generated a lot of discussion. Soeren Pold was one of the organizers of this years Read_me festival in Aarhus and is head of the current research project 'The Aesthetics of the Interface Culture' and founder of the Digital Aesthetics Research Centre at the University of Aarhus. Here is what he said.

Is something rotten in the state of Denmark?

What is the current situation of digital arts in Denmark? This is unfortunately to a large extent a sad story, though I'll end in a constructive mood. First the history of the last 3-5 years in order to get an idea of where we are, what we have to do next.

The state of things
In Denmark we have a right wing conservative/liberal government, which has been in power for three years. When it gained power it started a campaign against so-called "smags-dommere", that is intellectuals, left-wing academics, opinion leaders, etc. Especially the ones employed with guiding politics, looking after environmental and political rights, and the loud and often leftist critics within art and culture were under attack. Before the election, there had been an advertising campaign where artists and people from culture led by the filmmaker Lars von Trier warned against a government supported by the right wing Danish Peoples Party. Consequently, when we after the election got this government, it seemed to be payback time, which hit hard within the Ministry of Culture, where some councils and boards were closed down or merged, the general resources were cut, and some right-wing members of the councils were appointed. Simultaneously a campaign against certain intermediaries - denounced as superfluous fat layers - was launched, which hit projects on the grass root level, that didn't have any established institution to take care of them.
If we focus on digital art, it was especially hard-hitting, that the Ministry of Culture's Development Fund was closed, since one of its two special focus areas were digital multimedia. It was closed down with no plans for a follow up or a new foundation for the area, and still there is no explicit focus on or programme for digital art. But also the fact that budgets were cut in the traditional arts led to reductions on digital art, since music, visual art, literature and theatre had to secure the more traditional and established institutions and thus cut down on new and less established experiments. E.g. DIEM, the Danish Institute for Electro-acoustic music was cut out of the budget from the Music council, since they had to secure the symphonic orchestras, though DIEM was later saved in a new and smaller version as a part of the Jutland Music Conservatory. And The Literature Centre which had earlier promoted cross-aesthetic literature and cross-media literature, now more or less seem to support mainly literature in traditional forms, judged from their latest distribution.
The Danish Minister of Culture, the conservative Brian Mikkelsen, led a restructuring of the arts councils, that led to one arts agency with four centres for literature, visual arts, performance arts and music and a cross-disciplinary and cross-aesthetic pool of money for applications that doesn't fit into the traditional art-forms, but with no explicit focus on digital art and with no specialists in digital art appointed to evaluate applications. Furthermore, this cross-aesthetic pool has had a slow and somewhat confusing start, where it has been difficult to figure out for digital artists where to apply and how to frame their application, though it seems that it has now slowly started giving out money to digital arts. A rough count points to about 0.5 million DKK or 1/6 of the money to digital art-related projects in the September 2004 distribution, and I know of several projects of high quality, that has been turned down. Consequently, the current situation is, that digital art has been almost erased from the official national cultural policy the last three years, and though there have been some opportunities locally at least in Aarhus and Copenhagen, it is and has been hard to find support for digital art during the last three years on a national level. Obviously this situation has had its impact on the digital art scene in Denmark. We have had a digital theatre festival in Aarhus, festivals for digital music and performance (DIEM's Mix festival), investments in interactive film by the national Film Institute, experimenting computer games - things that are currently not continued, though of course other things have luckily emerged, such as the Copenhagen Radar festival, EMMA, LJUD and Recession in Aarhus, and arrangements made by people at and around the universities in Aarhus and Copenhagen such as the Read_me 2004 festival in Aarhus.
The problem is not, that there are no artists or activists in the scene, but that things rarely get institutionalised, established or even repeated more than a few times. We seem to be trapped in an avant-gardist economy, where there is quite a lot of energy going into establishing new scenes, but it is hard to get them beyond the level of temporary experiment. The electronic music scene seems to have gone furthest in establishing itself, which is probably due to a combination of relative commercial success and a fairly long and strong tradition.
In Denmark, digital art hardly exists for most museums and established art institutions. Besides, the fairly small Roskilde Museum of Contemporary Art, practically no art museums in Denmark have exhibited net-art or digital art apart from a few single works - the only way to get into Statens Museum for Kunst (the national art museum) for a digital artist today would probably be by hacking their website, and while Louisiana had some interesting openings in contemporary art shows some years ago, showing among other things Jeffrey Shaw's Configuring the Cave, they have currently 'regressed' to flower motifs, etc.

The new great Aros art museum in Aarhus, which has done a tremendous work for contemporary artists and video and installation art, writes the following on new media, which demonstrates fully the lack of awareness on digital art: "With the launch of the Worldwide Web and the globalisation that it triggered, art changed again. The most tangible results lay within the new mediums of photography, video and installation art." However, there are signs that Aros will correct this in the future... Even though we have one of the oldest net-art galleries, Artnode, they currently remain sadly unacknowledged by the established art world even though they've made it into art museums earlier.
In performance and theatre there have been quite a lot of experiments led by among others Hotel Pro Forma and with a lot of active small groups, and there are still things going on, but the lack of money is definitely felt and many groups and theatres are moving in other directions. In literature there are the always excellent AfsnitP and several authors experimenting with media, computers and text, though we've never had a tradition for hypertext - the Danish experimental literary scene seems to have moved more in a multimedia direction, e.g. literature and sound or visual literature. Computer games have turned into big business, but we still lack funding and environment for experimenting games, though hopefully the new national educational initiative (The Danish Academy for Digital Interactive Entertainment) can help develop this.

How did things get that bad?
In Denmark, the focus for the national cultural policy is on cultural heritage, the established culture in general, and on culture and business, that is cultural industries, commercially viable art forms, etc. Besides, debates focus on establishing literary canons, Danish nationality etc. More future-oriented debates around the experience economy, the creative class, culture as branding, globalisation, etc. seem to be somewhat strangely left out by the governing policy, especially the traditionalistic right wing of the governing parties, though there are also more future-oriented liberals within the government. Recently, an important Danish industry leader, Lars Kolind, argued on national radio that the Danish immigrant policy and the reactionary focus on Danish nationality was becoming a barrier for globalised Danish companies, and that Danish culture needs to adjust to a globalised world. There are some opportunities within this in order to get on speaking terms with the ruling powers and business.
To get into dialogue with IT business and IT research, we also need to argue for a focus on the cultural and aesthetic aspects of information technology, e.g. of the Internet. This focus was more or less established in a high-profiled report made by the former government, "Kunst i netværkssamfundet" (Art in the network society), which was made just before the shift in power and probably for this reason seems to have collected dust ever since. The timing of the shift in government consequently was rather unlucky, just when the field was acknowledged, but before anything was established. However, everything shouldn't be blamed on the government, and major parts of the art and literary scene in Denmark also has, in my view, problematic relations to the computer.
The computer is, in broad terms seen as an icon for the modern rationality and commercialism, that is, all that, which according to some understandings, threatens serious art and literature. This has partly to do with traditional thinking and conservatism, but it has also to do with the way the Danish arts and cultural scenes have become modern. Denmark has a heavy tradition for cultural leftism, 'kulturradikalisme', which is still important in Danish art, and which has evolved in opposition to American culture industry from rock'n'roll and cartoons through television and Hollywood to computer games. This resistance against the commercial culture industry has in this tradition (and also in the tradition of high modernism as expressed by e.g. Adorno) led to reluctance towards media and technology in general within the Danish art scene. The relation between art and technology has been almost antagonistic and we definitely need more dialectical ways of thinking.

Three points to an agenda for digital art in Denmark:
Even though, we've suffered from some bad luck, bad timing and political resistance, I don't think that digital art per se is conflicting to the views of our current government or the Danish cultural milieu; we just have to keep up the struggle and perhaps think in new directions. The following three points are not exclusively mine, but sum up some successful initiatives:

1) Re-connect to the tradition
Three years ago I gave a talk about digital literature at The Literature Centre's yearly meeting at Louisiana, where I talked about the British poet John Cayley. I ended my talk by claiming that Denmark was not adequately up to date culturally speaking, but we needed a digitalisation of the Danish literary scene. The response was mixed with some people arguing that what I presented was exactly what threaded the Danish literary culture. The computer and its follower's demands of a digitalisation of culture would indeed ruin culture and the arts. But I also got other responses, e.g. from some authors from the late 1960's like Vagn Steen, who in an enthusiastic voice told me that he saw Cayley's literary work as a continuation of what he and his colleagues tried to do in the late 1960's. And he is right, indeed! There were in fact a strong Danish tradition of rethinking literature through a reflection on contemporary media, which was carried out by some of our most important authors, Per Højholt, Peter Laugesen, Dan Turell, Hans Jørgen Nielsen together with artists such as Per Kierkeby and filmmakers such as Jørgen Leth. But for some reason the media aspects of especially the writer's work have been largely forgotten in the meantime. At least until recently, where this seem to be dug out again, e.g. through the fabulous exhibition and accompanying book of Per Højholt as a media artist at The Roskilde Museum of Contemporary Art.

Another example of reconnection to the tradition was the re-discovery of Else Marie Pade by young techno musicians, DIEM and (again!) The Roskilde Museum of Contemporary Art, which resulted in a CD and another great exhibition. And in the field of literature, the web gallery AfsnitP keeps working to connect contemporary poetry, earlier traditions, and the computer.
If we cannot get money and support by stating digital art as a revolutionary new art form, which breaks with traditions and needs its own institutions, perhaps we should start trying to sneak digital art into the canon and tradition, by arguing how digital art is continuing earlier movements made by artists that are now established and unavoidable, such as Per Højholt, Else Marie Pade or Fluxus and the Situationists. Internationally there seem to be a rising interest in digital art history, as seen at Electrohype, in the latest Ars Electronica Festival or in the coming Refresh conference on Media Art History. This interest marks that the pioneering days are over, and it is time to negotiate the history and relations to tradition.

2) The new stage of aesthetisation, media & Art
The rise of the experience economy with its focus on storytelling, branding, creative qualities, and aesthetisation - often combined with the net - holds great potential for digital art. Even though all of us might not want to play the game as it is laid out by the industry and by futurologists, it can still be seen as a new stage, where it is also possible to intervene critically or perhaps situate oneself with an ironic twist and an occasional detournement such as has been the case with the group or self-titled corporation Etoy or the hacktivism of Artmark and The Yes Men. The experience economy and its effects can also be used as material as in Christophe Bruno's experiments with what he terms the generalized semantic capitalism in his net-art projects Iterature. Among other things, he uses Google's Adwords in a happening to calculate the current monetary value of words. This is art that is political in a new sense: not making a certain (left wing) political statement, but reflecting on the basics and preconditions of politics, that is how representation works in the current political scenes, economies and discourses. This concept of political media art is developed by the Swedish editor from Dagens Nyheter, Stefan Johnson, in the latest Danish issue of the magazine Lettre International. Examples of this could be art that stages the current buzz words and utopias and discusses how aesthetisation is part of modern economical and political discourse in the media.
Such a political media art might lead to a critical reflection that is both relevant (if not welcome) on the polished floors of big business and in society at large. It is a stage with increasingly heavy players, such as the Musicon Valley project in Roskilde, and probably more opportunities will evolve for artists. Of course we can discuss whether art has to be critical or how long we should go in accommodating the agenda set by marketing trends. But on the other hand, art needs to answer to the current society, and after all, I must admit, that I prefer buzz-word and branding to dead traditions and backward-looking discussions on Danish identity.

3) Organise and argue
Hopefully, the situation with the cross-aesthetic pool and within the traditional art forms will get better now that the cross-aesthetic pool has at least started working. And the cautious acknowledgement of digital art in the latest distribution could point to the fact, that there is an opening for digital art that we can work with - a work that has to develop along several axes: Firstly, we need to raise our voices in the ongoing debates about Denmark as an IT-nation and argue that we don't become an advanced IT-nation by just digging down cables and investing in engineering. We need to get educated culturally, we need to digitalize our culture and make the culture timely in a society where both work and leisure incorporates computers. Besides, we need an innovative digital culture in order to take part in the broad and very flourishing field of digital culture, entertainment and communication - from innovative design over games and entertainment to digital art. Secondly, we need to educate the decision makers in the art agency and other art institutions and museums and/or state the necessity for new people with knowledge of the field within the relevant boards and institutions. Thirdly, we need to manifest the digital art scene and the environment, so that the politicians and the public can't overlook it as easily, as they do today. Important work in this direction is being done nationally by the New Media Forum and by the brilliant information resource,
Some local initiatives seem promising. In Copenhagen and at art schools and universities around the countries, there are initiatives on computer games. Music and sound is the focus in Roskilde as I pointed to above, and there are serious attempts to launch digital arts and culture as a focus area in Aarhus. These initiatives argue that digital arts are a necessary part of an advanced IT research and business environment that can contribute to a region and generate a digital culture-industrial economy of their own. Hopefully these initiatives will lead to labs, funding, opportunities, events and more digital art! And then perhaps we could start making some cultural heritage for the future.



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