I visited SparwasserHQ for the first time in February 2004, almost exactly a year ago. The gallery's good and solid reputation had long since reached as far as my home in Oslo, with the result that I was somewhat surprised when I actually saw the place. On being shown around, apologies were made for the shabbiness of the venue, which was due to poor finances, and I remember we discussed a variety of ideas and strategies for the management of non-commercial exhibition spaces. For SparwasserHQ it is of course very important not to compromise its stance on the politics of art or the idealistic credibility it has built up over time. Having worked with similar non-profit-making, artist-run galleries and projects over a number of years, I am familiar with the problems and used to the stylistic solutions to which those problems give rise solutions that can almost be regarded as a kind of trademark of the contemporary art world. This "subversive" look that we all know so well is often considered a necessary evil, yet in some ways it can also seem appealing and reassuring. One knows there is scope for experimentation in such a setting. The space immediately tells us that money is scarce and that here we find ourselves outside the commercially regulated system, and this can of course be welcomed as a sign of freedom, although for obvious reasons it also brings with it a range of limitations. This aesthetic is redolent of what is alternative, radical and uncompromising, but isn't this alternative in fact no more than a convention?
The notion of the artist as an eccentric and financially helpless figure has roots that stretch far back in time. The very earliest artist biographies written in the 16th century make a point of describing the conditions under which their subjects lived conditions of poverty and adversity so as to let the artworks themselves shine forth as brilliant miracles against a background of hopelessness. However, serious studies of artists' lives generally conclude that the members of this professional group have little in common, over and above the fact that they all produce art. This stereotypical notion of the role and function of the artist sometimes has the appearance, therefore, of being a projection from outside, some kind of attempt to explain and understand the wellspring of the artist's creativity, rather than a genuine consequence of those activities and functions.
Standing in this room I have the feeling that this is precisely what is expected of us. The room represents an extension of a conception of the artist that I do not believe we ourselves have chosen. I do not think it serves as a contrast to anything at all in an effective way. Rather, I think it helps to reinforce a preconception. The old stereotype of the connection between creative genius, madness and melancholy is reinforced when one looks around this kind of space, and even though it arguably has a certain charm, I find it hard to view this character as especially radical or functional for art. If anything I feel it reduces the power of art and isolates it, undermining its credibility as a relevant voice in society. To give the impression that artists are generally exempt from the laws of the market is in my view at best naive and at worst insincere and out of touch with reality.
In a thoroughly design-conscious society, new ideas are likely to be weakened or treated as unserious when presented in aesthetically impoverished contexts. The impression one gets is of a lack of conviction, and the danger is that one will end up reinforcing the crisis of confidence that already exists between art and its potential audience. In a sense it is doubly problematic that non-profit-making, artist-run ventures should come across in this way; those who choose to adopt this image for themselves and their work might be suspected of seeking to avoid the challenges associated with transferring their work from such limited but protective gallery spaces to the world outside. This is especially paradoxical and problematic for socially engaged art, although the problem is there regardless of the genre within which one works. Naturally enough, art needs to safeguard its freedom, magic and autonomy, and it should not be reduced to just one more commodity among so many others, yet I am not sure one achieves the desired effect by means of this strategy. There must be other paths one can take.
It is my sincere hope that the gift I shall duly present to SparwasserHQ will serve to inspire a discussion of this aesthetic. Since June 2004 I have saved money from my own income from various jobs and commissions in the Norwegian art world; I have sold works of my own and worked as a museum warden, writer and lecturer. It is now my great pleasure to hand over the fruits of this labour to SparwasserHQ in the form of a cheque for 5,783 Euros. This donation is to be used for architectural improvements to these premises of whatever kind SparwasserHQ deems most appropriate. Good and serious art needs and deserves to be seen in good and serious surroundings.
(Speech delivered at SparwasserHQ at the opening of the exhibition The Gift, 28 January 2005)