Voices from the osloBIENNALEN: Marius Grønning
Curated by Daniela Veneri
“Consciousness is about the awareness, the conscious awareness of the self and the world around. So it has to do with perception and it has to do with experiences of the self as a phenomenon and the world as it appears to us. But consciousness also has other forms of content and organization, beyond the experience with a phenomenon.”
- Marius Grønning
#Radicality #Awareness #Emancipation #Responsibility #Professionalism
How did you become involved in the Oslo biennial? What is your relationship with it?
I am an architect myself, an urbanist and planner, I don't come from the art field. I am not part of the curatorial team but I have been collaborating with Per Gunnar for a long time, and he is very good at involving different kinds of competencies when he works with complex things like urban space, so he has many times involved me when dealing with issues concerning urban development.
For me these collaborations have been about how different practices influence spatial processes that are part of urban development. We have had a lot of dialogues about the development of this biennial.
There is a lot of expectation today that art becomes a tool of cultural policy, allied with strategic thinking, and I try to develop a reflection outside of that frame because I think it is very reductive and creates frames that are not in line with the evolution of art theory. I think there are very important questions to ask about art as an instrument or as a value in general, and maybe as a practice. The important thing is to give space to art as a practice which is part of enriching society, sometimes at the expense of strategies, because it can make things very «inefficient». I am a city planner and I think this complexity of different spheres that are interacting with each other is very interesting and important to explore and to learn more about. So I see it as relevant to develop a theoretical perspective and methodology that can inform the way corporations and institutions communicate and think.
It all started with a network where I got into contact with people who were concerned with art in public spaces, more than 10 years ago, led by Public Art Norway, a Norwegian state institution for art in public spaces, that realizes art on behalf of the state and in relation to state projects. I wrote something about urban development that these guys at Public Art Norway read, and they invited me into a reference group for a conference held in the city of Trondheim in 2007, which was called Organizing Art. Trondheim was a pioneer city who developed a particular model for producing art in public spaces at the municipal level; it was, I think, the first bigger Nordic city that invented a financing scheme that made it possible to fund art which was not part of some kind of other building project. Per Gunnar and I were both speakers at the conference, and we got to know each other and started to exchange a lot of ideas. We later started to collaborate on projects that involved urban development and the realization of art projects that comes along with the development in public spaces and the exterior of buildings.
From that time, with Per Gunnar we have had a kind of continuous reflection together, so when he started the pilot project for the Oslo biennial, together with Eva Gonzalez-Sancho Bodero, they brought me into an editorial board, and we also had informal discussions about how to think about a biennial for art in public spaces in a city like Oslo. After the pilot project we had a lot of dialogues and they assigned a responsibility to me, based on their parallel program of symposia. Here we structure a kind of thinking based on documentation and reflection of the experiences, in order to develop awareness and methodology for the biennial as a municipal institution. I was asked to take the responsibility for the first chapter, in this series of symposia, which will take place now in October and which is about «art production within a locality». It is about looking at the relationship between art production, artists’ work processes and facilities, and the encounter with the local context and with the concrete physical, urban spaces – how to deal with locality, which is a major issue in the biennial. This biennial does not have a restricted space for display, but defines the whole city, its organized structure in public spaces, as a site for art. And so I ended up with this responsibility of documenting the experiences of the art projects and developing methodology for dealing with locality, for receiving artists and introducing them to the Oslo context.
There has been a long process since I first encountered the field of art in public spaces, one which actually changes things in the Norwegian context, how we work with art and how we think about it.
What are you working on that you are most passionate about, and why?
I've been spending a lot of time, the last seven-eight years, teaching planning for people who are going to become planners, working for Norwegian municipalities or consultancies. I have an academic background from France and Italy and I'm bringing that luggage with me into the Norwegian context. After having developed the teaching and making experiences with students and the context of governance and local development, I now find myself asking quite fundamental questions. It doesn't sound like research because it's really at the core of what planning and urban development is about. Lately I've been writing together with a colleague, Daniel Galland, an entry for an encyclopedia (Wiley & Blackwell Encyclopedia of Urban and Regional Studies) on the topic of Spatial consciousness. It is a topic at the center of spatial planning, but also important for many other disciplines, for architecture, for art, for geography, and also for psychology and politics. What we are concerned with is that planning theory has increasingly been focusing on particular mechanisms in planning and decision making. It has become a discipline of communication, viewing the planner as a kind of a mediator, and it has lost some contact with its origin, which was about how to govern spatial development. So we are concerned with bringing space back to planning theory, from different points of departure. For me this is very important because, as an architect, everything starts with space. Architects, however, often respond as designers today, more than scholars and practitioners of space and spatial organization.
So in relation to this kind of overall project of bringing space back to planning theory, I'm involved with research on several topics, which are all of a fundamental character. One of them is spatial consciousness, which has an implication for the spatial processes of urbanization, basically what we deal with as planners and architects. It relates to the social and spatial role of cities in ongoing processes, and needs to be reconceptualized in relation to globalization, economic development, climate change and so forth. Another concern of mine is the corresponding formation of the city as an idea. The idea of the city itself is being redefined in these processes. And one important question, I think, for research and practice within this field, is the possibility of a kind of intellectual autonomy in the conception of what we are planning and building, and a recognition that the idea of the city is not just a result of dominating interests and driving forces. Therefore I think conceptions and ideas actually come back as an important topic of study today. This is why spatial consciousness has become a theme, and a notion to write and think about.
Along with space, another concern of mine is of course the topic of time, of temporalities and the anticipation of urbanization and urban development. So looking forward, always in a spatial dimension, because this is another thing that has happened: that we talk a lot about participation, about democracy in these processes, without appreciating how they concretely impact spatial arrangements, how they are deploying in a spatial dimension.
Finally we talk a lot about innovation, both as a response to crisis, especially economic crisis, but also as almost a necessity in front of important changes – of climate, of demography and so forth. In this mindset innovation is very often in response to something that seems like a threat. I think it's important to get back to a kind of a positive, optimistic approach, one that is more attractive to a large population, that can attract people and make them take part in changing things, define their own roles. We can point out new possibilities, but it's important not to stay within these paradigms of ecology, climate change and macro economy. I'm not saying they are not important, of course they are important, but it's also important to get back to the dimension of space, which involves heterogeneity and multiplicity, and to try to think about innovation in the specificities of a spatial perspective.
My recent activities are focused on these concepts. Also the collaboration with the art field, and with Oslobiennalen, has been renewed on that basis. The work of spatial consciousness is recent, it came out earlier this year, and the curators asked for that to be a concept that can develop the thinking around the Oslo biennial, which has to do with public space in Oslo.
Can you share a little bit more about what is your perspective on spacial consciousness and how it is related to individual and collective awareness and to the arts?
Spatial consciousness is an abstract notion and you always have to explain what you mean when you use it. I think it's an important topic of discussion in our time because in a pluralist society, you cannot move on with the idea of space according to just one authority imposing its own perspective. Our spatial order does not come from a tamed space, from the unique point of view of an authority, but from a vital space of multiple trajectories, coexistence and interaction. And I'm not using the word authority in a negative sense, because I think authorities are, in democracies, about public interest, about interpreting and advocating public interest, from the point of view of democracy and citizenship. So for me authority is not at all a negative term, but authorities need to redefine their approach to space, because space itself is subject to contestation and different ideas of organization. So space is a very complex dimension in decision making, in the representation of interests, in a democracy.
In our elaboration on the topic, which was very much a collaborative and shared one, Daniel Galland and I had in a way different roles and it developed as a discussion between us. We developed the reflection in three parts, where the first one is about recognizing how consciousness relates to space. Based on some initial references to philosophy and studies of the human mind, like psychology or neurology, we built a perspective that has come out of an encounter between two different points of view. Consciousness is about the awareness, the conscious awareness of the self and the world around. So it has to do with perception and it has to do with experiences of the self as a phenomenon and the world as it appears to us. But consciousness also has other forms of content and organization, beyond the experience with a phenomenon. Experience is influenced by intentions, which shape the way the world around you is presented to you, from your interests or needs- Language and the representations also give consciousness content and organization, based on concepts, syntagmas, diagrams and so forth, providing different ways of describing, expressing and communicating experiences.
By these theories, which are consolidated in philosophy, we started to look at what they mean in disciplines that deal with space, like human geography, architecture or planning, and we started to build a conceptual structure to explain that our notions of space, like place, city or region, are conceptions embedded in our culture. They come not only from our individual experience with a city or a place, of their content and organisation, but from the experience of our entire culture, with its modes of representation of the phenomenon, fixed in our language. So when the phenomenon is changing, when society starts to develop new needs in how human settlement is to be organized, then suddenly you can have conflicts between the intentionalities around urban space and the experience with it, conveyed by the same concepts and diagrams. So we put intentionality, representation and experience into tensions with each other as a way of describing what the notion of spacial consciousness might contain, and from there we dealt with it from a planning perspective.
The next step was to explain how spatial consciousness does come about. Here we were looking at the relationship between planning as a discipline and the institutional system it is part of, because planning is based on regulations, on authorities, on cartography, and a number of instruments related to procedures of decision making, control of property and land-use. This way you can explain how the basic tools and concepts of contemporary planning systems are reflecting a kind of awareness or consciousness about social and spatial processes that came out of different moments in history. There is something to be aware of in that observation, because it means that our theories and instruments of planning are always in a delay, because our methods and instruments come from problems of the past, say, from industrialization for instance, and from dealing with the social and urban issues of industrialization in a spatial dimension. As those experiences gave us our apparatus of planning and the ways we are representing space, the means by which institutions and corporations are communicating around spatial processes. In other words the representational content and organisation of space is embedded in our culture through institutions and their instruments and practices.
But we are now in front of new issues and new processes that deploy in a spatial dimension. New tensions between experience, intentionality and representation, which through this notion of spatial consciousness actually ask us to think about the relevance and actuality of our institutional system, the way institutions address and represent a space, intervene in cities and territories. When we looked at that historically, we also saw that spatial consciousness it's not like in a lot of planning literature, not something that actualized only through decision-making; it's actually paramount to the institutions and the planning system. So, in today's processes of globalization, we need to ask ourselves fundamental questions, about living conditions and the sustainability of our activities in relation to a communication that takes place on the new, planetary scale. It forces us to reconsider the theoretical geography of spatial planning, because the part of the world that has the kind of institutionalized planning systems that planning theory has been coming from, is a very small part of the world. It's mainly from Western Europe and North America, so there is a new geography of awareness and consciousness to take into consideration, and entirely new points of departure for thinking about spatial phenomena and processes and how to govern them. This is the final part of how we structured that research: what is at stake when you talk about spatial consciousness. It's basically the possibility to govern territories and to plan and organize space which is at stake, how to legitimize the institutionalization of governmental tools and how to think about the relationship between governance and citizenship in different contexts, which in different parts of the world are following different evolutionary paths. But we are, from an optimistic perspective, bound to learn from each other because we are becoming more and more integrated on a global scale.
What values and principles are guiding your work?
I was educated as a professional; not a scientist, but an actor who performs by means of ideas and skills. I think that in our culture something has changed which in a way reduces the agency of professionals, takes something away from them, and I'm not sure if that is all good. I think that it's important in education to get back to the responsibility professionals; that you are not just somebody performing a task within a framework that is determined and regulated by others; you are responsible.
So what has changed? We have stronger institutions, rules and frameworks around everything that happens: tools for controlling development, financing, timelines and productive processes, what can be built and not. They are certainly a progress, but I think they may be dangerous too, in the sense that it is not a good evolution of our culture if professionals are in a way becoming less responsible for how they think and what they do. In developing pedagogy and knowledge within the field of urbanism and spatial planning I think the values and principles that used to characterize architects and urbanists, who were also scholars and thinkers, are important to get back to, in order to contribute to reason and critical reflection among these actors in society.
I'm referring to planners but this is true for any professional; they all rely on autonomous thinking around what they are doing. I think we need these frameworks and institutions, of course, they are very important and they are important to make decisions and govern our society, but I think professionals should take part in defining the frames and providing the premises for how institutions evolve through their practice.
I think in our Western European setting, we just came out of a time where we trusted governments and their institutions. Too much maybe, because you can see today that the governments and institutions are not always trustworthy, and not all over the world, and part of that confidence also leads us to neglect our individual responsibility. So, I think that we need to get back to human sciences and focus more on the role of each actor, each human being. That is how I develop my research and I try to make it relevant for students who are going to become professionals. I think that it informs a lot of my observations within the art field also, that there is a division of labor between professionals, between artists and curators, which is quite new. They are professionals with different roles, which reconfigure the art field. And it's an opportunity, something very interesting, but something to look at from a critical perspective also.
Would you tell me more about the Oslo Biennalen from your perspective, what excites you most about it?
In one word, what I think is very exciting about the project is its radicality, that it is really identifying, making an effort at least to identify, the central concepts that structure our thinking and practice of biennials, which is an important effort in order to renew the relationship between art institutions, cultural policy and public space, especially on an international or global level. It requires a questioning: how can it make art visible on a global scale, and at the same time break art production down to a local scale and interact with the city of Oslo in an articulated way.
So, there are many things that people are now asking questions about: why is the biennial five years? It's an interesting question, I like very much this radical stance of the project, that they are looking at the periodicity and the city, they are looking at how it deals with the public sphere and then how things emerge and disappear when you are infiltrating into the tissue of social relations and urban space. And I think from radicality you can actually reorganize the theoretical core of what you are dealing with and move towards a paradigm shift, new beliefs, new models. This, I think, is a real effort to try to innovate something that is well consolidated even if with a lot of varieties. The Oslobiennalen is creating a possibility, a breach allowing new practices, new ideas and new identities to emerge, and new experiences of art.
Did you notice any changes in particular since the OSLO PILOT started?
I think it is too early to answer this question. It just started and it is not organized like most biennials, or at least the biennials that I know, that are almost as festivals that take place for a few months and repeat themselves every two years. So this is something more able to respond to the processes it is trying to interact with in the local context. How is the biennial interacting with the local context? What is happening to the relationship between an art institution and the citizens if it goes on for a longer time? I think that the idea, and then the implementation of that idea, has reached a state of maturity. But I think we need to be a little bit patient to see that spirit in the art projects and people’s experience with them.
What challenges and opportunities does the local context offer?
Since the biennial is not trying to maximize attention, to make something very intense like a major exposition, I think we need to be a little bit patient. But I think that they are starting to challenge a lot of people and their understanding of the relationship between cultural policy, art and space. So maybe we see the beginning of a kind of cultural project, but we'll need some time to see it mature. I can only have expectations to that because it's audacious and, as I said, radical. So, you can't expect that you know much about the results or to see the real results immediately.
What we can see is that it has been perceived very differently on two different levels, or maybe three. I think on an international level, in the communication and the dialogue between curators and art institutions, there has been a lot of interest in it, very positive reviews for its conceptual framework and its organization. The local artistic community has been a bit colder. Maybe it just has to do with expectations, I'm not sure, but the tone has been different. It has been more critical, not always very constructive, not always on a very high level either. It has been focused on some details of the organization, and it is important to take that seriously; it cannot fail on that level. How the local art community, art centers, art institutions see it is essential. If they don't see it as a contribution, as a resource, then of course it's a failure. So, I hope to see the biennial get beyond its first impact and evolving into something specific which is not in rivalry with other activities, but something that people will see as a contribution. The last level is the population. Because this is an art biennial that has the ambition of taking place in public space it's addressing an audience which is not art experts or regular art audience. It has been a little bit silent, it's not trying to attract a lot of attention, it's trying to pop up, surprising people so that it's a real experience when it happens. But in order to become an experience for a large audience it maybe also needs a specific communication strategy.
How can arts and culture make an effective social contribution today?
This is a typical question in relation to art in public spaces, almost unavoidable, but which very often lures you into a kind of argument where you expect there to be some kind of social benefit from art. I think it's a trap, and I am concerned not to fall into it. Social benefit is of course not negative. My point is that legitimizing art solely on that basis might limit many possibilities. I think the Oslo biennial is avoiding the argument of the purposefulness of art, the compulsive social contributions or producing social benefits. It's at least trying to avoid it, possibly with success. Today we often hear artists promote their own work through the argument of enhancing citizen participation in local situations, and they almost talk about themselves as place-makers. I think that can be dangerous because place-making is political and full of antagonism and conflicts. As a planner or somebody working along a spatial strategy you have to be prepared to take that responsibility, handling those conflicts, and you are taking economic, social and institutional risk and responsibility. As a place-maker you are assuming a role as a vehicle of public interest, and I think that requires very specific competence that artists should not pretend that they possess. I'm not saying they do not have any of that competence, they might, but I think they also have a different role. I think it's important to get back to the question of what the artistic reasons or logic or arguments are when art is being presented to the audience of a local community. On the other hand place-making itself is a result of strong driving forces, economic ones, the demographic ones, cultural ones, as well as political strategies and policy instruments, and these forces tend to override artistic considerations. They sometimes bring strong demands concerning art and tend to dictate instead of internalizing the specificities of artistic work. And the artist in all of this becomes very weak, because the strongest argument they resort to is that they defend the autonomy of art, which is in direct contradiction with being a place-maker.
I think the biennial is an interesting arena here, and maybe an important one to think about how you can bring art and art production closer to social groups that otherwise do not have access to it. At the same time we should recognize art production, art as a kind of practice that has its own reason, that has a role in society which is not the same as economic or social development, but rather about the spiritual, cultural, technical craftsmanship and aesthetic expression and experience. That is one dimension of society which should have its place, it's part of a social continuity, heterogeneity and evolution, and I think we are making a mistake if we are unwilling to recognize it. I think that “social contribution” is a dangerous way of phrasing it, because it sounds like art needs to be socially engaged in order to be art. We often find a polarization between art as a promotion of economic or political interests, on the one hand, and art as activism or an expression of citizenship and democratic participation on the other. I think it's important to get back to the art field itself and the evolution of aesthetic practice and discourse, and look critically and reflexively at how it relates to urban development, place-making, public space and so forth, because it is often an element in the development pattern.
This is actually what triggers some kind of personal engagement for me, where I think there is something important to pursue. It’s the social role of an academic to look critically at what is going on, and contribute from that angle to the development of conceptions and practices.
What is most important for you when involving different stakeholders in the realisation of a common project?
Paradoxically I think it's about the learning, rather than the aesthetic result. I think we have to think of different kinds of learning processes because art in public spaces very often comes along with some kind of development process, where you have a policy, where institutions follow some kind of spatial strategy to develop arts in a targeted way, where actors come into relation with each other, sometimes into conflict. And I think one important consequence is that everybody has to understand each other's mindset better, reframe the situation on the basis of interaction and learning. They need to understand more about art: developers need to understand the heterogeneity of art, they need to develop their language around it, and the general population will have more experiences with art. The way they perceive art, their expectations towards art will change from these experiences. They need to be prepared for that also, which also challenges a lot of artists.
You enter a new and different arena when you take art out of the white cube of a gallery or museum, where everything is facilitated by a perfect frame around the artwork, one that erases the relation with the rest of the world. Art in public spaces is in a very different condition because it is not in an abstract environment, it is in a very concrete one where all kinds of interactions start to happen. I think that to be an artist in this environment means to be a quite different professional compared to what you are as an artist that displays your work within a white cube, because in public space you have a collaboration with a curator, with various institutions, you have to deal with public authorities, developers, neighborhood associations and single individuals. It becomes necessary to handle the encounter between these different actors, institutions and mindsets, these different cognitive frames where actors see things differently, leading them to interpret the situation in various ways. And I think the curators and art institutions today have an important role in professionalizing the involved actors, and in contributing to a kind of reframing where people start to understand each other's point of view through the process. This evolution in art production has a major impact on how you communicate art.
What forms of artistic proposals and contaminations do you think are particularly representative of current transformations and challenges taking place in modern society?
One thing that I think characterizes art today is how aesthetic ideas are traveling. I think we're no longer looking to just one place and to a top of the hierarchy. I think different parts of the world are mirroring each other, communicating experiences in a different way that generates new identities, new practices and networks within the art world. So suddenly you can see something that would come out of South America happening here in Oslo. It doesn't have the same purpose or sense, because here public spaces are more or less open and safe and public authority means something different. And the notion of democracy is different, there is no worry about saying what you think, about claiming your identity, whether it's social, sexual, political or whatever, which is very different in other parts of the world and which is a backdrop of many of these aesthetic expressions. So I think that African art, South American art, Asian art, Middle Eastern Art, is in European art, North America art and the other way around, to use some generic categories. They are looking at each other and mirroring each other in new ways today.
Is there anything important to mention that I did not ask you?
I come from Oslo and I stayed abroad for the first part of my grown up life, mainly in France and Italy. When I came back after this artificial break something had happened. I think Norway is in a very interesting situation right now, which is favorable for making new experiences, for creating new narratives about modernity and globalization, because it's a dynamic and yet quite stable society. It's right now in a good economic situation, with an egalitarian way of thinking and with a strong network of welfare institutions making it resilient and able to handle changes and transitions. Social integration of migrant populations seems to take place without major episodes of violence and without unsurmountable tensions. There are of course both tensions and violence as everywhere else, but I experience this as a happy moment in Norwegian history. It's a country that was always in the periphery and now there is more attention to what is going on here. Things are changing fast. A lot of new identities are emerging and being Norwegian means something very different today than what it meant 30 years ago. I think there is an optimism which is particular now. It's a good place for experiencing globalization; it is good to be in Norway right now, it is dynamic in a way that most people benefit from. A lot of it has to do with economic development, of course, which has its downsides such as increasing disparities. But I would like to put forth the positive in this process: its experiences of integration are interesting. It is certainly interesting to have an art biennial who tries to address these socio-economic, cultural and spatial processes, who tries to propose itself as a mirror for collective self contemplation within the art sphere. I am looking forward to follow that experience, on the backdrop of fast societal changes which creates new identities and new social groups, new interactions, new cultures, and to observe art as something that takes place in that process.
Can you think of three or five keywords that you feel can well express your impressions and feelings about our conversation?
We are discussing fundamental questions. It's nice to be able to do that. In scholarly literature and art critiques things are increasingly specialized and articulated, so sometimes we are scared of getting down to the basic issues and principles of what we're talking about. I think a premise for putting forth radical ideas is that you have an interest in the fundamental questions, and then to see the possibility of addressing and discussing them.
A keyword could be radicality, which has to do with fundamental issues. In times of change we need to ask fundamental questions. Another one is awareness. And maybe emancipation, not to say critical thinking, because it has become something almost automatic to criticize capitalism from an almost external point of view. I think critical thinking is about understanding which frames you have around you and whether you should work with them or against them. And once you can see and understand them, then you can identify your autonomy, or even try to free yourself from them, so, I dunno, spawning emancipatory ideas and behaviours or thinking…. what else? Responsibility. Professionalism. These key words come together and are in relation to each other.
Marius Grønning, architect (ENSAPB Paris) and PhD in Urbanism (IUAV Venezia), is an associate professor of urban and regional planning at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU), Faculty of Landscape and Society. He has practical experience within architecture and consultancy in urbanism and planning. He is teaching place-making, comprehensive land-use planning and spatial ideas in urbanisation processes, and his research is focused on the spatial dimension of consciousness, possibilism, anticipation and innovation. Grønning has led the Norwegian Housing and Planning Association (Norsk BOBY) and the Norwegian Association for Planning Education (FUS). He has contributed in several artistic collaboration projects, especially in the context of urban development and public spaces in plans, or in academic areas like the teaching programme in this field at the Oslo National Academy of the Arts (KHiO).
Note: This interview was published on Rondò Pilot, issue no. 0.8, 2019.