Viva Voce

Viva Voce: Siri Hermansen

Artist and Research Fellow Siri Hermansen will defend her research work "The economy of survival" at the presentation of her thesis at Oslo National Academy of the Arts.

  • What happens when a society is profoundly transformed by a disaster?
  • What kind of survival strategies do nature and humans develop in the new society that emerges?
  • How can individual artists address global social changes and create new insights into and knowledge about places and situations that have already been covered in detail by the media?

These major societal questions have been at the heart of Siri Hermansen’s fellowship project, “The Economy of Survival”, which has resulted in three art films: Chernobyl Mon Amour, Land of Freedom (Detroit) and Terra Nullius (Kiruna).

Working primarily through the media of film and photography, the project focuses on the Chernobyl exclusion zone, the economic collapse of Detroit, and the area of Kiruna in northern Sweden, where Hermansen has studied the collision between the values of the Sami people and the international mining industry. Although the catastrophic events in Chernobyl and Detroit were not planned, they were nevertheless the outcome of human activities. The ongoing expansion of industrial mining in the Kiruna region, on the other hand, is carefully planned by the authorities, despite which the fundamental rights of the Sami are being violated and their existence threatened.

Method

Travelling alone into what one could call “unsafe zones” and spending brief but intense periods exploring together with local guides, Hermansen has developed an artistic method that in some ways resembles anthropology and which allows her to collect new information about situations that have already been well covered by the media. Accepting a high degree of risk, she immerses herself in social situations to which she would otherwise have no access, documenting her experiences on video. Her field material records the interpersonal relationships that develop between herself and her guides on location. In her project, she explores the ancient role of the guide as a source and repository of knowledge and wisdom about the zones she visits. Following where the guides lead, the artist is transported into physical and mental landscapes, thereby overcoming the obstacles to fresh insights. The micro-perspective of subjective, intimate conversations provides the basic artistic material, which Hermansen edits into films, using photography and in some cases installations as supplementary projects.

Chernobyl Mon Amour

This project zooms in on Hermansen’s meetings with two Ukrainian state-employed guides, Dennis and Maxim. Following their subjective perspectives and relationship to the zone, the project touches on the mysterious ability of both man and nature to adapt to the radioactive air. We discover that paradoxical realities can live side by side in the human body and mind, as well as in nature, and that this is in itself a survival strategy.

On a daily basis, the guides take catastrophe tourists, journalists and scientists into the affected area. Despite their profound awareness of the high health risks, they choose to live and work in the radioactive zone. They describe the zone as a unique place that offers them hope, freedom and rich possibilities away from the hardships of Ukrainian society. For them, Chernobyl is a “paradise”.

The stories the guides tell convey the mystical nature of the paradox they live, where what hurts ultimately does good. Dennis describes how, after five years in the zone, his body actually gets acutely ill when he returns to the normal world, but remains well as long as he is breathing the radioactive air. His body has adapted to the radioactive environment. Tuning in to their changing bodies, both guides spend ever longer periods in the Chernobyl zone, ignoring the breaks their doctors advise.

Land of freedom (Detroit)

Land of Freedom is a film that explores what can grow out of the financial catastrophe that has ruined the Motor City, Detroit, over recent decades. The industrial and financial collapse has dramatically changed a city that was for many years one of the most booming cities in the US. Once considered a proven symbol of the success of capitalism, Detroit was at the forefront of the development of a black middle class. In sharp contrast, today the city is one of the least productive and most impoverished in the US. Crime, poverty, unemployment and a dysfunctional health and educational system are evident everywhere.

With its promise of artistic and intellectual freedom, cheap housing, and free studio spaces, Detroit has begun to attract individuals interested in pursuing alternative ways of life, away from the world of the globalised economy. These individuals have started filling the empty plots in the abandoned districts with urban farms. For them, Detroit opens the possibility of creating from nothing a new kind of American dream.

Land of Freedom revolves around a group of white artists who have each taken the initiative to settle in the primarily Afro-American district of Farnworth Street, East Central Detroit. We meet visual artist KT, the founder of the Yes Farm art collective, urban farmer Emilie the Poet, and Monk, who grew up in the neighbourhood. The girls in the collective are admired by Larry D’Mongo, who shares his insights on Detroit’s rise and fall, and analyses the importance of what the urban farmers are doing as a counter-movement to the global food industry and as community builders.

As activist artists and urban pioneers, KT and Emilie use urban farming as an artistic strategy to create a sustainable way of life for themselves, hoping to influence the poor neighbourhood to use urban farming as a way out of poverty. Trying to free themselves from the global market, the urban farmers have developed an exchange economy, where they trade food from their gardens for goods and services. When they do use money for buying and selling goods they try to keep as few links between the product and the customers as possible in order to keep the money flow within their own circles. What is particularly striking is that the quantity of food they produce is so small. This makes us question how subject we all are to the global economy, and the extent to which it influences every aspect of our Western life.

The artist-farmers appear to be ready to live the consequences of their ethical values, in their aim to liberate themselves from the global economy that governs the surrounding society. But watching their attempts also makes us wonder whether the new model of life they propagate is really viable. We get to see the ideology of urban farming in action, with its sharing of knowledge and tools, but in one scene where the farmers teach young girls the survival skill of slaughtering rabbits for food, the participants seem to find their way of life more demanding than they imagined it would be. Monk voices other doubts about urban farming as a model for a future society, explaining that for him and his black community, having to grow your own food is too tainted by the memory of slavery, when home farming and the exchange of services were part of an involuntary exclusion from society.

Terra Nullius (Kiruna) 

In Terra Nullius, which consists of two films and a series of photographs, Hermansen shows us what happens when economic, environmental, social and cultural values systems clash. The project focuses on the ongoing conflict between the mining industry and the land rights of the Sami people. Using micro studies and participatory observation, while also allowing the official standpoint to be heard, Hermansen takes a close look at the mining community of Kiruna, located between the Luossavaara and Kiirunavaara mountains, and the surrounding Sami areas in the far north of Sweden.

In the film, Mattias Åhrén, professor of law at the University of Tromsø, claims that the legal protection of indigenous peoples is weaker in the Nordic countries than in most other industrialised countries. In 2012, the Australian mining company Hannans Reward Ltd bought Scandinavian Resources Ltd and its subsidiary Kiruna Iron AB, thereby gaining access to copper and gold rights in Sweden and Norway. Damien Hicks, the director of Hannans Reward, describes how easy and inexpensive it is to establish mining operations in Sweden, in part because of free access to mineral databases.

The Sami have lived in the area for millennia. Their settlements and traditional way of life based on reindeer herding stand in sharp contrast to the mining company’s interests in the area. It isn’t just the reindeers’ grazing areas and migration routes that have been badly damaged; ancient ritual sites have also been destroyed as a result of mining activities. Today many areas have been fenced off, with access to them forbidden, due to the risk of landslides. Sami opposition is characterised by reticence and resignation, while media coverage of what is happening is almost non-existent.

Professor of law Mathias Åhrén describes what is happening in Sweden and Norway as “colonisation in its purest and simplest form”. A term often used in colonialist contexts is “terra nullius”, meaning a kind of no-man’s-land. This does not mean that an area is uninhabited, but rather that no one has legal residence in the area. During the colonial period, America and Australia, for example, were described as terrae nullius. Since they didn’t show the same forms of behaviour as the European settlers, indigenous peoples lost their legal and political rights. Under Swedish and Norwegian law, the Sami own the land they have traditionally occupied, but according to Professor Åhrén that law is simply not applied.


Conclusion

The unsafe zones of Chernobyl and Detroit can be viewed as zones of resistance and rejection of supposedly normal society, places of refuge where people are at liberty to pursue a different kind of freedom from that offered in more regulated communities. In contrast, the contested zone in the Sami region can be seen as a place where the freedom of the Sami is being restricted. It could be that the difficulties the Sami encounter in mobilising broader protest could be due to a general failure to recognise the colonisation of the Sami area as something that warrants opposition. As a result, the Sami perspective goes largely unnoticed and fails to engage the community as a whole, leaving the Sami fight alone for the survival of their culture. The almost invisible opposition of the Sami seems to indicate that the laws that were meant to protect them do not work. The upshot is broken dreams and a loss of hope that the ancient Sami culture will endure, a culture that is steadily being reduced to a tourist attraction for the members of so-called normal society, which has no place for alternative lifestyles.

Evaluation Committee

  • Alfredo Cramerotti, Director of Mostyn, Wales
  • Tiril Schrøder, Professor at Oslo National Academy of the Arts
  • Knut Åsdam, Artist

Supervisors

  • Anke Bangma, Curator of Photography and Contemporary Art at The National Museum of World Cultures in Amsterdam/Leiden
  • Hans Hamid Rasmussen, Professor at Oslo National Academy of the Arts

Siri Hermansen

Siri Hermansen works with film, photography and sculptural installations with a focus on adaptation and survival strategies in places undergoing profound social, political or economic change.

She recently mounted a solo exhibition at the Internationales Künstlerhaus Villa Concordia in Germany, where in 2015/2016 she was an award-winning artist in residence. In 2015, she showed work at the National Museum in Oslo, at the 14th International Seoul New Media Festival, and at the Art Stations Foundation 5050 in Poznan. In 2014, she participated in, among other events, the 19th Biennial of Sydney, “1814 Revisited – The Past is Still Present” at Eidsvoll, Norway, and the Survival Kit Festival, Umeå. Hermansen has also been an invited research fellow at the prestigious Mishkenot Sha’ananim institute of culture in Jerusalem. In 2013, she exhibited at the Benin Biennial, Careof Gallery (Milan), Proartibus Foundation (Finland), and Silverlens Gallery (Singapore).

Hermansen is a fellow in the Norwegian Artistic Research Programme at the Art and Craft department, Oslo National Academy of the Arts.

Resume - Siri Hermansen

Research results

Read the artist’s statement in the academy’s archive..