This is not art critique. It is rather an account of glimpses of encounters in art, taking place in the city of Oslo during a week in October 2018.
I have come to Intercultural Museum (IKM) in Grønland, Oslo, to experience Stranger Within, a broad-reach project by the dancer and choreographer Mia Habib and the sound artist and performer Jassem Hindi, long time collaborators under the name We Insist (with Rani Nair). For two years, the two artists travelled in a motorhome through the North of Norway, where they visited the cities of Tromsø, Alta, Kautokeino, Storekorsnes, Kirkenes, Storskog and Tana Bru. In those places, they performed in private homes, asking for a meal or a coffee in exchange.
The project is a wide co-production between TrAP- Transcultural Art Productions, Black Box Teater, IKM/Oslo Museum, Teaterhuset Avantgarden, BIT Teatergarasjen and Mia Habib Productions. It encompasses a main dance performance by Habib and Hindi with the aesthetic elements they showed in the several homes they visited, a documentary movie portraying the trip, and several guest collaborations born from encounters on the road, by the performer Sina Seifee, the rapper Nils Rune Utsi, the performance duo Laterna (Inger-Reidun Olsen and Marianne Skjeldal) the author Siri Broch Johansen, the visual artist Kirsten Opstad, the performer Helle Siljeholm and the photographer Ingun Alette Mæhlum. In total, about ten events took place in Oslo from 11 to 20 October 2018. Stranger Within heads thereafter to Oktoberdans in Bergen and SITE in Stockholm.
On the first evening, we are invited to a screening of the documentary movie, the premiere show of the main performance and a dinner. Sitting by the corner of a long table beautifully decorated with unusual objects, in the room beside the exhibition space at the museum, I cannot ignore the view that dominates my mind’s eye: the moving reflection of a series of shining, indefinable surfaces in a dark room, like a road without beginning or end. During the evening, my mind keeps going back to random images of Habib’s choreography Gjallarhorn, created for the company Carte Blanche in 2016, where the dancers moved in darkness wearing costumes made of a shining black fabric. The setting erased the contours of the bodies, turning them into moving flashes of blinking light.
The screening is followed by the performance by Habib and Hindi. The setting is a installation made of objects collected during the duo’s tour, spread on the wooden floor of the exhibition room. There are books, photographs, maps, drawings, masks, reindeer's horns, stones. The same sort of material used to decorate the table in the contiguous room. The lighting is usual and the sounds give associations to unknown, maybe hostile, maybe abandoned, atmospheres. Sounds from nature, distorted voices, sounds from machines, voices becoming more clear, speaking of life and death. I see a dystopia, a kind of post apocalyptic world where only fragments of what used to be the Norwegian Northern coast remain to help the survivors retell their own history.
The two performers are dressed in winter attire, and wear full-face masks made of cotton fabric and leather. I ask myself: Where are the bodies? What are those bodies? You cannot see differences in elements of identity or ethnicity, such as skin or hair color. The gender of the performers becomes indefinable as well. There are no established truths, just existing and searching. They seem to look for something on the ground, trying and collecting pieces (of themselves? Their past? Their places of belonging?).
Who is the Stranger Within? Are they the visitor who invites herself to your house to perform weird movements on your floor? Are they the observer who is warmly invited in, but fights fellowship? Are they that person holding a high position in society, who chooses to serve food at her community’s events?
The way the objects, the room and the performers are available to the spectator before and after the performance erases the lines that separate layers in the event. Unlike most objects exhibited at museums, the installation at IKM can be touched, moved, changed. The artists are there not only as artists, but as complex subjects, in connection with their environment beyond the institutional context.
Poetry is not a luxury, Audre Lorde wrote. Perhaps the Stranger Within are mind-bodies who challenge the lies our Western art institutions are built upon, and that make us believe that poetry is a luxury: the aura of unattainability surrounding the figure of the artist, the space relations between the work of art and its beholder, and the very notion of work of art, beyond performance’s nature as both material and immaterial phenomenon.
Through its wide range of events, the project explores several ways in which artistic presence can be manifested, traveling not only within physical territories, but also in time. The events that bring the works from the road into the art institution do not feel like a show at the arrival station, but rather invite the spectator to embark in a multidimensional moving vessel.
On the last day at IKM, I arrive early to the finissage, a potluck where the community is invited to bring a dish and mingle throughout the first hours of the evening. To my luck, I end up attending the last Stranger Within performance by Habib and Hindi in Oslo for now, a closed outreach event for a group of migrants newly arrived in Norway. During the dinner, Sina Seifee spontaneously gifts us with his impressions of the project.
Not unlike the flashes of light in Gjallarhorn, the art experience in Stranger Within is created from pieces that appear, move, disappear and reappear somewhere else, maybe in different forms. Though I do not feel like coming home in the geographic sense, it does warm my heart to experience true belonging within a sense of locality in transit.
Stranger Within: Yaniv Cohen
Gjallarhorn: Helge Hansen/Carte Blanche