Art gets better in the face of opposition

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What happens when you yourself are turned upside down?

Bergmund Waal Skaslien - Ole Hamre

Photo: Thor Brødreskift / Bergen International Festival
When violist Bergmund Waal Skaslien’s world turned upside down at a Bergen shopping center, he discovered that you could make completely new sounds.

Bergen, Norway

When Louis Armstrong sang “What a Wonderful World” in 1967, it wasn’t only the words themselves, but just as much the backdrop of ugliness that made them so strong: the racism and suppression that Armstrong and other African Americans had been subjected to stood in resistance to the words about a beautiful world.

The presence of opposition and friction is important for all art. The power of problems was something the filmmaker Lars von Trier and his Danish colleagues latched onto when they created the concept of the dogma film.

They restricted themselves from using artificial light, adding music, or using a tripod for their camera. They put numerous restrictions on themselves that actually made it impossible to make films—and in this way, they made films.

The cultivation of opposition is something quite singular for art. If it’s not difficult, it won’t be any good. If you don’t have problems, you have to create some. What’s good in spite of something will always trump something that’s good because of something.

Seen this way, the catastrophe we are experiencing these days could provide sustenance to art, and art could nourish our collective creativity and activate our focus on possibilities.

That was also the line of thought when Thea Hjelmeland and I decided to breathe life into the festival concept “OiOi,” which was the Bergen International Festival’s outdoor program for four years, from 2006 to 2009.

Art experiences in the public sphere can work in spite of the restrictions in place because of the coronavirus. What possibilities are revealed when the world is turned upside down?

When the culture of hugs of the past is replaced with “the 6-foot distance dance,” we can get started with the absurd collective choreography and create the dance performance “Folk Movement” in the city’s grocery stores.

When the balcony is the only place where we can turn to the public, it’s only natural that the actors will find themselves there. When you want to reach thousands of people with live sound without infecting someone with something, a hymn from the rooftops surrounding Bergen’s city lake is the answer.

And what happens when you yourself are turned on your head? You voice sounds different; your instrument sounds different. And when all your blood runs to your head, you may get a lot of ideas. What do I know? Why is this focus on possibility so important?

There are many factors beyond our control creating the reality we’re living in. But what we can control is our focus. If we focus on obstacles, we’ll be stuck in place. If we focus on possibilities, we’ll move forward. That’s what happened when the music from the epic series “Vikings” filled King Håkon’s Hall—completely without any audience.

When Bergmund Waal Skaslien was hanging upside down at the Xihibition Shopping Center playing the viola, he discovered, in addition to that the prices of sales merchandise had changed, that he was able to create completely new sounds with his instrument when he had to put pressure on the bow instead of resting it on the strings.

When Thea Hjelmeland dangled down over Bergen’s harbor, creating almost insurmountable vocal technique problems for herself, she discovered that the experience itself gave her voice a power that cut through all resistance. Something that created beauty, not because of it, but despite it.

And not in the least: that it was the difficulties that gave life to the words in the song she sang in the way that they gave life to Louis Armstrong’s original version, when he put the focus on what we need the most when things are most difficult: “What a Wonderful World.”

Ole Hamre is a drummer and composer based in Bergen, Norway. In 2006, he organized the OiOi Festival, an outdoor program during the Bergen International Festival. OiOi stands for experience, empathy, attention, and insight, and its motto is “Distinctive and popular.” The festival’s main goal is to get more people to feel like a natural part of the Bergen International Festival. Hamre is also the initiator and artistic director of the multiethnic children and youth project Fargespill.

This editorial first appeared in the newspaper Bergens Tidende on May 30, 2020.

Translated by Lori Ann Reinhall.

The opinions expressed by opinion writers featured in “On the Edge” are not necessarily those of The Norwegian American, and our publication of those views is not an endorsement of them. Comments, suggestions, and complaints about the opinions expressed by the paper’s editorials should be directed to the editor.

This article originally appeared in the June 12, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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