Maja S.K. Ratkje interviewed by Lasse Marhaug

Maja S.K. Ratkje
Interviewed by Lasse Marhaug, April 2012
. Published in Personal Best #2, August 2012

In the last year there’s been debates and controversy about Statoil, the major Norwegian oil company, giving grants of one million kroner to Norwegian musicians. You’ve been one of the most vocal critics about Statoil’s new art agenda. What made you react?

I find it disgusting how Statoil is attempting to sneak their propaganda in on what should have been the society’s correction: the arts. Statoil is a commercial oil company and their goal is to earn money from oil. It is in their interest to mute the critics against unethical projects, like the tar sand extraction – dirty as hell – and embarrassing for Norway.

So Statoil is actively using Norwegian artists to legitimize and distract attention from their dirty business? When did they start doing this?

You can call it distraction or attempting to legitimize their behavior, but I think it’s rather about silencing potential critique. There are so many people directly or indirectly touched by Statoil’s hilariously large art prizes and sponsor support that almost no one dares to speak up anymore. This investment and massive offensive towards the arts is probably paying off much more than any other domestic reputation campaign.

How do they operate?

This started just a few years ago. Statoil wants to buy credibility in all art fields. They have a support page on Facebook, and you can find some of Norway’s finest musicians – classical as well as pop, rock and jazz – under Statoil’s program called Heroes of Tomorrow. Each artist has their own web page under Statoil and you can read about their careers and see their Facebook-posts. I am worried about these artist’s reputation abroad as these pages are in English as well. Sadly, I also think that having people like Leif Ove Andsnes – the most famous Norwegian classical musician – is demoralizing a lot of people connected to the music life in Norway. Like, how can you criticize a god like Leif Ove Andsnes? The same goes of course with pop-stars like Ingrid Olava, Ida Maria or Kvelertak. These people are role-models for a whole generation of youths. But don’t misunderstand, I want to attack Statoil’s dirty business, not the artists.

Isn’t there a clause in the contract for the artists who gets funded that they’re not able to criticize Statoil in the future?

I haven’t seen the actual contracts that the receivers have to sign, so I can’t verify that. According to Bylarm, the biggest pop/rock industry event in Norway with Statoil as main sponsor, all participating artists and bands are asked to sign a contract confirming their participation in the competition for the Statoil prize, and their willingness to collaborate on Statoil’s terms in case they should win. One of the conditions the artists have to accept is to perform at Statoil’s own events. At least several of Bylarm’s former Statoil winners have played in Statoil-related events in Caucasian dictatorships over the last years. Bylarm claims that no artist is muzzled in this relationship, but it is easy to imagine how impossible this is in reality. Artists with self-respect can’t sell their souls and at the same time go on fighting for the environment without being axed down for double standards.

A million kroner is a lot of money, and nobody can afford paying that kind of money back. They’re almost signing away their freedom of speech. If that’s not a sell out I don’t know what is. Why does artists agree to this? Norway is a country with so many other financial opportunities. Are they not aware of what Statoil is doing to the environment?

They might be aware, but when almost no one reacts, they don’t care. It is clear that they are selling their credibility to one of the world’s most aggressive oil companies, and are being used in Statoil’s marketing campaigns without limitations. Statoil supports fine arts as well.

Nobody speaks up?

The discussion climate in Norway now makes it very hard for artists questioning Statoil’s business. The consensus is that everyone knows, but almost no one speaks up because their conscience tells them that they far too stuck in the acceptance of how things are. One of the first arguments you meet when addressing the problem with Statoil and grants is that everything in Norway is already financed by the oil, so why should one care if Statoil decides to give out prizes?

Yes, I’ve heard several people use this argument. “You can’t criticize the oil money, you’re living on them.”

This is a false argument. Reading reports from Statistics Norway, only one out of seven Norwegian kroner comes from oil income. According to the leader of Innovation Norway practically all of the oil income is saved onto funds for future generations. Norwegians have too little confidence! It is common to think that we are a rich nation simply because of the oil, when it seems we would be very well off even without it. Another angle of addressing the argument is of course the huge difference between sponsor money and receiving art support from the state with no mutual relationship, based on the principle of a country with apparent politics for a rich cultural life. But again, the sums coming from traditional funding are so small compared to Statoil’s one million kroner, so I understand the artist’s need to look for excuses like this.

Yes, what Statoil is offering is a lot more. One million kroner is a substantial amount of money. For an upcoming artist’s career it could mean a lot. Do you think we’ve entered an age where the corporations are so big and integrated in our daily lives that people feel powerless and simply give up raising their voice against what is wrong?

We have reached an era with a general acceptance of “how things are” and how that is the “best for the community.” This is what we hear from our politicians every day, and this is what the most aggressive, and – believe it or not – people-owned oil industry is leaning towards. Humans have an urge to live in balance with truth and reality, and we are able to construct and adjust the premises for that in order to live and feel as good citizens. Our consensus is that we trust in our democracy, and the fact that we live in the “most successful country in the world.” We cannot live our daily lives with a bad conscience, and our leaders take that burden off our shoulders. The consensus is that we are a peace-loving, aid-giving and harmless nation with all good intentions. My impression is that the discussion on Statoil and controversial oil industry is bigger, however barely visible, among ordinary people than among artists. In the shared consensus, it seems to take a lot of effort to speak up against our shared reality, because that would be questioning the fundaments of our society – that profit is the basic, untouchable force for growth. How far are we willing to go? Norway is better equipped than all other oil counties to stop investing in tar sand and fishing territories. How can we expect other countries to take action if we, along with some dictatorships, are among the worst in the class?

When I grew up in the 80s thrash metal, punk, hardcore and rap music often had strong political awareness. Now I feel that element of politics in music has largely disappeared. Today’s artists more easily accept the evils of the world, and instead concern themselves with more personal matters.

Again, the problem is the structures that tie us together in this nation. The acceptance is so comprehensive, and the attempts to protest so limited within the system, and having seen the movements in the 70s and 80s and how they dissolved, they were even cherished and eventually swallowed by the “system”, the effort required seems just too overwhelming.

Should artists make more direct political statements? It almost seems like that completely died in the ironic tidal wave of the 90ies. Do you think the pendulum is on the way back?

I agree that the ironic era of the 90s made later straightforward political attempts sound out of fashion. But it’s way past that ironic period now, we can see that in the pretentious popular culture where the self-adulation of the ego has replaced the view on the world. So in a way, the pendulum is on its way back, but without a potent will to care for reality.

Will we see an uprising of more directly political expressions?

I think the arts eventually – even in Norway – will wake up and take a bigger place in the political landscape than it has today, but it is not necessarily through the art itself this takes place. Artists, like other people, can be interested in and active in a lot of stuff not being directly connected with their work. It would actually be a good sign if artists participate more in society apart from being representatives of their art. You also have of course artists who manage to use their art go give a real message as well, but they are few, and it is very difficult making political art which is interesting beyond being political. You can also say that popular artists have a potential audience for strong messages because they have many followers, but here we see that the trend is: more popular and well fed – less revolt. Similar to how politicians are afraid of giving unpopular messages caring for the number of voters.

It’s also a problem that any movement of anti-establishment that pops up is so easily swallowed up by the mass-media commercial industry? Like the Che Guevara-icon or hardcore punk, those aesthetics have completely lost their meaning and are now used to sell products. The only way to avoid this is to make clear statements.

Making clear statements is always more honest than trying to please everybody. Clear statements can never go out of fashion, because people are always in search for truth, and will listen to versions of it in order to “judge for themselves.” The best way to make clear statements is to face debates, be frank about your views, not harass anyone, and stick to your ideals. There’s too much talk about the weather in this country. Or TV shows. TV shows is the new weather.

I’m always surprised how passive people are in this country. Norway is a social democracy with huge potential for self-expression, yet so few pursue those possibilities. Norwegians are non-confrontational by nature. Everybody is afraid to offend someone. We’re dull.

Yes, this is an observation shared by many foreigners who come to Norway. Norwegians still have a subservient attitude, especially towards foreigners with positions. This is due to Norway being a poor country under Danish and Swedish authorities till 1905, and not being a country with nobles. Our pride was in sports and expeditions, now this also explains why arts are still not considered for “the people” in our country. The underdog mentality has definitely changed after Norway got rich, but the new pride lies in fast boats, flat screens and exotic travels, not in the vision that thought and deeper understanding can affect society and the way we respond to the rest of the world. If you as a Norwegian question if Norwegians “deserve” the wealth, it’s taken as an insult to The Consensus and it’s an unwelcomed attack on the ongoing celebration of Norway as the most successful of all nations.

This is a downside to cultural funding: artists are afraid to speak up in fear of becoming unpopular and losing their livelihood and comforts. Everybody is scratching each other’s backs. If there were no money involved perhaps they’d take more chances.

It’s interesting to observe that artists – I am here thinking about musicians – are not afraid to speak up and discuss subsidy schemes and culture politics. They are not afraid to join events supporting victims for catastrophes and not afraid to have slightly left-wing oriented opinions on most political issues, but seldom apart from the general agenda, and seldom without being asked – except for in culture political questions, whenever there’s a change in who gets more. Even musicians with a clearly commercial agenda want to be considered ‘artists’ and fight for grants. The self-elevated view the whole music life has on itself makes it difficult to discuss and see your position as a part of the whole community, and eventually the world. There is definitely something in what you aim at here, but I am not sure whether the explanation is as easy as simply placing the answer on funding alone. But one thing is for sure: financial support releases envy, and the silence of general debate is often due to a lot of suppressed envy. You also get many examples of artists being accused of envy rather than being listened to for their arguments. A very typical example here is the debate on Statoil’s Bylarm prize, where artists who question the prize are immediately accused of jealousy. That someone disagrees with the Norwegian consensus is a much harder stroke to deal with and is better avoided.

I’ve seen videos on YouTube of gigantic horns blasting out your music across a fjord. They were the size of a truck and looked liked the loudest horns in the world. What can you tell about this project? For me that seems like a potent combination of politics and art.

Thanks! Desibel, the world’s largest mobile horn speaker system, came around as a result of many ideas from many people such as Harald Fetveit, Wenche Wefring, Torkil Sandsund, Geir Hjetland, Bjørn Kolbrek, and my part of it was to make the music based on the resonant freequencies of the horn. The small village of Vevring, West Norway, is threatened by the company Nordic Mining who wants to tear to dust their beautiful village mountain Engebøfjellet, and pour the waste into the fjord, killing everything. The mining will cause 200.000.000 cubic meters of contaminated waste to be dumped every year into a valuable national salmon fjord. Only four percent of the mountain will be used in various commercial interests. The mining will go on for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for 30 years. We proclaimed that “ Desibel is a protest against ruthless exploitation of natural resources and against short time profit thinking.” The cry was heard into the fjord, kilometers away, where the decisions were being made.

What were the reactions?

The villagers loved it. We had to reschedule it to play more often than planned. It was extremely loud – 130 decibel at 10 meters – pointing out towards the fjord, echoing in the surrounding mountains.

How did you approach it on a compositional level? Did you work with certain resonant frequencies?

I was very positive to the idea of having it shaped like a horn speaker, and I started imagining what it would sound like if played by a giant brass player. I used bass trombone as the main sound source, and I have further worked with a spectrum analysis of the horns in order to build chords on the resonant frequencies, making it sound as full as possible. The chords are therefore sounding a bit folky, but I have also used a lot of distortion and added some sounds of seagulls, as an absurd, over-sized response to the mining company’s promise that the mining work will only be as loud as the seagulls.

How long did the piece play for?

The piece itself is 10 minutes long, during the art festival in Vevring, where national press was gathered and hundreds of artists were invited, it played every hour, three days, except in the night! And every half hour, it played a short ‘fanfare’ based on the same sounds. Later it has been heard and seen in the streets of Bergen – but then with lesser volume – and also some other places.

Did you get any reactions from Nordic Mining, or where they silent to your 130 decibels of protest?

The goal making this installation was to draw attention, and that we did, we were on state television news and in most big papers, we got plenty of room to speak about the case, we were even threatened with a police report for sound poisoning by a confused environmentalist in Bergen. Nordic Mining has – not surprisingly – not commented our horn at all. And the case is a sad story, not being resolved, but there is definitely hope, and it is still high up in media. Now as we speak actually where Norwegian Broadcasting is discussing the destiny of Engebøfjellet in relation to the new minister of Environment who comes from a place nearby. No idea if Desibel has gained attention to Engebøfjellet, but I know at least a few people who hadn’t heard about it before.

Do you think artists have a responsibility to speak up?

Yes. Artists must live with reality, the real reality, and not The Consensus. Otherwise you cannot be a true artist. You don’t need to be extremist in order to speak up, no need to live in a cave without electricity in order to arrest environment exploiting business. Artist mustn’t be so be afraid of being banal or inconsistent. After all, that’s why we have the arts, to give the society some new ideas.

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