From Iceland — Within the Belly of the beast - America vs. America

Within the Belly of the beast – America vs. America

Published May 6, 2005

Within the Belly of the beast – America vs. America

We are witnessing liberal rights being chipped away to protect us from hidden enemies. In the USA of today, many outspoken artists are experiencing for the first time since the McCarthy era that they are being censored or even threatened because of their artistic expression.

The opening night of the exhibition had some interesting things to enjoy; most notable was the performance “Mumia” by the Busted Chairs Theater Project. Mumia is a play questioning the judicial system in the USA and capital punishment through the case, trial and work of Mumia Abu-Jamal, an award-winning Pennsylvania journalist who exposed police violence against minority communities. He has been on death row since 1982, despite evidence that proves he was wrongfully convicted of the shooting of a police officer. For the last 23 years, Mumia has been locked up 23 hours a day, denied contact visits with his family, had his confidential legal mail illegally opened by prison authorities, and put into detention for writing his first of three books while in prison, Live From Death Row.

Beyond “Mumia”, the America vs. America exhibition offers different aspects of art in a political context: American political art, the documentary; “Should we save this empire?”; performances and workshops, but first and foremost; A Peace Project.

What inspired you to put this exhibition together?
Christoph Fielder: I have been politically active for the last ten years, founded the Swedish division of Adbusters and worked as a managing director for Artduty. I think the idea came out of extreme frustrations about the current situation, the war against Iraq and I needed a positive outlet for those feelings. I wanted to be part of this growing movement of activists around the world and it somehow felt like the right thing to find out more about the counter culture of the USA. The people you usually never hear about in the world media. It was also a quest to find my personal connection between art and politics.

Trygve Svensson: I went to the Norwegian Social forum as a freelance journalist, but ended up as one of the participant. I felt it was impossible to be there without being part of it. I guess I have been living in my own personal bubble for a long time where politics didn’t interest me at all. By doing this I am at least doing something to inspire other people to do something.

Do you believe that individuals can make a difference in our world?
CF: I think it is impossible not to make a difference.
You can’t be neutral on a moving train, can you? (Ref. to Howard Zinn’s second book of the same title.)

Do you think that America is free in its current political landscape?
CF & TS: No, a lot of times we got shocked because we heard so many stories about people that had been put in prison because of their artistic or political actions. The similarities between the USA and Germany in 1938 are frightening. In the book Friendly Fascism: The New Face of Power in American by Bertram Gross you pretty much get the picture of that is going on in the USA today. The scary part is that it is already an empire but the Nazi Germans never got further than fantasizing about it.
Nevertheless, we believe that it is important to have a positive focus and underneath this senseless and negative surface there are a lot of positive things happening. We will in our lifetime see some radical changes and actions. We have all these groups working towards common goals in our world, at some point we will unify in similar but more sustainable actions than simple protests. The Internet has been a great connection point already to coordinate global actions. Activist are shaping the world on levels that are often not reported at all, fair trade did for example go up by 38% last year. One of the goals of this exhibition is to gather information, to come up with new ideas and to hook people up together. We aim to gather political art from each country we travel with this show and when we will finally bring it to the USA we will showcase something from each country, including Iceland.

What is your goal with this exhibition?
CF & TS: We would like to reach people and show the Scandinavians the diversity of the grassroots movement in America. We hope to inspire people from the USA and Scandinavia to work together. The artists in the USA need all the support we can give to them.

Why did it premier in Iceland?
CF & TS: Simple reasons we always wanted to go to Iceland and we know that there is quite an active art scene but according to Eva the political art scene was very hidden and weak. We wanted to inspire artists to be political in their work and we feel optimistic that this exhibition might have got something going because most of the people attending the workshop are graphic artists.
We need art to express diversity really clearly. It is through our diversities we will survive as humankind. It is important to create a way to verbalize our thought and to raise our awareness. Art has a great role in opening up new ways of dialogue among the nations of the world.

CF: The artist Moa Salim expresses so clearly the role of art in the documentary Trygve Svensson is putting together “Should we save this empire?”
Art has the duty to communicate the uncommunicatable, as things that were allowed to be commutated expanded to everything, art almost lost its purpose. When you could talk openly about everything, why would you need art? Now we are going back to a time were there are things you can’t talk about – the era of black and white, with or against the terrorists. There are a lot of things we no longer can openly and freely discuss, which gives art another special place. These things can be perverted, manipulated and talked about. Which will allow the person to express herself without getting into trouble for that expression. So art is maybe finding a real true place in society again. There is a lot of good work to be done. It is indeed a time for celebration of the artistic expression. It has a role again.

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