EŦNICITY INC. And the saami people

“By turning names into things we create false models of reality. By endowing nations, societies or cultures with the qualities of internally homogenous and externally distinctive and bounded objects, we create a model of the word as a global pool hall in which the entities spin off each other like so many hard and round billiard balls.”

Eric Wolf from Europe and the People Without History

The sculpture EŦNICITY INC.  (or ethnicity incorporated) is an eclectic piece designed to question the impact of the very notion of ethnicity. It attempts to recontextualise the concept itself and its material impact on the conditions of the living. Indeed, ethnicity as a concept has served as a tool for externally categorizing and arranging people in the present and the past, within evolutionary, ethnocentric, colonialist and racist frameworks. It also serves as a political weapon, both giving weight to nationalist rhetoric but also serving as a defensive legal tool for indigenous minorities’ rights to self-determination and protection of land; although, as we will see later, it too often fails to protect these very people, their ecosystems or resources.

At first glance, the sculpture is a bust: the canonically “western” format for representing a human individual endowed with some form of authority or power, it is almost always a political artifact. Here though, instead of a classical bust, the sculpture is an anthropomorphized spoon: the Saami spoon; recognizable by its short handle, pear shaped bowl, the hoops and rings on its sides and the decorative carvings. The saami spoon, both in archeology and in contemporary material culture, has been an effigy for saami “ethnicity”. Indeed, the saami people in the history of archeology have constantly been conceptualized as the “other”, they are seen as “ethnic” while the majority group of the Swedes are regarded as “non-ethnic”. They are the norm, the civilization, whereas the saami became a people without history, an ethnographic object, static and unchangeable. Where the saami spoon has become this intemporal effigy or artifact of saami ethnicity, its origins point in fact to diverse origins. Moreover, the evolution of the spoon is intertwined with other histories, inner socio-cultural struggles of the saami people and its place in a wider economic frame of markets.

The sculpture is designed to be observed from top to bottom. Indeed, the pseudo-realist portrait is the first thing that calls our attention. The portrait is a phantasm of the Saami “ethnic” physionomy; it materializes the inherent racism of associating physical traits to a kind of ethnic “geist” or essence. Its eyes are closed, becoming only a screen devoid of any inherent meaning. The meaning does not come from within but is projected onto it by the gaze of the one looking. Going further down along the handle or neck, we only see a decorative piece of furnture, the true meaning of the sculpture lies further down still in the bowl of the spoon, the part that is designed to bring the sustenance. The concavity of the bowl is placed in lieue of the convexity of the belly. In this sort of cave, we can then see engravings of pictogramms that reveal the true story at play.

The story is one of people devided by arbitrary borders, but also ecosystems cut-off by roads, pipelines, traintracks, etc. The people are alone and, in the center, you find the sea and an offshore deepwater drilling station. This one specifically is the Snohvit platform, a particular point of contention between the interests of big oil industry capitalists and the indigenous populations who also depend on the resources of the sea to maintain their mode of living. On each side of the platform is inscribed C. 169 – a reference to the Convention 169 of the Organization of the United Nations – concerning the rights of native and tribal people in independent countries. One of the articles states that governments need to take measures in cooperation with these people to protect and preserve the environment that they inhabit.

In the end, this artifact serves as a direct criticism of  the commodification of culture and identity in the framework of neoliberal capitalism. It materializes the hypocrisy of paying lip service to alterity and “ethnic tokenism” so long as it can be consumed in one way or another and so long as their liberties do not infringe on the interests of capital. This last part is emphasized by the presence of the title of the sculpture engraved in its back like the brand of an item of clothing, it is incorporated. It is quite literaly just paying lip service to the actual living culture, turning it into a brand : the saami Ŧ (th), itself already a product of acculturation, the saami culture not having originally had an alphabetical system of writing. To finish with a quote from Denise Ferreira Da Silva:

“On the one hand, there are those governed by interior motives and capable of self-determination and, on the other, those prone to exterior affectability. As a result, those “affectable subjects” are destined to be governed by a force external to them, be it the sovereign God of Christ, sovereign reason of enlightnement or the sovereign Nation State of modern geopolitical order, they are always situated in the waiting room for the exercise of freedom.”

Resources :

People, material culture and environment in the north. Proceedings of the 22nd Nordic Archaeological Conference-GUMMERUS KIRJAPAINO (2006)

Toward a global Idea of Race. Denise Ferreira Da Silva (2007)

The Climate of History, Four Theses. Dipesh Chakrabarthy (2009)

Emerging from shelves

The largest part of the research has been done… collecting all the different study circle programs from all the years that the Nordic Summer University has been active. Seventy years of data, in Swedish, Norwegian and Danish. Only since 2013 were all the (titles) of the study circles in English. This month Sara Wengström helped me to translate all the study circle programs into English, so over the next months I can start analysing and write up my findings, to present at the Summer Session 2020 in Norway. 

Nicole des Bouvrie, Dec 2019

Visual Impressions

Luisa:


The following is a selection of the visual impressions I took from our October 2019 visit to the NSU archive housed in the Danish National archives in Copenhagen.

mural before entering the archives

The earliest materials found were from the planing of the first NSU summer session 1951 at Askov Højskole in Denmark.

Myna in the archives Oct. 25, 2019
1956 NSU cultural commission
1957 piano concert
NSU (1980’s)
Per in the archive Oct. 25, 2019
A Year in NSU – 1982
1982 critical Fascism researcher
1982, Il lavoro Fascista
1982
1984 “A New Europe”
Skinheads 1984
NSU Summer Session 1984
Feminisme, Marxisme
Marx Against Marx
it is
Daddy and the NSU
tension=behavior
mother father girl boy
NSU almost always near water (1980’s)
Norden
The specific character of the oppression of women under capitalism
Women should do it all!
NSU kids (1980’s)
Euroopa-Eesti
Myna, Camilla and Olga (Per and Luisa) Copenhagen meeting Oct. 26, 2019

On Being (A Keynote)

lightweight luggage – #2

One of our artist-researchers finding #TracesofNorth in NSU’s past!

Wanting to be a keynote… Not wanting to be a keynote.
Wanting to say wise things… But feeling unable to.

Stephanie Hanna (@zu.thun_und.lassen) asks How can thoughts help to transition our state of being?

From October 2019 until July 2020, a new episode or part of the ongoing series will appear, as a collective and audio-visualized thinking process.

Sweet Water Rights

“I guess I’m trying to subjectify the world, because look where objectifying it has gotten us.”

  • Ursula K Le Guin

What happens when we start experiencing the world as a living subject? Through centuries, we have fostered a belief system stating the opposite, an idea that came with Christianity where the world was given to us humans as something to satisfy our needs with, ours to control. With the development of modern science, the world turned into a machine where the mechanistic worldview pulled the veil off of nature, wanting to expose her secrets to man. 

This mechanistic worldview has then turned forests into tree plantations, water streams to sewers, wildlife to cattle and mountains to mines. It has driven our culture to the brim of a environmental collapse on a global scale, a disruption of the conditions we need in order to live. Earlier this year the IPBES report came out, telling us that we are facing a tremendous loss of biodiversity with one million species threatened by extinction. While we are busy transforming nature to useless things we hardly need on the expense of countless ecosystems, we are losing the living world right before our eyes. It is a collapse with a magnitude hard to grasp. 

How can this even be possible?

Around the world, a movement that is asking this same question is gaining momentum: the movement for rights of nature where countries, states and cities are granting legal personhood to ecosystems. As people have, for decades, tried to understand how to protect their natural surroundings and finding the frustrating realisations that the old way of going about simply does not work. Trying to defend the living world, the ecosystems, has proven to be very difficult through the legal system. Something is fundamentally wrong within the system itself.

Lake Vättern’s splendour

“We need not only to talk about the environmental harm that is being done, we need to talk about the legal harm”

This is from Mari Margil, from the Community Environment Legal Defence Fund, when she visited Sweden in May 2019. She was invited to speak in a strategic meeting regarding the Swedish Lake Vättern. Margil has been a long time champion in the field of rights of nature, with merits such as being one of the advisors for the Ecuadorian government when rights of nature was written into the country’s constitution in 2008, the first in the world. She was also one of the writers behind the Universal Declaration of Rights of Mother Earth, written in the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and Rights of Mother Earth in Cochabamba Bolivia in 2010. According to Margil, in order to get to the root cause of the problem of the environmental crisis we are facing today, we need to see that the system itself is at fault. The legal system itself is not about defending nature, it is about regulating the harm done to it. If we ought to not harm nature, we need acknowledge the inherent rights it has to exist in the first place. 

In the system we live in today, nature is viewed upon solely as a property that belongs to us. Rights of nature is, on the contrary, a great shift of mentality in our relationship to nature, wherein nature is rather acknowledged as a living entity with its own inherent rights, and something we can have relationship with. There is a world of difference between these two perspectives. 

The above mentioned Lake Vättern has, in recent years, received attention due to it being subject to many threats. As the largest sweet water source in Sweden, a country known for its strict environmental policies, it is a ghastly realization to see how the body of water is treated today. This lake, providing drinking water to hundreds of thousands of people daily and a home for countless species, is being shot at by the Swedish military, which releases large amounts of toxins and violently disturbs the ecosystem.  In Norra Kärr, north of Gränna, the canadian company Tasman Metals is planning a day pit mine, just few kilometers from the lake that all likely would leak toxic waste water into the lake.

This has led to growing protest around the lake, with locals closest affected raising their voices and trying to protect the lake. And it has not been easy, or as easy as one thinks it should be when it comes to protecting something as fundamental as a source of water. The example with lake Vättern has led the rights of nature network in Sweden to take interest in it, as it exemplifies how a system is at fault when a lake of that importance does not have legal standing. The network has during 2019 addressed the rights of lake Vättern by writing the Lake Vättern Bill of Rights where the declaration was the basis for a tribunal during the Earth Rights Conference in Sigtuna May 2019. 

With the project Jagjord Jagvatten, we are trying to get close to the idea of carrying this movement that is growing both internationally, and in Sweden particularly. Just this year, one of the key people in the Swedish rights of nature movement and of those who we have interviewed, Pella Thiel, was granted the prestigious price of Årets Miljöhjälte, the Environmental Hero of the Year, by WWF for her work with the matter. With the work, we aim at exploring the different levels of the idea itself, what it means in terms of activism, law, art, philosophy and politics. What does it mean when we live in a culture, or at least try to approach it, where the world is a living subject? Where does it take us? 


Jagjord Jagvatten is a project run by Arci Pasanen and Phil Jamieson and the name of the project is a tribute to the Maori people, who after more than 100 years got the government in New Zealand to recognize the inherent rights of the Whanganui river. They have saying that goes “Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au” translating to “I am the river, the river is me”.

Follow them on Instagram at @TracingtheSpirit and @jagjord_jagvatten

Feminist thought and the NSU: processual approaches

In the preface to the 1974 edition of Kvindesituation & kvindebevægelse under kapitalismen (GMT), the editors clearly communicate their thinking as a still unfinished, processual experience. Although this focus is not without influence from the Marxist rhetoric and historiography that structure their discussion, it still reflects an intellectual practice that is not yet established, one that is continually and carefully searching and checking whether the ice will hold its next step:

«Bearbeidelsen af vore erfaringer går gennem forsøget på at forstå hvordan vi selv og andre kvinder er placeret i det kapitalistiske samfunds samlede sammenhæng, hvad disse placeringer indebærer, hvilke muligheder for indsigt i den samlede sammenhæng, de giver – og hvilke indsigter, der er nødvendige for at komme videre i retning af målet: et samfund uden systematisk indbygget undertrykkelse af kvinder og (indeholdt heri) af mennesker i det hele taget.
[…]
Det er afgørende at spørgsmålene stilles rigtigt, og de fleste af artiklerne befinder sig i den fase, hvor netop dette er problemet. For de allerfleste af bogens forfattere er arbeide i stil med disse artikler en slags ‘anden fase’ – eller snarere: overgangsfase efter en ‘første fase’ hvor den umiddelbare bevidstgørelse om vores egen situation var den altdominerende. I denne ‘første fase’ – der forløb over atskillige år – skærpede vi gennem snak i kvindebevægelsens sludregrupper, bo- og arbejdsfællesskaber, aktioner osv. vores sanser for den undertrykkelse, vi blev udsat for, for hvordan den havde præget os, og – snævert forbundet hermed – hvordan vi selv var med til at viderebringe og fastholde dens former. Den ‘overgangsfase’ som denne bog repræsenterer for os, er først og fremmest karakteristisk ved forsøgene på at nå bagom de sammenhænge, som vi umiddelbart kan opleve og forholde os til, – til at få dem – og dermed os selv – placeret i den rette samfundsmæssige sammenhæng; for at vi skal få mulighed for ikke bare at slå fra os, men også ramme rigtigt når vi slår.» (p. 5-6)

This temporary approach is also reflected in the allegedly large differences between the 1973 and 1974 versions of the publications. When outlining its own history, the preface of the latter states:

«Til trods for eventuelle ‘skovture’ afspejler bogen her en ret så kraftig teoretisk udvikling på kort tid.
Den er en revision af en tidligere artikelsamling: ‘Kvindeundertrykkelsens specifikke karakter under kapitalismen’, udgivet af Nordisk Sommeruniversitet i januar 1973, og revisionen afspejler denne udvikling: ikke ret mange af artiklerne er gengangere fra den tidligere artikelsamling. ‘Kvindeundertrykkelsens specifikke karakter under kapitalismen’ var det første produkt af det samarbejde mellom kvinder fra kvindebevægelserne i alle de nordiske lande, som startede på NSUs sommersession i Finland 1971. Året efter blev det en studiekreds om kvindeproblemer i NSU-regi, indledt med et seminar i Tilsvildeleje, Danmark, hvortil teoretisk interesserede og -arbejdende kvinder fra de nordiske landes kvindebevægelser blev sammenkaldt. Oplæggene til seminaret blev samlet i ‘Kvindeundertrykkelsens specifikke… osv.’, men de 1500 expl. som artikelsamlingen blev trykt i var udsolgt i løpet af 1/2 år. NSUs skriftseries redaktion gav os da i opgave at lave ny revideret udgave, men i løbet af arbejdet med revisionen måtte vi konstatere, at det allermeste av det, vi dengang havde tænkt, i mellemtiden var blevet udviklet til helt andre problemstillinger, selv om der faktisk kun er gået 1-1 1/2 år.» (ibid. s. 8)

The young feminist movements in Scandinavia share their processual approach with NSU as an institution. The parts of NSU’s archive that I got access to, did not contain many complete texts whatsoever. The material was dominated by a multitude of temporary and preliminary records: schedules, drafts, notes, newspaper cuttings, informal notes or minutes from lectures or discussions. This probably reflects NSU as an environment for developing new  ideas, a description that in my own experience is still valid and valuable. 

At the same time, it fascinates me how the strong processual consciousness and attention of the women behind the above publication initially produced a book whose 1500 copies sold out, and which, in a revised edition, advanced to a larger publishing house, a second edition and a more extensive distribution, proved by the fact that it is still available through secondhand bookshops.

By Hild Borchgrevink, 01 October 2019. More info at https://futureechoes.hildborchgrevink.no