Luleå Biennial 2018
If crisis or war comes. The brochure was delivered to Sweden’s inhabitants a few weeks before I went to Storsien. It was published for the first time at the beginning of the 1940s during the on-going world war, and last time in 1961 during the cold war. Georges Didi-Huberman writes in Sentir le Grisou, a book that examines our cultural and psychic preparedness for states of emergency:
The endless cruelty of a catastrophe consists in that its impact is most often felt entirely too late, only after it has occurred. The most visible catastrophes – the most obvious, studied and most widely known – those spontaneously referred to in order to describe what a catastrophe is, it is such catastrophes that were, the catastrophes of the past, those that others, before us, could not or would not have predicted, those that others failed to prevent. We recognise them all the more readily, since we are not, or are not any longer, guilty of them today.
The internment camp at Storsien does not belong to the most studied or wellknown sites of the catastrophes of which they were part. Although described, for instance, in The Storsien Labour Company by Gunnar Kieri and Ivar Sundström as well as in Storsien: 100 years in a Norrbotten town by Anne Christine Liinanki, few know about it when I tell them where I am going. Not only that there were labour camps in Sweden during the world war, much less where they were located.
First, in Storsien, there was a winter camp, and then a summer camp. Its name sounds almost as if meant for children, a kind of school holiday retreat. It certainly wasn’t, this sudden displacement of people, a naming and breaking down of resistance. The accounts that exist of and by people who ended up in the camps are all characterised by surprise, both then and over time, as to why it happened. In Our Unknown Story 4 it says:
During the war, in the village of Storsien, 350 Swedes were interned - in a Swedish concentration camp. They had been enlisted in accordance with the military conscription act. But they were not given any weapons. Only shovels. And even though they had not committed any crimes, they were considered traitors.
Before I go, I try to read what’s available to understand the site I am visiting, but since the camp is no longer there I am mostly afraid of the beauty. It’s going to be so beautiful and think about how dangerous beauty can be. That it can be so easy to be forgiving towards it. Or to be unable to repeat its lies, the hope that beauty is good, that I will stand there and think. how can something so horrific happen somewhere so pretty?
I make a note:
It is the place that informs history. It is history that informs politics. It is politics that informs memory. It is memory that informs forgetting. It is forgetting that informs us that there are so many layers of soil and of life to go through. Feelings move slowly through life. Thoughts just as much vertically as horizontally. We orient ourselves by the cardinal directions. A friend once said that orientation was what taught her most about life and I didn’t understand. I never found the place from which to start.
On the way from Luleå Airport to Storsien I drive by the Lule river and think about how twenty percent of Sweden’s electricity production comes from the river alone. I grew up at the Umeå river. It was perhaps this river that occasioned my novel You travel north to die. A novel that serves as a reminder of how money is distributed in Sweden in relation to where our natural resources are found. And I wonder what kind of significance the North carries as a space:
What was is about this space in particular that made it require special attention? Furthest away in Sweden is Treriksröset. The northern border of Egypt is a coastline towards the Mediterranean. The north of the Mediterranean descends along the east coast of Spain. Northern Canada stretches almost to the Northpole and makes up part of the Arctic. The Arctic Ocean is the world’s most northern sea, it encompasses so much that it is also considered a kind of Mediterranean, a sea in between two things. But had the cardinal directions not existed, had we oriented ourselves according to a different set of coordinates, then these places had been carriers of something else.
One answer to my own question could be that special attention is required because what happened is not visible, as Didi-Hiberman also writes in Sentir le Grisou, because certain catastrophes are hidden by other more obvious catastrophes, which, “given their historical context, take up the entire field of vision.” But when I’m in Storsien, all catastrophes seem remote, perhaps because upon arriving I’ve already suffered its beauty. How the trees stand so close to the road as if, at any moment, they might take a slow walk to the other side. The coppice of young birch trees, their trunks like white Mikado sticks. The sudden opening clears the view to the water and I stop the car when I see that immediately before it someone, perhaps because of the rain, is burning down a house and the flames reflect intensely red-yellow on the light grey sky. Then a pasture with horses. Large wild brown forrest horse. A foal with a black mane and a tail that snorts.
In descriptions of how it was to arrive at the camp it is said that there wasn’t a lot there, mostly some scattered cabins. Now there are some scattered houses, but I don’t see any people. Presumably the reason is this mad rainfall. From a notice board I understand that it would have been better for me to arrive two days ago when the town council had its annual meeting. I cannot say that it is quiet in Storsien as I walk around, it is the sounds of the rain against the houses and the bark that does not seem to disturb the birds, the gravel under my shoes. But there is an intense opening in my ear and I listen for something, although I don’t know what. After a while, three stanzas from Inger Christensen come to mind:
Sometimes I arrive / in a place where I know / I have never been / in my whole life // But still I remember / as if it were yesterday / that it was precisely here / it happened that and that // It is like walking in / to an old painting / where in the background there’s always / a series of things happening
In the background: The grey houses have so many years between their beams, disused white Volvo whose headlights look out over the field. Two football goals set up on a grass lawn. The history of the labour camp. A dog barking, then ignoring me, walks away. We both know I am a stranger who will not be staying long.
In the beginning of the book On Beauty and Being Just, Elaine Scarry writes:
Wittgenstein says that when the eye sees something beautiful, the hand wants to draw it. Beauty brings copies of itself into being. It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people.
As such, I also leave leave with the desire to write the Storsien-beauty just as much as the history of the camp. I drive back along the E4 and arrive at Luleå’s city hotel in the late afternoon. This is where the attack against Flamman was planned by a committee of six men, which counted chief of police Ebbe Hallberg. This is not visible either, in the lobby nor in the mute corridors. These places are linked by more than geography. One way to describe the beauty of nature is to transfer it to the human condition. In my hotel room, I cut out fragments of descriptions from Storsien: 100 years in a Norrbotten town by Anne-Christine Liinanki:
After dad died he became a deep frozen stream of sorrow / Mum aged and looked like a grey and rugged glove / The catastrophe was a fact and Aslak cried when he saw the reindeer washed away / The anger inside of her is cold as a deep frozen stream / It smells good, it is as if the thunder scrubbed Storsien with soap / To come back to life is like when the spring melts the ice on the Kalix river. First some little cracks, a movement, and then a roar of the water, caught under the ice / The snow for everything and everyone, even the sounds / The cold light of the November sun shines like a judgmental preacher over him / The town is like a discrete hole in the roof of the forest / The moonlight reveals it at the end of the road where farms lay scattered here and there / Gentlemen, traitors to your country, you have arrived in the town of Storsien!
It also says:
Nature is not frustrated. Nature does not mourn.
These will be my defining statements. For what does sorrow look like when what happened is no longer visible? When it barely seemed to be while it went on? To search through this nature that does not mourn, to search through this place. I forgot to write that you find it by the Korpik stream in the Kalix municipality. And that it was communists, syndicalists, and pacifists that were interned there between 1939 and 1940. They were considered to represent a danger to national security should Sweden make Finland’s cause its own, and go to war against the Soviet Union. Again from Sentir le Grisou by Didi-Huberman:
The year, 1940, a year that was especially dangerous for him, Benjamin once again claims that the task of history is not so much to return to what has past, to calmly account for it, or revere it, no, the important thing is it remember the past, precisely because of its ability to suddenly reemerge during a state of emergency (…)
While we stand amidst this continuous beauty, it asks us questions: which catastrophe is it, we are not yet seeing? We take part in so many affairs, but does one conceal the other? Which catastrophe is it that I am not preempting? And of what do I make myself guilty when I leave the places that I leave? Ought I buy tinned foods, as it says in the brochure, batteries for the radio. There are no instructions as to how we should remember, if we should gather our photos in a stack with a red ribbon, or how we should write our poems about Storsien. But it says that we should reflect on whether the information that reaches us is new or old, and why it does so at this particular moment.