Luleå Biennial 2018
The artists Agneta Andersson, Britta Marakatt-Labba and Lena Ylipää are three out of eight members of Koncentrat. Koncentrat was formed just over ten years ago as a collective that members, together or individually, can rely on to work on artistic projects, process culture-political questions, or collaborate with others in various activities.
You come from Malmfälten, Sápmi and Tornedalen, respectively. What is it like to work as artists so far from the cultural and artistic infrastructures that have developed in many cities?
Lena Ylipää: My focus is on what I have around me. On geography and time, the people in my vicinity and what they do. My cultural background is the basis of my investigations and their outcome, and I use different methods for building content and form. In my process, I appreciate conversation and collaboration, and often work with Anita Ylipää.
After studying at Konstfack, I moved to Lainio, 110 kilometres outside Kiruna, and since a few years I also live in Boden. That I have been able to work close to my place of birth has been very important, both for me personally, and for my work as an artist. To be so far from the centre of the art scene was considered problematic when I moved back to Lainio in the mid-nineties. That there actually is a lot of interesting art activities going on in the northern part of Sweden and the Barents region was not recognised then in the same way as it is today. The question of the centre and so-called periphery has become a hot topic, which is both interesting and pleasantly surprising.
Britta Marakatt-Labba: Since the very beginning, I have embroidered scenes that testify to the everyday life in Sápmi, our mythology, and significant political events. I was born into a family of reindeer hunters who moved between Sweden and Norway. Oral storytelling has always been central and as children we were encouraged to experiment and work creatively. The pictures I make come out of this cultural background. My hope has always been that the audience will become curious and ask questions, and that the stories I tell can deter prejudices against Sami people as a group.
Because I have travelled and exhibited extensively, larger art institutions have begun to find me. I live in Övre Soppero in the Kiruna municipality, and have no big problems working with art where I am. But it has to be said that it hasn’t always been a walk in the park. A diligent work ethic and great faith in what I am doing have been necessary to get me to where I am today. Through lectures and workshops, more and more people have also begun to recognise embroidery as an art form.
Agneta Andersson: In my most recent work, I have returned to large-scale coal drawings. Contrasts in black and white have become very important in expressing the sadness and frustration that I and many others feel, faced with what is happening in our city. The motifs are taken from Kiruna, where I grew up and since returned to after going to art school. Being an artist is not easy, and being an artist in Norrbotten is especially difficult. Nowadays, I live and work in Luleå, and can consider Kiruna with a bit more distance.
Between my art practice, money-job and love, much of my life has been about facilitating participation and visibility for art in my community. At various places in large and small venues, art has been shown and appreciated by all ages. Public education has been and continues to be an important part of my thinking in terms of the role art can play in our individual as well as societal development. I have great hopes for Kiruna's new institution The Art Museum of the North – Norrbotten County Museum. My dream is that art will have a more prominent role in Norrbotten’s society. Art moves us and reflects our lives. It has a creative and positive power.
Your respective practices are all strongly connected to the landscape, nature and the places around you. Many of these sites transform continuously due to the long ongoing mining and exploitation of the land. How do you experience these changes?
The sites in Malmfälten are small and they are there for the sake of one industry in particular: the mining industry. Many of the smaller places struggle with dwindling populations and a harsh distribution of tax funds. Conservative attitudes in the public sector make for a narrow consideration of what is worthy of support and investment. Other ideas about what society requires to facilitate a good and full life are not given much space to develop. Even when the establishment expresses willingness to think outside the box, that too is based on traditional thinking. In spite of growing desire to develop a wider business sector around tourism and culture, production and heavy industry are continuously prioritised. When the company profits, the city profits. People have jobs and can buy a stimulating time off outside the city. When investments are made in the field of culture, or, for that matter, in urban planning, they do not utilise the knowledge and experience of local artists. Outside of acting as jurors for scholarships and exhibitions, there is a need for broader participatory structure, where our voices may also be heard.
As the mining industry and the demand for minerals grow, the land is further exploited. It is unsafe to live in a society where financial profits in the short-term trump people's need for clean nature and recreational areas, as well as the fields of employment that require space for animal welfare. Few people consider that our incredible nature, which represents hard currency, should be protected for the future and for future generations. What are we leaving for them? But this insecurity spawns thoughts that are useful to an artistic practice. A practice that concerns what goes on in Malmfälten. What does the future look like? Will there be housing and work? Perspectives from Malmfälten and the northern part of Tornedalen can contribute particular challenges, lots of ideas and important questions about how we treat our nature, what needs we have as humans, and what a possible future might look like.
You mentioned that smaller towns in the area suffer from decreasing populations. What is your view on the fact that cultural workers often move or choose not to return after their education?
It is never good when cultural workers leave. Who can conduct a factual discussion, and ensure a nuanced and critical discourse, if the only ones left are people who think in economic terms? Society loses its spark. There is no opposition left. The artists ask other questions and see things from different perspectives. The Kiruna municipality has not been good at taking care of the artists who left for education, and since came back to settle in the city. After a while, the few who had decided to stay end up moving anyway. We have noticed a tendency for those who return after education to be mostly women.
Thanks both to the culture-political efforts of artists, and major changes in the distribution of state resources to regional culture, the appreciation of art and artistic practice has increased in Norrbotten. In Kiruna specifically, awareness has heightened significantly in the wake of the city’s relocation process. Through the application of the 1% rule, several large public design projects will be commissioned, and together with the Norrbotten region, a regional art institute will open in the new town hall. The possibility of building this institution has been discussed for many years. It is through the rigorous and consistent efforts of artists that this regional art hub will finally be realised.
The hope is that this institution will encourage artists to work in Kiruna for shorter or longer periods of time. However, additional municipal support for the artists who want to settle and work in the city is necessary in order to reverse the trend. Any city needs a kind of "critical mass", a number of professional artists, to create an interesting environment to work in. People are afraid of this. Artists bring critical thinking, questioning and progressive or alternative ideas. For that reason, it would be great for people who recently trained in the artistic fields to become involved in the projects that will make Kiruna and its residents congregate around its relocation and future development.
What are your thoughts on how Kiruna as a city has handled (and marketed) its relocation and transformation? For us, it is clear that the evacuation of Malmberget has not been packaged and treated in the same way. What do you think the reason for this difference is?
There were strong and interesting voices that have made Kiruna’s tranformation fit for media coverage, and disseminated the story to a wider public. That these types of projects are so difficult to predict the effects of does not help. How do you communicate a future that you cannot see? It is sad to note that the process in the two places has been described so differently, and that Malmberget has fallen into the shadow of Kiruna in the media. In Malmberget, the change is so noticeable, so visible. Perhaps too brutal to be used in a marketing campaign.
In the media, Kiruna has often been described as an exemplary city. How do you feel about this idea? And allowing yourselves to speculate, do you think the new city can improve relations between the people living there?
Urban transformation processes are based on concepts like “The City of the Future", or the "Model City” that is "Unique" and “New”. This fosters great knowledge, will and courage. But a city and its government does doesn’t become functional only by changing its clothes, its surface or its slogan – old antagonists and bad habits will not go away. A Model City must constantly innovate its pattern, colours and behaviours to deserve that name, otherwise there will be no real changes. Right now we don’t know how the future will be, but it is up to us citizens to exercise our influence and act reasonably. When political groups get a taste for power, conflicts often arise.
The issue of housing is a very important issue for Kiruna. If you want a well-functioning society, everyone must have somewhere to live. If housing is lacking, neither the population nor the tax revenue increases. Where should those who decide to stay live? Low-income housing is also necessary, since not everyone gets a fat pay-check or have two incomes to support a family. Kiruna has always been a multicultural city and there is lots to learn from how the population has been integrated over the course of the city’s short history. We have to be alert to the possibility of the many changes sparking division between people. What is the value of being a resident in Kiruna? Is it to have a good enough salary that you can buy a new snowmobile, and take a camper van up to the mountain? How do we create the conditions for a valuable day-to-day life in the city?
Finally, could you tell us about Koncentrat, and how you as a group have worked to influence local cultural policy?
In a small community, questions are often attached to people rather than to your professional role as an artist. That makes it difficult for individual artists to pursue artistic or cultural policy issues. The security and the relief that Koncentrat provides is, at least partly, the reason why we have even been able to, and wanted to, be active as artists here at all, especially considering that artists tend to be alone in their work. It has been very important to be part of a group that really is this part of the region. That not only represents, but is Malmfälten, Sápmi and Tornedalen.
We use our skills in many different ways as we we engage with the local and national art scenes. Eventually, we hope to be a self-evident part of how Malmfälten develops, despite the fact that several of our members choose to work elsewhere. Koncentrat resonates far beyond the borders of this municipality, and our colleagues around the country have really managed to put Malmfälten on the map – that alone is a great achievement. Our willingness to provide more opportunities to encounter and experience art, even in our own neighbourhoods, is important for our collective thinking. That positivity has really strengthened our creativity and endurance.