Luleå Biennial 2018
The fortresses at Rödberget, Pagla, Mjölsjö, Degerbergs and Gammeläng together constitute the expansive fortification of Boden. Here, the artist and musician Karl Sjölund has created a site-specific installation about waiting for a war that never commences.
Boden is a town, which, in every way, has emerged as an effect of the military strategies of centuries past: should a Russian attack on Sweden occur, it would be necessary to go through Boden (to avoid ending up either at the bay of Botten or lost in unruly mountain terrain), but such an attack never happened, and military-technological development would since render the speculations around which the fortifications at Boden were designed obsolete. In his work, Sjölund examines the tragic logic of war, and its phantasmagorical dimensions. With artefacts related to Swedish military history, archive material, video, sound and found objects, Sjölund has constructed a kind of theatre of things. A music piece collaged from concrete and organ-composed fragments resounds throughout the various rooms. The work is an attempt to reproduce the aspects of war that pertain to the senses; the more abstract or psychoacoustic phenomena, and the fantasies necessary to underpin the war-complex: the logic of the arms race, tinnitus in the moments after a bomb blasts, the image of the enemy.
Can you tell us about the work A sense of war and how the idea for it came about?
For the biennial I have produced an installation. The work is called A sense of war. What has been shown at the Rödberg fortress is related to another work, which will be an audio play, or some form of radio theatre. I started working on the audio play two years and a half years ago, and two years ago I went to Boden for the first time with the intention of collecting material for it. The text material that provides the foundation for the installation in the biennial will eventually be published as an audio book. And one of the reasons for this is that, in my work as a librarian, I’ve noted the dramatic increase in the popularity of audiobooks that has taken place in recent years. The vast majority of commentary about this trend tends to be very critical, and I am too, since much what is published in that format was not intended for a spoken medium. However, since I come from music and sound art, I see audiobook as an opportunity to open up a way of communicating that is often forgotten in the art world: poetry read aloud, or poetry that has been manipulated by the various tools of audio technology.
I have a lot of experience as a musician, in a certain sense, although I have not felt very comfortable writing songs or melodies and that kind of thing. What interests me more are practical, everyday sounds; the specific sounds associated with certain industries or professions, sounds particular to various trades. A friend of mine, Simon Frank from Luleå, introduced me to sound processing on the computer when I was a teenager. So the sound sculpture is something I have worked with a lot in computer environments. For the biennial, I wanted to move away form that a bit, the pre-recorded and sculpted, to instead find ways to generate sounds from and with the things that are inside the fort. And somehow arrange them harmoniously, and structure the sounds in a way.
You did not grow up in Boden, exactly, but do you have any memory of being close to that landscape and having a feeling of war?
Absolutely, I grew up between Boden and Luleå, in a small town called Sunderbyn and around the entire area and also in Luleå, although Boden is the hub of it, there are military facilities. During my upbringing I saw military convoys, and I was often in Boden because I had relatives there and everywhere in Boden the presence of the military is quite obvious. I also remember mischievous cycling trips as a teenager to the abandoned and disused forts.
What has it been your intention for visitors to the Rödberg fort to experience?
I approached the audio book with a kind of cut-up method, working from an enormous amount of source material consisting of military manuals, and instruction books from the military etc. In the same way, with the Rödberg fort, I wanted to find things there, in the structure of the building and in military life in Boden more generally – objects, stories, texts, film, etc. – and get these things to speak in a language that is not allowed by the military. Just as in all other civic institutions, in addition to the identity that projected rationally, there is a kind of subconscious in the military. Something that the military itself cannot touch without undermining its own state-supporting legitimacy. It claims to be a kind of ultimate guarantor for the maintenance of reality as we know it, but for this to work, a presentation or simulation of this reality is required. In many cases, the only thing that distinguishes the military from the paranoiac is that the paranoiac does not have the same legitimacy to keep secret the reasons why they believe they are being persecuted. With this, I want to somehow profane this sanctified function of the state; play with it, and, as they say, "bring it down to earth”.
And the work reflects military rationality?
What I have focused on is where this language, the military rationality, cracks. And I have tried to speak from the blindspots of its thoroughly rational and completely logical construction, and show how it is a language full of paradoxes and logical knots that make it compulsive in a way that is actually has very little to do with rationality. And one such a blindspot, which is included in the work as well but has a more prominent place in the audiobook, is the spy. I have investigated this figure in a simultaneously ironic and serious way; how the spy is a logical engine in the military. When a nation defends itself, it has to assume that an enemy could be in place, and from this assumption a whole apparatus of safeguarding nothing is activated. That movement has been very instrumental as have all the paradoxical events that follow it. I am not the first to think about it in that way. For instance, a book called “The Tartar Steppe” by an Italian modernist writer named Dino Buzzattia came to me during the process. It is a not particularly great novel, but after what I have said that about Boden's fortress, one might think that the book is about that. It is about an Italian soldier who spends his whole career at a desert fort, waiting for a barbarian horde rumoured to live beyond the desert to attack, but it never does. His wait becomes infinite in a way that makes you feel that time and place have completely dissolved.
You use the term “psychoacoustic”. What do you mean by that?
It’s not something I am in any way an expert in, but a psychoacoustic phenomenon is when something is heard that does not have any other origin than what is inside your own skin. Some effects such as blood movement in the body, which in some, absolutely silent, situations can actually be heard, or hallucinations, and I would also suggest that tinnitus is a psychoacoustic phenomenon. There are some parts of the work that are inspired by a horrible movie called “Come and See” from 1985 about the Nazi invasion of Belarus. The film follows a little boy who flees in panic throughout the film. The bombs and the blood and the shit and the dirt chase him like a flood. In one of the most terrible war scenes I have seen, a bomb explodes close to him, and the diegetic sounds are phased out and replaced by the boy's tinnitus, his disorientation, how he tries to collect himself, pressing against his ears in panic and pain.
How has it been to work with surroundings as particular as those of the Rödberg Fort, and in a place that also functions as a museum?
Sally Sundbom has been very important and helpful, but also the guides at the fort. They were there with me several times before working on the biennial, and have shown me the confidence to let me loose in there myself. Now I have even got my own pair of keys. In this way, it is a very generous museum, but they have no experience whatsoever of anyone engaging with and processing their collection in the way that I have done. So that's new to them – though I haven't been in their way, so they haven't noticed me so much. It feels like a bizarre and exciting collaboration, because these are two completely different worlds that collide. Everyone who works there has a background in the military and it is funny to talk to the kind of people whose entire professional life has taken place there. Even when making regular conversation about something practical or the weather, it sounds like an order. Both scary and charming. At first, I wanted to completely rebuild their exhibition, but that wasn’t allowed. But there are huge areas that are not utilised as part of the museum, which fits very well with how the work turned out in the end. I’ve found a perspective on things that relate to cracks; the invisible, inaudible and unconscious parts of war. And it is the generals’ mess hall, and their innermost chambers that constitutes the main exhibition space. And that fits in thematically.