At the door with no knocker - a performance by Madihe Gharibi for Claiming Space in Bergen, Norway.
an article written by Joachim Aagaard Friis
What is public space? It’s hard to give a definitive answer, especially in a time where social media and digitalization seems to blend increasingly with more “physical spheres”. But one thing is for sure: public space has always been contested, fought over, and debated by groups of society throughout history. In contemporary Scandinavia, the narrative of progress, democratization, welfare, and equality can easily obscure the ongoing conflicts of visibility and the need to keep fighting for the right to be seen in public space, as a minority. To be seen in this sense of the phrase is not just about a visual registration of a person on the street, but to encounter the other with respect, curiosity, and empathy. This need to be seen with reciprocity and recognition is prevalent in all human beings, but the need is not satisfied to a high degree for someone who does not feel reflected by most of the society they are a part of.
This fight to be recognized and take space as a minority is basically what the Norwegian cross-country performance program Claiming Space is all about. With performances in six cities throughout Norway – from Arendal in the south to Sápmi in the very north – the project is exploring the role of public space and its role in creating norms for how to act and appear. The project is organized by Oslo-based Fotogalleriet, and in an arts context it asks what potential the medium of performance has in challenging our understandings and ingrained beliefs of public space, how to act in it, and how to use it better.
The series of performances grew out of the “Year of Queer Culture 2022” in Norway which marked the 50th year of the legalisation of sex between men – a very late legalisation indeed. The year was marked with cultural funding for art projects specifically aimed at queer artists and art with queer themes. After the year ended, as the curators of Claiming Space Miki Gebrelul and Bassel Hatoum write, there continued to be an urgent need to create greater visibility for artists of different minorities, even though the funding did not follow into 2023. As they write, the public space is a natural arena for minority art; if the institutions do not invite these artists into their space enough, then they must claim space for themselves in the public sphere instead. Gebrelul and Bassel write:
It is an important move to try and gather more diverse minorities into one project – sexual, gender-related, indigenous, ethnic minorities and more. We need more solidarity between diverse minorities in artistic public space projects like these. By moving the artistic performances into public space, the artists try to break with expectations related to the minorities they are part of. Thereby, questions about the right to decide social norms in public space – and how politization is always at play in this process – are raised.
I participated in the second performance of Claiming Space by artist Madihe Gharibi, unfolding on one of the seven stunning hilltops of Bergen. Madihe is from Iran and moved quite recently to Norway, where she finished her master’s at the art academy in Bergen in 2021. Her practice is working in-between writing, performance, and installation, and it often takes up themes such as belonging and genealogy as well as political affects, especially connected to issues in Iran and Norway, respectively; however different they may be, or maybe because of the great differences, there is a strong and interesting tension between the ways of belonging to the two places in Gharibi’s practice.
On a beautiful and surprisingly sunny autumn afternoon, we meet on the hilltop of Mount Floyen with a view to the whole city of Bergen and the natural landscape surrounding it. Other than the enigmatic title “At the door with no knocker”, I am not quite sure what we are about to experience, nor do I have much knowledge about Madihe’s work beforehand. However, from the beginning I get the sense that the space that is sought to be claimed in this performance is mostly related to being an ethnic or cultural minority and having a feeling of not being reflected in the serenely privileged and peaceful natural surroundings that is Floyen.
We are advised by Madihe to keep quiet while she guides us to a place further into the woods. At a clearing we sit down in a circle and the artists starts a fire in the middle. While the fire is starting, we hear sounds of people in the streets through some speakers. It sounds like ingoing demonstrations, like sounds far away from the pristine forest that we are in. I don’t know how much time has passed, but at one point, Madihe raises her voice. She asks us all to write down an experience of a time where we felt helpless. I think of a very close friend who got expulsed from Denmark because he was from outside EU and his visa had expired. I felt both hopeless and helpless in that situation, without any way of being able to better the outcome for my friend. After a long while, we are asked to each read some of what we have written, in whatever language we wish. The reading goes on from person to person in the circle.
The last to speak is Madihe. She starts her story. How, when she lived in Iran, she wanted to go see her favorite football team play. But only men were allowed into the stadium, so she dressed up as a man. Finally, when it was her turn to enter, she realized that the guards were searching the people to reassure that they were not women. She was put in jail, and in a rage of the unfairness of the event, she put fire to herself. This is where I sense that the story is not about Madihe, even though she uses “I”. In the end she says that she… dies. The story is not about Madihe but about Sahar Khodayari who died of self-immolation from the violent demonstration that Madihe has just narrated. The story has a very strong effect on me when I realize that Madihe speaks through the story of another person, a victim of the misogynist and repressive system in Iran.
After this ritual, we all burn the papers with our stories and Madihe puts out the fire with water. The white smoke that is created feels like relief, a sort of catharsis in this moment of stories of different degrees of utter helplessness. The second half of the performance is a joint conversation between the participants and Madihe at another location in the city. Over hot chocolate we discuss the content of the performance and the tricky “translation” between the events in Iran and the natural beauty of the Norwegian surroundings. The difference between Norway and Iran – considering not just culture and geography, but its state of society right now – is truly substantial, and this is conveyed in the performance through being in a peaceful Norwegian forest while listening to the violent sounds and stories from the fight for a better society in Iran. There is what I would call a “tricky translation” at play between the site of the performance and its content which is productive for the overall experience and the thoughts and reflections that it creates – without offering any sort of solution except maybe for the cathartic experience of burning the writings of helplessness from Sahar and the rest of us.
This tricky translation is further emphasized when Madihe tells us that she made the same performance in Tehran a while ago, although in a more private setting due to security issues. She told us that many people were critical towards Sahar’s act of self-immolation. Instead of setting fire to herself she should have stayed and fought for change collectively with others which would have been more productive in the overall scheme of things. We had not thought of this critique at all. It seems like being closer to the political issue at hand brought other more critical and pragmatic perspectives to the discussion. Still, a person in our crowd argued, it would be reasonable to think that Sahar acted in a state of anger so great that she could not have done otherwise. In the end, the feeling of empathy and grief towards her situation also seemed right.
I am not sure, if the performance fitted my expectations for the Claiming Space-project. It was not so much about fighting to take up space for minorities in a strictly site-specific context of Bergen. But at the same time, it claimed a space of grief, helplessness, and anger from an Iranian context that is not often present in the public sphere of Norway. In this way, the performance was a ritual of visibility for local people who carry foreign roots and memories and who need to constantly find a way to translate these highly diverse geographies and make up a way of living and being in-between, in this case, Norway and Iran. The fire was an element that connected the story of Sahar with the forest experience and in a sense, it was the ritual of the fire that made the performance consistent with the complex translation between the site of the performance and its narrative and aural content. It channelled the burning anger and grief of the stories and the events in Iran to a forest on a mountaintop in western Norway.