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Dissecting Oppression: The Evocative Work of Leander Djønne

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In partnership with 18th Street Arts Center, an artists' residency program that provokes public dialogue through contemporary art-making.

Oslo, Norway-based artist Leander Djønne is a sculptor, performer, writer, and filmmaker who is interested in socio-economic power struggles and the transformations that occur in industrial cities when they are affected by economic change. Both poetic and documentary in their approach, his projects are potent and evocative. While in Los Angeles as a visiting artist in residence at 18th Street Arts Center, Djønne will be working on a new film featuring the City of Trona in Southwestern Death Valley alongside several European cities. Djønne has shown his work extensively in Europe and co-runs the artist collective and exhibition space Dortmund Bodega in Oslo.

Across the various media that you employ in your work (sculpture, performance, writing, and filmmaking) what is a common interest or sensibility?

There is a common interest within all of my work -- contemplations upon the human condition in relation to structures of power, historically and within contemporary society -- the relationship between the oppressed and the oppressor. Poetry, film and literature are great sources of inspiration and a big part of my way of working. I am working at the intersection between action and passion, between perception and sensation, between concepts and their physical manifestations. This plays out in my work via endurance-based performance and by involving physical labor centrally in my projects.

The theme of dystopia comes up in various ways in your projects - for example your reconstruction of a Danish/Norwegian slave ship on the grounds of a castle. Can you tell us a bit about this project?

In the project Live and Let Die; sovereignties or territorial organization, 2010 at The Swedish Institute in Paris, I investigated the concept of necrocapitalism, a notion developed by Subhabrata Bobby Banerjee. He defines necrocapitalism as contemporary forms of organizational accumulation that involve the dispossession and subjugation of life to the power of death. More specifically, how different forms of power -- institutional, material, and discursive -- operate in the political economy (and the violence and dispossession that result). My installation was a reconstruction of the carcass or shipwreck of a Dano-Norwegian slave trade frigate, the Fredensborg from 1768, found near the east coast of Norway in 1974. The ship is made from pieces of old, used wood found in the suburbs of Paris. Most of the wood was found in areas where the impoverished Romani people used to live. In 2009, more than 10,000 Romani people were sent back to Romania and Bulgaria as part of a huge deportation program run by the French authorities during Sarkozy's presidency.

The deportation of the Romani people, as well as the slavery industry itself, represents forms of organizational accumulation that involve dispossession and death and could therefore be described as necrocapitalist practices. By building the installation, or remaking this slave ship in the form of a shipwreck, I wanted to build a monument in great reverence to those who suffered almost unthinkable violence, terror, and death through the process of slavery. I also did a performance as part of the work, as a monument to all the horrors mentioned above that have always been, and remain, central to the making of global capitalism. The performance was quite violent, and so closely related to the context of this piece while also seeking possibilities of resistance. I was flogged for an extended period of time while fighting against 'the colonial slave owner' (played by the Norwegian artist Steinar Haga Kristensen). The performance was accompanied by a live Beethoven piano concerto heard through the institute's windows, and look place at the opening of the exhibition.

Conversely there is a utopic quality to the theory and practice workshop projects, ('The Parallel Action') that you lead in the woods and in various unconventional sites in Norway with groups of artists. What is most interesting to you about this work?

Parallel Action is a good example as well is Dortmund Bodega, an artist-run project space I have been involved with in Oslo for four years now together with Sjur Kolstad, Lar Erik Ones and Lars Christian Sigmarr Steffens.

It began in 2006 as an experimental educational platform for young art students. Today it is an artist collective and an independent university. We have executed many projects and conduct a summer school every year.

A couple of years ago, we conducted a summer school session in the woods of Stange outside Hamar, which is near Oslo. Our workshops focused on themes such as lost civilizations and continents, vanished landscapes, forgotten languages, prehistoric architecture and various strategies for re-imagining social structures. A weekend seminar was conducted on top of pavilions built six to eight meters up in the trees as part of the series.

One could say that Parallel Action is always in flux with itself in regards to its investigations. It is a platform for experimental artistic exploration and development of poetry, theory and practical devices that can be of immediate use within a continuous expanding framework. Parallel Action is engaged in a form of social practice that works with a variety of different elements, constantly oscillating between the known and the unknown. As Derrida points out in writing and difference: "Form fascinates when one no longer has the force to understand force from within itself."

Our investigation into different forms of cognitive labor, whether it is thinking as a group, producing experiences, sensations, emotional responses or contemplations -- as a whole -- are all part of a poetic process.

Although the selves of the participants manifest the distance between people, it is the work that brings them together. The distance between someone's home and where they are together, between the city and countryside, between the ocean and the land, between the forest floor and the treetops. The air that surrounds everything, the wind that moves the trees, the trees that surrounds the bodies, the bodies surrounding other bodies...

What I find interesting and extremely valuable with this kind of work is its continuous uncertainty. It is the feeling of solidarity and togetherness, the construction of ideas and the production of work and labor that stand out as a unifying force.

It is interesting what happens when we gather together different people with different personalities, the learned and unlearned, the skilled and the unskilled, the young and the old. It is about being there, there in another zone, another border area, to think together, to be together, this togetherness, this sensation of escaping while still being a part of something, an indefinable sensation of being together.

Where do you see yourself on the spectrum of 'socially engaged' and more aesthetically invested artwork?

There is a huge difference between working alone and working together. The one doesn't exclude the other. It is important for me to have personal time for research, reading and writing, and to develop aesthetics that deal more directly with form, movement and time.

On the other hand I do not clearly draw a strong borderline between those two practices. They are very interconnected.

Can you talk about the film project that you are here to develop?

I am working on a film with the working title Symbols of Denial.

The film focuses on cities and landscapes that are in different forms of economic, psychological and physical transformation. Themes running through these landscapes include an industrial presence, neglected or abandoned towns and cities, pollution, desolation, municipal disagreement, economic growth or depression, and depopulation.

Parts of the film were shot both in Kiruna, Sweden and some locations in Norway.

The central district of Kiruna is going to be emptied of people who will be relocated to counter mining related subsidence (the ground is literally caving in under the neighborhoods because of excessive mining). It's a really strange scenario that is taking place there now.

Overall, the film will focus on geological eruptions and shifts in architectural landscapes. During my stay here in L.A. I will film Trona in San Bernardino County, Death Valley, California City and some strange locations in Arizona. Next year I am going to film in Nikel, Russia.

What kinds of situations inspire your work?

There are so many sources of inspiration, - it is hard to point something out in particular. But right now I am reading some really inspiring poetry by the great Vietnamese poet Nguen Chi Thien. It is really significant. He spent most of his time in prison as a political dissident against the communist regime. Without access to pen or paper, he composed and memorized hundreds of poems in prison. He had a really difficult life filled with injustice. Until his death on October 2nd this year, he lived in little Saigon in Orange County, California. I find his resilience inspiring.

What do you hope to get out of your time at 18th Street Arts Center and in LA?

It is a privilege being here. I am given the time to do research and work on my writing and parts of my film. I have also met great people here. I would like to thank Office of Contemporary Art in Oslo and 18th Street Arts Center for providing this great opportunity.

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