Trained as an artist, Kristina Norman is active both in the field of contemporary art and documentary filmmaking. While many of her art projects are presented in the form of video installations, the site-specific and the performative are also of great importance. Some of Norman’s more recent works are dedicated to the issues of migration, focusing on the aspects of memory and public representation. Lighter Than Woman, the performance she was meant to show during Oslo Internasjonale Teaterfestival 2020 – if only it weren’t for the coronavirus – is no exception.
What does artistic freedom mean to you? Why do you think artistic freedom is important?
My constitutional right to participate in the democratic process. Me or any other person losing this liberty would signal the end of democracy.
How is artistic freedom put at risk?
At this point, I wouldn’t separate artistic freedom from other liberties which should be secured in any country that wants to think of itself as democratic. It’s quite evident that if there’s no freedom of the press or no freedom of speech, artistic freedom will be at risk, too. Of course, artists are brave and create a space of freedom by themselves even when they are not granted it by the system. Still, then the consequences might turn out to be grave for them and their rights as citizens, as humans might be under threat.
One can identify plenty of workings of trump-effect in my native Estonia, and particularly in the time of the corona crisis. Despite being a minority in the government, we currently have an extreme nationalist party setting the tone in politics. What is truly alarming is that in the state of emergency, when everyone is turning their hopeful gaze towards the government, these politicians get to speak about “soft issues” such as public health. Still, along with that, they also entrench the rhetoric of social exclusion, racism, and sexism, normalizing hate speech in the public sphere.
In the conditions of economic recession and the decrease in advertisement sales, quite some media outlets found themselves in a vulnerable position. To secure for itself some financial support from the government, one of the most prominent newspapers in Estonia called other media outlets to refrain from criticizing the government for the duration of the state of emergency and to avoid posing uncomfortable questions. While the media is voluntarily backing down from their position as the “fourth estate,” the government is attempting to push through a few laws that would expand the state power in several spheres of public life.
What are the possible actions to protect artistic freedom?
The society needs to be reminded that artistic freedom is at risk all the time, just as is any democratic freedom. Democracy is a process, and any freedom that we have cannot be taken for granted. We need every democratic institution, such as the media and the arts, to be always alert, because those in power are tempted to expand their political influence and, unlike artists, they have immense financial and administrative resources at hand in pursuing their goals.
While mainstream political power strives to suppress the uncomfortable opinions and silence down the disagreeable voices to create an illusion of public consensus, political dissensus is an essential instrument in an artist’s toolbox. To keep the current of the public debate running and the democratic processes developing, artists imagine and propose different political positions, create symbols and images which attempt and sometimes succeed to counter the powerful and highly professionally and expensively made political propaganda. No artist has similar resources as political parties do, but needs to find a way to pose critical questions about power relations, about visibility or invisibility of different social groups, about the audibility of the silenced voices.
When someone in the position of power initiates a witch-hunting campaign against an artist or an independent cultural institution that offers a platform for artists to deliver their message in front of the audience, it should not be ignored by anyone who values democracy. The power tests its limits. Every particular case creates a precedent. Today it’s a group of artists who is under attack, tomorrow it’s an independent newspaper, and the day after it’s you. Who can tell where the line between inaction and participation in the crime against democracy is?
Top photo: Meelis Muhu.