A famous photograph shows the French poet, Dadaist – and later Surrealist – Benjamin Péret standing in the street in his bathing suit, shouting insults at a passing Catholic priest. Originally published in La Révolution surréaliste in 1926 with the caption “Notre collaborateur Benjamin Péret injuriant un prêtre” (our colleague Benjamin Péret insults a priest), the grainy black and white photograph has entered art history as an iconic image of the artist as a caustic critic of authority and provocative figure. Governed rather more by Surrealism’s disdain of the establishment in general and the church in particular than by any didactic mission, Péret’s performance is far removed from the KORO-funded, educational art project that has been crowding the Facebook newsfeed during the last two years under the heading Kongolandsbyen (The Congo Village). On 31 October 2011 a press conference at Oslo National Academy of the Arts entitled “Stiller ut 80 negere, igjen” (“Exhibiting 80 Negroes, Again”) saw the two artists Lars Cuzner and Mohamed Fadlabi launching, to vociferous protests from anti-racist activists in the audience, their plans to stage a re-enactment, “correct down to the last detail”, of the Congo Village that formed part of the 1914 jubilee exhibition celebrating the Norwegian constitution.
Despite the obvious differences, the mode of address used in European Attraction Limited (which was also the name of the company behind the construction of the original Congo Village) is not entirely alien to that of Péret. The comments left on Facebook whenever the project links to media coverage are often somewhat sarcastic or chastising in nature. The video sorry from Dakar, posted on YouTube in January this year, also offers a very tangible example of the arrogance affected by Cuzner and Fadlabi. They will discontinue the project, they say, their mouths crammed with French fries as they speak into the camera on the table in front of them. The resistance against their project has made them realise the error of their ways. The irony is palpable. Unsurprisingly, the interlude is refuted shortly afterwards when Fadlabi posts the following comment on Facebook: “Ok, didn’t think this would be necessary, but the video I posted was sarcastic. Of course there will be a village! Don’t worry dear friends, the project is still the same…”
In addition to this we have the harsh exchanges with the Norwegian anti-racist scene; these reached their peak when Fadlabi was a guest on the humorous current affairs show Trygdekontoret on the NRK TV network in March. Here, too, the main bone of contention was the plan to exhibit African persons, and Fadlabi’s “wait and see” response is quite symptomatic for the project. In retrospect it is easy to see that at this point a re-enactment in the traditional sense of the term was decidedly not going to take place. Indeed, KORO has subsequently stated that they would never have funded the project if it had involved exhibiting Africans. Nevertheless, it was essential in order to secure media coverage that there were reasons to assume that this was the case. Unlike other artistic re-enactments of historic events it was not, then, the physical transportation of the event into the present day – and the methodological and representational challenges associated with such a re-creation – that was emphasised in European Attraction Limited. Rather, the work has very much been about the discussions raging in media right up until the opening in Frognerparken on 15 May. The proposal for a re-enactment was simply a deliberate provocation – a game toying with the scandalous aspects of restaging a human menagerie.
At the official opening Cuzner and Fadlabi made evasive and rhetorical answers to questions confronting them with the fact that the straw huts in Frognerparken are not inhabited. Who ever said that the village would be peopled by Africans? They indicate that the inhabitants – who have been recruited through an open invitation that makes no mention of skin colour – are free to use the village as they wish, but no specific tasks or duties have been imposed on them, and the artists do not know when or if anyone will turn up. (The implicit consequence being that they might be among us right now; the divide between us and them has been suspended.) Even though the project was, when it was first announced in 2011, at a preliminary stage where it was not yet decided whether it would be realised at all, or in which format, the controversy surrounding the project was always fuelled by the claim that people – African people – would be put on display. This is not something that the media came up with themselves, but is based on statements made by the artists – statements that neither KORO nor Fadlabi and Cuzner have been eager to correct, at least only at the very last stage of the project.
With the conference at Oslo Militære Samfund in February of 2013, where Fadlabi and Cuzner had invited a group of academics and curators from Norway and abroad to consider the questions raised by the project, it seemed as if the Congo Village would culminate in what Erlend Hammer called, with some resignation, “an exercise in hypothetical ethics” in an article in the newspaper Dagbladet. While it is true that the Congo Village was ultimately reconstructed, it is difficult, when confronted with the fourteen uninhabited straw huts now found in Frognerparken, to regard it as anything other than a slightly bland end to it all – a photogenic set piece against which the official conclusion can be played out. This is not to say that the project has failed entirely when considering the intentions behind it – but if the object of criticism is the Norwegian “goodness regime”, is it not a problem to have the Norwegian state fund the project, and to have the project be part of the celebrations of the anniversary of the Norwegian constitution? In the spirit of self-effacement (goodness) we use the 200th anniversary of our own constitution to scrutinise our racist past as part of the official celebrations.
Being commissioned by state authorities, the project’s didactic intentions can easily be read as a part of the ethos of the “goodness regime”. Rather than chastising a nation that has repressed its own past, Fadlabi and Cuzner act as henchmen for staging Norway as a nation that addresses and marks a break with its racist past, a nation which, in all its humility, is critical of any portrayal of itself as thoroughly and entirely good. We, too, have sinned. The visible resistance against the project has been offered by anti-racist or pro-racist scenes and organisations, and there have been no attempts at censorship from official authorities. At the same time a Facebook update from Cuzner from 14 May, posted the day before the official opening, states that the Belgian ambassador visited the Congo Village in Frognerparken several times, desperately trying to get them to take down the Belgian flag they had raised (Congo being a Belgian colony in 1914).
Perhaps it should be said that some of the other intentions behind the project have not resulted in paradoxical dual-sided communication the way its critique of the regime of goodness did. A problematic incident from the past, unknown to many Norwegian citizens, has been brought to light, but the extent to which this event has in fact been repressed is debatable. For example, the newspaper Aftenposten printed an extensive article about the Congo Village in connection with the 100th anniversary of the dissolution of the union between Norway and Sweden in 2005. Cuzner and Fadlabi shore up their accusations about Norway conveniently forgetting its racist past with empirical data they have gathered themselves (“pretty much no one we talked to had ever heard about it”). Thus, their claim rests on rather flimsy foundations and may seem to serve an overall rhetoric objective of making a reconstruction of the Congo Village appear to be a moral imperative rather than simply as something opportune.
Whether and how the 2014 Congo Village says something about racism today is a difficult issue. The process-oriented, media-based format of the work means that every article that addresses the questions raised by the project can be attributed to the project’s impact on the ongoing discussion of racism. Measured purely in terms of column inches the Congo Village can certainly be said to have been very successful as a catalyst for generating attention. However, the price you pay for massive media attention is frequently a one-sided focus on the sensational aspects; one that serves to make the conflicts even more firmly entrenched. In purely practical terms, only very little has been done to communicate and disseminate the information the artists believe is necessary in today’s discussions of racism, apart from some vague references to “structural racism” – even though a few journalists and commentators have willingly helped promote such discussions. It is true that the exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue, and the project website (www.europeanattractionlimited.com) offers a range of interviews and articles collected in recent years, both of which compensate somewhat for the superficial and conflict-oriented media coverage of the project. But as yet, these perspectives are still only obscure footnotes to the heated controversy prompted by the proposal about exhibiting Africans in 2014. This may to some extent be attributed to the tabloid agendas of the press, but up until now Cuzner and Fadlabi have, by playing the part of agents provocateurs, been perfectly willing to sacrifice precision for conflict. The result is that European Attraction Limited struggles with an obvious imbalance between its high-visibility profile and actual content.