This autumn, The Police Immigration Detention Centre (Politiets Utlendingsinternat) at Trandum was expanded by a new section containing 90 new beds, meaning that at any time a total of 220 people can be held at the camp. As is the case with any state-funded building project in Norway, KORO (Public Art Norway) was responsible for supplying art to the new section.
In the Social Democratic state of Norway even the least desired must be surrounded by art.
The Trandum camp is set in the remnants of a former military facility on the edge of the woods right at the far end of the runway of the Gardermoen airport outside of the capital, Oslo. Arriving by car, I get completely lost inside this huge facility and along the poorly signposted, narrow roads that lead there; a no-man’s land that befits the camp’s status on the outskirts of the rule of law.
The Trandum camp is used to “allocate” – the phrase used by the Norwegian immigration and integration authorities – people who have no legal right to stay in the country, mostly people whose application for asylum has been rejected. The vast majority of those who are detained here are due to be deported and spend less than 24 hours in the camp, but some stay for longer because their identity has not been firmly established or their return is made difficult by any range of reasons. Some have been at Trandum for more than a year.
The controversial detention camp has undergone extensive upgrades since the former military barracks were taken over by the police immigration unit in 2004, and they have been used under governments of varying political hues. But even though a standard chorus about “strict and just” immigration policies has been passed down from one government to the next, one can only view this most recent expansion of the Trandum camp as a result of the present government’s targeted, aggressive, even belligerent and zealous immigration policy. After Sylvi Listhaug from Fremskrittspartiet (libertarian/conservative-liberal) took over the post as Minister for Migration and Integration in December 2015, the rhetoric and policies have become harder, their express purpose being to scare potential asylum seekers out of coming to Norway.
Conditions at the Trandum camp have previously been so bad that the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, the Parliamentary Ombudsman in Norway and the Norwegian Bar Association (Advokatforeningen) have criticised the institution in strong terms. Towards the end of 2014 the Norwegian Labour Inspection Authority closed down the camp due to understaffing, and a few months later a riot broke out as the detainees protested against being locked in their cells for much of the day. The Trandum camp falls under the auspices of the police rather than the Norwegian Correctional Service, which means that it is not regarded as a prison under Norwegian law. This means, among other things, that there is no age limit regarding the incarceration of children because this issue is not specified in the immigration legislation. In August the Norwegian daily Aftenposten reported that at that point a total of 84 children had been detained at Tradum in 2016, and that more than 60 of these were aged 12 or younger. One of them spent 18 days there. Complaints about this practice were submitted to the European Court of Human Rights this autumn.
It is obvious to any visitor to Trandum that it is a de facto prison; nothing about this camp makes it any different from other high-security prisons. The buildings are divided into different sections that are separated by countless locked doors, security locks, rows of cells and fenced-in yards. The result is that the immigration detention centre is indirectly criminalised: it imprisons immigrants who do not have the requisite papers and asylum seekers who do not meet the ever more restrictive conditions for achieving asylum.
Of course, it is impossible to view the art that adorns the new section at Trandum without considering this situation. KORO and the highly experienced art consultant Per Hess were obviously aware of this fact, taking a very careful and tentative approach by choosing discreet, abstract works that most of all serve a decorative function. This choice was supposedly made out of respect for the detainees. I do not doubt their good intentions, but nevertheless I contend that here, KORO and Hess turn themselves into the extended arm of the government, not just organisationally, by ideologically, too.
A stylised village
An officer takes me through the security check into a small visiting room where a tapestry by Inger Johanne Rasmussen, Vandring mellom rødt og grønt (Sojourn between Red and Green) hangs on the wall. Rasmussen designs her tapestries by means of computer software, sewing them together from bits of coloured woollen textiles. The contrasting colours of these pieces of cloth forms a grid of broken diagonal and vertical lines that creates an illusion of three-dimensional cubes. Some of the cubes have doorways in them, creating the impression of viewing a stylised village from above. With its muted colours and subtle optical effects, Vandring mellom rødt og grønt is visually interesting, but hardly striking. In fact, this description could be applied to all the works featured at Trandum. In a description of the project KORO states that, “The artworks were not selected with the intention of provoking debate. The artworks are harmonious in their use of colour, and feature abstract compositions and shapes. Several of the works have the effect of making the interior spaces feel more lively, colourful and spacious.”
It seems natural to employ the rather dated concept of decoration here, given that the ambitions behind the choice of art operate at this level. Thomas Hestvold’s Naturelementer 1-4 (Elements of Nature 1–4) are ornamental figures with a rough, organic quality, painted directly onto the concrete walls of the narrow yard with broad brushstrokes, as if to lighten the mood of the space. The communal rooms located at the end of the rows of cells are decorated with paintings from Josefine Lyche’s Untitled series. She creates these works by applying several layers of coloured plaster and then sanding it down. The results are softly muted like a Monet pond or a late Jacob Weidemann painting, equally at home in a lobby as in a prison. I only get to see one of the paintings, dominated by purple, pink and yellow fields of colours. Upon close inspection I see that someone has scribbled a small doodle across the work in blue ballpoint; an almost unnoticeable, anonymous signature left by a former inmate who has presumably long since been deported to Kabul or Mogadishu.
Along the corridors that link up the different sections we find Juan Brito Varga’s murals Fragmenter fra en by (Fragments of a City) and Simultaneous Transitions. These elongated compositions bring together geometric modules and architectural fragments; some elements are instantly recognisable such as a cupola, a staircase or a factory chimney. Scattered across the walls we also find examples of so-called Platonic Solids, geometrical figures that supposedly refer to past exchanges of knowledge between the Middle East and Europe. In an interview on the KORO website Per Hess states that he has chosen works that “convey the sense that we all live on a tiny, shared planet and share a number of reference points regardless of where we are from.” This touching humanist ideal is a marked contrast to the actually function carried out by the immigration detention centre. On the website Hess and KORO repeatedly describe their approach as a “humanisation” of the setting and situation at Trandum. Does this not constitute an admission of the fact that the setting is basically inhuman?
The officer escorts me onwards to the “The Lock”, a room that regulates movement from one part of the complex to another. “The Lock” is almost entirely empty, apart from a bench, and opposite that bench is a screen showing Bjørn Melbye Gulliksen’s Tusen tilfeldige datagenererte bilder (A Thousand Random Computer-Generated Images), an LED screen featuring 999 digital slides that change every other minute. The total duration is just under 24 hours. The bench in the room shows that some people may be required to spend quite some time here. Some of the images consist of coloured geometric figures and pixelated stripes, others of rainbow-coloured broken circles reminiscent of the paintings of Ukraine avant-garde artist Sonia Delaunay. Strangely, a rectangular field of colour has been painted around the screen, using the same turquoise that is often employed at hospitals due to its supposedly soothing effect. The officer comments on the work, explaining that according to the artist the video is supposed to have a calming effect, but that he himself thinks the colours are too bright to be soothing.
The term “calming” is also used on the KORO website to describe the project. If art is expressly intended to have a calming effect it does more than simply fill out wall space: it becomes part of the prison architecture, one of its security measures. The choice of wording becomes particularly unfortunate when used about an institution that has been criticised for its extensive forcible use of tranquilisers in the past.
The question of critique
Who is the audience of the works at the Trandum camp? Obviously, it is first and foremost the detainees. However, in light of KORO’s rather more extrovert practice in recent years, one might also say that the institution’s projects are aimed at a wider public. Does this mean that the project could or should have been more critical in nature?
For individual detainees it might easily seem hypocritical if the self-same regime that locked them up also offered them political works of art that “discuss” their situation. And I realise that for an art committee appointed by a state institution, and one where the camp itself is also represented, it would not be feasible to opt for works with an activist dimension. As far as I can see, in this case the only efficient critique would be a boycott. What would happen if not a single Norwegian artist or art consultant wished to contribute to this relative normalisation and “humanisation” of Trandum?
KORO being without art consultants would not be an unprecedented state of affairs. While working on choosing a monument to the Danish-Norwegian king Christian Frederik (1786-1848) for a location outside Stortinget in 2013, the art consultants involved in the process resigned because they felt that the representatives from Stortinget were exerting pressure on the committee in order to have a figurative statue. Per Hess was among those consultants. The question is why the Trandum situation did not elicit a similar response. Is it not as disagreeable to work with a place that contravenes the fundamental principles of the rule of law as it is to accept pressure advocating an outmoded aesthetic?
“KORO must always be aware of the processes of which we are part, the boundaries that must protect artists and art, and what these boundaries mean to the field we supervise,” said Svein Bjørkås, director of KORO, to Kunstkritikk in the aftermath of the Christian Frederik case. Such general formulations are all very well and fine. But in the specific situation we are considering here – the art at the Trandum camp – it is clear that KORO does not contribute to the autonomy of art, but to its adaptation to current policies. That is what this project does to the field that KORO supervises.