Urban riots sparked by police violence is a new field of research. Emblematic is of course the 1992 Los Angeles riots, provoked by the assault on Rodney King and the acquittal of the perpetrators in spite of overwhelming videotaped evidence. This seems to happen increasingly often now. Researchers have compared the riot in Husby outside Stockholm in 2013, which is the starting point for Natascha Sadr Haghighian’s exhibition Fuel to the Fire at Tensta Konsthall, to what happened in France 2005 and in England 2011. In Sweden, 2009 was a significant year of riots in Rosengård (Malmö), Tensta (Stockholm), Gottsunda (Uppsala) and Biskopsgården, Angered and Backa in Göteborg. They all appear to follow the same pattern: the dismantling of the welfare state, the introduction of social policies that in Sweden are called ”arbetslinjen” (low-wage jobs and cut allowances for the poor, exaggerated bonuses and tax exemptions for the rich), neoliberal urbanism as well as rising racism and increased police presence. It is in the areas most affected by these policies that more or less violent police actions provoke revolt. Thus far the research presented in the exhibition. This far-reaching phenomenon is what the exhibition is really about, more than a just few days in Husby.
The exhibition does two things in relation to the phenomenon of riots: it adds a new element and interprets the spatial aspect. Added is the notion that it is not the police violence as such which causes the riot, but an image that reveals both the excessive force and how the perpetrators go free from (public) scrutiny in mainstream media. Husby is a good example of precisely this. Five days passed between the incident where a task force shot a 69 year old man in the head and the time when the riot broke out. Why? During those days a peaceful manifestation against police violence was held. This is quite understandable since the shooting seemed uncalled for, despite that it had been known that the man killed was in possession of a knife. The lawyer who appealed to reconsider the decision to close the preliminary investigation, wrote in her appeal: “Normally a police report regarding a knife threat, where one could easily have consulted police records to find that the offender had no prior convictions, would have led the man to be called for questioning at a later time – and not to be executed in his home.”
The exhibition makes the important point that not even an obvious case of brutally excessive police force was enough to provoke the riot. Instead, the effective cause turned out to be the publication of an image, five days later, which revealed that police had lied about the incident to the media. The image shows the police carrying the dead man’s body from his home several hours after they had told the media that the man had been brought, gravely injured, to a hospital. The neighbours waited until late at night to take the picture – they knew that no one would believe them otherwise. Only then, when proof that the police were lying had been published and the oppression was undeniable, did the riot break out.
In the exhibition, there are several red fleece blankets similar to the one that covers the Husby victim on that crucial image. Screenprinted in white on the blankets are other images, which have played an equally crucial part in other riots. For someone familiar to the art world it is easily forgotten that images actually mean something, that they affect other things than carreers and speculation. Yet here they are, the riot-provoking images, hanging from metal rods that connote temporary situations such as a camp or a demonstration.
Now we get to the second aspect, the spatial interpretation. The images from different riots form a shared space that, besides the blankets, includes toppled outdoor heaters that in this case are connoted by being a feature of Swedish outdoor serving areas. There lies a picture of the old man who was killed, taken when he’s standing on his balcony with a knife in his hand, as does a poster for the movie «macheteman» and images of police officers from the task force in their grotesquely militarized gear. A balcony is placed on the floor so that from one angle it looks like a barricade, and from another like a stretcher. The room feels desolate, the lighting is bright. These are riots without bodies, but something is in the air. Instead of reconstructing Husby, the room is a place in common for multiple riots: Clichy-Sous-Bois, Hackney, Husby, Watts – they are all the same place, and it is here.
The events in Husby are nevertheless crucial to this exhibition. Why? Because the individual event makes it possible to observe the entire phenomenon from within. We can assume that the exhibition does not seek to find external causes, since it is part of Tensta Konsthall’s larger project, The Eros Effect. The name is taken from a text by sociologist George Katsiaficas where “the eros effect” stands for a perspective that avoids explaining political events in reference to their external factors, but primarily finds them in relation to something humanly intrinsic, a loving drive for freedom with an occasionally violent expression. The rationality of riots is explained by this drive, not by social policies or any general response to circumstances. According to Katsiaficas this shared inside turns the different places of revolt into one and the same. If the exhibition is in search of a truth, it is the truth about this place, not the historical truth about Husby in 2013.
The truth about Husby becomes crucial, however, as a means of obtaining the atmosphere (or tension) that causes the freedom drive to break out. Haghighian has worked with it in two different ways. Firstly, this is a very emotionally effective exhibition. I went to see it not knowing any more about Husby than what I remembered from news about the riots. But in the enjambment that I mentioned earlier, from barricade to stretcher, there is a sudden poetical force that breaks one’s distanced desire for right and wrong. The heart which is printed on that very blanket causes me to think about what Walter Benjamin called a “culture of the heart”: a non-violent discourse regarding relations to things. Perhaps it is coarse to think about distributive policies in this context, yet it may not be completely off target. Is it the victim of a broken down social policy that is being carried away here? In the bright light between blankets and outdoor heaters I can hear sound leaking out from earphones placed on the floor. Oddly enough this brings me to tears. The people are gone, yet the customers of streaming services remain, I think. It turns out to be the sound of heartbeat and riot, perhaps precisely what I otherwise can’t hear because I’m wearing earphones. In any case the installation provoked an immense affection toward everyone who are not there. It must have been a taste of the altruistic, anonymous love that Katsiaficas calls the “eros effect”.
When I later study the exhibition’s documents about Husby and the events there, the sudden love is brought into relief and filtered through local accounts, meanwhile offering the right perspective for reading testemonies about living there. It is appropriate that in a moment of love for humanity one reads about the state’s withdrawal from a place, about how unscrupulous landlords affect people’s lives, about how local associations are pushed out by the commercialization of public spaces, about how welfare institutions move away and are replaced by an immense increase in police presence and subsequent harassment, racism and ethnic profiling. It feels different when one has seen the exhibition. And perhaps it is in the very moment when one actually sympathizes with humanity that one should encounter a photograph of the emblem of the police task force, printed on newspaper and placed on one of the heaters. Dog handlers have a dog on their emblem, the coast guard an anchor and the task force: a laurel wreath around a winged sword. This symbol of violence fully affects the visitor to the exhibition. And perhaps in that very condition one becomes truly receptive to the debates about the riots in the Swedish parliament noting that not a single party even mentions police violence or racism. Instead they all discuss stone-throwing youths. What the exhibition really does is sensitize the visitor to how people and their lives are constantly marginalized in favour of simpler questions. And how little interest the public has in understanding riot.