Primarily working in the former mining region of Bergslagen in Sweden, The non existent Center is a collaborative, self-organising group of 10-15 multi-disciplinary artists, who came together in 2011 to begin to shape a sustainable approach to contemporary art that focuses on collective research and lived process rather than making products. The group has three artistic directors, each with an area of focus: founders Carl-Oscar and Eric Sjörgren (respectively responsible for management and sound), and Karin Linderoth (art direction). A complementary group of 11 artists, also including the Sjörgren brothers and called Non Existent Resources, owns the Ställberg mining village buildings that act as the group’s base. Most of its funding is received in the form of public subsidy, from the Swedish Arts Council, through the region, and through the municipality.
Mission: long-term social art practice
The 10-15 people who form The non existent Center come from many backgrounds – music, theatre, dance, art, carpentry, journalism, poetry, psychology, and more – and, says co-founder and group leader Carl-Oscar Sjörgren, each has their own reason for joining the collective. What binds them is that: “we didn’t really believe in the way culture was produced and presented, and who was involved in these processes of knowledge”. He and his brother Eric (both of whom worked in the arts, as a theatre director and composer/musician respectively) had grown up in a small mining village and returned to that area to search for a new context in which to think about social disparity, and the role of art in creating or challenging it. “We were interested in what kind of possibilities would arise if we started working together, not focusing on making art, but more talking about the key ethical questions in our lives, and for society. We are trying to find new tools and a new way to understand a critical public art, and to understand our conditions, both locally and globally. And we wanted to give that time and set our own structures around it.” By time, Sjörgren means decades: “We’re trying to promise to work here until 2070. We don’t know if we’re going to live so long ourselves, but that’s also about trying to understand a way of living and working that isn’t project-based: trying to view life in another way, and question why we feel the way we feel.”
“We were interested in what kind of possibilities would arise if we started working together, not focusing on making art, but more talking about the key ethical questions in our lives, and for society.”
The mission “is something that we’re negotiating all the time”, but at its essence it articulates a commitment to “strong political questions”. Ljusnarsberg, where the group has settled, is “the poorest municipality in Sweden: it was a huge mining area, and really built up the welfare state in Sweden, especially after the Second World War – but then the forces of global capitalism came through, the iron price fell dramatically, and this area didn’t stand a chance”. In addition to wanting to “understand the conditions here”, the group acknowledges that the area has always been off the map of the contemporary art scene, leading them to ask: “How can a place, a site, be relevant today? What is a relevant art centre doing today?”
Already “a combination of professionals from different fields working together”, The non existent Center wants to work as far outside its own “bubble” as possible, inviting and involving “people who live in this area”. The local population has swollen dramatically during the present “crisis of war”: “About 1,000 people are seeking asylum in this municipality of 5,000 people – the most per capita in Sweden. That has been a huge pressure, and one consequence is that 36% of people in the village we are working in and the neighbouring villages are voting for the extreme right party. So we also want to discuss why this is happening here, and how we can understand it.”
“36% of people in the village we are working in and the neighbouring villages are voting for the extreme right party. So we also want to discuss why this is happening here, and how we can understand it.”
An observation of Ställberg Mine
At present the group splits its time between city and country: in winter it shares a theatre and gallery in Gothenburg, and in summer is based at Ställberg Mine, where Sjörgren and the other two artistic directors work almost full-time. Collectively owned by an overlapping sister group, Non Existent Resources, the holdings comprise “around 10 hectares of the land, and maybe 5,000m² of buildings, so workshops, machinery halls, towers, office buildings. We needed to buy it to be autonomous: all the people who own it also work there artistically in different ways.”
For its pilot project in autumn 2012, An Observation of the Ställberg Mine, the group brought “a lot of different artists – musicians, dancers, writers, poets, film-makers, and chefs – to this place that had been more or less abandoned for 35 years, and invited them to react to the site. We also invited all the former mineworkers we could find, for a dinner with their families and friends, but also to talk about the place.”
Since 2013 the group has used this as the venue for a series of international residencies involving some 40 artists, and three interdisciplinary festivals. The first two festivals, Sjörgren argues, were “too much an island for culture. People were coming to this special and dramatic place from the cultural world in bigger cities, but we didn’t feel that we could really have a process with the people we were starting to know and collaborate with, in the village or in small organisations in the municipality.”
A past and future place
That self-criticism led to the trilogy 2070: a two-year cycle of conversations, relationship-building and place-making activities. On the one hand: “We opened a cafe next door to the biggest supermarket in the municipality, and invited people there to talk about what is important for them in their life here, how they look upon the history of this place, and how they think about the future.” And on the other, the group recognised the “need to go out more, to different organisations: the language group for refugees, the knitting group with elderly women, the church choir, the factories, trying different ways to connect with people, to see where it might lead us”.
Gradually these conversations became the basis for The Complete Story about Ljusnarberg’s Municipality and the Rest of the World: a four-hour piece of documentary theatre, including the bus ride from surrounding cities to the mine, plus dinner. Rather than actors, the performance involved “10 people from around the municipality who were our main storytellers”, ranging in age and background from a teenager growing up with a Tanzanian mother and Swedish father, to a 93-year-old former mine worker. Key to this work was a group of refugees – the first to invite The non-existent group into its community – who were employed in multiple ways: as set-builders, chefs, translators, and storytellers in the performance. This became a reciprocal relationship, with the group “helping them in different ways with the bureaucracy of the situation they were in, and in learning Swedish”.
The final part of the trilogy was an exhibition documenting the process and performance, exhibited initially in Ställberg, and later taken on tour. And the relationships formed are ongoing: for instance, the teenage storyteller in the performance is now developing residencies for young people in the area, with the same “interdisciplinary method that she learned from us”.
Thinking about the market vs thinking about being
Rather than offer any answers, the 2070 trilogy has raised more questions for Sjörgren. “How can this place be a resource for more people around us? It doesn’t need to be art that is produced here: it’s also just a social place where you feel you belong and can be creative. That’s a lot about the format: what does a cultural centre do, how do we invite people in, and can they own it as well? And if we don’t want to compromise on artistic quality, can we be subversive and still open?”
“It doesn’t need to be art that is produced here: it’s also just a social place where you feel you belong and can be creative.”
His feeling is that, to date, The non existent Center has continued to work in a product-based mode: “We have these shows and exhibitions and who is it actually for? Is it necessary to do all these products? Often I think it’s because the format of funding is articulated in that kind of production format: but how can we think together, and create resources and time for that? We want to build relationships, because otherwise it feels that we’re just making products: that’s the conflict between thinking about the market and thinking about just being.”
A set of ethical challenges
It’s Sjörgren’s deep belief that, even in the autonomous circumstances already created in Ställberg, it isn’t yet possible to make art there “in the best ethical way”. For one thing, the economics of the situation are stacked against them. “We struggle with the funding system: we can have it for the culture activities, but it’s harder to get money to transform the buildings and the site.” For another, there is “no infrastructure in this depopulated area: there are no hotels, no restaurants, it’s very far to the closest grocery store. We need to build up an all-inclusive art centre, with restaurant, hostels, services, a very large amount of practical stuff – and it can be hard for politicians and people who are working in the municipality to see what the good of it is, or why they should give it money, when this is an old industrial area that has not really had culture of this kind. We need to educate upwards a lot, and define a language as to why this is important.”
Although the group working together is big, this is still “too much to do” for many of them – especially as they are combining their rural activities with “working in the big cities: all the people in the group have other jobs”. And the size of the group can be a problem in other ways. “It is hard to organise 11 people’s passion and will in life. Even if it’s very similar, it could also be very different. That’s a thing we’re working a lot with, because how do we run it? Who has what power, and what responsibility? What actually is the aim – and can we see it together?”
Increasingly Sjörgren is looking at different models outside of the art world, in “people’s education, and workers’ organisations, different kinds of study circles”, for inspiration. Speaking not for the collective but for himself, he hopes to move The non existent Center towards being “a school as well, where we can combine subversive research in sustainability, psychology, culture and politics with an idea of people’s education. Is it possible, and how is it possible? We need to listen to more people in the society, and we need to make new narratives – that’s why artists are crucial here, because we can make new narratives, and have new tools to combine knowledge.”
“We need to listen to more people in the society, and we need to make new narratives – that’s why artists are crucial here, because we can make new narratives, and have new tools to combine knowledge.”
Already the group is moving towards environmental sustainability by installing solar panels across the site, but Sjörgren argues that more needs to be done to “understand who owns the resources of this planet: who owns the oil, the iron, the forest, the sea? For example, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation made its money through an oil company Partex, which mainly operates in the Middle East: profit from that company [which has now been sold – editor’s note] is used for caretaking social and culture activities in Lisbon, Paris and London. Is this the right way to do things, is it fair play? I doubt whether I should give my time and knowledge to benefit this way of using oil profits. And maybe this is a question that we can´t hide from: when we are slowly heating up and destroying our home, the earth, is it still reasonable to sell and use oil? This question is not easy at all, but it´s worth all involved – but especially those who have the power of the resources – giving it time and thought.”
The popular rise of the far right in the vicinity has sharpened his sense that “we are living in dangerous times, and we need to understand why: therefore we need to understand capitalists, and understand the wars, and understand what we are fighting for. But we don’t need to stand alone and solve it: we can be a collective brain.” Indeed, Collective Brain is the name of a network The non existent Center has joined, through which it is both testing ways to “work together and build collaborations and knowledge”, but also look at “the possibility of decentralisation, and for the cultural budget to go more directly to artists who are practising community art or participatory work. Of course, this is challenging to the big institutions – but people don’t need to just go to a theatre or a gallery and be a consumer. There is another way to be part of culture, of society – and to find it you need to be where people are living and working, and inviting in another way.”
(photo: Ställbergs gruva courtesy of TNEC)