The last couple of weeks we have seen an interesting discussion and maybe personal tragedy unfold itself in Norway. The case involved the Norwegian Minister of Justice, his closest family, a small, independent theatre and two artists. Several of the involved people were investigated by the police, and the Norwegian Prime Minister announced her personal opinion in public early on.
The play “Ways of Seeing” had premiere at the “Black Box” theater in Oslo, Norway, on the 21st of November 2018. In the play, two performance artists, Hanan Bennamar and Sara Baban, used film recordings of the outside of the home of the Norwegian Minister of Justice, Tor Mikkel Wara, as well as the homes of other Norwegian politicians. While the film recordings were shown on a big screen in the background of the theater scene, the artists pretended to hide in bushes “outside” of the homes. Hereby, and by mapping several Norwegian networks the artists believed had interests in making the Norwegian society more racist, they wanted to draw the attention of the audience to how it is to be in a debates’ ditch line and how it is to be an immigrant in Norway. According to the theater’s website, the artists move in a gray zone between what is right or wrong, what is legitimate or illegitimate, what is lawful or illegal. Though it is a documentary theater, the artists still called the performance fiction. Anyway, they admitted that the play contained controversial claims that could raise debate.
What happened after the performances at “Black Box” is quite complex. In the wake of the play, the Norwegian Minister of Justice, Tor Mikkel Wara and his family received several threats and they reported unpleasant incidents. Both the house and the car were tagged with “racist” in red letters and the swastika symbol. The car was, in addition, tried to light on fire. Wara said to the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation on the 7th of December 2018 that he “considered the incidents primarily as an attack and a harassment against the Norwegian democracy”. Now, two and a half months later, Wara has applied for leave and Wara’s girlfriend through 24 years, Laila Anita Bertheussen, has been charged for having made up a criminal act; the last threat against their family. On Friday the 15th of March, before she was charged, the police had charged the Black Box manager, Anne-Cecile Sibue Birkeland, and three of the artists behind for breach of privacy. And it was no other than Bertheussen herself who reported them to the police.
In art, there has been a long tradition in pushing the limits. In addition, there is a long tradition in Norway for a clear distinction between politics and art. The protection of artists and independent voices, regardless their degree of criticism, is strong. Therefore, this case calls for special attention. The manager herself, Anne-Cecile Sibue Birkeland, characterizes it as “extraordinary”, “out of proportions” and a “breach to the freedom of speech”.
Many Norwegian cultural institutions have given Birkeland public support. But not everyone seemed happy about this kind of “artistic freedom”. A Party colleague of Wara, Carl I. Hagen said to the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten on Friday the 15th of March that “one cannot use the word “artistic” and get away with more than you usually would”. He also pointed out that the claims of racism linked to the pictures of Wara’s residence is too controversial. The Norwegian prime minister, Erna Solberg, also commented critically on the Black Box play on Wednesday the 13th of March in the newspaper Verdens Gang, saying that these kind of plays makes it harder to be a politician”. The pressure against her increased after this statement. It is clear that she cares for her minister, but was this the right way to show it. In the aftermaths, her comments led to reactions from lawyers, the press, and Norwegian art and scene institutions; they called it “an untimely interference in the artistic freedom”. Her statements are quite problematic, especially when this can be interpreted as an argument against criticism the government and its minister. The city council group of the Party of Wara, the Progress party suggested already in December to cut all the support to the Black Box theater.
It is remarkable that political leaders in Norway interfere in this kind of way. In Norway there is a principle of an “arm’s length distance”; the government must keep an arm’s length distance in relation to artistic choices. That means also, that the government needs to withstand both criticism and offensive arguments from artists and other cultural institutions. The Government itself highlights the importance of art and culture as save platform for utterances which might challenge individuals or groups and provoke discussions about socially important issues. A rich and varied cultural life is here seen as a prerequisite for freedom of expression and a well-functioning democracy. Participating in cultural activities is regarded as valuable for the individual which should be challenged to meet a multitude of opinions and forms of expressions. In this way, cultural life might promote tolerance and reflection, as well as insights about values, identity and society. Therefore, it is extremely surprising that the Norwegian prosecuting authority chose to charge a theater manager and performing artists based on expressions in a theater performance.
The case as such raised also other ethical questions. Is it right to film several politicians’ homes without permission, a question which is also reflected upon in the performance itself? And do the families of public persons have an equal right of privacy as everyone else or do they have to accept that there are more exposed to public interest? What about the contentious claims about politicians as racists in the play?
There is a good reason to discuss the theater’s ethical assessments, as there always should be room for criticism and debate of art. Characteristics of a democracy is that it endures utterances and provocative art. Yes, the videos of the homes along with the controversial claims are unpleasant. But they are not against the law. On Monday the 18th of March the police dropped the charges against the artists and closed the case. This spring the play will be shown again in Tromsø, Norway.