March 30th, 2009


What's on the menu?

I'm in Oslo, readying myself for an intensive three days of teaching, lecturing and critiquing the work of art students at KHiO.

First impressions (I was here in 1993, but didn't see much of the city): the landscape is still under snow here, bright sun illuminates an expensive, efficient infrastructure. I'm immediately impressed by the lack of ugliness. The modern buildings are crisp, the vernacular ones tend to be pleasing red boxes with nicely-placed windows. The train trip from the airport to the city centre lifts the spirit -- the kind of ugliness you'd see in Britain or Belgium (grim corporate HQs, prim suburban houses, industrial plant) has been avoided here. I can see why my hosts Alejandra and Aeron -- who came here from Barcelona, itself a pretty spirit-lifting place -- think they'll probably stay in Norway for good.

Over dinner in a Vietnamese restaurant which offers, on its menu, my favourite condensed milk and egg soda, we discuss what'll be on the teaching menu over the next few days. Basically, this involves reconciling what I offer on my menus (Click Opera topics, a discography of indie records, a small bibliography of books, a short CV of art shows, some magazine articles) with what the Fine Art department at KHiO offers on its menu (facilities for students to make art in, feedback and guidance, education, cultural stimulation).

The city itself is also a menu -- in the mini-tour A&A give me I see a museum offering an exhibition called Gay Kids. I'll have to investigate what this show is about, but the funky rainbow lettering (in typeface VAG Bold) makes it clear that there's no misunderstanding of the implications of the word "gay". I'll see the show and report back tomorrow. (Update: the museum is closed on Mondays, but the show is out on the street. It's "an attempt to educate children about homosexual love".)

If the city is putting Scandinavian liberalism on its cultural menu, the hotel TV fills most of its 25 channels with recycled American dross. It's one reason, in fact, that everybody in Norway speaks such excellent English; unlike culturally-protectionist France and Germany, Norway subtitles foreign shows rather than dubbing (which also means that when there's a documentary about China, you hear the Chinese).

Because I don't watch much TV, I get a bit of culture shock dipping into it. BBC World is reporting, in somewhat Cold War style, on how Chinese government spies have infected the Dalai Lama's computers with malware. The Discovery Channel offers endless, overly-impactful shows in which a couple of wisecracking American guys learn how to kill with a samurai sword or cross-pollinate flowers. It's not the topics on offer in the TV's menu that alienate -- they seem universal enough -- so much as the macho presentation and the underlying social Darwinism. And that's slightly odd here, because in oil-rich Norway, with its super-low unemployment and super-liberal attitudes, you really don't get the impression that life is a struggle and only the strong survive.

I'm struck by how the menu offered by the hotel TV just doesn't overlap at all with the menu offered by the art school or the menu offered by Click Opera. In the terms of Inglehart's Values Map, the TV's menu is dominated by Survival Values. Click Opera and the art college fill their menu with Expressive Values -- the idea that ability is the true human capital.

Possibly one of us is out of touch, carried away by gentleness or brutality. Possibly one of us is privileged -- as privileged as Norway. And possibly these two very different menus or agendas are symbiotically related, as North is related to South, East to West.