Frans Josef Petersson: Two years ago you initiated Konsthall C in Hökarängen, a suburb south of Stockholm, as a part of your artistic practice.  The project can be described as a reflection on a political model  – the social democratic welfare state, the just society, the ‘Swedish model’ or whatever one may call it – as this was manifested in the planning and construction of Stockholm from the 30s onward. What does Konsthall C and Hökarängen signify for you, and what do you think about the model they represent?

Per Hasselberg: Hökarängen is an historical model for accommodating citizens in small-scale, neighbourhood units that was subsequently implemented in the Planning and construction of Stockholm and other cities around the country. The aim was to “create social-minded individuals, with an active interest in common matters, with an ability for critical thinking and collaboration with other people to make possible the implementation of necessary social reforms. In short, to facilitate the growth of democratic citizens, for whom liberty and autonomy is combined with a sense of social responsibility”, according to the architect and social democrat Uno Århén [1]. An important aspect of this was to integrate natural meeting places in the built environment*, and in Hökarängen a central laundry room was designed to also function as a local community centre. A place for people to perform their daily chores but also socialize with their neighbours.  Konsthall C is situated in this very space, with only a glass wall dividing it from the still functioning laundry room.

What interested me was how artists and others have since used similar models in projects aiming to produce “active citizens with a capacity for critical thought and an interest in common matters”. What made me move to Hökarängen was an interest in these questions.  At Konsthall C we invite artists to work site-specific with projects that in different ways use contemporary issues to reactivate this historical model.

FJP: Since you describe Hökarängen as a model for other places it is important to bear in mind that it has always been a socially stigmatised place. In real life it has been far from a social utopia, and to describe it as a model means, as I see it, to stress the unrealised potential of its underlying political ideals. In that sense one could say that the Hökarängen-model was always permeated with a “politics of nostalgia”.

This notion of nostalgia is of particular interest when talking about Swedish political history.  As a medical term nostalgia was used from the mid-1600s to diagnose patients suffering from severe cases of homesickness. In the 19th century this medical application was lost in favour of the more everyday usage that we know today, something, which is commonly explained by the upheavals of modernity severing people from their natural habitat and leaving them with a sense of rootless ness. From the 19th century, nostalgia was no longer used to diagnose a pathological state of the individual, but came to describe a general sense of homesickness permeating society. The history of nostalgia is thus intimately associated with the upheavals of modernity. This ambivalence where political progression is paired with social conservatism got a particular expression when Swedish Prime Minister Per-Albin Hansson started to use the term “folkhem” in the late twenties to describe the social democratic welfare state as a “home for the people” (which is the literal translation of the term). The term was actually coined in conservative political circles, but was successfully appropriated by the Social Democratic Party to associate progressive social politics with traditional sentiments and values. As a way to compensate for the existential rootless ness befalling people as a result of modernization and urbanisation, if you will. This channelling of the collective power of nostalgia – where nation replaces homeland, state replaces family and so on – is important to understand the historical success of the Social Democratic Party.

Yet, in recent years the conservative’s parties have most successfully implemented such strategic use of political nostalgia. At Konsthall C we did an exhibition two years ago with the artist Johan Tirén called Vi säger vad du tänker (“We say what you are thinking”) that dealt with the right wing, extremist party Sverigedemokraterna (“The Swedish Democratic Party”). The work consists of two filmed interviews with representatives from this party, and an interview with a journalist who studies such extremist political organisations. The Sverigedemokraterna describes them as the “real“ Social Democratic Party and tries to appropriate the historical concept of a Swedish “folkhem” for their own shady purposes. When Johan made his work they were still a small, insignificant party, but in the latest election they were quite success full at the polls. Moderaterna (the Conservative Party), who are now in government, were even more successful in their strategic use of historical concepts from the labour movement (using social democratic rhetoric, calling themselves “the new labour party” and so on). I am not comparing the conservatives with this small, extremist party but simply pointing out that in recent years, the most successful use of political nostalgia has come from the right.

FJP: It is true that large groups of voters associate concepts like “folkhem” and “arbetslinjen” with positive ideas about what constitutes a just society. [2] And it is a matter of debate whether we are talking about political strategies or more profound ideological displacements (of the right to the left, or of the left to the right?) but it certainly, I would say, points to an urgent need for ideological renewal of the left. This is actually exemplified very clearly by Johan Tiréns exhibition.

When his work was recently shown in Lund, in a region in the south of Sweden where the Sverigedemokraterna had their greatest success in the recent election. In this context it is reasonable to focus on how the work displays the shallowness of the concepts of culture and Swedishness that form the core of the parties ideology. But when it was shown at Konsthall C two years ago, it got different, and more interesting connotations. Then it directed at least my attention to questions about the presence of racism and nationalism within social democracy. We already touched upon the conservative roots of the concept of “folkhem” and Tirens work made me think about what notions of culture and history are integral to the “Swedish model” as we know it today.  How present are notions of nationalism, conservatism, racism and paternalism in the ideology permeating this model? And how does it express itself today?

One example, potentially touching upon all these notions, is the issue of surveillance. It seems to me that both left and right share an uncritical view of the obsession with security coming out of the western hemisphere. One of the most crucial issues facing us today is, to my view, treated quite ignorantly by the political establishment, and it has to do with the role of politics and the state in relation to questions of power and control made possible by new technologies. There are differences of course, but it is uncontroversial to claim that Swedish left and right are joined by an unusual faith in the power, and benevolence, of the state. Citizens are viewed as subjects who have to be monitored and educated, whether by planning the city to produce “democratic individuals”, or by “folkbildning”, where culture is used as an instrument in the service of the state and so on. [3]

PH: Anna Eineborg who exhibited at Konsthall C in august 2006, right before the latest election, dealt with these issues. Her work Citizen Profiling can be seen as a conceptual take on the notion of “folkbildning” and consists of a mobile office that informs people about the displacement of power between state and individual currently taking place. In a very pragmatic way her office provides the visitors with information about what registers they are in and what they can do about it. We showed the work at Konsthall C, but also in a Cultural Festival in Stockholm were the visitors could take part in debates with politicians about surveillance and the question of what constitutes a just society.

FJP: One could say that she makes use of an instrumental view of culture that seems particularly attractive to state power, but turns the attention back towards the institutions that maintain this very power. If this is art in the interest of the people, it is an interest that is clearly in conflict with the interests of the state. So it is critical art in the pragmatic tradition of “folkbildning”. It can also be interpreted as a longing for an (unrealised?) condition where these interests coincide. On the other hand one could argue that arts real potential lies not in engaging with society in this pragmatic way, but rather in using and re-using political symbols, emptying them and giving them a new content.

In my practice I constantly return to the welfare society to see how this model, and the experiences associated with it, can be re-used and re-interpreted. The opposite of nostalgia would be the complete discarding of tradition in accordance with a revolutionary, avant-garde, sentiment that dictates total change. I prefer to re-use and compare different aspects of reality often using the historical and political rationale on which infrastructure; urban planning and architecture are based. One example is the work OPTION, made for Index, The Swedish Contemporary Art Foundation and the exhibition “Whatever happened to Social Democracy” at Rooseum in Malmö. OPTION is based on the R3 heavy-water reactor that provided district heating to Farsta south of Stockholm 1964 – 74. R3 was part of “The Swedish Policy” that combined a civil atomic energy programme with a military function. Freedom of action was the compromise that unified both opponents and proponents of a Swedish nuclear bomb.

One could call this a counter-avant-garde approach were I investigate, and also make use of, the compromise as an artistic and political tool. The work consists of video where I talk to (rather than interview) Bengt Göransson, who in 1958, being the chairman of a congress where the issue threatened to split the Social Democratic Party, advised Olof Palme about the compromise.  The work also consists of a taped conversation with the journalist Christer Larsson, who in 1985 called Palme to account for the Swedish nuclear weapons programme. So my artistic approach to form is influenced by a content that deals with a particular political model. This is also true of Konsthall C. You could say that I try to use a conceptual approach to political nostalgia in a way that I hope to be productive today.

February 2007.

1. In the 1940s, Uno Åhrén criticized functionalism for its limited visions about social life. A social orientation towards construction would,
according to Åhrén, provide a counterweight to the undemocratic tendencies that existed society, and that had been the cause of the Second World War. Democracy would no longer be homeless, but rather would be built into society by means of meeting places in residential areas.
2. “Arbetslinjen” has been the guiding principle of Swedish social democratic labour policy since the 20s, taking as its point of departure (and overarching political aim) every citizens right to work.
3. “Folkbildning” (roughly, “education of the people”) has historically been a way of giving workers the opportunity to improve their knowledge by providing free classes, different types of associations, libraries and so on.

Per Hasselberg are an artist and founding director of Konsthall C.
Frans Josef Petersson is a freelance writer and critic.