Interview with Nicoline van Harskamp
Emily Pethick interviews Nicoline van Harskamp about her recent work To Live Outside the Law You Must be Honest.
EP: To Live Outside the Law You Must Be Honest is a long-term project that focuses on different systems of government and interpretations of the notion of freedom. It started with a residency in Christiania, the renowned free town in Copenhagen. Perhaps you could begin by telling me a bit about the background of the piece, and the research that you did in this residency...
NvH: In Autumn 2005 I was invited by artist Lise Autogena to make a proposal for a research period in the Christiania Researcher in Residence Program. She set up the program in 2004 together with a few Christianites, artists and urbanists. She used to live in Christiania and saw that on many of the issues that she addresses in her own practice (as an artist focusing on research and urbanism) are things can be learned in Christiania. Anything from communal processes to decision-making, drug culture, participatory economics, the social life of dogs. Conversely, Christiania is under threat of closure and the input of outsiders contributes to the internal as well as worldwide discourse.
At the time I was producing booklets in the 'Little Guide to Guards' series, inventories of different law enforcers in the streets of European and American cities. I had looked into the social and political aspects of law enforcement quite a bit, not focusing on the technological but on the personal side of surveillance. Who is patrolling where, why and dressed in what? In London and Rotterdam I found different types of 'Neighborhood Wardens’. These uniformed officers are meant to act as the 'Eyes and Ears' of inner city neighborhoods and to restore social cohesion and a sense of security through informal contact with citizens. I feel there is something strange about these 'hybrid' officers and the belief that social control and informal structures can be created in a top-down way.
Lise's invitation in Christiania was a great opportunity to study a 'security system' based on social control and informality that grew out of a voluntary, independent 'social experiment' of 35 years. Initially I interviewed residents of Christiainia, starting each time with the question: "In your community you have developed your own garbage service and nurseries; why didn't you start a police force?" This provoked most interviewees to talk about their experiences with self-policing. It soon became clear that the success of the informal security system was closely connected with the larger system of self-government. The 1000 Christianites make decisions on the basis of unanimity and only have meetings at all if there is a direct reason to decide something. The separation of powers – legislative, judicial and executive – that we know in Western democracies is abolished in favor of self-determination. In the following phases of my project I focused on the advantages and disadvantages of such a system. Things that we take for granted within the 'Trias Politica' are compromised: innocence till proven guilty, privacy, victim protection, 'objective' press and so on. If you don't 'outsource' rule enforcement to a team of specialists, you may have to take things into your own hands. Everybody is responsible for the safety of one another and force may have to be used. Not an easy task for a rather vulnerable community...
EP: You used these interviews as the basis of a script, which is comprised of excerpts from different interviews, and was performed as a monologue by an actor, while walking through Christiania. Thus the resulting film turns many voices into one, combining differences. Why did you choose this way of working with the material, and what effect do you think it has?
NvH: Christiania doesn't have an official recorded history and I was told on my first day that ‘every Christianite is a spokes person’. This is decentralisation in its purest and, sometimes, most annoying form! I tried to speak to as many people as possible and they often contradicted each other and themselves. Different accounts of the same event circulate, though after a while some kind of consensus version is added to 'the Story of Christiania'. One of the most problematic stories was about a pretty rough event in the eighties, when bikers tribes (similar to Hell’s Angels) moved in and terrorised the free town. Some people speak of a violent expulsion of the bikers, others of police intervention or mass mobilisation of Christianites. Because this is one of the darkest episodes in Christiania history, not many people talk about it and the rough edges are smoothed off after a while.
Other unpleasant stories are hidden altogether. In some interviews I was aware that people kept information back or didn't tell the truth. I accepted this as one of the survival techniques of a community that is always under pressure.
I’m lucky that I'm an artist doing interviews and not an academic or journalist. I accepted the material as an incomplete, inconsistent truth and made a script for a single actor out of the transcripts. While he's walking through Christiania, he contradicts himself, does and doesn’t make sense, speaks different levels of English. I hope that he undermines the idea that that self-government is simple, free of doubt, capriciousness or force. I think that if Christiania actually had a spokesperson, he or she would sound much like this actor.
EP: You are presenting this work alongside two other videos that use the same method of edited together interviews, one derived from interviews with right wing libertarians, and the other from interviews with anarchists, both produced in London and delivered by the same actor as used in Christiania. These extend your research into libertarianism in two different directions, and create further conflicting ideas the notion of freedom. Can you tell me a bit about these...
NvH: The notions of freedom, organisation and government became a central theme in my work in Christiania. Civil liberties are severely compromised in the entire (Western) world for the sake of security – against terrorism but also against our fellow citizens (think of the British Anti-Social Behaviour Orders!). Myself, I would like to keep my liberty and privacy, even if this means I that I have to be more active towards my own and other people's well-being. I wondered what models exist for doing this and found some answers in London, birthplace of modern parliamentary democracy. Can governments decentralise or even dissolve?
The non-statist theorists and activists that I interviewed, can roughly be divided into two camps: those who believe that we don't need a state because every individual should take responsibility for him or herself; those who believe that we don’t need a state because it stops us from taking responsibility for each other. The first camp can be called libertarian or anarcho-capitalist and the second can be called anarchist or libertarian communist. To simplify things, I speak of right wing and left wing libertarians.
The two camps don't like each other much, to put it mildly. One of the main distinctions lies in ideas about economy and property. The right-wingers believe that the capitalist system best provides self-development and self-determination. The intervention of a state compromises capitalism, with the uneven distribution of wealth as a result. They believe in voluntary and cooperative organisation as an extension of individualism, in other words, you only deal with others if this is in your own benefit. When people compete for their wealth, this is seen as a creative force, one that brings diversity and progress. The notion of property is crucial too. In the famous right-libertarian slogan 'For Life, Liberty and Property', the word 'property' means the physical assets of the individual (the body) as well as his or her material assets (house, car, etc). Taxation, theft, rape and violation are considered coercion of a similar nature.
The left-wing libertarians believe that capitalism brings repression instead of freedom. People will benefit more from cooperation than competition and if they organise themselves on a voluntary basis they don't need coercion from, for example, a state. A famous anarchist slogan is 'Property is Theft' and many believe that wealth should be redistributed before an anarchist system can come to being.
Despite their differences, the right- and left-wingers are currently campaigning – independently, not together – against the war in Iraq, the European Union, compulsory identification, racism, homophobia, violations of civil liberties in other forms. Common notions are abolition of the nation-state, equal rights for all, voluntarism, diversity through self-determination, organisational downscaling.
So in a way, the 2 videos recorded in London represent extreme-right and the extreme-left consequences of what Christiania has been trying to do in the last 35 years.
A reason for digging into these theories also has to with my own interest in the position of an artist as a 'free agent' in a society.
EP: That prompts me to ask you about your own position within this, perhaps you can elaborate on that further…
NvH: There are two starting points for talking about this and I can’t really point exactly where the two come together, so here they are:
First of all, I first noticed a strange paradox around freedom, art and politics in 2005, at the opening reception of ‘On Patrol’, a group exhibition at De Appel in Amsterdam that I participated in. A speech was delivered by Boris Dietrich, then member of parliament for D’66, a leftist liberal party. Instead of commenting on the theme of the show, that is, the limitations of personal freedom after 9/11, he reassured the artists present that his party would do anything to guarantee their freedom of speech and expression. He seemed oblivious to the raised eyebrows and general irritation in his audience. I personally think that he had a go with this topic, because of the shock that the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh had caused in the art world a few months previously. But the event also took place a couple of weeks after a government of D’66, the Christians and the liberal party VVD (translated: Freedom for Democracy) had introduced compulsory identification in Holland. So the measures that erode our civil liberties are implemented by the same politicians that defend freedom of speech so fanatically.
Second: the -isms and art. A proper theorist would have many comments on my very simplified descriptions of anarchist and libertarian theory. Especially on the right wing of libertarianism, I had to start my research from scratch. Much to my surprise, when I approached the Libertarian Alliance in London, they agreed on an interview because I was an artist. Art is seen as the ultimate subjectivity, and the artist is a free acting agent who may or may not be wanted or successful in the capitalist system. Objectivism, a strand of libertarianism developed by author Ayn Rand, specifically focuses on the artist as the ultimate free individual. With anarchist thought I am much more familiar. I have for a long time done activist and artistic stuff simultaneously and I am aware that many people on the left see art as an extension of activism. Art can be a tool in social processes, political struggles, community-building etc.
So by looking into these subject areas, I also look into my own responsibilities (collective or individual) as an artist, in a free or not so free world.
EP: You will explore these positions further in the discussion, ‘Freedomism’, which will be held here on 1 April, where you will bring together a panel of speakers that all have particular standpoints on the notion of freedom, but drastically differ in their approaches to that, ranging from right to left wing. Can you tell me a bit about what the key subjects for debate will be….
NvH: We will start the event with a screening of the video ‘Freedomism’. It is made up of interviews with Dutch people who in some way or another represent an ‘-ism’: a green anarchist, an activist, a situationist, an objectivist, a libertarian, and so on. The interviewees talk about the overall theory of each ‘-ism’ and it’s conclusions about (self-)organisation, law enforcement and economic systems. The video is meant to set the issues for the subsequent discussion. I also hope to talk a bit about each participant’s view on the role of the artist within their particular ‘-ism’.
I would like to mention Hannah Arendt here because in my understanding, some of her ideas are relevant to the issues raised. In simple terms, she claims that to make a ‘free’ or democratic society, we should not focus on the content of our politics (what we need, how we share it, etc) but on the way our politics are ‘done’. That is, how do we decide things, how do we organise ourselves, how do we communicate? She stresses that dialogue should take place outside the realm of a government and the economy. Arendt also contends that discussion and political processes should be seperated from violence or the display of violence (for example in the shape of a police uniform). Art, that isn’t expected to be objective or analytical, may be one of the spaces where politics are ‘done’, but, I argue now, not under the ‘protection’ of an otherwise coercive government.