Eva Rowson is an artist, curator, organiser, producer and is currently the Managing Director at Bergen Kjøtt (Bergen, Norway). Her work is organised around questions of how we host each other, collaborate and build organisations – and the work and structures that make all of this possible. This research is at the core of the project space 38b in Peckham that Eva co-founded between 2010-18. She was an associate artist on the pilot year of Open School East (London), formerly Curator of Live Programme, Bergen Kunsthall (Bergen, Norway) and Curator in Residence at Lighthouse (Brighton, UK). This interview took place in February 2020.
I would like to start by asking you about your current position as Managing Director at Bergen Kjøtt? Could you tell me about your role, the organisation and what platform it provides for artists?
The organisation has been running for 10 years now and was set up by Bergen Contemporary Art Project. It’s in an old, former meat factory, which is where the name comes from, Kjøtt means meat. It’s a huge factory building right on the outskirts of the city centre. Bergen Contemporary Art Project renovated it from scratch, with an extraordinary amount of energy and determination, turning it into one of the main artists and music studios in Bergen. There’s now about 30 music and art studios within the building and most of them are set up for music production, producing music with lots of musicians and bands from Norway and abroad. Then it has a huge second floor which is being used for concerts and exhibitions. It has a smaller project room and gallery space which also has been a cafe in the past, and it still could be that.
In 2019, the city council of Bergen put in a lot of money to buy the building to secure it for the city, as it recognised it as an important cultural venue for Bergen. With that comes a whole new challenge because the organisation has now moved from artist-led to being run by a non-profit foundation, as well as establishing a new Managing Director role and a board. It has a much more rigid governance structure now. BCAP (Bergen Contemporary Art Project) left Bergen Kjøtt at the end of 2019 to set up a new building in the city and continue what they were doing in the way they wanted to keep doing it, taking some of the projects and programme they started at Bergen Kjøtt with them.
This role that I’m going to do is very new and interesting because it’s starting at this point where the organisation is moving from what was a very DIY artist-led space to something which is becoming an institution. There’s quite an expectation but also fear around what becoming an institution means. With that, there’s many implications to consider, in regards to how it’s going to be run and administered, the governance, the management of the finances and the responsibility of it all.
My role as Managing Director is to take care of all of the studio holders, but also think about how the building could work for the people in the city. There’s a lot of potential unused space to open up within the building in different ways and think about how it can serve as a venue for lots of different things. The space has a lot of potential to think about how it can work. It’s interesting because I’ve always believed in challenging or twisting the imagination of what an institution can actually look like, and what it means, and I understand why there’s this fear around becoming institutionalised. It’s a real moment to think about how we build a team, how we pay people, how we organise the administration and how we look after people in the building. It’s almost like I’ve been asking for it for a while and now someone said, ok, so show us what you can do with an institution.
For someone who has never been to Bergen, what is the art scene like?
It’s amazing. Norway is quite a small country in terms of population. Bergen is the second biggest city after Oslo, with around 280,000 people in the municipality I think. It has an incredible local but also international cultural scene. There’s a lot of collaboration in the city because many organisations don’t have physical public spaces themselves, so they cross-collaborate to host their music, dance or theater festivals in other organisations. It’s a really supportive city and there’s a very amazing DIY ethos; people making things happen or starting their own record labels or their own events. But – there’s also a lot of funding to support new initiatives. And in the last few years, I think there’s been a lot more critical awareness around culture.
I think Norway is perceived both in Norway and outside Norway as a very equal country. Equality in the workplace is encouraged, as well as providing equal paternal and maternal parental leave policy in place across the country. However, it can also be very homogenous, very white and very binary. It’s difficult if you don’t fit into those binaries, to the point where people can feel stranded with no job or security or way into the culture here.
It’s also an interesting moment because, in the last five or so years, I think there’s been a lot more visibility of discussions around what non-binary feels like, what it is to be a non-white person in Norway. What it means to come from another country and seek asylum in Norway and what structures are available to you there. What it means to have a queer identity in Norway.
There is this feeling, especially in culture, that Bergen is a very safe city. But people are starting to share experiences of being unsafe or feeling uncomfortable here. It really starts with a discussion around how we assume that we’re living in a very equal society, but, actually, there’s a lot to be uncovered and spoken about.
I would love to talk to you about your curatorial practice and how it has a very research / process-based approach. I would love to hear about the work Who’s doing the washing up? which explores feminist organisational practices, modes of communication and the structures that support these. This started when you were working at Bergen Kunsthall and again took place with your six month curatorial placement at the Lighthouse in Brighton.
I worked at Bergen Kunsthall for a year running the live programming events. It was also the first year of a four-year project funded by Creative Europe, called Reimagine Europe. I remember starting the job having been very focused within my own research around how institutions could be re-imagined from the inside. This project, Reimagine Europe, seemed like the perfect opportunity to explore this further. The main questions it was asking of the 10 organisations involved was to really look at how we’re working with ourselves, our audiences and our practices. How do we transform the ways that we’re working?
At that point, I’d been working for a long time thinking about feminist practices in hospitality. Then suddenly this term of radical hospitality started to appear in art discourse and symposiums but still seemed to be the same people talking about it. The chairs still in the same rows, and still sitting for hours without any refreshments, and still the access to the venues was really difficult. However the language and terms being used started to give me hope around reimaginings and hospitality, and the decolonisation of the institution. The one thing I found frustrating was, did anybody actually really commit to making change happen? Also, whose voices are included in those reimaginings? If it’s always the same voices reimagining, then what is actually going to change?
In 2015, I’d been working with Andrea Francke on a collaboration called Wish You’d Been Here. We ran lots of parties and events together, whilst putting hospitality practices at the centre. We looked at all the micro-decisions you make when you’re hosting an event or a party. How much do you charge for drinks? How do people come into the space, how and where do people sit? What happens when some people are volunteers and some are being paid? How much time is it going to take to clean up? All these questions must be paid attention to. When I was working at the Kunsthall, and then continuing the project at Lighthouse, it felt like the right moment to start asking some of these micro-questions in an institution. I think curatorial vision needs to also contain questions and practices around how we are going to sustain and maintain these visions.
For a while, I’d been thinking about this question of Who’s Doing The Washing Up? Who’s actually going to do it? Have we thought about it? So often it’s the last thing that perhaps we think about. I wanted to use the programme at Kunstall to really start to examine the structures that make things happen, and the care and the work that’s involved. Ticket sellers, poster hangers, operations teams, cleaners. I wanted to include all those people who are usually not involved in those core curatorial, strategic discussions. At the Kunsthall for example, they had a list of their staff on their website, but actually, it’s just the core permanent staff. So, for example, Adan Awale, whose job it is to clean the Kunsthall, just isn’t visible. He’s completely invisible in the organisation that he’s working in.
Now everyone at the Kunsthall is in the exhibition credits. It’s quite a tiny change, but everyone is also listed alphabetically, which means that Adan Awale is at the top. There were a lot of interesting discussions around how we should credit people. Like, isn’t it embarrassing for Adan to have his job title of cleaner next to his name? All these assumptions that cleaning and maintenance jobs aren’t jobs to be proud to be doing. I feel like until those assumptions start to change, then you can reimagine all you want but it’s actually never going to get there in practice.
There were and still are campaigns going on for 50/50 gender balance in music line-ups in Norway. But, there would be music festivals and concerts happening at the Kunsthall with everyone feeling proud of 50/50 men and women on stage, but the accessible and only non-gendered toilet had to be kept locked because of a specific smoke detector installed that would go off if we used the smoke machine. As a result, if anyone in a wheelchair could not access that particular event. With Catalan artist Jordi Ferreiro, we worked with three amazing women from the Kunsthall’s youth group who became really interested in looking at access to the Kunsthall. They closed the main entrance for the day and they repostioned all of the signage to make the hidden, side ramp entrance the main entrance. They started to make people see the Kunsthall differently. It had some long-term changes.
It sounds like you’ve built a real legacy.
I hope so. Now the Kunsthall is working on signage for its entrances and the toilet is now able to be open at concerts. I think I’m always interested in how curating or doing something can go a step further to really embed or enact change. When I worked at The Showroom, in London alongside curator Louise Shelley, she was a great inspiration for thinking about real change coming from curatorial and artistic practice.
I’d like to dig a bit deeper into that thinking, where did that come from? Was it out of a frustration of lack of change or being invisible within organisations?
I became more and more frustrated that I was operating in these institutions where reimagining discussions were taking place with little to no action. It would just disappear. Most of the time, in reimagining the way an organisation works, that there are certain people who have the agency and the position of power to reimagine, and everyone else just gets dealt those cards.
Even the way meetings and events are organised, they were organised around a centrality which is determined by those people who have the most power and agency.
This continually determines how we value knowledges and roles of cleaning, maintenance work, operations work. I even find myself using the same terms, like “behind the scenes” work. Who determines where the scene is? Also, unfortunately these structures are so connected to class, race, gender, education and resources..Turning attention to the internal structural work is longer and much harder, it’s not so glossy is it? But it’s where change can happen.
A large element of your work at Bergen Kunsthall was curating and programming live performances, music events and club nights. Could you talk about your curatorial thinking around these events?
Landmark, the café and venue inside Bergen Kunsthall, is known as one of the most important venues for live music, club nights and events in Norway. It has this incredible sound system, but I think what makes it really incredible is that a lot of people in the city hire it for their own events. From acoustic experimental nights to full-on hip-hop club nights, to much bigger concerts with more well-known bands. Somehow that all comes into one place, which means that this crossover starts to happen between different people organising different things in the city.
It was really interesting to curate this programme in line with my research around Who’s Doing The Washing Up?. Most of these events exist outside the normal gallery hours, and although the Kunsthall is known for this incredible programme, it’s sustained by many workers who also aren’t on a permanent or regular contract. They’re working until 3am. It was an interesting time to raise more awareness of the work that is involved in running these events and bring that discussion into the internal consciousness of the Kunsthall. Changing some roles from temporary or hourly contracts to permanent salaried positions was an incredible change. And since I left, the the Kunsthall have changed the time of the internal team meetings from 9am to 1pm so the nighttime workers could all join.
At the same time, it was an interesting moment to discuss an increasing awareness on gender and balance particularly within music. The inequality still exists and I was met with responses from male promoters putting on all-male lineups that “they couldn’t find any women”. So we used the programme to organise events to make space for discussion on and put different ways of organisating into practice, for example clubnights and workshops with Bergen’s feminist DJ and music collective Konsept X and London-based Resis’dance – and this is something that the curator Maria Rusinovskaya, whom I was doing maternity for, had been building and is continuing. Both about what inclusion means in culture, and who gets to determine what it looks like.
I’ve recently started a concert series called golden jar with producer Sofia Hamnes, specifically set up to support and make space for young women and non-binary people working on and off stage. I am trying to implement ethics of feminist organising by trying to think about who’s doing the sound and how each concert is also a training opportunity for using DJ equipment, sound production for example.
I want to go back to the beginning of your career, could I ask about 38b Projects and how this started?
I’m thinking a lot about it at the moment because we’re about to leave London for Norway. Last year we had to leave 38b in Peckham which really felt like the end of an era for us. I guess it started because when we moved to London from Leeds, Luke Drozd, my partner was doing his MA at Chelsea. When he finished, there just wasn’t an exhibition space waiting for him of course. In Leeds, we’d been working in a lot of DIY collectives just using basements and empty shop units to do exhibitions. So we cleared out our living room so he could exhibit his work. We were lucky because we had the top floor of a split flat so we could put away all of our books, all of our CDs, everything. It really was like a white cube.
We hosted Luke’s exhibition for two weeks. We had a proper opening where I think maybe 10 people came. Then because we’d said we’d keep it open for two weeks, we really thought we should. Then we spent two weeks just sitting on the floor eating dinner around these sculptures and no one came. Then because we’d cleared out the living room, we decided to do another show straight after. Here we invited someone from each of the London colleges who had just graduated. Not all people that we knew but people that Luke had seen their work of and admired. They all came and they all brought some friends.
Suddenly there were a few more people visiting and it just continued from there. We started to use it as a way to support friends who had something they were working on and were unable to find an exhibition space or work by artists that we really liked. We did a show with Jennifer Bailey quite early on. She decided she really wanted to keep everything in the living room. She was working a lot with the domestic figure and so wanted to keep it like a living room, it was a revelation. We didn’t have to clear everything out to make it into a viable exhibition space.
We kept it going for eight years and it really started to grow. Sometimes at a weekend we would have maybe 200, 300 people come through the flat for an exhibition. We did a radio show and some gigs in the flat and it just became really important for both of our practices as a way to meet people in London and also do things on our own terms.
Many people helped and were part of that. It was also a way to get to know other artists. This work contributed a lot to how I think about hospitality. One of the projects we did with Rosie Schweike called Why Do It At The Tate If You Can Do It In Your Home? was a way to bring together other people in London and more widely who were also using their home, for whatever reason and why. We looked at the possibilities but also the problems of going into someone’s home rather than a public institution.
The pop-up, DIY space doesn’t really exist as it did when I graduated art school. I read about this idea of Anti-shows developed in Russia between 1982-84 based on a very situationist idea called APTART that inspired your approach. How did 38b change over those years? How did Peckham change?
We definitely felt like 38b was happening at the right time. Towards the end we had a lot of people asking to do exhibitions in the flat. We never really intended it to be a big thing. A lot of our friends and local businesses had to leave Peckham in those eight years who could not afford to be there anymore. We then had to move, and that sadly was the end of it.
Also over that time, we saw a lot of art galleries come to Peckham. The area changed a lot over those years and the spike of gentrification happened. Now actually a lot of the smaller project spaces that were there at the same time as us aren’t there anymore. I think probably we also contributed to that change, and it’s still changing. Recently we’ve been thinking about whether we should properly document what happened at 38b because the website was only really created to advertise what was coming up. It also exists in a random way. It doesn’t really have a sort of legacy. I think it exists in a lot of memories. It is funny how many people I’ve met who’ve been in my living room and not I’ve not realised.
How important is collaboration to you? I know you have a very strong collaborative partnership with Luke Drozd.
It developed from working in different collectives and having similar needs. One, in particular, called Black Dogs Luke and I worked in over 10 years. These collectives, and the way they were set up, particularly in terms of collaboration have contributed to and feed into my institutional work. We have since formally wound-up the collective last year and gave out the remainder of the money in the bank account to a few other collectives. We had some money left over that we thought maybe we should make a book or a website. Then in the end, it felt right to distribute it to four DIY projects that needed the support.
When I was at the Showroom working alongside Louise Shelley on the Communal Knowledge programme, that was a really formative moment for me in learning how to take care of everyone involved in the projects, being very considerate of their knowledge, their experience and their lives in building those long-term relationships. It’s important to think about the ethics of collaboration and who in collaborative projects gets acknowledged and how you make space to hold different people’s opinions.
At the moment, I’m teaching at an art school in Bergen about collaboration. I’m trying to propose collaboration as a way of finding yourself within a group and making space for others to be comfortable and present. Now we’re working towards a final exhibition but the students are already thinking a lot about structuring it and how to use the budget to pay for childcare, travel etc so that people in the group who’ve got children can join in without compromising their care responsibilities. It’s really interesting thinking about the politics of collaboration especially in an art school like Bergen which is very focused on individual practice.
I would like to ask you about your time at Open School East as this seems to have a very discursive setup?
It was amazing because we were part of the pilot year. It was a formative time for us as associates but also for Open School East as an organisation. In a way, it was really fascinating to see the organisation take shape and the kind of challenges that brought with it. We would sit in daylong meetings about how we should organise the lunch rota or the cleaning rota or the website. Throughout our time there we, as a group of 12, collaborated to work out how to run the space together. Then within that, there were also smaller collaborations, many of which are still happening like Andrea Francke and Ross Jardine’s Future of the Left project and Ross’ collaboration with Matthew de Kersaint Giraudeau Radio Anti.
It was a really influential time for me. I think that a key to the success of the programme is to put together diverse practices and define a new genre for art education. People with a film practice or curatorial practice or architectural background, we all came together and really learned from each other. That’s definitely something that is embedded into the teaching I am doing now. There was a lot of pressure from the external funders and those running OSE to keep constantly producing, so we started holding each other under this intense scrutiny of what we were going to do to resist that. Open School East is amazing in how it has continued to grow and learn every year what is needed from the programme. It’s looking much more like a formal educational model with mentors now, but it still feels like they never stop thinking about what they are doing, who’s involved and who has access.
I think being part of an organisation that was growing and developing in its thinking, definitely informed my collaboration with Andrea around the politics of hospitality, and the start of Who’s Doing The Washing Up. It grew out of questions we were asking and being asked of what is this project doing? Is it public enough? Is it art enough? Is it valid? It grew out of some anger of being asked these questions about what our work looked like. We spent a lot of our time also questioning the benefits and complexities of what free education meant to us at Open School East. Not paying fees but instead, running a public programme. It was fascinating to be part of those conversations.
I would love to ask you about your work that you were doing in Barcelona, Maybe you could talk to me about the thinking around Como imaginar una musea? an evolving Catalan-Spanish-English project to reimagine the museum through a feminist perspective? I suppose I want to tie that into a larger question, how would you imagine an arts organisation of the future to be? Are there any models that inspire you?
La musea was an incredible imagination project that artist Jordi Ferreiro had been thinking about for a while. He was interested in what feminist institutions would look like. At that moment when I arrived in Barcelona on a residency with BAR Project in 2017, a lot of museum workers who were working in front-of-house or security roles were striking because their contracts were being passed over to another organisation, which meant they were losing hours and losing job security. Again, it was a real kind of signal from the institution that all those workers, who on an everyday basis are sustaining the museum are actually just people that can be moved in and out of those roles or put onto zero-hours contracts. Jordi had been thinking for a while about the fact that the word museo, which mean Museum is a masculine noun. So Tate would be referred to as a museo, or the ICA would be a museo. Musea with an “a” transforms the masculine noun into a feminine noun. As part of the project we started to think about what a musea would look like and feel like, and what would happen if those workers on the edge of the institution came into the middle. We started to form a much bigger collective of museum workers, curators and artists, who like us found that their politics didn’t match in the institutions they were working in.
Together, we quite speculatively started to imagine this musea. She, or they, or it, became a kind of being that we started to imagine. How would she move? How would she feel? How would she sound? How would she speak? We did a series of events that brought in different practices of collaborative working, financial modeling and cooking together. We took over the main auditorium in one of the big museums and invited everybody who came to bring something to set the space. Rather than sitting in rows of chairs, people brought beanbags, and plants, and lamps, and everyone kind of made their own space. We were trying to challenge, again, these micro-details of even how you are made to sit in a room. La Musea became this proposal of everything we wanted to imagine.
It was also quite freeing, in a way, to just imagine what this institution La musea would be like and how we would work with her, or it, or them. But, we started to reflect on areas that we also weren’t thinking about in working on this project, whether it’d be about working for free or expecting other people to work for free, and how we would go about acknowledging that work.
Models of cooperative working are really interesting to think about in terms of structure and value of work, and how can everyone contribute to running an organisation and take responsibility for it, and is cared for within it. There are a lot of interesting organisations who are transparent about the way that they work, and continually share processes of how they’re developing their feminist ethics like The Women’s Center for Creative Work in LA, Cubitt and Louise Shelley’s recent Structures that Cooperate programme, Casco Art Institute: Working for the Commons in the Netherlands.
I really believe in an institution where the workforce and the team is considered equally and that there is opportunity for everyone to input and that work is really recognised. It comes down to everything, the acknowledgments, but also the way the budget and the pay is structured, that also then feeds into who can apply for those jobs. It’s important to constantly check your own position and privilege within these organisations, and where you can make change possible.
*la musea was formed with Adrian Schindler, Ariadna Guiteras, Ariadna Rodriguez, Caterina Almirall, Eulàlia Rovira, Lara Garcia Diaz, nyamnyam, Priscila Clementti, Sonia Fernández Pan.
Further reads and resources which have informed Eva’s work recently:
Jamila Prowse, The Quiet Revolution of the Self-Isolated, Art Work Magazine, June 2020.
Teresa Cisneros, Document 0, Agency for Agency, Summer 2018
Professor Akwugo Emejulu, Crisis Politics and the Challenge of Intersectional Solidarity, London School of Economics, February 2018
Louise Shelley, Structures that Cooperate, Cubitt, 2018-19
Staci Bu Shea, Care in times of Care, Metropolis M, April 2020
Carole Wright, Walking whilst being Blak Outside, We Industria magazine, June 2020
Raju Rage, Access Intimacy and Institutional Ableism, Disability Arts Online, April 2020
Future of the Left (Andrea Francke and Ross Jardine), Newsletter 12: Holding on to not-knowingness, April 2020
History of the Women’s Centre for Creative Work
not/nowhere cooperative membership
– Laura Hensser, 2020