A Quantum Packet from Bergen
Art, Tattoos & Goth Metal
It's been years. Over a decade since my Quantum Brother Jeremy (Jez) Welsh relocated from London to Norway to teach video art and explore digital culture. Aeons since our collusions/collisions of text and image, ages since those mega mixes of white wine and sunlight and children's voices mingling with the growl of Captain Beefheart in the Welsh's Lewisham back garden... Teems of times. Now we're spending Easter with them in Bergen.
How long, how long since Brother PG has been airborne? All the rites of flight - choosing duty free booze at Gatwick, sliding the bags through the X-Ray, paying close attention to the lifejacket mimes of Valkyrie stewardesses - have a pleasing dreamlike gloss. Even the packaging of the curious micro meals reinforces certain astronautic delusions. It's not quite space but everything out there is blue and bright and cold. We arrive in a globally heated Bergen, for the warmest spring in years.
Vertiginous streets of steep gables, angular clapboard houses in sharp yellows and ochres , high art nouveauish apartments, Protestant spires, brutalist towers in the city core. Every intersection, each alley and street is cobbled. Studded tyres rumble on the stonework. All routes wind down to the harbour, or twist back to cavernous tunnels through the mountains that barricade this northern port. The inhabitants are living in Expressionist geometries and it doesn't seem to bother them.
On our first evening, our hostess Jackie gives daughter Alice a lift to some tryst in a log cabin on the outskirts of town, hurling the car around hairpin bends like a James Bond heroine. It's what you have to do to get about here - or walk around like Dr. Caligari.
Everywhere we walk the next morning - looking down on balconies, rooftops, treetops, forecourts, shop fronts - we see flagpoles. The Flag, black cross on a scarlet ground, asserts a national identity that has evolved painfully and survived the Nazi occupation of WW2. This is a flag-waving nation. If this flag were Old Glory, we'd be in Muscogee, Oklahoma. Bergen is proud of its old wooden warehouses and mercantile buildings, while the main squares and concourses are lined with museums, galleries, restaurants and stylish shops. It's prosperous and very expensive. If we weren't staying with the Welshes, we'd probably be on the streets.
The tourist centre, formerly the National Bank building, flaunts its arches, its high vaulted ceilings, pillars with florid gilt capitals, like a hall of the troll kings. Kings are still potent icons in this monarchy. But its huge murals are triumphant depictions in social realist mode - boilerworkers, fishermen, bricklayers, farm folk are all busy building Norway, like neighbours collaborating on constructing a barn. It's what you're expected to do.
The tiny island is reached via tunnels and a toll road. The sunlight picks out every contour and volcanic crevice in the rocks, every twig on the birches, glares off the lakelets and inlets, so I'm squinting at its hyper-reality.
Our assembly point is a disused wooden one-room school house, adapted as a kind of a community centre where some of Jeremy's colleagues are gathering for an Easter barbecue. Soon, without any one actually delegating anything, we're all gathering logs and hunting for large flat stones. A man in a straw hat is gathering Easter eggs in a fishing net , under the direction of various infants who are hunting for buried chocolate.
"Easter's very important in Norway, " Jackie has explained it anxiously , as if worried that we might miss the full anthropological significance of this event. " but I'm an atheist. My dad only believed in reason. You and Jez at least had something to rebel against..." Yes indeed, Sister. The bruvvers both survived - separately - the Jesuits. But this isn't the time for a Joycean rant or a Cultural Studies thesis. The primal fires will be spluttering. Grab some of that baked salmon or funky smoking chicken, snap the cap off a bottle of Hansa lager, sprawl into mellowness, talk to Pedro (man in hat) and Patrick with the big blond hair, tending his toddling son Linus.
Patrick's one of Jez's ex-students. "I'm a painter. Not so many of us left in Norway," he laughs. Most of his contemporaries are into installations, performance, digital work. He doesn't seem bothered. This is the real lo-tech Happening, here outside the schoolhouse beside the path winding down to the rocky beach. Inside the house Laurie, the Welsh's teenage son, is comparing various Bob Marley remixes on his beat box. But otherwise, we're briefly primaeval - sky, rocks, pine trees, meat, beer - and the transfixing sunlight.
Down at the beach, time runs even more slowly and clearly. Small clusters of humans wander, freed from course structures, target setting, business plans, sound bites from CNN. James squeals at the freezing water. Pedro instructs me in the art of kite-flying. It's a contemplative kind of groove. A bit like astral projection, really. Or maybe a Zen discipline. At the end of a threadlike umbilical curving up against the azure, there's a tiny flying object, a glittering fragment of you jerking in the wind. Free from all gravity.
THE PLACE IS THE SPACE
Back at the Welsh's apartment a cosmic culturefest. Jez has unearthed a tape of the legendary Sun Ra film Space is the Place (1974), the only blaxploitation movie to combine space travel, metaphysics and avant jazz with a call to heightened black consciousness.
The tape is an nth-generation dub, it blurs and blurts, but we can see it opens in a 40s Chicago niterie, where a line of "Ebony Steppers" boogie and Ra is the house piano player. A big shot doesn't like Mister Ra's riffs, wants him sacked. So Ra goes into space-music mode and (literally) destroys the club with the sublime heaviness of his cosmic vibrations.
Then we're in Oakland, California, 1972, where Ra's star ship lands, and he emerges in golden phareonic robes to announce his mission- to lead black people into space. Soon he's in conflict with the FBI, NASA and the Overseer, a reincarnation of the club mobster. At intervals Ra and the Overseer play with Tarot cards for control of the Earth, like Max Von Sydow playing chess with Death in The Virgin Spring. But there's also a lot of action involving dudes with huge afros and car chases. At one point Ra is kidnapped but the soul brothers rescue him. Finally, having sown the seeds of his message, Ra returns to the galaxies in a ship felled by music.
Jez and I are mesmerised by all this. But our wives and children are concentrating hard on painting Easter eggs, experimenting with metallic paints and strange glazes. Here we all are - atheists, agnostics, gnostics, Alice in her goth leathers, busy making fertility symbols. To quote Jez: "Culture is a funny bugger." Cathy's egg is particularly striking, like a glowing bauble from Mister Ra's robes.
Bergen 2: Garage Theatre »»
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