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NEU NOW LIVE Retrospective Launches: Part 1 - Susanne Irene Fjørtoft, Theatre Maker

17 July 2013

'Talk with people and be curious. I think that's a good approach to most things. Be curious, and investigate, and engage.'

This is the answer Susanne Irene Fjørtoft, Norwegian theater maker and participant of the first edition of the NEU NOW LIVE Festival, offered when asked what advice she would give to the young artists in this year's Festival, now on its fifth edition.

Not one to shy away from her own advice, Susanne is currently engaging with the world in a number of different ways; from her her freelance work as a sceneographer, to her theatre making with the performance ensemble LIVESTOCK, and her collaboration with the Happy Gorilla Dance Company, her artistic endeavours have led her to unexpected encounters - including finding herself in Istanbul in the midst of June's protests.  

A self described '100% Happy Gorilla', all of her undertakings are marked by a thoughtful playfullness that emanates from her sense of curiosity as well a keen sense of awareness, reflection, and social responsibility.

The NEU NOW team dispatched resident festival busybody Jessica Maxwell to catch up with Susanne and see where life has taken her - and her art - over the years.

Returning to the craft of the long form interview, what follows is a condensed form of the longer original version. In regards to today's bitesize media consumption it includes section headings to expedite reading.

This interview was conducted via skype on June 19, 2013. 

Fjørtoft at NEU NOW LIVE 2009

JESSICA MAXWELL : In 2009, you participated with the ensemble LIVESTOCK in the NEU NOW LIVE Festival in Vilnius with 'Riding a Dead Horse.' What was this piece all about?

SUSANNE IRENE FJØRTOFT: 'Riding a Dead Horse' was the graduation performance made by me and four other actors from my education in Fredrikstad, Norway. It was a piece working with the strong individual, the growing individualism in our society today. From there, it was very much a divising situation where the five of us had very different backgrounds, very different approaches to the topic, different approaches to how we think theater should be. The concept behind it all came from the first fourteen and a half minutes of 'Once Upon A Time in the West.' The first fourteen and a half minutes is just a scene where these three cowboys are waiting at a train station in the middle of nowhere and waiting for a train. It's just fourteen minutes of waiting. We decided that this is the starting point for our performance. We found our interest point within those fourteen and a half minutes and we constructed our own character and our own story line based upon one element in that movie. For instance, there is one of these windwheels going around, just this constant noise of, 'Ee ee’.

MAXWELL: The old creaky, rattling windmill.

FJØRTOFT:  Exactly, so that became my character. I started working from, 'Okay, how will I make myself a timeline within these fifteen minutes, and how would I like to perform?', while also working from the different concepts of the strong individual versus the collective. After a working period of a few weeks we spent apart we met and we put on a camera and said, 'Okay. Now we perform our fifteen minutes.' We went on the stage, and we did our own thing, and went colliding into each other, making chaos. Just fifteen minutes of five performances in the same place.    

MAXWELL: You prepared them each individually without knowledge of the others' performances?

FJØRTOFT: Yes. Of course we discussed the topics, ideas, and we were helping each other out with our different parts, but it was never planned. We would never compose each other.

MAXWELL: But for NEU NOW things didn't go exactly as planned...

FJØRTOFT: What happened is we wanted to show off our complete performance, but there were so many practical things not adding up, we were missing a member of the group and so on. We ended up making a presentation, or more of an artistic presentation of our performance. We would have loved to be able to really show the work. I guess that also like somehow it felt a bit of a relief on the pressure as well because going there with a huge scenography and all these kind of things that we were like, 'Oh, shit, this is big.'

MAXWELL: Right. You had the opportunity to take in the festival, to experience it more fully, but still you had to be a bit resourceful about how to present yourself artistically?

FJØRTOFT: We focused on how is it possible to create something that comes together as a union in the end when you're supposed to be such a big, diverse group of people coming together? This smaller theater project became a social image maybe for bigger societies or smaller societies. How can it all come together? How can we preserve ourselves and our interests and at the same time be a part of the community and support the community around us?

Growing the ensemble: LIVESTOCK over the years

MAXWELL: The LIVESTOCK ensemble, which you still work actively with today, emerged out of ‘Dead Horse’, your graduation project. Did the ensemble come out of the school community?

FJØRTOFT: Yes. Definitely the meeting point was the school, when forming the groups, we were thrown together. In the circumstances it was a benefit to be a bigger group because of room solutions, all this practical stuff. We weren't best friends and we hadn't worked together before. We were just this strange bastard group. Somehow we really made that work.


We had a good division of interests. There was a good flow and I think this was what also made us interested in continuing to work together. You have the artistic challenges, some personal challenges, but then all in all you're quite a good team because you have different skills.

MAXWELL: How has LIVESTOCK developed over the years?

FJØRTOFT: Our biggest challenge is that we don't have the possibility for continuous work. We live in very different locations. We lost person one on the way. Now the core is basically the four of us. I live in Bergen in Norway. Another lives in Oslo in Norway. A third one lives in Copenhagen in Denmark. The fourth one, he's in Utrecht in The Netherlands. We're quite widespread and all pursuing our individual career and our individual projects. LIVESTOCK is a company existing of professionals all having their own career in different directions.

 'We were just this
strange bastard group.'

MAXWELL: Is there any tension over a sense of authorship or ownership within the ensemble for the work that you create?

FJØRTOFT: We had some discussions on, not ownership over the work, but maybe ownership of the company in a way. A need or want to define LIVESTOCK, what we are and represent. What is my ownership of this name and this group?

MAXWELL: Do you have any anxiety about the ensemble dissolving over the years?

FJØRTOFT: I think this is very shifting, how much you trust the strength of it and the unity of it because the lives of the members are constantly changing. It feels like there needs to be at all times a core, at least two people who have the drive. Then, the two others can follow and maybe the next six months is two other people having more of a drive. It's a very fragile connection.

On top of that we are dependent on funding to do our work. We also have this constant uncertainty of where will we get funding for the next project, how do you plan your future? It's really, really challenging.

At this point, I have a quite good feeling because there is quite the strong core. It's now me and one other being really the driving forces.

Funding for the arts in Norway

MAXWELL: What is the situation for arts funding, especially for performance, in Norway?  

'I don't want to live in Norway,
but I want to be an artist there.'

FJØRTOFT: There are some main funds that we apply for. The main pot is usually from the Norwegian Arts Council. That's the biggest pot that is really good to get. There are some smaller funds as well.
MAXWELL: NGOs or government-sponsored institutions?

FJØRTOFT: Government-sponsored institutions, yes.

MAXWELL: There is this notion that the northern countries are an utopian situation for artists in regards to funding.

FJØRTOFT: It depends on what you compare it to. There's a huge competition. Within Norway, I say yes there is competition, but also the government is actually giving quite a lot of funding, at least compared to other European countries, especially now in these economical times. They are also quite good at funding quite a broad or versatile selection of works. It's not that you have to have a very big company and have been working for years before you get funding. They also really see new and upcoming ones and give them good funding to get them started and invest also money in that. It's a good place. Like my colleague from the Netherlands is always saying, 'I don't want to live in Norway, but I want to be an artist there’.

MAXWELL: For the funding, is it restrictive on the kind of content or the creative control that you have over the work?

FJØRTOFT: I think content-wise it's very open. At least with the Norwegian Arts Council you can apply with anything you would like to research. There are no very strict guidelines on content officially, but I guess they will favor different things different years.

MAXWELL: You talked about the difficult financial times. Has the funding situation changed due to the crisis?

FJØRTOFT: In Norway there is not actually a decrease in funding, there was actually more funding than now this year than last year. It's this internal fight between the dance world and the theater world. The dance world was really lucky this year. They got a big pot of money. Then, the theater world is fighting now, 'No, we need more funding.' Norway is not directly influenced by that crisis in Europe in the cultural funding situation.

MAXWELL: So you've come out of it a bit unscathed then at this moment?

FJØRTOFT: Yes, at this moment at least. I think it's a matter of time. Norway is a part of Europe, how much we want it or not, even being outside European Union. I think it's also a matter of also preparing that, 'Okay, we're not completely shut off from the world. It will have effects also in Norway.' I think the very right-wing inclinations that is going like a wave through the world, or at least through Europe. I think it's also part of this working with the strong individual and the focus on consumer society, doing good business and economic growth. The emphasis in these things are huge and it goes against the arts because the arts aren’t for economical growth. Of course the arts need money to exist and pump energy into the society in a different way. My fear is that this shift in Norway will also go more towards the right-wing side and towards those that want to cut the funding for culture because it's not worth it in economical terms.

Engaging with the world through artistic practice:
Fjørtoft in Istanbul during the Gezi Protests

MAXWELL: On the subject of right-wing inclinations and consumerism, you were just in Turkey for two weeks for a residency. Major world events overlapped with your time there as a visiting artist. Would you feel comfortable talking about your experience of that?

FJØRTOFT: Yes, I can try. Of course I think that the thing started, I read it on the news in Norway the evening before I left, two evenings before I left actually. My preparation for going to Turkey was reading up on political situations a little bit, what’s actually going on, who's fighting who, and what's this thing? It was very different, not like reading up on the Grand Bazaar or the Blue Mosque or all those tourist things that you want to do when you go down. It's very much something is happening, what is this thing going on?

MAXWELL: Was there a sense of apprehension for going because of the developing situation?

FJØRTOFT: It was never a question to go or not. We would go anyway, but we had some discussions how that would affect our trip. We were also prepared if we would come here and maybe leave the next day. We wanted to go anyway.

'This is happening.
You have to come here.
Bring your masks.'

MAXWELL: Were you working with Turkish artists?

FJØRTOFT: The residency is between me and another artist. She's living in Norway, but she grew up in Spain, and was born in Switzerland. It's this difficult cultural background. It has been a big topic in our work. The residency is called the Halka Art Project and takes place in the Asian part of Istanbul. We are working on a piece called 'Sketch Work on Time'. We're focused towards more of a performance art exhibition result in the end. It's a bit separate from my other theater projects.

We've talked a lot to the people running the place. They're also Turkish, not artists, but arts management educated. We've been very much in the local discussions, I feel, but with people who are a little bit on the outside, that are not taking part in the main demonstrations and being in the middle of it, but being very much a part of the society that takes part in this. 

When we first came down here our plan was also to work together with a Turkish artist who is a friend of my colleague. She is really taking part in the demonstrations and hardcore Gezi Park. We haven't managed to keep in touch with her at all because she's been just completely, 'This is happening. You have to come here. Bring your masks.'

It has been this situation of being . . . our project is taking a different turn, of course, we cannot do our collaboration with her. It has had a lot of strange little influences on our work. Little influences, I mean major influences, on the work down here actually. 

MAXWELL: Would you say the atmosphere is not one of business as usual?

FJØRTOFT: The city is running as normal. The first few days were really much more intense than now because the situation was very unclear and it was very high-tension. 

Maybe I can explain a little bit how we are living. The Taksim is on the European side and it's the main square connected to the main street, the shopping area of the big blooming flower of central Istanbul. We are on the other side of the water, on the Asian side, in a very local neighborhood. It's one of the neighborhoods that's now starting to be a lot of artists and musicians. It's a very secular neighborhood and it's very relaxed. People are cool. It's a super friendly, super quiet, super everyday life situation in this part. What happened the first week is we were of course discussing, 'Can we go to the European side? Should we stay on this side?'  

It's this feeling of being in a very normal everyday city life but everyone is focused on the news. Everyone is focused on this thing that's going on and everyone in this neighborhood, they're really emotionally and strongly involved with it.    

They have every night at nine, they start banging on pots, they go with whistles in the street, the cars start honking. You just see people, they're just walking home from the stores, 'Oh, it's nine o'clock. I bring out my flute.' There is just a complete racket all over and really in solidarity of what is happening at Taksim. Their way of really supporting saying, 'That's okay. We really support what is happening.' Of course this gives me goose bumps every night, every night since I came. Nine o'clock sharp this sound is starting. Sometimes they go long time into the night. Other evenings, it has been about fifteen minutes and then it's finished, all depending on how intense the situation has been. If there has been some groups of people being more involved and agitating others. It really boosted all engines. You just have this society in need of saying something and finally being able to voice your opinion. This is just such an incredible and amazing experience.

It's also so amazing that it's so friendly, it's so civilized, it's so peaceful. You can imagine people are banging their pots and suddenly they start making rhythms, they play with each other, and then it goes into more of a dissonance. People could be throwing trash cans down the street to make a racket, but they don't. It's really, 'I'm going to bang on my pot, or I'm going to blow my whistle, or I'm going to shout a slogan.'

'My expression is not in the streets,
but my expression is within the work
I'm doing now. I think that's more an
appropriate place for me
to put this energy.'

MAXWELL: It's participatory and people are really reacting off of one another in the moment.

FJØRTOFT: Yes, definitely. I mean I get so pulled into it. I really want to participate because of this energy and at the same time I feel this really big distance of, 'This is not my fight.' I completely and totally support what's going on, but it's not my fight. It's really ambiguous, this feeling, should I bang my pot or not? I think it was two nights ago I did but that has been the only night that I really participated. That night I just felt, 'Okay, tonight it's so strong and it just feels right at this point. I want to join these people over the street and bang my pot'. Then we were sitting in an outdoor restaurant eating, so we were just right in the middle of it.

It feels like a statement to not participate, in a way, which is also kind of a strange situation where you're thinking, 'How can I show my support but not take part directly, or take this conflict on me in a way?'

I think my expression of it is so much more in how it has influenced the work that I'm doing now with my colleague. My expression is not in the streets, but my expression is within the work I'm doing now. I think that's more an appropriate place for me to put this energy.

MAXWELL: Is this work something that you'll be presenting outside the country as a finished piece, or is this more a process of artistic development? 

FJØRTOFT: This is definitely an ongoing artistic process. This is our third residency with this project and we will continue to do residencies to further develop it and to have some kind of final product, or have some final exhibition performances sometime in 2014. That's the plan.

MAXWELL: How much longer are you there for?

FJØRTOFT: We leave on Sunday.
MAXWELL: Are you feeling sad about leaving? Do you feel like it's time?

FJØRTOFT: No, definitely feeling a bit sad. This is definitely one of the cities where I feel I could spend more time. I'm considering I would love to go back for a three-month residency, or maybe do one year here. I’m constantly contemplating, ‘How can I fit this into the schedule to be able to go here again and spend more time?’

MAXWELL: So your artistic practice is a means to travel.

FJØRTOFT: Both yes and no. I don't know. Art, artistic lifestyle . . . I really notice this that when you go somewhere and you get new input, this is really boosting your creativity and means of expression.  

I think I wouldn't travel as much if it hadn't been in connection to projects. I think art is fueling my need to travel, maybe using art for exploration of new places.

Because when you go somewhere completely without a thought, or without an idea, then you explore it in a completely different way than if you have your project. Now with the situation in Turkey, our project has been our glasses to look at what is happening. If I had just come here without a project, I think I would be consumed in the situation in a completely different way or maybe I would have just shut down and said this is not happening. It’s experiencing the place through the piece you're working on. I think that's what's most important to me with traveling and art.

MAXWELL: It provides a framework for engagement with the place.

FJØRTOFT: Yes, that's a really good way of saying it.  

Looking back at NEU NOW LIVE 

MAXWELL: You also engaged with Vilnius through the lens of your artwork for NEU NOW. What were your expectations of the Festival before you participated?

FJØRTOFT: I had really no idea what it would be, what we were going to. It was for me, and the others as well I think, the first experience of going to an international festival and traveling with our work and showing it in that kind of context. I did not have long experience with either the theater world, theater festivals, or anything. We were really just curious to see what it would be and what would turn out.

'We actually met our future
collaborators at NEU NOW.'

MAXWELL: What was the impact of the festival on your career?

FJØRTOFT: I think it's two different things that happened in Vilnius. One was the possibility to just speak to a lot of people in our own situation and get a feeling of some sort of energy and a feeling that things are going on and people are eager both to show work and to have work shown. This was one part of it that I think was a really good boost. Of course, the thing of being selected in the first place was also a big boost. It just feels really good to have your work noticed.
Then, on the more practical part, we actually met our future collaborators at NEU NOW. There was an artist from Bergen, she is called Karen Skog and her own little orchestra. We just fell so much in love with the sound of her instruments so we actually started our new production, it evolved from 'Let's go for a coffee' and we all sat around a big table. It's very much like, 'Let's do something together. We have an idea. Would you like to be part of that?'

Actually the next performance of LIVESTOCK, which was called 'An Oil Adventure,'   (Et Oljeeventyr) really had its the starting point at NEU NOW. Ithink it was in that sense crucial for one of these coincidences that just makes it click and you can't really see how it would workotherwise.  

MAXWELL: NEU NOW resulted in a concrete collaboration for your group that helped to develop your work professionally. 

FJØRTOFT: Yes, so the next work was really made in collaboration with her and her orchestra. This same performance we are doing again this year and we are further developing it now. We're going to show it again, in a different version, with a little bit different performers, a different setup. I guess this one is still alive.

Shameless plugging: upcoming work

MAXWELL: What else are you working on at the moment?

FJØRTOFT: Among other things, I’m working with Happy Gorilla Dance Company. Those are really great, funny guys who I met at a crucial moment in my life after a crazy year in 2011.

In 2011 I did two productions, one with LIVESTOCK and one with another woman that I went in the Academy with. I was so exhausted after that year. It had been so much and everything was new, and big challenges, and a lot of responsibility. It was the first year of having two well-funded productions so they could go actually a little bit bigger scale.
By the end of that year I was like, 'I'm just going to work in the local grocery store. I really can't take the theater pressure any more. It's too much.' My mindset was, 'I just need a job.' Then, of course, I stumbled upon one of the people in Happy Gorilla Dance Company and he said, 'I need someone who's skilled with spatial challenges, scenography, who’s maybe handy building stuff, and who's not afraid of being on stage.' I thought, 'Yes, this sounds perfect. I was just really, from the first moment, completely consumed by them and I consider myself a 100% Happy Gorilla.

MAXWELL: Speaking as a 100% Happy Gorilla, what are you working on now that you're excited about and want to shamelessly plug…

FJØRTOFT: We will do a concert together, working title 'Turning Golem', with Happy Gorilla. This production is a collaboration with a local metal band called Vulture Industries. It's the Gorillas meeting the Vultures. I love these animal themes in everything I do - LIVESTOCK and Gorillas. That production is dramatically focused on dogmas or big, infallible systems of truths. That's a real mouthful and I think it will be quite poetic. It’s so far quite a poetic approach, chaotic and poetic.

And of course I will work on the remounting of 'An Oil Adventure' with LIVESTOCK. That's a production that's going to now get a final shape.

We're working a lot on the topics of national identity, what is it to be Norwegian. I feel that Norway and Norwegians have a quite strong national feeling, a national identity and a connection to this. The core of our performance is also then how the oil industry of Norway is using this national identity, this connection to Norway, this pride, to market themselves within Norway. It’s stealing our cultural heritage in a way to use for promotions. All the oil fields in the Norwegian shelf are named after either historical or mythological figures in Norwegian history, or fairy tale characters, or Norse gods. All the fields have these ‘Norwegianess’ to them. ‘Osebergfeltet’ is originally a Viking ship, now it's a subsea gas field outside my hometown. The words are shifting meaning but continuing to carry with them some kind of emotional connection. Now it means a gas field, a subsea gas field.   

I think it's really about this Norwegianess and this doubleness of feeling proud of being Norwegian for some reason. I don't know why, but that's my identity. Does that mean that I'm also proud of Norway being a huge fucking oil nation? How do I choose to relate to that? Is it just something I choose to not take in? Do I have to relate to it? It’s this doubleness of your connection to your home country.


Bringing it all together: NEU NOW and the future

MAXWELL: There are a few more questions to cap this all off. First, what was your professional ambition when you were doing NEU NOW in 2009?
FJØRTOFT: Then I was really focused on doing work as a freelance scenographer and as a theater maker in LIVESTOCK. Those were my two main focuses at the point.

MAXWELL: What are your professional ambitions for the future?

FJØRTOFT: That is a much more difficult question. I think at this point I just really want to have fun.

I want to do good projects and I want to do projects that are ambitious and fun. Because it's such hard work doing these big productions and if I don't enjoy it, really full time, then I find it very difficult. It's now much more focused actually on my work as a theater maker and performer more than as a freelance scenographer. I guess I've also narrowed it down, I want to be in the, what is the English word for it, like the underground theater scene? No, it's not the underground but it's sort of that . . .
MAXWELL: Alternative?

FJØRTOFT: Alternative, yes. I'm not seeking jobs in the theater institutions. I want to stay in the alternative theater scene because that's where I find the most engaging and challenging projects, I think.

'I don't think my imagination
at that time could grasp
what it really is to be
where I am today.'

MAXWELL: Speaking of the art of business or the business of being an artist, do you support yourself through your freelance scenography?

FJØRTOFT: I did that for the first couple of years with jobs on the side in a little bit different occupations, a little bit teaching. While now I'm really living on scraps, and I don't have a side job, and being economically quite stressed out about that situation at the moment. Yes, I guess because I've been much more picky on the projects that I wanted to go into, I also can feel the economic situation is very different.

MAXWELL: Thanks for answering that so candidly. Money is a bit of a taboo topic but making a living from art is something every artist relates to, so why not open up the dialogue.

But back to life markers. Today, are you where you thought you would be in five years?

FJØRTOFT: I think maybe I'm where I hoped I would be. I don't think my imagination at that time could grasp what it really is to be where I am today. It's a big surprise to me how it feels to be working like this, how it feels to have this situation, and a lot of surprises all the time along the way of challenges you never thought you would have. I really went in the direction I wanted to go, following the urge and the need to explore the theater world. 

I put a three year goal actually when I left the school, which was then right before the festival. Which was for three years I'm just going to do with every bone in my body, with every brain cell, I will try to make a living as a scenographer. That was really my main core, my main goal. I think this is flowing now into being more of a theater maker, a performer, I think it’s really a good direction. Now it's more and more focused on the making and performing part.

Maybe it’s a result of the three years of me fighting for it, really wanting to make it.

MAXWELL:  This year we're celebrating the 5th NEU NOW Festival. Where can we expect to find you when we interview you for the 10th NEU NOW Festival?

FJØRTOFT: Wow. Right now in this very particular moment in time, I hope I will be sitting back in Istanbul having really a nice cup of tea. It's five years ahead in time, it's mostly dreams and everything is so fluent and I'm really going with the flow of where the next project will take me. I guess I'm a little bit in the turning point of feeling the need of defining things more, but not quite yet. Wherever the stream, the flow, the wind will take me. I really don't know.

Jessica Maxwell is Communications Officer for The European League of Institutes of the Arts (ELIA) and is currently working on editing the upcoming ELIA publication 'Art Futures' due out in March 2014.


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