Astrid Fadnes and her colleagues in Pikene på Broen continues the interaction with independent artists in Russia. "This connection through art provides hope on both sides. Both for individuals and for the future," she says.
While much of the dialogue and cooperation with Russia has been subject to sanctions by both states and societal actors after the country's invasion of Ukraine, some areas of contact have been sustained - such as in the field of art and culture in the High North.
Pikene på Broen (the Girls on the Bridge), a collective of curators and producers in Kirkenes, is focused on their aim of creating meeting places and building bridges across national borders and art genres in the Barents region.
"We are concerned with crossing many borders, but the Norwegian-Russian border is the most central," says Astrid Fadnes, communications manager in the collective.
We meet her in Harstad earlier this summer, where she was the main speaker in a High Noon debate on the possibilities for cross-border cooperation after the invasion. The debate was organized by The Arctic Arts Festival and High North News.
When several Norwegian cultural institutions boycotted Russian artists this winter, the Pikene på Broen collective spoke up against breaking all contact and interaction with the Russian side.
"It has been our position right from the start that the cooperation with Russia needs to be nuanced. Although we must of course comply with the sanctions, and we have stopped our cooperation with actors who are connected to the Russian power apparatus, we believe that it is important to continue the interaction with the free and independent voices among artists and others," says Fadnes and continues:
"They are also opponents of the highest degree of the regime, and they give us valuable, little areas of contact into Russia in the time we are in."
The sound of a fog horn was played from the Norwegian side. From the Russian side, only a symbolic silence was heard.
Pikene på Broen had just opened Barents Spektakel in Kirkenes when Russia invaded Ukraine on the 24th of February. Barents Spektakel is a border-crossing cultural-political festival with significant Norwegian-Russian interaction.
The theme of the festival; "Where do we go from here?", was originally based on the COVID pandemic, but suddenly gained many more layers.
"We decided to carry out the festival, and quickly made a statement where we condemned the war and simultaneously emphasized the importance of keeping social and cultural meeting places open," says Fadnes.
As a part of the closing ceremony, one Norwegian and one Russian artist was going to present their cooperation project about listening and building bridges across great distances. From opposite sides of the Pasvik River, on the border between Norway and Russia, they were going to play fog signals to each other using loud speakers.
"Just an hour before the performance, our Russian co-organizer announces that they are not allowed to do the performance. Russian authorities justified this by blaming a blizzard. We, however, did not see any bad weather, and realized that it was rather a political blizzard."
"The sound of a fog horn was played from the Norwegian side. From the Russian side, only a symbolic silence was heard," Fadnes describes.
So far, we have especially addressed how artistic expressions can be tools for protest.
Old meeting places made new
Pikene på Broen and their Russian partners have not let the silence take hold, however. One of the ways in which they continue to interact, is through the consept Kvartirnik.
"Kvartirnik comes from the Russian word kvartira, which means apartment. The concept arose in the Soviet era when many musicians could not play their music on public stages, and therefore gathered for concerts and conversation in apartments. We have borrowed this concept and built on it," says Fadnes.
First, the concept was used during the festival as an artistic pandemic initiative for dialogue and exchange of music, with a hybrid Kvartirnik through a digital bridge between physical arenas in Kirkenes and Murmansk.
"Building on that, we have used Kvartirnik as a concept for inviting artists and other cultural actors into digitally connected physical rooms in Kirkenes and on the Russian side, as well as in Georgia and other places in Europe where many of our Russian acquaintances have fled," she explains and continues:
"The aim is to speak together and ventilate. So far, we have especially addressed how artistic expressions can be tools for protest. For example, we have had powerful meetings with young artists in Murmansk. They have resurrected Samizdat, also a concept from the Soviet era, to circumvent censorship. This is a collection of texts without a named sender which are only exchanged in secret."
Art provides important testimonies for posterity and, at best, insight into the present.
Striving for physical meetings
Pikene på Broen also organize an international residency program in Kirkenes for artists, musicians, architects, scientists, and curators. This facilitates artistic exploration of the Barents region, and thereby production of new art and new stories.
"We also value artists and others meeting physically to develop new cooperation projects. Recently, a Russian scientist stayed with us in Kirkenes for three weeks. She normally works at an independent research center in St. Petersburg, but now lives in Georgia and has a Schengen visa. During her stay, she started collecting interview data about the first reactions to Russia's warfare," says Fadnes.
"Art, paired with research, literature, and journalism, can rarely create change over night, but provides important testimonies for posterity and, at best, insight into the present," she points out.
This fall, the plan is for several Russian artists to have residency in Kirkenes, and some of these are still living in Russia.
"However, we have no idea how their visa applications will pan out since Norwegian authorities are quite strict. After what I've heard, it is easier to get a Schengen visa in say, Finland, than in Norway.
Expressions of peace
Pikene på Broen also arranged a seminar in the middle of June, which included physical and digital Russian participants, named 'Backyard Residencies - Conversations in the North'.
"This seminar was an initiative from Troms and Finnmark County Council, and is part of a long-standing concept for more cooperation between writers and people who organize residential programs in the Barents region. The seminar was about art and writing, but the war was obviously also a topic," says Fadnes.
"One of the Russians who participated, read a text where she had written about the value of equality and peace. Just to hear a Russian friend who is in Russia say the word peace was very powerful considering the times we live in. Especially when we know she is taking a risk by doing so," she adds.
To maintain cooperation, especially with those who reside in Russia, presents challenges related to security, Fadnes points out.
"The artists' safety is a priority for us. We do not want to cling to a contact which will put them in considerable danger. Safety assessments must be regularly done. Among other things, there is a risk connected to public, digital events, because some might participate with bad intentions. Our Kvartirnik meetings are therefore invite only."
Consequently, the security challenge entails that digital pandemic solutions can not be carried on with ease. Fadnes also explains that the exclusion of Russian banks from the international payment system Swift makes cooperation difficult.
"One thing is to communicate across the border, which we can fortunately still do through the phone, Zoom or Telegram, but when we wish to enter cooperations which involves remunerating artists or interpreters for a job, the Swift sanctions result in them not being able to receive money from us. This is problematic for us, because when we hire people, we need to be able to pay them properly," she says.
Rather than letting the iron curtain fall completely down between us, we need to believe in a new era after the war.
Dynamic under the rader
Despite their challenges, the will is strong among the Pikene på Broen collective and their Russian partners.
"We receive such great feedback, especially on Kvartirnik. Many wants to join every time, which testifies to the fact that this is an important area of contact for them. Perhaps it gives them faith that the world has not given up on them just because they come from a country with a terrible regime."
Fadnes also points out that the independent artists are among the few we can have proper contact with on the Russian side.
"There is something about art which somehow goes 'under the radar' because the artists can use other expressions and metaphors to communicate, so that they can evade the authorities' censorship," she says and goes on:
"Even though our fait in the power of art as a tool for protest and resistance against a great military power goes up and down, this contact through art provides hope on both sides. Both for individuals and for the future."
"Rather than letting the iron curtain fall completely down between us, we need to believe in a new era after the war. We need to protect the border-crossing interaction and the expertise which has been built up in the Barents region for nearly 30 years."
This article was originally published in Norwegian and has been translated into English by Birgitte Annie Molid Martinussen.