In 2010 we stumbled upon information about a human zoo that had taken place in the heart of Oslo in 1914. Not being from this country, naturally, we assumed that this was common knowledge among natives, so, in an interest to learn more about the general consent on the exhibition, we started asking around.
As it turned out pretty much no one we talked to had ever heard about it (even if they had heard of human zoos in other countries). Given how popular the exhibition was (1.4 million visitors saw it at a time when the population of Norway was 2 million) the widespread absence of at least a general knowledge was surprising.
Since the 100 year anniversary of the Oslo human zoo was around the corner and because of the impotency of looking at archival images; giving a feeling that it has little to do with us today, we suggested the idea that we would re-build the village. The reaction to our suggestion was mixed. Many were for and many were against. The arguments on both sides were familiar. It was the same circular pattern that we wanted to confront in the first place. Still, the question remains; how do we confront a neglected aspect of the past that still contributes to our present? We wanted to investigate the linear or non-linear (whatever the case may be) connection between the messages of racial superiority that lined the intentions of the human zoos in the past to a more contemporary idea of superiority of goodness.
Human zoos were in general seen as giving important educational experiences and the Oslo human zoo in particular played a key role in an exhibition that marked an important stage in the building of the national identity.
The specific Nordic national branding has come to include the promotion of a people that are not only naturally good but also more tolerant and liberal than most. When quantifying humanitarian goodness the paradox is inherent in the advancement, how can anyone be equal to the most equal? Certainly, the neo right uses humanitarian bravado and liberal tolerance as an argument for cultural and racial exclusion.
Following the discussions around cultural, ethnic and national identity during the few years we’ve lived in Norway, the circular patterns in the media have become apparent. The discussions are usually triggered by an incident of one kind or another followed by a series of petulant commentary that tend to provide a set form of arguments, the same questions and the same answers, chewed through and never really digested only to be repeated in the same unresolved manner again. We should really rethink this format, we should consume all the old questions and try to pursue new ones without falling into a trap of bumptiousness.
In an attempt to break from the circularity of these discussions, it might help to distinguish between two understandings of racism: a modern racism and a post- modern racism. The former is based on arguments of inequality and the existence of inferior or superior ethnicities and races. Postmodern racism emphasizes the impossibility of equitable dialogue among different races and ethnicities to establish common rules for living together.
We should also discuss racism among minorities and how that inherent racism is turned into oneness when confronted by Norwegian homogenous racism as a possible defense mechanism generated by the fear of being exposed to xenophobia or Islamophobia.
In the scope of this project we wanted to discuss what purpose a reenactment can serve, how it is made relevant for us today in order to gain new knowledge that addresses the issue of spectatorship both in 1914 and in 2014.
Europe is becoming increasingly xenophobic, clos- ing its borders and utilizing draconian law. We need new perspectives and approaches. We can’t discuss racism without discussing global economy and structural racism embedded within the system.
We instigated a discussion that we hoped would leads to new questions. To do this we couldn’t dictate the terms of the discussion. The more we provide the less we get.
Project site here