Tromsø Academy of Contemporary Art

Learning by Doing:
Reflections on Setting Up a New Art Academy

The following text by Åsa Sonjasdotter, is an excerpt from an article about the collective process of establishing an educational centre for art in Tromsø, North Norway, beginning in 2007. The article was written in dialogue between Nicolas Siepen and Sonjasdotter, and was published in E-flux, Issue #14, March 2010

The Academy of Contemporary Art in Tromsø opened in the fall of 2007. It is located in the Subarctic, in the North of Norway. The institution is not built upon neutral ground—there is a specific history, with specific political and cultural struggles, and from the beginning the establishment of this academy was driven by a hope that it would become an institutional and cultural resource for the region and also an instrument for diverse and sometimes conflicting interests. Many different concerns were voiced as the Art Academy in Tromsø formed, and this discussion is important. For whom and for what reason is this institution here? What is the purpose of this new academy, and how does it reflect upon already existing institutions? Why were these other institutions established and what was the political drive behind them? What are their roles now, and how do they influence the power dynamics within the field of art and within society at large?

The demand for an academy in North Norway was preceded by a long history weighed down by colonialism, regional marginalization, and class struggle. Politically, the history of the area is deep red, and it was no accident that the University of Tromsø was established in 1968. The decolonization process of the Sámi, the proximity to the Arctic and its newly actualized geopolitical tensions, and the knowledge that the state-owned oil industry brings wealth to the country—these are only some of the complex topics that charged the representational significance of this new academy in different ways and brought hopeful expectations from the region.

Images from the workshop: We Wanted a River and got a Parliament – Law Land and Right – 30 Years After the Alta Case. October 5 - 10, 2009. 1

In 2005, the political situation in Norway made it possible for the left wing party (Socialistisk Venstreparti) to get enough votes for a parliamentary decision to form an academy in the North of Norway. The academy was to be organized under the Faculty of Fine Arts, first under Tromsø University College, which became part of Tromsø University in 2008. The Tromsø-born Sámi artist Geir Tore Holm, who has a deep knowledge of both the region and of international art, was appointed to create the foundation for the academy. Together with an advisory board, he prepared a profile for the academy and outlined the initial BA Program. The very fact that a profile was written importantly signals that the institution made an effort to articulate its approach and position themselves within what was understood as a politically and culturally differentiated landscape of art and education. The profile stressed mutuality between art / art education and the society at large by defining art practices as an intrinsic part of Northern Scandinavia as well as positioning social topics within art practices. Through the profile (some of the core notions of the which were cultural, social, and ethnic disparities, connections between nature and culture, the potential for a sustainable practice of art, local and regional conditions, the complexity of place, global orientation), the academy in Tromsø positioned particularities as key to its founding principles.

Images from the workshop: We Wanted a River and got a Parliament – Law Land and Right – 30 Years After the Alta Case. October 5 - 10, 2009. 1

This awareness of particularity is not meant to isolate the academy’s activities solely within the local; on the contrary, it carries a potential for an informed and engaged participation within both local and international dialogue. By emphasizing particularity, the academy could make an interesting move away from a hierarchical organization and definition of its activities—away from not only geopolitical international/ national/ local hierarchies, but also from the very traditional, patriarchal ideology of the master artist and the master works as central references for art education within the Bachelor/Master class systems). This allowed it to move towards a specified, and therefore diversified relation to art, knowledge, and institutional positions. However, the contemporary art field does contain a very broad range of specific fields of knowledge and ideological positions, and no educational institution can (or should) cover it all.

So how is the particularity of the academy in Tromsø to be carried out in reality? This was the question and task I found before me when starting as the first program leader. 
5  I was already very interested in the circumstances I described above, and found them to be optimistic challenges. I also saw this situation as an opening and important possibility, especially in light of the major decline of progressive institutions in Scandinavia during the last decade. There were some basic concerns regarding how the academy should function. These concerns were less a set of conditions than they were questions for continuous discussion. The open situation brought the unique possibility for all involved to consider basic questions of what art is about or could be about, and I wished to preserve this openness as a basis for discussions that would become part of the educational process. I also see this approach as a continuation of the vision for the academy’s profile, or as my interpretation of how such visions could be carried out in reality: as a consideration of one’s own subjective approach within a larger context, as a responsibility both for one’s own interests as well as for those of a larger public. Practically, we started out by establishing a platform on which questions on all levels could be discussed between everyone involved. Every Monday morning, all staff and students met to go over topics that had come up during the week or were of more general character. These questions could range from basic practical issues such as disagreements over kitchen routines to more difficult questions on dynamics within the teaching structure or suggestions for external collaborations. Matters to be discussed in the Monday meetings would to be sent to the coordinator, who would then announce them in advance. The chair and secretary always rotated in order to prevent the meetings from being consistently influenced by a single person. The notes were posted on our intranet archive. Decisions were made within these meetings, so if you weren’t there you didn’t have your say. We alternated between consensus and majority decisions, depending on the character of the topic. After a while we also established sub-groups, “reference groups,” in which various structural developments were discussed. These groups were organized around student and staff interests. It was not necessary to be part of such groups, and no student should feel any pressure to participate. With only thirteen students, it was also important that they be freed from the often-overwhelming situation of an academy in the making. In this way, we could combine broad and involved discussions on all the various aspects of this incredible and complex process. Conclusions amongst the reference groups were presented and discussed at the Monday meetings, and decisions were made when needed.

Images from the workshop: We Wanted a River and got a Parliament – Law Land and Right – 30 Years After the Alta Case. October 5 - 10, 2009. 1

The meetings stirred important discussions on a variety of questions, both ideological and practical. Shared or separate study areas? The students agreed on a flexible solution in which it was possible to define individual or group workspaces. Open-source computers or Mac? We now have both, but if I could go back make the decision myself, we would have only open source. We have decided to collaborate with other institutions in Tromsø on more specialized workshops. For example, we decided to hold a silkscreening workshop in collaboration with an artist co-op, who kindly share their graphic print shop. We have been able to use the facilities of the neighboring theatre to produce advanced plastic castings and house the advanced plotter, which is also available to the whole university.

The discussions and solutions on practical and structural matters often touched upon basic questions concerning understandings and approaches to art, art production, and to the nature of an art academy. Since the students had only just begun their studies, it was not always easy for them to form their own opinion and act upon it at the same time: study, make art, and participate in the making of an academy. As one student cleverly articulated, “It’s not that I don’t want to have an opinion, but I need the whole picture before I can make a decision.” This is of course true in many ways, but at the same time the picture is never so clearly defined, and is rather something that appears through such discussions and attempts. However, I shouldn’t understate my influence on the discussions and decisions, not to mention that of the students’ own knowledge and experiences. Since we belong to a state-organized university structure with many set conditions, there were of course limitations to how much we could radically re-imagine the structure. In addition, I was only responsible for the development of the educational program, not for the staff and budget. Our decisions functioned as formal suggestions before the faculty, and in practice they were for the most part accepted and implemented. The importance of our self-defined and self-organized decision-making process could be seen in how the development of the Academy’s vision came through discussions. Our suggestions were formulated in a way that gave them authority within the formal decision-making process, and they were often the only suggestions available. In this sense, we placed ourselves in a pro-active position in relation to the university structure’s own decision-making process. The fact that our proposals were for the most part carried out contributed immensely to the learning, since this was the only way of finding out whether or not we had taken the right decision. At the end of the day this also taught us the basic and important fact that institutional structures are always composed of people, and in this sense they can always be changed.

Images from the workshop: We Wanted a River and got a Parliament – Law Land and Right – 30 Years After the Alta Case. October 5 - 10, 2009. 1

Another important aspect of the Academy in Tromsø’s development was its interaction with local and international contexts. During the preparation process, Geir Tore Holm held several open meetings for the local art scene. These meetings allowed for the city and the region to have a relationship with the Academy before it began. During our fragile beginnings, this was especially important for the students, whose many projects were generously supported outside the Academy walls (even to the extent that students sometimes felt pressure to live up to expectations they couldn’t fulfill). We were invited to participate in several local and international projects and events, as well as a number of self-initiated collaborations.

In the beginning, this interaction functioned as a way for us—both as students/staff and as an institution—to learn more about possibilities, sharing resources, and fields of interest/conflict for future engagement. As a continuation of the activities outside the Academy, and as a way to respond to the projects, we held Open Classes each Thursday, in which different artists or other experts were invited to give presentations. We initiated a practice period in which second-year students were encouraged to intern with an artist, artist group, or other practitioner within the field of art.
7 We organized a format that alternated between having lecturers from the region and from other places, depending on the topic and expertise. And for new students, we arrange a study trip in the region around Tromsø and in Finnmark, where the majority of the population is Sámi. The tour includes visits to various sites such as carbon industry complexes, fish factories, reindeer herding families, and to key figures and institutions in the cultural field. These trips have proven to be important both for students who didn’t know much about the area and the Sámi, but also for students from the area. 8 Many of the students have also initiated self-organized projects or collaborations with other institutions. Several of these initiatives have already become important voices in the community and elsewhere, as well as important dynamics for the Academy. 9

This direct interplay with the local community and international practitioners in the context of study produced several important questions for the students: What is my role and who is my audience? Where do I want to participate? Why? What is the effect of my participation? What do I not want to engage with? What is my role and responsibility? Through these questions, the students have been able to make lasting experiences from direct encounters with agents and audiences. They have seldom found themselves in the role of cultural producers waiting for an invitation, but are more often engaged participants. Their projects have always been tutored, discussed in groups, and also later evaluated. It is through these interactions that the students have been guided and prepared before presenting their work in public.

My aim was to organize a place for study in which students would be able to consider artistic practice broadly and bravely, and where they could build sustainable ways of working that would stay with them long after their studies conclude.

Images from the workshop: We Wanted a River and got a Parliament – Law Land and Right – 30 Years After the Alta Case. October 5 - 10, 2009. 1

An art academy is not an ideal situation, but neither is life as a practicing artist, and it is precisely here that things becomes really interesting—in the meeting between simple, practical, pragmatic solutions and the complex, conflicting, or impossible ideas. In this way, the process of making of an academy created a situation in which these positions came together perfectly. Clever, pragmatic, often effortless solutions could open up really interesting dynamics just as our own shortcomings or larger institutional limitations could create an enormous frustration. The interesting combination between the need for practical solutions and the overwhelmingly open possibilities in the making of an academy formed a paradox that surely made us all hover between frustration and excitement. At the same time, this is a paradox that artistic practice can never escape, and also what makes it so urgent. While the unique opportunity to start something new was radical in itself, the chance to investigate the particularity of the site and turn it into an articulated position made sense in this specific place, but also as part of a broader dialogue on institutional positioning. The Academy of Contemporary Art in Tromsø is still incomplete, and will hopefully never be complete. When Nicolas Siepen was hired as our second professor at the beginning of 2009, the Academy had all three years of BA students in attendance for the first time. Even though the Academy is still very small (we have and will keep around thirty BA students altogether) there is now a more clear division of labor between administration, technicians, various ways of teaching, and the various interests and needs of the students. This makes it necessary for us to evaluate the experiences of our experimental beginning in order to develop them further. The discussions behind the joint writing of this text function as a part of this process. In the fall of 2009, the Academy transformed from being a program to an institution in its own right, which then gave us a stronger sense of independence. Curator Helga Marie Nordby is the new leader of our institute, and I am a teaching and researching professor. Nordby and other old and new staff members and students will continue to shape the Academy around their own their interests and concerns. We are already preparing for a masters program as well as a research program, with an even stronger focus on the political and ecological questions vital to the region as well as the international community. There is a great deal of specialized knowledge at many of Tromsø University’s institutions, such as The Polar Research Centre and The Centre for Sámi Studies, but it is important that cultural practitioners also work within the collective memory of the area’s residents. The Academy’s profile – the subject of constant debate—it is a means of discussing the positions and goals of this density of politics and imaginations known as an art academy.

Images from the workshop: We Wanted a River and got a Parliament – Law Land and Right – 30 Years After the Alta Case. October 5 - 10, 2009. 1


1.  With the historical background of the Alta-Case, the workshop We Wanted a River and got a Parliament – Law Land and Right – 30 Years After the Alta Case enquired different aspects of law, land and societal structuring through Sami experience. The topics were investigated by guidance from artists and experts with specific knowledge within these fields. Further related experts and key persons were linked to the workshop, as well as study tours to relevant sites were arranged. Tromsø is a centre for Sámi, indigenous and further knowledge in Scandinavia. 
In October 2009, it will be 30 years since the culmination of the largest civil disobedience action in Norway after World War II: the protests against the damming of the Alta­Kautokeino Watercourse. The damming project met strong opposition within the whole Norway and beyond, and led to an uprising for environmental and Sámi issues. The conflict ended up in the Norwegian Supreme Court, which ruled in favour of the development project, though it also led to important achievements for the Sámi community. The current political situation for the Sámi in Norway cannot be fully understood without insight in the Alta Case and it’s consequences.  Further reading by contributing artist Maria Thereza Alves is availible here 

2. The Study Plan and the Profile text is to be found at

5. The first year’s students were Geir Backe Altern, Anemarte Bjørnseth, Mathilda Carlid, Line Solberg Dolmen, Ingrid Forland, Heidi-Anett Haugen, Ane EleneJohansen, Espen Justdal, Ingeborg Annie Kristine Lindahl, Frank Ludvigsen, Vebjørn Møllberg, Margrethe Pettersen and Ida Walenius. Staff members were coordinator Irene Nordhaug Hansen, theory lecturer Tone Olaf Nielsen and lecturing artists Bodil Furu Geir and Tore Holm. In addition we had many visiting artists and other experts lecturing.

6. The were students invited as festival artists at the Riddu Riđđu International Indigenous Festival the summer of 2008. Together with the International Academy Of Art Palestine, we were invited to a workshop at Lofoten International Art Festival. Tromsø Kunstforening invited the students to use the building as they wanted for a weekend which resulted in the performance and exhibition project Home Alone (Hjemme Alene) Self initiated external collaborations were for example: An exhibition at Tromsø Public Library, screenings at the local non-profit cinema Verdensteatret, a project within the public space in collaboration with Tromsø Municipality’s Department for Urban Planning, a seminar on Sámi Contemporary Art together with The Institute for Art History and Science at Tromsø University, a student exchange agreement with the Art Academy in Ramallah, Palestine (since Tromsø and Ghaza City are official Friendship Towns) and finally a collaboration on Sustainability and the Northern Scandinavia together with the academies in Umeå, Sweden and in Copenhagen, Denmark.

7. As for example curator Veronica Wiman at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco and at La Vida es un Teatro in Nashira, Colombia; Capacete Entertainment Residence Program in Sao Paolo, artist Mary Beth Edelson in New York, the art group Fallen Fruit in Los Angeles, Capricious Publishing House in New York, artist John Kørner in Copenhagen and many, many others.

8. We have for example collaborated with the university’s Art History Department on a course in Sámi Contemporary Art. Duodji (Sámi craft) Master Jon Ole Andersen has given courses to students in his workshop in Karasjok. As part of our collaboration with the academies in Umeå and Copenhagen we have hosted a workshop on the 30-year memory of the for Sámi crucial Alta Case uprising.

9. Self-organized initiatives are for example; the experimental art-space Kurant, the fanzine Trusø, the film club Kuk og Parfyme, the exhibition place the Kiosk and the printed matter store Mondo Tromsø. Collaborations have been made with for example Feil Forlag, Galleri Nord Norge, the municipality of Tromsø etc.