Norway & The Avant-Pop: Why Me?

by knut
(c) 1995

"Everybody's doing what I do. I light a cigarette, they light a cigarette too. I take a drink, I turn around, and suddenly they're drinking too. It's driving me crazy. It's driving me nuts."
-- William S. Burroughs, in a Laurie Anderson song

0. Burroughs & The Inevitable

Step 1: The Establishment of Routine
Morning 1: Wake up. Yawn. Stretch: slide slippers over sweat-rested feet. Pad into bathroom. Consume conservative & confluent Breakfast of Champions (cereal, milk, toast, tea, OJ glowing orange n' bright).

Morning 2: Wake up. Yawn. Stretch: .... ad infinitum.

Step 2: An Interruption in Routine
Morning n: Wake up. Yawn. Stretch: slide slippers over sweat-rested feet. Pad into bathroom. Scratch scum out of eyes. Wonder why the heck a roudy crowd of strangers with funny names like "Ron Sukenick" and "Mark Amerika" are filling up my bathroom, frothing at the mouths with rants about media, masses, masses, mass-media, pomo, pomography, poo-poo. Consume conservative & confluent Breakfast of Champions (cereal, milk, toast, tea, OJ glowing orange n' bright). Their plight of intensity follows me, staggering doggedly down the stairs. I'm so tired, my face could collapse into the cereal bowl. My face does collapse into the cereal bowl. Ugh! These voices! They won't shut up!
Step 3: Advanced Interruption in Routine
Morning n+1: Wake up. Yawn. Stretch. Grab remote by the bedside, switch on TV. Exclaim: "Holy Begeezus!" Scratch scum out of eyes, but nope, I'm seeing straight. Mr. William S. Burroughs himself is staring out of my screen, starring as the latest Nike Man. Holy Shit. I can see it now: "Tired of your old cereal? Try new Naked Breakfast: all you need for a complete nutritional meal!" Rush out of house screaming bloody murder. That'll ruin your day.

1. Treading Water. Holding Breath. Standing Still. Killing Time. Loitering. Wasting. Yawning. Ugh.

Within an astoundingly compact period of time, Avant-Pop has completely changed my perception of American culture. I moved from the United States together with my family at the age of twelve, and have been living in Norway ever since. I had forgotten all about the escalation of the media war. I was nestled safe in Norwegian socialist-slumber. Until a couple of years ago, the TVs of Norway had only one channel to tune in to, and that one was run by the government. Of course, there was cable: where you could get such exciting additions as Sweden's two government-run channels, plus one private channel each from Sweden and Norway. Channel-surfing? Don't make me laugh.

Oh yeah, and radio. Until about twenty years ago, there were two radio stations to choose from. You guessed it. Government-run. Admittedly, since the seventies there'd been a boom of private stations, but let's face it: none of them were worth listening to. In a nation where the government had run all forms of media invented after 1900 for seventy years; in a nation where the advent of color TV spawned massive political unrest ('should we permit it or not? This could be dangerous!'); in a nation which, until the famous oil-findings of 1969 (which, according to the then Minister of Finance, really wouldn't change things much, honest they won't) was really very poor, not much was going down on the radio. Public or private.

Don't get me wrong: Norway has as rich a cultural history as anyone. Its socialist line of politics have never even come close to the communism of such threatening eastern masses as China and the Soviet Union. Norway's artistic traditions sport such incredible talents as Edvard Grieg, Knut Hamsun, and Henrik Ibsen -- who, next to Shakespeare, is now the world's second most performed playwrite. Too bad he wrote most of his plays in Italy, and not snug at home where the government was sure to take real good care of him. While Mao Tse Tung was taking the Great Leap Forward, abolishing the entirety of Chinese tradition with his Cultural Revolution, Norway was taking the Great Let's-Stand-Still. To this day, politicians have done everything they can to pave the way for Norwegian artists, making life cozy and safe for us all. Reabsorbing everything we can throw at the Parliament walls as 'healthily cultural development.' Every time we reinvent ourselves, it's just another Positive Cultural Outing. Every time we do something dangerous & new, we get treated like kids: "Oh, it's just a phase he's going through. He'll get over it soon enough." Or: "It's so nice the youth today have something useful to do in their spare time."

2. City : Village :: Avant-Pop : ???

The social structure of Norwegian society may seem quite normally western on top, but once you start digging into it you turn up some pretty strange nuggets of fact. Some pretty strange, pretty hard nuggets of fact. Norwegians just loooove equality. Not necessarily American-style: 'All men are created equal' was never really an issue over here. In Norway, it's more a question of: 'All men really ought to end up equal.' No matter what your inheritance, your status, your power, or, more significantly, your intelligence and artistic ability, you should never, ever, under any circumstances, suspect that you're the least bit superior to anyone else in any single fashion or form. That would be 'elitism.' That would be un-Christian. That would be bad.

What does this mean? This means that smart people are trod upon. Clever people looked down upon. Rich people spat upon. And the urban jungle is more of an urban deciduous forest, complete with pleasant glades and sunlight sprinkling through the leaves of the trees. 'Cause the city people shouldn't think they're any better than the village people (people who live in villages, not the band). Urbanity's no better than rurality. It's just different. With one fourth of its population tied up in cities, that's a myth Norway's fighting very hard to maintain. Chiefly through government subsidies going out to anyone who decides they want to live the life of a pastoral viking farmer. Or something like that.

What does this mean? This means that the urban culture is, to this very day, still struggling to assert itself as the dominant party. It's almost there, now, but it sure took long enough. Post-modernism exists, but it's sort of a bad joke: Norway is probably at the forefront of a 'kinder, gentler' brand of po-mo poo-poo. Norwegian artists and writers are absorbing the shock of external influence and transmogrifying it all to fit their own vaguely twisted state of affairs. Can you imagine what Naked Lunch would be like if it took place in Butte, Montana? I didn't think so.

Therefore, to complete the reasoning, mass-media isn't the big mean dog that it is in the U.S., because it's had no fertile urban-jungle-rain-forest-ground to stick itself to, slime mold that it is in the landscapes of perception. Yes, we have talk shows. But kinder, gentler talk shows.

How can Avant-Pop have any meaning in a nation where the mass-media doesn't exist yet in native form, but only as barbarians (read: Americans) knocking at the gates?

3. Let's Do a Retake

Step 3: Advanced Interruption in Routine
Morning n+1: Wake up. Yawn. Stretch. Grab remote by the bedside, switch on TV. Exclaim: "Holy Begeezus!" Scratch scum out of eyes, but nope, I'm seeing straight. Mr. William S. Burroughs himself is staring out of my screen, shaking the hands of all the leading polticians and cultural journalists in the country. Holy Shit. I can see it now: "I [William S. Burroughs] finally realized what a nice dame this Prime Minister of yours is, and since I'm a citizen now, I can get all the artistic subsidizing I want. Excuse me while I blend into this indistinguishable mass of ultra-bland Norwegian art (so bland you could save all your money printing big white covers that just say 'BOOK' on 'em in big black letters; who would know the difference between them?)." Rush out of house screaming bloody murder. That'll ruin your day.

4. I Am A Lukewarm and Somewhat Dense Circle of Reasonably Miniature Size

A variety of sources have made it painfully clear to me: Art is War. War against your own self, War against society, War against all art that precedes it (how else to establish yourself in the face of thousands of years of European and non-European culture?). Art is supposed to be War, it must be War to survive. And I really mean War. Short of physical brutality itself, Art is one of the most violent acts that exists. Without that violence, it looses its kick. If I'm rock climbing, say, and my ropes give way, and I have to cling to the face with my bare hands, I'm going to need all the adrenaline I can get. Without the adrenaline, I can't take the heat. I'll plummet to my stone-sharp death below.

That's exactly what Norwegian art's been up to for the past twenty-odd years: climbing, plummeting, climbing, plummeting. The sixties were a time of revolution here like everywhere else, but the revolution here was a bizarre one. Forget raising social consciousness. Norwegian hippie-culture was about communism. The love-children of the sixties have generally lightened up a bit now; Stalinism isn't nearly as popular as it used to be. But that's little help to the art world: the socialist/communist mindset works against all art, no matter how mild a form of communism you create. Communism (or rather, socialism, as it's become) does not appreciate being revolted against, so it develops a very clever defense mechanism: any 'revolt' is positive indication that the people are really engaged, and the government sets us down with their best 'hey man, let's talk about it' rhetorical approach. Or, as a rhyme from American childhood goes, "I am rubber and you are glue; things bounce off me and stick to you!" Throw egg at the Norwegian socialist mentality, and egg just lands back on your face. There's no dodging it. Not much of a War going on here. It's just not possible. Every Norwegian has been trained to look right through art. It's good, it's pretty, it's cool, but it just can't leave a lasting effect on anyone no matter how hard it tries.

Sound familiar?

We may not have mass-media in Norway, but we do have mass-thinking. It's not the government per se that's the enemy, it's the overbearingly socialistic viewpoint on the world. Like Dennis Cooper says, "Socialism is great for people, but it sucks for art." Art won't gain anything by overthrowing the government and replacing it with market liberalists or something equally insane. Our War has a much subtler and scarier battlefield: the home, the school, the university. We need a competitive people to support a competitive art. While Americans are hypnotized by their own diversity, Norwegians are dazed by their own equality. Pardon me, guys, but this mutual back-patting has really got to stop.

5. (Declaring) War on a Daydream Nation

Enter Avant-Pop. As long as I'm living here, which probably means a while, Internet feed keeping me constantly up-to-date with the outside world like no other Norwegian in north-isolation has ever done before, I'll be fighting. I'll be forcing myself onto the 'zine scene (any decent 'zine can easily get a readership on par with one percent of the population). I'll be throwing myself at the newspapers, giving them interview upon interview (they're all dying to interview me, anyway, but what they don't realize is that I'll be twisting their articles to my dark, revolutionary purposes). I'll be screaming in the faces of all my older friends saying: DAMMIT, don't give me your generation gap crap, Avant-Pop means as much to you at 27 as it does to me at 17, as it does to Ron Sukenick and Sam Delany, rapidly nearing the fifty-year mark. Avant-Pop is about breathing life into art, about evolution, about waking this goddam daydream nation up to survival of the fittest, to a competition the likes of which they've never seen before with their narrow Northern eyes.

You hear me, Norway? I love you. But I hate your sick little suffering self-pity mentality. This is War, myself against a nation, and no holds barred. There's no way you can crush me. My shock troops are reality; my infantry the rest of the world; my officers the truth; my heavy artillery the meanest, least tolerant art-forms you've ever seen. Let's toast to the hope that, come closing time, you'll be down, down, down on the ground, begging me to let you die.