‘Sometimes it is impossible to say why and how a work of art achieves its affect. I can stand in front of a painting and become filled with emotions and thoughts, evidently transmitted by the painting, and yet it is impossible to trace those emotions and thoughts back to it and say, for example, that the sorrow came from the colours, or that the longing came from the brushstrokes, or that the sudden insight that life will end lay in the motif.’ (Knausagaard 2019, 1)
I kick off my shoes and climb into the public fountain at Nasjonaltheatret in central Oslo. Beyond the edge of the fountain, bodies fall gently to paving stones in a beam that extends into the public square. My socks and leggings saturate with water as I step around activists lying face up, eyes closed in a performance of death. I curve my back under the arcs of spray as water moves up my thighs, my clothes a facile wick, become heavy. I use my body as a shield to protect my camera and try to capture the sorrow of this moment. Three activists, all women, lie fixed in a state between floating and submersion. In the water, flowers float close to their faces and outstretched arms. A laminated sign with the Extinction Rebellion logo rests just below the surface skin of rippled water and bears the Norwegian text Av kjærleik til jorda – Of love for the Earth.
This is the sixth die-in that I photograph in four months, the second of which takes place in a fountain. Other sites include the Oslo Opera, Oslo Sentralstasjon, Oslo City shopping mall, Equinor’s headquarters in Oslo, and a public fountain in Arendal in southern Norway. The die-in is a dramatic, severe, and sombre performance. If it’s playful, it is darkly so. It is artistic and when carried out en masse, the die-in has apocalyptic tones and expresses a collective anguish. It is also psychogeographic. Using the fabric of the city in political and aesthetic interventions, these actions provoke emotional responses in performer and spectator. Extinction Rebellion, the international climate activist group that first emerged in the United Kingdom in autumn 2018, has been staging die-ins in various cities and spaces. The actions of Extinction Rebellion are simultaneously hopeful and morbid, creative and jarring. The moribund aesthetics of the movement should not be all that surprising. As the name implies, Extinction Rebellion is all about life and death. It is about rebelling against the death of all life on Earth as a result of the climate crisis. As activists fall to the ground and play dead, clutching signs with plaintive warnings, the message is clear: a changed climate kills.
The evening after the Nasjonaltheatret die-in, I buy an Interrail pass and decide to travel from Oslo to London by train. I will do this as an academic, artistic, and activist performance. I want to do in London what I have been doing in Oslo. Join up with Extinction Rebellion, go to meetings, document actions, follow trainings, attend events and lectures, take photographs, be a part of something. I want to understand how a British social movement has spread fractally, how a movement hinging on non-violent civil disobedience has been established and translated into the Norwegian context. Norway does not have a history of this type of environmental activism. I want to see the fractal’s origins.
A large brown spider tracks its way slowly across my chest as I wait for the number 18 tram in Gamle Byen in Oslo. The uncharacteristic presence of movement and eight ambling legs causes me to recoil, gasp loudly, and fling the poor creature hurtling through the air, to the silent horror of the woman standing next to me. She watches the spider’s movements along the edge of the pavement. Spiders are a symbol of creativity, skilled at spinning intricate webs. Wasps are a symbol of new beginnings, a sign of spring and pollination. I threw a carpet full of half-slumbering wasps from the second story of my former apartment after I submitted my dissertation. Ladybugs are a symbol of forthcoming love. I swam through red and black beetles floating among bits of seaweed in the Oslo fjord in July. I swam out further than I ever had as if what I’m searching for might lie just beyond the yellow buoys. The three heart-shaped leaves of clovers are symbols of hope, love, and faith. I walk through patches of these among the grass as I descend the hill toward my tram. Symbolism is calling to me lately and I look for meaning in anything and everything. The Extinction Rebellion logo, an hour-glass out of time suspended in the circular space of the Earth, is the most prominent of these recurring symbols, an icon. It is not so unlike the cross that I look up at a few days before departing on my journey from Oslo to London.
I cry in a sage green pew; its surface finish smooth laquer, the colour characteristic of Norwegian folk art palettes. I have just been kicked out of my art studio for not painting enough. I am adrift, and though I am not Catholic or religious, I find myself in St. Olavs church in Oslo. Saint Christopher the patron saint of travellers and the shock of losing my studio draws me to church. The air is not thick with incense as I imagined it might be but it is heavy with sorrow. I feel like I am intruding on this sorrow, on the woman who is crossing herself in front of an image of Jesus, on the man with heavy sighs who kneels and prays, on the man who stands for a long time in front of the altar. (Only the nun in trainers who forgets her umbrella does not seem sad.) I do not want to observe people’s sorrow, lighting candles, kneeling, praying, crossing, crying. I look at the centre of the stained glass triptych, Jesus on the cross, Mary to his left, my view of the third panel obscured. My research from the past few months is very similar to this feeling. I am an intruder on the sorrow of others. I did not realise just how much this collective sorrow and grief has been weighing on me until this moment. As an artist, researcher, and photographer for Extinction Rebellion I try to capture the depth of emotion in the actions I photograph but this also means opening oneself up to these emotions; and to the reapers and the spectres, the coffins and the funerals, the bodies and the blood. I realise also in this moment that what is a social, political, environmental, artistic movement is also a spiritual and religious one. It is about confronting grief and transforming sorrow. Into hope, action, art, and connection.
Being involved with Extinction Rebellion has meant being steeped in a constant art and rhetoric of death. The performance of death through funeral processions and die-ins, the banners that bear warnings of imminent extinction, warnings of a future lost if political action is not taken on the climate crisis. Confronting this collective grief over the climate crisis opens up a connection with one’s personal grief. In flashes, I see my father’s body. Skin cold and blue. The bodies playing dead evoke the death of all life on Earth on a collective level and on a personal level unlock my own painful memories. This is the power and rawness of these artistic and activist actions. They are intended to disrupt, disturb, provoke. They do and participating in them and bearing witness to them in repetition is overwhelming, emotionally taxing, exhausting.
As I prepare for my journey from Oslo to London, I feel myself unravelling in fine threads. I want to weave them into something new. My decision to make this trip is not only about low carbon travel, about flying less, it is about a transformation that is as much personal as it is collective. Transformation, I think, is itself a sort of grieving process. One not locked in time. It is grieving for the past, the present, and future and an infinite array of possible pasts, presents, and futures. Grieving of what could have been or should not have been. Transformation requires changing from one state to another, losing and gaining simultaneously. It means saying goodbye to something or someone or some broken system or some nonessential conveniences. If I reflect on what Extinction Rebellion has gifted me with the past few months, it is to face grief with hope, love, and faith — and to embrace transformation. To demand it. To enact and embody it. Beautiful threads unravel, tightly interlocked fibres of my tapestry fall apart, my image dissolves and its future form is uncertain. With Saint Christopher, my spiders and wasps, ladybugs and clovers, I step forward. I let myself unravel so that I can weave myself new. A tapestry rearranged, threads reconfigured into something not necessarily better, but different. I pack my little yellow suitcase and carry Saint Christopher in small relief, gold, circular, suspended on a light chain against my sternum.
London, I am coming. With love for the Earth.
Knausgaard, Karl Ove. 2019. So much longing in so little space: The art of Edvard Munch. Penguin Random House: London