Heather Jones: Can you tell us a bit about the history of Prosjektrom Normanns? When / how did it first form and what was the impetus behind starting a project space in Stavanger?
Margrethe Aanestad: It was what I imagine is a typical start for any artist run space; a group of artists making a studio workspace together in quite a rough, empty former factory building in town. In Prosjektrom Normann´s case, we were a few artists and one administrative leader gathering in Normanns gate 24 at Storhaug (almost East Stavanger), Norway, in the winter of 2010/2011. Back then the space was a large open area on the 2nd floor, with no established structure whatsoever for a professional working environment. There was no heating, no wi-fi, and only cold water from an old sink. But we thought it was a cool space, and envisioned how we could build walls for individual studios and create a new place for artists working in Stavanger. So we started measuring the floor, dividing the space into units, and raising walls. A part of this huge space had no windows, high concrete walls and a concrete floor, and very high ceiling – not ideal to turn into a working space. So we got inspired to make this into an exhibition/project space instead, where we could show artwork from colleagues and friends.
We also thought it was a good idea because at the time there was nothing similar in Stavanger. 21m2, a former artist run initiative in town located across the street from us, had closed down just a few years earlier. In general, the art scene in Stavanger was very quiet, but in Norway a few artist run spaces already existed – and more about to pop up, so we were more or less consciously part of a movement that was happening around that time. By early 2011, we were already curating and producing shows on an underground and super low-key level, and we started to apply for financial support for both programming and to build and upgrade the physical space. In general we had very little idea of what we were doing except for feeling that this project space really had value and importance, but not foreseeing how the extent to which it would develop and progress.
Personally I am glad that I did not know the extent of what we started, and that we built step by step. We took many risks, and learned as we went. The whole project has been an adventurous and intense journey with a very steep learning curve. We have constantly done things we have never done before, especially when we started to do the international art fairs. I will not say we were naíve, but rather a bit crazy, loving to aim high and work hard, and most importantly to experience and learn.
With this as a backdrop, we have always been aware of – and excited about – the unlimited potential and possibility that lies in funding and running your own space – the opportunity to create your own content and profile that feels meaningful, that comes from your own curatorial and artistic direction, visions, resources and network. We have embraced opportunities that have come our way, but it has mostly been a lot about creating opportunities ourselves, starting dialogues and taking initiative. It has always been fun (but many times also super exhausting), and we have always followed our idealistic spirit and love for art.
HJ: Can you mention who was involved with the opening of the space, and the people that have been involved throughout the history of Prosjektrom Normanns?
MA: 2016 – 2019: Run by Margrethe Aanestad and Elin Melberg
2013 – 2016: Run by Margrethe Aanestad, Elin Melberg and Kristin Velle-George
2011 – 2013: Margrethe Aanestad, Kristin Velle-George, Else Leirvik and Helene Ødegaard were founders early winter 2011. Then Jørund Aase Falkenberg came on board, and later Erik Sæter Jørgensen.
Helene Ødegaard was administrative manager from 2011-2014.
The board has consisted of the artists at the times they have been involved, in addition to Kristina Rasmussen (2012-2016) and Helene Ødegaard (2011-2019).
The Advisory board (2015 – 2019) included: Hanne Mugaas (NO) / Director Kunsthall Stavanger, Ian Cofre (New York based writer and curator), Jan Christensen (NO) / Oslo/Berlin-based visual artist and curator, and Per Christian Brown (NO) / Berlin-based visual artist.
HJ: What were your goals when you initially started the space, and do you feel that you met those goals? Did the vision for the gallery space shift over time?
MA: The visions and goals were not written in stone at all when we started in 2011, but I recall that we wanted the project to be a space and opportunity for initiating, producing and showing site-specific and experimental art projects – that the work responded to the actual room or the situation of working in Stavanger and/or Norway. We wanted it to be project space per se, which meant that we encouraged the exhibitors to take advantage of the situation to test new ideas.
We have evidence from our earliest grant applications that our aims were to contribute to, and to stimulate, the contemporary art scene in Stavanger. And do so by producing projects with an uncompromising high international standard and relevance. I think we have managed to achieve those visions.
Quite early on we realized that making a program based on applications from open calls was exhausting, and the wrong curatorial angle for us. It was not the way we wanted to do it. So from 2013 we have consciously curated projects by inviting artists and curators directly based on our own knowledge of their work.
The goals and strategy developed over time. In the spring 2013 we decided to relocate and move out from the space in Normanns gate. We discovered – at that point completely empty five-floor, enormous – former print house in Erfjordgata 8 situated further East of town. This parallelled with Elin joining our artists collective and Prosjektrom Normanns, and together with a few other people in the creative fields we founded the workspace ELEFANT on the 2nd floor of this building, and Prosjektrom Normanns gallery space along with our individual artist studios. Today ELEFANT consists of about 25 individuals and independent companies in the creative fields.
Elin Melberg: Along with moving from Normanns gate to ELEFANT in 2013, we wanted to professionalize Prosjektrom Normanns, aim higher, and be more ambitious in who we invited to curate/exhibit. We wanted to invite successful national and international curators and artists that we highly respected, and would absolutely love to work with. I remember we really wanted to work with the curator Power Ekroth back in 2013, and we were so incredibly nervous before asking her, and over the moon happy when she said yes! That felt like a turning point for us and it was very exciting. We worked very hard on applications for funding, as we wanted to be able to pay the artists and curators. In the beginning the budget was especially tight, and the artists and curators said yes to our invitations because they wanted to do this, because we were Prosjektrom Normanns, not because we had amazing budgets. Their and our work were mainly idealistic, but fortunately we were able to increase the offered budgets from 2016, thanks largely to the Arts Council. And in 2014 we started making pamphlets for each project, slowly building an archive of printed matter.
MA: Yes. Our move towards a more professional profile also meant becoming a kind of hybrid between a hard-core, low-key, experimental project space, while simultaneously executing participation at international art fairs for many years and promoting and selling Norwegian art nationally and abroad etc. We value and love both sides and all facets, and how they actually can parallel each other. We have consistently been very cautious of being professional in all the activities and “departments” Prosjektrom Normanns has.
Also, since early on; our number one rule is that we only work with people we like and respect, and whose work we love. We have worked with people we have come to know from our own personal network and travels, people we have met in person and seen work by IRL. No drama queens, no prima donnas, no bad vibes. And yes – super important – pay the artists.
The past few years we have produced fewer exhibitions because it has become more and more challenging to parallel the work of running Prosjektrom Normanns with our own individual careers as artists, and many exhibitions have been quite demanding and labor-intensive. But honestly, we have had a really hard time scaling down, as we love working with so many artists and curators! The list of people we would have liked to invite is so long that we could continue for many years if that was the only consideration.
HJ: Elin, you joined the artist collective a few years after it was founded. When, why and how did you come on board Prosjektrom Normanns?
EM: After moving back to Stavanger from London in 2004, I had moved studios about five times I think. This was definitely a challenge for me, especially since I work with large scale sculptures and installations. In 2013, I had a studio in a garage at Tou Scene. I had to walk 200 metres to get water and the outside space was a building site, so it was very noisy and mice kept escaping from the outside and into my studio haha. It had its charm, but I really wanted to be able to bring a gallerist or a collector to my studio without making them wear a safety helmet and boots. Like Prosjektrom Normanns, I also wanted to professionalize. In addition, my space at Tou was about to be torn down.
I had connected really well with Margrethe during a group travel to dOCUMENTA in Kassel in 2012. That is where we fell in love :). She knew I was on the look-out for a new space, and we really wanted to find somewhere together. In 2013 Margrethe, Stein, Kristin, Helene and I found Erfjordgt. 8 and decided to found ELEFANT. Margrethe asked me if I wanted to become part of Prosjektrom Normanns. Of course I did! I had always loved going to the projects they had in Normanns gate. I always enjoyed the vibe and good energy, and appreciated that this was a different space than all the other public and private ones; somewhere new and important.
The space for Prosjektrom Normanns was the first space we measured on the floor plan of ELEFANT. A 54m2 white cube with no windows or doors. Ideal for site specific projects.
HJ: Throughout the years of its existence, what are a couple of the most memorable exhibitions that Prosjektrom Normanns hosted?
EM: There are so many favourites, and all the projects and artists are so enormously different and unique, therefore each experience has been valuable. If I need to highlight some, I would say Franklin Evans (US), Marit Roland (NO), Defaced (a group exhibition curated by Jan Christensen (NO)), Lars Morell (NO) and Julie Schenkelberg (US). I really could keep on name dropping here…we have had some wonderful collaborations with artists and curators, it is of true forever lasting value to us, both personally and professionally. We love the Prosjektrom Normanns family.
MA: It has been such a ride, and all the projects are all precious moments in their own way. It has been an honour to work with all of these amazing, talented people over the years. Each project has also been very different because of personalities and work dynamics. I would say that the first show in our new space in Erfjordgata 8 by the Florida-based artist, legendary Latin-American Eugenio Espinoza was stellar. He developed his exhibition (first time in Europe ever) in a space that was barely up and running, almost still a construction site then, no heat and poor lighting, and it was a freezing October in Stavanger. I would like to add Constance Tenvik´s (NO) solo show in 2018; the show that Amanda Schmitt (NY) curated in 2019; curator Omar Lopez-Chahoud´s (NY) exhibition with the collaborative “The Fire Theory” from San Salvador in 2017 and Ann Iren Buan´s (NO) show in 2017. I also totally share Elin´s highlights.
It is very hard to name a few….! Untitled Art Fair in San Francisco in 2017 where we were also selected to present a Monumental Project with Ann Iren Buan, and participating at Cosmoscow in Moscow later the same year, was intense and super fun!
EM: Yes!! Bringing Ann Iren’s Monumental Project to San Francisco is a definite highlight! We have worked with Ann Iren on several projects, as we have with some of the other artists as well.
HJ: Prosjektrom Normanns has been very successful, both locally and internationally. How did you come to the decision to close the space?
EM: This has been a long process for us. The fact is that PN has become very successful and professional, which really demands 100% full-time positions. We are first and foremost artists, something we have always made very clear, and we have been wanting to spend more time in our studios. Even though working with PN and all the fantastic artists, curators, writers and institutions nationally and internationally has been deeply valuable and giving, this work is also very idealistic. We have had tight budgets, and we have always prioritized paying the artists as well as we can. We have been doing this for nine and six years, and we felt we want to stop doing it while we still feel the positive energy…and not when it would potentially be gone. Also, nine years for an artist run space is quite a long time.
MA: Yes. Everything has its time, and we both have felt the same. To run the space at such an ambitious level has been very time and thought consuming. If we were to continue we would need to put away our own work, which is impossible. We have constantly been working to promote other artists and their artistic visions. And we have worked on a daily basis with Prosjektrom Normanns for so many years, from wherever we have been. We were always online – there was always something that needed to be done or a problem to be solved or a question to be responded to, as well as grant applications to write, studio visits and meetings with our exhibitors to attend, thinking ahead and planning for future shows, and of course installing and deinstalling exhibitions. And because we also work as internationally as we do, we have been operating in all time-zones. Many shows have been worked on via e-mails and Skype for 6-12 months before being realized in Stavanger. So, while opening one show, we often already been far along in the process of the next. Not to mention the fairs, which is a constant administrative process starting over 6 months before we actually go. So our head space has always been full on PN-stuff! Now we need and want to focus on our own careers as artists, and keep good memories from what we have managed to do with PN. And we have agreed on the closing on every level, which is super good feeling.
It has definitely been very interesting to have had roles in the art world´s dynamic, aside from being artists. We have learned a lot from those other perspectives, from being directors and administrators and all that that includes.
HJ: Was there any discussion about handing the space over to someone else to run? And physically speaking, are there any plans for the use of the gallery space after PN has closed?
MA: It has never been an option to have someone else take over. The Prosjektrom Normanns universe is a very personal artistic project. The curated program and profile is hundred percent linked to our long term built networks and knowledge. We have curated and produced over 60 projects and exhibitions since the beginning, and worked with appx. 130 artists and curators from 14 countries. Relationships and collaborations have accumulated over so many years, and these kinds of networks are impossible to transfer. And the curatorial profile is a statement and has been defined by our own taste and interest in sharing art. I assume this counts for all artist run spaces everywhere.
EM: What Margrethe said. We could not hand over such a personal project to someone else. That felt wrong. We would rather want to see a brand new project developed by someone else somewhere else! I could not even give the actual space to someone else as a work space…I had to keep it in the family, and I will be moving into it in February and use it as my studio. There is so much history in the walls (it basically IS in the walls, with that many murals etc painted throughout the years) and I found it very difficult to part with that.
HJ: Regarding the archive, will Prosjektrom Normann’s projects stay online as an archive?
MA: Hm. Maybe? We have not discussed this. But we’d love to have the website up at least for a while. It is a nice online document that can live out there. We also have all the hard-copy pamphlets for each of the shows we have produced and all art fairs we have been to that exists as a small physical archive. But we are not done yet! Our new upcoming project is our book about the history of Prosjektrom Normanns. We’re hoping to launch this book in 2021 with the Norwegian publisher Pelikanen Forlag. We have so much history, texts and pictures from PN´s life that that we just have to make a book, and we think it will be an important document about an artist run space lasting for almost a decade. It is a way to contribute to the conversation about the artist run phenomena in general, both in Norway and internationally.
EM: We really want to make sure that the history of Prosjektrom Normanns will be available after closing. We have presented many wonderful artists in our space, with beautiful site-specific installations that only existed for a few weeks in our cube, that can never be shown like that again. It is of great importance and value – we think – that we do a proper job in making a publication that includes all of our activities, both nationally and internationally, and with several essays on these different unique processes.
HJ: Can you tell us about your plans moving forward? Will you work independently or continue to collaborate?
EM: We will firstly spend a lot more time in our studios, working on our individual projects and exhibitions. There will also be more time available to travel and do residencies. I am personally looking forward to more time in my studio and less time doing PN-admin on my computer. I am also looking forward to feeling less guilty – less guilty of e-mails or logistics that need handling – and less guilty for not having enough time to work on my sculptures. And so forth…
Still, when one door closes…. I have already started thinking of other projects we or I could do individually and together. We would love to work together on external curated projects as a duo. We work very well together, and we have a lovely collaboration, and it would be very surprising (to me!) if this was our final project together. Currently I am working on an installation for my next solo show in Lillehammer (Oppland kunstsenter), a massive commissioned outdoor sculpture in Innlandet fylke and a scenography for Dybwikdans. I am also involved in different national juries through Norske billedkunstnere and the Arts Council.
MA: I am also really looking forward to having a lot more time and focus towards my own projects as an artist! It will be a huge difference in how our everyday schedule looks, I think. I am especially looking forward to being able to be more in New York, where I also live and work. Right now part of my future plan is a 3-months residency at Unlimited Residency in Brooklyn starting May 1., 2020. I am really excited about that. Currently I am also working on an artist book published by Shine Portrait Studio at Express Newark, NJ. And as Elin says, we are close artist colleagues and friends, and will definitely collaborate together in upcoming projects. We have got so many amazing friends through this project from all over, which we like to call the Prosjektrom Normanns family. This will always continue, and we are sure there are interesting collaborations in the future that we do not know about yet!
Margrethe Aanestad (b. Stavanger, Norway, 1974) lives and works in Stavanger, Norway, and New York City. She is a visual artist, and one of the founders and directors of the artist run space Prosjektrom Normanns (2011-2020) in Stavanger.
Solo exhibitions/projects include Kunsthall Stavanger, Norway (2018); Torrance Shipman Gallery, New York (2015); Dimensions Variable, Miami (2015); Open Source Gallery, New York (2013). Selected group /duo exhibitions include Abingdon Studios Project Space, Blackpool, UK (2019); Interface gallery, Oakland, CA (2019); Vestlandsutstillingen (touring 2019); Untitled San Francisco (2017&18); Dimensions Variable, Miami (2016); Untitled Miami (2015&16); Another Space, Copenhagen (2014); Interno4, Bologna (2013); ISCP, New York (2012); Høstutstillingen, Norway, Kunstnernes Hus, Oslo (2011). Public collections include University in Stavanger (2016); Stavanger City Council (2016); British Petroleum, Norway (2016). Her work is included in private collections in Norway, USA and beyond.
Aanestad studied fine arts at the Rogaland Art College, Stavanger, and holds a BA from the University of Stavanger in Arts & Cultural Management (2000). Since 2001, she has worked independently to initiate, produce, and curate many projects at the art scene in Stavanger, Norway in addition to her own work as an artist. Aanestad is also co-founder and co-owner of the creative studio/working space ELEFANT (2013-) in Stavanger.
Upcoming/current projects includes residency at Residency Unlimited, New York, May 1.- August 1. (2020), and an artist book to be published by Shine Portrait Studio Press / Rutgers University, Newark, NJ (2020).
Elin Melberg (b. Stavanger, Norway, 1976) graduated with a Masters of Fine Art from the Royal College of Art (London) in 2002. Since 2003 Melberg has lived and worked in Stavanger, also co-directing the artist-run project space Prosjektrom Normanns. She is co-founder and co-owner of the creative working space ELEFANT in Stavanger.
Elin Melberg has recently exhibited at Abingdon Studios (UK) (2019); Interface Gallery (SF) (2019); Aker Brygge Oslo (2018); KUBE Art Museum (2018); Nord-Trøndelag Art Museum (2018); Kunsthall Stavanger (2018); Sølvberget Galleri (Stavanger) (2018 & 16); Untitled San Francisco (2017 & 18); Nordenfjeldske kunstindustrimuseum (Trondheim) (2017); Stavanger Art Museum (2017 & 14); Galleri Format (Oslo) (2016); Untitled Miami (2015 & 16); Open Source Gallery (Brooklyn, NY) (2016); Griffin Gallery (London) (2015); Vestlandsutstillingen (touring 2015); Galleri Opdahl (Stavanger) (2014)
Collections include Stavanger University Hospital, Stavanger Art Museum, Oslo Municipality Art Collection, Stavanger Concert Hall, KORO, Statoil Art Collection, Stavanger Municipality, Royal College of Art, Norwegian Petroleum Directorate and the Bazil Alkazzi Foundation.
Upcoming projects include an outdoor permanent public commission in Innlandet Municipality, a scenography for Dybwikdans and a solo exhibition at Oppland Art Center in Lillehammer.