Managing the Scars of Terror

by Elin Andreassen and Hein B. Bjerck

All photos: 8 April 2013, Elin Andreassen

We were in Oslo to attend to the final conference of KULVER, the Research Council program that has hosted the Ruin Memories project. We had arrived some days early, and Saturday evening, after a dinner at “Mother India”, we were wandering through the streets. Not all by chance we passed the Government Complex, where none of us had been since the 22 July right wing terror in 2011. A car bomb that killed eight people, injured c. 200, and severely damaged the Government’s capital buildings, followed by the shootings at the Labour Party Youth camp at the Utøya Island, killing 69 and severely injuring 33 people more.[1]

Still, close to two years after the atrocities, the high rise (Høyblokken – the main target for the bomb), that normally would include the “Office of the Prime Minister” and the “Ministry of Justice and the Police”, were in the dark. They were sealed off by a high wooden fence with peepholes, all wrapped up with tarpaulin. Similar arrangements cloaked most other buildings: plywood covering broken windows everywhere. All indicated the scale of the attack, the placement. In the greenish light in the passage between the bandaged buildings were some noisy youngsters. A man, not quite sober, appeared out of nowhere, telling us in a low, gentle voice: “Do not pass down there; those people are not good people.” How unexpected, the act of kindness amidst this site of horror.

On the other side of the street is the editorial building of VG (“Verdens Gang”), the largest national newspaper in Norway. Like most other newspapers, the latest edition is displayed in a showcase at street level. And like in many other showcases at street level, the glass is shattered. A closer look revealed that this was different. On the inside, there is the VG from the morning of 22 July 2011. The shattered glass was not petty vandalism. It is the big blow.

It was one of those occasions when you feel something move down your spine as you realize. Inside the showcase, the latest (and final) news from pre-terror times – when terror was always somewhere else: accounts from rainy days in the past; the desperate week of “fellesferien”, the official summer vacation in Norway. On the front page, “Hold on – next week will be lots of sun.” The Editorial “Fritt frem?” highlights the fact that the police failed to nail petty thieves.  Gas station manager Per Lauvstad was closing down his business in frustration; his video documentation of seven instances of “fill and run” by the same person was not prioritized by the police. VG commented that: “The police are facing a series of difficult challenges that did not exist 10 years ago.”

The broken showcase displays more than sleepy Norwegian summer days. It is a time capsule. On the inside there is another time. Times of hearts breaking normality. The shattered glass is the very moment terror happened: 15:25. At this time the terrorist had already left the scene, and was well under way to his even more grotesque finale; the cold blooded shootings of people attending to the Labour Party Youth camp.

Across the street, the Government Complex that was the target of terror. Still in ruin, but direct evidence of the attack is removed or disclosed behind fences, plywood and fiber cloth. It reveals the absurd scale of the hit, makes us understand, but it is the authentic collateral damage, the showcase, that hits your stomach.

By now our curiosity was raised to a level so that we had to return in daylight to look for other authentic evidence that had survived the ongoing restoration and cleaning operation.

What we found by looking was actually very little. We had to scrutinize to discover. The scars in the trunks of surviving trees, several places with pieces of shattered glass still embedded in the bark. In the soil around the trees, thousands of reflections from tiny shiny things that resembled ice crystals that turned out to be dust of glass. Two parallel rows of slanted tubes protruding from the ground, the far end revealing that they were the bottoms of blown away street lamps. The almost intact ventilation shafts, the sides facing the bomb scratched from the hailstorm of debris. In the entrance of the security gate that now sluiced authorized personnel in and out of the Highrise, there was a single rose still in its tiny disposable water container, but all dried out, almost black, hinting at the now removed oceans of flowers in the weeks after the terror.

This is pretty much what we could observe. It is understandable, this operation of cleaning and restoring. It is necessary in order to bring back functionality. However, this operation reaches beyond functionality. Clearly it is also about managing the scars of terror. Understandable, but still a paradox, this removing of all direct traces of what “we must never forget.” In contrast, across the street, this seemingly mundane newspaper panel. The direct and tangible power of its unspoken message. Its original placement. And its present surroundings of restored normality: passing people and posters advertising hot dogs, ice cream and coffee, business as usual.

Remarkable, that a tabloid newspaper was responsible for the considerate and brave act to preserve the terrorized newspaper panel. We took it for granted that it was VG. The internet told us otherwise. In fact, VG had already decided to exchange the damaged showcase with a digital newspaper stand. Evidently, the Lebanesian artist Ahmad Ghossein had highlighted the VG panel in the Oslo Fine Art Society (2012); “Yesterday’s news”, an installation of photography, film, and video.

“For Ghossein, the most important aspect is not the object itself, but the questions that arise around one object as a result of the terror attack. An editorial that doesn’t know how to relate to the fact that their news panel has changed character, how people read it, react to the fact that it’s old news they are reading over and over again, how to relate to the fact that it is not about a newspaper stand any more, and if not, then what?”[2]

We also found that Ghossein is collaborating with Public Art Norway (KORO) in finding a new location for the panel in the city center of Oslo. According to Aftenposten (12 December 2012[3]), KORO finds an ideal location in the bus stop across the street. Here, it is maintained, the light is right, the architectural style of the bus stop shelter is in agreement with the showcase, the shelter will provide a necessary roof, there are heating cables in the pavement, and electricity is available. And not the least, the proximity to the Government Complex is a weighty argument:

“It must be located close to its original position; other locations are not an alternative. If we move it to another place, it will be a completely different history telling”, says KORO’s senior advisor Bo Krister Wallström” (ibid., our translation).

We made contact with KORO and VG – they both confirm that the relocation plan is on; it is scheduled to happen in the end of this June. KORO admits that this decision was found at the end of a long row of compromises. VG presents the case as a donation to the state.

First, the collateral damage, now this. It was disappointing to discover that a national media institution like VG dooes not appreciate the time capsule at their doorstep. That they fail to see how their vandalized newspaper panel enhances the importance of their own pivotal role as a reflector of time in our world. That news are more than words blowing in the wind. News also has a material side; the actual “paper” that mingles into a wide variety of materiality. A catcher of trends and viewpoints in time and space. We would argue that the exact placement is as imperative as the actual contents of the paper and the bomb-shattered glass. To change the location will be like editing the news in the 22 July edition. Moving the panel, even just across the street, includes loss of the authenticity and contemplative power. Like redirecting the river from a hydro electrical plant. It is making the panel into something else, a representation of itself, an art project. A thing that will need information and comments, depriving passing people the ability to “discover” the panel themselves; depriving the panel its current ability to move something along peoples’ spines.

Without doubt, KORO (and probably VG too) acknowledges the importance of placement. However, one may ask if they could have advocated the importance of authenticity with more vigor. And maybe the Director of National Heritage ought to focus on more than the shaken government buildings? VG has the key to the showcase, its contents as well as its future. May they be convinced to use it?

The case of the VG showcase is yet another example that worst things need to be sustained. The abject and ugly, the things that carry the uneasy, non-cherished memories relating to “things we must never forget” may easily be lost without more careful consideration. We sincerely hope that VG will acknowledge the symbolic value in the content as well as the placement of the showcase – where it actually took the blow, right outside their door, where it still sits, marked, but defiant, unyielding.

It is a paradox that the material scars of similar severe trauma are often managed in this way. Authentic traces are removed or covered, and the bad things that have happened are later resurrected in representations: monuments, museums, art, memory places. In this way, the wild and unwanted may be tamed and controlled, and adjusted to a bearable level of pain.

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