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Conversation with the artist duo Karin Keisu & Josse Thuresson

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Konstmuseet i Norr has talked to the artists Karin Keisu and Josse Thuresson, whose exhibition The Language of Friction is Uttered from Within can be experienced at the art museum 10.6–16.10 2022.

Minority languages Meänkieli and Swedish Sign Language are at the core of the exhibition The Language of Friction is Uttered from Within. How was the idea to create art about language born?
Since 2018, we have been creating a body of work that revolves around criticism of power and airing perspectives from the margins. We both come from linguistic minorities in Sweden. Josse’s parents are hearing impaired and Swedish Sign Language is her first language. Karin is from the Torne Valley and grew up in a Meänkieli-speaking community. We were interested in doing research into our respective languages and their history as we had many questions about why the languages have been and continue to be oppressed. We realised pretty quickly that there is a clear correlation between power, nation-building and language oppression. We saw how there were similarities between different linguistic minorities and how our stories have been made invisible, and we wanted to use art to tell them. 

As part of your work for the video artwork Back to Back (2022), you carried out research into the historical suppression of the languages of Torne Valley communities and deaf people in Sweden. What thoughts and feelings did the work give rise to in you?
At first we were surprised to find so many similarities between how Swedish Sign Language and Meänkieli have been treated throughout history, as well as the consequences this has had in the different language groups. This applies, for example, to being forced to learn Swedish or to speak and lip-read, the view of one's human value and role in society, and generational traumas. Investigating the structures behind the oppression, we see a nationalist project with strong demands for monolingualism and homogeneity. We have felt both anger and grief during the process and have had to work with our personal relationships to language, family and history. At the same time, though, we have felt a strong sense of community and belonging by being able to see ourselves in each other. Through each other, we have been able to get to know ourselves better.

Despite the heavy content, the work has above all aroused great curiosity, desire and hope. A quest for change, to take back one's language and make the language's specific potential visible.

Some political parties currently want to abolish mother-tongue tuition in favour of teaching the Swedish language. Why do you think that language so often becomes a political issue?
Language is powerfully linked to identity and culture. In Sweden, Swedish has long been used as a tool to build the idea of the Swedish nation, of the Swedish citizen and how such citizens can contribute to society. Notions such as "In Sweden you speak Swedish" are currently employed when talking about integration. While this may be an attempt to create a community, we believe such an analysis to be problematic. Society benefits from the fact that we are different. Besides, linguists believe that if you have a strong mother tongue, it is easier to learn more languages. By limiting language, on the other hand, you can limit which cultures and identities are given space, something which, unfortunately, a number of political parties want to see happening today. 

Language oppression is a core issue in The Language of Friction is Uttered from Within. In what ways can language oppression manifest itself and how are ideas spread that a language is wrong?
Language oppression can be expressed in many different ways. There is an incredible amount of ignorance and prejudice about minority languages, which leads to both private individuals and authorities spreading oppression every day. Banning languages other than Swedish, as has previously been done in various institutions in Sweden, is one way. Obscuring the fact that people in Sweden have spoken other languages than Swedish for millennia, long before the nation's constitution, is another. Sweden's five official minority languages are now protected to some extent but are continuously rendered invisible. Sign language is not one of Sweden's official minority languages, and oppression in this case is expressed, among other things, through limitations in accessibility for the deaf, owing to a shortage of interpreters for example. Nor can it be taken for granted in Sweden today that a deaf person will get to learn sign language. Hearing aids and speech therapy are prioritised instead, despite documented research that they will never be able to replace the importance of sign language for a deaf person. These are examples of acts of linguistic discrimination that spread the idea that there are "right" and "wrong" languages.

The Language of Friction is Uttered from Within is also about queerness and queer culture and about marginality as a place to draw power from. In what way can exclusion be a strength?
Being on the margins can allow an outside perspective on society, this in turn making it easier to analyse and criticise power, to express a counterforce to the homogenous, subsequently leading to proposals for change to get society to develop. Through your individual and shared experiences, you can break through normative expectations, see through patriarchal, colonial, capitalist structures and use this knowledge to do things differently. We would claim that there is power to be drawn from the community and the stories that are formed on the margins and are specific to these experiences.

Tell us about your background; how and when did you become interested in working with art?
Karin comes from Juoksengi and Josse from Stockholm. We met for the first time when we started in the same class of the bachelor's programme in art at the Oslo National Academy of the Arts. Before that, we had both studied for two years at various arts and crafts preparatory schools in Sweden. Neither of us had felt it obvious that we could become artists while we were growing up, but Josse's interest in poetry and writing and Karin's interest in theatre and architecture led us on that path. We started working together and then attended the master's program in art at Konstfack University of Arts, Crafts and Design in Stockholm as a duo.

You have been working together as an artistic duo since 2018. What does the artistic process look like when you collaborate?
We talk and write an incredible amount together. That’s the foundation of our work. To begin with, we formulate thoughts and considerations and undertake research. This can mean reading texts, visiting archives or different places and talking to various people. This informs our conversations and leads to different ideas about materiality and form. More recently, we have been working with film and sculpture in presenting our work. We work closely together during all stages of the process. Our work often takes a long time and different works go hand-in-hand and influence each other.

Two years ago, you won the international prize, KINO DER KUNST Project Award in Munich. Can you tell us about the award and what it has meant to you?
KINO DER KUNST is an international art film festival that explores the connection between visual art and film. Their Project Award is intended to support young artists and filmmakers to produce a new work that challenges the boundaries of traditional film narration. We were nominated by the school we were attending at that time and selected to present a project idea to a jury in Munich, and, of the eight candidates, our project won. Getting this kind of recognition showed that what we want to speak about is internationally important. Many people fear, and are critical of right-wing extremism and the oppression of minorities. The award provided financial support to start the production of what later became our work "Back to Back".

Visual Vernacular (VV) is a central part of the work Back to Back and an art expression that has been circulated widely, including on social media. What is it that makes VV so unique?
VV is an art form that comes from deaf culture, for the deaf and by the deaf. It is a type of poetry and storytelling related to pantomime and cinematography that has developed over a very long time. You could say that it is a visual storytelling, beyond sign language and spoken language, but which sometimes uses the logic of sign language when it comes to certain hand shapes, movements and placements. Through VV, the narrator can embody different characters, environments and objects, switch between various scenes and paint a grand picture of a moment, event or feeling. It is an art form that anyone, regardless of language skills, can take part in and try to interpret. For sign language users, it is an art form that encourages creativity, playfulness and imagination, all which is incredibly important for one's own sense of self.

The Language of Friction is Uttered from Within is showing until 16th October at Konstmuseet i Norr, Norrbotten County Art Museum. What do you want visitors to take away from the exhibition?
We hope that the exhibition arouses emotions. And that visitors may learn something or want to learn more. And that they feel they got to participate in sign language and Meänkieli. 

Have you any other exhibitions or projects planned during the year?
We will be showing Back to Back in Oslo and Trondheim during the autumn, be attending the Luleå Biennale, and we’re having a solo exhibition in southern Sweden in the spring. We are also involved in a project initiated by KUBN in Haparanda, which will be starting this autumn, and where we will, among other things, be holding workshops with young people.

Thanks for the chat and good luck in the future!

Read more about the exhibition The Language of Friction is Uttered from Within here.