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An Interview Dyveke Sanne

… Like the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is also built deep inside of a mountain. Unlike Yucca Mountain, the Vault, which is the world’s largest seed bank, is conceived of as a boon to, not a burden on, future generations. Located near Longyearbyen, Norway, on Spitsbergen Island in the remote Svalbard archipelago, the Vault is some six hundred miles from the north pole. On February 26, 2008, the day of its inauguration, the Vault received shipments of 100 million seeds, “backups” of the planet’s extant food-crop seeds, which are now enclosed in a structure designed to withstand nuclear bombs and global warming. Its back wall, for instance, is concave, in order to repel and rebound projectile weapons. By contrast, the Vault’s facade, bejeweled with an artwork called Perpetual Repercussion by the Norwegian artist Dyveke Sanne, is an inviting beacon, a gemlike installation that visually performs the Vault’s multidimensional implications while vigorously signaling its location with steel, mirrors, and prisms cut into triangles of various sizes. The triangular segments reflect the midnight sun in the summer months: during the four-month polar night, a network of fiber-optic cables casts turquoise and white lights, which reflect between the mirrors.

… For Dyveke Sanne, the Vault’s importance lies less in the seeds it contains than in the reflections and actions its very presence ought to provoke. On a couple of occasions in July 2008, Dyveke and I talked over homemade sourdough bread at her house and studio outside of Asker, in southeastern Norway, where she lives with several sociable goats and chickens along with her husband, Jeremy, an architect, and Alma, their fourteen-year-old daughter, an aspiring veterinarian. (I learned from Alma about cancer-sniffing dogs, mine-sweeping rats—the rats are light enough not to set off the mines—and bomb-sniffing bumblebees. That doesn’t work so well, Alma explained, since bees live only six weeks and it takes two weeks to train them.)

Dyveke Sanne grew up in the countryside north of Lillehammer and later in Oslo. She has lived in Spain, France, Canada, Germany, and New York. Sanne’s conceptual sculptures explore optics and cognition, the mechanics and metaphysics of the elusive glimpse, and the oscillations of awareness withal. Regarding the Vault, she remarked that it is “the gift that no one wants.” It is indeed a difficult gift, which Sanne has duly wrapped in complex light.

—Miranda Mellis


THE BELIEVER: How did you get involved with the Svalbard Global Seed Vault?

DYVEKE SANNE: Something with prisms was desirable for the entranceway. Since I’ve worked with mirrors, prisms, lights, and reflections in different ways, I got this commission through the KORO office [Public Art Norway], which, by the way, receives between 1 and 2 percent of all state funds allotted for public buildings.

BLVR: What kinds of materials did you use? How did you make the piece?

Image courtesy of Dyveke Sanne

DS: I used polished steel—when it’s polished, steel becomes basically a mirror—and dichroic glass, which is a kind of iridescent mirror whose surface changes color. It’s fascinating material made of many different metals that was developed for use in space [for satellite optics]. The mirrors were broken into angles of different shapes and sizes, and attached to metal panels to make prefabricated modules that I could then transport to Svalbard. Two hundred fiber-optic cables were put up in between the mirrors and attached to the back of the modules. They generate a slightly pulsing mix of greenish-blue-white light. They were carefully put into predrilled holes in the vault. The dichroic glass and crystal glass prisms were attached onto the panels outside in Svalbard. I threaded and fused the cables to each panel from inside the vault, in the cooling room. I had to solder the fuses for each panel repeatedly because of condensation. The rest of the construction was done in a mechanical workshop, from my prototype.

BLVR: Had you been to Svalbard before? How did the location affect your decisions?

DS: I had never been there, but of course you know what Svalbard is if you’re Norwegian—it’s a part of you. As I worked with the materials for the entrance it became more and more clear to me that the Vault was really a signal more than anything else. So I wanted the piece to show the position and location of it at all times, if possible. I see now that it’s not really possible! So I used fiber optics to signal the Vault in the dark. It’s very special in winter in Svalbard. Except for the very long period when it is completely dark, the sun is sort of just under the earth and puts the place in a kind of twilight zone that lasts for weeks, where the sun never rises, and the landscape is gray, blue, or pink. This is a strange light, very different from overcast. The landscape is covered with snow and has no trees, so the light is reflecting right back on you. When I was there at the official opening of the Vault in February, the sun never showed around the Vault, and yet the sky was so clear and it was light—sort of silver in the middle of the day, colored with the pink and blue that is particular to Svalbard. And just a month earlier, when I was there installing the piece, it was dark as dark can be.

BLVR: You were working often in pitch darkness and freezing, turbulent weather. How did you deal with that?

DS: I slammed my hand in a car door right before I left, so I arrived in Svalbard with this injury and got frost in my hand. Frostbite is a lot worse than what I have. That’s when you have to chop it all off, isn’t it? What I have is this frost sensation. That hand always feels cold to the bone; it doesn’t go away. It’s so cold in Svalbard. It’s cold in a way that you can’t imagine. I wore motorcycle goggles because the cold wind can pop your eyes. When I was working outside alone, I would take overexposed photographs of my surroundings with my digital camera in order to check for ice bears.

BLVR: In your artist’s statement, you write that the seeds in the Vault are “copies of a diversity which craves a cyclic repetition of treatment, rather than a steady faith in the selected original and a linear progress.” When I read that, I found myself thinking of the fact that the Vault presently excludes genetically modified seeds. There seems to be a metonymic link between the broken mirrors and “broken” seeds. Am I overreading your statement, or is there a link for you there?

DS: There is, but not that explicitly. The mirrors play a double role. They both throw the mirrored image back and make it into numerous fragments that are being picked up by the different angles of the mirrors. The reflecting images all become the same: different, but with the same value. In this fragmented throwback, we see the movement of our own thinking. Our reflections blend with those of others, and come back as variant repetitions. When I have used mirrors in my works before, or shadow images that act as simplified copies of an original, it is to investigate exactly this, the relationship between us and the other, me as an original, and a copy of you at the same time. The craving for “the one,” the original that we can blindly trust in, is a ghost that we are carrying with us. With regards to genetically modified organisms, I was proud that the Norwegian government had banned GMO seeds from the Vault. I have a personal story with regards to this issue. In 1997, when my daughter, Alma, was three years old, she ate GMO cornmeal milk powder (since she was allergic to cows’ milk), which appeared accidentally in a store in Norway—a health-food store, by the way! (The mistake was discovered after a few months and the food product was removed from the shelves.) Subsequently, Alma became very ill. She was sent from the localhospital to the main hospital in Oslo. The doctors found that the first three antibiotics they tried on her wouldn’t work. Finally the most powerful antibiotic was used and it worked. Coincidentally, I discovered in one of my first conversations with the communication manager of the Seed Vault that he had made a documentary film the exact year that Alma got sick about the antibiotic resistance you can get from genetically manipulated food.

BLVR: If the increase of antibiotic-resistant bacteria is due not only to antibiotics in meat and dairy, but also to the proliferation of GMOs, it indicates that food from seeds is also becoming a potential health risk. (Sealing them and locking them away gets the point across.) But it feels counterintuitive to think of seeds as endangered, especially when seeds are porous, designed to be shattered.3 Your installation is porous, too, shattered-looking. It looks as if one could enter the Vault through it. You’ve said of it, “The mirrored surfaces don’t disclose any objects which may lie behind them—they copy what they receive and throw it back.” Here the important thing seems to be not entrance but reflexivity.

DS: The thought or idea of the installation is precisely to insist on reflection, that who you will meet in the mirror is yourself, and that whatever needs doing is up to you. Everything you do, you get it right back. We have to look, and then to look again. The mirrors on the piece show you yourself: what are you going to do? This is happening. Dig into it. When I myself began to do research for the installation, I was amazed when I realized how little I knew about how global agriculture actually works and who has the power there.


BLVR: I read yesterday that in the U.S. there are more people in prison than there are farmers.

DS: Yes? That is so scary! These things can make you so sad.

BLVR: Do you find the Vault reassuring?

DS: Though I see the sad need for the Vault, I believe in it mostly as a signal. The Seed Vault must be caught in thought. We have to catch it in thought. I read online someone joking about how, yeah, sure, after an atomic explosion they’d row themselves off to Svalbard, they would see the lights and go there! I thought that was rather funny. The point of the Vault is not what is inside, but that it causes people to reflect and to take action where it can make a difference, for instance, when it comes to their own biotopes. The Vault balances on a continuum between extreme points: the practical necessity and virtue of gathering and securing the world’s seed diversity, and the equally negative and dreadful signal it gives off by telegraphing that this is really necessary, drawing attention to the current dangers seeds have to be protected from. Georges Bataille describes in The Accursed Share the way in which the gift is positive and negative at the same time, because it binds the recipient to return it with an even more valuable gift. In a way the Seed Vault is a gift to all of us, which binds us to return it with an even more significant one. It is the gift that no one wants.

BLVR: Can you talk about your other projects?

DS: The last couple of years I’ve mainly done commissions, which I like very much because these matter to a different public, but I also need to do projects just for myself, where I develop things. I just finished a commission at the Norwegian University of Life and Sciences, Weather Catcher. It is a semitransparent cone shape that runs through several floors, registering and transforming light from above. How you experience the weather changing on the screen depends on your own presence and awareness as much as the actual weather conditions. For quite some time I have been working on a project about lightning. It’s very democratic, lightning. I’m trying to figure out if it casts a shadow. The direction of the light there, the light source, is not man-made, and yet it’s different from daylight. Then there is that special ball lightning that comes now and again, and hits planes. I want to see that and I don’t want to see that!

BLVR: Will you say more about your interest in shadows?

DS: Well, it’s like this: Things only cast a shadow when a light is projected. You can never really capture a shadow, because the minute you take the light away, the darkness disappears. Like in a gothic, we are terrified of the darkest darkness; we want to see it. But let’s say you want to see the shadow better. You put light on the shadow, but then the shadow disappears. At the same time, the more light there is, the less you see of the subtlety, the qualities that shadows produce. This is art to me, that space in between, an exact spot that you cannot capture, or can only capture for a very short time.

BLVR: Hélène Cixous says, “Solar daylight blinds me to the visionary day.… I write by the other light.”

DS: Exactly. I once made an audio piece that was a kind of fairy tale. In the story people had made a system out of everything, in order to have some peace. All the shadows disappeared and were lost from the world. Plato had taken all the shadows and locked them away, but the public didn’t know it. They didn’t think twice about it, because they had forgotten how to think twice.

BLVR: Do you have a sense of how many people have visited the Vault?

DS: At first they said, after the opening in February, that it would be totally closed, but then there was huge pressure to open it for programs, for important people, like royals and other dignitaries. [Roots around for a magazine and points to a magazine article with photographs of Jimmy Carter, Ted Turner, George Soros.] These people are coming. Fifty important American people are touring the Arctic and have set themselves to bring a new ecological agenda to America. The Seed Vault is one of their stops. They want to come to the inner chambers where the seeds are kept. This part is still a no-visit part of the vault. So the answer to them is no. [They ended up viewing this part of the Vault via monitors.] I understand why they would expect to come in—it’s a cultural thing. In America important people can go anywhere. But Norway is not like America. If you, as a donor of seeds that you have picked in a field south of the equator somewhere, can never afford to go to the Vault, why should people who have a lot of money, even funders, be allowed to go? But that’s a Norwegian thing: everybody is a troll! The king and queen are not even allowed in, and they think it’s good that way. To me it’s conceptual. The more you say the place is closed for everyone, the stronger the signal it transmits.

BLVR: This question of access to the Vault might also symbolize access to survival and power more generally. Maybe they could build a Svalbard Global Seed Vault replica in Las Vegas.

DS: Yes, they could just make a mock-up! If that is what it takes, we could have a few.

BLVR: What do you think the role of public art is?

DS: It is a place for people to meet the dimension of art. For those that don’t go to galleries, there is a meeting that is staged for them. If they visit that space, they can choose whether or not to see it. One question is: should you impose public art on people? Sometimes you shall. The Seed Vault is one example of such an imposition, because everyone should know about it. The Seed Vault doesn’t leave anybody who really grasps it untouched. And any solely practical installation would, I think. Though there is a real limit of art, actually. If you go too close to the political border, art might stop working altogether. Political work and activism are far more suitable ways when it comes to making the actual changes. Even though art and activism can be very close, if art gets close enough to activism it can become powerless. You can lose the vantage of art itself. You have to analyze and pose questions within your field. As an artist you have a different set of tools. I think that your job is to expose the gap or the sliding position, or, if you like, to lift a stone, show the moment when one truth gets replaced by another. It’s not that “these are art thoughts, these are not art thoughts”—no. Life and art are not separate. Anything that moves you is important. But when you glimpse something for the first time, you may not recognize it. Rather than counting your steps forward and looking straight on, art encourages you to shift your position, move sideways, and look again.

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