Monsters, myth and media: Nordic stories of belonging and otherness (Network Funding from Nordic Culture Point 2018-2019)

Dr. Ingvil Hellstrand from the Monster Network gives us her thoughts on our workshop series funded by the Nordic Culture Point.


With the generous support of the Nordic Culture point, the Monster Network has recently completed a workshop series dealing with what we might call a resurgence of the figure of the monster in the Nordic countries. The political climate is changing, and in all the Nordic countries there is a harsher political rhetoric linked to what is considered normal and what is considered deviant. Simultaneously, right-wing politics demanding a ban on immigration and better integration are on the rise, and the past few years we have seen neo-nazi marches in Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Norway. These very real and acute situations is a reminder of the histories of monster-making: how certain bodies, voices and identities are rendered monstrous, or as not-belonging, as a result of ideology, social agendas, cultural norms and popular culture and the media.


Haunted Humanity

Our first workshop took place in Stavanger, Norway on 29 and 30 November 2018. This workshop, entitled Haunted Humanity, invited artists, writers and researchers to discuss how the very idea of being human is haunted, not only by monstrous Others, but also by the traditional hegemony of the (white, able-bodied, male, middle-class) human.  The (in)stability of the human is defined by its relation to its others, and we wanted to grapple with the idea of various hauntings, be it bodily, technologically, historically, territorially, fictionally and ideologically, to mention a few.

Coming from a feminist tradition, the workshop was organized around the principle of diffraction. This means that we gathered people from different fields and perspectives in order to bring out various approaches and multiplicities in terms of hauntings. One example of how we managed to do just that was a session where we discussed the Tasmanian tiger and the story of its extinction alongside a videowork by Swedish artist Tove Kjellmark that focuses on the female body. After an engaging talk about the preservation and presentation of the now-extinct animal by

Professor of environmental history at the University of Stavanger, Dolly Jørgensen, an initial  discussion about cataloguing and classifying brought about a debate about the impossibility of representation without haunting, exemplified by the female body as a spectacle. In other words, invoking the very idea of a body, be it female or a Tasmanian tiger, demands a reflection on how it can be displayed, represented, historizised, told, portrayed and reproduced. And further, an attention to who is doing the storying, and when and how it is being told, and what is silenced or lost along the way.

One of the major haunting figures to this day is Frankenstein and his monster-creature, and so we felt a tribute to Mary Shelley’s work as well as to the legacies of Frankenstein was in order. How can we deal with acknowledging the legacies on the one hand, but also challenge and subvert them on the other? Central here is of course the question of knowledge production, and the production of a literary canon. This theme of knowledge regimes, canonization, tradition and legacy did actually become an overarching theme for the entire workshop: whose knowledges are deemed monstrous, unfitting, problematic, and what are the consequences of being rendered illegitimate or improper by the state apparatus, religion or majority culture. For example, many of our invited speakers talked about Sámi knowledges as an example of something that has been silenced or hidden, and how this making-invisible continues to haunt history and culture, as well as families, identities and everyday lives.


Weird ecologies and storytelling practices

Our second workshop took place in Tampere, Finland on 4 and 5 April 2019, with the theme of Weird Ecologies and Storytelling Practices. Here, we continued the thread about knowledge production, but situated in critical story-telling practices. Having invited writers of speculative fiction, such as Laura Gustafsson and Johanna Sinisalo as keynote speakers, this workshop engaged in questions of why stories are important, and for who. How can weird and speculative stories contribute to change how we perceive the world that we live in and surround ourselves by? By exploring themes of imagining, (re)telling and envisioning the world otherwise, the very question of human superiority and the necessity of alternative perspectives and positionalities set the tone and artistic-theoretical framework for this workshop.

The workshop also featured a writing workshop with Professor Emerita Nina Lykke, in which she invited us to “write the posthuman”. In order to do this, she argued, the exercise is to draw on a range of senses and attempt to de-centre and and posthumanise the “I” position. By shifting perspectives and agency for the storyteller, Lykke advocated writing and thinking practices where a traditional, representational mode of writing was challenged: the point is not to represent, but to acknowledge the posthuman as a “you”. In turn, this “you”, is something or someone that we, the humans, must relate to. Throughout the workshop, Lykke’s point seemed to reiterate in several of the talks: in artist Henna Laininen’s dialogue with a glacier; art-researcher Shreyasi’s intimate photo assemblages of cities and technologies, and in researcher Marietta Radomska’s deliberations about the materialities of life and death.

Storying the monster is a way of making visible the boundaries for established knowledge regimes, and potentially challenge them. The monster is a figure that haunts, and it is thus in a position to raise questions about presences and absences, as well as about its own ontology. Similarly, the monster allows unexpected and unrecognized perspectives and stories to show themselves, and – perhaps – shift the boundaries for what is considered reality for a moment. For the whole of our workshop series, the monster served us well as a thinking tool about hauntings, weirdness, humanity and ecology.

Remember to listen to our podcast from these workshops!