“For me, art is essential for the world to go on”

Interview with Mette Woller, Head Curator at Roskilde Festival Arts

In the days between June 30th –  July 7th, Roskilde Festival 2018 transforms a flat field with the size of 350 soccer fields into a mecca for creativity, bringing more than 130.000 people together in a shared space of “feeling”. Be it a moment of bliss during a concert, in a fiery debate about equality, or by engaging with the impressive art programme that once again stresses the importance of art as a means to create experiences and challenge the status quo. In an exclusive interview, head curator Mette Woller gives insights into this year’s art programme and the need to give a voice to artists from all around the world. As she puts it herself: “Art is essential for the world to go on”.

Mette Woller, Head Curator at Roskilde Festival. Photo: Phillip Ørneborg

Working within a broad context, spanning world famous and emerging artists within a vast range of media, how do you set a framework for the artists represented and what are you considering when choosing the artists for the programme?
MW: The framework is actually exactly that: to present a programme that spans from world famous artists to emerging artists. In the same way that we wish to draw attention to rising stars within music, we want to include and promote up-coming artists. That combination is not only unique and beneficial for all participants involved, it also serves the purpose of presenting a broad programme to our guests and to show the diversity within the cultural field. Very importantly, we wish to increase the chance of giving the audience something they did not know they came for.

Another very significant element to stress in relation to the curatorial visions is that we do not only present visual artists within the art programme. Art has for a long time penetrated other fields and genres within society – and has often been hijacked by them. The art programme includes both artists, scientists, engineers, programmers, architects, designers, musicians, performers etc. Categories and genres can serve as a tool to understanding. However, the interesting part, I think, is when those categories and genres are challenged in ways that surprise you and make you wonder. Hopefully, that can change the discourse on whether something is art and instead focus on what art does and the many potentials it has to show and discuss alternatives to the world we are living in.

Finally, the festival area is equalling to 350 soccer fields – size does matter in that context. The sensual part and how bodies move in space is essential in relation to that. We unfold the festival site as a 3D post card and build almost all spaces up from the ground. In a world where so many things are anchored in a digital presence the value of the sensuous experience becomes a very important matter.

In other words, when we choose artists for the programme, we look for projects that conceptually, aesthetically and sensuously surround our audience and let their minds and bodies travel into new areas of reflection.

Zoë Walker and Neil Bromwich: The Dragon of Profit and Private Ownership. Opening at the Edinburgh Art Festival 2017

One of this year’s projects is ‘EQUALITY WALLS’, which is a copy of the much debated walls that US President Donald Trump plans to build at the border between Mexico and USA. Can you elaborate a bit on the project and why it is important for you to literally confront your audience with these walls?
EQUALITY WALLS does not only stress one situation but emphasises a world-wide tendency to block borders and create growing inequality in a global world where the technological development is long past dissolving borders between countries.

At the festival, copies of the walls have been erected as an invitation to debate, and we invite the festival guests to create a dialogue about the global tendency to set up borders to exclude sections of the world population. With the overload of information, we have today, and perhaps by not being directly affected by the significance of such political decisions, it can be challenging for some to really understand or even relate to the consequences it has. At the festival, it is impossible for the festival guests to avoid the rising borders and hereby prevent being confronted with a challenging issue for equality between the world population.

This lead to my former mentions on how we work with the importance of the sensuousness in art. In the Western world we still tend to separate the mind from the body. But try to walk your mind over to the 10-meter-tall walls without your body. It does not work very well unless you got some mind tripping Yoda skills going on. We perceive the world with our bodies. If the body is triggered so is your mind.

Another aspect I would like to add is the importance of art in relation to the project.

At Roskilde Festival the walls figure as aesthetic objects. In that way, the original, symbolic and nationalistic manifesto is replaced with another. The walls are an exhibition design commenting on the exhibition space without walls we have at the festival. Shortly after the prototype walls were erected, the Swiss-Islandic artist Christoph Büchel started an online petition to make the border walls national monuments due to their significant cultural value. Opinions about Büchel’s actions are numerous, but it raises some interesting questions about art’s influence on economic and political interests. A large amount of government expenditure is spent on building and testing the prototypes. Therefore, it is relevant to ask what happens when large economic investments, based on political interests, become cultural capital and made into objects that are owned by everybody.

Equality Walls Mock-Up. Credit: Mihewi Maya Ariadne Fürstenwald

Overall, you seek to engage people in the arts program in a range of ways. In other words: you would like your audience to take a stance. Can you give some examples of this?
The most important thing with the art programme is that there are no correct answers or results. It is perhaps not so much about making our audience take a stance as to create a dialogue with them and make them reflect and respond to the projects and hereby also the world issues that we present to them. We are curious about what they have to say. It is only together that we can make changes. The biggest success is when the situations and experiences the festival goers meet at the festival lives on when they leave. But as KlubRÅ exemplifies there is no doubt that we wish to challenge understandings of –  in this matter – how gender, sexuality and cultural background is perceived. Despite the fact that LGBTQ rights and equality in general have been the centre of attention for some years, there is still a long way to go. The contributions of Juliana Huxtable, Justin Shoulder, and Sandra Mujinga among others are therefore crucial contributions in that matter.

It wouldn’t be wrong to say that the arts programme has a clear political profile, would it? Do you think that art has a potential to change political agendas?
The art programme does not have a political profile, but it is indeed value-based political in the sense of believing that art makes a difference. It sounds like a tiresome cliché, but we are very serious about how we believe that art and music can change the world.

However, I find it important to stress that art is not politics. Art and politics exist in two very different systems. It is exactly because art is not depending on number of votes that it can talk about and reflect on issues that politics is not capable of. Art is not one thing, but one thing art can do is to speak on behalf of minorities and tell stories different from the ones that are being told. Art can create utopian alternatives or just experiment, which I believe is needed in this world. It can discuss contemporary society while speculating about future settings. It can make you dream and simultaneously sadden you with historical- and scientific facts. It can be hardcore academic and humoristic and easy going at the same time. But most importantly, it welcomes diversity because that is what it is made of.

Sandra Mujinga, CatchingUp2017. Photo: Audun Severin Eftevåg
Juliana Huxtable by Petra Collins

Most people associate Roskilde Festival with music, however, the arts has also been a crucial pillar of the festival since the very beginning. Within the past couple of years, it seems that the art programme has drawn more attention from media and the general public. Do you think it is a general reflection of some societal dynamics, or what is the reason for this development?
I think it is a development based on many aspects, but art is a crucial part of Roskilde Festival as the cultural event it is. The art programme has become more ambitious the last few years and the interest in creating cross-disciplinary projects between art, music, and our focus on social responsibility has increased. This year, you will find art on the stages (Gloria), art on the big screens next to Orange stage, art in the app and in the time schedules, which is all based on how we believe in art as a vital part of the content at the festival.

For a newcomer, how would you recommend him/her to go about the arts program?
Start by finding the limousine convoy with the mobile exhibitions driving around in EAST camping. If you are lucky you can get into the DIESEL WORM by Paul Barsch & Tilman Hornig featuring nine world famous artists. Or follow the 25-meter inflatable, capitalistic snake that will eats its way through the camping site (by Zoe Walker and Neil Bromwich). When the festival site opens – enter through the main gate and get the chills when you meet the 10-meter-tall EQUALITY WALLS. Turn right and pave your way to Jillian Mayer’s bulky sculptures, that are designed after the way your body uses your smartphone. If you’re lost, try locating your friends with the digital weather vanes by Oskar Koliander or find out what YOUNG GIRL READING GROUP’s non-place scent smells like in their total installation mimicking a bathroom in the Judge’ Tower in the middle of Art Zone.

Finally, there is KlubRÅ. You cannot miss Justin Shoulder’s amazing total installation that looks like a living fungus growing out of the space and breathing like a living organism. Shoulder will also perform in the space with a mythic creature, a cyborg, that re-thinks understandings of the human and identity. Then there are all the other beautiful commissioned projects in KlubRÅ, counting Juliana Huxtable’s unique live show and dildo inspired objects, CTM’s sci-fi show in thick haze and green light with Michael Jackson moments, and Sandra Mujinga’s giants inspired by alien tentacles that brings to mind different layers of skin, and many more. I can guarantee that KlubRÅ is the place you had no idea existed and will never forget.

Carrion, Justin Shoulder. Photo: Liz Hamand Tristan Jalleh

Being the last year with the theme of three years – Equality – can you unveil some of your thoughts for next year. How do you see the arts program unfold in the future?
The curatorial team started planning the art programme for 2019 back in April, and I can unveil that the cross-disciplinary profile that fusion art, music, and our social responsibility will become even stronger. But this is my last year as Head Curator for the art programme at Roskilde Festival, so I will let them unveil how it unfolds.

“To me, this is a dream job, because I am a part of transforming a flat field to an exhibition-space for 130.000 people, who, for a while, make up the fourth largest city in Denmark.” The above is a quote by you in an interview leading up to last year’s Roskilde Festival. Are you still living the dream?
When you say “living the dream” I imagine myself lying on a beach in a hammock looking out of the sunset with no worries. It is quite opposite the 50 hours a week I sit looking into a screen trying to change the world haha. But I feel very fortunate to work with such amazing artists and create the projects that I do. A colleague of mine told me that I put myself way too much into the projects that I create. The problem is that no matter how aggravating it may sound to some, I believe so deeply in art that is seems impossible not to. For some, art is the cream on the cake: The abundance in society that can serve as entertainment when needed. For me it is essential for the world to go on. It is honestly the thing that makes me able to breathe in this world.


About Roskilde Festival
Roskilde Festival is the largest North European culture and music festival and has existed since 1971. Roskilde Festival 2018 takes place from 30 June until 7 July.

Read more here: Roskilde Festival

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