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A conversation between Johan Tirén and Marianna Garin

From a conversation between Johan Tirén and Marianna Garin
Recorded in Stockholm in October 2006.

– We have invited you to show your video “Vi säger vad du tänker” (We’re saying what you’re thinking) within the framework of our project Public Manifestations of Creative Dissent in which we present work that questions and sheds light on the political systems, injustices and oppression that exist in our society. The title of your video was taken directly from Sverigedemokraterna’s* (Sweden Democrats) own propaganda. Can you explain something of the background to your video and how you came to concern yourself with Sverigedemokraterna?

– The initial background is simply the fact that many of my works are informed by a political interest. More specifically one can say that I was interested in the political development of Europe in which extreme rightwing parties have gained increasing influence at the parliamentary level. I lived in Denmark from 1988 to 2002 and I saw how the Dansk Folkeparti** gained support and, most notably, succeeded in shifting the entire political spectrum far to the right. I did not want to have to experience the same thing in Sweden but it was already in progress.

– Do you mean that their rhetoric influenced the political agenda of the other parties?

– Yes. One can claim that the other parties in Denmark – from the Social Democrats rightwards – with the exception of the liberal Radikale Venstre have taken over certain of Dansk Folkeparti’s policies. What has happened is that the entire field of politics has shifted; discussion and rhetoric have become more extreme and this allows a populist party like Dansk Folkeparti to move further to the right. This process in Denmark made me want to study what was going on in Sweden. In what is generally known as the nationalist movement, it is mainly Sverigedemokraterna and Nationaldemokraterna that have parliamentary aims but Sverigedemokraterna have been much the most successful.

– In this year’s elections Sverigedemokraterna were more successful at the polls than ever before.

– In the 2002 election they gained roughly 1.5% of the votes in the parliamentary election and were still considered a marginal party. They were represented on 29 municipal councils but had little real influence. When I produced this video Sverigedemokraterna were not nearly as well established as they are today. They are currently represented in about half of Sweden’s municipalities, having increased their representation from 49 to 280 seats and their votes from 75000 to almost 170000. As a percentage this is a very substantial increase.

– The work will be shown in the foyer of the city hall in Lund, a public place with a very “open” architecture. How do you think your work will be received having regard to the political situation today?

– The context here in Lund is very different from that in which it was shown at the Konsthall C gallery in the Stockholm suburb of Hökarängen in the spring of 2005. The work is concerned with a political party that a substantial number of local people have voted for. It is not a work that is controversial in the way that it was when I made it; or perhaps it is more controversial now.

– An interesting aspect of the election results is the care with which Sverigedemokraterna have cleaned up their background.

– Yes. There is no doubt about where they originated. Their background is as an extremist movement. It is strange that people speak so little about their history. In brief, Sverigedemokraterna developed from BSS Bevara Sverige Svenskt (Keep Sweden Swedish) in 1988 and, as late as the mid 1990s, there were people with evident neo-Nazi links in leading positions in the party. I don’t think that one can ignore that background when one interprets their message. Even if one cannot call Sverigedemokraterna a Nazi party today there are historical links. The rhetoric has been toned down considerably since the beginning of the 1990s and there are different people in the leading positions in the party; people who have succeeded in ridding themselves of the extremist identity. From uniform to business suit, one might term it. Another example is the change of party symbol prior to the 2006 election from a Swedish flag in the form of a flaming torch to a wood anemone. The torch was, practically speaking, identical to the British National Front’s symbol but Sverigedemokraterna presumably wanted to avoid that coupling. As I see it, Sverigedemokraterna are today a right wing racist or, as some would put it, culture-racist party. One may ask what the difference is but one always ends up with the notion that Sweden should belong to the “Swedes”.

– If we consider the work itself it consists of interviews with the former party secretary of Sverigedemokraterna Jan Milld, with the former press officer Jonas Åkerlund and with journalist Daniel Poohl who is engaged in the politically non-aligned foundation Expo which studies right wing movements in Sweden. I query the interesting ambivalence in the fact that these representatives of Sverigedemokraterna are given so much space to put their points of view without having to defend their positions. Though your own position becomes clear from the questions that you ask.

– My own position is not something that I try to hide in the work. There is no reason to do so and I am highly critical of their policies and their ideology. But it is true that I give them space. I want to learn how Sverigedemokraterna work, how they argue for their policies and how their ideology functions. One can do this in various ways. But in this particular instance it is a matter of giving them space to express themselves and their ideas and strategies. At the same time it was important to me to hear how they define the fundamental concepts on which they build their policies. Given that they find building a homogenous nation with a homogenous culture, common origins and a common language to be so important. Then it should be important to define what these things are. The interviews were based entirely on their own written materials, their policy document. If Sweden is to be a country for Swedes it becomes interesting to ask which people are included in the concept. The “others”, those that cannot be “Swedes”, should not be here. I think that it becomes evident from the interviews that they cannot actually define these concepts. In the last analysis it is all a matter of feeling; something that Åkerlund also gives expression to: “It is not a serious problem… when we go to the coop to shop… we know who is Swedish”. In the interview with Daniel Poohl there is a different image of the party than the one Sverigedemokraterna normally seek to communicate and this gives perspective to what was said in the conversations with Jonas Åkerlund and Jan Milld. People can then relate to what was said as they wish.

– I am interested in your strategy and methodology in the interview. You undertake a critical survey of Sverigedemokraterna’s ideology when you ask them to define different concepts that are important to their political programme. At the same time, discussing migration and asylum policies is not entirely unproblematic in that there have been conflicts on these issues within the party executive. There is also a strength in the fact that you do not assume any form of superiority in your effort to understand.

– There is no reason to feel superior to anyone. What I wanted to do was to let two Sverigedemokrater talk about their ideology. I wanted to listen to them formulating their policies and to see whether they really can argue for the policies that they put on their programme. I am not sure whether it is correct that they do not want to talk about migration and asylum for even though there have been conflicts within the party on these issues they are still their main policies. What Jonas Åkerlund was not keen to talk about in the interview – and this is what you are referring to – is how the policy could be put into practice. How is one to determine who is sufficiently Swedish to be worthy of inclusion in the Swedish nation. How much violence should be used in expelling the non-Swedes who do not return to their countries of their own volition or let themselves be assimilated in accordance with Sverigedemokraterna’s programme.

– Their problems increase the longer the interview lasts but are they aware of this themselves?

– I really do not know. I think that they were pretty happy with their presentations. I do not believe that they are aware of the problems that I see myself in their arguments. These are extremely difficult questions to answer. I certainly could not answer the question as to what is a specifically Swedish culture but I have no interest in actually trying to define it. But if you build a party on the fundamental notion that if you do not embrace “Swedish culture” then you should not be here – well then a definition ought to be a dire necessity. Then claiming to be antiracist seems, from that perspective, idiotic…

– How do you think that Sverigedemokraterna would react to such a question?

– You mean that they are racists? Sverigedemokraterna would claim that it is the Swedes who have been subjected to racism since for decades they have been forced into multiculturalism, have been forced to take part in a gigantic experiment – the multicultural project. It is the Swedes in Sweden who are oppressed by the political establishment and the media. This is evident in their slogan “We’re saying what you’re thinking”. This claims that it is Sverigedemokraterna who dare to give expression to what the Swedish people really think, to what people would like to say themselves but cannot or dare not because of the pressure to which the people are subjected. Sverigedemokraterna aspire to be the voice of the entire “Swedish people”. But I would claim that it is a racist party for this is very evident if one reads between the lines in the political programme. There is no doubt that they are cultural racists. This is the raison d’être of the party. The link that holds them together is the struggle for a homogeneous nation and their dissatisfaction with immigration.

– The material is largely unedited. Can you explain your approach? What were your intentions?

– What you actually see is a very small part of the production process but it is true that the interviews are largely unrefined. I naturally had access to much more material in the form of pictures, texts, etc. but I wanted to focus on what was actually said in the interviews. Many of the pictures were precisely what we expected when dealing with rightwing extremism: demonstrations with uniforms, Swedish flags and suchlike. Showing such pictures can be important but, in this particular context, I thought that there was a risk that the pictures would get in the way of the interviews, of what was actually being said. Something that struck me afterwards was the fact that Sverigedemokraterna often complain about being misquoted or censored. That is part of their self-image. But it is difficult for them to claim such treatment here in that the arguments have not been edited. Also, I was not interested in any sort of “instant effect” but wanted to allow space for reflection and discussion.

– Which is emphasized by the structure of the interviews with the pauses.

– The brief pauses make it easier to understand the material with an interruption of a few seconds before the next aspect of the argument is introduced. The pauses allow one to think one’s own thoughts. But the pauses also act as “gaps”, as interludes which make the subjectivity of the work more apparent.

– How did you come into contact with the representatives of Sverigedemokraterna? How accessible were they at that time?

– There was not great difficulty. I rang the press officer and asked if I could do some interviews. They did not seem to have a problem with this. I imagine that they saw an opportunity to spread their propaganda. They need publicity. So I was naturally ambivalent since it was not my ambition to spread their message. But I wanted to understand it. How, otherwise, are we to deal with these currents? And the interviews which I undertook are, to say the least, clearly critical of their policies.

– You have previously worked with issues regarding asylum policies in Europe both individually and with others and your works are highly political. Do you consider that art can be a form of resistance or can the person who resists only survive by fitting in? In that case, how do you see your position as an artist?

– These are difficult issues. But personally I have never felt like a complete outsider. Art is not separate from the rest of society. And in other contexts too, like demonstrations, I have not felt that I was outside society. But this does not mean that art cannot be a way of resisting. I think that there is a critical potential in art. This critical potential can form the basis of some sort of resistance. On one level there is a relevance in that the resistance has to come from within. If you remain entirely on the outside there is a risk that you will become isolated and neglected. What you say will never be heard except within the group that you form a part of. But then, surely, there is also the question of the extent to which you are prepared to adapt in order to “fit in”?

– It is interesting to see the political standpoints of the other parties regarding the ideology of Sverigedemokraterna. Take the Folkpartiet (Liberal Party of Sweden), for example, and their cultural canon in which those in power form a people in accordance with a common, cultural goal. But a similar attitude found expression in the early socialist ambitions for citizens of the Swedish welfare state − or Folkhemmet***.

– The construction of the welfare state is a rather large topic but it is interesting that Sverigedemokraterna see themselves as the party concerned with managing the continued development of the welfare state with the emphasis on a “Swedish” welfare state. But an important aspect of the work is, of course, analyzing it with regard to today’s policy. To see the continuity. Even if the focus is specifically on Sverigedemokraterna. I think that it is evident that some of their ideas already exist in society. For example, what is the impact of the Folkpartiet’s proposal for a language test for people seeking citizenship? This is a policy that might have been taken directly from Sverigedemokraterna. What do the Swedish Social Democrats really mean when they talk about “social tourism”. Is this not just the same thing that Sverigedemokraterna are saying when they claim that “foreigners just come here and exploit the system”? And we have not even discussed discrimination, social issues and class. Perhaps the most distressing aspect of this work is the fact that we can see that the racist structures already exist here. How do we meet that? How do we confront the problem when, finally, it is about us and not about them?

* In the tradition of European politics Sverigedemokraterna would be categorized as a nationalist or ultranationalist party particularly concerned with immigration and integration as they affect Sweden.
** The official aim of the Dansk Folkeparti (Danish People’s Party) is to promote Denmark’s independence, to protect the Danish people’s security in their own country and to preserve and develop democracy and the monarchy. The party is represented both in the Danish and the European parliaments.
*** The concept of Folkhemmet or people’s home was given wide currency by Per Albin Hansson (1885-1946), leader of the Swedish Social Democrats. It was intended to describe the new society that the Social Democrats wanted to build by eradicating economic and social divisions. The people’s home or welfare state would be a society of consensus and equality. The term folkhem had been used earlier, for example by the conservative politician Rudolf Kjellén (1864-1922).