For generations of Norwegians, the children’s plays and books of Torbjørn Egner have been a cultural staple.
Now, by inviting students from Kum Song Music School in Pyongyang to take part in his version of the Egner play “When the Robbers Came to Cardamom Town,” Norwegian artist and theater director Morten Traavik attempts to give the piece a new flair with his own version, dubbed “Cardamomyang.”
With 2014 marking the bicentennary of the Norwegian constitution, the Bergen International Festival, taking place annually in the Norwegian coastal city of Bergen, wanted its contributors to pose questions on the concepts of democracy, free speech and the values Norwegians perceive as fundamental.
“Cardamom Town,” Egner’s original play, is in many ways a Brechtian lehrstücke, aimed at instilling the social democratic values of 1950’s Scandinavia in its audience. In the original play, the law prescribes that people should be good to each other. A wise old man in a tower provides guidance on wrong and right, and the robbers who “come to town” – the main thematic element of the play – all become better people through voluntary community service. Traavik said his version is “an attempt to, with a pinch of humor, ask some questions about how Norwegians perceive themselves, how North Koreans perceive themselves, and how we perceive each other.”
“There are many interesting layers here, for example in that we get a band of children, sent by the government of a ‘terror regime,’ from ‘the worst country in the world,’ to come and perform. In a sense, it’s really the “robbers” (of the play) who are coming to Norway,” Traavik told NK News, only days after returning from a nine-day trip to North Korea for rehearsals and preparations.
NOT WITHOUT CONTROVERSY
In addition to the play itself, the kids will take part in the National Day parade in Bergen on May 17, and perform at local schools.
“I’m not doing it to preach human rights or anything else to them, because that wouldn’t be very fruitful”
“They will experience new things, and other forms of art than what they are used to,” said Traavik. “But I’m not doing it to preach human rights or anything else to them, because that wouldn’t be very fruitful.”
And with that he touches on what has sparked the ire of many a critic in his home-country. Over the years, Traavik has organized a range of collaborative artistic endeavors with North Korean authorities, bringingNorth Korean and Norwegian performers together in what he calls “artistic interventions.” In 2012 he had 220 Norwegian NATO soldiers make up a shifting mass-mosaic in an Arirang-like performance, under the guidance of North Korean instructors. Later the same year, he took the celebration of the Norwegian National Day to Pyongyang, having artists from his home-country and North Korean musicians perform songs from both countries in front of a 1,000-people audience. He also had North Korean accordionists arrange their own versions of songs by what might be Norway’s only international pop-stars. Much of his work has been financed by the Norwegian Arts Council, a state institution under the country’s Ministry of Culture.
The criticism, coming from a diverse crowd of politicians, pundits and think tank-analysts, encompasses everything from accusations of “useful idiocy” to excusing North Korean authorities of human rights abuses and providing the regime with domestic propaganda material.
“The short version of my response is that I’m useful, but I’m not an idiot”
“The short version of my response is that I’m useful, but I’m not an idiot. So I agree with half of that allegation,” he said, adding that he takes the criticism with a good measure of calm. “I can’t take the criticism seriously because it comes exclusively from people who base their alleged knowledge of North Korea on second-hand sources and who have never even been there.”
Traavik stresses that he doesn’t deny the existence of prison camps or other human rights abuses going on in North Korea.
“On that point we are in agreement,” he said. “It’s an ethical dilemma that is worthy of discussing. So I definitely think there should be a debate around it.” “But the real question is how we are supposed to deal with this. I believe it’s faulty logic, then, to sit safely behind a desk in Norway and claim that you care for these ’23 million human robots’ in North Korea and, at the same time, actively oppose endeavors that can contribute to opening the country to the world.”
Asked about whether he has any red lines at all in cooperating with North Korean authorities, he said that he “would have had serious problems with letting my projects be used by the North Koreans as overt propaganda for their own system.”
While each will be left to pass judgment on how fulfilling his work is of North Korea’s propaganda needs, he weighed in on examples of the sort of engagement that, in his view, doesn’t work, citing the April Spring Festival, those involved with the Korean Friendship Association – and Dennis Rodman.
“Singing the birthday song for Kim Jong Un – that’s just serving them propaganda material on a silver platter”
After a while “it became pretty clear that he (Dennis Rodman) didn’t have much control over what went on or over himself, for that matter. By, for example, singing the birthday song for Kim Jong Un – that’s just serving them propaganda material on a silver platter,” Traavik said.
For his own part – from his first visit to North Korea in 2008, where he brought a disco-ball around and had himself photographed in front of several of Pyongyang’s most pre-eminent monuments, birthing a picture series he dubbed “Discocracy” – he said his projects with North Korea are aimed at stirring reflections on both sides. That first trip, he said, gave him “a feeling that there was something here, a bigger scope of opportunities for artistic interventions than what one would have expected initially.”
“And over the past years I have expanded that scope,” he said, gradually earning the trust of the officials he has been working with.
“The level of trust has gone from being on-guard and hesitant, to being more relaxed and confident that I’m not a one-off type of guy who is there to pull a John Sweeney on them and then dump them, but that I’m interested in augmenting some perspectives,” he said.
Traavik said he is first and foremost an artist, not a politician. Even so, while not explicitly political in nature, his projects nonetheless explore several aspects of society that are relevant to politics, and while they indeed become very directly political through the debates that they spark, “there are also all the more subtle layers within the content of the projects themselves, and the thought that we in the West often are pinned down by at least as many prejudices as North Koreans,” he said. “It’s just that we think our view is the objective truth. The projects are not only about North Korea, but also about how we view ourselves and the world around us.”
Traavik holds that, being a theater director, he is able to recognize a staged scene when he sees one, and calls North Korea “the world’s largest and longest ongoing performance.”
“Traavik holds that, being a theater director, he is able to recognize a staged scene when he sees one”
“So much of public life in North Korea is concentrated around performances and things being staged. And that is manifested in so many ways – in architecture, in how the whole of Pyongyang is planned around a handful of central monuments. The leadership, in a way, writes itself into history with the physical landscape as a canvas,” he said. He doesn’t, however, subscribe to the notion that this applies in interpersonal relations with North Koreans.
“Implicit in the critique that everything in North Korea is staged, there is also this idea that behind all the props there is something much truer, more authentic. But there isn’t. The props are reality. Pyongyang is a city where people live, get drunk, fall in love and dream of better lives,” he said.
While preparing for the premiere of “Cardamomyang,” set to take place in Bergen May 22, and the other events in which his band of “robbers” from North Korea will take part, he has already set about planning for more of his future “interventions” in the country. When asked for details, he is stingy, revealing only that one of them involves bringing an “internationally known pop group” to North Korea, and that future collaboration will continue.
Reflecting on what is really at heart of what he’s doing, he said that he’s not in it to teach North Korea about human rights “or to help them reunite with the South or anything.”
“That’s their own business. I’m there to create a space, to create room, in which both sides can challenge themselves to stretch all those boundaries that have become so ingrained,” he said.
For generations of Norwegians, the children's plays and books of Torbjørn Egner have been a cultural staple.
Now, by inviting students from Kum Song Music School in Pyongyang to take part in his version of the Egner play "When the Robbers Came to Cardamom Town,” Norwegian artist and theater director Morten Traavik attempts to give the piece a new flair with his own version, dubbed "Cardamomyang.”
Ole Jakob Skåtun is a freelance journalist. In addition to reporting on Korean affairs for newspapers in his native Norway, his previous work also includes freelance work from Russia. His Twitter handle is @OleJakobS