The National Theater of Norway’s Yes Men
 
 

On September 23, a video was published on YouTube titled “The National Theatre of Norway’s official apology for the cooperation with Habima.” In it, the renowned Norwegian actor Gjertrud Jynge — identified onscreen as Gjertrud Synge, spokesperson for the theater — directly addresses the camera on the subject of a creative collaboration with Habima, the national theater of Israel.

“When our theater director agreed upon this collaboration two years ago,” Synge states from a spot-lit stage, “we did not know what a powerful role Habima and other Israeli art institutions play in normalizing the Israeli occupation. We did not know that art and theater are extremely important tools for the state of Israel to build up the image of itself as a humanistic nation, and not as the apartheid state that it actually is. We did not know because we had not done one single piece of research … we did not know because, actually, we did not bother to find out.”

This breath-taking candor on the part of Norway’s national theater would have marked an unprecedented example of institutional reparation, had the video not in fact been a hoax.

The subject of the unofficial apology is TERRORisms, an international theater project funded by Creative Europe (a 1.46 billion euro cultural granting program by the European Commission) and spearheaded between 2013 and 2015 by the Union of European Theaters (UTE), a professional association made up of 40 of the region’s most influential theaters. The UTE website credits the TERRORisms project with commissioning five new plays, two conferences and two publications “dealing with the issue of terrorism and its appropriation by artists.” The National Theater of Norway and Habima are listed as participants, as is Palestine’s Shiber Hur Company — though no mention is made that the latter organization withdrew from the project in 2014. The National Theater of Norway’s contribution to TERRORisms was Jonas Corell Petersen’s absurdist We chew on the bones of time, about four men coming together to play guitar, dance and muse about life. By contrast, Habima presented God Waits at the Station, a play by Maya Arad that the UTE website sets in “one of the most devastating terrorist attacks performed within Israeli territory by Palestinian terror organizations during the Second Intifada.”

Although cultural dialogue in the service of an international experience is the project’s purported intention, inconsistencies in position and language plague official communications about TERRORisms, which the National Theater of Norway’s website describes as a project about “terrorism in Europe.” It is perhaps fitting then that TERRORisms takes its title from a 2004 observation by US historian of political violence Walter Laqueur. “There is not one terrorism but a variety of terrorisms,” Laqueur wrote in the introduction to No End to War: Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century. Laqueur had begun this thought in his 1977 book The History of Terrorism: “The term terrorism has been used for so many different meanings that it almost completely lost its sense.”

And so, in response to a project that seats itself in an inability to accurately define its terms, the unofficial apology video offers a seductive rupture.

The authors of the video, Norwegian artists and activists Pia Maria Roll and Marius von der Fehr, begin their cypher’s monologue with, “This is a great day for the National Theater of Norway.” Although they are `mimicking established PR language, it may not be coincidental that this introduction echoes the opening statement of the Yes Men’s Andy Bichlbaum during his infamous 2004 appearance on BBC World News. “Today is a great day for all of us at Dow,” Bichlbaum began, impersonating a spokesperson for the Dow Chemical Corporation and going on to announce that the corporation would take full responsibility for the Bhopal catastrophe. This 1984 chemical gas leak at the Union Carbide Corporation’s pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, is estimated to have caused the injury of over 500,000 and the immediate or prolonged death of 15,000 people living in areas surrounding the plant. Union Carbide, which was purchased in 2001 by Dow, eventually made a meagre and slowly distributed civil settlement in exchange for the termination of criminal cases against the company and its employees. To this day, however, the Bhopal site remains contaminated and Dow refuses to acknowledge any responsibility for the leak, at times deliberately obfuscating evidence of their culpability.

Yes Men Dow

When the Yes Men were asked to account for their hoax apology, which was only discovered after the announcement had gained major international media attention resulting in a drastic drop in Dow stock, Bichlbaum noted that it was actually Dow who had been “promulgating a hoax by which they’ve convinced people that they cannot do anything about Bhopal, that they cannot accept responsibility.” In fact, the Yes Men’s BBC action presented clear solutions: liquidate Union Carbide and allocate the resulting US$12 billion to the remediation of Bhopal and its citizens.

The unofficial Norwegian apology video is similarly solution-oriented. Synge, backed by softly swelling strings, details promises of recompense: “The National Theater of Norway will fully support the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions of Israel. With immediate affect, we will also cancel our membership with the politically irresponsible European Theater Union.” Further promises include the theater dedicating all of its means of production (the video alleges an annual budget of 30 million euros) to “work with the situation in the Middle East,” and the theater’s director Hanne Tømta donating 50 percent of her annual salary to Palestinian theater in the West Bank and Gaza.

For her part, Tømta has represented the National Theater of Norway’s ambivalent position through official communication channels. The day after the unofficial apology was posted on YouTube, Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs publically called for the denial of “libelous statements” presented in the “disinformation clip,” likening the video to the work of Joseph Goebbels, minister of propaganda for the German Third Reich. In response, the theater published a statement on their website clarifying that Roll and von der Fehr’s project did not represent the views of the theater, but that it constitutes an “expression of artistic freedom.” That said, the statement confirms that the theater continues to favor cross-border collaborations with “regimes [they] are critical to” over “boycotts and silence.” The insinuation that Roll and von der Fehr, and by extension the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement, are guilty of obstructing cultural dialogue is reminiscent of the BBC blaming the Yes Men for the disappointment of the Bhophal people, who had initially also been under the impression that Dow was finally taking responsibility for the medical, economic and ecological violence they have been perpetrating for over 20 years.

This was not the first time Tømta was called to account for the TERRORisms project. In April 2014 the Norwegian think tank TeaterTanken wrote an open letter to the National Theater of Norway, urging them to withdraw cooperation with Habima on the grounds that they, and by extension the European Theatre Union, were in violation of international law through their activities in the occupied Palestinian territories. A concurrent signature campaign was mounted, gathering over 1200 names including those of employees at the theater. In response, Tømta released a message in May 2014 stating that though the management, board, and employee unions of the national theater did not support the cultural boycott of Israel, she personally was troubled by the actions of Habima. Three months later, Tømta was quoted by the NRK (Norway’s public broadcasting corporation) as supporting the economic boycott of Israel, while in the same article Tom Remlov, artistic director at the theater, is reported to have advised against withdrawal from the TERRORisms project. These continued inconsistencies in position seem themselves to resemble a campaign of disinformation.

When the Yes Men were asked in a 2009 interview what they thought about the words “prank” and “hoax” being applied to their culture-jamming activism, Bichlbaum said “a prank seems like something you do just for the hell of it … a hoax is all about fooling people … what we do isn’t about fooling people – it’s actually about informing them.”

The most striking moment of the unofficial National Theater of Norway apology comes near the end of the video, when Synge’s tone softens suddenly and she remarks, “The Habima case has made us remember something that we had forgotten for a very long time: theater can be important. And for this reminder, we are forever grateful.” This is an enormously optimistic rhetoric: demonstrating the power inherent to the act of taking responsibility for one’s actions on a personal and institutional level. It implies the philosophical freedom of publically acknowledging a mistake, and thus aspiring to be part of a society that not only acknowledges the ever-present reality of error and refuses to beget it further, but also allows for a changed mind, a shifted alliance. Unfortunately, most of the time such audacious aspirations are fictions — just like the apologies of the National Theater of Norway and the Dow Chemical Company — but it is telling that we often fall for them.

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Lauren Wetmore