Protestfestival History

In summer 2000, in the middle of the main holiday period in the southern part of Norway known as Sørlandet, Svein Inge Olsen and Kai Erland mobilised about a hundred entertainers, academics and artists to protest against indifference and powerlessness.

This article is to a considerable extent the history of the protest festival. It contains all of an interview with one of the arrangers and appeared in the weekly net publication Ukeavisen Ledelse on 7 January 2005

In summer 2000, in the middle of the main holiday period in the southern part of Norway known as Sørlandet, Svein Inge Olsen and Kai Erland mobilised about a hundred entertainers, academics and artists to protest against indifference and powerlessness. And indifference was what they got, as the public didn’t give a toss. However the local printed media did, and completely slaughtered the event. Nor were the creditors indifferent, as they demanded payment of a deficit of NOK 160,000.

‘Oh dear’ says Svein Inge Olsen, with a faraway look in his eyes.
‘The entertainer Ole Paus stood singing in the street, and people passed by without the slightest idea of what was going on. According to the local newspaper Fædrelandsvennen the whole thing was so embarrassing that they just about asked us to leave town. We were pretty low when the week was over.’

That crazy week in July 2000 was the start of Christianssands Protest Festival, which is now entering its sixth year. The motto is still protest against indifference and powerlessness. Under the motto ‘Indifference kills’ people pay to listen to debates about the tyranny of beauty, health fascism and the dechristianisation of Norway. They go to listen to poetry readings with Paal-Helge Haugen, to see Jacob Holdt’s photographs and to hear Jahn Teigen’s concert in the church, and they mingle with well-known culture personalities such as ex-politician Stein Ørnhøi, clergyman and writer Per Arne Dahl, actor Lars Andreas Larsen, comedian Per Inge Torkelsen, ex-footballer and football agent Erik Soler, and media figure Svein O. Høiby.
‘Five years on, we’re now recognised. Kristiansand Municipality sees us as just as important an event as the summer rock festival Quartfestivalen. We’ll never be a profitable enterprise, but we get public financing and we’re sponsored by many of the local business people that traditionally support culture. We’ll make sure that we make an important contribution to the public debate and that we don’t go bankrupt.’

But the bankruptcy was a very frightening thought when the culture businessmen Olsen and Erland sat licking their wounds after that harrowing summer in 2000. Svein Inge Olsen’s past included being a warehouse worker, local radio enthusiast, writer and event maker, but none of these had made him rich. Among other things he had a poetry festival in Søgne and a song festival in Marnadal on his conscience, in addition to a book about one of his ancestors, the great Bjørgulv Upstad from Setesdal. Olsen and Kai Erland met for the first time in spring 2000. The were brought together because of their common past as festival arrangers and a common frustration that people’s visions on the threshold to the new millenium had not stretched any further than a few thoughts on how high the rockets could go on New Year’s Eve.
‘We decided to get an arrangement going together, to do something about people’s indifference. The concept of a ‘protest festival’ was chosen after a bit of doubt, perhaps characterised by my personal fascination for the hippie period in the seventies. I almost get a bit depressed when I think about the commitment that was around at that time, but that I can’t find in so many places today.’

The first arrangement was what Svein Inge Olsen calls ‘a crazy stunt’.
‘We were late in getting started, but decided to challenge that part of the summer when people just sunbathe and eat shrimps on the edge of the quays. We set up a broad programme, with debates about morals, and values, concern and judgement day, war and peace, the struggle for women’s lib and legislation for children, prayer and recovery, environmental protection and anarchy. There were debates everywhere, and several debates at the same time. The programme was terribly spread, and ended with a terrible letdown. Nobody came because nobody knew where they should be, because we hadn’t told them that. We didn’t have any marketing budget.’
The two of them were left with a pile of unpaid bills, and with an editorial in Fædrelandsvennen saying that they had started something that must never be allowed to happen again as long as the town existed.
‘Things were not very much fun on the purely private level either. I was alone during the week at that time, but Kai had family and was not exactly received with shouts of joy at home. Besides, he was the only one of us that had a regular income, so he was probably scared that he’d have to repay the 160,000 kroner by himself.’

But in the middle of all the depression there were some positive phone calls too: from the county medical officer, from the bishop, from the entertainer Kine Hellebust and the writer Triztan Vindtorn.
‘There were encouraging comments like: don’t give up, this is important, try once again. There were enough positive reactions to make us decide to try in 2001 too. We were a little reckless, but our nerves were also a bit frayed, so when we launched the next festival in the newspaper we politely asked the journalist in the local paper if he would please not kill us off yet again.’
The second attempt with the festival was at the end of August/beginning of September, after the locals had crawled ashore from their pleasure boats.
‘Then we were a bit less ambitious, and made sure people knew a bit more about us. In addition we got the old myth confirmed, that all PR is good PR, as the curiosity created by the previous year’s fiasco increased the notice taken of the next arrangement. From 2001 the festival has developed more naturally, growing a little year by year, and has managed a little better economically. And the local paper has gone from trying to kill us off to being one of our most valuable supporters.’

But it is only NOW that the protest festival is getting rid of the debt from 2000. And that’s related to another of Svein Inge Olsen’s personal hang-ups, his admiration for the American country icon Kris Kristofferson. In between the festivals Olso has both written a book about, and put on a tribute concert in honour of, Kristofferson, who in June last year gave a free concert in Kristiansand in support of the festival.
‘ Kristofferson was a big name already in 1970, but I didn’t discover him till the eighties. He became really important to me in 1995, when I went through a fairly traumatic relationship break-up. It was a personal breakdown that ended with me being off work and changing job, but also with me playing Kris’s records round the clock for a long time. His songs are not always very cheerful but there was incredible comfort in the fact thay they’d been written by someone who’d been down in the deep hole before me. In his past Kris was a drug addict, and his songs sort of let me be depressed. Gradually I began to read more about the man himself and his own models like the poet William Blake. Everything I read appealed to me. Here was a guy that went his own way, who gave up his family and an academic career to become a songwriter, and who later sacrificed both record contracts and film roles so as to be able to go public with what he thought was IMPORTANT.’

Svin Inge Olsen’s fascination has for example resulted in two records with collections of Kristofferson’s songs by Norwegian artists, a book published in 2001 and an interview for the Norwegian channel TV2 in Nashville in 2003. And last summer ‘the old guy’ came to Kristiansand and performed for free on his 68th birthday. The Kristofferson concert on June 22 gave the festival a net income of NOK 130,000 and the event was filmed and shown on the opening day of the festival in August.
‘I reckon Kristofferson is underestimated and should have the same status as Bob Dylan. Everyone listens to Dylan, but Dylan himself listens to Kris,’ says Olsen.
To the extent Kristoffersom has had his equal in Norway, according to Svein Inge Olsen it would have to be Erik Bye, another of the festival’s patrons.
‘I interviewed Erik Bye in the nineties when I was working in local radio in Mandal. Then I had a poem with me that I had written to him, which I felt he really appreciated. When we got in touch with him regarding the protest festival he gave us his support immediately. And not just as a participant – on one occasion he marched into the office of the Arts Council Norway (Norsk kulturråd) and thumped the table with his huge fist, demanding that they produce financial support for us.’

During the last year Erik was alive he was very committed to the protest festival and made a moving appeal a few weeks before he died.

Even though the disaster of 2000 was never repeated, the festival has for a long time balanced on a financial knife edge. When Kris Kristofferson supported the festival last summer, in reality he saved the event from being financially strangled. At the same time he also contributed to a profit that meant that all the debt from 2000 could finally be crossed out. Now the festival in fact has NOK 50,000 in capital to take into 2005. This is unaccustomed luxury, as finance is still a sore point for the ‘protestants’.
‘We’ve already received money from the Freedom of Expression Foundation (Fritt Ord) and from the municipality for 2005, but we are losing the financial support from Cultiva (Kristiansand Energy Corporation Foundation), which has helped us all the way. In return we are getting almost half a million kroner in money and other agreements with local business.’
‘Is that not a problem for a gang of antimaterialists whose aim is to challenge the establishment?’
‘No, and so we can’t allow sponsorship from Coca Cola or MacDonalds either. But we’re getting help from what we see as solid traditional local businesses, companies that stand for values we ourselves can accept. And the response from those we’ve approached has been overwhelming.’
‘Have you benefitted from the fact that Quartfestivalen had a porn stunt on stage last summer?’
‘I must be careful not to gloat over other people’s misfortune, but we’ve obviously got support from some sources that have previously supported Quart. What’s important for us is not what other festival arrangers do but that we ourselves can act independently of those sponsors that choose to support us financially.’
Svein Inge Olsen is now working full time with the festival, which has a ‘record budget’ of NOK 750,000 next year. Colleague Kai Erland is doing more or less the same, even though he is formally employed by Stiftelsen Arkivet, the institution that has grown up in the old state archive premises in Kristiansand. Nowadays there is a peace centre there, in a building where the Nazis had their headquarters and their torture chambers during the Second World War.
‘How can a five-day event like the protest festival manage on less than a million?’
‘Because people help for nothing. This is particularly true of the artists. We’re dependent on the personal enthusiasm of the participants. But it limits freedom of choice somewhat, because of course it’s difficult for the less well-off artists to turn down paid engagements to come to us. But Kris has given us status and has helped us here too. Now we can use the argument that even he did it for free. Of course he can afford to do that, but the fact is nevertheless that he actually could be bothered to do it.’
‘With you as arranger this should probably be a country and hippie festival?’
‘I’m too young to have really experienced the hippie rebellions in the seventies, but I’ve got the films from Woodstock and the Isle of Wight and wallow in them when I feel I need some comfort. But Kai makes sure that my hippie preferences don’t take over completely. The intention is to offer a broad spectrum: debates and church music, performance art and country, readings, visual art and photography. Everything that can be called culture, but with a protest slant. Because without the protest there’ll be no protest festival,’ says Svein Inge Olsen.

Dag Håkon Hellevik, Ukevisen Ledelse