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KULTURHUSET – A HAUNTOLOGY
This essay is looking at Kulturhuset – the Stockholm House of Culture – as an arena for the Swedish public sphere in the period 1967 to 2017. By following how the original utopic visions from the late 60s gradually are transformed in a neoliberal logic, the text will try to describe a journey through half a century of changes of Swedish politics and public discourse.
The history of Kulturhuset in recent years has been marked by the tragic suicide of its former CEO Benny Fredriksson. In 2017, after 15 years of succesful and conflictive leadership, Fredriksson got pulled into the gravity field of the metoo debate. The critique, based in an accumulated frustration after decades of hard-line result-oriented managment, got mixed up with mainly unfounded metoo-related accusations in an intensive media campaign. At the end of 2017 Benny Fredriksson suddenly resigned as CEO, and in March 2018 he ended his life.
This tragic series of events has left the Swedish cultural field in a sort of trauma. In spite of a number of articles mixing iconic praise with blame games, in which the world is divided in a black & white dramturgy of good and bad, there has been few attempts to discuss the course of events in its full complexity. The collective analytical paralysis is politically dangerous, because it leaves the cultural discourse in a self-imposed stupor, and deeply sad on a personal level since it expels Benny Fredriksson into an ghostly loneliness. Simultaneously, this blind spot is interesting in the way it reflects some conflicts and contradictions intrinsic to contemporary politics and public discourse.
However, this is not primarily a story about the personal tragedy of Benny Fredriksson. Instead, the focus is the story of Kulturhuset itself as an object of a collective imaginary. I will look at the building as a spatial frame with three temporal nodes: 1971, 1991 and 2011. My approach is not journalistic, but rather a hybrid of documentary and poetic genre – primarily greek tragedy in which factual history is mixed with fictive mythology. Another inspiration is the perspective of horror novels like The Shining, where a haunted building is the main protagonist, through which time floats like a river of events.
In her book Cruel Optimism the American theorist Laurent Berlant makes the following reflection on a contemporary syndrom, where positive thinking walks hand in hand with powerlessness:
“When we talk about an object of desire, we are really talking about a cluster of promises we want someone or something to make to us and make possible for us. This cluster of promises could seem embedded in a person, a thing, or an institution. To phrase “the object of desire” as a cluster of promises is to allow us to encounter what’s enigmatic in our attachments, insofar as proximity to the object means proximity to the cluster of things that the object promises.
What’s cruel about these attachments is that the subjects who have the object x in their lives might not well endure the loss of this scene of desire, even though its presence threatens their well-being. Because whatever the content of the attachment is, the continuity of its form provides the continuity of the subject’s sense of what it means to keep on living in the world.”
I think it is interesting to examine Kulturhuset as a similar “object of desire” in the public sphere of Stockholm, and what clusters of promises that have been attached to this object.
Already from the opening in January 1971, Kulturhuset has had a strong political symbolic value: Built in the heart of a city that was going through a fundamental shift; an old and small scale urban enviroment in two decades gets replaced by modernistic city planning, dominated by large scale banks, compartment stores and parking houses. In this context Kulturhuset was an outspoken symbolic gesture. In both a concrete and metaphoric sense, the building was conceived as a wall to counteract the forces of a commercial market.
The original vision of Kulturhuset was defined in a process where Moderna Museet was looking for a new location. In 1969 the museum's director Pontus Hultén together with Pär Stolpe and a group of curators worked out a radical proposal for a new kind of multidisciplinary art institution, containing the Moderna Museet, as well as the City theatre, a library, concert venues etc. The proposal was defined as a utopic toolbox; a flexible and emancipatory interface, where artists and citizens would work together in a process of developing content and imaginaries. The idea was heavily influenced by contemporary ideas of cybernetics, understanding the museum as an information center; a response-sensitive feedback system, designed to respond and continuously change according to how it was put to work by its user.ii
The initial proposal got disassembled in a series of political compromises, and eventually Moderna Museet pulled out of the project. In January 1971 the western half of Kulturhuset was inaugerated. This part of the building was initially designed for Stockholms Stadsteater, but for the coming decade it would instead function as a temporary home for the Swedish parliament. In 1974 the second half of the house opened, providing Stockholm with a number of spaces for various cultural activities.
The passage from the 60s into the 70s is a period of contradictions. The vision of Kulturhuset is conceived in the late 60s, when the Swedish welfare state is at its strongest. At the same time the global economy is about to transform drastically, and as the building opens the financial conditions for the welfare project have changed fundamentally. Kulturhuset, that was planned as a symbol for a world to come, in this sense opens as a mausoleum of the past: A house haunted by the ideas and visions of a lost world.
15 August 1971, a few months after the opening of Kulturhuset, the US president Richard Nixon decided to terminate the convertibility of the American dollar to gold. This effectively meant abandoning the Bretton Woods agreement, which initiated a u-turn in financial policy transforming the dollar from a fixed to a free-floating currency. The decision is the starting point of a new era, leaving behind an economy based on production in favour of the “new economy” based on immaterial values as information and ideas, where free movements of capital is a key condition.
(An interesting parallel is that this same period, 1966-1972, is what the art critic Lucy Lippard refers to in her groundbreaking essay “Six years: The Dematerialisation of the Art Object”, in which she describes a similar paradigmatic shift in the art world where material objects get replaced by immaterial ideas and concepts.)
The policy change will be followed by most European countries. In 1981 the Swedish socialdemocratic party presents a report for a new economical program called “Future for Sweden” where most of the key components for the coming neoliberalisation and privatization of Swedish economy are introduced. The process starts accelerating with the deregulation of the credit market in 1985, triggering the financial crisis of the early 90s.
This is the context 1990, as Stockholms Stadsteater finally moves into Kulturhuset. In 1991, without any public attention, the board of Stockholms Stadsteater decides for a corporatization, subsuming the theatre in the newly founded concern Stockholms Stadshus AB. From this point on, the theatre operates as one of several subsidiary companies, such as Stockholm Energy, Stockholm Parking and Stockholm's several real estate companies. The main reason is a financial taxation strategy, where the so called “losses” of a non-profitable public activity are used to cut the taxes from the profit of lucrative companies as real estate and energy.
This seemingly win-win construction leads to a process in which the logic of running a public institution gradually is changing. If the discourse around the opening of Kulturhuset was characterised by utopic visions of a future society, the new buzz words are cost-efficiency and revenues. In the original proposal the idea of Kulturhuset's audience was an emancipated citizen, actively participating in the production of both content and discourse. Over the coming years, the audience increasingly gets addressed as individual customers chosing between products corresponding to their individual preference and taste.
A secondary effect of the corporatization comes from the fact that the concern Stockholm Stadshus during the 90s starts selling off their real estates. This transformation of public rental apartments to private property is concentrated to the attractive inner city of Stockholm, which is also where most of Stockholm Stadsteater's audience is living. The result being that the subsidies of the tickets consumed by wealthy condo-owners increasingly get financed with the rent paid by less wealthy people living in the suburbs.
(From an architectural perspective, Kulturhuset undergoes an important transformation in this period. Ever since the beginning the question of how to move around in the building had been an issue. The architect Peter Celsing had designed a central, cylindrical staircase that is maybe more conceptually attractive than practical. Together with a couple of underdimensioned elevators, this produced two vertical shafts through the building, from which visitors entered into the vast horisontal planes of the different floors. In 1998 the building underwent a pervasive reconstruction, installing escalators that cut diagonally through the architecture. This is a fundamental structural shift, with far-reaching consequences. In the original version, the central staircase produced a logic of sedimentation, where each floor had its own gravity and friction arresting the movements. When you entered, you came to stay. The outspoken objective of the new escalators was to provide frictionless circulation, where the visitor is described as part of a “publikflöde”. Like in the financialization of economy, where the conservative stability of Bretton Woods agreement had to be abolished to allow the accelerated movements necessary in the new economy, the task and aim of the visitor today is to give their attention without getting caught up or arrested; in attention economy attention has to be on the move, light-footed, flexibel and ready to circulate. This is also mirrored in contemporary urban planning, where the accumulative gravity function of squares has been replaced with the pipeline logic central to award-winning projects like the Highline in New York or Superkilen in Copenhagen.)
Obviously, none of these changes happens over night. For a number of years both the popularity and ticket sales of Stockholms Stadsteater are falling. The identity of a collective ensemble theatre, offering an emancipated alternative to the gold plated individualism of the Royal Theatre, is still in use but is losing its credibility. Stockholm Stadsteater enters the new millenia as a theatre in crisis. Nobody seems to know really why, or what has changed. The work is not bad, it just isn't really interesting anymore.
A decade into the 2000s, Stockholms Stadsteater has risen to a singularily prosperous position in Swedish theatre, equally loved by its audience, theatre critics and the cities politicians. At the same time the organisation is torn apart by inner conflicts, and 23 February 2011 the board of the union resigns with the argument that the conditions to perform union work no longer exist. What is the background to this two extremely disparate comprehensions of the same theatre?
In 2002 Benny Fredriksson takes over as CEO and immediately initiates a complete makeover, that in a few years turns Stockholms Stadsteater into an unprecedented success-machine that will redraw the map of theatre Sweden. Like Oidipus solves the riddle of the sphinx, Benny Fredriksson develops a system for cultural new public management, combining austere cut downs with excellent box office number and good reviews. Stockholms Stadsteater gets intensely branded as “the theater of Stockholm's citizens” with the aim “to be a concern for everyone”. At the same time the organisation is streamlined and made completely flexible. Resources and employees are instrumentalised as exchangeable components that swiftly can be moved between different functions, responding to real-time statistics from the box office. The ticket-sale of each production is put on display at the staff-entrance. Productions with high revenues are moved to the big stage, whereas productions that sell less are closed down. The idea of good box office numbers also change: 170 sold tickets for a venue of 200 gradually stops being a commercially justifiable result. In the annual reports the CEO together with the politicians in the theatre board congratulate themselves for the ability to make more productions for less money with less employees. The collective ensemble, that used to be the identity of Stockholms Stadsteater, gradually transforms into a system of individudal stars, similar to the filmindustry, where the value of actors and directors is equivalent to their expected performance in the box office.
Inevitably, this has a huge effect on how agency is defined. A small number of actors and directors get increased influence over planning and decision-making, whereas a majority slips into the silent precarity of short-term contracts, where arguing is done at the risk of not being hired again. The result of these parallel developments is that the inner conflicts and tensions grow exponentially together with the outer success. Officially Stockholm Stadsteater is a miracolous triumph. Simultaneously, in anonymous employee surveys Stockholms Stadsteater year after year gets rated as the worst working place in Stockholm. Given this, it could seem slightly remarkable that the austere new-public-managment model of Stockholm Stadsteater so univocally is described as a success-story, that by the whole field gets acknowledged as the new standard manual for Swedish theatre institutions.
In 2013 Kulturhuset and Stadsteatern merge, and Benny Fredriksson is appointed CEO for what becomes the largest cultural institution of northern Europe. In a structural sense, this means that Kulturhuset for the first time has become the multidisciplinary house it originally was meant to be. This is also how the fusion is marketed in a language that appears as a hauntology, where rethoric figures of a house of all activities, open and accessible to all of Stockholm's citizens, resound as echoes from the 60s visions of emancipated participation. In reality, the main reason for the merge is to include Kulturhuset in the same taxation strategy as Stadsteatern.
The original proposal for Kulturhuset departed from an elaborated vision of what it meant to establish a public space in the middle of the commercial heart of Stockholm; both how this public space could work and what the conditions would be. A central paragraph was that all activities would be free of charge, and that the building would be kept dogmatically free from advertisment. Since the activity was aiming for a participatory process between art and citizens, the commodity logic first wold have to be abolished and participation made available regardless of individual income.
Today Kulturhuset/Stadsteaterns idea of public access departs from a supply-demand logic, where the task of the theatre is to respond to the consumer-interests of specified target groups. The result is a confusion of public and populist logics. And even if Kulturhuset/Stadsteatern in the last decades consistently has branded itself as a non-elitist forum for all citizens of Stockholm, the development of ticket prices tells a different story. In 1975 the cost of the most expensive tickets at Stockholms Stadsteater was 20 Swedish crowns, which today would be 110 crowns. In 1991, the year before the theatre becomes part of Stockholms Stadshus AB, the price in todays currency was 180 crowns. In 2020, when Kulturhuset/Stadsteatern celebrated the 60th anniversary of Stockholms Stadsteater with the song-and-dance revue “Det Stora Teaterkalaset”, the price of the tickets was 525 crowns. This means an increase in real ticket prices of almost 500%.
(A maybe interesting curious detail is that the CEO for the concern Stockholms Stadshus during 2006-2014 was Iréne Svenonius. After leaving this position she today is Stockholm's “finansregionråd”, and as such responsible for the organisation of Stockholm's health-care as well as the affairs around Karolinska Institutet, in which Svenonius at several occassions has been involved in procurements where she's had obvious conflict of interests. Her latest achievement is to ensure that the region of Stockholm during the pandemic year 2020, where Stockholm's health-care system has suffered severly from understaffing, has made a profit of 5,8 billion crowns.)
This year exactly half a century has passed since the opening of Kulturhuset. The leadership of the organisation has been in a constant crisis after the resignation of Benny Fredriksson. Some weeks ago the latest CEO Jesper Larsson left his position prematurely after failing to introduce a new organisation model, opening up for private finanziation of Kulturhusets activities. There´s a lot suggesting that the development has reached a critical point, where the conflictive objectives between official task and financial reality no longer can be reconciled. In the light of this, it seems likely that Kulturhuset/Stadsteatern in a near future will dissolve into a combination of private theatre and event forum.
I think the traumatised paralysis in the discourse of Benny Fredriksson's legacy relates to the fact that everyone involved in the history of Kulturhuset/Stadsteatern in one way or another is complicite in a double agenda, repressing an intrinsic structural conflict: The public sector never ever has been profitable, a public sector based on values of equality will always be heavily dependent on public resources. Whether the example is Karolinska Institutet, eldercare or the Swedish education system, all neoliberal attempts to mercantilize the public sector have meant a short-term capitalization of investments made by previous generations. And thus it also means to enrich the present by abolishing the future.
What is the Public?
The history of Kulturhuset opens for some interesting aspects on the relation between culture, politics and what we understand with the notion of a public sphere. We often claim that culture is a corner stone of democracy. But what do we mean by this? Is there an intrinsic link between culture and democracy that operates automatically? Or does this function appear on some conditions?
In 1925 the American political reporter Walter Lippmann publishes the book The Phantom Public. The agenda of Lippmann is problematic, but I think the figure of thought is interesting. His key argument is that our notion of a public is a phantom, a set of ideas that we cherish, but that in reality don't exist. We discuss democracy based on the premis that we – the public – automatically have the tools to enact it. But how do we actually become political subjects? And what arena do we need to exercise, negotiate and perform this subjectivity?
In this context, Wendy Brown's book Undoing the Demos gives some key references. Departing from Focault's writings on neoliberalism, Brown confronts the prevalent idea of neoliberalism as a liberal ideology, based on the free market as an exchange between equal agents, independent from state and politics. Rather neoliberalism should be understood as a re-education of both the state and its citizens, a process where we are trained in the transformation from homo politicus to homo oeconomicus. The central objective of neoliberalism in relation to the public sector is not merely, as commonly described, to make it subserve economic efficiency. The aim is instead ideological and educational. If the social contract of liberal democracy was founded on equality, neoliberalism is a biopolitical training program to make us accept the idea of society as a field of competition – a market where not equality but unequality is the natural given condition. The neoliberal dismantlement of the public sector should therefore not be understood in terms of economic effeciency, but more as a removal of the arenas where we exercise and perform subjectivity and emancipated citizenship.
In a recently published book called Kanslihushögern, the economists behind the reformation of the socialdemocratic economy program in the 80s – Kjell Olof Feldt, Erik Åsbrink, Klas Eklund etc - describe their version of what happened. It is interesting to read their arguments; in different words they present two transformative figure of thoughts. The public sector, that in the 50s and 60s was understood as a central tool both politically and economically, in the report is defined as a negative obstacle that has to be minimized. An even more interesting linguistic turn appears in the objective of politics, where the central notion of co-determination is exchanged with freedom of choice in describing the agency of citizens. It is a sort of insidious shift, where you get the impression that the political aim stays the same, only with a slight shift of strategy. And where “co-determination” and “freedom of choice” merely are two different terms describing the same thing.
This of course is not the case, it is a fundamental change of paradigm. In a terminology where emancipation departs from the concept of co-determination, the subjectivity and agency of citizens is developed through particiaption in the production of visions, objectives and conditions for what kind of society we build. Opposed to this, freedom of choice means the right to choose between a number of presently existing options.
Apart from the fact that the freedom of choice is available only for those who can afford it, this over time means a shift where the logics of politics itself changes perspective – from producing visions of a future to an administration of the present. It is also significant that the writers of the book Kanslihushögern describe the 80s as the end of history: The socialdemoractic project was fullfilled, the Swedish working class had become educated and prosperous, now they wanted freedom of choice.
Compared to this, it is striking how radical the original visions of Kulturhuset were. The discussions and ideas that informed Peter Celsing's architectural proposal were allowed to be utopic in a way that today seems completely unimaginable. They were not the result of market polls, but were conceived as a vision of what kind of future cultural institution one wished to make possible. Peter Celsing recurrently describes Kulturhuset as an architecture for “the future human beings that we must become”. The building was not designed to accomodate the present state of things, quite the opposite. Instead the architecture was aiming to perform a sort of exercise in what a future society and community could be.
This points at a central notion to understand a paradigmatic shift for the political as well as the cultural field; how they interact in the production of a public sphere, and how this public sphere is an interface where the present is negotiated as a position between the past and the future. The utopic vision of Kulturhuset as an apparatus for the production of a future be-coming citizen stands in stark contrast to our contemporary version of both culture and politics as an administration of the present, aiming to preserve the existing state of affairs.
Today theatres define their artistic program by asking their audience what theatre they can imagine to spend 500 crowns on, in the same way as political parties ask their electoral base what party program they would like to vote for. This is a mis-en-abyme scenario, similar to the so-called clickbait journalism, where journalists gradually adopt their texts in accordance to the pre-conceived perspectives of reality that attract their readers. In the same way, theatre productions and political proposals that can't present themselves within the presently existing horizon gradually disappear from the repertoire.
The logic very much reflects Guy Debord's thesis from The Society of the Spectacle: “What is good appears, What appears is good.” In neoliberalism, only that what can presently present itself as competetive value exists. The present reproduces itself into the future in an infinite, closed feedback loop.
Poetics: Tragedy & Hauntology
In his book Ghosts of My Life Mark Fisher is reading contemporary neoliberalism as a collective state of depressioni. Contrary to the popular idea that capitalism has won, the current situation should be described as the crisis of a capitalism that is no longer capable of production. Rather than the vibrant and vital result of capitalist evolution, neoliberalism is the life-sustaining treatment of an incurable patient. One of Fisher's examples is how contemporary popular culture no longer seems able to produce imaginaries of a future. He makes a convincing argument by analysing the music industry: If you would have played the German pioneers Kraftwerk for an audience in the 50s, people would not have been able to identify the sound as music. But if you would play contemporary music for a late-90s audience, their biggest surprise would be that the music of the future is so similar to their own. Kraftwerk somehow still is our image of the future; rather than the imagination of a world-to-come, future has become a style that itself is nostalgic.
Picking up on Jacques Derrida's terminology, Mark Fisher interprets this syndrom of contemporary culture as a Hauntology:
“This hauntology can be construed as a failed mourning. It is about refusing to give up the ghost, or the refusal of the ghost to give up on us. What should haunt us is not the no-longer of actually existing social democracy, but the not-yet of the futures which never matieralized. These spectres of lost futures reproach the formal nostalgia of the capitalist world.”
This idea of a trauma that appears as the result of a failed mourning points back to Laurent Berlant's concept Cruel Optimism. We can't let go of the promises connected to the desired object, even when this threatens our well-being. Because of this, we are also not able to make room for a future to enter.
Which brings me back to why I think the history of Kulturhuset relates to the poetic genre of tragedy. In the book Tragedy, the Greeks and Us, Simon Critchley describes tragedy as the genre of change and crisis. Tragedy places us in the conflict between the laws and hegemonies of two eras. And the conflict plays out in the public space in front of the palace. Read in this perspective, the history of Kulturhuset is the story of a collective trauma, a historic conflict that is at the core of the contemporary Swedish public.
Since May 2019 the official address of Kulturhuset/Stadsteatern is Benny Fredrikssons Torg 5. It can be discussed if the political decision to rename the last stretch of Beridaregatan was a gesture of honor, guilt or both. Be that as it may, the symbolism of this is multilayered and compound. In the future both the building and its activities inevitably will be concatenated with Benny Fredriksson's name as well as his destiny.
The inexorable logic of tragedy appears in the time and space where a historical conflict gets concentrated and manifested in an individual destiny. Benny Fredriksson was the figure of a collective subconscious, his persona carries an archaic conflict: Sweden's collective narrative is the class journey of a society; that is our mutual memory, the background we have left behind as we have transformed into the contemporary proto-type of neoliberal individualism. The transformation of a public institution as symbolically charged as Kulturhuset/Stadsteatern could not have been performed by just any leadership, it had to be the “chosen one”, the individual that embodies the collective. Benny Fredriksson's life story was synonymous with Stockholms Stadsteater, making his persona contain the exact right combination of personal background and network. Carefully nurturing the story of himself as the child of a single working class mother – who worked his way from the cloakroom to the CEO chair, and was allowed into the inner circle of Socialdemocratic dynasty (Kjell-Olof Feldt is his wife's brother-in-law) – Benny Fredriksson, like Oidipus, was the solution to a problem that he himself personified.
(Compare to Jasenko Selimovic, who just a few years earlier implemented a similar transformation at Göteborgs Stadsteater. Unlike Benny, Jasenko – the Bosnian immigrant and Liberal politician to-be – was definitely not part of the family, rendering his leadership far less influential.)
Seen in the context of Laurent Berlant's cruel optimism, Benny appeared with the hope that what has been broken in our collective history could be fixed; that the divide between politics and policy was not too big after all; that the centre actually can hold, and that he was the magician who could provide the formula to make this possible. The immense influence of Benny Fredriksson, just as the silence of his many critics, can only be understood in relation to how badly we needed the magic to be real. And the fact that the magical formula has become the new reality for all of Sweden's cultural institutions meant that Benny was beyond critique. He became invulnerable, simply because admitting that the magic maybe wasn't all real would mean admitting that we have voluntarily installed an intrinsic conflict in the midst of the new paradigm. The collective investment in the fairy tale that was Benny Fredriksson is so vast that the consequences of it's failure simply would be unmanagable. Hence, when his reign started to outlive itself – when he stayed in office maybe just for the reason that his destiny was so intertwined with Kulturhuset/Stadsteatern that he didn't have anywhere else to go – he could not be critized for the actions for which he actually was responsible. The critique had to be transposed from field of practical politics to the moral register of shame, and thus allowing us – the complicite collective – to stay untouched.
The perspective on destiny in the greek tragedies is complex and provides us with tools to understand collective trauma: rather than a mere external misfortune, destiny is something that simultaneously exists and has to be created, it lies dorment in our dna but demands our complicite collaboration to be activated. The tragedy is also a poetically defined process of mourning. To mourn is to accept that the object of our mourning has been lost. In the public imaginary of Sweden, what has been lost is a society that meant a collective privilege. Since mourning would mean letting go of this privilege we avoid it, and we pay with the loss of a future.