Three sessions of the evening school – conversation pieces, writing history, forming connections and some sketches and ideas for the film —

Some sketches and ideas for the film

Nine months have passed since I was here in Gotland last year. Public funding for Swedish peace organisations have been cut by the right wing government, due to a mixture of pragmatic and idealistic considerations, whereas membership numbers in these same organisations have risen considerably. To speak out against what the Israeli army is doing in Palestine is not met with the full force of public condemnation anymore, other than from right-wing propagandists, maybe because of the images coming out of Gaza. But to speak up for diplomacy and negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, suggesting a diplomatic solution in order to save lives on both sides, is still considered traitorous.

On Gotland, some new initiatives to protest against the NATO membership and the bilateral DCA deal between Sweden and the USA have found new wind. Maybe the public’s fear of a war with Russia has now been accompanied by a fear of having nuclear weapons placed on an American army base next to where you live. Last time I was here, the Nej till NATO (No to NATO) group consisted of a few, older people who were reluctant to speak to me, lacking spokespeople and lacking the room to speak. Now, in March 2024, they are more than willing to speak not only to me but also to attend the evening school in order to share their plans for upcoming actions and protests. Meanwhile, a new initiative, Naj till DCA organised by Gotland för fred, have collected signatures for a petition aimed at the two parliamentary representatives that come from Gotland – asking for them to say no to the bilateral DCA deal between Sweden and the USA. Gotland för fred have been succesful in not only getting a lot of signatures but also in getting the local newspaper to get the parliamentary representatives to make public statements on their position regarding DCA.

This time around, I am in Gotland mainly to organise and run the three evening school sessions. BAC and me have set up one evening per week, in collaboration with the NBV bildningsförbund (an organisation for adult education in the form of study groups) and the local branch of Uppsala University. BAC have gotten permission to use the facilities of NBV, a former church in Visby, unofficially named the White House. In line with this grandiose naming of the location, our evening school sessions have been named Peace Talks. In the months prior to the Peace Talks, from December 2023 until I arrive in Gotland three months later, I get in touch with all the people I met with last time – first phone calls to re-establish connections, and then text messaging and e-mails. It’s a good feeling, a bit like getting re-aqainted with old friends. It also takes up most of my working days.

When I first learned of the idea of running an evening school as part of the On Mobilisation project, I pictured a classic Swedish reading group, where a small group of people meet once a week to discuss a text that everyone had read during the week prior. I felt that this was of course do-able, but that it would be better to re-think the content and the purpose of the evening school from on the one hand, what potential participants had a demand for, and on the other hand, what i would be good at running.

Also, I wasn’t working with one pre-existing micro-community, but with a diverse collection of individual people and smaller groups. So, the purpose of the evening school could be to temporarily form a sort of peace movement by getting them all together in the same room, seeing each other and talking to each other, sharing their works with each other.

Finally, for the benefit of my own work, I could use to evening school sessions to collect more images for my film. To that end, I decided upon two questions to run as a theme throughout the sessions: One, what would peace look like? Two, what does a peace movement look like? Because peace is an abstract concept, an idea that you cannot point to, touch, smell, or even describe, wheras an image is always concrete, it has form and color and is made up of specific material. Artworks that attempt to picture what cannot be pictured is a long line of suggestions, none of which manage to capture the totality of a concept – saying: maybe it could look something like this, to me it looks like this, I interpret it to look like this. An image of peace will always be a failed attempt at describing something which cannot be described. For me, this is one of the most amazing things about art, the constant attempts at doing the impossible, not because we’re expecting a sudden succes, but because of the joy we find in making the attempt itself. And I think that this can resonate at least a little with doing activist work against oppressive and immobile structures, even though the likelihood of achieving succes is not impossible in these cases, only very, very difficult.

During the first evening school session, I introduced this theme – what does peace look like? – by talking about the history of the peace dove as a symbol for the modern peace movement, a symbol created by Pablo Picasso, and about the history of the abstract peace symbol, inspired both by the semaphore alphabet and by a mis-remembrance of the farmer in white being executed by the French soldiers in the painting The Third of May 1808 by Francisco Goya.

The three evening shcool sessions had an internal logic or dramaturgy to their set-up, getting the participants gradually more and more involved. For the first evening, I had come up with a program of art videos, with short presentations, suggestions and thoughts, to stimulate discussions. So the content, and to be fair a lot of the talking, was provided by me. But the participants also got to present themselves to the group, while having dinner together, and i thought maybe this bit was the most important one during the whole evening. We repeated this part for the second session – present yourself, and if you’re part of any group doing some sort of peace work, could you also tell us about that? By the third evening, this part was actually the whole of the 2,5 hour session, just people presenting themselves and their peace work to each other.

Each evening had a larger number of participants than I had expected. It wasn’t just the people I had met previously who turned up, I think some people learned about it and came out of curiosity and out of a need for finding a group of like minds.

The first evening school began with dinner and presentations. Then the three art videos were introduced, to variations of our theme – what would an image of peace look like, and what does the peace movement look like? – where the videos then provided suggestions of possible answers to these questions. We got to see a film of a meeting between a young idealist and an older veteran of the peace movement in Denmark, planning an action together while debating the costs and the consequences of a life lived in opposition and activism. The meeting between generations in this film was meant to hopefully resonate with the meeting between generations going in in our evening sessions. Then we got to see a film without words, just images of nature and biosphere under threat, using a nature preserve in a military shooting range as an example. Plants and trees smoking after explosions, insects crawling out of hiding. This was thought to interest people in similar situations in Gotland, with new shooting ranges, located in actual nature preserves, being opened up to not only the Swedish army but to NATO troops as well. In the third film, we watched images of the first peace march against nuclear weapons taking place in Stockholm in the 1960’s, while listening to a reading of the observations meda by the military secret service of the participants in the march. The defamatory remarks made by the secret service stood in contrast to what we could actually see in the images, the descriptions clearly based on prejudiced opinions of the peace protesters. But these were also some of the official sources for writing the history of the peace march – some photographs, and the observations written down by the secret service. This is how this march will be remembered, by those who were not there themselves. This video was meant not only as a reply to the question “what does the peace movement look like?”, but was also useful as a bridge into the second of our evening sessions.

The second session of our evening school was dedicated to the writing of history, using a specific event in the history of the peace movement on Gotland as a case study. We had set up the space to function both practically but also as an image, or a performance, of the writing of official history. It used the anthropological method of the witness seminar as a model. Participants and organisers in two iconic peace marches in Gotland during 1981 took turns etntering a stage and giving testimonies, talking about what was important to remember about the organising of those marches, according to them. Each testimony was recorded on film, but there was also a live transcription being performed by two text-interpreters. Their transcription of what was being said was broadcast from their laptops to a big screen which was visible to the audience, standing right next to the stage, so that we all got an image of actual writing down of history being performed in real time. We also collected images of the peace marches brought to the session by the participants, and had them scanned to digital format, performed live, on a second screen next to the stage, visible to the participants in real time.

The collected documentation was later transferred to three official archives on Gotland – the regional and national archive, the museum of history, and the central library – where it will be available as source material for future researchers interested in the history of the peace movement in Gotland.

The third and final session was dedicated to the now, rather than history. It was meant to be filled up with whatever people brought with them, to a session of show and tell. This made me more nervous than any of the other sessions, mainly because I had almost no input to contribute with myself. During the weeks in march 2024 leading up to this session, I had gotten in touch with new groups and new people, asking them to come to this session and share their work. The previously mentioned No to NATO, and Gotland för fred, but also for example people from Larm, a magazine published by cartoonists protesting against Swedish NATO membership, and Rebellmammorna, a sub-group within Xtinction Rebellion.

I had also planned to facilitate the formation of a local branch of the nationwide peace organisation Svenska Freds- och Skiljedomsföreningen. Among the participants during the two former sessions, I had learned that there were both former organisers from both the national and the (now defunct) local branch of Svenska Freds- och Skiljedomsföreningen, as well as a number of younger people interested in maybe starting up the local branch again. During the course of the third session, we learned that one of the participants had actually taken it upon herself to start up this local branch the previous week, after taking part in the previous two sessions. The evening ended with an extended coffe break with new connections being set up, and a list of contacts administered and later passed out to all of the participants, for further possible collaborations.

The media interest for the sessions was curious to me, as it was labelled as an evening school, which I had thought would be of limited interest. but for the first session, I got to speak on local radio. During the second session, a journalist from the local newspapers was present, taking notes and talking to participants, even visiting some participants in their home later during the week after the session to get more material. It resulted in a big reportage, rather than a shorter article. Finally, during the third session, a team from French public service tv-channel France24 was present, filming the session and doing interviews with the participants.

A lot of ideas about the form my film could take were beginning to take shape, coming out of these sessions. In addition to a lot of specific images collected, of course, I also got thoughts on the structure of the film, the central questions posed, the method for collecting images and the way of presenting them and speaking about them, even thoughts on the purpose of making the film. I have begun to make notes of all of this, but I will hold off on presenting them as finished thoughts or ideas until I have sorted through everything.

Most of my time on Gotland, this time around, was spent on contacts – phoning, meeting, writing people. But I also had a couple of occasions to try out some ideas for filming, for example returning to that dead part of the landscape I had visited last time, up north in Fårö. I also brought a camera into a concert performed by the The United States Army Europe and Africa (USAREUR-AF) Band at a concert hall in Visby. The band consists of 30 musicians and 12 singers, all members of the US armed forces. Their job is to be musical ambassadors, for the US Army in European and African countries. When they played in Visby, they performed the Swedish national anthem, which caused all the audience members to rise out of their seats and sing the lyrics to the anthem. Then the music segued into the American national anthem, which nobody knew the words to, even though they all continued to stand up. I tried to counterpoint the footage I filmed of this with the actual lyrics of the US national anthem written out, since nobody knew them. Some of the lines from The Star-Spangled Banner go:

And the rockets’ red glare
The bombs bursting in air
Gave proof through the night
That our flag was still there

I think this is one of many examples of point-counterpoint images and commentary I could work with, also in line with the never-realised Peace Primer by Bertolt Brecht that I mentioned previously as a source of inspiration.

There will be a third working period in Gotland, in September this year. Those weeks are intended for filming, for practical work on the actual film. But we also have the possibility of organising a fourth evening school session, if we wish. What form that could take is still open. This next period, in September, coincides with a local “week of mobilisation”, in Swedish called beredskapsveckan, which I presume involves both military forces and civil defence practicing and presenting itself to the public. It could be possible to organise some kind of peace protest action, as a fourth evening school session, to coincide with the “week of mobilisation”.

On a final note, on my last evening on Gotland this time around, I went into a local shop five minutes before closing time, and bought the local newspaper. On the front page, there was a news headline about how the regional government in Gotland had now decided to recommend to the national defense department not to allow US nuclear weapons to be placed on Gotland, and to have that written into the bilateral deal with the US.