Sara Rönnbäck & Daniel Slåttnes

The Guest Studio at Vestfossen Kunstlaboratoriet is a resource that is offered to professional artists who might profit from a sustained period of work at Vestfossen. The studio is part of Arena Vestfossen, a studio collective that is housed in the same building as VKL. One of the purposes of the Guest Studio is to contribute to an exchange of artistic ideas among both Norwegian and foreign artists. In this series of interviews, we have invited the guest artists to share some of their experiences and thoughts about their residency at Vestfossen. This first text is based on a conversation with Sara Rönnbäck and Daniel Slåttnes, who were guest artists in May 2017.



Voice of the Material

Sunniva H. Stokken

(Based on conversations with Daniel Slåttnes and Sara Rönnbäck, Vestfossen, May 2017)



Sara Rönnbäck (b. 1988) was born in Sweden and received her master’s degree in art history from the Oslo National Academy of the Arts in 2015 (sararonnback.com). Daniel Slåttnes (b. 1986) studied at the Trondheim Academy of Fine Art for his bachelor’s degree, before taking his master’s at the Oslo National Academy in 2014 (slaattnes.com). The artists have participated in several exhibitions in Scandinavia, and live and work in Sweden.


The geological period in which we live has been given the title the Anthropocene – a new age in which human activity can be identified as the main cause of change in the topography and climate of the Earth. These changes can be said to have raised our awareness of our environment in the widest sense, as well as prompting reflection on the relationship we have to the objects that surround us. This has also been reflected in theoretical movements within art and philosophy. We have seen the philosophy of humanism challenged by the tenets of posthumanism, which propose that, rather than holding a privileged position in relation to other species, as had been the prevailing doctrine of rational knowledge since the Enlightenment, the human should not to be regarded as a superior being. It is a position which brings with it questions about the relationship of humans to their environment, with various diverging approaches to the issue being offered. As understood in object-oriented ontology, a philosophical movement arising from the work of American academic Graham Harman, the object is regarded as having its own inherent value and agency; this is a position that challenges our understanding of the world as a stage for our human domination. All forms of existence are placed alongside each other, and the hierarchy which raises mankind to its pinnacle is repudiated.




In the work of Sara Rönnbäck and Daniel Slåttnes, the object assumes a life form of its own, and is presented as something with which we can collaborate. Not as an exalted work of art, but as a partner that brings with it its own understanding of reality. In this way, the object becomes not only a tool through which an artist can express ideas or reflect social currents, but is also allowed its own voice. Collaboration, communication, and existential reflection – these are themes that seem to play a central role in the work of Slåttnes and Rönnbäck. Collaboration and communication can be said to operate both between the pair, as artists and partners, and also between the artists and the art object. This is further extended to communication with society, to a sense of place within the community, and to humanity in general. The two artists live and work on a farm in Sweden. Moving from Oslo out into the countryside has been a part of their strategy to find an environment in which they could explore their relationship to nature and to the materials with which they work. Our conversation took as its point of departure the environmental movement of the 1970s and its underlying tenet that humans should return to nature. I was interested in how this differs from today’s perspectives, which place less emphasis on any conflict between human development and our awareness of how we impact nature and the environment. Technological innovation is not regarded as a threat, and is indeed embraced by their art projects.


Slåttnes: Neither humans nor anything else in nature are permanent fixtures, but are all subject to change. If we think of it in this way, it perhaps makes it easier to conceive of the fluid boundaries between different forms of existence.


Rönnbäck: Daniel, you’ve worked a great deal with technology. I haven’t, as it doesn’t come natural to me. But technology is a great aid, and a large part of our lives. I have actually wondered a little whether there was too much of a “back to nature” vibe to our works. After all, the technological part of society that humans have created, with its incredible online communication tools, isn’t in itself in conflict with nature. In the 1970s, environmentalists took a stand against human development, something which today seems counter-productive, I mean we humans communicate far better with each other than with trees. There doesn’t seem to me to be any conflict between what humans create and what nature creates, they’re two sides of the the same coin. This seems to me to give the environmentalism of the 1970s a new twist.


Slåttnes: Yes. I think it would be wrong to make technology into the enemy; culture is also a form of technology, a form of social programming that is hugely successful. Through it, we agree to cooperate and respect each other.


Rönnbäck: There’s a sub-movement which has a so-called “off-the-grid” mindset, the goal of which is to distance oneself so far from society that one is not connected to utilities such as the internet and the phone network. That seems counter-productive to me, as I don’t think we should strive to remove ourselves from society. Although, I’m aware of the irony here, seeing as how I’ve moved out into the countryside and get by without a telephone, as that is something that was right for me.


Slåttnes: But you’re still online, and are to be found there discussing feminism, to take one example. That’s what I meant by it being a form of social programming – which I see as a very positive thing, and something we would have to put behind us if we were to return to nature.


Rönnbäck: Perhaps one should instead strive for greater awareness of the part nature plays in our culture.


Slåttnes: In our works we relate to climate change and to other social issues. Not that we are actively political in our art, but art cannot stop being political. It’s there as an undercurrent. In our discussions and opinions – yes, in some ways we are positively active there, but that doesn’t directly inform our artistic expression.


Rönnbäck: It’s actually impossible not to relate to one’s society. It’s not possible to remain oblivious to the huge challenges ahead of us. While we in no way can be called political activists, we have to acknowledge that society influences everybody, and that some of that influence is positive. It’s positive, for instance, that no one has to be a solitary genius, but can instead be a social ant, a part of a much bigger enterprise. We had not worked in the way we do, if we had not lived in 2017, and one of our most daunting challenges today is climate change. But that doesn’t mean I sit in my studio and wonder what I can create as part of the climate struggle.


Art is an expression of today’s society, and at the same time an arena in which one can in fact operate with a degree of ambivalence. For my own part, I would say there is a great deal of ambivalence – in issues relating both to animal rights and to how we relate to nature. As artists, we have almost by definition a lifestyle that has a low impact on the environment, compared with many others in society; in one way that is a conscious decision I’ve made, but it can also be seen as a lifestyle that has been made necessary by the society we live in.





Rönnbäck and Slåttnes are fascinated and inspired by trees. Trees, in both original and in processed forms, often play a part in their projects. The artists are drawn to the voice of the tree, an attitude that is not necessarily in conflict with the forestry and paper industries. Their aim is rather to increase knowledge of how trees live and exist, and thereby to achieve greater awareness of how forests in particular, and nature in general, are managed. The fundamental premise here must be an understanding that trees and people depend on each other. The artists have, among other things, produced their own paper from cellulose harvested from their own wood. A branch, which forms part of their next exhibition in Slovakia, will have to be carefully packed in bubble wrap and carried onto the plane.


Rönnbäck: The way trees work together is inspiring. In much the same way as people cooperate in order to construct societies and make their way in the world, trees work as a community to ensure the growth of a forest. Their biggest threat are the animals that live on their nuts and seeds. The trees coordinate therefore the time when they drop their seeds so that in future years they can do this when the population of herbivores is at its lowest. This increases their chances of propagation. The process that governs this communication between the community of trees is fascinating.


Slåttnes: Yes, the plant kingdom is also active, but in ways that are invisible to our eyes. Plants do not have the same sort of electrical signals that we do, functioning instead through a system of chemical signalling. In fact, it now turns out that we also do that more than was once thought. This was one of the results to recently come out of the European research initiative, the Human Brain Project. It’s a huge undertaking, still running, that has undertaken to map the whole brain in an attempt to comprehend how, for instance, consciousness arises, and how emotions change and affect thought. They have just discovered that the interplay of body and mind is as reliant on chemical factors as on electrical signals. In other words, the extremely complex network we knew made up our brains is actually even more complex. It appears that we are not one organism, but more correctly a conjunction of organisms – including the three kilos of bacteria in our guts, which play a vital role in our emotional lives. A range of chemical substances makes us feel happy or dejected, and have a lot to say for how we think. These are exciting discoveries. 


Rönnbäck: I recently heard a bacteriologist on the radio who was astonished by the impact our bacteria have on us. She said that we are made up of 90% other material, and 1% of ourselves. She was of the opinion that our old notion of the self was simply unfit for purpose; we are made up of so many different organisms working together to constitute how we think and take decisions. It’s a fascinating idea, though rather daunting.




In the Guest Studio of Vestfossen Kunstlaboratorium, Rönnbäck and Slåttnes worked both individually and together. While she is a fairly expansive artist, he likes to work under fairly tight confines. In many ways the artists can be said to complement each other: in their aesthetic expression, in their creative processes, and also at a personal level. It is difficult to see any clear demarcation between their individual works and collaborative projects – they overlap in content and have many references in common. At the same time, their different personalities give rise to variants of aesthetic expressions.


Rönnbäck: While Daniel likes to have full control of small details, I spread myself out across the whole studio so as to quickly get into the swing of things. You have to look carefully to see where Daniel is at work, there in one corner, very tidy, while I am everywhere else. Even so, I think it is difficult to define the borders between our works.


Slåttnes: Yes, we have to keep an eye on that, so that there is some demarcation. I recently put all our projects into files, and noticed then that pretty  much every one is some sort of collaboration.


Rönnbäck: I think you have to put it into context, for Daniel and I have just moved out to the countryside and a couple of weeks can go by without us talking to anyone else. We have a dedicated studio where we work, but we inevitably move around a good deal while we’re working and in the end it can be difficult to see which work belongs to whom. We are working on separate projects, but many of the same thoughts are around is in the air, the same materials in the studio, and we are together much of the time. During the last two years, we have worked on joint exhibitions and have gradually understood that what separates you and me, what you do and what I do, is actually pretty diffuse. And I suppose that it’s a good thing that it turns out like that.


Slåttnes: At the moment we have four collaborative exhibitions, and I have one on my own – but also in that there is a thematic overlap. We do, however, approach things from a different angle; my focus has been to try and give the materials a kind of prosthesis, a technical argumentation so that I understand that they have a life and that they can give me some feedback.


Rönnbäck: Thematically, however, it is the same idea. I think many artists experience that in the same way, that there is a certain amount of repetition – I mean, one creates different works, but at their core the basic idea is the same. I don’t know anything about technology, and I can get frustrated by just how stereotypical Daniel and I are. I am very feminine and Daniel is very masculine – and I find that delineation hard to swallow. I’ve insisted for years that it’s a social construct, and it may well be – I was brought up as a woman, Daniel as a man – so it may just be a social expression. But when I see it in us, it is so very pronounced. Daniel has his technical, electronic approach, I have a physical approach. Daniel approaches things from a practical and pragmatic angle, I approach things from a more emotion-based angle.


Slåttnes: I regard it as a positive thing – when we collaborate we see things from different perspectives and augment each other.





The artists describe their residency of the Guest Studio as an intense period. They have participated in the openings of exhibitions and projects in Oslo alongside their own work in the studio in preparation for future exhibitions. The artists usually have a pre-existing relationship to the materials they employ in their various projects: for instance, beeswax from their neighbour’s hives, and paper produced from their own property. Scattered around Slåttnes’ workspace are various technological apparatuses, cables, pliers, a toolbox – as well as the plant that has been a faithful companion on several projects. Rönnbäck often favours organic materials which she forms and adapts. In one corner of the studio she has suspended a mobile, with resin placed in small wicker baskets. She also plans to utilise materials from Vestfossen, and has begun to gather clay and chalk from the area.


Rönnbäck: Chalk is a very generous material to work with, it is very easy to form. I have followed the shape the stone had when I found it, and just worked it up to something more aesthetic. I’ve also got this notion that one develops a relationship with a material when one works on it long enough. Over time, you come to consider what constitutes the material, and where it comes from. You read up about what historical uses it may have had. Chalk, for instance, was used to polish hide and leather. Working a material is a way of getting to know it, which strikes me as an important part of the process. One sits there polishing the material, and the act in itself is neither interesting or important, but from the work there arises a text. I have also worked with clay which I have found locally. Working with clay you get both hands covered in the material; it’s a fairly “cheesy” way of doing things, but also very immediate – you make a connection with the material that spreads through your body.


Rönnbäck: This is an issue which really began to interest me a few years ago, when I was working on a large drawing. When I first enrolled at the Art Academy, I had something of an uphill struggle to wake my interest in art, for I had arrived there with a rather romantic notion of what art is, a notion that really wasn’t viable anymore. One has to take responsibility for one’s actions, and I more or less cried my way through my early years at the academy. For my bachelor project I was to create a gigantic, abstract drawing, measuring 30 square metres, and I suppose I was lucky at the start of the process that I didn’t know what a task it would turn out to be. As work progressed, I became intensely frustrated, just executing the same pattern over and over, a sort of repetitive automatic drawing. It made enormous demands on me and afterwards I hated the work and just couldn’t talk about it. In that process, however, something fascinating happened – the work had come to shape me, physically and mentally, as much as I had shaped it, if not more. It was through that project that the desire was kindled to continue working with art and to work with ideas and theoretical texts in the way that the academy teaches: to conceptualise ideas. But it all started with this very immediate impact on me, physically and mentally, which arose from working on a project. I think now that one can perhaps arrive at that point by either attempting a project that is a little too large for one’s own capacities, or by working on something very small. By acknowledging this, one opens up a dialogue, and by allowing for the work’s capacity to influence you in return you can work with art in a more respectful way.


Slåttnes: It didn’t take us long to realise we had similar interests. The finishing project for my masters degree at the Art Academy arose from an idea I had that I could draw out a subjectivity in the material, its self-will. The forms should come to me, rather than me determining what forms the sculptures would take. I tried to assert that that they had a life of their own, which I would help manifest in a sculptural expression.


 The performative aspect is at the core of the artists’ works. They apply the description performative sculptures to those works in which they have tried to allow the object a direct form of expression. It is a form of communication in which technology acts as a communication tool for the sensual. Their project “Samtale mellom kropper” (Conversation Between Bodies) is an inter-disciplinary work experimenting with the idea that the chosen material has its own voice. Slåttnes has developed various techniques to manifest the self-will of the material. Through a process that might be described as unwilled creation, he tries to dissolves his own subjectivity in order to let the material emerge. Meditation has played a central part in this process, as well as narcotics, hypnosis and psychotherapy. He sought out a psychotherapist who could offer him an individuation process, the goal of which was to define his own personality and examine its roots.




Slåttnes: My point of departure was that I wanted to keep the sculptures in sharp focus, I wanted to be their conduit. But I found it a very challenging project, and one which I still don’t feel that I am finished with. No matter how much I tried to avoid it, I couldn’t help becoming my own psychotherapist. Now I think perhaps the way forward lies in first detaching myself wholly from the sculptures, and only then letting the sculptures speak.


“This is its body”, said the sculpture, referring to its attachment, his name is Daniel Tollefsen Slåttnes, he controls me and I control him. With help from his psychotherapist, he engages in hours of pain-induced meditation in order to establish a sense of empathy with my colleagues and myself. I am an extension of his mind and body, but by giving me that privilege, he has become as much an extension of mine. The singularity that our attachment manifests is entirely pragmatic, an ironing out of the universe into a one-dimensional plane.

Extract from a text by Jason Havneraas (see www.slaattnes.com)


The artists have been working on several parallell projects during their residency. They have further developed “Samtale mellom kropper”, which was originally created for an exhibition at Galleri BOA in March 2017, and they have been working on a proposal for permanent artworks for a school in Ås. They have also been preparing an exhibition that is due to be shown at the University of Oslo in September. The artists are also working on plans for a festival they intend to hold in Sweden next summer. After leaving Vestfossen, they will be travelling to Slovakia to prepare an exhibition that is to open there on 26 May next year. Slåttnes has also been developing the technology that underpins his project “Experiences of a Relationship”, the core of which is performative dialogue with plants.


Slåttnes: My interest in meditation has inspired a fascination with the brain’s electric signals, which in turn has led to my working with an EEG monitor. I’ve recently acquired two research-quality EEG caps; these act as amplifiers for the signals, which I can then work with as an artist. And the most intuitive, or simplest, form of response is sound. I have attempted a collaboration with a plant in which the plant and I each are attached to our own EEG monitor. The apparatus amplifies any sound, and from that sound I have tried to interpret the communication. I am in a meditative state at that point. In a future exhibition, I intend to take this a stage further, giving the plants robotic arms which they will be able to control themselves. The newly acquired EEG apparatuses will also be able to transmit the signals from the plants directly into my head. This reverses the process in a way – the signals are transported out in order then to be inserted. And that’s really exciting. It can also be hazardous, so every precaution has to be taken. The technology is pretty advanced, but there is a burgeoning online community of people who are working with this – transcranial stimulation, as it’s known – and I’m learning a huge amount from these communities that will be useful in the development of my own projects.


Rönnbäck: Can I add something about you? I remember, when we first met, you were very focused on what constitutes the essence of art: what are we doing, what does it mean to be an artist, and to create a work of art. The notion of there being a collective consciousness was something in which you were very interested, that there are essential parts of what you do that are not your own expression, but instead are an expression for the production of art in itself. And I think it was in that field that we first found common ground artistically, there were some very stimulating conversations that arose out of that.




Slåttnes: Yes, absolutely. And there is also a democratisation of artistic expression in this insistence on plants being able to influence us. But we have to keep in mind that it is more complex than that, it’s not only about the relationship between us and the material; the relationship between us two comes into it, and our relationship to other artists, and to society at large. I think it is really valuable to consider the influence the material exerts on us.


Rönnbäck: And to try and manifest that as clearly as possible. However, there is always a  danger of romanticising it. It would be naive to overlook that I am holding most power in the relationship with the material. The last time we had our project “Seanse med materiale” (Seance with the Material), I collaborated with mouldy bread dough, and I’ve continued to work with that material. Just now, however, I’ve put it to one side; it can be quite challenging to work with, as it is in a state of decay and can be pretty smelly. To put it frankly, people have a tendency to get very agitated about anything that smells “off”. But I have continued to write texts about it, and I still have it with me, it’s there in the studio, making a bit of a stink. And that smell manages to influence me personally. It was also the cause of a quarrel with others, as I got feedback that I couldn’t have something that smelt that bad in an exhibition space. Even though I initiated the process, it has followed its own path; and I actually felt personally insulted by that criticism, as if it was me that was the cause of offence, rather than the bread dough. To be so intimately attached to a work that you feel that you are one and the same – I really felt I had achieved a form of convergence that was exciting. I took it with me to the Drawing Biennial at Galleri LNM – both the dough and a drawing of it  – and the curator had deliberately omitted to inform the gallery that I would have a putrid dough with me, fearing for what the reaction might be. Actually, I thought they handled it very well; and when I came to collect the dough, the person who was working there said she had mixed feelings about its removal. She would be very relieved to not have that smell in the gallery, but she also admitted that the work had really grown on her, because it was so adamant – it was impossible not to relate to it in some way. I was pleased that she understood that it took time to build up a relationship, and a mouldy bread dough demands much more commitment than any other artwork.


Slåttnes: We have got similar reactions to the sounds from our sculptures. It gets pretty tiresome.


Rönnbäck: Yes. And that gives rise to something very interesting. When a work is obstinate and a challenge to relate to, it can resemble how we form bonds with other people. Relating to other people is always difficult, having to work with someone else is not always easy, it can be challenging having to listen to the other person. It’s difficult enough defining a boundary between me and Daniel, and a similar problem might arise in our relationship with a material, that you get to a point where it’s actually difficult to know what is me and what is the material.


During our conversation, Slåttnes and Rönnbäck return several times to the themes of communication, relationships, and two-way influence. At the same time, their works express in themselves a dialogue for which further words are superfluous. It is with this thought in mind, that a wordless dialogue underpins their work, that I ask them finally how their residency at the Guest Studio has affected them. 


Rönnbäck: I’ve already started to write down how I think our stay here has affected me, but I will probably have a clearer impression in a few weeks than I do now. In a concrete sense, I notice it physically that I am living in a different place, my body reacts to things like that. I’ve had a pain in my knee, for instance, that hasn’t bothered me for several years, because I have been walking on tarmac and standing on concrete floors. So it has an obvious physical effect. But mentally I also notice that I am in a different place and have to relate to it. The nearest town to where we live is Sunne, and it struck me that, even though Sunne and Vestfossen have very similar history, they are very different places. It feels as if more people live in Sunne – but it’s not the case. People in Vestfossen travel more by car, the only people you meet on the street are youths without a driving licence, everyone else drives everywhere. Nobody walks in Vestfossen, and that influences how you interpret a place. In our work, we will certainly continue to work with the materials we have gathered while we were here. 


Slåttnes: It has also been very useful for us to work in such a large space, we could visualise future exhibitions in their entirety. That is an experience we will carry with us into our future work.



1 VKL Gjesteatelier 2017 mai