Opening Speech Hammerfest Tax Office

This work is the result of two months of employment here at the Tax Office. I must admit that I arrived here with a few preconceptions as to what I would encounter. I assumed I would find a somewhat boring working environment with frustrated, over-worked employees organised in a strict hierarchy. I expected to stumble across unresolved conflicts and discontent, and I had planned to take hold of precisely this as my artistic point of departure. This plan failed. For here, they had pretty much done my work for me already.


From an outsider’s perspective, the tax department does not exactly exude flexibility and creative thought. It may seem like a difficult starting point for a site-specific work of art. And the impression of a thoroughly regulated working reality – where all aspects from the technical and bureaucratic to the human are caught up systems and rules – is fairly accurate. Routines and rules permeate almost everything. They are thorough and well-implemented, and are, naturally, intended to work constructively so that the department functions as well as possible for as many as possible, both users and employees. It must be correct, and the same for everybody. But, we cannot escape the fact that such thorough regulation has something of the machine about it, and that a web of such strict rules can seem a little frustrating for those who have to operate within it. When there are rules for absolutely everything we do, there is not much space left for individual expression, or expressions of any kind for that matter.


During my time here, it struck me that Hammerfest Tax Office resembles Hammerfest town. Permeating regulation has a visible, physical presence here, both inside the office and outside. The identical work stations without a personal touch can be seen as a sort of parallel to the identical post-war housing developments, and both are manifestations of decisions taking place in the centres of power far away from here. You can move between any one of the work desks here and continue with the exact same task; tasks that are described, decided and nationally coordinated by the head tax authority in Oslo. The open-plan office which makes private conversations difficult, the neutral colour scheme and furniture developed for movements in front of a computer screen make the office resemble a sort of machine hall of bureaucratic procedures. But we are not machines. Irregular, individual personalities do not fit painlessly into prefabricated forms. The people of Hammerfest resist the architectural monotony of the city by the creative use of colour on the walls of the houses, windowsills and fences, as well as actively building cabins in the holiday spots outside the city. In a similar way, people here in the office showed resistance to the permeating regulation of the workplace. In the middle of the tidy, effective and monotone office landscape – in the middle of the stiff routines – sat the great exception.


A slightly strange glass cage, consisting of light walls, had been set up in the middle of the open-plan office. It had no clearly defined function; well-equipped lunch-and meeting rooms already existed, as well as quiet, private rooms. This room, however, stood there, undefined and open, not circumscribed by any of the rule-bound functions of the office. I quickly got the sense that the heart of the office could be found precisely in this slightly strange room. It gave the office environment a pulse and vitality, and the use of the room added rhythm to the working day. Twice a day, at specific times, all the employees gathered in there for coffee breaks, and the surrounding office outside stood as empty as Hammerfest town on a Friday afternoon after office hours. The workers crowded into the little room and the level of sound was high as people chatted about everything and nothing, with no clear direction or professional aim. Discussions and disagreements had their places in here, and the same went for heart-to-hearts, humour and generosity. In here there was room for irregularities, exceptions, tensions, in short the complexity that characterises the real world. The room and its use functioned as sort of security vent for the working environment. I felt as if it had the same effect on the office employees as the holiday cabins outside the town had for most Hammerfest inhabitants. As one of the workers here commented when I queried why the town was so empty at the weekend: ‘But, we live at our holiday cabins.’


The coffee breaks were shrouded in some secrecy; they were not quite above board. After a while, I realised that they fell outside the stipulated working routines, and that even if the management let them pass, they were not fully accepted. I know that the breaks have been an issue here as they involve a sort of sneaking off or bending of the rules. You have no right to them. But, as the Tax Office is actually on schedule with their work, and the employees, despite having the option of flexitime, all show up every morning at 8 am for the first coffee break, they turned a blind eye to this breach of regulations.


The room as it now stands, after my intervention, is a reinforcement of what had already arisen spontaneously. The title of the work, «Waldgänger», is borrowed from Ernst Jünger.  Having survived two world wars, the author describes how to avoid totalitarian regimes by ‘going into the forest’. The forest becomes a representation of everything the authorities had not predicted and thus could not control. Jünger saw the individual’s ability to withdraw as the most effective and realistic way to exercise resistance. As he put it: “A ‘no’ need not be expressed where the authorities expect it.” Similar tactics are described by Michel De Certeau who, politically speaking, appears to belong to the opposite wing to Jünger. For him, it is not about individual withdrawal, but rather a social and collective practice. In his book, L’invention du quotidien, De Certeau describes how one can utilise existing structures, but in a different way to what was predicted. It is about being creative enough to see forgotten spaces in the system, and about using them in new ways. He writes about how you can utilise places and structures you do not own or control, a bit like playing in the opposition’s half.


The systems we live with – and the Tax Office here represents one of them – are important to keep society together effectively. However, the price of effectiveness is simplification: reality is always far more complex than the systems that attempt to describe it, capture it or control it. A system lies like a web around the reality we live in. The web can consist of smaller or larger meshes. There are holes and forgotten spaces, gaps and openings. These spaces offer a glimpse of something else, of an alternative reality that could look completely different. Not necessarily better or worse, but different. This in itself is a great asset: it shows that there are other opportunities, and the freedom to change things exists. It shows that it is possible to imagine other, new possibilities, and even that it is possible to realise them. There is room for creativity and vision precisely because of these holes in the system. The system’s counterpart can be found in the system itself.


I hope the conjoined walls can function as a concrete manifestation of the resistance that already exists here, and a defence of the great, defiant and necessary EXCEPTION. This exception does not prove the rule. It sows doubt about the absolute validity of the rule, and reintroduces a complexity that the rule cannot encompass. It is this exception that makes this office reflect the world outside, and the reason why the environment here functions so well.