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MOTSTRØMS - Against the Current

Oppdatert: 28. sep. 2021


Each year in autumn, salmon return to the Akerselva River, the flowing heart of Norway’s capital. These strangely metamorphic fish have traversed the vast immensity of the Atlantic Ocean, smelled and sensed and navigated and remembered their way back, swum up the Oslo Fjord, ghosted their way right beneath Oslo Central Station in perfect darkness, leapt up whitewater rapids, climbed the fish ladder at Vulkan, only to arrive in the still waters just below the Øvre Foss waterfall, in the shadow of the Oslo National Academy of the Arts. Here they complete their life cycles. Life meets death. Death transforms itself into a thousand pledges for more life to come.

We too have pledged to return to Akerselva every year in autumn, to give thanks, to celebrate, and to honor the return of the wild into the heart of our city. We call the festivities MOTSTRØMS - Against the Current. Together we explore how we can break away from narratives of collapse, extinction, and crisis and instead step into narratives of hope and regeneration. MOTSTRØMS is at once ceremonial gesture and political arena, an invitation for artistic expression and a living laboratory for pushing hard against those veils of impossibility that stand between the present moment and what Charles Eisenstein calls “the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible.”

We are researchers, educators, artists, parents, community members, city bureaucrats, musicians, writers, students, anglers, people of the river, voices called by – and responding to – the river. The weeklong festivities will include poetry offerings, panel debates, artistic performances, podcasts, film, storywalks, educational projects, installations, publications, and more.

Ten years ago, Akerselva got sterilized to the microbial level. It took but one nocturnal freak accident, a mere technical failure. The six thousand liters of chlorine had been designated to cleanse forest water before it would become the city of Oslo’s drinking water, but the chlorine spilled into the vein that cascades hard and fast trough the city, and when morning came, the river had mutated into a haunt of ghosts too numerous to count. Fish drifted belly-up. Waterfowl washed up against the banks. Dead insects drifted down the current. Chlorine kills fast and effectively. When mixed with water, it forms the neutrally charged hypochlorous acid, which can breach cell membranes like water breaches dams. Once inside the cell, the acid wreaks havoc, causing proteins to lose their complex structures, unraveling and untangling the proteins, shredding cells inside-out.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘emergency’ originally meant ‘the rising of a submerged body above the surface of water’. Derived from Latin 'ēmergens', the word gradually broadened in scope to denote an ‘arising, sudden or unexpected occurrence’, an ‘urgency’, a ‘pressing need’. Emergency, before it is codified as a concept, before it makes its niche in the landscape of language, before we mobilize it for the realm of culture, is just that: the experience of standing by your river one foggy March morning, breath-clouds puffing from your mouth, fingertips numb with the cold, the heart numb with the sight, for all you see are corpses that rise from the icy current, belly-up.

Except that Akerselva’s story did not end with emergency.

We invite you, too, to return to Akerselva in autumn, to the bridge just below the Oslo National Academy of the Arts. Come and see for yourself how the story continued. You may arrive just before the first winter storms. A cold autumn rain will soak your hair. The nearby waterfall’s roar will envelop you. Darkness will come so soon and quickly, it might catch you off guard. A violent splash in the water will seize your attention. It is her. Perhaps by then you will recognize her by her enormous size, her many open wounds, that distinct map of raw, white flesh against silvery grey skin. She will have defended the same deep hollow for many days now. Exploding in fury when smaller females challenge her spot. Digging up gravel with her huge tail fin to carve out yet another nest. Floating side-by-side with a male, two noses pointing upriver, two bodies quivering, and then eggs will spill from her body, and milk from his. This female salmon’s fiery hostility, her stubborn determination, the shadowed stare with which she’ll keep track of the others (and, indeed, of you): all are forms by which her rich and unique inner life becomes visible. You’ll be in the presence of another articulate subject, who speaks not through the eloquence of human speech but through a full-bodied sentience so unlike ours. The spawning site by the Academy is the final leg of the improbable journey of Akerselva’s salmon. Death and new beginnings flow seamlessly in and out of one another here. The fish cannot migrate any further upriver. Øvre Foss Waterfall is an obstacle too formidable to surmount. And yet the salmon try, and they try again, just as they are born to do. Every year they leap against the thundering roar of whitewater. In the heart of our city, a decade after doomsnight, the fish cold-bloodedly insist on living yet again.

The Latin 'ēmergens' spawned two unequal sisters. Born from the same sight of seeing ‘submerged bodies rise above the surface of water’, the sisters’ lifelines eventually forked apart. One gravitated toward the dark and hurtful, the other toward the light and hopeful. ‘Emergence’, in its contemporary use, is described in the OED as ‘the process of coming forth, issuing from concealment, obscurity, or confinement.’ Emergence is this: to see fish spawn again in a river once killed so thoroughly it could have passed for a public pool. Emergence is this: salmon who leap from murky shadows and into plain view, so stubbornly they will not even yield to gravity. And emergence is this: humans who stand up and stand by, doing what is in their might to help these journeyers prevail, negotiating policy, running hatchery initiatives, initiating school programs, organizing festivities, performing art, conducting research, and mobilizing community efforts to restore rivers and restory the presence of humans in a more-than-human world.

MOTSTRØMS allies itself with river-cultures across the northern hemisphere, cultures who have responded to the return of salmon to Atlantic and Pacific rivers by organizing community gatherings. Such gatherings are invitations for the human community to concretely encounter their more-than-human context. They are invitations to deeply ponder the living world’s many wild, vibrant, unstoppable expressions of aliveness, even as that aliveness is now under sustained onslaught, even as many beautiful things are dying amongst us, even as the biosphere appears to be slipping into a new geological epoch. Such gatherings are an invitation to re-negotiate the question of being human in the larger context of the living world itself, to ask again who we are, how we are of place, what is our task in the time of planetary transition, and how we can strive to become the best version of ourselves – individually and collectively – as we pledge our allegiance to the continuity of life, year after year, indefinitely.

MOTSTRØMS, as an annual festivity rooted in the Akerselva River and her salmon, does not belong to any individual or group. While the NGO VILLAKS is responsible for organizing the festivities, and while we have partnered up with Klimahuset, the University of Oslo, the city districts Sagene and Grünerløkka, several schools, and other organizations and allies, we consider the arrangement in its entirety to be a gift: to the salmon, surely, and to the river. But it is a gift also to the human community drawn to the river that runs from the Nordmarka forest through our city and into the Oslo fjord. We consider it a gift to the city of Oslo at large. Since time immemorial, salmon have been teaching human communities about the power of relating to the world, not as commodity, not as machine, not as passive environment, but as gift. The salmon's return to our rivers is a gift, undeserved, free, self-replenishing, able even to rebound from near-certain extinction. The salmon's challenge to us is as generous as it is demanding: to ponder the true depth, extent and potency of living in a world of gifts. To craft poetic, artistic, political, educational, legal, technological, and social responses to living in such a self-replenishing world of gifts, a world not of scarcity but overflow, a world committed to never plunge into indefinite emergency but to keep pushing hard against veils of impossibility. The salmon's challenge to us is that we continue to exert creative pressure, that we step outside of habit, step away from what appears to be the only way forward, seek new storylines, forge new possibilities for collaboration, push hard - and then push a little harder still - until we emerge from suffering, from despair, from alienation, from extinction, from crisis, from the certainty of collapse. Until we emerge into new ways of situating ourselves inside a truly living, truly more-than-human world.

What will it take to endure the delicate edge that is ēmergens?

Let us find out together.

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