– Autumn/Winter 2007

True Rulers of Their Own Realm: Political Subjectivation in Palle Nielsen's The Model - A model for a qualitative society

Lars Bang Larsen

In November 1980, a curator at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm wrote to Palle Nielsen,


It has been difficult to reach you, but I hope that I have sent the letter to the right place this time. For seven years I have worked with the children's outreach programme at the Moderna Museet. As you can see from the enclosed letter, the programme is to be documented in a catalogue for a big exhibition in Brussels in the autumn of 1981. I hope that you will contribute with an article to the catalogue since The Model 1968 (which you initiated) is one of the most important events in the history of the museum - it was so to speak the starting signal for a whole new form of organisation, not only at the Moderna Museet but also in most other museums in Sweden.1

Modellen - En model för ett kvalitativt samhälle (The Model - A Model for a Qualitative Society) was an adventure playground for children that Nielsen organised inside the Moderna Museet in October 1968. The playground offered free access for all of Stockholm's children to a wide range of play functions and activities, and during the three weeks it was open it attracted more than 33,500 visitors, 20,000 of shom were children (adults paid a normal entrance fee). By providing a framework for play, it aimed at introducing an anti-elitist concept of art and at creating a new human being with a great need for group relations. It is surprising, then, that the curator relegated The Model to the category of cildren's outreach programmes: even if it was a project explicitly

  1. Letter from Birgitta Arvas to Palle Nielsen, Stockholm, 25 November 1980. My translation.

  2. The Model is pictured, but not discussed, in the exhibition catalogues Information (edited by Kynaston McShine, New York: MoMA, 1970) and The Nordic '60s: Upheaval and Confrontation (edited by Maaretta Jaukkuri, Helsinki: The Nordic Arts Centre, 1991). It is also briefly mentioned in Leif Nylén's book Den öppna konsten: Happenings, instrumental teater, konkret poesi och andra gränsöverskridningar i det svenska 60-talet (Stockholm: Sveriges Allmänna Konstförening, 1998), but hasn't been referred to in any other museum- or art-historical research. Nielsen's photographs from the action have been shown in the group exhibitions 'Pyramids of Mars' (The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, The Barbican Art Centre, London and Trapholt, Kolding, 2000-01) and 'The Invisible Insurrection of a Million Minds' (Sala Rekalde, Bilbao, 2005). I have written briefly about the project on various occasions, such as in Magic Moments. Collaboration between artists and young people (edited by Anna Harding, London: Black Dog Publishing, 2005), as well as in frieze magazine, Issue 51, March/April 2000, pp.59-61) and in the second issue of Afterall (Issue 1, Autunm/Winter 1999, pp.77-87). Palle Nielsen was born in 1942, and lives and works in Copenhagen.

  3. 'Angrip dom konkreta punkterna', interview with Palle Nielsen by Louise Rydén in Paletten, no.4, 1968, p.8.

  4. David Gurin, 'Bursting the Gates of a Welfare Utopia', The Village Voice, 27 November 1969. In Denmark, Nielsen's playground activism has a specific historical context in the way post-World War II art, philosophy and architecture focused on childhood: in 1947, the English author Lady Allen of Hurtwood coined the term 'adventure playground' after she visited the first skrammellegeplads (rubbish playground) that was built 1943 in Copenhagen. See John Bertelsen, Børn bygger, Copenhagen: Aktieselskabet Rockwool and Dansk Gasbeton Aktieselskab, 1958.

  5. 'Kinder brauchen, wenn sie ihre spezifische Form von Sinnlichkeit vergegenständlichen, sich "einfangen" sollen, eine raumbetontere Öffentlichkeit als Erwachsene. Sie brauchen einen grösseren Bewegungsspielraum, Plätze, die ein möglichst flexibles Aktionsfeld darstellen, in dem die Dinge nicht ein für allemal festgesetzt, definiert, mit Namen versehen, mit Verboten behängt sind, sie brauchen auch völlig andere Zeiträume als Erwachsene, um sich zu entfalten.' Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge, Öffentlichkeit und Erfahrung. Zur Organisationsanalyse von bürgerlicher und proletarischer Öffentlichkeit, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1974, p.466. My translation.

  6. Roland Barthes:, 'The Death of the Author' (1968), in Claire Bishop (ed.), Participation, London and Cambridge: Whitechapel and The MIT Press, 2006, p.41.

  7. Quoted from a working paper Nielsen used for information and fundraising purposes.

  8. Nielsen in a letter to me, September 2005. The essay was published a year later in a Danish underground magazine MAK under the title 'De sociale kunstnere'.

  9. For example, in 1969 Nielsen - by then a PhD student in architecture - relativised aesthetics with notions of space and social process. 'Space is the delimitation for activities. Form is our relation to these activities. This implies that form is no longer a static notion. Because it changes the perception of aesthetic problems from being visual to also being social... the "formatics" of functionalism: form defined by function gives aesthetic pleasure. When those spaces we create have the form that responds to the task we have been asked to do - and fulfils this task to the point - these spaces are also the most aesthetically pleasing.' P. Nielsen, 'Rum - form - aktivitet', Arkitekten, 71th edition, Copenhagen, 1969, p.642. My translation.

  10. For the title Nielsen quotes the cultural critic André Gorz's definition of a new priority scale for human relations: 'And in a developed society needs are not only quantitative (the need for goods for consumption) but also qualitative: the need for a faceted and free development of the human being's skills, the need for information, communication and a human community, the need for emancipation not only from exploitation but also from coercion and isolation at work and during leisure time.' P. Nielsen (ed.), The Model, Stockholm: Moderna Museet, 1968, p.6. My translation.

  11. Clas Brunius, 'Paus i barnastressen', Expressen, 10 October 1968. My translation.

  12. Rosalind E. Krauss, 'The Photographic Conditions of Surrealism', The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, Cambridge and London: The MIT Press, 1996.

  13. Cornelius Castoriadis, 'The Movements of the Sixties', World in Fragments. Writings on Politics, Society, Psychoanalysis, and the Imagination, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993.

  14. P. Nielsen (ed.), The Model, op. cit., p.3. The first line in the text refers to the other texts in the catalogue.

  15. L. Rasmusson, 'Barn Power', in P. Nielsen (ed.), The Model, op. cit., pp.17-19. My translation.

  16. Not only the tenets of Constructivism are relevant here; in connection with The Model and its particular use of the gallery space we can also mention the Bolsheviks' carnivalesque conversions of 'obsolete' architecture (churches, castles), and their propaganda and education trains that travelled to the Russian provinces. Also, artists and art critics of both the first and the second wave of the Russian avant-gardes collected, studied and exhibited children's art.

  17. 17 The 'exhibitionary complex' is the term Tony Bennett develops in his book The Birth of the Museum. History, Theory, Politics (London: Routledge, 1995). Apropos the white cube as a laboratory, a journalist writes in a somewhat paranoid way about The Model: 'Different places in the space, TV cameras register every movement, and all around there are also hidden microphones which reveal every sound. All around there are Psychologists and Pedagogues taking notes. All together seems a clinical experiment with rabbits [sic].' Macke Nilsson, 'Ni tror att dom bara lattjar! Men i själva verket bygger dom upp morgondagens samhälle', Aftonbladet, 5 October 1968, n.p. My translation.

  18. Jacques Rancière, 'Politics, Identification, and Subjectivization', October, no.61, Summer 1992, pp.60-61.

  19. Gudrun Hjelte, 'Ballongen i Västerås', Aktuellt, 1968, p.18. My translation.

  20. To paraphrase Giorgio Agamben and Jean-Luc Nancy. In contemporary art, of course, the creation of model situations is an established format for communicative and collaborative strategies where art is situated between 'what is desired and what is practicable', to use Nina Möntmann's phrase (N. Möntmann, 'Transforming Communities', in Binna Choi (ed.), Community of Absence: Haegue Yang, Utrecht and Frankfurt a.M.: BAK and Revolver, 2007, p.48. In this way, what Brian O'Doherty called the artistic gesture (the actualisation of the white cube as architectural reality and and cultural edifice) has become a common phenomenon. (See Brian O'Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.) At the same time, the term 'model' has also been much abused to evoke managerial types of 'innovation' within cultural grey zones created by pervasive mediation (you will often see it qualified with the prefix 'new').

  21. See Miwon Kwon, One Place After Another. Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity, Cambridge and London: The MIT Press, 2004.

  22. Nina Felshin, '[Activist artists] are creatively expanding art's boundaries and audience and are redefining the role of the artist. In the process, they seem to suggest that the proper answer to the question "...But is it Art?" is: "But does it matter?"' Nina Felshin in her introduction to N. Felshin (ed.), But Is It Art? The Spirit of Art as Activism, Seattle: Bay Press, 1995, p.13.