One of the great social and urban problems for citizens and businesses at Vesterbro (part of Copenhagen near the Central Station) is the public injection of illegal drugs. The problem is however biggest for the drug addicts themselves as they have to inject under stress and generally miserable conditions. This causes mistakes when injecting, overdoses and infections e.g. by HIV and hepatitis. On this basis I initiated to design a 1:1 model of a physical injection room.
By co-operating with drug addicts and related organizations, architect student Steffen Nielsen and I designed a physical model for how an injection room could look like. The room was usable both functionally, health and cleaning wise. Professional nurses staffed the room. The bomb shelter at Halmtorvet next to the central station was the physical frame for the project. This is one of the three preferred places for injecting. In Danish a bomb shelter is called a "protection room" which I adopted as a title for the project.
The idea was to "translate" all the debate, reports, expert panels and media coverage about injection rooms from the last 6 years into a physical presence. From the written and spoken language into a visual and physical one. To have an actual functioning injection room was another way of facilitating the debate. This is one of the great possibilities of functional art: to give thoughts and concepts a physical form, and thereby raise more facets of a given problem!
The strategy of the project was to use the physical space to raise a debate in the media in order to activate politicians and drug and health experts. Also to let them take the opportunity to discuss the issue in public. Through massive media coverage this was successful! We engaged both local and parliamentary politicians in the debate as well as in making a law proposal.
During January and February I held meetings with all four right wing parties (two from The Government) to convince them about the usefulness and ethics of injection rooms. On the 28 February 2003 a Law Proposal set up by all four left wing parties had 1. Treatment in the Parliament. On the 12 May I meet with the Ministry of Health Lars Løkke Rasmussen. Although he admitted not to have any alternatives that could solve the problems that injection rooms could, he did not want to allow them. At the second treatment 60 voted against and 44 for. But the Social Democrats wants to relaunch the proposal in the Fall 2004 as a new EU report has shows good results with injection rooms in other European countries.
In 2005 a group of people made a local conference with 80 invited guests and speakers to produce solutions to drug related problems on Vesterbro (local borough of Copenhagen). I was one of the speakers and made a film with Johan Hye-Knudsen to present the different local parties view on the problems. The initiative was named Dugnad, after the old Norwegian term for when local residents got together to solve a local problem. We produced 101 suggestions that were sent of to Parliament and the Copenhagen Council.
Through a process with meetings and the publishing of book about the conference and suggestions we finally managed to get 12,2 million Danish Kroner (app. 1,6 million €) from the Ministry of Health and form a partnership with Copenhagen Council to establish and run a Dugnad Center Vesterbro. I am on the board of Dugnad Center Vesterbro and responsible for values and part of the interior design team of the center.
Part of the public art project "Contemplation Room", with info centre at Overgaden, Copenhagen and in Rio and London
Curated by Cecillie Gravesen, Lasse Johansen and Kristine Aggergård
Kenneth A. Balfelt
Functional, not activist
An interview with the Danish artist Kenneth A. Balfelt about a social project he initiated
Springerin issue 3/03 Reality Art
by Lars Bang Larsen
In Copenhagen’s Western Borough - the red-light district - the drug user’s everyday reality is one of criminalization, marginalization and resettlement due to gentrification. In this highly charged social field, the artist Kenneth Balfelt in 2002 organized and designed a temporary injection room at Halmtorvet, a square in the process of being smartened up with cafés and “drop sculptures”. The injection room was a functional prototype that existed for sixteen days as a meeting point for debate, as the police did not allow actual injections. The project brought about a wide-ranging media debate. and the question of the legalization of injection rooms was put to the vote in the Danish Parliament in June 2003 as a direct result of the lobbying efforts of Balfelt and his collaborators. However, the proposal was not accepted, and Danish street drug users are still reduced to injecting under circumstances threatening to both life and health.
Lars Bang Larsen: Could you explain a bit about the actual organization of the “shooting gallery”?
Kenneth A. Balfelt: I was invited to participate in the public art project ´Contemplation Room’, which dealt with city usages. I decided to create an injection room for mainline addicts, and began extensive research where I talked to drug organizations, especially those that have an interest in injection rooms, be it negative or positive. I also talked to drug users and their organizations, which became an important part of the project, as did a number of other support bodies. Even the police got involved, although in the end they forbade people to use the space for injection.
The purpose was to create a faceted public debate about injection rooms. At the beginning I didn’t intend to work for their legalization, but that’s how it developed. I succeeded in getting press coverage that activated the politicians. A bill for the legalization of injection rooms was put to the vote by the opposition, but outvoted by the right-wing government coalition. Of course, I didn’t start the debate about injection rooms myself; it has been there for 5-6 years. I only revitalized it with a physically present contribution to the debate, as well as acting as a facilitator for others to air their viewpoints.
LBL: Why was it necessary for you to conceive of this project as an artistic one, and not as a form of civic protest or social activism? What is the specific artistic effort in the injection room?
KAB: The artistic position offers a standpoint that is different from other positions in society. To be free of political guidelines imposed by a council, a boss, an education with a limited scope and the resultant normative way of practicing, limiting collegial relations, etc. Specifically, the implementation of an injection room was something social workers, activists, nurses, politicians, etc. had not come up with in the six-year-long struggle for legalization. I also used the artistic position to design the injection room not just according to principles of functionality – we carefully investigated the needs of mainline users and health demands of nurses – but also by using interior design to signal acceptance of the drug user, thereby working with representations of users that are not negative. The project was continued as a political lobbying process. At meetings with members of the Danish Parliament and the Ministry of Health, I carefully constructed a position where my only concern was the health and care of the drug addicts. I was somewhat transparent to these groups of officials, as they did not need to see the project through the filter of an organisation or a certain political interest, for instance.
LBL: You construct your artistic work as being free and socially different. However, even though you may not directly represent an institution or a corporation in your artistic work, you will obviously always represent the art system and the cultural construct that is artistic subjectivity.
KAB: When I talked to politicians, I only argued that I wanted to legalize injection rooms, as this saves drug addicts from getting hepatitis, HIV, being harmed by injections and dying from overdoses.
When I met with representatives of the government coalition parties and the Ministry of Health, they never questioned my position. Because they could tell I knew far more about the subject than they did; the potential problem of representing “the cultural construct that is artistic subjectivity" did not arise. That is a theoretical criticism, not one I met with during the project! There, I experienced far more relevant questions and urgent problems that I had to engage with. Something very interesting happens when I engage with real people in real situations. My position is far more relevant as a whole subject than that part of me that is seen as an artistic subject.
LBL: I have no doubts that your political work with the injection room met high ethical standards. What I would like to probe is the project’s representation of the drug users, and of your evaluation of yourself as an artist involved with social activism. You imply that, with this project, you gave voice to a group of people who normally cannot speak for themselves. This argument creates a hierarchy between you and the drug users – the idea of the victimized drug user vis-à-vis the “functional” artist / citizen / entrepreneur. To put it provocatively, do you not see the risk of "painting with people" in a project like this? Why did you not choose to establish a collective authorial body together with the drug users, rather than taking on the artistic position alone?
KAB: First of all, I was never "alone"; the press received a list with some twenty professionals working in the drug field that were involved in the project. In the injection room there were experienced nurses that the users knew and trusted, and local social workers and the drug users’ organization were part of the project too. As for the representation of the users, I would suggest that you go and ask the drug users themselves how they felt about the project, if they felt respected or not, and how they saw their representation by the media and indirectly by my injection room. One day, a homeless guy, John, came over to me and said, "Are you the guy who did the injection room?" and gave me a big hug. With the drug users’ organization I also started a petition for injection rooms that was later handed over to the Ministry of Health. We ran this campaign from the injection room and all of the some one hundred drug users that came and saw the room signed it. Some of them even took the petition onto the street. Basically, I think this project did more positive things for drug users than many other campaigns or media debates have. The users themselves were heard and could express their own views in the media that covered the project. I sought to use art to engage in democratic processes on the basis of the users’ needs. One of the nurses said, "It is embarrassing for our society that an artist needs to come and show us how to treat our drug addicts."
After the legalisation bill was outvoted, the debate about injection rooms died and left a lot of people disillusioned – as all good ideas do when there is total resistance from those in power. It was a natural point for me to stop my participation in the project. I left the people that work in the field with a new vision of how the democratic process can be influenced, and they can contact me for new ideas for similar projects – which some have already done.
LBL: It seems to me that much art activism – which is how I would categorize the injection room – doesn’t question its claim to social efficiency; the idea is that the possibility exists for an absolute confrontation between art activism and society. Maybe this is because art activism doesn’t consider itself to be institutionally separated from social practice. But isn’t this position a romantic one in that it in a sense presupposes its autonomy or freedom from the rest of the social body, as you also suggested in relation to your own role as an artist?
KAB: First of all, I am not sure I agree that the injection room project is activism. To me, activism is when someone uses very strong means to fulfil their ideas. I consider the project to be a different kind of contribution to the debate, or a parallel one in relation to the usual kinds of contributions.
This is a discussion about the competencies of art and the way it can contribute to society; I see framing the project as activism as closing off a very important discussion. We must develop a way to talk about these issues that opens up the field and develops it as a field where a different type of knowledge is produced than elsewhere in society. If the word activism is taken out of your question, you ask if an “absolute” confrontation is possible between art and society. I believe not, exactly because it should not be absolute. We must maintain a position in society for art, one that allows for this kind of research or for “the production of non-knowledge”, as Sarat Maharaj calls it. From this position I find it very important to interact with societal problems, because I strongly believe that art could potentially be one of the fields from which more ethical and coherent solutions could be initiated. When I make “functional art” it is exactly to use non-art institutions artistically in order to engage with real problems.