03 August 2012


Vardø, Norway
Initiator and project artist Pøbel, produced by Nordnorsk Kultursenter and the inhabitants of the town
Visiting artists: Pøbel (NO), Horfe (FR), Remed (FR), Ken Sortais (FR), Ethos (BR), Roa (BE), Vhils (PO), E.B Itso (DK), Tristan Manco (UK), Stephen Powers (USA), Atle Østrem (NO), Husk Mit Navn (DK), Conor Harrington (IE)
Relational art / street art

In a small town at the north-east tip of Norway Nordnorsk Kultursenter initiated a project with streetart artist Pøbel as curator, where streetart is the initiator of change of a whole town and its people.


Map showing where Vardø is

To understand the project you need to understand the geographical position of Vardø town. It is situated in the Arctic zone as far east and north as you can get in Norway, 1500km straight north from Helsinki. To get there you need to drive for hours along vast stretches of sparsely populated landscapes along the Varangerfjord and then along the Arctic Sea coast. The climate is too tough for trees to grow, and you need to look out for reindeer crossing the road. When you think you have reached the end of the world, you drive into a 3km long tunnel under the Arctic Sea. When you reappear into the daylight, you are in the center of Vardø town, a town of 2000 inhabitants, a town containing all you need of shops, history, architecture and friendly people. It is an urban island seeming almost isolated from the rest of the world.

The entrance to Vardø island and Komafest
The entrance to the tunnel from the mainland to Vardø

Vardø has been a fishing settlement since prehistoric times, and became a town in 1789. To mark the Norwegian border against the Russian and Finnish one, a fortress was built here. The trade between Russia and Norway had Vardø as an important transit point, and there were regular trade routes to both Bergen and Archangelsk from here centuries ago. Vardø has for a long time had the spirit of a town, not a village.


Streetart walk with Tristan Manco at Komafest
Streetart walk with Tristan Manco by the mural by ROA

Pøbel invited an impressive gang of streetart artists to Vardø to paint walls. This may seem like just a streetart festival in an unusual place, but it is more than that. In Vardø the festival is engaging most of the population, and has been the trigger of a much larger process that started before the artists arrived and continues after they left. 


Streetart walk with Tristan Manco at Komafest
Vardø old cinema with mural by Husk Mit Navn

The aim of the festival has not only been to get paintings on random visible walls. The walls have been carefully picked from the town's buildings of high architectural or historical value, buildings that have been abandoned and are detoriating. The murals have great artistic value themselves, but they also draw attention to the buildings and the buildings' history. The hope is that this will create an interest for the buildings, and they will be restored and be used again. This is already happening, for some buildings even before the mural was made. The best example of this is the old cinema, until lately being a leaking storage building. When the plans for using it was presented, the owner made a great effort to clean and restore it for video screening and art talk. The old inhabitants relived their memories of their youth, and the younger ones saw the magnificient interior for their first time.

Vardø old cinema, ready for talk by Tristan Manco
Vardø old cinema interior

Streetart walk with Tristan Manco at Komafest

The streetart guided tour through the streets of Vardø

Another aim has been to stop the emigration from the town. In the 1970s the population was 4000, today it is 2000. There may be different reasons for this, but at the same time Vardø has so many possibilities. The town offers almost all you need, and what it does not have you can order through internet. The sea is abundant with fish just waiting to be caught. The tourist visits are increasing, especially because of the wide variety and amount of birds to see. The festival shows how great a place Vardø is and makes it even greater. People are proud of their town.


E.B.Itso at Komafest
Everything is a story
E.B. Itso

Most of the murals fit well into their surroundings. Both the local nature, animals, history and culture is referred to in the paintings, as well as encouraging cheers and happiness boosts. Some of my favourites are E.B.Itso and Atle Østrem with their respective works "Everything is a story" and "Mine sår, mine arr, mine år" (My wounds, my scars, my years) referring to the importance of the buildings and their history. At the same time I really like HuskMitNavn's tributes to the Vardø people, especially the green guy wearing swimming gear, heading for the sea. Knowing how cold it is this shows just how optimistic and positive people here are.

Atle Østrem at Komafest
Mine sår, mine arr, mine år / My wounds, my scars, my years
Atle Østrem

Husk Mit Navn at Komafest

Husk Mit Navn


Streetart walk with Tristan Manco at Komafest
The streetart guided tour through the streets of Vardø

After the artists had left, the project continued. The climax was the moving-bus bauta. A bus used by a moving company to move away all those people that left was left to rust. Pøbel planted it nose down in the ground on the mainland. This bus will never leave with people from Vardø anymore, but will remain as a bauta of the bad times that are gone and the good times that have started.

The bus bauta, formerly used for moving people and their belongings
photo courtesy of Pøbel

The artwork of this is not only a collection of great paintings in the city. It is also a large relational art project, involving everyone that took part in arranging it, all those who walked around to look for new murals, who talked about this to strangers they met in town, who took part in the guided walk with Tristan Manco, and all those who now talk proudly about their town. The most visible sign of this is the public wall where everybody were invited to paint their names.

The public wall at Komafest
The public wall

All of this would not have happened without Pøbel's visionary idea, the enthusiasm of the artists and the great generosity and optimism of the Vardø inhabitants. Komafest (Coma party) really wakes the people and the buildings out of the coma.


More pictures from Komafest:


More about the artists:
Horfe (FR) &  Ken Sortais (FR)
Remed (FR)
Ethos (BR)
 Roa (BE)
 Vhils (PO)
 E.B Itso (DK)
Stephen Powers (USA)
 Atle Østrem (NO)
 Husk Mit Navn (DK)
 Conor Harrington (IE) 


The sponsors:
Nord-Norsk Kunstsenter
Montana Cans
Varanger Museum
Vardø VGS
Barents Seafood
Fritt ord
ABC Printhouse
all the people that contributed as volunteers