Get shower-happy!

At Gardermoen Airport, audio art has been showering down both before and after passport control for more than 20 years.
Perhaps it’s time for a slight upgrade for the bathers?
Illustration: Per Marquard Otzen

By Anders Beyer

They’ve been there so long that you probably don’t notice them. 28.6 million people passed them in 2019. I’m talking about the sound-shower installations at Oslo Airport Gardermoen. No, I’m not joking: ever since the opening of the airport in 1998 travellers have been able to stand under 11 different showers at Gardermoen.

Maybe you’re wondering what in the world the point of that could be? Well, I can tell you: the shower installations are there because we must have art in public spaces – that’s just the way it is. And of course funding has to be granted to these and other public projects. Arrangements for this are made by a state body under the Department of Culture called KORO. KORO procures and manages art for public buildings and other public arenas.

And so it comes about that artworks are now available to the general public at around a thousand places in Norway. For example when you arrive at the terminal in Bergen Airport, there is also an artwork that meets you outside: a bright neon notice with the city name and a question mark after it: “Bergen?”. It is a 5.5 metre tall and 2.5 ton heavy work by the artist Ragnar Kjartansson. He wanted to create a work that said something about the melancholy you can feel as a modern human being constantly travelling from airport to airport, from city to city, and never being truly present anywhere.

Bergen Airport Flesland. Bergen? A 5.5 metre tall and 2.5 ton heavy work by the artist Ragnar Kjartansson. Photo: Private.
A mental break

It’s unlikely that 28.6 million people will pass in and out of Gardermoen in 2020. The reason for that is well known. The travellers who can now enjoy the luxury of spending time at the airport in splendid isolation can thus experience this marvellous building in peace and quiet: bright, friendly, with beautiful materials, tasteful furnishings and appealing architecture. The building is a place where you feel like staying a while so you can truly sense materials like wood and chrome – and observe people on their way to new destinations.

There’s a quite special atmosphere at an airport. Brian Eno was one of the many artists who needed no official commission to create a work that was informed by this atmosphere: Music for Airports from 1978. The work developed into a series of audio installations described as ambient music. Eno himself wanted the music to be able to ‘induce calm and a space to think’.

The sound-showers at Gardermoen were meant to do something similar: something along the lines of creating a minute’s break in a turbulent everyday scenario and giving the listener a ‘positivity wash’. So the next time you are fortunate enough to be spending time at Gardermoen and need a break, a moment to recharge your mental batteries, you can take a sound-shower. Small pictograms (as the signs are called) inform you about the placing of toilets, information, baggage carts and thus ‘audio refreshment’ in one of the 11 sound-showers.

They are placed in both the foreign and domestic hall, by the railway station, by the luggage reclamation area and in the arrivals hall. The shower installations are meant as an option in the social space, as a mental refuge where no one can disturb or bother you, shove you around or ask you for directions. By going in beneath the shower arm and activating the sound you signal the same as many people do when they talk on the mobile phone: ‘don’t step into the circle I have created around myself.’

But while it can often be irritating when someone suddenly takes a mobile phone out of their pocket and creates a private space in the midst of a public place, it has nothing like the same effect when another person takes a sound-shower. It is with a smile that you look at someone who places themselves outside, by themselves, in their own private space, amidst people who are hurrying past to and fro. The person who takes a sound-shower becomes part of the installation and becomes someone you can and are allowed to watch from outside.

A Sound Refreshment Station in Gardermoen Airport Oslo, created by the Swedes Anna Karin Rynander and Per‑Olof Sandberg. Photo: Knut Bryophytes /Avinor.
Look happy!

These Interactive Sound Refreshment Stations, as they are officially called, were created by the Swedes Anna Karin Rynander and Per‑Olof Sandberg. The two asked 11 artists to create sounds for the various showers – among others Ailo Gaup, Jan Grønli, Kristin Günther, Jan Vincents Johannessen, Cecilie Ore, Monica Kristensen Solås and Claes Thunberg. In Babbling Baby by the last of these you can hear crying and satisfied lip-smacking from a baby. From Ailo Gaup’s Healing Words hypnotic words flow outspoken in an insistent voice.

When you hear a prattling baby, it may get you thinking that you yourself have a family and children waiting for you when you have finished being an important and meaningful traveller. Crying is the path to the heart, and you will perhaps have a feeling of sadness and longing for the close things.

At a fundamental level the sound-showers are about creating a positive atmosphere. The artists themselves say in a cartoon about the project: ‘Feel great! Look happy! Stay calm and positive!’ When those taking the showers hear this friendly invitation, the artists behind the project want them to think: ‘I feel strong, happy and positive.’

While the conceptual artists of earlier times – for example Marcel Duchamp – had the intention of undermining established ideas of art and questioning the whole institution of art, the type of conceptual art we experience at Gardermoen is far less dangerous. What it does is intervene in public space and question our relationship with reality. It is all about art that changes our relationship with the space and other people.

For my part I believe that it is now important to reactivate and further develop the sound-shower concept at Gardermoen. It was something new when it was first realized, but that was long ago, and it is often a problem with public art that after a while we stop noticing it. It becomes part of the interior, quite simply.

Greater aesthetic freedom

The creators of the sound-showers call the installations ‘interactive’. It must be said that is a little imprecise, for the shower-takers have no effect on what happens, and it has been determined in advance that they will relax and think positively. The only thing the travellers who stand under the showers can decide is the time when the sound is to start.

This situation makes the project both harmless and a little predictable, since it is impossible to subvert the programmed process through real interaction. A radical attitude would demand more excitement and challenge in the shower. For example one could imagine that at least one of the eleven showers contained genuine running water so the bather would experience the stimulating uncertainty about what would come out of the exact shower cabin he or she stands in.

I dream of the management of Gardermoen asking the Norwegian-German artist duo Vegard Vinge and Ida Müller, or the Norwegian-Danish artist duo Elmgreen & Dragset, to create something around the sound-shower installations. I am pretty sure that could be amusing and thought-provoking.

But for the time being you can safely go into the sound-shower at Gardermoen, forget the daily grind and corona, be reminded that children still exist in this world, have negative thoughts washed away and listen to comforting voices. The last time I was there I had the urge to hum Raindrops keep falling on my head.

© Anders Beyer 2020

The article was published in September 9 2020.