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Panning for Gold to Make Money and Art

'The Real World' meets the California gold rush of 1849.

by DJ Pangburn
Dec 27 2016, 4:20pm

Still from ‘Bright Future Horizons’ from one of five video loops. Images courtesy the artist

Nearly every artist struggles to fund their art practice, as well as their living expenses. Norwegian artist Anna Ihle decided to turn this hustle into the central theme of her new work, Bright Future Horizons, in which she and a crew panned for gold in Stavanger, the oil capital of Norway, and documented the results.

Apart from documentary shorts, Bright Future Horizons displays the group members’ work journals, motivational posters, mining tools, and maps. It also features World War II-era images of “jolly, happy gold-digging people” from the private archive of the landowner who owns the cabin where the crew was based while prospecting.

All of Ihle’s fellow gold miners hail from Stavanger and work in the arts, but none of the participants knew each other before the trip. The cabin where the prospecting crew stayed was one of two such dwellings on the property that housed miners in the 1930s. Its remoteness, devoid of good cell reception, electricity, and running water, presented challenges for the participating “city folk.” In that way, Ihle says that Bright Future Horizons resembled reality TV more than a series of documentary shorts.

“I had been contemplating how to document the work. With the social aspects of contemporary work life, it made sense to me to emphasize these characteristics,” Ihle explains. “The efficiency of the editing process translates to the physical journey, as both editing and gold digging is deeply linked with elimination.”

Once Ihle decided to prospect for gold, she embarked on online research, tracked down a geologist for advice, and spoke to the owner of gullgraving.no, a Norwegian website dedicated to gold mining. “He sells equipment from his garage, and he showed me how to use the different tools,” Ihle says. “I was also in dialogue with the landowner and the municipality where I decided to dig for gold.”

To improve their work ethic, the group watched American motivational videos. Emphasizing a search for meaning and self-improvement, they contrast traditionally Scandinavian values, which are grounded in community and religion. “The Norwegian Protestant work ethic just doesn’t do it for us any longer,” Ihle says. “The crew I brought had very different perspectives on these videos. One of the participants hated it, but we were sitting in a hut deep inside a fjord after work, and he seemed fine being the grumpy one on the couch.”

With this project, Ihle wanted to combat artists’ irregular sources of income. “The last four years, I’ve grown more and more interested in labor, craft, and conditions of contemporary work and unemployment,” Ihle tells The Creators Project. “Most of my works develop over time and through contributions from people with other skills, such as wood carving, or as in Bright Future Horizons, gold panning.”

Did the group find gold? “I’ve learned that gold diggers don’t answer that question,” Ihle enigmatically replies. But regardless of whether the group reaped financial rewards, the project unearthed human truths. “I hope to poke at those motivational forces that cause many of us to work too hard,” she adds. “How can they be identified? Where are they to be found? Which ones are to be kept, and which ones are fake?”

Installation detail

Installation detail

Installation detail

Installation view

Video still

To learn more about Bright Future Horizons, check out Anna Ihle’s website.

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