An unlikely proposal

Jessica Williams

It was in early 2022 that the prospect of exhibiting at House of Foundation for an entire year first entered my awareness. Martin M. Sørhaug, one of the space's founders and current artistic director, asked me for a project proposal after what I thought was a casual "get to know you" meeting. In hindsight, it went really well with the sharing of ideas and a mutual respect for DIY ethics. However, I still did a double take when I learned about their five year strategy: handing over the exhibition space to five artists, one artist per year. Such an undertaking would require both a lot of trust from the institution and responsibility on behalf of those exhibiting.

Immediately, I knew that I wanted my potential year-long exhibition to be collaborative, equally experimental, and a catalyst to publish the work of others on my imprint Hverdag Books.

Very early on in the process of putting together the project proposal, I was contacted by the New York-based curator Kathy Cho. She asked me to be a part of a proposal of her own, for the annual open call at the Chicago institution Roots & Culture. For this show, I was paired with two other artists from the Asian diaspora and became privy to a preliminary text on all our practices. She had used the stylized word (be)longing when describing my work, and it stuck in my brain. Just like that, the exhibition (be)longing was born.

When Hverdag Books was founded in 2016, it was primarily as a platform for my own ever-evolving artist publications. This was mainly due to burnout after running my first press in the polar opposite manner. North, South, East, West (NSEW) published editions by over 100 artists between 2011 and 2014, entirely without funding. It wasn't until 2018, when I co-founded Norsk Risoforening with two others, that I again experienced the sorrow and joy of collaboration firsthand. Risoforening is a nationwide organization that promotes the use of risography and cultivates community around the medium. Until recently, the divide between my own work and my work as a curator/cultural worker was very sharp. For many years, Hverdag was mine and mine alone: a singular vision.

However, in connection with the opening exhibition at Norway's National Museum this summer, Hverdag expanded to include a series of publications made together with four other artists also in the exhibition: Petter Buhagen, Hanan Bennamar, Kirsty Kross, and Niels Munk Plum. The selection of my collaborators was split between myself and one of the exhibition's curators, a true lover of books and at times a Loki-type figure: Geir Haraldseth. He was able to see connections and possibilities that I could not, and our group was lively, wildly varied, and perfect in every way. For four weeks, we performatively produced the books inside the exhibition.

Now, in connection with (be)longing, six more collaborative publications will be made through the course of 2023.

The seed of making a book together with Júlía Hermansdóttir was sown a decade ago. When I ran NSEW, we produced two postcards of her illustrations based on photographs and memories from being in the hospital. In 2012, we unsuccessfully applied for money from the Norwegian-Icelandic collaboration fund to make a publication that documented her experience with Crohn's disease, which she was diagnosed with while studying art abroad in her early 20s. The illness, which came relatively suddenly, changed the entire course of her life. After that rejection, the idea got buried in time and it wasn't until 2019 that we even thought about applying again. This time we received a very positive answer—literally days before Norway shut down in 2020 due to the pandemic.

I met Vicente Mollestad in Skien in 2021, when he was the city's artist-in-residence, and I was basically living in the town in connection with the Greenlightdistrict festival. At the time, Vicente was researching Norwegian rap and had set up a recording studio for local youths to record tracks. His generosity and the way he articulated and embodied his unique point of view left a strong impression on me; I knew immediately that he was someone I wanted to work with. Both he and Júlía work through personal stories that unfold within the visceral realm of the body that betrays. For both of them, there is a violence and dark humor that flirts with the taboo.

Also in 2021, I met Robin Mientjes when we were both asked to be on a panel discussion on typography organised by Grafill. Robin has an undeniably strong presence and many ideas. She seemed like a person who I felt I could learn something from. Some years before, in 2018, I had been introduced to Jelsen Lee Innocent through his partner, who was a fellow resident at Praksis in Oslo. There was something in Robin's unapologetic way of being that immediately made me think of Jelsen's steady and sharp voice, primarily mediated visually through his online presence. Their ways of working, though divergent in both content and style, demand engagement and participation of the viewer. They are both bold and take up space in the world, seemingly effortlessly, in a way I could only dream to do. Tension is not seen as something to be afraid of, but rather a tool to facilitate discourse.

Two additional artists will be found through an open call. This is absolutely essential to the project as it opens up for the potential of collaborators both outside my own network and generation. Last but not least, there are two writers who are integral to the project, producing texts and providing guidance: curator Kathy Cho and artist/curator Ina Hagen. As far as I know, none of the people I am working with have worked with each other before. Together, we will explore (be)longing through publications, texts, installations in the gallery space, and many conversations: both private and public.

The sum total of the year is admittedly hard to imagine now, in the very beginning. Each artist is working with me, one on one. Here we are partners and direct collaborators. We also work in trios, and my role naturally shifts to that of the mediator/curator/project manager. Collaboration extends to application writing and applying for funding; the total budget for the project is transparent and visible to all. We pool and share resources and meet as often as it allows or is needed in various constellations. The relationships between the participants in the project and myself are ever-changing. We are colleagues, mentors and mentees, collaborators, near strangers, and friends.

Finally, there is an intentional wiggle room built into the structure of (be)longing for further, limited-time collaborations. For the entire length of the exhibition, part of the gallery space will be dedicated to an ever-changing reading room. Here guests can peruse books sent in by a rotating cast of artist-run spaces related to themes of the exhibition, as well as the publications and printed matter produced during (be)longing. The first book recommendations come from Matthew Walkerdine and Jessica Higgins of Good Press, a fantastic artist-run bookshop in Glasgow with an unique open submissions policy. Later on, the gallery space will transform into a living workshop. Here actors such as Johan Solberg of Halden Bookworks will step in. Johan is a trained bookbinder with a passion for imparting his knowledge to others and has a strong sense of social justice. Other collaborators are yet to be made public, or even found.

Thank you, dear reader, for following along. Let us use openness and radical empathy as tools for understanding.


Hverdag Books, est. 2016

down to earth at Roots & Culture, Chicago, July 2022
TJ Shin, Jessica Williams, Gloria Fan Duan 樊段晓春
Image credit: Robert Chase Heishman

The artist Niels Munk Plum inside of my work pile
I call it art at Nasjonalmuseet, August 2022

Riso-printed postcards (various artists) published by NSEW, laid out in Antwerp in 2013

(be)longing reading room with titles from Good Press, November 2022