A Million Gazes



Emma Dominguez Martinez

The site on which I have chosen to ground my artistic research is a place with many names. I struggled when beginning to write this paper, trying to condense and fit the site into a narrow box. The colonial project still ripples down in how we construct the understanding of our spaces and bodies. So I was trying to make it simple, graspable and universal. But as it turns out, I was just reproducing the very structure that I am trying to question with my research. I want to explore the possibility of deconstructing the illusion of a universal space, a universal narrative; the myth that there is a single way to read a site and the bodies within it. Is it possible to go beyond the white, colonial gaze and find new ways of understanding and constructing our realities? Again, my site has many names.

Historically, the place has its starting point in the construction of a modernist project called Miljonprogrammet. Initiated by the social democrats in Sweden between the years 1964-1975, the aim was to solve the housing deficit and to create functional and effective housing, thereby contrubuting to a more efficient workforce.[1] The kind of houses built were not only the typical highrises that many associate with the “Million Program”, but also low-rise apartment buildings; terraced houses; row houses; and even detached houses. The biggest projects were built around the big cities, but new housing was constructed in smaller towns and rural areas, too. According to Stockholm City’s webpage, the Million Program even reached Östermalm with buildings at Fältöversen.[2] [3] This is not the site I am referring to, however. Sometimes, a site can be named as part of Miljonprogrammet, other times not.

Sometimes, the site is denoted as förort: the Suburb. Referring to an urbanized area close to a bigger city, a suburb is often characterized by the inhabitants of the space also inhabiting the nearby city, by for example working there. För-ort, the space before the place. The site I am naming is not the suburb as it is known in the English sense; it is not one of those “high” status areas with villas, fences and an homogenous air surrounding them. Some people mark the difference by naming the spaces as a villaförort and a betongförort, respectively – the villa suburb and the concrete suburb.

The site to which I am referring starts to form with the arrival of our bodies. At first, the site was planned to hold housing for the white working class in Sweden. During the 60s and 70s, there was a shortage of workers in some industries. The rapid expansion of the construction sector, driven by the Million Program’s ambitious goals, created a high demand for workers in that industry. However, many other industries also struggled to find enough workers to meet their needs. Sweden was craving labor.[4] To address the labor shortage, the Swedish government implemented a number of policies, such as increasing the number of foreign workers allowed to enter the country and providing incentives for Swedes to move to areas with labor shortages. These policies helped to alleviate the labor shortage in many industries, including construction.[5] This, and of course other political events around the globe during that time, led to the arrival of many bodies that were not born in Sweden, who began to inhabit these concrete spaces.

Since the start, the concept and the architecture of these areas were harshly criticized and depicted in the media and public debate as a symbol for all the negative consequences of modern social development.[6] With the arrival of a large migrant community, the narratives of these spaces devolved into further dehumanizing narratives. In “The Million Program and Media: Ideas on People and Suburbs”, Irene Molina reflects upon the Swedish media’s depiction of Million Program residents as socially isolated, culturally backward, and politically disengaged. The place was described as far away, exotic and dangerous. People have been systematically dehumanized by public debate and media coverage.[7]

In artist Meira Ahmemulic’s 3D work, De höga husens Rundgång, the spectator is invited to put on 3D glasses and enter the neighborhood of Gårdsten in Gothenburg.[8] The work touches on questions of narrative, language and dissonance. There is a scene where a real estate agent is standing in one of the high rises in the neighborhood with a megaphone. He lists a series of names used to talk about the site, chanting:

Suburb. Locality. Periphery. Middletown. Between city – and rural area. Million program. City edge. Problem area. Risk area. Vulnerable area. Particularly vulnerable area. Poor resource area. Socio-economically vulnerable area. Parallel society. Low income area. Marginalized area. Slum. Ghetto. Criminal area. Immigrant dense area. Immigrant dominated area. Immigrant Area. Clan area. No go zone.[9]

In 2014, yet another public debate arose when journalists argued that the areas published annually as at-risk by the police should be called “No-go zones”.[10] The naming of these spaces has been an ongoing practice by the parts of society who wish to establish their humanity by dehumanizing another.

When we, diaspora children, second and third generation, children to our migrant parents, grow up, many of us experience a feeling of unease. Trying to orientate ourselves, we sense that we are never accepted as the norm in Swedish society. As Sara Ahmed puts it: “We are navigating a White Sea”, often without the proper lifeboat to hand.[11] We know that our bodies never get to move as naturally in the city. We are constantly reminded that we are “the other”. When we, often in search of belonging, return to our parents’ country of “origin”, our bodies might pass as natural in the landscape, but as soon as we open our mouths, our tongues remind us that we don’t fully belong there either. It is not easy to feel at home in a country you got to know through pictures, memories and nostalgia. We grew up in Sweden. In the suburb, the million program, the space on the periphery; in the concrete space where the high-rises have been our homes.

In popular culture, the place has been called Betongen—the place of concrete— for example in artist Ayo’s song Betongdjungelboken from 1998; Advance Patrol’s Betongbarn (2006); and in Jacco’s song Vår betong (2009).[12] [13] [14] In 2011, Labyrint released the single Ortens Favoriter, referring to the place as “Orten”, translated into English as “The Place”.[15] Those years also saw a rise in social movements – Megafonen in Stockholm, Pantrarna in Gothenburg, Hassela movement in Malmö – beginning the mobilization of a political movement towards emancipation in these areas. Aleksandra Ålund and René León Rosales write that the stigmatized förort is shortened to Orten in the movement: “Getting rid of the prefix ‘för’ is a symbolic statement that moves the center to themselves. Linguistically, site- specifically, emotionally, socially and politically.”[16]

In this process of renaming the space, we have created an opportunity to start owning the narrative; to recreate it and rethink it. Going from object to subject. Naming the space in an attempt to detach it from the colonial logics, narratives and connotations that follow the name Förorten.

Activist Sabrin Jaja, former member of Pantrarna in Gothenburg and one of the initiators of Orten’s art festival, thinks further in the concept of Orten: “The question of the concept of Orten has come up many times during the process. My friend once said ‘It’s not the concrete that makes us who we are, it’s us that makes the concrete more than stone’.”[17] With the word Orten, we refer more to shared experiences than to a geographical area – our shared experience of being far from the norm. Both as non-whites but also as working and lower class, we are the ones who end up on the outskirts of the city or the “suburbs”.

The concept of Orten could be understood as having three different layers of agency. One of them refers to the actual site, the architecture, the stones and concrete, the highrises, the geographic area denoted as Orten. Another layer denotes Orten as a set of cultural values, like language, slang, always fighting over who gets to pay the bill, etc. The third layer is Orten as a way of identity: one can say “du är Orten”. You are the place.

[1] Holmqvist, E., “The Million Programme: Sweden’s Successful Response to the Housing Question”. Scandinavian Housing and Planning Research, 23(2) (2006), 81-96.
[2] Stockholmskällan, “Miljonprogrammet,” Stockholmskällan, accessed April 4, 2023, https://stockholmskallan.stockholm.se/teman/staden-vaxer/miljonprogrammet/.
[3] Östermalm is a neighborhood in central Stockholm, Sweden. In contrast to the rest of the million program areas, it is considered by some as one of the most desirable areas to live in Stockholm.
[4] Bo Stråth, From Industrial Society to Welfare State: a Social History of Twentieth-century Sweden (Nordic Academic Press, 1996), 207.
[5] Bo Södersten and Assar Lindbeck, “The Swedish Welfare State: Achievements and Challenges”, in The Labor Market: Problems and Policies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), Ch. 7.
[6] Ristilammi Per-Markku, Betongdrömmar – kring frånvarons estetik, Nordisk arkitekturforskning 1998:3, 76
[7] Irene Molina, “The Million Program and Media: Ideas on People and Suburbs,” in Urban Sustainability: Reconnecting Space and Place, ed. Jon Coaffee and Mark Whitehead (Bristol, UK: Polity Press, 2009), 85-102.
[8] Meira Ahmemulic, De höga husens rundgång (2015), mixed media installation, Stockholm, Sweden.
[9] In Swedish: “Förstad. Ort. Periferi. Mellanstad. Mellan stad – och landområde. Miljonprogram. Stadskant. Problemområde. Riskområde. Utsatt område. Särskilt utsatt område. Resurssvagt område. Socioekonomiskt utsatt område. Parallellt samhälle. Låginkomstområde. Utanförskapsområde. Slum. Ghetto. Kriminellt område. Invandrartätt område. Invandrardominerat område. Invandrarområde. Klanområde. No go zon”
[10] P. Gudmundson, “55 ‘No-go’-Zoner i Sverige”, Svenska dagbladet, (October 28, 2014).
[11] Sara Ahmed, “A Phenomenology of Whiteness,” Feminist Theory 8, no. 2 (2007), 149.
[12] Ayo, “Betongdjungelboken,” Föder Nåt Nytt, BMG Sweden AB, 1999, recording.
[13] Advance Patrol, “Betongbarn,” Aposteln, Playground Music Scandinavia, 2005
[14] Jacco, “Vår betong,” YouTube video, 3:57, posted by Jacco, June 15, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mrk5skPpwAc.
[15] Labyrint, “Ortens favoriter,” Labababa, 2011.
[16] Alexandra Ålund, Rene.L Rosales, ‘Arga, unga män – orten, aktivismen och de kontrollerande bilderna’, tidskriften Bang, Stockholm, 2016. nr 2: 16.
[17] Kim Einarsson, “Länge leve vi – om vita konstrum, rasismens distraktioner och Ortens konstfestival,” Konstfrämjandet, accessed April 7, 2023, http://konstframjandet.se/projekt/speak-your-mind/lange-leve-vi-om-vita-konstrum-rasismens-distraktioner-och-ortens-konstfestival/