Reading the Exhibitionary Complex through the institution of Bygdegården

May 2, 2012

In this response I will look at the movement of the establishment of bygdegårdar in rural Sweden, through the text The Exhibitionary Complex by Tony Bennet, and investigate the self-regulating mechanisms of these self-governing community spaces. The information about Bygdegårdar is largely build on personal experience, and on the state funded investigation from 2003 on community spaces. (SOU 2003:118)

Bygdegårdar are community spaces located in the countryside, or in smaller villages, of Sweden. They are not connected to the labour movement, but emerged from popular movements of different kinds, such as agricultural associations and rural youth associations. The Bygdegård movement emerged in the early 20th century when the population of the countryside needed spaces for a multitude of activities, and of course for holding board meetings for the different existing associations. Material for constructing was often donated from people in the area or reused material, and the construction was made collectively. Some bygdegårdar were also re-appropriations of already existing buildings.

Today Bygdegårdar are used for, for instance, different kinds of parties, weddings, youth discos, and annual parties for the community members. They can also contain smaller meeting rooms for groups of teenagers or small associations. The bygdegårdarna can also serve as polling stations in national and regional elections, and as spaces for different kind of sports and cultural activities.

In defining the bygdegårds movement as an institution and relating it to the text The Exhibitionary Complex I have found that there are mechanisms of self-regulation at work in this rural Swedish example, as it is in the institutions of museums and exhibitions described in the text. These community spaces, managed by (in the form of a board) the same people that use it, is built on voluntary labour, and depends on a mutual trust. As rural communities in Sweden are rather small, people know each other by name, and knowledge of members behaving inappropriate will easily come to everybodies attention. In the community space itself, and in the associations inhabiting it, there is a element of both seeing and being seen, which, as Bennet describes in the text, leads to self-regulation. With reference to the text, the activities held at these community centers can be seen as spectacles, where the participants themselves are part of what is being watched. Bennet describes how the exhibitions of the 19th century transformed “the many-headed mob” into an ordered crowd, because the crowd themselves was part of the spectacle (p. 72). The Crystal Palace, for instance, was arranged so that “while everyone could see, there were also vantage points from which everyone could be seen, this combining the functions of spectacle and surveillance.” (p. 65) He continues to write that society then itself becomes a spectacle, and is therefore being watched, and surveilled, by itself. One might then say that the community spaces of the bygdegårdarna ordered the population of the countryside through self-regulation.

In the text Bennet also speaks of the indirect involvement of the state in the emerging museums, as it had control over the policy of the museums, while the every day work was executed by boards of trustees. Museums then played an important role in the formation of the state, as they worked to educate and civilize the public. (p. 66) A parallel to the Swedish states’ involvement in the bygdegårds movement can be seen when in 1942, the Swedish government voted for subsidies for maintaining and constructing new community centers. The state then gained a certain control over the stock of existing community centers, and over the construction of new ones, through the formal applications necessary to receive funding. Perhaps one might say that the Swedish state used an already existing infrastructure of self-regulating community spaces to gain control over mechanisms that “educated and civilized” the inhabitants of the Swedish countryside.


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