ICELAND’S CULTURAL CATCH-22

Emily Jarvie and Miriam Deprez

It has become increasingly difficult for young artists to survive in Reykjavík with many leaving to find refuge in rural cultural hubs around Iceland. Tourist interest is helping these towns blossom, yet if left unmanaged will threaten the very lifestyle these artists came for.

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Downtown Reykjavík as seen from the city’s main church. Source: Miriam Deprez.

Thirty years ago it was a traumatic time for the sleepy fishing town of Ísafjörður. The fishing industry was crumbling with horrible consequences on the local economy and jobs. The region experienced multiple deadly snow avalanches within a few consecutive winters, that killed several locals and had a devastating effect on morale and hope.

“This part of the country was bleeding inhabitants,” award winning Icelandic writer and poet Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl, recounts of his youth in the isolated Westfjord town.

“On the one hand it was very depressing, you felt every place here was somehow dying. But on the other hand, there was something magical and energetic about it.”

The young people of Ísafjörður knew that if they did not try to revitalise the town themselves nothing would change, and they took this energy and turned it into something real.

“My friend ran for local government and got in. We started an art house project in a local kindergarten that was a sort of squat that we used to have concerts in.  We’d have bands from Reykjavík and all we could pay them with was a bottle of booze and a good party. I mean, we got Sigur Rós for that! I think they charge more now… but we got them.”

Art and culture brought life back into the town and the area has become culturally self-sufficient, something also experienced in small villages in other parts of Iceland. These cultural communities have experienced a boost in recent years with young artists seeking refuge as they can no longer afford to live in Iceland’s traditional artist community, Reykjavík.

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Iceland’s capital city Reykjavík and two rural culture hubs, Ísafjörður and Seyðisfjörður. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The tourist boom in Iceland has changed the capital city of Reykjavík dramatically.

The small country of only 330,000 people was already hosting more tourists than its population in 2009, with 464,000 visitors. Since then the industry has escalated, with 2.4 million visitors expected by the end of this year. This tourist swarm has brought in wall-to-wall souvenir shops, new jobs in low paying industries and increased rent prices as Airbnb rentals are cornering the real estate market. Housing prices are the highest they have ever been, according to a report by Landsbankinn.

“Economically I think it will end up a fucking disaster. But that’s a very Icelandic thing when it comes to money, we binge on that shit. It’s the same with the housing boom and collapse. If you look back through the history of anything we’ve done, we used to do mink farming – it ended disastrously bad. Even the fishing quota system, we decided to cash out. It’s nuts!” Norðdahl proclaims.

 

Big win for small towns

Small towns have embraced the new attention of economic refugees from Reykjavík, with a variety of opportunities available to draw in artists.

Ólöf Dómhildur is an artist and the project founder of LÚR, an annual youth oriented arts festival in Ísafjörður. An abbreviation of Lengst Útí Rassgati (which means ‘farther out of nowhere’), Dómhildur founded LÚR in 2014 because she recognised the need of a cultural project for young people.

“I didn’t want another project run by middle age people for youth. The main goal is to make young people feel more powerful and that they can influence their own cultural environment.”

Dómhildur said the impact has already been acknowledged within the town, as more and more young people recognise the importance of LÚR and the festival’s continuance in the region. “In the future young people are more likely to settle down [in Ísafjörður] because of the good experiences they have at the festival.”

“Art and culture is one of the biggest parts of why people are still living in north Westfjords. The population has been decreasing, because job opportunities have moved to the capital, and if we didn’t have as rich culture I think more people would have left,” she explained.

Educational opportunities for those in rural areas have also increased. “In gymnasium (high school) there’s an arts line, so you can choose art as your major which is new. People are interested and there are plenty of students,” Norðdahl states, recalling the difference to when he was in school.

“It has changed dramatically. There’s a lot more life, a lot more institutionalised art. Not necessarily more art, but there’s more stable support.”

Reykjavík native, Dómhildur added, “I would not have moved to the Westfjords if they didn’t have music schools for my children or art spaces, concerts, movie theatres and sometimes even theatre.”

 

DIY culture

Looking towards the most easterly point of Iceland you will find the 665 person town of Seyðisfjörður. This village already holds a reputation within Iceland as an art haven that affords creative spaces for young people to explore a variety of artistic expressions away from the urban centre of Reykjavík.

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The Skaftfell Center for Visual Art in Seyðisfjörður. Source: Miriam Deprez.

Curator of the Skaftfell Visual Arts Center, Gavin Morrison described the reasons why the small town is so attractive for young artists. “There is a varied community of artists in town which allows for a cultural critical mass. It’s make up is not like that of many other places of its size.”

Seyðisfjörður hosts many artist’s residencies throughout the year, the oldest and most significant being one held at the Skaftfell Visual Arts Center since 1998.

“A number of those that have chosen to live in Seyðisfjörður had originally come as resident artists to Skaftfell, which contributes for the cosmopolitan nature of the town. This combination of scale and viability seems to be something that attracts artists to live here.”

“Seyðisfjörður has a reputation for artistic liberty and communal support, and a long tradition of artists coming to the town as a means to escape Reykjavík,” Morrison pointed out.

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Graham Murtough from the United States came to Seyðisfjörður to participate in the Heima residency. Source: Miriam Deprez.

Another important artistic program is the LungA School which offers three month long placements twice a year for artists to come to the town and focus on producing work.

20 year old performance artist Katla Guðbjörg participated in LungA but chose to move permanently after the program to continue her work in Seyðisfjörður.

“Reykjavík is too much for me. There are lots of opportunities here, if you want to put on a concert there are always places to put on a concert. People around here like to make things happen, and they like to support you.”

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The Heima residency artists have access to a workspace located in a repurposed fish factory space which inspired Norwegian artist Henrik Koppen’s performance art piece. Source: Miriam Deprez.

20 year old mixed-medium artist Jam also stayed after completing the LungA course, because Seyðisfjörður gave the feeling of belonging Jam didn’t get in Reykjavík. “This is the first place I’ve felt at home, and the people here are also a big part of that, being open and accepting.”

“The feeling you get in the town – I haven’t felt this inspired anywhere else but here. Nature has a big part to do with it. A lot of artists move out of Reykjavík because there are a lot of grey buildings there now and that’s not really inspiring.”

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Outdoor sculpture titled Tvísöngur, located in Seyðisfjörður half way up a mountain. Source: Miriam Deprez

Compared to Jam’s previous artistic studies, the LungA program gave more freedom to pursue art at a different pace. “I tried to take art courses in school in Reykjavík and it made me lose interest in art. ‘Here’s the apple, draw the apple and we will grade you on that apple’. It made me lose all artistic inspiration for so long and then I dropped out and I was panicking and that’s how I came to LungA.”

Jam also cites economic pressures as making it hard to live in Reykjavík. “I have a hard time living with people for too long, especially in smaller spaces and that’s the only option. 80,000 Icelandic krona (€730) a month for a single room is way too expensive.”

 

Capitalising on culture

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The Blue Church found in the centre of Seyðisfjörður hosts artistic events every Wednesday during the summer months for local and international artists. Source: Miriam Deprez.

The tourist boom in Iceland has not been limited to Reykjavík with the country’s famously accessible ring road, that circles almost the whole country, and plentiful sea access bringing more and more visitors into small communities.

Tourism has become an inescapable part of the regional economy and the number of cruise ship arrivals is increasing. In Ísafjörður, the number of annual visitors grew from 31,400 passengers in 2012 to 40,300 in 2014 according to Ferðamálastofa, the Icelandic Tourist Board.

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The cruise liner MS Boudicca in Ísafjörður port bringing day trippers to the area. Source: Miriam Deprez.

“What happens here in Ísafjörður when the big cruise liners show up is you have more tourists that people who live here, and they just flood it like locusts. You get this strange atmosphere of being watched like you’re in a zoo,” poet Norðdahl says getting worked up.

“I remember I was taking my family for a swim and I was packing my car. All of a sudden there was a line of German tourists taking photos of me,” chuckling to himself, Norðdahl continues. “And I’m thinking ‘what is it that I’m doing, what is so exotic? How do they pack cars in Germany?’ I guess everything becomes more exotic when you’re not at home.”

Seyðisfjörður is located less than 30 kilometres from the ring road and houses the second largest port in Iceland which receives the car ferry MS Norröna from Denmark through the Faroe Islands weekly. Gallery owner and tourism researcher Jessica Aver expressed her concerns over the lack of facilities set up to accommodate these tourists.

“It’s overwhelming right now. I’m worried about more tourists with the infrastructure we have, and the need to be spread out over the year.”

Typically, the port is seen as a thoroughfare for those arriving on the ferry, usually staying for one night or less. “There’s a lot of pressure right now, and it needs to be managed. But at the same time we need to make people more aware of the cultural activities,” Aver said, expressing the need for more sustainable tourism with locals clearly feeling the impact.

Performance artist Katla also noted the changes the town experiences as the result of these uneven bursts of visitors.

When speaking about the annual LungA festival she observed, “I felt the town was kind of hungover for a week. Thousands of people came and there is not much space. It’s very overwhelming. But I’m very excited so many people are coming here”

She acknowledges her mixed feelings towards tourists, “I get really annoyed when people come and don’t interact. But when people come for more than a week, it’s really great. If someone give a performance or exhibition, then I think ‘thank you’ for giving back.”

Tourism in Iceland shows no indication of slowing down. Although welcomed by locals in terms of economic benefits, cultural degradation is a serious risk and how this industry is managed will paint the future for artists across the country.

 

 

 

 

 

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