In a country of only 350,000 people, creativity is an increasingly vital export—no greenwashing required. Document went to Reykjavik ahead of Iceland Airwaves to discover a music scene seeped in furious optimism.
‘Can a small city festival transform an entire country?’ That was the name of a press conference hosted by Björk and author-activist Andri Snær Magnason at Iceland Airwaves in 2015, calling for emergency action to save Iceland’s highlands from its government’s industrialization schemes. (Airwaves wasn’t the ‘small city festival’ in question; rather it was a benefit concert called Protect the Park, with Björk and Patti Smith, amongst others.) Iceland’s music industry has increasingly been giving its eco-activism movement momentum and calling on the world put pressure on its politicians. The grassroots action was catalyzed largely by Magnason’s 2006 best-selling book Dreamland: A Self-Help Manual for a Frightened Nation. (An English-language translation published in 2008 features a foreword by Björk.)
“There’s no elf power. Iceland is a real place, with real waterfalls and real nature,” the duo declared at the press conference. “We therefore ask the world to stand with us against our government.” Dreamland condemns Iceland’s policy-makers for sacrificing its landscapes to aluminum production. The broader subtext—in a nation Iceland where ‘real’ (A.K.A. rural) sectors like salmon-fishing and agriculture are being usurped by machines or outsourced to China—is an argument for creative, alternative, transformational ideas that provide an exit route out of our current mess. So, can a festival transform an entire country? In 2019, when total apocalypse feels imminent, and U.S. presidential candidates’ policies include fighting climate change by moving to higher ground, it’s hardly the least viable proposal on the table.
Iceland’s creative industries will soon outstrip its aluminum smelting sector, dominated by American companies, which amounted to roughly 73% of Iceland’s total power consumption in 2010. Tourism is now the country’s largest revenue-generator, with some 80% of tourists descending upon the tiny country to experience its landscapes. Or at least to Instagram them. Consider that Iceland’s small but Herculean music industry is also inextricably connected to its landscapes—whether it’s cold synthwave of Kælan Mikla, the inhospitable furor of Une Misère, or Björk’s more explicit desire to “reconnect musicology with nature…to make bass lines behave like gravity,” as she told The New York Times while promoting Biophilia. Bjork might be our best example of conceptual ideas as a vessel for real change. Iceland’s environment fuels her abstracted sound, but her concerns about its future drove her to take Biophilia beyond that, building a complementary app from the scientific patterns that formed Iceland’s otherworldly highlands and glaciers and somewhat unintentionally revolutionizing the concept of a concept album.
Marketing has a bad rap amongst music fans—even amongst people who work in marketing. But the best musicians are marketers with a DIY punk mentality. Just ask Sigtryggur “Siggi” Baldursson, who founded seminal Icelandic band The Sugarcubes alongside Bjork in 1986. “We raised money by selling postcards of Reagan and Gorbachev, in 1986,” he told Document recently over the phone. “That’s how we financed that first record [‘Birthday’]. “We actually formed [The Sugarcubes] as a money-making apparatus for the label [Bad Taste], because the label was sort of an artist organization. We wanted to be able to release poetry and do all sorts of surrealist exhibits—lots of fun stuff.” Siggi and I had met up during Reykjavik Culture Night back in August, hopping from one Reykjavik venue to another for his various speaking and guest-drumming engagements. When we split I ducked into the grandiosely named Icelandic Punk Museum, a grungy shrine to Reykjavik’s subversive DIY spirit that’s housed below ground in an old public toilet and plastered with Xeroxed news clippings mostly highlighting The Sugarcubes’ late-’80s escapades. The Reagan/Gorbachev postcards weren’t the group’s only brush with politics—one Sugarcubes affiliate of the era, the punk poet-turned-politician Jón Gnarr, later became the 20th Mayor of Reykjavik having run for office as a joke, forming the satirical Best Party with a slew of other punk survivors in the wake of Iceland’s banking crash.
The Reagan years, and 1986 specifically, marked a period of seismic change in Iceland. While America was embracing economic and social conservatism, Iceland inaugurated the world’s first democratically elected female prime minister. It celebrated the legalization of beer, and witnessed the astronomical rise of Reykjavik post-punk music. Unfortunately, being left out of the industrial revolution also resulted in its governments’ frantic efforts to catch up by “harnessing” the Icelandic landscape so Americans could drink more soda out of aluminum cans. But what happens when a country runs out of natural resources? Just this year Iceland mourned (and Magnason eulogized) the first glacier to be lost to the climate crisis.
Iceland Airwaves’s previous director, Grímur Atlason, like Bjork and Magnason at the press conference, also uses tropes of folklore when talking about Iceland’s landscapes. “I believe that there is something different here. Not elves so much, but some kind of power,” he has said. “I mean, you are so close to this awesome power—everyone knows someone who has been killed by nature here—so it’s really difficult not to believe in something.” Airwaves’s new managing director, Will Larnach-Jones, who took over from Atlason in 2018, has spearheaded an inspiring and eclectic panel-driven program called Airwaves Pro–formerly Iceland Airwaves Lounge and Conference and produced by Iceland Music. This year’s slate of speakers includes the iconoclastic Nelly Ben Hayoun (Director of Experiences at Amsterdam-based University of the Underground, where you can earn a Master’s degree in the basement of an Amsterdam nightclub) and will feature a guided hackathon focused on harnessing the power of Reykjavik’s creative industry. “While only 350,000 people live in Iceland, the country’s global music footprint is oversized,” the organizers state. The implication, refreshingly free of any virtue-signaling, is that its global carbon footprint isn’t.
The performance lineup—punctuated by the anti-capitalist BDSM techno-punk of Hatari, the introspective darkwave of Kælan Mikla, the bisexual vegan ‘shitpunk’ of Joe and the Shitboys, and a myriad other genre-defying sound experiments—is just as sinister, eclectic, and surprisingly hopeful. If it’s true that comedy often masks misery (just look at Sweden, known as the land of happiness, with lesser discussed suicide rates) then melancholia can be a sign of life, the sound of lusting after something better on the other side. “If optimism ever was like an emergency, it’s now,” Björk said in 2017, when most of us were still collectively curled into fetal position following the election of Donald Trump. “Instead of moaning and becoming really angry, we need to actually come up with suggestions of what the world we want to live in, in the future, could be. This album is supposed to be like an idea, a suggestion, a proposal of the world we could live in.”
Iceland Airwaves takes place November 6-9 in Reykavík with travel packages available here. Travel for this article was provided by the festival’s founding sponsor Icelandair.