PRINT February 2003


Eric Demby reports from Reykjavík

THE DAY I ARRIVED in Reykjavík the Kitchen Motors art and music collective hijacked the local Bónus supermarket’s sound system and replaced its consumer-friendly Muzak with an “audio environment” of sonic glitches, twitches, and textures. While the music was intended to snap shoppers out of their anesthetized state, most went about their business, perusing the bins of cheese bread and racks of smoked fish, seemingly unfazed. This oblivion proved either that consumerism trumps the conceptual or that Icelanders have grown accustomed to finding the avant-garde in the everyday.

The Kitchen Motors intervention, which wove together music, politics, and a sort of upscale street theater, was the most conceptual offering at last October’s fourth annual Iceland Airwaves music festival, a four-day showcase of local rock and electronic-music artists that attracts adventurous international music professionals. Since many writers and producers caught their first glimpse of Sigur Rós at the first two Airwaves and rock quartet Leaves signed a major-label deal after last year’s fest, the cool radar was in full sweep.

Following the Kitchen Motors event that same frigid, windy evening, the biggest Icelandic independent record label, Thule Musik, presented a program of live electronic music that crystallized the character of today’s native musicians: Though hapless, hopeless young romantics at first glance, their plaintive, shimmering soundscapes and tumbling, at times piercing rhythms demonstrated an informed, even evolved, take on the world scene. A young man who records as ILO “played” his laptop and mini-mixer in front of a projected video shot from a camera that had circled a generic plaza over and over, in a sort of visual elegy to public space worthy of a Chelsea gallery. The next night, breakout band the Funerals channeled latter-day bluesmen Nick Cave and Syd Barrett in a dive called Vídalín, mixing irony and alcohol into a mesmerizing cocktail.

The next day I set off to meet the scene’s key players, including Funerals leader and performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson (whom the New York Times followed around the island for a 2001 feature story); Jóhann Jóhansson, Kitchen Motors cofounder and an accomplished film- and theater-score composer; and Kristín Björk Kristjánsdóttir, a fellow Kitchen Motors cofounder who is building the most intricate bridges between sound, video, and reality-overlap performance in this city of barely 100,000. Judging by what I’d encountered onstage around town, I figured we’d talk about technology, decomposition, innovation, clicks, cuts—all the phenomena informing any innovative music community in 2002. Maybe the fluidity between Icelandic music and art or the influence on both of unearthly landscapes and democratic socialism would come up. Or we’d talk about how Icelandic artists, unlike their European and American counterparts, are spared the burden of tradition, given their relative dearth of culture historically. (Music and dance were banned by the all-powerful Lutheran church until the nineteenth century.) Soon enough I’d have Reykjavík pegged as the next Berlin or Barcelona—with Olafur Eliasson its native art star and Roni Horn, who has visited and photographed Iceland regularly since 1975, its pioneering expat—a city newly awakened to the arts and populated by artists utterly free of constraints. As it turns out, what appeared thoroughly modern, even avant-garde on the surface has roots a thousand years deep. Yes, even now, with their enviably progressive conditions—100 percent literacy rate; geothermal heat generating 70 percent of the volcanic island’s energy; the world’s first democratically elected woman president—Iceland’s artists are consistently indebted to, of all things, Old Norse literature.

You can’t throw a lava rock in Iceland without hitting a devotee of the sagas, a series of about forty stories written between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries populated by a rotating cast of Icelandic farmers, Norse Vikings, Celts, and myriad kings and queens. The sagas’ heroes and dramatic plots—Ketill Flatnose and his daughter Auour the Deep-Minded wage a feudal-land battle; Gunnlaugur Serpent-Tongue the poet courts Helga the Fair—recall Greek or Roman mythology, and their integration into Icelandic society as both historical document and timeless folklore is no less seamless. “What we have is the sagas—that’s the great literary foundation of Icelandic culture,” says Jóhansson. “It’s only literary, there’s no visual element, there’s no musical element, so that’s been totally lacking until this century. . . . In Iceland it’s almost like we’re building history now.” Reykjavík’s little scene, in short, is imposing the art of the story onto the contemporary template with a singular mix of magic and humility.

Kristjánsdóttir, a sound artist, experimental musician, and puppeteer who possesses the deep dark eyes, sprightly grin, and intense modesty typical of Icelandic women, remembers the sagas with wonder. “When I was little my dad would read the sagas to me; he never read Walt Disney or any of that,” she says. “I still find those stories of drifters in the highlands and Icelandic ghosts quite charming.” In college Kristjánsdóttir pursued what she calls “diary studies,” searching out private records of daily life. “If you’re going to understand the soul of a community, diaries are a secret door,” she explains. “Our most honest way to get in touch with our history is by studying and looking at it through detail rather than the world story of kings and queens and presidents.”

Kristjánsdóttir inherited both her mother’s obsession with dream interpretation and her knack for clairvoyance, so dream logic—blended with a unique take on history—is a recurring theme in her projects. Take Malfur Skinnytoe, 2002, a puppet show she performed at the ICA in London. Although its title and cartoonish characters reference the sagas, the piece’s surreal narrative of a man’s search for darkness to complement his bright side is presented with a flair for the paranormal. In Last Breath, 2002, Kristjánsdóttir transformed the narrow corridor to the former city apothecary’s sixth-floor storage room (a room she later learned was haunted) into a darkly disorienting sound installation by playing back distorted recordings of people with lung problems, which she procured from a local surgeon. Musically, in her former group Big Band Brutal and now on her own as Kira Kira, she gives a multimedia upgrade to hackneyed punk rock, brandishing slide projectors like machine guns while banging out confrontational rhythms on synthesizers and laptops.

A well-versed devotee of the sagas, Kjartansson has been blurring the line between tradition and its mockery since he was a teenager, when with Úlfur Eldjárn he formed Kosy, a kitsch barbershop-style quartet. The week of the Airwaves Festival Kjartansson’s cherubic face was inescapable: drunk and singing the blues at the Funerals gig; barechested and shimmying like a stripper with his other band, Trabant; impersonating a Russian diplomat in a powder-blue tux with silver bow tie at Apparat Organ Quartet’s mock press conference.

The Funerals “really started as a joke ,” as Kjartansson tells it. “Let’s call this bunch of friends, drink a lot of whiskey, and do an album one weekend. . . . We go out to the country and dress up in country clothes and drink a lot. We’re not in the real world.” The New York Times said the band’s music “revels in a beautiful self-pity,” and both on their debut album, Pathetic Me (Thule Musik, 2001), and in their sloshed live shows, separating the authentic from the ironic is impossible.

Reinforcing this dynamic, Kjartansson showed me a video of his most recent life-as-art piece, Death and the Children, 2002. As his girlfriend’s kindergarten class entered a local Reykjavík cemetery for a field trip, Kjartansson emerged from a tomb dressed in a black cloak and white face paint and carrying a scythe. “I said, ‘Hello children, I am Death,’” he recounts. “They asked really brutal questions, like, ‘Are you an enemy of God?’ I said, ‘No I am not an enemy of God, we are really good pals.’ Death was like Santa Claus. They were really interested in death. One of them was like, ‘I expected a light at the end of the tunnel, not you.’”

For his art-school graduation show in 2001 (after a one-year stint as the first male student in Iceland’s housewives’ school), Kjartansson decorated a gallery like a rococo theater and sang “Italian gibberish” opera five hours a day for ten days straight. In 1999 he invented Rassi Prump, a Bruce Springsteen–esque alter ego in the Icelandic-troubadour tradition who traveled to rural villages and pubs to sing songs of love and longing (and hit on the local ladies). Some drunk villagers enjoyed Rassi’s appreciation of tradition; some beat the shit out of him. It’s not easy mixing fact and fiction.

Fresh from his coup at the Bónus supermarket, Jóhansson hipped me to the origins of Kitchen Motors and Apparat Organ Quartet, his emerging synth-pop group. (The Iceland-born Snorri brothers, who directed R.E.M.’s “Daysleeper” video, are filming the clip for “Stereo Rock & Roll,” the lead single from Apparat’s new album, and the band recently opened for Stereolab.) These endeavors, he says, are the next chapter in a story that started when people like Magnus Palsson, a satellite Fluxus artist, first integrated music and art in Iceland in the late ’70s. In the ’80s, Hordur Bragason (now a member of Apparat) and Finnbogi Pétursson (now a sound-installation artist of international renown) formed a performance-music outfit called Bruni BB, inspired by the Austrian Actionist Hermann Nitsch. Their violent, controversial happenings, performed at Reykjavík’s Living Art Museum, an artist-run gallery cofounded in 1978 by Palsson and others, were part bacchanalia, part lighting of the fuse. Put simply, out of this mash-up of music and art came the Sugarcubes, and later Björk’s rise to fame as the world’s favorite teller of techno folktales.

Jóhansson sees the current crop of musicians as writing their own sagas, from a twentieth-century perspective. “If you feel some mode of expression is not strong anymore, not viable for you, then you have to grow new forms out of old ones, make these strange little mutants,” he said, referring to Reykjavík’s esoteric music community. For one Kitchen Motors event, “Junkyard Alchemy” (2000), the crew asked sculptor Börkur Jónsson to create musical instruments that could also exist as sculptures, then invited an improvisatory musician to play each piece. One was acoustic—fashioned from a nylon string stretched over an air-conditioning duct; for another, a few plastic barrels became water drums that produced both aquatic sounds and reflective shadows.

Apparat Organ Quartet also reclaims the material past, recycling cast-off and obsolete synthesizers, some supplied by a friend at the sanitation department. The artwork for their self-titled debut album renders each band member as a Playmobil figurine, and onstage the Quartet effects a distinctly Kraftwerkian robotic presence. When the group orchestrated its mock press conference for their new album’s release, dressing up in brightly colored suits reminiscent of the humans in Scooby-Doo, I wondered if maybe they didn’t relish inventing characters and role-playing more than making music.

Heading out the next day on the airport bus through the Icelandic wilderness, I thought of Krístin Björk, Ragnar, and Jóhann and imagined them riding in a lunar module, bouncing along the craggy craters and testing the wild frontier. Maybe it has something to do with Iceland’s virtually homogeneous gene pool and its shared sense of history, but it seems impossible that a more tightly knit aesthetic community exists anywhere. This proximity of the personal and the professional has bred a cross-fertilization of ideas and disciplines that could serve, like so many elements of Icelandic society, as a model for other cultures. And by reaching into the past in order to create this bold new identity, they’re taking part in a tradition as time-honored as progress itself. “Maybe that’s it,” Jóhansson says. “You just decide to approach things with a sense of wonder and newness, as if no one’s done this before, even though someone probably has.”

Eric Demby is a New York–based writer.