Pirate radio and avant art in rural Iceland

In Seyðisfjörður music fest, elves are real, Björk talks funny and everyone knows Sigur Rós

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LúngA festival, Iceland Photography by Alísa Kalyanova

It’s hard to make friends when you can’t pronounce their names. I still struggle with Seyðisfjörður, a remote and magnificent fjord town in East Iceland, host to the LúngA art and music festival, and, yes, that’s me copying and pasting it in. It’s even harder during a week-long event where everyone seems to know everyone or is somehow related to someone from Sigur Rós. The latter isn’t so much an obstacle as an exaggeration, but indicative of the peculiarities of a country with a seemingly disproportionate artistic output for a relatively tiny population. It stands at 320,000, less than a twentieth the size of London’s, and when you consider how much smaller a creative community is compared to the greater population anywhere, it makes sense that Jónsi’s sister would be co-leading the video workshop, Sigur Rós touring member Úlfur Hansson running the self-made instrument-building group. All while múm’s Örvar Þóreyjarson Smárasonis set to perform with electropop group FM Belfast for LúngA’s closingconcert at an abandoned fish factory.

Ásthildur Ákadóttir, one half of 19-year-old twin members of krútt (meaning ‘cute’) duo, Pascal Pinon, is stabbing at piano keys for a rendition of a John Cage piece in an overheated schoolroom, motorcyclists driving past a misty window set above a sea of woollen jumpers and hippie layering, young artists listening attentively and scribbling into notebooks. Later, during one of two afternoon ‘art walks’ around the idyllic corrugated iron town, Ásthildur will perform her “hungry spider” piece in a foil-covered helmet, while rolling around in the grass and eating a hot dog. Her sister, Jófríður, will join her for the fashion parade later in the week – wispy tangled hair combed back and faces painted in mythic geometric shapes, set to a projection of Brooke Candy’s ‘Das Me’ – after flying in especially from a festival in West Iceland where she’s been performing with her other band, Samaris. That three-piece shares Björk’s One Little Indian label and features in the Dazed & Confused August issue at the recommendation of Einar Örn, of the latter avant-pop artist’s distant The Sugarcubes days. Incidentally, he'll be performing at LúngA that week –with band mate and punk-cum-artist named after a trashcan brand, Curver –in confrontational experimental outfit Ghostigital. Rumour has it they’ve made people throw up.

Later, during one of two afternoon ‘art walks’ around the idyllic corrugated iron town, Ásthildur will perform her “hungry spider” piece in a foil-covered helmet, while rolling around in the grass and eating a hot dog.

As strange as the landscape of treeless, ice-capped mountains, endless days and shaggy white sheep licking salt from the only road into Seyðisfjörður – inaccessible for weeks at a time in winter – is, the people are stranger. Living at the end of the world and surrendered to the weather, they speak English near perfectly, adopting any given accent but mostly North American, resonant with the sharply trilled ‘r’’s and aspirated consonants (“have you found my swea-h-terrrr?”) that Björk has already familiarised the rest of us with. Except that she puts it on, according to more than one drunken Icelander, a heated subject among the people who become immensely friendly, though just as tall, when they’ve got a couple of Viking Beers in them.

At night, music from Wolf FM’s pirate radio station reverberates off the surrounding wall of mountains, an imposing presence and reminder of humanity’s insignificance. The intention was to hijack just one frequency but apparently they took over all of Iceland’s stations (there are four). That, they inform us of during another art walk featuring dancers interacting with their surroundings, an insane lady walking through the waist deep cold water of the fjord and an even crazier man prancing around in the nude on a manmade island to the soundtrack of Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’. There’s a performance involving a spinning car spraying what I expected to be fire but turned out to be tanks of shrimp and corn at its audience, while a visit to an art gallery of anonymous drawings by 200 of Seyðisfjörður’s less-than 700 inhabitants, features more childlike depictions of dismembered bodies than is safe; my favourite being one of a family dinner, the Icelandic text of a bloody scene translating to, “eat grandpa, eat grandpa!” Dark chuckles abound.

At night, music from Wolf FM’s pirate radio station reverberates off the surrounding wall of mountains, an imposing presence and reminder of humanity’s insignificance. The intention was to hijack just one frequency but apparently they took over all of Iceland’s stations (there are four).

Lunch time is occasionally interrupted by an intense DJ set and everyone is dancing on the tables. It’s hard to get to the strained yoghurt “skyr” and brown sugar, not mentioning the coffee, which one girl spills all over the floor when a flailing bacchant knocks her over. She just smiles and carries on, as my uptight and unapproachable stranger looks on over shaved ham, pickles and bodily bass lines. I’m struggling not to project a Pagan orgy analogy on to the scene and as much as I prod, I only get a “well, some farmers believe in elves”, while another tells me, over a wildly expensive Kaldi beer that trolls serve a similar purpose for children as Santa Claus, except that, rather than indoctrinating respect for human authority, it’s one of Nature itself: show respect for the rocks and moss otherwise, “the elf will break your legs”. 

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