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Iceland Expedition, Part 1
Report by Julia Martin
with Finnur Arnar Arnarson, Karlotta Blöndal, Pavel Mrkus, Greg Pope, Ivar Smedstad, Diana Winklerová
The expedition through Iceland, which took place from 10th to 20th of August 2015, led participants to various locations in the South, East and North of the country, where the untapped sources of renewable energy – water, steam, and wind – as well as the impacts of hydro- and geothermal power plants on the landscape and on local micro-economies, can be observed.
Iceland, with its strong investment in geothermal and hydroelectric energy, appears to be in a different situation with regard to energy resources than continental Europe, which is still dependent on fossil fuels. However, the harvesting of “green” energy in Iceland also comes at a price for the country’s local and translocal ecologies, and a closer investigation for which purposes this “clean” energy is used reveals a web of economic dependencies and strategies that is rather similar to those of more heavily industrialised countries in mainland Europe. The construction of Kárahnjúkar dam for example (2003-07), and the political process leading up to it, have been the subject of deep controversy in Iceland. Under the current government, plans for more hydroelectric mega-dams are under way. They promote an intensified “harvesting” of the country’s large number of free-running rivers and promise cheap "green" energy – with the aim of attracting investors, multinational corporations, and energy-hungry heavy industry to Iceland. The ecological degradation of the river systems and the emission of greenhouse gasses from the new factories and from the hydroelectric reservoirs remain largely unobserved concerns.
The main emphasis of the Iceland expedition was the exploration of the Kárahnjúkar Hydroelectric Project and of its three interrelated main sites in East Iceland: We visited the largest rockfill dam in Europe, Kárahnjúkar dam, as well as the aluminium factory for which it was built, and the two affected river systems. During the expedition the participating artists met with experts from other disciplines and were introduced to the ecological, political and socioeconomic aspects of the visited sites. The program aimed for a critical and informed debate about case-specific ecological and socioeconomic co-dependencies, and about the means and ends of renewable energy production and energy consumption.
Adding a (self)critical angle to Frontiers of Solitude's "artist as fieldworker" approach, during our 10- day expedition in Iceland we continuously discussed the chances and challenges of such short-term artistic fieldwork, specifically when investigating longterm ecological and economic relationships. Our conversations brought up a whole bundle of questions considering the role of the artist, the problem of aesthetic distance, activism versus spectatorship, disciplinary versus interdisciplinary knowledge, and the problem of grasping ecology as a concept and reality. Topics for discussion that we encountered throughout the trip were for example:
– How restricted are our field observations by an aesthetic experience of "surface ecology" and by romantic ideas of landscape?
– Is it possible to grasp instantaneously the deep layers of human-nonhuman ecological relationships, such as socioeconomic and political longterm developments, which may be the driving forces behind the visible symptoms of land use?
– How can the complexities of human-nonhuman ecological relationships be represented without repeating the image of a distant, sublime, romanticized Nature?
– How does an expedition such as ours differ from tourism?
– What could the role of the artist be or become in the quest for a new understanding of ecology, nature, landscape, and systemic relationship?
– Can the field experience be communicated through artworks at all, or does it remain the artist's personal adventure?
– Is it necessary to fly artists all over the globe as "witnesses", in order to produce art that tackles the question: What is ecology, and what is ecological thinking?
Day 1: Arrival day and journey from Reykjavík to Akureyri
Day 2: The raw powers of nature
On our way from Akureyri to Seyðisfjörður we visited the geothermal energy landscapes of Krafla Power Station as well as the surrounding steam vents and lava fields in the North of the country. The extreme sound and sight of enormous amounts of steam hissing out of the bare ground, the pungent smell of sulfur, and the experience of walking through vast areas of lava formations provided a first impression of the violent natural forces that are being harnessed in this area.
Further along the road in the Northeast we visited Dettifoss, reputedly the most powerful waterfall in Europe. Here again, sight, sound, and touch (the spray was blowing everywhere) combined into a strong sensual experience of the sheer power of falling water.
Both Krafla and Dettifoss showed very clearly how landscapes are formed by the relentless forces of water, steam, and wind. But we also encountered another transformative force at these sites: people.
As two of the most popular tourist destinations in Iceland, Krafla and Dettifoss have had to be developed infrastructurally in recent years, in response to growing numbers of visitors and to the damaging traces they leave behind in their admiration of Nature. Parking spaces have been
expanded, roads widened, toilet facilities added, and paths stabilised, in order to accomodate large groups of visitors and to protect, as much as possible, the fragile sites that would otherwise be eroded even faster.
Day 3: Environmental Art in Iceland
On the first morning at our "base camp“ in Seyðisfjörður we explored the town, visited Skaftfell Center for Visual Art, and went for a walk to experience the sound sculpture “Tvisöngur” by Lukas Kühne.
In the afternoon we assembled in the town's theatre/cinema for a public lecture by art historian Markús Þór Andrésson, organized by Skaftfell for the FoS project. Markús outlined for us the history of environmentally engaged art in Iceland from the 1970s until today. He discovered a need for further art historical and critical research into these ecocritical artistic practices in Iceland, which should resonate strongly again today, in the light of worrying future plans for Iceland’s industry and energy production, worldwide environmental crisis, climate change, etc.
Markús also pointed towards the difficult relationship between the rhetorics of nature preservation and nationalism in Iceland and elsewhere: In the current debates about mass tourism and industrial development in Iceland the "baddies" in people's perception tend to be foreign companies and foreign tourists, while the Icelandic population's own contributions to environmentally damaging behaviour and political decisionmaking remains largely uncriticised.
Following the lecture we watched the Icelandic documentary movie Draumalandið (2008), based on Andri Snær Magnason’s book with the same name. It traces the political and historical background of recent large scale industrial development in Iceland, highlighting the construction of Kárahnjúkar Hydroelectric Project and the Alcoa Fjarðaál smelter in Reyðarfjörður. Taking the Kárahnjúkar case as a very powerful example, the movie and book expose the need to keep discussing questions of value, individual and collective responsibility, democracy, and the prioritization between economic growth, prosperity, and an intact nature.
Day 4: Ecology, micro-economy, and education
On the fourth day the group visited the Nature and Heritage Center Skálanes, located on a cliff at the very end of Seyðisfjörður fjord. Skálanes has been restored in recent years from an almost abandoned farm building to a family-run center for environmental education. It regularly houses international student groups, wildlife researchers, reindeer hunters, volunteers, and other visitors. Skálanes aims to develop further as a largely self-sustainable economic venture, experimenting with small-scale local hydropower, permaculture, and green tourism. On our visit we were guided by the center's director Ólafur Pétursson and learned from him about the practical and ideological challenges of striving for a balance between practical and academic research, green tourism, environmental education, and economic self-sustainability under the conditions of extreme weather and remoteness.
In the afternoon we visited Seyðisfjörður's Technical Museum, where its director Pétur Kristjánsson gave us insight into the history of the town and its cultural and technological connection to continental Europe: Seyðisfjörður does not only host the only passenger ferry between Iceland and abroad, but was also very early on influenced by the arrival of new technologies in Iceland, such as the telegraph, telephone, and radio. The first undersea telephone cable between Iceland and Europe arrived in Seyðisfjörður. The town has maintained its open lookout across the sea ever since.
In the evening we attended a performance by Gerd and Karin Aurell, artists-in-residence at Skaftfell Center for Visual Art.
(to be continued)
The Fall …
Only in fragments are we able to perceive the world around us. Our senses head towards a fraction of reality, which is above that filtered by the urge of the mind. …
Field Work and Ecology
This expedition through Iceland will lead participants to various locations in the South, East and North of Iceland where the untapped sources of renewable energy – water, steam, and wind – as well as the impacts of hydro- and geo …
Skaftfell Center for Visual Art, located in Seyðisfjörður, plays the essential role of presenting, discoursing and encouraging the development of contemporary art in eastern Iceland. …
The Iceland expedition: Tracing hyperextended objects and their ecological agency. …
Greg Pope: Lagoon
Lagoon audiovisual performance 20 min …
Marble Warble is an audiovisual work recorded in one take at the grave of Maria Georgsson, born Wathne (1.3.1885 - 28.12.1912), in Seyðisfjörður, Iceland. …
Karlotta J. Blöndal
Frontiers of Solitude (union/mediation) …
Lisa Paland (b. 1989) studied cultural and media education in Merseburg, Germany with main focus on digital and analogue photography. She finished her B.A. …
Finnur Arnar Arnarson: Ignorant and Happy
About liking and disliking at the same time. About being schizophrenic, ignorant and happy. I love toasted bread. I hate power plants. …