Skálar visit, Seyðisfjörður Iceland

In early April 2016 I had the good fortune to visit to Iceland at the invitation of Skálar | Sound Art | Experimental Music. The visit to Skálar was intended to be a quick orientation and research trip to eastern Iceland and yet it turned out to be much more. As many know, Iceland has for some time, been a destination for many travelers as a stopover for those flying between Europe and North America. In recent years the numbers of tourists has continued to increase, particularly with young people and people from Asia and the far east (it’s hard not to notice all the ‘selfie’ action). The same is true for visiting artists to many of the residency programs scattered throughout the country that have opened in the past decade. With the low density of native Icelanders and the constant flow of visitors it’s hard for one not to feel like a tourist. In fact, the question of how not to feel like a tourist in Iceland started to intrigue me, as visiting artists to residencies may generally not want to consider themselves tourists.


One answer to this dilemma is possibly found in the intentionality and sense of engagement with which one visits a place, to go beyond visiting a list of places in the guidebooks, try to understand more about where you are and develop creative responses. My own interests in visiting a new place lie more in the specific geographic characteristics of a land and how local cultures have come to adapt, shape and inhabit their environments. More recently I have been studying the boundaries and limits of human engagement with certain environments in light of the highly developed anthropomorphic management and control mechanisms that have formed the basis of the modern industrial age. For this, Iceland offers a curious case as it has the image of being a remote land covered by vast wilderness landscapes, not particularly fit for human habitation. Indeed much of it is, and yet with a closer inspection one can see how it is deeply rooted within the network of global flows of capital and industrial production. In light of this, I found myself asking, what role does the Icelandic “wilderness” now play and is it becoming more of an image than a reality?


In my own experience, the images of Icelandic landscapes that have now become iconic, are in part much of what have attracted me to Iceland in the first place. This is clearly a draw for many of the tourists as well who venture out beyond the confines of Reykjavik to navigate the fjords, mountain ranges, volcanic plains and glacial terrains to experience a brush with the more primal geologic forces that shape our planet. This combination of dynamic living landscape features cannot be found just anywhere, making Iceland truly unique and yet with this there comes limitations. I found myself (as is highly recommended) observing the weather often to brief myself on what kind of conditions I might encounter outside, not just to know what to wear but also to know whether it is was even possible to cross the mountain pass road that gives the only land access to Seyðisfjörður. Even in April it can be dangerous to attempt this without a suitable 4×4 vehicle. Failing to pay close attention to the changing land and climate conditions can have fairly serious consequences.


The border between the ‘outer’ weather affected world and how one may personal personally experience it, is a soft fluid one with a conditional yet tenuous relationship. As mentioned above, the weather is something we can be concerned with or even worry about how it may alter, disrupt or even prevent us from going about our daily business. While it can be a concern I often attempt to find ways to embrace the chaotic and dynamic nature of weathering forces as a means to interface affectations beyond the anthropogenic world. Or to look at it another way, I feel there are ways to use the weather as a way of connecting to an environment rather than seeing it as a potential alienating factor. As Tim Ingold puts it in ‘Being Alive‘, “Seasoned inhabitants know how to read the land as an intimate register of wind and weather. For it is precisely through the binding of medium and substances the wind and weather leave their mark”.


The challenge then is for us to develop alternate ways to sense the weather through this binding process as Ingold puts it. My own method has been through various forms of listening and recording sounds to hear the shaping of the land by making interventions in weathering processes to create sonic awareness and aesthetics of forces we often cannot see. As it turns out there are fairly simple methods for allowing materials and structures to ‘speak’ of their affectations from interacting with wind and water. This is ‘sensing’ of a different kind, a voicing of materiality that ‘speaks’ of physical properties and their structural counterparts. A simple tensioned wire installed between the Skálar house and the nearby river for the duration of my visit was a way to give such a voice as it could respond to the conditions outside in ways that were not clearly visible, but they could be clearly heard. Below is a mix of the wire installation and the adjacent river on a rather wintery day in the middle of my stay:


However brief, my visit was enhanced by this simple installation as it changed its responses from day to day, sharing with me the sonic artifacts of what was happening beyond my window. It is with great interest that I look forward to develop these ideas further, to be immersed once again in the various particular weather conditions that give shape to the continuously changing seasons in Iceland, to hear into other perspectives in the world of processes beyond our control. There is a music here, made from instruments to be discovered or of my own design, to bring more living qualities to that which we think of all too often, as the inanimate earth.


Special thanks to Kulturkontakt Nord for mobility support.


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