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High-speed rail projects may be facing controversy in the UK and US, but have gotten a boost in two unlikely countries. Iceland, a country with no railways, is looking at building a high-speed railway line from Keflavík airport to downtown Reykjavík; the line would either be conventional high-speed rail or a maglev line (as seen in China), would cost ISK100bn (about £500 million), and would get passengers from the international airport in Keflavík to the BSÍ bus terminal in 20 minutes or less.
Meanwhile in Australia, the conservative federal government has committed to safeguarding a corridor for a Melbourne-Canberra-Sydney-Brisbane high-speed railway network, and raising the priority of the project (first proposed by the Gillard Labor government, after pressure from the Greens). This was somewhat surprising, given the Australian Right's hostility to public transport, passenger rail , infrastructure spending (it's socialism, you know, and if there's demand, the free market will step in; besides, the money would be better spent on lowering petrol taxes or given to voters in marginal seats to buy plasma-screen TVs with) and anything with a whiff of the latte-sipping inner-city trendy-left's concern about carbon emissions (because, you know, once you acknowledge the problem, it's only a matter of time before ordinary Aussie battlers may find their 4WDs and cheap flights to Bali taken away from them, and before long their diet of rump steaks is replaced with organic lentil stew and they find themselves being lectured on checking their privilege by a woman named Rainbow with dreadlocks and a nose ring or something).
Anyway, credit where credit's due; I tentatively laud the Abbott government's maturity at being able to get behind something like that, despite its un-Australian pedigree and the massive concession in the culture war it must have been, though, of course, the proof will be in what actually gets built and when.
I am back in Reykjavík, Iceland; this time, I came here on occasion of Kraftwerk playing a gig at the Harpa concert hall. Having missed out on tickets to see them in New York (when they played tantalisingly close to the Chickfactor 20th anniversary gigs) and London and also having enjoyed visiting Iceland before, when the Reykjavík gig was announced, I jumped at the opportunity.
Harpa is the new concert hall built recently in Reykjavík; it was part of a grand project started at the height of Iceland's finance bubble; when the economic crisis hit, construction was suspended, but then the government decided to finance the concert hall, which ended up opening in 2011. It is a spectacular-looking building, and a great place to see concerts in.
On the way into the hall, we were handed a pair of 3D glasses each; these were not the red/blue ones, but some other type, with sheets of slightly tinted transparent plastic (possibly polarising filters?). Soon, a vocoded/synthesised voice announced “Damen und Herren, Ladies and Gentlemen...”, and the curtain fell slowly to the ground revealing the four members (Ralf and the three “new” guys, who've only been in the band for some 20 years), in grid-patterned body suits, standing in position behind black consoles whose edges were lit like vector graphics; behind them, a screen showed video projections. They started the first song: “The Robots”; the consoles' vector edges glowed red, and the screen was filled with Kraftwerk's computer-rendered doppelgängers, moving robotically, their extending arms projecting out of the screen. Then they went into “Metropolis”, with the consoles highlighted in white, and the screen filled with a geometric, monochromatic metropolis, a city of high buildings through which the camera glided, like a Bauhaus/Le Corbusier ideal of modernity.The rest of the set followed, with the visuals working spectacularly well; undulating three-dimensional sheets of green pixelised digits (Numbers), the vaguely Russian Constructivist-inspired 3D forms in The Man-Machine, Volkswagens and 1970s-vintage Mercedes motoring through green landscapes in a somewhat abbreviated Autobahn (the video of which seemed to be set in the era when it was written; other than the cars on the roads, these days, a road trip through Germany without seeing a single wind turbine would be unlikely), text and graphics floating above Tour de France footage, 3D-rendered musical notes gliding from the screen into the faces of the audience and more. Several songs (like The Model/Das Modell, Neon Lights/Neonlicht and Die Mensch-Maschine) were performed with both English and German verses. Some of the songs were updated for today; Radioactivity mentioned Fukushima, and the Spacelab video zoomed in on Iceland, to applause from the audience, before ending with a flying saucer landing somewhere near Düsseldorf. Computer World had a particular resonance in the wake of recent events, but has not, to date, been rewritten to mention the NSA.
It was the first time I had seen Kraftwerk since their Melbourne show in 2003 (which didn't have 3D graphics, though otherwise was spectacular), and was well worth the trip. say what you will, Kraftwerk know how to create a spectacle, a multi-sensory celebration of a (slightly obsolescent) modernity. (There are some photos here, though of course the 3D effects just show up as noise in them.)
In Iceland almost everyone is, to some extent, related to everyone else. Iceland also shares with its neighbours in Scandinavia fairly liberated and casual attitudes to sex. The downside of this is the possibility of inadvertently going home from a Reykjavík bar with a cousin, not to mention the prospect of running into exes and former one-night stands at family gatherings in the future. But fear not, because now there's an app for that:
An online registry, Íslendingabók ('The Book of Icelanders') holds information about the families of about 720,000 individuals who were born in Iceland at some point in time. Today, the population in Iceland is just about 320,000. The database can be found on islendingabok.is and everyone registered in the database has free access to it.
Three engineers made an app for the 'Íslendingabók' database. People can now easily, and on the go, look up how they are related to other Icelanders. And a precious feature, using the bump technology, allows people that meet to just bump their phones together, to instantly see if they are too related to take things any further. The engineers' slogan for this feature was: "Bump the app before you bump in bed".The app is Android-only, and only works if you're an Icelandic citizen or registered resident with access to the database.
Scandinavia And The World is a web comic drawn, in anime fan art fashion, by a Danish illustrator, and exploring Scandinavian culture and stereotypes (and, occasionally, the rest of the world). In it, Denmark is never without a beer bottle (the Danes, you see, don't have the punitively high alcohol taxes and state liquour monopolies that are the norm in the Nordic world), Norway is always carrying a fish, Sweden may or may not be gay and Iceland is a bit nuts; with cameo appearances by America (a loud, not-too-bright bigot and his sister, Paris Hilton) and England (who wears a monocle and speaks like a P.G. Wodehouse character and/or Hollywood villain). There are comic strips on topics ranging from mutual stereotypes of the other Scandinavian countries and the differences in the sound of their languages to the gloomy nature of Nordic cinema and the varieties of putrefied fish consumed in the Nordic countries. Well, when it isn't veering off into fits of anime-otaku sexual innuendo.
(via David Gerard) Share
The latest front in the War on Terror has opened up, and once again it is in Iceland. Only this time, Iceland isn't the terrorist bogeyman (as it was when Gordon Brown's poll figures started to slide), but is waging war against terrorists; more specifically, an Icelandic government official has designated the anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd as a terrorist organisation, largely due to it having sunk two whaling vessels in Reykjavík harbour in 1986.
It is not clear whether this officially makes supporting Sea Shepherd a crime under Icelandic law, or whether Sea Shepherd supporters who travel to Iceland could find themselves detained and deported, in the way that pro-Palestinian activists travelling to Israel are. (Whether Facebook would give the Icelandic intelligence agency, assuming that one exists, a list of people who 'Like'd Sea Shepherd is another question altogether.) Icelanders donating to the anti-whaling groups could be committing a terrorist act, though, with Iceland's austerity-driven restrictions on foreign currency exchange, this may be a moot point.
A genetic survey in Iceland has found genes characteristic of native North Americans, dating back to the 10th century (or at least before the 18th century, to the eight or so centuries during which Iceland was isolated), suggesting that Native Americans reached Europe five centuries before Columbus reached the Americas.
Recently, Boing Boing posted a link to a video for an instrumental composition by an Icelandic band named For A Minor Reflection. The music and visuals are much as most people these days would imagine upon hearing the words "Icelandic band"; i.e., it sounds a bit like Sigur Rös. Perhaps more interesting is a comment on the page, by an anonymous Icelander:
Incidentally, in Iceland this style of music is now known as touristcore. That term refers to how it panders to the elves and northern light image promoted by the tourist industry while simultaneously rehashing the twee-drama-romantic music style that broke into the mainstream with Sigur Rós, Múm, Björk a good 12 years ago. People who insist on flogging that horse are forced to make it outside of Iceland as back there they can't be heard over the sound of rolling eyes and despairing moans.
A week ago, the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull started erupting, spewing a vast cloud of glassy ash into the stratosphere, and imposing a total no-fly zone on most of Europe. Now, flights are beginning to reopen (though by no means across the board; the flight your humble correspondent was scheduled to be on this afternoon, from Gothenburg to Heathrow, remains cancelled); scientists, however, say that the volcano is likely to keep erupting for some time, and some say that we can expect decades of increased volcanic activity in Iceland, meaning that there may be more flight disruptions to come.
This has had somewhat more of a personal impact on me than most things in this blog; on the day I was due to fly out to Copenhagen (for the Copenhagen Popfest), I woke to find that all flights were cancelled. After a few hours of incredulous reload-clicking, I booked expensive trains to Cologne (this was in the early hours of the disruption, before Eurostar was booked out for days to come); the following day, I caught a Eurostar to Brussels and a Thalys train to Cologne (there were no seats available on it; I spent the journey propped up in the dining car, somewhat closer to a hyperactive, tantrum-throwing toddler than I would have liked). I had been unable to book onward trains from London, but was advised to try the ticket office in Cologne; there, I was advised that the sleeper train was booked out, and that my best chance was to board it and bet on buying a ticket onboard. I did so, and somehow managed to end up in Copenhagen the following morning.
Right now, I'm in Paris, staying at a friend's place before making the journey back to Blighty; I made the decision to not go to Gothenburg (even further from London, since competition from Ryanair killed the ferry to Newcastle; let's hope that it gets reinstated soon), and caught a ride with a friend to Brussels. (Note to self: next time you're likely to be in a car on the Autobahn, bring some CDs of Kraftwerk and Neu! to put on.)
(It's somewhat ironic that a year ago, I holidayed in Iceland, and now, Iceland disrupted my holiday.)
For those stuck on the wrong side of the English Channel, there are ways across; it's true that the Eurostar's booked solid for days (and expensive to boot), as are coach services and the Calais ferry, but last time I checked, the Caen-Portsmouth ferry still had seats available.
Let's hope that this leads to some more redundancy in modes of transport in Europe; the continent has sacrificed a lot of (slower) modes of surface transport for the speed of air travel. (The lost ferry routes are one casualty; meanwhile, Britain has run its railways down, accepting the free-market wisdom that it makes more sense to fly from, say, London to Edinburgh than to spend four and a half hours on a train), which has left its transport systems dependent on one modality and, as we have seen, fragile. The results can be seen in the desperate queues of people at railway stations and the escalating credit-card bills of those involuntarily extending their hotel stays.
Finally, here is a Christopher Hitchens piece on the Eyjafjallajökull eruption and Iceland in general.
Pitchfork has a piece looking at government support for musicians around the world, in particular the Nordic countries (where governments plough a lot of money into supporting up-and-coming acts as a matter of principle; consequently, Sweden is the third biggest exporter of popular music and Norway, Denmark and Iceland punch well above their weight), Canada and the UK (Canada follows a vaguely Scandinavian line, more out of fear of becoming an American cultural colony than deep social-democratic principles; the UK still has some vestiges of the pre-Thatcherite arcadia—White Town's government grant-funded first single was mentioned—though apparently the golden age has been sacrificed to Blatcherite mercantilism, with art schools being more efficient assembly lines for producing employable human resources than the legendary hothouses of freeform creativity they were when Jarvis was flirting with Greek heiresses), and the US (where musicians struggle to get health care—something Obama's bill won't help much with—though, at least, they can console themselves that they're not in Iran or somewhere).
Iceland is about to make its entry into the global data centre market, taking advantage of its position in the middle of the Atlantic, cold climate (hence less need for cooling) and abundant geothermal energy; the new facility, named KEF001, is currently under construction at the former NATO Command Centre in Keflavík; one of the major investors is the Wellcome Trust, the nonprofit biotech charity who also funded the Human Genome Project.
23% of voters in Iceland sign a petition against a deal to repay British and European savers in an Icelandic national bank, and surveys suggest that 70% of voters oppose the deal, believing it to impose crippling burdens on the struggling Icelandic economy.
In other news, the UK Foreign Office has denied that the aircraft carrier battlegroup headed towards Reykjavík has anything to do with the current issue, stating that it is on routine exercises.
Art installation/commercial of the day: Soundville, in which Juan Cabral (the chap behind the Sony Bravia bouncing ball ad) converts the Icelandic town of Seyðisfjörður into a giant sound system, wiring it up with speakers, playing music and sounds through them for three days, and filming the locals' reactions. For this project, Cabral had enlisted the help of several people, including Múm and the team behind Sigur Rós' live concerts. More about it here.
Economically, things are pretty grim in Iceland. The country's beset by crippling debts, prices are rising and foreign currency is being rationed; public opinion has turned against the free-wheeling capitalists who caused the crisis, and support for joining the EU is dropping as EU members (particularly Britain and the Netherlands) hold Iceland's feet to the fire over bank debts.
However, there are plans to utilise Iceland's geographical advantages to make the country the world's server farm. It makes sense; server facilities use increasingly vast amounts of electricity, both for powering servers and cooling them. Iceland, however, has a cold climate (providing for natural cooling), and more electricity than it knows what to do with (thanks to geothermal energy), all generated with negligible carbon emissions, and is conveniently located in the middle of the North Atlantic, within easy reach of both North America and Europe.
Iceland has been busying itself laying fibre optic cables to connect the country with North America and Europe. The cables coming in provide a capacity of more than five terabits/sec - all with server farms in mind.
Travelling down this pipe, data sited in Iceland is just 17 milliseconds from London.
An Icelandic music website has put online streamable copies of the 100 best Icelandic pop/rock albums, according to a team of experts. These will be accessible until the end of the month (it's apparently part of a vote organised by the Icelandic state broadcaster); for those confused by the panoply of unfamiliar, oddly-charactered band names, MetaFilter has a guide to some of these bands.
Your humble correspondent is now back in London, having returned this evening from Iceland.
Iceland, you will be glad to know, seems to still be there. There is still a Reykjavík, and it's still a living city (except perhaps on public holidays, when everything closes). Hallgrimskirkja still stands tall, visible from across the city, though now it's covered in scaffolding. Laugavegur is still full of groovy cafés and bars (though fashion boutiques, apparently, have been closing down), and 12 Tónar still has an excellent selection of music, much of it by new Icelandic bands. Furthermore, the café culture leaves London in the dust, as does the quality of the coffee on offer. Alcohol is still more expensive than elsewhere in Europe, which still fails to deter the locals from consuming it enthusiastically. Outside of the capital, there are still spectacular fjords, glaciers, waterfalls and desolate landscapes.
Politically and economically, Iceland is undoubtedly in trouble, though not without hope. It looks like the conservatives, who have governed forever, will be ousted at the next election, with a Social Democratic/Leftist Green coalition likely to govern. Scandinavia is being cited as a model for governance. And while the prospect of Iceland joining the EU has been cited, it remains unpopular with the population, and looks likely to go to a referendum if it comes up. Meanwhile, the Icelandic people are developing a taste for protest and for rocking the boat in an uncharacteristic way. During a visit, I saw an empty building which had been taken over by squatters, who intended to set up a community centre. On Tuesday evening, the building was surrounded by activists, anxiously awaiting a police raid. (Squatting is uncommon in Iceland, and there is no concept of squatters' rights there.) Anyway, only time will tell what will happen.
Anyway, I have posted photos from my visit to Flickr; they can be found here.
I'm spending the Easter break in Iceland. I flew in to Keflavík last night. On the Icelandair flight, the attendants handed out copies of a free newspaper named Reykjavík Grapevine. This is a slim English-language weekly, which exists primarily to distribute event listings wrapped in a thin shell of articles and the obligatory ads for restaurants and tours. In the past, when Reykjavík was a capital of cool, it would have undoubtedly been buzzing with events and self-congratulatory pieces on the next big thing on the Reykjavík scene. Now, with the economic crisis, the tone is somewhat more muted and soul-searching; there's an article about the closure of an art space; next to it, in the print edition, is a column titled "Icelandic art makes me feel nothing at all". (On the facing page, meanwhile, is a full-page advertisement from the Ministry of Justice and Ecclesiastical Affairs on how to vote in the upcoming parliamentary elections—which are open only to Icelandic nationals—written, perplexingly, in English and Polish.) Elsewhere, the opinions page contains pieces on anarchism and one titled "I'm Not Stupid!", railing against the torrent of recent blog articles describing Icelanders as "naïve", "immature", "over-confident" and "stupid".
Anyway, the Grapevine's feature article is its own piece on the genesis and collapse of the Icelandic economic crisis. Titled The End Of Neo-Liberal Neverland, it argues that Iceland was a testbed of radical Chicago-school economics, and/or a victim of what Naomi Klein calls the Shock Doctrine:
President Grímsson was not the first to mythologize Iceland's rapid implementation of global capitalism with Viking references. In the late 1970’s and early 80's, a handful of young men, members of the so-called Locomotive group [Eimreiðin], made themselves busy importing Milton Friedman's free market ideology. Davíð Oddsson was a prominent member of this group. He would later implement Friedman’s ideology as the Independence Party leader, Prime Minister (1991-2004) and, since 2005, chairperson of the Central Bank. Milton Friedman’s dogma is now well known: privatize, deregulate, then look away. In The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein has exposed to us how Friedman’s disciples went about doing this, by using the disorientation caused by traumatic events, such as natural catastrophes or economic depression, to push through programmes that otherwise would never have been democratically approved.
A lesser known proponent of ‘more radical capitalism’ is Milton Friedman’s son, the self-professed 'anarcho-capitalist' David Friedman. In 1979, Friedman jr. published an article entitled 'Private Creation and Enforcement of Law: A Historical Case'. The historical case in question is medieval Iceland, when law was not upheld by a state, but by individuals: “Medieval Icelandic institutions […] might almost have been invented by a mad economist to test the lengths to which market systems could supplant government in its most fundamental functions,” wrote the young Friedman. In such a society, he goes on, seats in parliament are a commodity and justice is upheld by the threat of thralldom as punishment for any offence. The Old Norse term ‘thralldom’ is a bit of an obscurity in modern English. Its modern Icelandic variant – Þrældómur – is transparent enough; it just means slavery.
Most of the country’s citizens live in debt but precise statistics are hard to find. Thatcher’s dictum ‘There is no such thing as society’ was taken very seriously by policy makers under Oddsson’s rule, and institutes that had the role of providing social data were disciplined and silenced, or simply shut down. When the National Economic Institute repeatedly published unsuitable information, Oddsson passed law through the Parliament to abolish the institute. That was in the late 1990’s. He then redirected the institute’s role to the Central Bank and years later appointed himself as Central Bank manager. This is why key figures, such as the international Gini index, meant to measure equality of wealth distribution, do not exist for Iceland.The article then asks how deep the rabbit hole goes; whether Iceland wasn't set up from the start:
Neoliberal Iceland was run as a secret conspiracy worthy of a James Bond screenplay: it was exchanged for gambling money in a plot involving Russian oligarchs, offshore accounts in the Caribbean, and luxury yachts no less kitschy than your average dictators’ – not to mention Elton John, Tina Turner and Duran Duran entertaining in private parties, and a lot of cocaine. Or so they say. Rumours abound, but no details, no facts: no single money transaction has been publicly verified. In Iceland, no businessperson, politician or civil servant has been charged with any crime.
The first revolutionary stroke in Iceland’s history re-established the possibility of meaning. Just that. Then everything is left unsaid and undone. How far back do the lies reach? Was Iceland rigged up to feed the US army? It may not be much harder to forge a national identity than decorating a Pizza Hut: one Nobel Prize here, Viking myths there, put a ‘The world’s oldest democracy’-plaque on the wall ….
We have every reason to fear that they and other representatives of global market interests will want to use this opportunity for a full-scale Friedmanite Shock Doctrine. Already in early October, right-wing forces tried to create consensus on the dogmatic “Now nothing can be holy”, i.e. now is the time for environmentalists, feminists and socialists to shut up and let business do its business. Venture capitalists have made bids at the state’s total real estate. It’s Don Corleone’s world, full of ‘offers they can’t refuse’. We know little about the IMF’s agreement with Icelandic authorities, only that they promised each other to suspend the full force of the collapse until 2010. It’s a gluey sort of Apocalypse. 8000 of the country’s 300 thousand inhabitants are currently studying business and finance, acting as if nothing happened. Everyone still acts as if money has a function and basically every trick in the hysteric’s toolbox is currently applied to hide the fact that there is no way back. Tomorrow may be capitalist, but tomorrow’s capitalism would be a dystopian remix of Fukuyama’s universe, without any pretences towards freedom.
Iceland may join the EU by 2011. The once fiercely independent Iceland had in the past rejected the idea of surrendering its independence, though with its economy bankrupt, it may have no choice; meanwhile, the EU's senior diplomats, as well as the Czech and Swedish governments (who hold the current and next EU presidencies) are in favour of Iceland joining, and preparing to accelerate its accession. Of course, not everyone's keen on this; Iceland's fishing industry, for example, doesn't look forward to sharing its national waters with fleets from across the EU.
There is also talk of Iceland adopting the euro, and abandoning its distinctive krona coins (which, instead of heads of state, historical figures or monuments, have fish on them), though this will take longer because of constraints on membership of the euro.
The Independent reports from Iceland, formerly the happiest country in Europe, now economically bankrupt, and its government having resigned today:
There is no word from the government yet on how it plans to repair the damage. What does that mean for the man on the streets of a country whose coffers are empty? Are we talking soup kitchens, sheltered housing and begging on street corners? Far from it. If you're as comfortable as Iceland was, the rot has its work cut out before it emerges on the surface.
On Friday morning, human rights campaigner and protest organiser Hordur Torfason told a chilling anecdote to illustrate the desperation many Icelanders are feeling. He had received a phone call from a man who said that four generations of his family had lost everything. "He wanted me to help them build a gallows in front of the parliament building," says Torfason. "I asked him if this was to have some symbolic significance. 'No,' came the answer. 'A member of my family wants to hang himself in public.'"
The seas are full of fish, geothermal energy and natural gas are abundant. Oil prospecting is beginning. But there is a risk that Iceland will give its riches away in a fire sale to the same Vikings who have already half-sunk the nation once.Meanwhile, even though a large part of Iceland's economic collapse could arguably be attributed to Britain hastily freezing Icelandic assets under anti-terrorism legislation, Icelanders have managed to donate jumpers, socks and blankets to the freezing pensioners of the northern English city of Hull.
The most serious casualty of the economic crisis has been Iceland. Only five months ago it was hailed as a success story, with its balance of a strong economy, mass affluence and a Scandinavian work-life balance and, apparently, the happiest people on earth. Now the good times are over; Iceland's economy has been devastated by the credit crunch/subprime crisis/opening phases of World Depression 2, banks have collapsed (some of them taking vast amounts of British savings with them), and the nation teeters on the verge of "national bankruptcy".
Some people are calling for Iceland to swallow its pride and join the EU, adopting the Euro. Also, the Icelandic government is reportedly negotiating with Russia for a huge multi-billion-Euro loan to stave off economic collapse. If this takes place, it will be interesting to see what place an Iceland massively indebted to Russia takes on the world stage. For one, will the US air base at Keflavík airport (which has been there since World War 2, generally lukewarmly tolerated) be given its marching orders? (If the Russians are willing to spend big to move it out, I suspect the US would have more pressing concerns on its mind at the moment.) Also, Russia is one of the nations competing for sovereignty over vast (and possibly mineral-rich) stretches of the Arctic; having allies near the Arctic Circle could prove useful to them.
There have been some unexpected upsides to the crisis, though; Iceland's tourist industry is booming, as the formerly unaffordable krona has plummeted. This has also reduced Iceland's notoriously high alcohol prices, making Reykjavík a destination for stag parties and the sort of chavvish tourism the old cities of Eastern Europe have been complaining about. The Icelanders are, as one might expect, also going out, getting drunk and partying like there's no tomorrow. Or like tomorrow will be a lot less fun.
Icelandic artist and product designer Hafsteinn Júlíusson has come up with a technological solution to the global obesity crisis: zero-calorie crisps made of flavoured edible paper, allowing one to happily consume lots of tasty, crunchy stuff. Or, as Júlíusson puts it, it's like eating tasty air:
It is not clear whether the chips are being marketed or whether they're just a piece of conceptual art.
Júlíusson's web site also has information on his other projects, including laptop bags which double as pillows, which are hand-sewn in Reykjavík and sold in the local Apple Store there:
(via Boing Boing Gadgets) Share
Also in the Graun, an interesting article lookig at why Iceland's success story, from economic indicators such as wealth, health and education to a 2006 study which showed Icelanders to be the happiest people in the world:
Dagur Eggertsson, until recently the mayor of Reykjavik and every inch a future prime minister of Iceland, made the point to me that what has happened in Iceland has defied economic logic. 'In the Eighties and Nineties right wingers in the US and UK were saying that the Scandinavian system was unworkable, that high state investment in public services would kill business,' said Dagur, a boyish, super-bright 35-year-old who, like most Icelanders, is a furiously hard-working multi-tasker - as well as a politician, he is a doctor. 'Yet here we are, in 2008,' he continues, 'and you look at the hard economic statistics and you see that these last 12 years we and the Scandinavian countries have been roaring ahead. Someone called it bumblebee economics: scientifically, aerodynamically, you cannot figure out how it flies, but it does, and very nicely, too.'
Why is there such an abundance of artists in Iceland? What drives them? 'We do it so as not to become mad,' replied Haraldur, who is tall, nervy and thin with eyes that have the concentrated energy of a laser beam. Not to become mad? 'Yes, to keep the beast at bay.' The beast? 'The beast is Iceland, this island on which we live with its terrifyingly harsh nature, its bitter ever-changing weather. It's Goya's dark nightmare world, beautiful but grotesque. This is the moody beast of Iceland. We cannot escape it. So we find ways to live with it, to tame it. I do it through my art,' said Haraldur, whose attempts to pacify the monster have also included the writing of three books in which 'there are no animals, no trees. We have to have a rich internal life to fill the empty spaces, to fill the silence with our own noise.'
When I was talking to Svafa about the better influences from the rest of the world that Iceland seemed to have wisely plucked, or just happened to have, we mentioned, as the prime minister had done, the humaneness of Scandinavia and the drive of the United States. We also discussed how the Icelanders - who have excellent restaurants these days and whose stamina for late night partying must come from the Viking DNA - seemed to have much of southern Europe's savoir vivre. Then I put it to her that there was an African quality to Iceland that the rest of Europe lacked. This was to be found in the 'patchwork' family structures Oddny had spoken of. The sense that, no matter whether the father lived in the same home or the mother was away working, the children belonged to, and were seen to belong by, the extended family, the village. Svafa liked that. 'Yes!' the pale-skinned power executive exclaimed, in delighted recognition. 'We are Africans, too!'
As the receding polar ice caps expose land and shipping lanes, setting the scene for the next great international land grab, Iceland's University of Akureyri is offering a course in Polar Law, to prepare a generation of lawyers uniquely equipped to deal with the resulting issues:
Emphasis is placed upon relevant areas of public international law, such as environmental law, the law of the sea, questions of sovereignty and boundary disputes on land and sea, natural resources law, the rights of indigenous peoples in the north, self-government and good governance, and land and resources claims in the polar regions.
I have just read Hallgrímur Helgason's 101 Reykjavík, of which I found a copy (in English) recently. This novel is probably best known for having been adapted into a film (one of the best-known Icelandic films of recent years in the English-speaking world, partly undoubtedly due to Damon Albarn having done part of the score).
101 Reykjavík is the story of Hlynur, a thirtysomething slacker who lives with his exceedingly indulgent mother in the central postal district the title is taken from. However, beyond that, the book and the film are quite different; the film is much lighter, fluffier, more stylised and cooler, almost like a tourist ad for hip young people, whereas the book goes into darker territory; where the movie is Human Traffic, the book is Trainspotting.
The movie Hlynur is a lovable hipster doofus, a comical flightless bird, an adorably bumbling geek-chic Everyman plucked out of a Jarvis Cocker impersonation contest at Kaffibarinn. The book's Hlynur, however, is a much darker figure; a pathetic, sociopathic nihilist, destructive and self-destructive. In both, he ends up possibly fathering his mother's lesbian lover Lolla's child, and angsting considerably about it and his relationship to the lover and the child. In the book, he does a number of un-cuddly things like sexually molesting the mother of a girl he picked up, stealing one of his sister's birth control pills (and causing her to fall pregnant), and deliberately attempting to contract AIDS in a fit of self-pity, in between the numerous somewhat unflattering observations in his narration. The narrative voice of the book goes into long, poetic monologues (perhaps this is typical of Icelandic literature?) expounding jaded views of the human condition and contemporary Icelandic society, and (with one exception) betraying no empathy with any person other than the narrator. The Hlynur in the book is not a likeable or sympathetic character.
The book also doesn't have the redemptory ending of the movie; the tragic narrator of the novel does not magically find his feet, experience personal growth and come out a better person like the once cynical hero of an American romantic comedy, but continues much as he has ever done. A number of other elements (Hlynur's Hungarian penpal, a trip to Amsterdam and Paris, and the whacked-out barfly mystic who follows the teachings of white limousine-riding guru "Waldorf") were inevitably cut along the way from book to movie. And, in case you were wondering, making Lolla Spanish (so that she could be played by Victoria Abril) was the filmmaker's invention.
The book is interesting, though those who have been to Reykjavík, or are familiar with Icelandic society, would probably get the most out of it. (If a trip to Iceland is out of the question, at least read The Xenophobe's Guide to the Icelanders).
And a few video fragments from the weekend's Ninetynine gig in Reykjavík:
(They look a lot less blurry in real life. Or, indeed, in the video before it went through the YouTube process.)
Anyway, they're playing Spain this week, and in London on the 31st. More details on their web site.
This blog has been quiet over the past few days because your humble correspondent has been in sunny Reykjavík, Iceland for some two and a half days.
I found Reykjavík to be a very pleasant and interesting place, which manages at once to be small and cosmopolitan. But more impressions later.
Over this weekend, I managed to take a lot of photos (which are making their way here), to see a few gigs (including a Jens Lekman solo set and the first Ninetynine gig I've seen since leaving Australia), pay through the nose for a glass of Viking lager, drink a coffee in Kaffibarinn whilst Architecture In Helsinki played on the PA, and visit the Blue Lagoon (which is highly recommended). And I managed to find a DVD of a brilliant Icelandic film I saw at the Melbourne Film Festival some years ago, "Englar Alheimsins"; there seems to be nowhere outside of Iceland that is aware of this DVD existing, whereas when you walk into Skífan (which is apparently Icelandic for "HMV"), you find a raft of copies in the Icelandic film section, all with optional English subtitles. Go figure.
I really enjoyed visiting Reykjavík, and intend to go back. Next time I'll probably stay for longer than a weekend, and travel around a bit more. And probably will catch a later flight out than the 7:15am one.
The latest happening in glacial, æthereal Iceland: turning out the lights, sitting in the dark and looking at the night sky:
Authorities in the capital Reykjavik will turn off street lights on Thursday evening and people are also being encouraged to sit in their houses in the dark, writer Andri Snaer Magnason said on Wednesday. While the lights are out, an astronomer will describe the night sky over national radio.The UK is looking at doing something similar, assuming corporate sponsors and marketing tie-ins can be found.
Iceland has given the world a number of unique musical acts in recent years, among them Björk, Múm and Sigur Rós; and now there's Leoncie, the Singer with the Black Beautiful Powerful Voice, who "blends South American and Portuguese rhythms with modern pop-rock beats which creates a dynamic blend called Leoncie Music"; she also describes her music as "European PowerPop-and RaunchyRock-Dance", which is borne out in titles like "Sexy Loverboy", "Radio Rapist-Wrestler", "Sex Crazy Cop" and "Safe Sex - Take Me Deeper", which are accompanied by promotional photos of Leoncie smiling through heavy make-up and showing off her more than ample cleavage (in her own words, '"A Little Bit Of My Cleavage Shows, And Then The Icelandic Volcano Explodes." Boooom!')
There are two MP3s provided for your delectation; they vary from General-MIDI radio-pop-soul to General-MIDI beer-commercial rock, with vocals that sound somewhere between Whitney Houston and a Wagnerian valkyrie.
The site is a bit light on other examples of her music, though makes up for this with copious links to her CD shop, and even more copious nuggets of wisdom from the great artist herself:
Q: Any favourite politicians?
A: Definely. Tony Blair and George Bush. Blair is handsome, Articulate and has great distinction. Bush is Special too and has great Character and Style.
Q: Any favourite DJ' s ?
A: Everyone who plays my music, Worldwide.
Q: Any female Singer you admire a lot?
A: Yes. Britney Spears. Cher. Tina turner.
Q: Favourite male Actor/sNot only that, but she's a fabulous cook, and even sews some of her own stage clothes. Which is why everyone needs to buy her CDs now.
A: Steven Seagal, Sylvester Stallone, The Rock, Mr. Bean.
The Graun sends a reporter to Iceland to catch up with Bobby Fischer, former chess master turned paranoid lunatic, who spends most of the time ranting about how the Jews are out to get him.
As he is leaving Copenhagen, he is cornered in a car park by the agitated man from Channel 1 and gives some characteristically robust quotes - to summarise, death to the Jews, death to Japan, death to America, death to George Bush. (Probably death to Tony Blair, too - Fischer refused to fly via London because he feared he would be grabbed by the police there.) Anyway, Fischer has let off steam, the Channel 1 man's job is saved, we have a news story.
Fischer has an obsession with detail that, to my non-medical eye, appears autistic. When he recites his suffering at the hands of the US and now the Japanese, every letter he has received is cited, dated, described exactly. His is a world of tiny details; it is the bigger picture that eludes him, so he falls back on one stupid overarching theory - the world Jewish conspiracy. The Icelandic view that he is a lovable eccentric is a cop-out. He is a paranoid fantasist. But he is deluded not dangerous; Howard Hughes rather than Adolf Hitler. Mastery of detail, obsessionalism, relentless concentration, the ability to shut out the world are advantages in chess; in life they can be a disaster, especially when there is no screen between what you say and what you think.
Former chess grandmaster turned reclusive eccentric and al-Qaeda cheerleader Bobby Fischer is being released from a Japanese prison after Iceland gave him citizenship by act of parliament. The U.S. Government, who wanted to extradite him to face charges of violating sanctions when playing a game in Yugoslavia, is supposedly pissed off.
A question of international law: is there anything preventing the U.S. from scrambling some fighters to intercept the plane carrying Fischer over international waters, escorting it to a landing in, say, Guam, and taking Fischer off there? If there is, would be a more egregious violation of international law than torturing detainees at Guantanamo? If the U.S. wants to show the world that, as the sole superpower, it is the law, that may be a powerful symbolic gesture.
Also, if Fischer does take up residence in Iceland as a citizen, won't he have to change both his name and his father's name to recognised legitimate Icelandic names?
The latest thing to come out of Iceland, following Björk, Múm and Sigur Rós, is a patch to allow C++ in the Linux kernel. It appears to be quite well optimised (the runtime library has been modified, bringing the cost of throwing an exception below that of calling good old printk() in the plain-C kernel). As such, it looks like it could be good for performance and stability; Darwin (the MacOS X kernel) is written in (a somewhat stripped-down) C++, and seems a lot more solid than Linux, and less likely to be destabilised by unforeseen conditions (i.e., devices/filesystems/&c. suddenly disappearing); I suspect that C++'s exception handling has something to do with this.
I just saw Nói Albinói, an Icelandic film about a teenaged boy growing up in a small town at the foot of a mountain in rural Iceland. The story is the usual one about growing up as an outsider in any other small town, with the typical anxieties and alienation enhanced by the stark surroundings; the cold daylight, long twilights of winter and omnipresent Icelandic wood panelling adding a palpable feeling of claustrophobia and impending doom. Nói is of above-average intelligence and bored with school, and has an alcoholic Elvis-worshipping father, a thing for the new girl in town and dreams of escaping to a tropical island far away, anywhere away from the town. The film ends with an unexpected and cataclysmic climax, and there is a rather appropriately bleak Jonathan Richman song in the closing credits. I liked it; though it's not an uplifting sort of film. You could almost get seasonal affective disorder in the 90 or so minutes that it runs. Though if you coped with the last few Radiohead albums, you should be fine.
Icelandic photographer Nökkvi Eliasson has a lot of artistic black & white photographs online, including some hauntingly stark images of deserted farms in Iceland. (Unfortunately, they're at a rather low resolution; too low to be used for wallpaper on anything newer than, say, a 128K Macintosh Plus.)
Living in Reykjavík has its advantages; for one, you can take cool photos like these just by going for a walk. (via Die Puny Humans)
An interesting Age article on Icelandic music, talking about Björk, Múm, Thule Records and a number of up-and-coming bands (including Cold, Trabant and The Funerals, who are country and not black metal), and speculating on why Iceland's so cool (apparently it's either the landscapes or the small and isolated nature that makes it one big friendly scene).
(The seems quite clueful; they don't lump that Sony rap-metal band in here either, for one.)
Iceland is set to replace fossil fuels with hydrogen, by installing fuel cells on vehicles (starting with the Reykjavik bus fleet, and continuing on to its fishing trawlers). This will not only reduce Iceland's greenhouse gas emissions dramatically, but also (it is planned) make the state independent of foreign imports for its energy.
I had a dream this morning just prior to waking. In it, I ordered a CD single/EP from a semi-obscure independent band from somewhere around Norway or Iceland. (Their name, which escapes me, started with 'C' and they were of an atmospheric/post-rock/shoegazer style. Their artwork used colourised photographs/textures in vivid oranges and blues, with neat typography overlaid.) The CD came with a mail-order catalogue; in it there were various albums/EPs they had out and T-shirts, as well as a new single named "Lily's Song" or something similar. There was also an album of that title, due to come out in 2009, so it must have been a preview. A page of their catalogue also offered a single from The Cure (titled "regret"), for some reason. (Perhaps this dream took place in the future?)
Personal: Today I went down to Synæsthesia and picked up the Angels of the Universe soundtrack, by Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson and Sigur Rós, and have been listening to it. It is beautiful; very evocative and atmospheric. I'll probably write it up for RAN soonish. (I also picked up a copy of the Models' early recording compilation, Melbourne, which I won from 3RRR, who were giving it away. It's the first time I have won anything from 3RRR.)
I also went to Babble (the spoken-word night) again this evening; they had some kind of special night where they had people who weren't regulars speaking, and a lot of iffy pieces. There was the woman who read out a short greeting-card-grade poem about being loved (or something like that), prefacing it with a 2-minute, rambling autobiography, and then appending an autobiographical anecdote which had nothing to do with the poem as such. And the poem itself was pretty trite, with the most obvious and banal rhymes; though it wasn't quite as bad as the proud-to-die-for-my-country doggerel in the letters page of mX today; perhaps the author of the latter should be made a News Corp. poet in residence? (Rupert Murdoch as patron of the arts: now there's a scary thought.)
Film Festival: Tonight I went to see a film named 101 Reykjavik; it was from Iceland (naturally), and about a shiftless, socially inept twentysomething slacker in Reykjavik who ends up getting his mother's lesbian lover (played by sultry Spanish actress Victoria Abril, who will be well known to Almodovar fans) pregnant. It was quite an enjoyable film; not quite as arty as Angels of the Universe, but quite amusing, and with some poetic moments and some breathtaking outdoor visuals (as may be expected in an Icelandic film). The dialogue was mostly in Icelandic (with subtitles) though partly in English, as Abril's character (being from Spain) didn't speak Icelandic (and, this film would suggest, many people in Iceland can understand and speak English). The music was by Damon Albarn and one of the former members of the Sugarcubes (that's the Ickle One's old band, of course), and featured some amusingly cheesy electronic takes on the Kinks' Lola.
After this, I saw Bells From The Deep, a Werner Herzog documentary about mysticism and the occult in a remote corner of Russia (near the Mongolian border). It included a lot of outré bits, including elderly people crawling around a sacred tree stump, tales of visions of hidden cathedrals and apparitions, and pilgrims crawling along thin ice to pay tribute to the fabled city of Kitezh, said to be hidden at the bottom of the lake (where the Mongol hordes couldn't sack it, of course), as well as footage of locals lining up to buy "consecrated water", a Jesus-lookalike in elaborately embroidered velvet robes spouting mystical mumbo-jumbo and blessing people, and Mongolian throat singing (including, very possibly, the same sample the KLF used on Chill Out, or maybe not).
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