When islands put their heads together


It’s about two islands which have been on a similar trajectory coming together and going, ‘Okay, how can we creatively respond to what’s going on here?

MOVING CLOSER to Iceland may not seem like a particularly attractive option after the winter we’ve just had, but a new group aims to give us a playful push in that direction. It’s not, its founders hastily explain, a geographic movement. It’s a creative one. And its first big outing will bring Irish and Icelandic people together for the Northern Lights Observatory, a weekend of events, exchanges, innovation and exploration which its creators describe as “a cultural experiment in exceptional times”.

Ireland and Iceland have an ancient cultural connection which goes back to the medieval monks and beyond, say Kathy Scott and Mari Kennedy of the ireland:iceland project. The recent history of the two islands also has much in common. Iceland has experienced financial meltdown, political stagnation and ecological mismanagement – and so have we. On both islands a growing number of people are convinced that the old ways of doing things just aren’t working any more. The project aims to harness this sense of dissatisfaction and turn it to positive use.

“It’s not about Icelandic ‘experts’ coming over and telling us what we should do,” says Scott. “It’s about two islands which have been on a similar trajectory coming together and going, ‘Okay, how can we creatively respond to what’s going on here?’ We wondered what would happen if we brought artists, social architects, ideas people, innovators, scientists, economists and philosophers from both countries to meet, first as people who care about the future, and secondly as specialists in their fields.”

“I’m really interested in change, and how we – as humans – navigate change,” says Kennedy. “How it can be a place of great opportunity. I’ve been to so many meetings and come out with a sense of ‘It’s just about people giving out’. I’ve had enough of that. It’s draining and dispiriting. This project is energising as opposed to draining.”

They’ve already, they say, had a fantastic response from Irish organisations they’ve approached, including the Digital Hub – which has given them free office space – and Dublin City Council, which will host a free public “Collaboratory” in City Hall at 1pm on Sunday.

Among the intrepid Icelanders who will come to Ireland is Bjarni S Jonsson, a founder member of Iceland’s National Assembly, a community for change which began in 2009 with a handful of people. “We didn’t plan it at all,” he says. “The only thing we shared in the beginning was this very strong desire to bring people together, and to organise an environment where they could really exchange constructive ideas as an antidote to what was going on. We were nine people brought together by the minister of environment and sustainability because she was very interested in what we were trying to achieve.”

The National Assembly has now grown into a network of thousands of people sharing information and finding practical solutions to problems – including the tricky business of rewriting Iceland’s constitution. Where did they start? “Well,” he says, “you start with awareness – with people realising that there has to be a stronger focus on changing behaviour and attitudes.”

Like all groups, it has had its tensions and disagreements, he says, but it hasn’t fallen apart – largely because of a focus on shared motivations rather than divisive differences.

“For example, when we were discussing what question we would put forward, it was, ‘What kind of a place are we going to deliver to our children?’” he says. “Such a question changes the direction of the attention onto something which we all share.”

Changing the direction of politics and governance is perhaps the most tricky undertaking of all. Iceland’s Best Party is a political protest party set up by, among others, the comedian and actor Jon Gnarr and the ex-Sugarcubes trumpeter Einar Orn Benediktsson. It began as a bit of a joke – a kind of Green TeaGoes To The Ballot Box – but last June it turned serious when the party took six of the 15 seats on Reykjavik’s City Council. Gnarr and Benediktsson are now, respectively, Mayor of Reykjavik and Minister for Culture, and have been presiding over a series of unpopular expenditure cuts in the city’s budget. How has the political reality measured up to the political comedy?

“That’s a very big question, and there’s not one answer to it,” says Benediktsson who, along with Gnarr, will attend the Northern Lights Observatory in a private capacity. “We’re looking at how politics are working, and how we can contribute to it. One way is to decipher how people speak about politics. That’s an ongoing task, of course – but we are working on it, and working within the system.”

Now that he finds himself on the other side of the tracks – “a punk in politics”, as his fellow Icelanders like to put it – does Benediktsson find himself in sympathy with the politicians he once liked to parody?

“No,” he says. “Basically it’s a confirmation that sometimes . . . well, how can I put this? Many decisions made by politicians over the past two or three decades remain a mystery. They were not made for the good of the people of Reykjavik, but for selfish reasons – which is, in my book, a no-go area.”

These bad decisions include mismanagement of the city-owned power plant, and over-investment in the wrong kind of industry. “Those in control of it acted like it was a private company. As a country we’re sitting on great natural resources, but in 2003 we stopped going into low-heat industry and went into deep drilling. Everybody was looking at aluminium factories as the greatest solution to everything, and they sold the electricity at a very low cost.” To an Irish ear the litany of blunders – even as related in an irresistibly musical Icelandic accent – sounds horribly familiar. And it doesn’t sound as if there’s much comedy left. On this latter point, however, Benediktsson doesn’t agree.

“There’s loads of comedy left,” he says. “In the Best Party we have great spirit, we have great humour, we love humanity and we love not ruling by fear. We know that we can work honestly, and that’s one of our guiding lights.Honesty.”

Honesty and illumination is exactly what Scott and Kennedy are hoping will energise the Northern Lights Observatory. Among the events planned are a seminar at the Digital Hub with Gudjon Mar Gudjonsson of Iceland’s grassroots movement the Ministry of Ideas, and a weekend “sleepover” at Townley Hall involving 30 Irish and Icelandic “cultural investigators”. If this sounds intriguing and a little alarming, all will be revealed at Sunday’s public “collaboratory” at City Hall, to which entry will be free and on a first-come, first-served basis.

Further details from irelandicelandproject.com