The Iceland (Dis)Connection
By Michaële Cutaya
Not long ago, much fun was made of the comparison between the names and economic fates of Ireland and Iceland. It is possible, however, to extend the parallels between the two countries further, which can also reveal telling contrasts.
Beyond names, geography and spectacular economic growth dependent on inflated financial and construction sectors, the two islands have also, in defiance to what the establishment was urging them to do, voted No to a recent referendum; the first Lisbon treaty for Ireland, the Icesave terms of repayment for Iceland. Both populations were warned that all hell would break loose on their country if they did vote No. And both results were somehow circumvented and their symbolic force belittled: the Irish had to vote again over some cosmetic changes and the modalities of the Icesave repayments had already been renegotiated by the time the referendum took place, making it, de facto, obsolete.
These similarities also highlight the differences; Ireland voted no when it was still flourishing and convinced it will last forever, Iceland when it had the most urgent need for international financial support and knowing the referendum results could jeopardize its happening – or not, as the terms of the Referendum could leave all interpretations open. That a couple of months after it had defied the financial markets, its volcano, the now infamous Eyjafjallajökull, had the cheek to ground European air traffic for a week, added a piquant twist to its rebel image.
There are also stark contrasts between the popular responses following the revelation of the extent of the financial meltdown. The Icelandic government directly responsible for the mess, were driven out of office by mass protests –the Kitchenware Revolution - whereas its Irish counterpart is still in office and likely to remain so to the end of its term. Admittedly the Irish situation was not quite as bad as the Icelandic one but this was largely due, ironically, to its EU membership and not by any particular superior wisdom in governance.
The latest news from Iceland was the election of the Best Party, Besti Flokkurinn, to the Reykjavik city council. Founded six months ago by actor and comedian Jón Gnarr in response to the growing distrust toward politicians, Besti Flokkurinn regroups actors, artists, housewives and architects all new to politics. Its program was mostly based on making fun of the establishment and the way politics is practiced*. On May 30, it won six seats out of 15 at the city council and its leader has become the mayor of Reykjavik. Whether they will keep up to their “non-promises” and manage to subvert the political thinking or whether it will be more of the same remains to be seen. But it is nonetheless refreshing that these kinds of actions can take place and challenge the political agenda.
Now, there are many in Ireland, and particularly in the arts sector, that feel that they should play a more decisive role at policy level especially in view of the none too successful job made by politicians, economists, bankers and other developers. However the terms of engagement are difficult to determine and agree on as became clear in the two discussions that took place in Galway on Thursday 24 June. The first discussion workshop, in the Town Hall, was organized by the National Campaign for the Arts. The focus of the meeting was the coordination of the lobbying of politicians on a National Day of Action for the arts. However the discussion quickly turned to the question of the need to adopt the politico/economical lingo to be audible and achieve results. Also raised was the issue of defending the organizations that are in place when it might be a good time to reconsider the way the arts are organized and subsidized as well as their respective place in public considerations. Nevertheless the bottom line remained that if funding for the arts are to be saved, never mind increased, lobbying and economical justifications are what pays.
The second discussion happening on that day was part of the Dock Discourse series of events and took place in 126. It aimed to question the role of artists in urban planning and their proposal for alternative urban thinking with the re-development of the docks in mind. If it was local in focus and more radical in content, the Dock Discourse discussion ultimately revolved around the same issues than the NCFA’s. Should artists learn and use the language of planers, city officials and administrative or should they stick to an artistic modus operandi at the risk of isolation?
Both discussions further begged the question whether artists have a way of thinking and making that can be exported to other realms of society. Whatever the answer, it feels like now is the time to find out before business as usual resumes. What is currently happening in Iceland does not provide any answers, but the situation nonetheless suggests possibilities and gives us food for thought.
* See The Irish Times, Saturday, June 5, 2010; Revolution rocks Reykjavík as local elections take a funny turn by Steinunn Jakobsdottir