Published May 25, 2010
Here at the Grapevine, we are all big fans of Jón Gnarr and his comedic stylings. We were amused when we learned he was putting together a ‘parody party’ for the upcoming municipal elections, and we enjoyed a lot of his initial media appearances in promotion of it. We were furthermore delighted to learn that some of the people running with him are artists that we know and like, and who’s work we’ve appreciated throughout the years. It’s called Besti flokkurinn (“The Best Party”). It was all in good fun.
Then the polls started coming in, and we learned that it was even conceivable that a joke party would win the elections, taking in as many as six city council chairs out of fifteen. A party without platform or policy; a celebrity-lead, vague minded collection of folks whose intentions were totally unclear was going to win Reykjavík’s majority vote. All of the sudden it seemed kind of scary. “What if they win?” we asked ourselves. Will they privatise the city’s welfare system and sell our power plants to Monty Burns? Will they reinstate the draft? How are we supposed to know?
So we did what we usually do when we get curious – we got all proactive and called up the good man. He was happy to give an interview, which you may read below. Over the course of two hours, we tried to wrestle a position and platform – anything concrete – from the man. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation. We are still unsure of what to think.
You are called Jón Gnarr and Icelanders know you well, but most of our readers do not. So tell us, who is Jón Gnarr?
Er, well. I am a self-educated artist that has been involved in various projects. I have done acting, writing, directing, worked in advertising and created a plethora of comedy shows. And I’ve starred in some feature films.
I guess I think of myself as a sort of think tank. I think a lot. My head is like an airport, like Heathrow. It’s never off; there’s always someone coming or going, but no one stays, because I am very forgetful. I am a self-made man, and I have never ever taken the conventional path to anything—I have no formal education.
“I have always been a rather shocking character”
At age eleven I gave up on school. I refused to learn the multiplication table, Danish—pretty much everything I couldn’t see a practical use for. I wanted to be a circus clown. When I was thirteen I had dropped out of school completely and was sent to a boarding school for delinquents and troubled teens at Núpur in Dýrafjörður. I had a lot of peace there and room to do my own thing. At age fourteen I was an active member of many international organisations that were being founded at the time, the Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament, Black Flag, Greenpeace—I joined a lot of radical organisations and even was part of a letter writing campaign to jailed anarchists. I had a lot of free time to delve into that stuff.
Your artistic output has always been rather avant-garde and on the edge. How have you manage to gain the mass appeal that you have, with [comedy troupe] Fóstbræður, [radio show] Tvíhöfði and your other assorted projects?
When I was a kid, I read a book with the letters of Franz Kafka. I loved him. I read The Trial and Metamorphosis, and also this book of letters. In it—and this deeply affected me—he says that the purpose of art, or what makes it important, is to unsettle us, to shock and surprise us and to make us think. To evoke feelings that we were maybe unaware of. I have always been a rather shocking character, ever since I was a kid. It has always been part of my personality, to shock. As a four year old, I used to go up to people on the bus and ask if they had been fucking. “Are you always fucking?” I’d ask, and my mother would have to rush me out.
I consider myself an artist, and I am my own subject. I am the only thing I have to work with.
There have been very harsh responses to almost everything I’ve participated in. When I was with Tvíhöfði, and with Fóstbræður, we used to get sued a lot, even though the stories rarely made it to the media. When Fóstbræður [a very popular sketch show on Stöð 2] was showing, the station had a record number of unsubscriptions. In the station’s history, there have never been as many subscription cancellations—folks were doing it to protest the show. And Tvíhöfði never measured high in the listener polls, actually. The other stations had a much bigger following.
Frankly, I was very surprised by the following Næturvaktin got. I had thought it was the type of show that would only be appreciated by a small, smart crowd that ‘got it’.
I want to try it all
You are often regarded as an Icelandic counterpart to Andy Kaufman, in that the whole of society seems to be your stage, and the audience is often unsure of whether you are joking or not. A case in point would be your ‘Catholic phase’ [for a period, Jón claimed he was a born-again Catholic, and he wrote many, many op-ed columns discussing his newfound faith, often sounding disturbingly ‘born again’]. In this light, a lot of what you’ve been doing with Besti flokkurinn seems to make sense—anyone can run for office, and if they do they will get media-time and a chance to stir up things. Is your campaign really some sort of subversive, public performance art?
I’ve never really been a big fan of Andy Kaufman. I like some of what he did, but he was never a favourite. So I can’t really answer that. Ehrm. Yes, there’s no connection in my mind.
But could you be categorised as “in the same vein” as Andy?
Yes, categorisation. I am against that. We are such a clever species of animal, we love defining everything. I like depriving people of that sense of wellbeing they derive from that—any sense of wellbeing really—and make them feel uncomfortable. Not that I want to hurt anyone. I just hate being categorised, placed in a shelf. That’s one of the things I am enjoying about Besti flokkurinn.
I also really enjoyed being Catholic, especially how it got on so many peoples’ nerves. That was really fun. Especially people of my generation, folks that have made up a very firm opinion on faith and religion. The Catholic Church is THE ESTABLISHMENT in the world, really, no state or nation in history has survived longer than they have. It seems to have this foundation that works, and that is one of the things that fascinated me about it.
Did you ever believe in it? Was it all a performance designed to get a reaction, or did you sincerely count rosaries and stuff?
No, well, I never got that deep in. Everything I’m doing with Besti flokkurinn, it’s all backed up by research and facts. Even though some people think it’s nonsense—it isn’t. I just like to try a lot of things, you know. If you are a straight man and you want to experiment with having sex with another man, it doesn’t mean you need to be marked for life as gay or bisexual or whatever. You don’t need to be placed in some shelf or category, even though that makes it easier for society to deal with you.
People should do what they want to, in the heat of the moment. And I, uhm, I have vacancy on this earth for eighty some years, and I want to try it all so I can form an opinion of it, without borrowing someone else’s.
As for the basic tenets of Catholicism; the existence of God and that he materialised in Jesus Christ and did all sorts of crazy things… well. For example, one of the founding beliefs of Catholicism is that of parthenogenesis; that the Virgin Mary was just out walking and all of the sudden got impregnated by the Holy Ghost. I don’t believe that. It’s nonsense, it’s illogical, and it makes it hard for me to affirm the Nicene Creed. I don’t believe it, I can’t help it.
I can believe that Jesus existed and can agree that he was an important man. But whether he did everything that’s credited to him, I don’t know. And there’s no way to find out. But as for religion, there are a whole lot of smart people that have been involved with religion over the years; it would be dumb to dismiss it.
I have never had anything to revert to. I have no education, I’ve got nothing. I can’t go back to being a sailor if my career fails. And I’ve always had to use myself as a subject for my thoughts and projects. I got paid 15.000 ISK for each column I wrote for Fréttablaðið, and it during was a period of my life that I was interested in Catholicism. But I could just as well resign from the church right now. It has no meaning in my life anymore.
Dead and vapid discourse
Are Besti flokkurinn’s platform of “transparent corruption”, absurd pet projects, etc., the “ironic” generation’s way of saying that’s what you stand against, that it’s something you would never do? Is it—as one would maybe hope, seeing that you seem to be winning the election—a reaction to the fact of how political speech has become polluted and diluted, how politicians’ honesty and integrity are public laughing matters that no one takes seriously?
Political discourse is all dead and vapid. Yeah, yeah. I’ve never been interested in governance or politics. I am very much opposed to the idea that someone out there can interfere with my life and the thought angers me. None of this politics thing has ever interested me. I’ve never watched Silfur Egils [local political talk show] or listened to talk radio. I don’t even know the politicians. I met [Independence Party leader] Hanna Birna on the set of a TV show and I had no idea who she was.
All these people, these politicians, have never been on my horizon, yet they’ve had a tremendous impact on my life. And then there are the businessmen that have in effect given me the chance to work with what I want to work on. Jón Ásgeir [Jóhannsson, bankster and head of Baugur] is one of them and he seems to own Stöð 2, where I have been given numerous opportunities to work and create, albeit on take it or leave it terms. I don’t own the copyrights to anything I’ve created. Jón Ásgeir does.
And that’s the way our society works—you have an idea you want to execute, and you need funding for that. I have never gotten a chance at [state broadcasting agency] RÚV, which is supposed to support Icelandic culture. But that institution is in the hands of politicians—they control it, and stagnation serves them well, because life and movement are… the system is always against creative thought. All systems are against creative thought, because they are fully formed and positioned on a shelf, and proud of it. It’s how they survive.
Creative thought threatens them. It threatens the school system, which begins by teaching us that creative thought is worthless until you are an adult. You will need to spend the best years of your life learning about someone something someone else created, then you can go do something. Not everyone fits into this model, which creates the need for concepts and “problems” that need defining, which brings us to psychiatrists and psychologists.
Fucking the system
And I think… Wait, you were asking about the party? Well. I’ve listened to all the empty political discourse, but it’s never touched me at all or moved me, until the economic collapse. Then I just felt I’d had enough of those people. After the collapse and its aftermath, I started reading the local news websites and watching the news and political talk shows—and it filled me with so much frustration. Eww! So I wanted to do something, to fuck the system. To change it around and impact it in some way. I went to Austurvöllur and protested during the pots and pans revolution, but it felt pointless to me. I didn’t really feel any need to scare Geir Haarde—he’s just a grown man that was sick. I don’t feel rage against anyone really. Not the banksters either.
This political world of ours is formed by some sort of co-dependency that’s ingrained in our society because there are so few of us. If you are an insane alcoholic that doesn’t know how to interact with others, you aren’t ousted from politics—they’ll make you an ambassador somewhere, or form a committee for you to run. That’s how our politics works.
In Sicily they have a strong system, a mob system, where everyone has a family name with which they can be identified. By that, everyone knows who you are, which village you are from and who your uncle is. But over here, you’re maybe called Einar Guðmundsson and no one has any idea who you are. And this is where the political parties come in as nice substitutes—they form these alliances that are sort of patriarchies and feudalist systems, descending from the system we had in the 12th century. We have the same four parties, the socialists, conservatives, farmers and social democrats, they occasionally change names or split up but at the core remain the same systems of feudal privilege that we’ve always been governed by.
My father was a cop, and a big communist supporter. He was a police officer for 45 years, and was never promoted or earned rank, because he belonged to the wrong political party. That’s how our system works, in a nutshell. Every problem is solved through knowing someone, through nepotism. You need to know people to get things done. Iceland must be a horrible country for immigrants [laughs].
As for the political lingo… it’s sometimes said that politicians in the US are superficial. That’s wrong. To succeed in politics in the US, you need to be very smart, or at least to have someone working with you that is. Over here, you can just trudge forward like a bull without any regard for anything… and still make it. Like Bjarni Ben [head of the Independence Party] said that my party’s following bore “a sad witness to the fact that maybe the parties failed in establishing ‘a living telephone connection’ with the voters…” What a bunch of empty hogwash? What does that even mean? He is the head of the nation’s largest political party, and this is what he has to say? These phrases they’re using, when conversation is turned into ‘a living telephone connection’ and people become ‘individuals’ and everyone accepts it as some authority?
I am plainly tired of all this empty BS, and Besti flokkurinn is in a primitive way protesting against it.
On being a simpleton
As a potential voter of yours, and someone who is likely to take your party seriously, I still have to think: “How can I know what they really want to do?” You have no platform, so I can’t know.
This is something I’m confronted with every day now. This morning I wrote an article about making Iceland a haven for electric cars, for turning it into an electric car haven. I believe we need to stop importing oil and use electricity. That’s my opinion, but of course I wrote the article with lots of intentional faux pas in it, I wrote it like a simpleton. I like appearing as a simpleton [laughs very loudly], like when I gave a speech at the University of Reykjavík and shouted that I had risen from the ashes like the bird Felix. I was just waiting for some blogger type to correct me on that. That gets the party press and exposure, and as soon as they do, I can stand aside, laugh and let the facts or essence of what I was saying do the talking.
We still have three weeks until elections [when we conducted the interview] and we might well print a platform. I am just sort of improvising and playing it by ear now. I think this is very fun. I did publish a piece that was a sort of manifesto for the party, no joke, and I am sort of improvising and trying to carry on from that.
So you foresee potentially introducing a platform before the election? All of your campaign is regarded as a joke thus far.
Well, our platform has been revealed pretty much, directly and indirectly. Of course it’s relative, what’s a joke and what’s not. Comedy is very temporal; today’s joke might be tomorrow’s pressing issue. I don’t consider the polar bear idea a joke—polar bears are widely considered an endangered species, and I honestly believe it would be better to store those that make it over in a zoo, rather than executing them on sight. It’s not farfetched—there are polar bears in zoos all over the world.
As for placing a toll on the people of Seltjarnarnes [a municipality next to Reykjavík] when they want to enter the city, I only think of it as normal that they would have to contribute to our city’s funds, as they use a lot of our services—we put out their fires, for instance. At a time when we have to cut back on our services due to lack of funds, they—the richest community in Iceland—brag about paying the lowest taxes in the country.
A cultural revolution
Are you saying that you support progressive taxation policies, that the wealthy should pay higher taxes than the poor? This is a common platform for socialist parties…
Well, I don’t know the taxing system, it’s very complicated. If it were up to me, no one would pay any taxes. I don’t like paying taxes, I am always in debt to the tax office and I’ve been badly hurt by the system. It’s unfair and I want to change it.
I was attempting to define you politically, to associate you with an ideology. What you said could easily be summed up in a platform.
I just think it’s natural that the people of Seltjarnarnes should pay for the services they’re receiving.
But do you envision—to make some people’s lives easier—making a platform? A policy that you swear to follow.
Ehrm. I can imagine doing that.
Let’s take that tax system as an example. There are phrases, like lowering taxes for the worse off, and increasing them for the richies. It would be very nice to do that. But what we really need is to re-think the taxing system. It is one of the most stagnant systems in this country. But it’s not alone. It’s all dead. The tax office is dead, the customs office is dead. RÚV is dead. These are the institutions that make up the foundations of our society, and they are all dead. Bleeeeh.
Are you, in all seriousness saying that you would like to restructure and organise society from the bottom up?
Are you calling for a revolution?
Yes. I am calling for a cultural revolution.
Is that a realistic goal? Is your candidacy a part of it?
Yes. I hope we undergo a cultural revolution here; that we start experiencing ourselves as a nation in a new way. And I have some ideas on that. As with the nation’s independence. I feel it is being threatened. We need to reaffirm it, which is where something like switching over to an electric car system would come in. To define and underline our uniqueness, to creatively lead in some aspects. There is potential there – we could serve as an example for the rest of the world.
‘The Wire’ as yardstick
A lot of the “unconventional” parties that we’ve had in Iceland have, once in office, wound up either aligning with some of the Big Four parties [see page 6], or disintegrating. How do you envision Besti flokkurinn’s future?
Say we managed to secure 2–4 candidates, I would take it all very seriously, I would ensure city politics run smoothly and I would advocate for my polar bear plan [enter a long, rambling speech about various odd party objectives, polar bears, tulips, banksters on parole, etc. etc.] …
But would you consider forming a majority alliance with another political party? Anyone in particular? Anyone you would not work with?
I would not work with the Progressive Party, and I hope that party just up and leaves and ceases to exist, at least in Reykjavík. But I don’t know. I don’t really know the people running, and I don’t really differentiate between parties. It depends on the people. If I am hanging out at the Left-Green office and we are all talking about The Wire and all of them agree that it is the best show ever made, and then someone from the Independence Party shows up and they haven’t heard of The Wire, I know who’s fun, and I know who I’d rather work with.
Still. If you compare, say, the Independence Party and the Left-Greens, they are very different parties with very different platforms and policies. One is for privatisation and private enterprise, while the other runs a leftist, socialist platform. Leave aside if the members are fun or not, but you must admit that these are two very different ways of viewing society, and unhinged power to either of them would surely impact Reykjavík massively.
Well, yeah. I would, yeah. If we’re talking about us getting four candidates in… If we get the majority we would just take the reins and control everything. And put running the city in the hands of skilled professionals. I think the city as an entity and structure is perfectly capable of running itself without the help of politicians. They spend half their day working for their party interests anyway.
An anarchist in disguise?
Still, this is important. If people are to vote for you, even if they buy into the whole irony and dismantling of politics post-modernism thing, they still must be able to discern what you stand for, and how you will handle certain things. For instance, I was in city hall when the Independence Party and the Progressives voted for selling the city’s shares in HS Orka to Magma Energy [read more about that elsewhere in this issue].
The sale was very much in line with the Independence Party platform, and it was heavily opposed by the Left-Green counsellors, in keeping with their platform and outspoken policy. I do not want my government selling off or privatizing Iceland’s resources, and if I am to vote for you, I need to know where you stand on that issue. And many others. They are important, polarizing ones!
It would be easy for me to say “Left-Greens are the only party I will work with.”
Is that true?
No, but I could say it. Just to say it. And then tell people later on that I’d been joking, that I’d rather work with the Progressives. That’s what politicians do. But I think… Policy? What can I say. We are sort of an “independence party” [laughs]. Our ideology aims at securing our independence. That we don’t wind up as tenants in our own country.
I have said that Besti flokkurinn is an anarcho-surrealist party, combining the best bits of anarchism and surrealism. And it’s always been my political conviction, really, anarchism and surrealism. But if I went and said that on Stöð 2 news or on a talk show, that we are an anarchist party, then the public would place a different meaning on us. “This isn’t Jón Gnarr, this is some sort of crazy anarchist party,” they would say. Maybe it’s just Gnarrism?
And on the political compass, anarchism is to the left. But I am against a hegemony that dictates what one should do. Banning things. Banning strip clubs and internet access. I can’t sign on that. What’s it to me if someone wants to spend their time on in strip clubs or smoking crack or surfing the web for pornography. I think the political parties in Iceland are at such a dead end. They are done.