You Are In Control is an annual gathering in Reykjavík that brings together key figures from the Icelandic and international creative industries. In the various grand spaces of Harpa, the newly finished, gleaming metal-and-glass concert hall and conference centre set in the city’s dramatic harbour, a hand-picked selection of artists, cultural theorists, journalists, musicians and business people rub shoulders, present their latest works, exchange ideas and take part in seminars and presentations on relevant themes of the moment.
After an early introduction from Iceland’s minister for Industry and Tourism, Katrín Júlíusdóttir, things kicked off far-reaching, forward-looking presentation from YAIC mainstay Ralph Simon, a heavyweight player in the development of mobile entertainment, which traces a speedy history of the development from the old-fashioned ringing landline telephone through to today’s world of mobiles, handheld devices, tablet computers and the ensuing information and content revolution.
Ralph flags up trailblazing social internet startups such as Facebook, Spotify and FourSquare, and lesser known, newer breaking Icelandic technology firms like Plain Vanilla, citing inspiring stories of great ideas drawn out on the back of napkin that quickly became multi-million-dollar concerns. “Four Square was dreamt up by a couple of guys who wanted to chart which bars they drank in most often,” he says, “and the idea that the guy who ‘checked in’ most often could become a kind of online mayor of that location. That kind of creativity can happen anywhere. Anyone in this room could have had thought of this; ideas travel fast. There are Icelanders in Silicon Valley now, and who knows if your idea could be the next one to be picked up.”
Getting away with it
Champagne Valentine are full of ideas of a different kind. An Australian-American duo of multimedia artists working in the commercial world, their dizzying visions flicker across the big screen as they speak, teeming with imagery at once familiar and strange. In one short film commissioned for a fashion campaign, an ebony-skinned and paint-splattered model flails and poses in a flower field, the colours wheeling and clashing to disorientating effect; an installation for a Diesel storefront records images of the audience and displays individualised, heavily processed video imagery in response. An interactive album made for emerging UK artist Gazelle Twin sees a huge eye churning out gothic shapes and blurry films that respond to mouse clicks and gestures.
Wild surrealism meets glossy fashion imagery, video feedback and interactive interfaces in an uncomfortable clash between commercial aesthetics, emerging technology and artistic sensibility. “We prefer it when we don’t have to put a logo in the corner of our works,” smiles Anita Fontaine, “but we get to use these commercial jobs as a testing ground and we often come away with new processes and ideas for our practise. We’d prefer to just be showing in a gallery, but we want people to see the work. We’re getting away with it.” Champagne Valentine don’t so much tread the line between art and commerce as gleefully cartwheel down it—their work creates an unusual tension by simultaneously existing as marketing material and artistic output.
COPYRIGHT COPYRIGHT COPYRIGHT
Later in the day, there are opposed presentations about copyright—first on how copyright infringement is destroying the entertainment industry, and then on how copyright law is unreasonably limits fair usage of materials. Again, the question of the relationship between art, copyright and commerce comes up repeatedly.
“The idea of artist-as-entrepreneur depresses me, important as it all is,” says Matthias Klang of Sweden’s Creative Commons movement, in one impassioned aside. “Should we really be judging artists’ success on how they perform commercially, and writing laws that protect only the most economically successful? This is a huge problem.”
In the ensuing (heated) panel debate, there’s finally a consensus amongst delegates on all sides that it’s important for artists and creators to be rewarded financially for their work, and that current copyright law doesn’t favour enforcement of individual creatives’ rights but rather tacitly allows infringement by big companies. “The law favours companies that can hire good lawyers,” says Robert Levine, author of ‘Free Ride’, a book in favour of copyright enforcement. “Copyright law should protect everyone equally and it doesn’t do that right now”.
Sigga Heimis, a designer who works for IKEA, agrees from a product designers’ point of view. “Most designers who want to sue for copyright infringement simply don’t have the resources to engage in litigation,” she says. “Even if it pays off it takes years—it’s not really the reality that designers can sue. We need real solutions for this—copyright is outdated and it’s not working; it works on paper but not for smaller creative business people.”
On the second day, the group breaks out into workshops dotted around the city’s 101 district. A debate on interactivity throws up questions about the authenticity of the online experience and the joins between reality and the digital world; the authenticity of communication compared to ‘IRL’. It’s a popular idea that technology separates people as much as connecting them. “There are more lonely people in the Western word than ever before,” says one audience member, “whether they’re networked together or not.”
Another strand of conversation is creative exchange—artists, designers, programmers and cameramen, exchanging skills to make things happen without a big budget. DIY strategies are great for getting things done collaboratively and at low cost, but of course it still comes back to the artist making a living. It seems that in the diminutive but tight-knit creative community of Reykjavík, collaboration, cross-pollination and skill-sharing happens very naturally. This allows artists like the English expatriate Kitty Von Sometime to realise large scale visions such as her sprawling and ongoing Weird Girls Project in a way that wouldn’t be possible without significant financial backing elsewhere.
For the Icelanders in attendance, You Are In Control brings in an array of cutting edge international talent and expertise to their back yard, and for the guests, the local scene offers a wellspring of inspiring independent creativity. In this respect, You Are In Control is a venue for Icelandic-style idea and skill swapping on an international scale.