A white-robed procession walks slowly along the shoreline of Seyðisfjörður’s harbour lagoon. The throng are singing softly, and have dots painted on their foreheads, in the “third eye” spot; people in regular clothes trail after them, smiling. They’re emerging from HEIMA, a converted house that’s now an art residency and gallery, where ambient music spills from the open doors; giant flickering projections of the robed figures’ faces are visible within. The people congregate around a small jetty on the shore, boarding a small wooden vessel and punting out towards the tiny islet in the bay on an unclear mission.
It’s a cinematic moment that could be an obscure religious ritual, or a cult gathering. But in Seyðisfjörður, such curious events are common. This small fishing town of 700 people has become a hub of experimental art in East Iceland, due in no small part to the LungA Festival, where this participatory ritual performance took place. A weeklong arts event, it features workshops, openings, performances, readings, concerts, and all kinds of spontaneous happenings, and has developed a reputation as one of the most exciting events on Iceland’s cultural landscape.
It all began in the year 2000. “LungA is kind of my fault,” says Björt Sigfinnsdóttir, the director of the festival. “Back when I was 15 years old, I had a moment of thinking Seyðisfjörður was the most boring place on earth. I had a boyfriend in Egilsstaðir, Ólafur Ágústsson, who was involved with the theatre and had a cool group of creative friends who did role play, made music and seemed really nice. One day I was arguing with my mom, as teenagers do, and I threatened to move to Egilsstaðir. Her response was “no, let’s do something about the situation and create something new.” So me, my mum, Ólafur, and a couple of his super cool friends, Halldóra Malin and Stefán Benedikt, sat down and started designing what later became LungA.”
It started as a weekend event. “I remember us sitting at Skaftfell bistro, literarily calling people and begging them to participate,” says Björt. “But then a few years in, it exploded and, in the blink of an eye, the festival had grown into being a full week international art festival with a great reputation and artists all over the world wanting to participate in one way or another.”
At LungA, the hedonism of music festivals and the passive “audience role” of most arts festivals is replaced with an atmosphere of crackling creative energy that’s pregnant with possibility.
It’s something that was built into the foundations. “When the idea of LungA was born, it was all about giving young people the opportunity of meeting in creative expression,” says Björt. “We’ve held on to that vision and kept on developing in that direction. It’s extremely important to us that LungA is about co-creating an experience. We design and manage the frames, but all the content is made in a fusion between established artists, up and coming ones, and total newbies. We believe in the intimacy this structure creates.”
Smells like team spirit
Over the years, Seyðisfjörður has become well-known with Icelanders as a creative town with a sparky local community, in direct contrast with the dire straits many other small rural towns find themselves in.
“I think it’s a combination of many factors,” says Björt. “But basically it’s team spirit if you ask me. Seyðisfjörður has always had entrepreneurial, free-spirited people who’ve been good at believing in themselves and supporting each other—in the creative sector, as well as the fishing industry, production and sports, to name a few. We are the small town with the big heart. There is something in the mountains that draws energetic people towards this fjord and makes great things happen. A local myth says that Mountain Bjólfur has a crystal core that protects the town. Maybe that’s the most reasonable answer,” she laughs. “The crystal core of Mountain Bjólfur.”
The town legacy as a trailblazer goes back further. In the 1900s, Seyðisfjörður was the closest port to mainland Europe, so some Norwegians settled there, teaching the locals about handling fish. “The town made the national news, and an entrepreneurial spirit started to grow,” says Björt. “When the phone and internet lines came to Iceland, they entered in Seyðisfjörður. There was a soda factory and a candy factory, and it was the first town in Iceland to capture enough natural electricity to light and heat a whole town.”
Then the artist wave struck. “I’m sure you can find a lot of artistic practice before this time, but in my mind it started with Dieter Roth,” says Björt. “He came here and fell in love with the place, and spent a lot of time here with his son Björn Roth, and his grandsons. Dieter brought artist friends here from all over the world, many of whom have come back on a regular basis. The energy around Dieter and his friends, family, and his local crew was one of the sparks for this creative community we have today.”
The festival continues to grow and evolve with each edition. This year, it will include a new LungA LAB. “We’ve been working on this for the last few years, and it seems to be manifesting properly this year,” says Björt. “We call it LungA LAB because it’s experimental, and we don’t know what will come out of it—but we hope it will bring awareness around a topic we focus on each time, sparking interesting conversations, kindness in people’s interrelations, and hopefully some collaborations. This year it’ll be a series of international talks and events around the topic of gender.”
So if you happen to be in Iceland between July 15th-22nd, find a way to get over to Seyðisfjörður, and who knows—maybe you’ll end up in joining a LungA kindness cult yourself.
LungA takes place July 15th-22nd in Seyðisfjörður, East Iceland. Get further info and tickets at lunga.is. Find a LungA festival pullout in our latest issue.