From Iceland — It’s a Lonely Old Town

It’s a Lonely Old Town

Published August 10, 2007

It’s a Lonely Old Town

So, you’re wandering around bustling downtown Reykjavík, dodging prams, nibbling harðfiskur, running into everyone you know and enjoying the vibrant street culture on a typically sunny Icelandic summer’s day… Hang on, a couple of things wrong with that sentence. Firstly, this summer has been unusually temperate: don’t rely on it. It seems that this year the Atlantic jet-stream has become confused and is sending all the ‘normal’ Icelandic summer weather further south, to the lucky folks in the U.K. The second wrong piece of information is the bit about street culture. What street culture? And by street culture I don’t mean kids running around with spray cans “expressing themselves” under the cover of night – that kind of culture is thriving. I’m talking about public interaction, shared humour, strangers smiling together, the street performers.

Desperately Bare Streets

Being the exploding tourist hub that it is, Reykjavík has a ridiculously low number of street performers working downtown. Why? Go to any other European capital and you’ll find them: booming voices, with a growing circle of people around them cracking one liners at the expense of the lonely volunteer, standing in the middle with his eyes closed while holding the chainsaw in one hand, a rubber chicken in the other, you get the picture. Why doesn’t this happen here? Where are the statue people, the fire-twirlers, the beat poets, the jugglers? Some cities have a whole industry based on these people. Despite the obvious reasons why street performers would avoid Iceland during the winter, there is no concrete reason why the streets are so desperately bare during the summer. And thanks to the jet stream, what a great summer to be performing.

A street performer is someone who engages in some form of public entertainment, music, dance, acrobatics, visual art, mime, for a pedestrian audience and usually receives a monetary donation. The audience may be stationary or passing. The stationary audience will usually be watching a circle show which is around 5–15 minutes long and the passing audience might catch a couple of minutes of a 1–2 hour busking session. The odd lone guitarist sitting on a mini-amp qualifies as a street performer, so does the chalk artist drawing on the pavement, so does the balloon bender, the circus performer, the statue people etc.

They’ve been around since recorded history began. There is evidence of busking during the Roman times and the Chinese are believed to have had travelling acrobats as far back as 4000 years ago. Performers add colour and life to a city; they encourage public interaction and also give shoppers a chance to re-vitalise during their busy day. So, the big question, where are they in Reykjavík?

The Answer is Sadly,
Nowhere to be Seen

I can count on one hand the regular performers here. In fact, half of one of my hands. Wally the clown has been bravely flying the banner in Lækjatorg since his arrival in Iceland a year ago. His circle shows have brought out smiles in both summer and, yes, winter and whenever his name is mentioned most people have some memory of his wild, sometimes dangerous humour. The other bloke is a guitarist who has been performing all over the city for many, many years. He goes by the name of Jojo and can often been seen in Kolaportið on the weekends. And that’s about it for the regulars. I see a hole in the industry.

Hitt Húsið came up with a brilliant idea to fill this void while encouraging the younger generations to find their own forms of self-expression on the streets. Founded in 1991, Hitt Húsið is an information and culture centre for young people, aged 16–25 years. It is run by the Youth and Sports Council of Reykjavík City. Icelandic high schools take their summer break during the months of June, July and August and the city council has found various ways to keep the students occupied during this time. Hitt Húsið developed a programme of street theatre for teenagers where groups train for six to eight weeks in various theatrical and circus skills with a professional coach, then take these skills to the streets every Friday during the summer. So, you might notice oddly dressed youngsters parading around, pulling attention, brightening the city centre with their wild antics. This has helped breathe some life into Reykjavík but these groups are still what you might call the apprentices of street performance. They have little experience, big ideas and small budgets. They may one day become buskers of the future but are for now basically just having fun on their holiday. A great learning experience but not the street performance that has made places like Covent Garden, and Fisherman’s Wharf the hot spots that they are today.

Unfriendly Conditions

A street performer is primarily entertaining, but of course they have to pay bills like everyone else, so the big difference between a street performer and someone in a more organised street event is the way that they get paid. A big part of the skill, and possibly the most rewarding part, is how to get people to fill your hat. The age old phrase, ‘its not what you do its how you do it’, really makes sense when you’re dealing with a voluntary audience off of the street.

It’s not as if there are no people to perform for here, especially during the summer. Tourism brings over 370,000 people to the country every year, and that’s rapidly increasing, and 64.7% of those come during the summer. And, stop me if I’m wrong, I think a good 99% of those would take a walk downtown once or twice. Cruise ships frequently dock, 92 in the year 2005 bringing another 55 thousand people to Iceland, and these numbers are always increasing. There are some classic performance spots too, pitches that some international professionals might cringe to see empty every day.

There are a number of reasons why street performers wouldn’t want to work in Reykjavík. The reality is that this climate is not friendly to outdoor entertainers. No one wants to perform in freezing winds in front of an audience of two who don’t want to be outside watching a performance in freezing winds. Then the population here will not guarantee you a good audience (and therefore pay) for every show. Then there’s the fact that Icelanders are notorious with their credit cards and it can be rare to find a local with spare cash in the back pocket. Then of course there’s the fact that a lot of Icelanders don’t even know what the hell street performance is, let alone how to react to it. But what do good performers do when faced with an obstacle? Adapt.

A city is not a city without people connecting with one another. If that can only occur across a counter with the exchange of the credit card, then this city is rapidly creating an isolated population. Everyone knows what a valuable role our open community spaces fill – how these spaces allow people to interact and share ideas. Every community needs a place for its citizens to gather. We are social creatures. Positive, community building street level activities, like street performance, need to be encouraged. A city which encourages street performers is one which truly cares for its people. I can only say that weather and lack of knowledge are the two biggest reasons that international performers don’t visit during the summer. As for Icelanders, I really don’t know. Maybe global warming might help boost this industry in the future. For the meantime, enjoy your shopping.

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