From Iceland — Breathing Life Into Arts Education

Breathing Life Into Arts Education

Published October 14, 2014

LungA School seeks to empower students with a creative, bilateral learning process

Breathing Life Into Arts Education
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LungA School

LungA School seeks to empower students with a creative, bilateral learning process

With university becoming more expensive in many parts of the world, mainstream education tends to lean towards the former, feeding the idea that higher qualifications should serve first and foremost as a path to economic security rather than to an enlightened viewpoint. The “university experience” has come to mean both a kind of holiday camp for young adults to begin establishing themselves away from their family, and a programme of economically motivated and vocational-minded learning. Education, cast in such stark terms, can be seen as an investment to be weighed against future earning potential.

Of course, not everyone sees it this way. Most people passing through arts education aren’t in it primarily for the pay, but to pursue their chosen subject driven by the hunger to learn and develop, both personally and creatively. Whilst relatively few might end up making a living solely as a playwright, painter or poet, arts education nonetheless produces creative individuals suited to a wide range of valuable roles in society.

Exactly how to go from being a graduate to a financially stable arts practitioner or a fully fledged culture worker has always been something of an opaque and uncharted process, without the relative job security that comes with training as a doctor or a teacher. Many struggle, taking a while to discover the niche in which they can apply their talents, or falling into other jobs along the way.

But this autumn in Seyðisfjörður, over on the eastern coast of Iceland, a new folk school has appeared to help young artists realise their potential and find a good path forward.

A hidden place

Seyðisfjörður feels like something of a hidden place. The road into the town is the infamous Fjarðarheiði mountain pass, which has to be ploughed several times a day in winter; the surrounding mountains cradle the fjord on all sides, meaning the sun sets early behind the clifftops, and the town is often held under a delicate layer of mist.

In recent years, it’s become an East Iceland cultural centre, with several enclaves appearing: from the Skaftafell residency and gallery, to a museum dedicated to Iceland’s industrial history, to the vibrant and increasingly venerated LungA Festival—an event comprising arts workshops, gigs and a host of other events, bringing together many of Iceland’s brightest creative minds in one place.

One of the key people behind LungA is Björt Sigfinnsdóttir, a Seyðisfjörður native and a graduate of Kaospilots, a forward-thinking Danish business school.

“The LungA festival has been an annual event since the summer of 2000,” she explains. “It was made to answer the needs of young, creative people that wanted an expressive playground for artistic output.”

The festival has developed since then, becoming an important mark on the summer calendar for its participants, many of whom travel from around the world to be there. “This festival is unique—it has an energy that isn’t to be found anywhere else, due to a mixture of things,” says Björt. “There’s the natural surroundings, and the openness of Seyðisfjörður’s society. And then, we provide the framework, from within which the participants create all the content, resulting in a different outcome each year. The feeling is that LungA’s participants are in control of its direction, and anything is possible.”

The wellspring of excitement and positivity generated by the festival has naturally led on to new ideas. “We found we wanted to use this energy for something more,” smiles Björt, “to build on it, and capture it over a longer period of time.”

New school thinking

The idea of a LungA School was long in the planning, germinating into a solid concept in 2010. “Many people had talked in the past about establishing some kind of educational institution in Seyðisfjörður, as the atmosphere of the town is inspiring and fertile,” Björt explains. “We’ve worked hard on developing the concept, creating a solid platform with good collaboration partners, making a business plan, designing the curriculum, and putting the board of the school together. It took just over three years to prepare the opening of the school before our our first test month, the LungA School BETA programme.”

“It’s an experience of going far away from your normal setting and routines and diving into something unknown.”

This pilot version happened in March, attracting thirty Icelandic and international applicants who underwent a detailed interview process via email and Skype conversations, with a final seventeen forming the first LungA School group. “We figured that we’d need a better understanding of who they were in order to put together the ‘right’ group,” Björt explains. “We were looking for a group that would be able to both support and challenge each other—diverse in the sense of different backgrounds, cultures, ages, et cetera.”

The test programme happened semi-publicly, with Seyðisfjörður locals and interested people invited to the opening and closing parties, and a healthy flow of documentation spilling out via social media. Afterwards, several of the participants said the experience had been nothing less than life-changing.

“It was great, very educational for all of us,” Björt says, “and not least for the students, which was a very good feeling for us. We got a fantastic group from eight countries and very different backgrounds. We tested out different parts of the curriculum and got a lot of feedback—both directly, and also through observing their reactions. It was just great in every single way.”

Plugging the holes

LungA School doesn’t formally target any given demographic, but the course appeals to younger people from various creative disciplines. As such, the school functions as a bridge from traditional arts education, empowering students to put their creativity to work in different ways.

“The personal and the professional experience and development aspects are closely connected,” Björt says. “We believe that you become better at whatever craft or field you’re working in if you ‘know yourself’—meaning awareness of your own presence, strengths, challenges, passions et cetera. And we believe that this work also allows you to get to know your surroundings and your context in society better. So some of what we do is to provide the tools to shed light on these dynamics and connections.”

It’s a far cry from the one-size-fits-all structure that many university courses entail. “The experience we aim to provide is an intense program filled with joy, laughter, challenges, surprises, hard times, easy times and much more,” Björt explains. “It’s an experience of going far away from your normal setting and routines and diving into something unknown. It is a continuous mix between hands-on work, play and experimentation, and then a more reflective space for digging deeper into the learning and the understanding of what is taking place.”

This emphasis on experimentation and personal development sets the school apart from the experience offered by more traditional institutions. “Put roughly, in my opinion, the traditional educational system has shifted towards serving the machinery of society rather than the people that constitute it,” Björt says. “But life does not exist in service of schools or society—rather, schools and society should exist in service of life. And by ‘life’ I don’t mean survival, or sustaining living standards, or whatever seems to be the agenda of the day, but ‘life’ as in the feeling of being alive!”

Bilateral learning

The LungA experience is enriched by the enlisting of well-known figures in Icelandic art, dance, music and other disciplines, as workshop leaders. The students are encouraged to try out each activity, while the core LungA staff help guide their experience and progress on an individual level.

“We look at the overall framework, and the parts between workshops and lectures,” Björt says. “We also focus on connecting the different experiences for the participants, serving as personal sparring partners for each of them. We have talented teachers designing and leading the workshops, with many years of experience, so it’s possible for students to get really far in a short time.”

The experience has proven inspiring for the teachers, too, with students providing the freshness of an untrained eye. “Many of our teachers mentioned that it was great for them to work with people who had little or no experience within their field,” Björt says. “It was interesting for the teachers to see how they tackled problems, and what creative solutions they came up with, from a perspective not moulded by years of experience. The teachers can find it challenging and valuable to articulate how their medium works, what it can do, what makes it special and so on. They seem to get even clearer on their own work by being here.”

In keeping with this bilateral approach, the school offers students the chance to tailor their own learning to get the most out of their time. “We don’t tell them what to learn,” Björt says, “but rather offer the resources so they can experiment and find out what they want to learn for themselves. We invite them and guide them into a program where they are able to take responsibility for their own learning and their own journey.”

And whilst Björt is clear that LungA’s approach is not the only way forward for arts education, she makes a strong case for the school as a valuable supplement to existing universities and art academies, and as a useful breathing space. “We have never had access to more information, more data, more opportunities,” she says, “and yet we have never asked fewer questions about the meaning of it all. We’re too busy adapting and trying to understand the changes around us, and have no time to understand ourselves. This type of school offers a space for reflection, contemplation, experimentation and sparring in the process of asking oneself some of these questions.”

Report Card

We asked a couple of LungA’s School’s first students how their time in Seyðisfjörður was.

lunga school rakel

“I don’t remember exactly how I found out about the LungA School. I had been interested in going to the festival for a few years and when I heard that it would possibly become a school I decided that it would be something I would like to do. The situation of the school attracted me – the beautiful landscape and small town is a perfect place to look deep inside and try to get in touch with one’s creative side. I didn’t know what to expect at all, and it was completely amazing. Words can hardly describe. I got to know so many amazing people, do so many great things and see such beautiful landscape.

The dance workshop with Saga Sig was great. I got to know myself in a different way and felt more secure about dancing after that week. And the weekend we went to Skálanes with Goddi. The weather was amazing, the food was great, took lots of Sauna and Goddur had some very interesting lectures.

I learned so many new things about myself and have so many great memories. Those I will take with me. I’ll also keep some notes I wrote while we were doing the soul searching, and rocks from the trip to Skálanes since we found so many beautiful ones on the way there.” – Rakel Íris Eiríksdóttir

lunga school ólafur sverrir traustason

“Last summer I attended LungA for the first time, I had a great time and fell in love with the town of Seyðisfjörður. Later that summer I read about the school online and immediately applied. The thought of staying a month in Seyðisfjörður, doing god knows what, was very enticing. I had no expectations of what I was getting into, leading up to it I was mostly thinking how nice it was going to be to eat three times a day and get up early in the morning. Going in with a clear slate really helped me take everything as it came.

After all is said and done I can honestly say it’s been the most rewarding and invigorating time of my life. The process was well constructed and had a great balance of pushing you on and letting you sit back. Two of the four weeks we focused on ourselves, and on us as a group. We went into our pasts, exploring patterns and how we define ourselves then after some pretty intense self exploration we turned our eyes forward. Looking onwards we constructed a future self to aim towards and set ourselves goals and thought about ways to get there.

An experience like this will always be a bit in and of itself in the memory and in the larger scheme of things, but I know in some ways I have changed considerably. I feel a certain calm and confidence that I’ve gained from systematically dissecting yourself and then building you up again. Staying active and losing that fear of doing, that fear of expectation. That’s what I truly hope to take away with me.” – Ólafur Sverrir Traustason

LungA school next semester runs January 12 – April 5, 2015, in Seyðisfjörður, Iceland. You can sign up online.

See Also:

Creativity For All

Listen To Your Art

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