From Iceland — Being HERE: Using Art To Revitalise Their Town

Being HERE: Using Art To Revitalise Their Town

Published August 27, 2015

Being HERE: Using Art To Revitalise Their Town
Photo by
John Rogers

As the road winds its way around one particularly dramatic section of the Eastfjords towards the remote village of Stöðvarfjörður, one building leaps out from across the narrow fjörd. On the shoreline, just metres from the choppy sea, sits a hulking industrial structure that’s covered in a variety of bright, eye-catching murals. At the top of the building, four bright orange letters spell out a single defiant, affirming word: HERE.

Sköpunarmiðstöðin (the HERE Creative Centre, in English) has an intriguing story. Like many of Iceland’s remote coastal settlements, Stöðvarfjörður was once a prosperous fishing town with a factory to process the catch. But when the company behind the factory decided to move their operation elsewhere in 2005, it took 30 jobs with it. It was a hammer blow to a town of 250 people, and with no obvious replacement in sight, depopulation began as people left to seek jobs elsewhere.

Over the following years, the factory itself sat empty, slowly falling into a state of disrepair. By 2011, the local council had deemed the building unsafe, and started forming plans to tear it down. But a small group of locals envisioned a different path for the 2800 square metre space. “We came up with an alternative plan to reinvent the building as a creative centre,” says Rósa, a local artist and a key figure in the regeneration project. “We formed a nonprofit co-op association that managed to buy the house at auction for 101,000 ISK.”

Extreme volunteerism

Rósa is one member of the lively and engaging core team of creative people – in various disciplines – who’ve dedicated themselves since then to the development of the centre. Two others are Una Björk, a colourfully dressed, e-cig-huffing Icelander who’s been visiting the town since she was 17, and Vinny, a chirpy Irish musician and sound engineer who came on board to build a state-of-the-art recording studio in the factory.

We meet the three in the centre’s homely concert venue, still festooned with flags and lanterns from the recent Pólar Festival. “When we got the building in July 2011, it was in a horrible state,” says Rósa, looking around the cosy space. “The roof was leaking, there was no electricity, and it was full of mess from the factory days. We’ve been reconstructing it for a long time. We’re just a few volunteers with not much money.”

As we walk around the factory, the scale and ambition of the project soon becomes apparent. The spaces are clean, bright and dry, far from the dripping, murky halls I’d imagined. We wander through a well-stocked tool room, print and metal workshops, a craft shop selling locally made objects, a wood workshop, and a cavernous storage space that’s a treasury of mismatched furniture, industrial shelving, lamps, trolleys, and all kinds of useful ephemera.

“You learn how to be an expert on all kinds of things,” laughs Una. “I never thought in my life that one day I’d be saying: ‘Yes, you know, I’m very well informed about air conditioning systems and plumbing.’ But now we’re climbing the last little mountain—fire hoses, things like that – and then we can start to open up all this potential.”

“We’ve seen in this town that if that we rely on one industry, and it falls, then everything else collapses on its ass. We want to demonstrate an alternative way to create a sustainable, blossoming society, with enjoyable jobs in a healthy work environment.”

Grand designs

That potential includes a wide range of endeavours, from the centre’s already up-and-running artist residencies, to workshops for school groups, retraining for the long-term unemployed, art and music events for the local community, and creating jobs by putting the facilities to work.”

“It’s not just about art here,” says Una. “We want to demonstrate that creative endeavours can resurrect a society, through many small things, instead of one big one. We’ve seen in this town that if that we rely on one industry, and it falls, then everything else collapses on its ass. We want to demonstrate an alternative way to create a sustainable, blossoming society, with enjoyable jobs in a healthy work environment.”

HERE - craft shop

One example is a small business based in the wood workshop, turning out handmade toys that are sold all around Iceland. “The toy factory could potentially create two jobs,” says Una. “Every single job is huge in a town of this size. And then there’s our ceramics studio, which could create one or two more. The recording studio could create another. And there’s so much more…”

The three get excited as they animatedly discuss how the facilities can work in harmony, enabling ambitious large-scale projects to unfold. “You can come here with an idea, and complete it, from A-Z,” says Una. “If you come to record music, you can also screen—print your t-shirts, album artwork and posters, and walk out with everything you need, all made under one roof. We’ll provide the facilities – the best you can get – and the people who come here can do anything they want to in this house.”

Jumping off the cliff

We finish our tour of the factory in the custom-built Studio Silo. The isolation booths are ready to have their chunks of sound-proof glass installed to create line-of-sight windows across the control room, which will be packed with vintage recording equipment. Vinny explains how they’ve been working with a veteran studio designer, who agreed to donate his time and expertise to the project, coaching them through the building process over Skype.

I express amazement at what the group and their community of volunteers have managed to accomplish with such slender means. “For me, this is a new kind of business thinking,” says Rósa. “It can be very hard to persuade people of what is possible. The idea of just starting something is difficult to explain—the idea of adapting, improvising, collaborating to make it all happen.”

“People sometimes ask us how we did this,” continues Una, “and where we got all the funding. But I tell them, sometimes you just have to start something. For example, we started this with a Karolina Fund campaign to raise 500,000 ISK—but what you stand inside of now is worth four times that much. We just started this, and put out a lot of energy, and then it comes back in the shape of all these amazing people who are helping us. That’s how this whole house is. We just had to jump off the cliff!”

Flights provided by Air Iceland, book your flights here.

Car provided by Hertz Iceland, book your car here.

Accommodation provided by Berunes, book your room here.

Learn more at the HERE centre’s website. 

To get involved as a volunteer, email here.

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