Like many Reykjavík residents, I was immensely excited about the planned blackout in the city last week. I had admired the idea of a lightless city since I first heard Andri Snær Magnason bring it up in the year 2000 in relation to Reykjavík being one of the European Cities of Culture. Turn off the lights, watch the stars and experience the majesty of the sky above. What a brilliant gesture. At that time the proposal was denied. Now, six years later, the city council gave it the green light. All streetlamps in the city were to be turned off for half an hour in the hope of making the city as dark as possible. How could one not look forward to such a grand performance?
At the same time as I was excited for the event, I was nervous for Magnason, who would finally see the payoff of all his work. Regardless how cooperative the authorities were, in the end it would all depend on the general public and private companies’ participation.
Text messages and e-mails circulated, advertisements and posters printed and news stories written and broadcast, all with the goal of encouraging people to turn off the lights in their homes and businesses. No one can say the PR didn’t do its job well. Still, I was afraid the solidarity wouldn’t be as expected, as in the end, proved to be the case.
That was a fact I was unaware of when heading to Grafarholt in a Peugeot full of friends, determined to have a good view over the whole city. Parked next to a number of other cars we waited for the lights to go off. At 22:00 they did. Well sorta.
I have to say, it was awesome seeing the streetlights turned off. The city dimmed and the atmosphere grew relaxing. What pissed me off were all the lights still shining in companies, gas stations and floodlit buildings in every direction I looked. Car traffic and fireworks assisted in lighting up the city and spoiling it for the rest of us. I have to admit; when I realised this was it. I was disappointed.
As my friends and I were now longing for the complete blackness we hoped to experience, and not in the mood to drive home just to turn-on the TV, we decided not to drive back downtown, but in the opposite direction. In search of darkness we ended up finding ourselves driving out of the city. At first the streetlights brightened up the edge of the road along the way but as soon as we exited Mosfellsbær and approached Þingvallahreppur, there was no light to be seen on the road. With no traffic, the only light we got was from the headlights of the car. We parked, turned off the lights and gazed up at the black midnight sky. Now it didn’t matter anymore that there were no twinkling stars. We finally experienced complete darkness. The only light in view was a yellow ring up in the sky in the far distance, created by the light contamination from Reykjavík, sending a gleam across the sky.
In saying I was disappointed with Reykjavík’s non-blackout I’m not undermining the whole concept or the effort that was made in attempts to make it a reality. The idea has not only gained well-earned global attention, it also saved citizens and the city money in electricity costs. It’s my sincere hope this will become an annual event. With every repeat occasion, new blackout supporters will join the group, someday resulting in Magnason’s dream coming to majestic fruition. If we look at last week’s event as a rehearsal, next year’s premiere might prove to be a success.
For me, the event was for the most part a reminder of how close we are to wilderness. In only 20 minutes or so, urban residents can easily be exposed to a complete natural blackout, and no grumpy company owners and party poopers can spoil that for us. Icelanders are privileged by how easily we can enjoy the darkness and the “unwrapped sky” just by leaving the city. If there’s one thing I need to thank Magnason for, it is simply reminding me of just that.