From Iceland — The Machine is Deaf

The Machine is Deaf

Published June 30, 2008

The Machine is Deaf

June 17, 1944, the greatest minds in Iceland convened on the banks of Lake Þingvallavatn to declare independence. From this day on, this nation should be a sovereign state, free from the tyranny of its Danish masters. June 13, 2008, mere days before the nation celebrated 64 years of independence, two great minds met on the banks of Lake Þingvallavatn to discuss their own declaration of independence and how to free this nation from the tyranny of its aluminium masters.

The Grapevine: First, tell me a little about how this is all connected: the concert, Andri’s book release and his upcoming film release. Is there more? How did this come together?

Björk: It was really just a coincidence. But with this, like so much else that has to do with this issue, people are very upset. I’ve never been a part of anything like this before, and I never really thought I would. But there is just so much at stake here. After I played the Hætta! concert, [a festival against the destruction of Icelandic nature in January 2006] I decided to pull back a bit. My experience is that it I should not be doing a hundred things at the same time, but rather just focus on doing three things and take them all the way. Also, I thought I would just do more good that way. But now, there was little slump, so I decided to just raise as much hell as possible. There were still people around who hadn’t given up entirely, and I started talking to them, and that’s when I met Andri. His book was just about to be released in English translation, and the movie was just about to be ready, it just seemed that a lot of people were thinking along the same lines all of a sudden.

Andri: Some people think that many different organisations mean disunion. But all these people are heading in the same direction. You could compare this with kiosk owners in Iceland. There is no disunion among kiosk owners, even if they are not in one organisation. This movement is spread out, mainly because there is no money involved; people are just working on their own terms. People often work better like that, focusing on single projects and finishing them. Sometimes people burn out completely and need to take a break, but they usually come back. Much like Björk, I have never been a part of a political organisation. I recently spoke to an American woman, a poet, who has been very active in protesting the war in Iraq, and she said: “I so look forward to when Obama becomes president, because then I can start writing poetry again.” When things like this happen, ordinary people are forced to take a certain responsibility, to adopt a cause, even if you are not necessarily used to it.

Björk. All these people in Iceland who care about nature, they have different opinions amongst themselves. To me, this is very much like how Bad Taste [the label established by The Sugarcubes in the 80s] operates. Everyone can bring in an idea and put it in action, and the others will support it, nobody is asked “how do you like this album?” If a member of Bad Taste wants to do it, the others will help. There is nothing democratic about it. This movement operates very much in the same way. If anyone has an idea, she can put it to action and the others will help out.

Andri: This is like a magnifying glass. There is a lot of energy available in the people, but right now it is spread out. The concert will serve like a burning glass. It will concentrate all that energy into one moment. There are hundreds of people who work full-time to make Iceland the biggest aluminium smelter in the world. Every day they show up for work and keep on doing what they are doing and when there is a little wave of protest, they just wait for it to run out and then they start again. But the machine is deaf. Even if people are protesting, the machine is deaf and it doesn’t hear them. People imagine that in a democratic society like this one, it is enough to write well-formulated and logical articles and partake in a democratic debate to change things. But it doesn’t seem to matter what you say. The voices of ordinary citizens are not heard.

Björk: I think the atmosphere is also very different from what it was when we did Hætta! concert in ’06, especially among young people, and outside of Reykjavík. At first, people thought they had no influence; this thing would go through, no matter what they thought. But now I think, and that is what makes me especially excited for this concert, there is an awakening. I’m not exactly excited to push my own opinions and have people agree with me, I’m excited that people want to be heard. I’m excited to hear from people outside Reykjavík, people who live in Húsavík, and other places where projects are being planned. These people have not had a strong voice in the media.

Andri: This is something that Björk has really put in perspective, because she has been around the world to “declare independence,” but there is something that happens when people are offered an oil refinery or an aluminium smelter, when people are offered the big solution and they anticipate billions coming in to the economy in the next three to four years, for them, that’s a lifetime. Usually, it is difficult to anticipate the next six months, but three years, that’s a lifetime, so people become blinded to their own capabilities and opportunities. They stop asking what they can do, and every opportunity becomes a threat to the Big Solution. You need to prove to the nation that you really need the Big Solution, so people talk themselves into complete hopelessness, to the level where there is nothing else available in the situation. It becomes a battle of un-independence. It is absurd. This idea of independence… we are led to believe that our health-care system, our education system, our very existence, is thanks to aluminium.

The Grapevine: What is your goal? What is it that you want to achieve?

Björk: Me, personally, I am not absolutely against dams. I could live with dams like Sigalda and the old smaller dams, what rubs me wrong is that we are doing it in the service of these big corporations. I came up through the grassroots, and I’ve never signed a big contract, I’ve been offered a five-years salary for doing a car advertisement, but I have always said no and maintained my own independence. This is where I am coming from, and I think that is why I am still making music today. I have total creative freedom. I believe that we should stop thinking: “Let’s do so much awesome with Alcoa,” but rather just do one third of what we have done with them, but instead do it all by ourselves, own it ourselves, and make something of it ourselves. If it is aluminium, we should make something from the aluminium here in Iceland, and put a stamp on it: “made in Iceland,” and sell it, rather than just be a stop for primary production. I think it so important that we own ourselves. I think that of all the people who opposed the Kárahnjúkar dam project, if it had been three times smaller, made by Icelanders – if this was a innovative start-up by Icelanders – and we would maintain all the profits for ourselves and make our own product from it here in Iceland, I think probably half of the people who were against Kárahnjúkar would have been of another opinion.

The Grapevine: So for you, this is just a matter of being independent?

Björk: It is not just a matter of being independent, because I am an environmentalist as well. But I think there is a certain percent of Iceland that is possible to dam, without going to the excesses of Kárahnjúkar. But I do think it is important. We always continue to be a colony. We’ve been brainwashed, first we had the Danes ruling us, then we had the US Army and there was this panic when the army left. It is like people can’t make independent decisions. The first steps are always scary for a grassroots operation. What should we do next? What is good for me? Or my village? My country? But people have to stay the course for those first difficult ten years
or fifty years or what it becomes. This is something I feel I know something about. I have been a part of grassroots operation from the start of my career, and I was a broke single mother, but I never sold out. I stayed the course for ten years, selling books house to house to make a living. I did everything on my own terms, and I think that is the most important thing.

Andri: Think about it this way. What if we had never started to fish cod, and now we were waiting for Alcoa or some other company to come here and hire 40 strong men to fish cod? I mean, we built this fishing industry on our own terms. I am not saying we should isolate ourselves from the rest of the world. It is entirely natural that foreign companies operate and invest in Iceland, but when a company is here on its own terms to utilise our natural resources, instead of being here on our terms, it becomes a very unhealthy pattern. If Alcoa owns two smelters, one in the east, and one in the north, they are using all the available energy in the east and all the available energy in north, and if they need more energy, we are not really in a position to say no to them. We are not getting that much for our energy that we are really free. We are paying off these dams for 40 years, while Alcoa is paying off their smelters in five years. They are free in five years. We are always in a situation of need.

Björk: We need to rid ourselves of this feeling of inferiority. This feeling that we are not as good as people in other countries. We are like a child that is desperate for everyone’s friendship. We are on our knees. That means we are in a very unhealthy and abusive cooperation with these companies. My theory is that if you are strong, secure and independent, then you are much more qualified to be in cooperation. Then you are in cooperation on equal grounds. If you are strong, secure and independent, you can cooperate with aliens and still be very Icelandic. When you are insecure and desperate… the same rules apply in a relationship between nations and corporations as between two friends.

Andri: To dam or not to dam is also a question of proportion. In the last hundred years we have harnessed an x amount of energy. In the last three years, we have doubled that number. In the next three years they want to redouble it. Everything moves at 200 kph. The excess is too much. We are not allowed to slow down. If someone asks them to slow down to 150 kph, that person is a fanatic. It is the proportions that people don’t understand and it has never been explained. Around Húsavík, there is available energy to serve one million people. It would be possible to go into a geothermal area and even build energy plants underground that would look like a hot spring from the surface. This is possible, but there is no time for that. In one phase they have to make enough energy to serve all of Reykjavík. But that is still not enough, so they have to go into another area to get enough energy to serve Reykjavík again, but that is still not enough, so they have to into Gjástykki, to get a little more, because the aluminium smelter needs so much energy. Then they want to handcuff themselves to this smelter that always has the upper hand, for the next forty years. The ownership of these smelters is very uncertain. We might wake up one day to find out that the same company owns five aluminium smelters here in Iceland. In the meantime, people have been fed words like ‘export revenue’ and led to believe that everything we have is thanks to aluminium instead of the other way around. People don’t realise that Alcoa saves 20 billions a year in energy expenditures by closing down a factory somewhere else and building a new one here.

Björk: The world is standing at a crossroad with the future of energy right now. To nail all our energy down to aluminium smelters right now is ridiculous. Why should we not be a part of this change? Why should we not be a part of the innovation? We should discover something new. I am not just thinking about saving nature now. If I were a businessman I would be thinking forward, towards the future. I think there would more money in that.

Andri: Green energy amounts to about 5% in the European market. There are many companies in Europe that are willing to pay premium prices for green energy. We are ruining Iceland’s image as a green country. Our best option would be to sell green energy to less energy-sensitive companies – something like 10 megawatts – that desire a green image, and sell the energy at a normal price instead of selling at cut-rate prices. That would more than make up the difference.

Björk: Yes, there are other options besides aluminium smelters. These are exciting times. It is great that we have not managed to totally fuck up this country yet, and we are standing at a crossroad right now. We could just jump right into the 21st century and be a part of the solution. What we need more than anything is information. And that is my goal with this concert.

  • Who Andri Snær Magnason
  • Born Reykjavík, July 14, 1973
  • Occupation Author
  • What Dreamland – A Self-Help Manual for a Frightened Nation, The Blue Planet, Lovestar
  • Who Björk Guðmundsdóttir
  • Born Reykjavík, November 21, 1965
  • Occupation Singer
  • What Volta, Medúlla, Vespertine, Homogenic, Post, Debut
Support The Reykjavík Grapevine!
Buy subscriptions, t-shirts and more from our shop right here!


Cover Features
LungA Comes Full Circle

LungA Comes Full Circle


Cover Features
The Town That Nature Closed

The Town That Nature Closed


Show Me More!