From Iceland — Art In The Time Of Corona: Can Inherently Social Art Survive Isolation?

Art In The Time Of Corona: Can Inherently Social Art Survive Isolation?

Art In The Time Of Corona: Can Inherently Social Art Survive Isolation?

Published May 4, 2020

Hannah Jane Cohen
Photo by
Art Bicnick

In this current climate, artists of all mediums are facing difficulties. When stuck in social distancing, quarantining, or—God forbid—dealing with the virus itself, how do those who rely on shows and concerts to sustain and spread their word? To find out, the Grapevine reached out to five artists in town —GDRN, Hatari, Gógó Starr, Daði Freyr, and Une Misère— who have all seen their lives irrevocably change due to the pandemic. From complete loss of employment to artistic angst to a new hope, each is attempting to deal and heal with this new world.

HATARI

Matthías Tryggvi Haraldsson of Hatari is in quarantine—the proper kind. He’s safe, he emphasises, but has been relegated to his apartment after having been exposed to the COVID-19 virus. “I’m stable,” the poet, vocalist, and playwright assures me, his voice crackling over the phone. “I think I function very well in a quarantine situation. Mostly I am just reading, writing and cooking.“

Matthías and the rest of his BDSM-industrial-vinyl-enthusiast-trio had just finished the first leg of their—ahem, perhaps aptly-named—Europe Will Crumble tour, when the pandemic began ramping up on the continent. They subsequently had to postpone or cancel all of the shows on the second leg, as well their summer gigs. “This is especially strange for us since we talk about apocalypse situations and dystopia often in our music,” he says.

A reference point

In Matthías’ opinion, this epidemic is no doubt going to irrevocably change how one views, experiences, or creates any art for the foreseeable future. “This will be a universal reference point and I’m sure many artists will race to have a take on it,” he explains. “There will be a wave of pandemic art, but I think also that artists don’t even need to go out of their way to tackle this. I think it will just be in the room as an added layer of meaning to anything. It’s inescapable. It affects us all.”

Curiously, the famously cynical artist has a rather hopeful outlook on the crisis. “Obviously, it’s horrible, but there are some positives, you could say,” he pauses. “Oh, I sound like a boring politician. You don’t want to downplay how serious it is, but on a whole, the positive is that everyone is prioritising what they need, what is important, and maybe once this blows over, we can rebuild in a more anti-capitalist spirit.”

Picking up the pieces

That said, on an individual level, Matthías recommends not stressing and trying to take time to enjoy yourself. “You can just not do smart or productive things. It doesn’t have to be a life-coach moment,” he urges. “You don’t have to work through the must-read list you saw on The Guardian. You can also just cook some mushroom risotto and binge ‘Nathan For You,’ which you downloaded illegally.”

While Hatari has no plans to join the livestream wave, they coincidentally released their KEXP session video in the early weeks of the pandemic, so Matthías recommends watching that if you need a Hatari fix. That said, the trio will be back to crumble Europe—whatever is left of it—as soon as they can. “We will just pick up the pieces where we left them,” Matthías concludes.

GDRN

Guðrún Ýr Eyfjörð Jóhannesdóttir, a.k.a. GDRN, had just dropped her long-awaited sophomore effort when the pandemic hit Iceland. She had a big release show scheduled at Háskólabíó as well as numerous festival and summer appearances planned. “When [‘Spring’] came out, I didn’t realise how big this would become, so I was really scared then of not being able to have the concert, the release concert—which, of course, didn’t happen in the end,” she explains. “Then all of my gigs got cancelled and I was like, woah, ok, this is kind of scary.”

A new medium

Summer, the singer emphasises, would have economically been the bread and butter of her year—as it is for most live artists—so the gathering ban and pandemic as a whole has put her in a difficult position, especially on the tail of an album release. “I thought I was going to have a lot of income this summer so then I’d be good for the year, but now everything is cancelled. It’s weird. It’s not great,” she admits.

But Guðrún is taking the uncertainty in stride, staying positive and doing livestreamed shows online—an avenue many musicians are taking to support themselves in these difficult times. “It’s absolutely harder to do livestreamed shows. You’re in an empty space,” the singer says, bursting out laughing when asked about the change in medium. “You’re saying ‘Thank you!’ and then you get no response. There are a lot of people watching but you get no response so you’re like, ‘Ok, anyhow, here’s the next song!’”

Stay busy, stay positive

Outside of that, Guðrún is taking advantage of having more free time—something she says she hasn’t had in ages. “I’ve been doing a lot of yoga, running, reading, and watching ‘Game of Thrones.’” she laughs. “I’m getting the time off that I didn’t ask for, but maybe I needed. In the beginning [of the pandemic], I felt guilty because I was always so busy and all of a sudden I had nothing to do. But just let yourself be. No one is going to say, ‘Why are you so lazy?’ If they did, you can just say, ‘I’m self-distancing.’”

Staying busy, Guðrún emphasises, is imperative to staying sane in these troubled times. “If I become really bored, my mental health will not be that great. I think you have to work for good mental health while all this is happening,” she admits. “It’s scary and uncomfortable, I’m trying not to look at the news too often because I get stressed out.”

“You have to be positive because there are a lot of negative things happening. You have to look at the positive things, even if there aren’t many right now,” she explains. “And one day, when we get old, people are going to ask, ‘Were you alive when this COVID thing was happening?’ And we will be like, ‘Yes, sit down! I will tell you all about it.’”

Daði Freyr

If there’s any Icelandic music artist that one would say has been severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, it’d be Daði Freyr. The dark horse of the 2017 Söngvakeppnin competition, Daði returned to the RÚV stage this year with his winning hit “Think About Things,” which was slated as Iceland’s entry to this year’s now-cancelled 2020 Eurovision song contest.

The upbeat track unexpectedly went viral, with many people—both domestically and international—anticipating that with Daði’s entry, 2020 was finally Iceland’s year to win. “Of course!” Daði laughs, when this is brought up. “That was the plan all along.”

#Cancelled

“[Gagnamagnið and I] knew for a while that Eurovision was going to be affected in some way,” Daði explains. “When we competed in Iceland at Söngvakeppnin, there was talk among Gagnamgnið if we should go out in the audience after the show and greet people or if we should stay away because of this, so it was already, at that point, very high on our minds.”

It was therefore, in the end, not a shock to the artist when the song contest was cancelled. “We knew it would at least be different. We hoped that it wouldn’t be cancelled, but we had some time to anticipate it,” he admits.

The new audience awaits

Daði’s based in Berlin, which has implemented a much stricter gathering ban than Iceland. There’s a harshly enforced two-person maximum, which the musician assures he and his family are taking seriously. “I’m mostly at home and I have a studio at home so I am just doing the same as I would be doing,” he explains. “Except I am not going to Eurovision, and I am not meeting my friends so much.”

“Think About Things” becoming a runaway hit has kept the artist busy working on the business aspects of being a musician. “I am just working on the rest of my career,” he shrugs. “All of a sudden, I have a way bigger audience than I had before. I want to utilise that as much as I can.”

Daði recognises he’s in a rather privileged position. “This summer is going to be pretty bad for musicians that depend on the festivals for their income. It’s going to affect a lot of people more than it will affect me. I just got lucky with timing from this song blowing up because usually this summer would have been my main income for the year,” he explains. “But [because of “Think About Things”] I can work on different stuff right now. It’s going to be a weird time for a lot of Icelandic musicians.”

You do you!

Unfortunately, the answer to the number one question surrounding Daði Freyr’s future is a resounding no. “No, I will not compete again in Söngvakeppnin,” he laughs. “We won that already.” That said, if RÚV wants to send him to Eurovision, he’d still be up for competing. “If not, it is what it is!”

The sweater-clad singer recommends using your time productively during this pandemic, “Learn a new skill. Get an instrument and try to play that. Start painting. I see a lot of people are getting into fitness now and that’s not the dumbest idea. Just work on yourself. Use this time to do you,” he says. “You do you!”

Gógó Starr

“As a full time drag performer and event organiser, you could say I thrive in people gatherings,” Sigurður Starr Guðjónsson, better known as drag queen Gógó Starr laughs. “So basically, I’m about all the things that are just not applicable anymore.”

A forced vacation

The queen saw coronavirus affect her business rapidly and severely. “I remember when people began talking more and more about COVID-19, you could really notice this tension in the air because this is Árshátið season right now,” Gógó explains, referencing the importance of booking annual company parties for many artists. Gógó is a regular fixture at them. “I thought, maybe they’ll have to postpone certain gigs? So having a whole bunch of question marks in your calendar is never good but then almost overnight—the day that they announced the gathering ban—the entire calendar is just gone and you’re like, oh no, what do I do now? It was really scary.”

But Gógó’s a hustler, and immediately began thinking of what she could do next. While musicians have retreated to virtual shows online, drag is a particularly difficult gig to pull off without a crowd. There’s absolutely no history of it, so just how the plethora of international drag performers were going to survive during this pandemic was a real quandary in the community. “Drag is so interactive, and it’s a medium that’s weird to do alone in your house while broadcasting it, all the while hoping that it is received well on the other end,” she says.

It was a harsh realisation for the performer, who took the forced vacation as perhaps a divine sign that it was time to relax for a bit. “I had been working really hard up until this for so long, so I decided to take a tiny break and just focus on social media to bring some joy to people during this,” she explains. “I’ve been playing a whole lot of Dungeons & Dragons online with friends. Craft projects. The Final Fantasy VII remake just came out and it’s excellent. In a positive light, it’s also allowed me to go back into other creative things I just haven’t been giving myself time for.”

Who runs the world?

The turning point came when she was booked for Biqtch Puddin’s Digital Drag show on Twitch—the first big worldwide drag event online—along with drag superstars like Alaska Thunderfuck, Vander Von Odd, Bible Girl, Landon Cider and more.

“It changed the game. I hope that we will be seeing a lot more drag on the worldwide web. Looking to the future, I think [the COVID-19 pandemic] will really impact both how drag is perceived and performed,” Gógó says. “There were 2,500 people watching the digital drag show at once. That many people could never fit inside a club. There’s also international collaboration. I think it’s fostering some great stuff that we haven’t had to think about or push.”

Gógó is now inspired to do something similar in Iceland, though she admits she’s nervous to do so. “This is a new area and I think I am afraid to fumble with it. It’s terrifying to think of what if it just fails horribly,” she says. “Icelandic drag is so amazingly diverse in all its aspects and I think that’s something we should take the opportunity to underline and make bigger and better. This is also an excellent time to look more internationally and put all of our stuff on the internet to share so it’s not just Iceland, it’s everywhere.” She pauses. “Let’s take over the world, girls!”

Une Misère

The boys of Une Misère were beginning their first U.S. tour when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the fan. “We landed in the States on a Wednesday and within a couple hours of being there, we saw on every TV screen that Trump had banned all flights from Europe,” vocalist Jón Már Ásbjörnsson says solemnly over Skype.

It was unclear at that time just how serious coronavirus would be, so the quintet made the difficult decision to push on to Philadelphia, where they did their first show. Within half an hour of finishing their set, the tour was cancelled. “Our manager called us and said, ‘You need to go home right now,’” guitarist Fannar Már Oddsson recalls. “It was like getting mentally punched in the kidneys.” His video freezes, which prompts a laugh from fellow guitarist Gunnar Ingi Jones.

“Just leave him like that,” Gunnar smirks. It’s clear even a kidney punch didn’t dampen the band’s characteristic humour.

100% live

The quintet had long dreamed of touring the U.S., and after the success of their debut album, ‘Sermon,’ they anticipated it would be a game-changer for their career. Now, they are in a limbo, worried about the future of the band, the metal industry and the live music world as a whole.

“We are a live band 100%,” Fannar declares. “I hope that the whole industry bounces back and the consequences aren’t completely irreversible, because there’s nothing that comes close to the primal-ness of shows, of a concert setting. You can’t really mimic that online.”

Gunnar nods. “You can also imagine what the competition of putting out music next year will be—it’ll be pretty much impossible to promote new material,” he explains. “At the same time, all the promotional companies and venues are pretty much gone at this point, so it’s going to be interesting to see who takes up the torch.”

“But even though things seem like they are really dark right now, we try to have positive vibes,” Gunnar smiles. “We’re writing so much shit these days.”

Changing the world

At the same time, the crisis has already irrevocably changed how the boys view humanity as a whole. “It’s interesting to see how quickly we can take a stand on something,” Gunnar says. “The world has united and everyone is trying to do their best. It brings up questions: If we can actually do this, why can’t we save the planet now?”

For Fannar, it just reveals how quickly the world can mobilise—and why they haven’t already. “People often aren’t willing to change until they’re at the finishing line of being completely fucked,” he explains. “As long as your way of life isn’t being affected day by day most people don’t give a shit. They stand up and look at their surroundings and say, ‘Well, nothing is really wrong here.’ Now someone’s cousin is really sick or dies and they think, hey, maybe I should wash my hands and quarantine. Maybe I shouldn’t be jogging with the dog on fucking Laugavegur on a Sunday with 70 people around me during a gathering ban.” He pauses. “And why are those 70 people also there? Also, have you not been washing your hands?”

“I mean, I haven’t bought soap for ten years,” Jón smirks. “Chemtrails.”

The party has arrived

All emphasis that they’ve found their sanity through writing a new album, and also diving deep into other various hobbies.

“I’m teaching myself to play the classical guitar,” Jón admits. For Fannar, it’s all about food. “There’s stuff that you wouldn’t do normally from scratch, and now it’s like fuck it, I’ve got all the time in the world. I’ll make pasta and bake bread,” he adds. Gunnar, meanwhile, has been working out, and taking on fitness and wellness challenges.

“For me, this is a good time to learn how to juggle or whistle or yoyo or beatbox,” bassist Þorsteinn Gunnar Friðriksson adds. “So when people have parties again, you can be an asshole and juggle.”

“Wow, someone coming to my house and beatboxing and juggling at the same time?” Fannar laughs. “That’s someone I’d love to kick out of a party.”

Note: Due to the effect the Coronavirus is having on tourism in Iceland, it’s become increasingly difficult for the Grapevine to survive. If you enjoy our content and want to help the Grapevine’s journalists do things like eat and pay rent, please consider joining our High Five Club.

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