From Iceland — Art For Every Body: Listahátið í Reykjavík returns with an eye on accessibility and inclusivity

Art For Every Body: Listahátið í Reykjavík returns with an eye on accessibility and inclusivity

Published May 31, 2024

Art For Every Body: Listahátið í Reykjavík returns with an eye on accessibility and inclusivity
Rex Beckett
Photo by
Hörður Sveinsson for The Reykjavík Grapevine
Supplied by Listahátið í Reykjavík

In the 54 years since its inception, Listahátið í Reykjavík (the Reykjavík Arts Festiva) has gone from being the gateway to the world for for Icelandic artists and culture to being among a set of highly acclaimed national events platforming every discipline of art in Iceland. The always highly anticipated biennale takes place once again this year — running from June 1 to 16 — with an underlying theme of sea monsters and the turmoil that lies beneath our feet. It seems rather fitting then, that the island is erupting just as the festival prepares to erupt itself.

“This programme was born in a different way to the others, almost in reverse,” says Vigdís Jakobsdóttir, artistic director and CEO of the festival since 2016. “Normally it is sort of this metaphor where you fill a jar with big rocks and then you can add smaller ones and then the sand comes to fill the rest. But in this case, apart from the sea monsters, many of the big events came later.”

From the thematically titular opening event by Hringleikur circus troupe and Pilkington Props to the rich and diverse programming spanning not only the capital but the entire country, the jar of this year’s festival has been filled with gemstones of highly lauded and established performers as well as ambitious and exciting emerging voices spanning disciplines and communities. This curatorial approach meets Vigdís’ primary mandate of accessibility and inclusivity.

Hörður Sveinsson for The Reykjavík Grapevine

“It’s always been a real passion of mine to bring the arts to a wider group and for everybody to have access,” says Vigdís emphatically. “I sincerely, firmly believe that we should all have access to and engage with art; to take part in creating art and to see ourselves being represented in the arts as well.”

A space for everyone

No other place in the festival is her passion for access as clear than in the programming of the Festival Hub. The “festival within the festival” that takes over Iðnó is the heart of the event with an entirely free programme of one-off events and full-day takeovers, curated by co-directors Aude Busson and Sigurður (Siggi) Starr Guðjónsson.

“We tried to use this open space as a place for encounters and a place of surprises,” says Aude. “I just really like the atmosphere in the house. The idea is that there is a space that is open to different artists, different communities, people that maybe don’t usually get spaces to perform.”

“It’s really using the advantages of our tiny little island when it comes to inviting different communities and that maybe haven’t been a part of the discussion for a while, if ever,” Siggi adds to this sentiment. “But it’s important that it’s also not just about getting them into the festival, but also into this spiralling chaos that is the local art scene.”

I sincerely firmly believe that we should all have access to and engage with art; to take part in creating art and to see ourselves being represented in the arts as well.

Both coming from a background in performing arts in very specific communities — Aude in the world of youth performing arts and Siggi in professional drag and nightlife entertainment — both are particularly attuned to experimentation, collaboration and unrestricted creative expression. The two applied to the job separately but were offered to co-direct the Hub, an opportunity which they leapt at and embraced.

“Some events had already been booked through the open call and some we inherited from the main programme,” says Aude. “Some things were dialogues that Vigdís already had with some people who knocked on the door and said, ‘Hey, where is there space for this?’ But first we had a little focus group that gave us some ideas about things that we could get a little more into.”

The focus group of which she speaks was a way for her and Siggi to access people and communities with links to or interest in arts and culture, but who have not found themselves represented, such as the elderly, Deaf people and cultural diasporas like Iceland’s Filipino and pan-African communities.

Future nostalgia

Their method of holding such group discussions also echoed Vigdís’ approach to how she has run the festival to date, both in terms of creative programming but also confronting its existential purpose.

“I went into this with a really open mind,” says Vigdís. “When I took over in 2016, we were still navigating at that time the new cultural landscape that was formalising. We were still recovering from the financial crash in 2008, so there was really a need to revisit the mission of the festival and really dive deep into why we are here.”

Vigdís created platforms and meetings that brought in not only the board of representatives, but a much wider group from across the cultural scene and also members of the public. This formed a space where important questions could be asked, getting to the core of whether the festival was even still necessary and if she would spend her tenure planning an exit strategy.

“All of these stories and people that came out really made me feel that this festival is so special, and we need to go back to those times,” she says. “I just thought this is impossible, you can’t recreate people’s nostalgia for the festival because the times have changed so much. So my secret mission became to create a nostalgia for the future. Rather than recreate something that people miss, my goal was to create something that people later would maybe miss or look back on as something special.”

This mission towards building a retroactive nostalgia went hand in hand with Vigdís’ mandate of accessibility and inclusivity, as only with changing alongside the evolving landscape of culture and population could this truly be achieved.

You can’t recreate people’s nostalgia, so my secret mission became to create a nostalgia for the future.

“For the people to really have a sense of ownership of the festival, people wanted to feel like the festival belonged to society and that society was equal,” says Vigdís. “Collaboration became the one word that sort of stuck out a lot, followed by representation.”

While it is not the only place in the festival where a wider audience and representation is found, the Hub is where that popular ownership truly feels the most prescient. The emphasis on access at all levels — physical, cultural, economical and so on — is in full effect from start to finish there. As directors of the Hub, Aude and Siggi are often far less involved with the creative planning than they are with the logistics of access.

“For certain communities or certain representation, it’s important for us not to just create something but to rather reach out and try to find projects that are either ongoing or ideas that are already out there,” says Siggi. “We are trying to give them a space to grow or to just ask them, ‘If you would get a space, what would you need from it?’”

This approach led to the Hub takeover days slated for every weekend of the festival’s run, where different groups get the entire venue to sub-curate a full-day programme. These include the Vökufélagið traditional arts community, the Happy Pinoy Filipino event and the Burlesque takeover.

Rights and privileges

The importance of physical access within the team’s accessibility and inclusivity mandate cannot be understated and is apparent to have been at the forefront of the discussion, not an afterthought. “You need to think about access and inclusion every step of the way, from the way you speak, the way you interact, the way you present, to how you recruit,” says Vigdís. “And with all the work we’ve done on inclusion and accessibility, we cannot stay in a building that is not accessible to some of our artists and friends. It’s embarrassing not to be able to invite certain artists to come and you have to meet them somewhere else.”

Aude also echos the sentiment that having able-bodied privilege caused the organisers some blushes.

“There are things that came up in our focus group immediately about parties or dancing events or concerts where usually you don’t have any chairs in the room and that means for many people, that’s just off,” says Aude. “You don’t have to have a visible disability in order to be accommodated. So that’s one thing that we decided — to always have chairs in the room. That’s just really easy, but someone still had to point it out to us.”

With all the work we’ve done on inclusion and accessibility, we cannot stay in a building that is not accessible to some of our artists and friends. It’s embarrassing.

On the subject of invisible disabilities, the Hub directors also factor in emotional and neurological health with a chill space for people to go unwind if they experience sensory overload amid all the hubbub.

With their work now done (for the most part) and the festival ready to erupt, Vigdís, Aude and Siggi have all navigated their directorial duties with seemingly a great deal of pride.

“I’m very excited for the programme. Even if I was not a part of it, I would be excited for so many events,” says Siggi. “But I’m so afraid of getting ahead of myself because the festival hasn’t happened yet.”

“I’m not too scared about it, I’m just excited to be there,” says Aude. “I’m also feeling that it’s going to be the time for letting go now. I don’t know what’s going to happen, how it’s gonna go, what are people going to find out and I’m really excited about it.”

As the outgoing artistic director, Vigdís has no desire to hog the title for life and is ready to hand over the reins to a fresh new spirit. She does, however, hope that whoever comes next will carry on the legacy of access and inclusion that she established during her time.

“This has become our mantra: the arts are a right, not a privilege,” she says, pointing to the back of the festival programme booklet. “It tends to be something that I get quoted on a lot, but it really lies at the core of what I stand for, so I’m fine with that.”


Meet The Artists

Having spoken to the heads of the curation of the Reykjavík Arts Festival, we felt that their mandate would best be exemplified in the artists’ own words. We reached out the artists behind several notable events on the programme that highlight the diverse art forms, practices and approaches representing the festival’s core values.

The Sea Monsters

Hringleikur (IS) & Pilkington Props (IS)
June 1, 15:00, Miðbakki (plus multiple tour dates around Iceland)

We follow the story of the mother monster having been accidentally caught and brought on land. In her distressed call we find other monsters from stories coming up on our shoreline seemingly in aid of their mother. The Sea Monsters is a street theatre performance where there is enough space for our monsters but of course wheelchairs and other modes of transport, too. Our show is extremely visual and it is enjoyed equally by Icelandic and non-Icelandic speakers, as it really doesn’t need many words at all. As the character designers, we at Pilkington Props love creating creatures and puppets with believable and realistic movements. As a group, we also try to reuse and recycle as much material as possible for all our works. Audiences can expect a world of mythical creatures to come alive — it will be spectacular!


Ásmundarsalur On The Go: Round Trip

Þórdís Erla Zoëga (IS) & Shu Yi (CN)
June 2-17, multiple locations

Round Trip emerged from our discussions about the shipping container, its symbolic and physical characteristics, and the surrounding environment. As a “neutral ground,” the container connects the world through tidal cycles, like a durational symphony created by the gravitational interactions between the Earth, Moon, and Sun. Our goal is to craft an immersive environment with a blend of art installations and interior design, evoking a sense of presence. The exhibition space is uniquely portable, designed to journey across various locations in the capital area, making art accessible to a broader audience. The exhibition interior is designed as an invitation for visitors to step out of conventional space perception and into a moment of serene exploration and heightened awareness. We hope to create a space that fosters presence and mindfulness, where thoughts, wonders, and reflections can flow freely.


Hér Á Ég Heima

Yuliana Palacios (MX/IS)
June 2-16, Gerðarsafn

The need to create a community has always been my way of life. The theme of this project is belonging and resilience. Hér Á Ég Heima is a very personal gift for the audience. It’s my way of saying we all can bloom in new environments. It is also my way of saying thanks to my new home and celebrating the journey of adaptation and growth. This project aims to create empathy and understanding for new Icelanders among natives. It is offering a space where all of those who feel they don’t belong to society can enter and feel good in a comfortable and safe environment. We also want to encourage new Icelanders to create art and make themselves heard. We are very excited to see what the audiences have to say about our work, what emotions it evokes within them and hopefully we can inspire people in some way.


POPera

Michael Richardt (DK) & Diana Burkot (RU)
June 7, 20:00, Iðnó

POPera takes place in a world where colourful werewolves save women throughout history from marriage and boredom, and help them grow wings, to become independent writers in their own right. Where angry infantile fashion werewolves cry for milk and nipple, and are fed ribs and dips by invisible spirits deep in the forest, before they put you to sleep and push you off to sea in a small boat, only to get picked up by pirates in flying spaceship dragons and have orgies with the goldfish women on the floating babyfather planet. Not to forget the faceless mineral beings, who communicate with sonic clairvoyance, performing the duty of customs officers in space taxing you of your memories, storing them as fine art in their enormous Interstellar Freeport. In the world of POPera there is room for everyone, the good and the bad and there is even wheelchair access and the opera will be sign language interpreted.


Duets

Ásrún Magnúsdóttir (IS)
June 9, 20:00, Borgarleikhúsið, 3.290—4.900 ISK

My work is always about amplifying the voices of those who are underrepresented in art and in life through choreography and dance and music. For that reason I tend to work with non-professionals and I’m doing that once again with Duets. It’s a series of portraits of different couples that each have different relationships to dance and to each other. They are lovers, siblings, friends, colleagues… In each duet, one person is disabled and the other is not. So it’s about giving the stage to unlikely bodies and celebrating their own personal dance. We can all be on the big stage, no matter our abilities or age or background. I’m excited about seeing the dancers shine like diamonds. Guests can expect a party vibe with energetic music and great unconventional performers and hopefully be inspired in many different ways.”


(H)andaflug

O.N. Productions (IS)
June 9, all day, Iðnó

The main goals of O.N. Productions are to bring Deaf and hearing cultures closer, by building bridges between different worlds of culture, language, and communities and to make space for representation of Deaf artists and contribute to more diverse role models in the performing arts, both on stage and behind it. The event is organised by Icelandic sign language-speaking individuals (both Deaf and hearing) and performed only by Deaf people. The space will be filled with Sign Language and Deaf culture. We are most excited about making space where this culture is dominant and where our guests get an opportunity to ask questions, play, learn and enjoy Deaf art and culture, regardless of their mother language. We can’t wait to offer a unique experience of enjoying a feast for the senses, the heart and the nerves of laughter.

 

 

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