From Iceland — LungA Comes Full Circle

LungA Comes Full Circle

Published June 28, 2024

LungA Comes Full Circle
Photo by
The Reykjavík Grapevine & LungA Archives

Art festival in Seyðisfjörður completes a quarter-century of artistic legacy

“There’s something about driving into town, coming from the mountain and seeing the fjord after you’ve been driving for eight hours from Reykjavík,” says Helena Aðalsteinsdóttir, one of the directors of the LungA art festival. They’re not referring to just any town or fjord but to Seyðisfjörður — the creative heart of Iceland that, 25 years ago, planted the seed for what would become the nation’s hub of artistic exploration.​​ 

Founded by Björt Sigfinnsdóttir when she was just 15, LungA began as an opportunity to immerse local youth in the arts, focusing on a week-long workshop programme, art-related performances and exhibitions, a youth exchange and a not-always-conventional music programme. Over time, the festival evolved, leaving an indelible mark on the cultural landscape of not just East Iceland but the entire country — from artists starting their creative careers, visitors forging long-term friendships and workshop participants exploring various creative outlets. 

As LungA announced that the 2024 edition will be its last, we reached out to the festival’s organisers, first-time performers and repeat participants to reflect on its enduring legacy and explore why festivals like LungA are fading away.

Why LungA’s time has come

“LungA started basically because there weren’t many activities in town for teenagers, except sports,” says Helena, who, after spending a lot of time at LungA during their teens and early twenties, was invited to join the team as a festival director along with Þórhildur Tinna Sigurðardóttir in 2022, after founder and former director Björt stepped down. 

Over the years, the festival experienced organic growth and fluctuations in size — evolving from 20 participants in its first year to over 4,000 in one of its recent iterations. “People tried to contain it a little bit, make it more manageable, so it got smaller, then grew again. It’s really organically shaped,” Helena says. 

Looking ahead at LungA’s 25th anniversary, the team knew they would throw a big party to mark the milestone. 

“We were going to go back to bands that have played many times and thinking about doing an exhibition that talks about the history of the festival,” Helena explains. “When introducing the theme, I think Tinna mentioned, ‘We’re gonna celebrate it as if it was the last,’ — as you say when you want to make things epic.” It was at that very moment something shifted. “We thought, maybe this should be the last one? The thought of it made sense.”

“Seyðisfjörður has changed so much in this time. With and without LungA,” Helena remarks. “I’m not sure it’s urgent anymore.”

Helena Aðalsteinsdóttir’s bittersweet memory of LungA: In 2022, we did a catwalk wearing Tóta’s [Tóta Van Helzing was an Icelandic designer and artist who passed away in 2021] sweaters from the church down the Rainbow Road in memory of her, but also just showcasing her work for one of the first times. I knew that would be her dream.

Indeed, Seyðisfjörður doesn’t seem to be lacking in cultural happenings. Besides LungA, Herðubíó, the only cinema in East Iceland, is up and running; the Blue Church Summer Concert Series takes place every Wednesday in July and August in the local church; the Skaftfell Center for Visual Art welcomes both local and international artists for residencies year-round; the List í Ljósi festival lights up the town each February, celebrating the return of the sun; the Heima collective offers living and studio space to both established and emerging creatives; and Fiskisúpa Ljósmyndasósa lures photographers to monthly get-togethers monthly with the promise of fish soup.

“It’s funny how LungA is always a good format for anything that I do,” says curator and festival director Þórhildur Tinna Sigurðardóttir, whose LungA journey started in 2014 when she joined the production team as a volunteer. “I was producing the Icelandic Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2022 and 2024 and the same principles apply whether it’s my first year [or last year] at LungA.”

After taking over the festival, Tinna and Helena contemplated reimagining LungA’s format. They considered shifting the focus towards more residential programs and reducing the emphasis on concerts. In an effort to create a more sustainable format, they even explored the possibility of hosting LungA as a biennial event. “Then we realised that we can’t really change something that is so cemented into the community just because of our own tastes or professions,” says Tinna.

Both directors acknowledged a growing sense that the festival had run its course. “Why fight it?,” Tinna asks rhetorically. “Why does everything have to be endless growth and endless change? Why can’t things just be allowed to wither and die?” She stresses that this is simply the natural cycle of things, adding, “It’s also kind of badass to be secure enough to say it’s going to be the last one and give people an opportunity to say goodbyes.”

The cost of culture

LungA is not the only festival in Iceland to pack it in. Periodically, popular cultural events make headlines for scaling down or ceasing operations. The mud football championship Mýrarboltinn in Ísafjörður announced last year that it won’t be proceeding with next editions, while the Eistnaflug metal festival in Neskaupstaður never recovered from the pandemic, despite attempts to host smaller-scale events.

Tinna sees LungA’s end as an opportunity to discuss the challenges of running festivals in Iceland. “You’re always taking a share of the pie that someone else won’t get, you’re always getting less [funding] than you should get,” she says. “You apply for 3 million ISK and you get one and a half million, which you’ve always done, but the economic value is dropping really fast. That money is way less than it was a decade ago.” 

Helena agrees, emphasising the limited lifespan of grassroots initiatives due to funding constraints. “It’s really hard to keep a project going when funding is really limited,” they say. “LungA relies on people volunteering, local people giving us favours and resources.” The core team juggles full-time jobs while managing the festival year-round. Neither the team, nor participating artists receive proper fees for their work; instead they are given what amount to “tokens of gratitude.”

The Ministry of Culture and Business Affairs provided 7,593,000 ISK in funds to the LungA festival in 2024. “The ministry has long supported LungA and recognises it as a vivid cultural festival enriching Icelandic culture and community,” Minister Lilja Dögg Alfreðsdóttir told the Grapevine in a statement. “It’s regrettable that LungA has come to an end. The festival has significantly contributed to the cultural development of young people and inspired all ages as well as contributed to the community of Seyðisfjörður.”

According to the ministry, there is a 2030 Cultural Advancement Plan in place that aims to promote equal opportunities nationwide by ensuring equal access to culture, diversifying options for professional artists, increasing public participation in cultural activities, and enriching overall event offerings throughout the country.

Right now, however, financial pressures are being exacerbated by Iceland’s economic climate. With inflation averaging 6% and housing costs rising 12.3% year-over-year, accommodation has become one of LungA’s most significant expenses. “When you’re thinking about what is an arts festival, you wouldn’t necessarily think it is food, accommodation and travel,” Helena points out. Being home to about 700 people, Seyðisfjörður poses a significant challenge in terms of housing. “There’s not enough roofs in town,” they explain. “We really rely on local businesses and people who give us their housing for free to be able to host the people.”

According to the festival directors, all of the festivals happening in the countryside of Iceland depend heavily on volunteers. “There’s something systematically wrong with that,” Helena says. Through conversations with similar festivals in Spain, Ireland and Denmark, the LungA team discovered that the issue seems to be international. “Perhaps the festival format isn’t sustainable? Something needs to change within.”

Lured by LungA

“LungA has really shaped our future. But how do we measure the benefits of festivals or creative initiatives?” Helena wonders aloud. The festival’s impact is evident even within its own team, where numerous past and current members have gone on to become curators, artists or musicians.

For Lama-sea Dear, who’s leading the production and music for LungA, the festival was a decisive factor for where she would build her career. “LungA was actually the reason I came to Iceland,” says Lama-sea. Her journey with the festival began as part of an Erasmus Plus exchange programme from the University of Brighton. That initial experience made such a profound impression that Lama-sea found herself returning year after year, evolving from a workshop participant to a volunteer, participant liaison, decoration and production roles, before finally stepping into her current role. 

“I expected to come for a lovely festival and then go back to England and then I just fell in love with it and spent 10 years in Iceland,” she says. The festival has been instrumental in nurturing her career, Lama-sea stresses — from landing in Iceland fresh out of university, she now works as a freelance festival and live event producer, collaborating with artists and cultural happenings from all over the country. “I have blossomed my career off the back of LungA. This has been such a formative part of my life.” 

Full circle moments

The final LungA festival will take place under the theme “spiral,” which focuses on looking inward. Helena explains that the idea originally stemmed from a desire to examine LungA’s extensive history. “A spiral is something that starts at the core and then it always revisits the core. It expands and grows, while still evolving around itself — maybe that’s a good way to describe LungA — it’s a family, network, community that is always growing and expanding.” 

“We’re also kind of wandering around in circles,” Helena continues, reflecting on the deeper symbolism of the spiral. “It’s a bit of chaos, but there’s something tranquil about the shape of a spiral.”

In its final year, LungA not only pays symbolic tribute to its previous editions but in many ways returns to its roots. “We’re trying to think of this LungA as if it would be in 2000,” says Tinna. “We’re trying to do a really wholesome festival where we are not catering to nightlife but to the community.” 

In addition to LungA’s staples — workshops and a closing concert on Saturday night — the weekday programme will include a retrospective exhibition showcasing the festival’s history, a tattoo gathering featuring 20 artists from around the world and a marketplace where people can sell art, books and clothes. For the remaining events, the team hopes the programming will emerge organically.

“This year, rather than having a set programme, we’re excited to see who comes and we’re excited to help facilitate some events,” Tinna says, adding that instead of focusing on complicated productions and specific outcomes, the team is trying to provide a space where everyone can enjoy themselves. 

Þórhildur Tinna Sigurðardóttir on LungA’s DIY energy: In 2019, Princess Nokia requested to have inflatables on the side of the stage. Half an hour before the show we realised we don’t have a pump. All of us ended up blowing these huge inflatables, and it was so funny, we were all out of breath. She didn’t even use them.

She elaborates on the spontaneous nature they’re aiming for: “We’re hoping people can be like, ‘Hey, I’m gonna have a poetry reading down by the water at 16:00.’ And then they can announce it in the marketplace room and write it on the board.”

Such a participant-led approach was typical of LungA’s early editions. For its final iteration, that spirit of spontaneity is being rekindled. “It’s a gathering of very creative spirits,” says Tinna. “We’re just making space for all of these people to be able to do something on their own terms rather than us deciding how the last festival is.” 

This philosophy extends to the musical lineup as well. Lama-sea explains, “We reached out to the community in Seyðisfjörður and made a group chat with a lot of the locals to ask them who they wanted to see perform at the festival.” The result is a diverse selection of artists. “The concert is going to be a really beautiful mix of musicians that were requested by the community and musicians that have got a connection to the festival, have either started their musical journey at the festival, or had some kind of experience with it. It’s a lot of full circle moments.” 

With reunions of beloved bands like Hjaltalín, indie sensations such as Flesh Machine and newcomers like Sunna Margrét, who recently released a debut album, LungA’s lineup will cater to the diverse tastes of the community.

“We’re focusing on it more being a community and family-friendly environment this year, we’re not creating a big party,” Lama-sea says. She quickly adds, “Obviously, there will be a party as a part of it.” 

Families are encouraged to bring children to the concert — there will be playgrounds and activities designed specifically for kids. However, the overarching goal of LungA Spiral is to provide the space and opportunity for a beautiful farewell.

“There are so many festivals that you don’t really realise that it’s going to be the last one and then you suddenly turn around and go, ‘Oh, I wish I’d known,’” Lama-sea says. 

“We’re hoping to have a really nice final ceremony, perhaps, leaving some kind of memento with a procession after the final concert, and then people can just go into the hills, wander a bit and let it sink in that this festival now rests in peace,” Tinna says of the team’s plans for a meaningful goodbye.

Sowing seeds for artistic potential

For artist Kristín Sesselja, this will be her debut LungA performance — but in a way, it’s also where her musical career began. In 2018, she attended a workshop at the festival called Snælda, which aimed to teach participants how to use Ableton music production software. 

The workshop, led by musicians Unnsteinn Manuel, Logi Pedro and Jófríður Ákadóttir (JFDR), opened a new world for Kristín. “I had been writing songs since I was 12, but I hadn’t been taking them further,” the now 23-year-old explains. After the workshop, Kristín started collaborating with Baldvin Hlynsson, whom she met at LungA and who later produced her first EP. 

“Through this workshop, I started taking my songs further, not just me in my room with my guitar, but going into the studio and working with Baldvin on producing and also producing on my own and then sending that to him,” Kristín explains. “It was a huge push into doing the music that I make today.” 

Kristín notes that the workshop was also a significant career step for Baldvin, who’s now collaborating with many artists. Another participant of the same workshop, Róshildur, also began releasing music afterward — she was named “One To Watch” at the 2024 Reykjavík Grapevine Music Awards. 

Being able to play at the festival has long been Kristín’s dream, but it was one she thought could never be realised. “I was sad to hear that it was the last one. I thought, ‘Oh, what a shame that I will never get to play LungA,’” she says. “And then they reached out and asked me to play. I called my mom instantly. I was so happy I was almost crying.”


As she prepares for her performance, Kristín is focusing on her music and her outfit, aiming to fit in with LungA’s famously well-dressed crowd. “One thing I always thought about LungA was that everyone looks so cool. It’s like, the cool ‘girl club’ or cool ‘people club.’ I feel like by being invited to play there, I’ve been accepted into the club now,” she says with a laugh, before reverting to a more serious tone.

“It’s a really sentimental thing to me,” she says. “I had been making music in my room, not really connecting to the industry. Through this workshop, I was able to connect with three big names in the industry — Unnsteinn, Logi and Jófríður.”

Creative incubator

DJ and FM Belfast band member Ívar Pétur Kjartansson, who has a long history of organising and participating in LungA, agrees that the workshops have been fundamental since the festival’s earliest days. “Probably the majority of Icelandic artists of my generation have gone through a workshop there at some point,” he says as we meet amid the weekday buzz of Kaffi Ó-le.

Born and raised in Seyðisfjörður, Ívar Pétur was at the first ever LungA and visited most of the editions until 2014, when his first son was born while the festival was taking place. In 2004, he joined the organisation team of LungA, having come up with the music section together with his friend Guðmundur Jónsson. “We were living on the East coast and were really into indie and electronic music and wanted to throw a concert with some bands that never came to the East.” 

Ívar Pétur Kjartansson on hosting bands in his mom’s house during LungA: It was always fine until Grísalappalísa stayed one year. Then my mom said, “Stop.”

When Ívar and Guðmundur began booking bands, Aðalheiður Borgþórsdóttir — often referred to as Mamma LungA seeing as she’s the mother of founder Björt — suggested joining forces and holding the concert during LungA. Aðalheiður had been instrumental in managing many aspects of the festival’s early years. 

Ívar stresses that the workshops have always been the key focus of the festival, but the music programme rapidly expanded over time, opening up a world of possibilities for local teenagers. For Ívar himself, the festival planted the seed of an idea: connecting your career with music was a viable path.

“For me, as a young person growing up in the East, it was very important. If I didn’t have the chance to see a band that came to the East once a year, I might as well have ended up being a fisherman,” he says with a smile.

This year, together with choreographer Anna Kolfinna Kuran and theatre designer Guðný Hrund Sigurðardóttir, Ívar Pétur returns to LungA to lead a youth workshop called “Feminist Rave.” During the week, participants aged 15 to 21 will be able to put themselves in the roles of dancers, DJs and scenographers to produce a dance piece to be performed in front of the LungA audience after the workshop.

“People have asked me what’s feminist about it. I totally get that because it’s just a bunch of teenagers doing a dance exhibition,” says Ívar Pétur, adding, “We’re talking about the history of dance, music and culture, and how transformative they’ve been and continue to be for many human rights movements.” He mentions the gay movement in New York and how people in Gaza are using dance as a force of resistance. While creating the workshop, the organisers spoke with teenagers and discovered that many girls and queer kids didn’t feel safe at parties, even when they were advertised as safe spaces. This insight was taken into account when planning the workshop and influenced its name.

Is this really the end?

“LungA started basically in a vacuum,” says Ívar Pétur. “There were young people in the East who wanted to do something and there wasn’t really anything to do. And now it’s become this quite big — at least on an Icelandic scale — and quite established festival, which is very beautiful, but it’s become maybe a bit conservative and it’s also taking up a lot of space in the East.” 

When he heard the festival will not continue, Ívar’s first reaction was that it wasn’t the right thing to do. “It’s been such a big part of my life for so long and I’m so fond of the festival, so first I was sad.” But after thinking about it for a while, he came to the conclusion that it is probably the right decision. New grassroot initiatives are sprouting up all over the country and Ívar hopes that the space LungA held in Seyðisfjörður can be used by other generations to fill in.

For Helena, Tinna, Lama-sea, Kristín, Ívar and countless others who have sat on a hill overlooking the town in the midst of a bright July night, the spirit of LungA will forever live in their memories. Yet, they are all eager to see what the future holds.

Lama-sea ponders, “Who’s to say? Maybe in five years, some kids in the town in their late teens or early 20s will decide to revive it. LungA’s always gonna be there for the community.” 

“Let the remains of LungA serve as fertile soil for new fantasies to grow,” Tinna concludes.

The 25th and final LungA Art Festival takes place July 15-21 in Seyðisfjörður, East Iceland. Learn more about the programme and buy tickets at See you there.

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