From Iceland — Norðanpaunk Strives To Change Festival Scene With Harm Reduction, DIY Culture

Norðanpaunk Strives To Change Festival Scene With Harm Reduction, DIY Culture

Published August 10, 2022

Norðanpaunk Strives To Change Festival Scene With Harm Reduction, DIY Culture
Photo by
Emma Ledbetter

Once a year, Iceland’s punk music community gathers in the tiny roadside hamlet of Laugarbakki for Norðanpaunk, a music festival created for lovers of “difficult” music.

But there’s nothing difficult about the environment. Whether you come for the music or the do-it-yourself festival culture, you’re sure to be wholeheartedly welcomed with a smile. Organisers, musicians, and festival-goers—many of whom play multiple roles at the festival—greet newcomers as if they are already part of the underground family.

In fact, Norðanpaunk is legally registered as a family gathering, not a festival, explains founder and organiser Tomas Isdal. Though hundreds of people come each year, the sense of community makes the event feel intimate.

“There’s nothing I don’t like about it,” Tomas says. “There’s a special spark other festivals don’t capture because it’s so tight-knit. I don’t even lock my car because nobody in their right mind would steal from anyone here,” he adds.

Festival-goers do a weather dance in the direction of the setting sun in Laugarbakki, North Iceland.

Do it yourself—or together

To keep costs low, Norðanpaunk doesn’t have a dedicated staff. Instead, volunteers do all of the work, and any money raised during the event is saved for the next year for bigger bands or more food and drinks.

Norðanpaunk is the epitome of DIY culture, Tomas explains. Anyone and everyone can help and is encouraged to do so. 

A whiteboard at the entrance to the festival lists tasks, which can range from helping prepare meals in the kitchen, to checking wristbands at the door, to cleaning up the campsites. It’s not unusual to see someone dressed in full festival attire donning a pair of latex gloves and carrying a trash bag around to collect discarded beer cans. 

The four members of American band Death Kill Overdrive traveled from Iowa, where there is a flourishing DIY scene, to play at Norðanpaunk. “Everybody has a chance to play their music and express themselves in a supportive environment that isn’t trying to milk them for money,” says band member Oliver Weilein of the festival’s atmosphere and DIY culture. “The community actually cares about everybody involved and doesn’t just view them as money bags.”

Members of Iowa-based band Death Kill Overdrive (left to right): Molly Enochson, Oliver Weilein, Jeff Keyser, Kane Edwards

The members of Death Kill Overdrive agreed one of their favourite parts of Norðanpaunk was volunteering in the kitchen. “It sounds stupid to say that was my favourite part, but it’s like a community-building thing for just the four of us. We’re not just doing dishes for the sake of doing dishes,” says band member Jeff Keyser. “It’s the least we can do for the people who have done so much for us.”

Harm reduction

Svala Jóhannesdóttir

Since profit is not part of the equation, festival organisers prioritise the safety and wellbeing of visitors over anything else, says Svala Jóhannesdóttir, organiser and harm reduction specialist. 

Harm reduction volunteers, including a nurse and mental health specialist, are available throughout the festival to help anyone experiencing physical or emotional problems. 

“We know that when we gather a few hundred people, there is all kinds of history and struggles people are dealing with,” Svala explains. “We often get people who haven’t come to a festival for a few years because they feel their mental health cannot handle it, so we provide a safer space to make it accessible for everyone.”

Harm reduction specialists can also guide festival-goers through safe drug use, Svala says. They provide scales to measure dosages and clean snorting straws to prevent the spread of hepatitis C. They can even sit with someone to make sure they do not overdose and provide medical intervention with naloxone or another reversal drug if that occurs.

“I truly believe this is how we should approach people with whatever struggles and challenges they’re experiencing,” Svala says. “We shouldn’t tell people to stop or minimise their experience. We should just meet them where they are and show them the empathy, understanding and support they need at every moment.”

The perfect world

Between the DIY culture, harm reduction emphasis, and perfect punk lineup, Norðanpaunk is a social experiment that’s seen great success—and its ideologies are spreading to other festivals like Hátíðni and, soon, an electronic music DIY festival.

“We’re very ambitious about what we do,” Svala explains. “We know we’re organising this festival outside the ‘normal’ box, and that’s why we do everything evidence-based and try to be better than other festivals that are inside the box.”

Unlike many other festivals, any police presence at Norðanpaunk is usually motivated by curiosity rather than concern. The festival has an excellent track record—and organisers intend to keep it that way by staying small and continuing to emphasise participant wellbeing, Svala said.

“This is total freedom for us,” Svala says. “We create the utopian world we want to have. It’s heaven for four days.”

“Trash” becomes “thrash” at Norðanpaunk. Everyone works together to keep the festival grounds clean and free of litter.

Norðanpaunk was held in Laugarbakki from July 29th through August 1st and occurs every year on Merchant’s Weekend.

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