From Iceland — The Arty East

The Arty East

Published April 13, 2007

“By organising a unique international film and video festival here in Egilsstaðir, we are trying to get rid of the common misunderstanding that the countryside is tacky” explains Kristín Scheving, the director of the experimental film and video festival Reindeerland, over a cup of coffee at Te & Kaffi in Egilsstaðir. Now in its second year, the festival has almost doubled in size, screening 90 films over a one-week period in March at various locations in Egilsstaðir and the surrounding area.
Kristín tells me that Icelandic as well as international video artists and filmmakers have welcomed the opportunity to participate in the only festival of this kind in the country, this year receiving more than 500 films from various countries including Taiwan, Russia, the Netherlands, Britain and the US. Advertisements were published in newspapers and websites all over the world, and Kristín has a hard time explaining how the news spread so far.
The East of Iceland has slowly been building a reputation as an artistic district, aiming at creating an active art and cultural scene that is no less curious than what goes on in the capital. Projects like the film fest play an important role in achieving that goal, as do all the diverse events taking place in neighbouring towns all year round.
The Slaughterhouse becomes a showroom
It takes only an hour to fly from Reykjavík to Egilsstaðir, the largest town of East Iceland. Due to its central location, Egilsstaðir has always been a service centre for the neighbouring district and a starting point for many tourists travelling around the area. Ever since the Alcoa Fjarðarál aluminium smelter in Reyðarfjörður and the Kárahnjúkar dam project began, the traffic in and out of the community has only been increasing, providing residents in East Iceland with work and attracting a lot of foreign migrant workers. For the past few years, Egilsstaðir has been growing rapidly and by the end of 2006 the population in Egilsstaðir and the surrounding area had increased by 19% in a single year.
Established in 1947, Egilsstaðir is a young town. When driving from the airport it becomes quite clear that the place doesn’t boast a long history. Lacking most of the charming characteristics of most small towns across the country, it almost seems that no one had really planned how the town was supposed to develop. There is no actual centre, the houses are spread over a large area and the downtown is little more than two gas stations and a shopping centre.
But we hadn’t come all this way to discuss architecture, aesthetics or urban planning. The reason for our trip across the country was to experience the way the East has evolved into a desirable environment for artists who no longer see Reykjavík’s galleries and art venues as the only opportunity to promote their work. Today, artists and musicians travel to the East to open up exhibitions and participate in festivals while getting inspired by the majestic nature in the meantime.
The aforementioned Kristín Scheving moved from the UK to be a part of this movement. She is now not only the organiser of the Reindeerland festival but the director of the Culture Centre of Fljótsdalshérað, established in 2005, with the aim of promoting performing and visual arts in East Iceland and introducing the art form to the public. The Centre is one of four cultural centres in this quarter. In Höfn, the emphasis is on literature; Fjarðarbyggð is all about the music; and in Seyðisfjörður the contemporary art scene gets most of the attention.
Featuring experimental documentaries, video art and short films as well as organising lectures and workshops, the film and video festival was still in full swing by the time we arrived. As Kristín had recommended, we headed straight to the old Slaughterhouse in the middle of town, were the festival’s opening had taken place the weekend before. On the outside, the building looks a little rusty, but once inside, creativity and resourcefulness were the only things I could think about. Mixing computers and headphones with the old interiors made the whole experience much more surreal, and as many of the films screening were highly unconventional, using an old slaughterhouse as a movie theatre was just spot-on.
Art students invade Seyðisfjörður
If one truly wants to experience the artistic sector in East Iceland, it is necessary to make a trip to Seyðisfjörður, a tiny fishing village that also happens to be a flourishing art and cultural community only twenty minuets by car from Egilsstaðir.
Renowned for its natural beauty and creative atmosphere, it is home to approximately 700 souls. Surrounded by steep mountain hills and located at the end of a narrow fjord this attractive little town with its colourful wooden houses, many of them preserved since the late 18th century, is as different from Egilsstaðir as possible.
Seyðisfjörður is a beautiful place and a friendly one too. Today, it’s an important fishing port but also serves as a connection to Europe as the Norræna ferry operates weekly cruises between Seyðisfjörður and Scandinavia, which is a big boost for the tourist industry during summer.
Only metres away from the harbour we found the cultural centre Skaftfell.
Established in 1996, the centre emphasises promoting contemporary art by hosting numerous exhibitions every year by local and international artists and art-groups. There we met Þórunn Eymundardóttir, the manager, who led us to the exhibition space on the second floor, where artworks by students of the Icelandic Academy of Arts were on display. Every year for the past six years, Skaftfell, in collaboration with the Dieter Roth Academy, has hosted an exhibition displaying the work of students who get the opportunity to spend three weeks in Seyðisfjörður and work on their projects with help from the townspeople. The students run around town and invade factories and construction sites and use all they can find to create their pieces. This chaotic and confusing mixture reaches its peak with a grand opening, drawing all the town’s residents to the culture centre to see what crazy art works this collaboration brought into existence.
“The whole town participates in this event. And everybody loves it” Þórunn explains. “Seyðisfjörður as a whole is an artistic town. There’s some magical energy streaming down from the mountains I suppose.”
And the town’s prime season gets longer every year. One of the summer highlights is the annual Arts Festival LungA in July. During one week, the town turns into an arty circus with street theatre, workshops and events taking place on every corner.
“The summer is getting more and more crazy. It’s sort of like a long Saturday with guests constantly coming and going. Now people are flocking to Seyðisfjörður from May to September, asking for houses or apartments to buy and many of the artists who visit us once don’t want to leave at all” Þórunn adds.
No mercy!
Þórunn had told us about the newly opened Mini-Ciné microcinema, run by the couple Hassan Harazi and Lilja Dögg Jónsdóttir Eldon, and as it is only across the street from Skaftfell we headed straight over to take a look.
Located inside Iceland’s oldest shop, which dates back to 1890, nothing on the outside gives a hint that inside is a cinema. The building seems just like a regular family home, not a brand new venue for alternative and independent film and video.
Unfortunately the owners were at work when we arrived and all doors were closed so we didn’t get the opportunity to take a closer look this time.
Instead of going to the movies we therefore headed to the gas station for a cup of coffee. There we met another pioneer, Óli, known among locals as Óli Skálanes. A year ago, Óli and his three sisters established the Skálanes Nature and Heritage Centre, situated at the mouth of Seyðisfjörður, which is about 17 km from the town. Skálanes is an old farm that has been used as a guesthouse for a long time, but due to its natural environment and the fact that tens of thousands of birds of over 40 different species nest annually at the site, its main purpose today is to be an independent conservation site that offers guided tours, housing and food to travellers, students and scholars, from May to September.
”We want to attract students who are interested in researching the area. We offer grants to graduate students who can work on their studies. They get free accommodation and can use our equipment. Their reports will later be used as educational material for our visitors” Óli explains, encouraging students to apply.
At the same gas station, which seems to be a popular lunch-spot, we are introduced to Eyþór, a man in his late sixties and a legend around the area. Eyþór is the proud owner of Verslunin Ósk, a shop selling all sorts of clothes as well as quality reindeer skin. Lucky for us, Eyþór also happens to own the popular Café Lára, a charming old-school pub in the centre of town, and is more than eager to give us the grand tour and one last drink for goodbyes even though the pub isn’t regularly open to customers that early in the day this time of year.
The building housing Café Lára was constructed in 1899 and the interiors have been remarkably preserved, featuring all sorts of old and amazing monuments, like a 106-year-old piano that apparently still works.
“Yes, I played it last night. No mercy!” Eyþór says before guiding us to the bar.
While bringing us drinks Eyþór starts telling us about the beer he is brewing. He named it El Grillo, after a British tank ship that sank in the fjord during the Second World War. He has been working on this secret recipe since he took his first sip of beer but, up until now, the residents of Seyðisfjörður are the only ones who’ve been able to enjoy his brew. Now he’s expanding, and in June his beer bottles will hit the liquor stores around the country. For the occasion, Eyþór is planning a grand celebration at Café Lára.
“Yes, there will be a big party. No mercy! I’m going to open the El Grillo garden outside. With lots of seats and live music every Wednesday when the Norræna ferry arrives. And the garden will have a fountain with my head in the middle. No mercy! You have to come back for the party. Ok? No mercy!”
As I’m a big fan of good parties and would never ignore the chance to drink a fine beer with the inventor himself, especially when surrounded by such majestic nature and creativity, I promise to come back to celebrate. After raising a toast to El Grillo, and life in general, we need to leave this peaceful and arty paradise and the numerous inventive individuals we had come across during our much-too-short visit. By now, the townspeople are getting ready for the touristy summer months, planning concerts, film screenings, festivals, beer parties and art exhibitions so every single visitor stepping foot in the town will find some entertainment. Who knows, you might even end up not leaving at all.
Air Iceland flies directly to Egilsstaðir.

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