How can arts institutions and artists be more sustainable – in terms of their impact not only on the environment, but also on local communities?
Skaftfell Art Center is NAARCA’s Icelandic partner. It’s based in Seyðisfjörður, a small but vibrant town in Eastern Iceland, surrounded by mountains and sea. Seyðisfjörður’s unique location and atmosphere has long attracted artists from all over the world. That location also makes it vulnerable to avalanches, mudslides and landslides – and in a changing climate, those threats are increasing.
Julia Martin is an artist living in Seyðisfjörður, and the former Project Manager of the Residency Programme and International Projects at Skaftfell. She introduces us to Seyðisfjörður, and to our two contributors: Pari Stave, Director of Skaftfell, and Jessica Auer, a photographer, filmmaker and educator living in Seyðisfjörður. Pari and Jessica explore some of the ways arts institutions and artists can be more mindful of the environment, and of local landscapes and communities.
Find out more:
Skaftfell Art Center: skaftfell.is/en
Ströndin Studio: strondinstudio.com
Jan Krtička (artist who provided field recordings from in and around Seyðisfjörður): jankrticka.com
Julia Martin, artist and landscape architect / former Project Manager, Residency Programme and International Projects, Skaftfell Art Center (juliamartin.de)
Pari Stave, art historian and curator / Director, Skaftfell Art Center (skaftfell.is/en/skaftfell/about-skaftfell/staff/)
Jessica Auer, photographer, filmmaker and educator (jessicaauer.com)
Credits: Testing Grounds is produced and edited by Katie Revell and includes original music by Loris S. Sarid and artwork by Jagoda Sadowska. With thanks to Alex Marrs and the rest of the NAARCA team.
Contact us: naarca.art/contact-us
Who we are: Art Hub Copenhagen (Denmark), Artica Svalbard (Norway), Baltic Art Center (Sweden), Cove Park (Scotland), Saari Residence (Finland), Skaftfell Art Center (Iceland) and Narsaq International Research Station (Greenland).
Thanks for listening!
00:02 Katie: Could you just tell me what you can see out of your window?
00:06 Julia: Closest window is right in front of me, and I can see the trees getting a little crazier. There's a bit of snow coming. The other window has the mountain in front of it, and the mountains are kind of stripy now because the snow has been melting in the past days, and then it makes these runoff stripes. It's quite, quite graphic. It's this black-and-white time here in our town.
00:38 Various: Velkommen. Tervetuloa. Välkommen. Fàilte. Bures. Velkommen.
00:45 Narration: Welcome to Testing Grounds, from the Nordic Alliance of Artists Residencies on Climate Action. Episode three: Skaftfell Art Center – The Tensions of Environmental and Cultural Sustainability for Artists and Institutions.
The Nordic Alliance of Artists' Residencies on Climate Action, or NAARCA, is a network of seven artists’ residencies across the Nordic region and Scotland. They’ve come together to explore what potential artists’ residencies have to be testing grounds – testing grounds for new ways of living and working that are ecologically, socially, mentally and financially sustainable.
01:29 I’m Katie Revell. In this series, I’m talking to people in and around the NAARCA residencies about the themes, the challenges and the questions they’re grappling with – that we’re all grappling with – in the context of the climate crisis. In this episode, we’re visiting NAARCA’s Icelandic partner, Skaftfell Art Center.
01:55 Julia: The storm is gonna be a big one. There's an orange weather warning for the entire country today. Hopefully it will be just quick and hopefully not leave too much damage behind. But, uh, we have to be careful. I mean, we have three dangers here. It's the storms, it's landslides and it's avalanches. So that's the, the price we pay for living in this beautiful place.
02:24 Narration: Skaftfell Art Center is located in Seyðisfjörður, a small, coastal town in East Iceland, bounded by mountains and a fjord…
02:33 Julia: My name is Julia Martin. I'm an artist and an art facilitator. I live here in Seyðisfjörður, have been living here for almost 10 years. I first got to know the place through Skaftfell Art Center. I came here as a residency artist in 2011, and I loved the place and its people so much that I decided to come back and stay.
02:55 Narration: From 2014 to 2023, Julia worked at Skaftfell in a range of roles – most recently, she was the Project Manager for the Residency Programme and International Projects.
03:06 Katie: Can you remember what it was about Seyðisfjörður and about the people that you loved so much that you wanted to stay?
03:12 Julia: I remember coming here and being completely in awe of the place. It's so different from everything I've ever experienced. My theory is that there's something in the mountains, some sort of crystals or something, you know, makes a specific atmosphere if you're sensitive to that, and then you feel something. It's like a, like a hum or something. Also, the proportions of the fjords create this harmony, so you feel like you're inside a big space, and you just feel good there.
03:51 Some people feel claustrophobic. I don't, you know – I have no problem being here in the winter, you know, locked in, whatever. And then the people that I met at the time, they were so welcoming and warm and uncomplicated and friendly. Of course then when you're here for a few years, then things also, you know, start to be a little less rosy. But, but that was the introduction. Yeah, I just really felt that I had something to do here.
04:24 Katie: Can you just tell us a bit about Skaftfell?
04:28 Julia: Yeah. Skaftfell is a small art centre, but very vibrant, very active, considering the size of the place here, the town, and then also the art centre itself. Its, you know, team. The Center was founded in 1998 by a group of artists and local art enthusiasts, you could say.
04:50 And this group called itself the Skaftfell Group. It formed itself around the late Swiss-German artist, Dieter Roth, who had a studio in Seyðisfjörður, and he regularly spent time here during the last decade of his life.
05:05 So Skaftfell Art Center was named after the building where it's housed. It's this three-story Norwegian Timber House from 1907. And it was given to the Skaftfell Group by the local artist, Garðar Eymundsson and his wife, Karólína Þorsteinsdóttir, under the condition of building up an art centre for the community of Seyðisfjörður.
05:28 Narration: As well as exhibition space, Skaftfell is home to a bistro, a bar, a bookshop and a small art library.
05:35 Julia: I think Skaftfell has been, and still is a very important part of the community. It has always been the position of Skaftfell to combine art and life, and that goes all the way back to Dieter Roth. His life was his art and his art was his life.
05:50 And, uh, yeah, we try to follow that tradition. Over the years, then Skaftfell became the main visual arts centre for the east of Iceland. Now we are running an exhibition programme, residency programme, art education programme. So everything became a bit more formalised, a bit more organised and institutionalised. That has been a fascinating journey and this year actually, we're celebrating our 25th anniversary, so super happy to have made it this far.
06:19 Katie: Happy anniversary.
06:21 Julia: Thank you.
06:25 Katie: What are some of the, some of the ways that the climate crisis is making itself felt in Seyðisfjörður?
06:33 Julia: Well, every time there is a storm, of course, we think it's much worse than before. I'm not sure, you know – it has, of course, fluctuations. There is less snow, that's for sure. My boyfriend, who grew up here, he remembers, you know, metre-high snow in the winter, or the fjord almost freezing over.
06:53 So there's definitely something happening there. There's much more rain in the autumn and also the spring, so the winter season is getting shorter. In the 10 years that I've been here, I could say maybe that the weather has become a bit more unstable. Then we had, of course, this landslide situation, which was due to enormous amounts of rain.
07:15 Narration: From the 15th to the 18th of December 2020, a series of landslides hit Seyðisfjörður. On the 18th, the largest of the landslides happened – and in fact, it was the largest one ever to hit an inhabited area of Iceland. It destroyed thirteen buildings as well as a museum, and buried a large part of the town in mud and debris. Amazingly, no-one was killed – but the threat hasn’t gone away.
07:42 Julia: Landslide danger will increase everywhere in Iceland because of the warming. So, locally, people are thinking harder now about where they buy a house or where they build a house. And also the companies that are settled here, they think very hard if they will still invest in a factory that's in a landslide zone. So that of course has a huge impact on our economy. And then of course, the psychological effect.
08:09 You know, we are all still a little bit tense. I remember when it was so rainy in November, people were getting really uncomfortable, even though it was no way as bad as last time. But you don't remember the exact details. You just remember the feeling of listening, you know? Is there a weird noise?
08:30 Katie: Is there much discussion of how people feel now?
08:34 Julia: Yes, because everybody was affected. Like really everybody was affected by the landslides. We all had to leave the town. Nobody knew what was gonna happen. So this has brought the community together really strongly, and everybody understands that people feel tense.
08:58 Katie: How did Skaftfell become part of NAARCA?
09:01 Julia: I am an environmentalist by heart, as have been all the other people working for Skaftfell so far. And I jumped on the opportunity. I thought it was a great project and I thought it would be really, really good for us to be in this project 'cause we've been trying to develop some sort of sustainability approach here.
09:21 We have been thinking about how to do good for the planet. We've encouraged our residency artists to recycle, of course, and to use local produce. So this has been really a tradition and that came from the people that have been working in Skaftfell. It was important to them. And with this NAARCA project now, I thought this is a great opportunity to learn from others how they are doing things.
09:45 How can we deepen our knowledge and how can we strengthen our position? And also how can we develop a voice? How can we talk about these things more? Because I think at this stage, it's not enough to just do the right thing for yourself, but as a place like Skaftfell, you have a kind of a public platform there.
10:03 How do we use it? And in all our programmes, so through exhibitions, through the art education programme and through the residencies. It's a great opportunity to maybe lead by example. But you know, first we have to do our homework and really know what we're doing. And that is what I hope we can be working on with NAARCA.
10:25 Narration: Our guests for this episode are Pari Stave and Jessica Auer. They’ll be exploring what it means to be environmentally and culturally sustainable – as an arts institution, and as an artist-in-residence.
10:38 Katie: Maybe if you first just tell us, who are they?
10:40 Julia: So Pari Stave joined Skaftfell in May 2022 as the new Director, and she has had a strong interest in NAARCA from the start. And she will no doubt bring interesting perspectives into the project, especially maybe because she's coming into it and into Skaftfell from abroad with fresh eyes.
10:58 And then Jessica Auer is an artist, photographer and documentary filmmaker with a keen interest in people's relationship with their environment, and in particular landscapes. In her recent work, she has researched the influence of Iceland's tourism boom on how landscapes are perceived, both by locals and by visitors.
11:20 So I think Jessica's position as an artist and researcher and Pari's position as a curator and director will stimulate an interesting discussion on how to talk about the causes and symptoms, or some of the courses and symptoms of the climate crisis through art and through its presentation.
11:43 Katie: The first thing I was gonna ask is quite simply, could you introduce yourselves?
11:48 Pari: My name is Pari Stave. I'm an American from New York, where I was born and spent most of my life. I'm the Director of Skaftfell. I'm still very much new to it, and finding my way – not just in the job, but in Icelandic culture. I am an art historian and a museum administrator. Most recently I worked for the Metropolitan Museum in New York as the senior manager of the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art.
12:22 Jessica: I'm Jessica Auer and I'm a Canadian artist working mostly with photography and in filmmaking. I've been based in Seyðisfjörður for the last seven years, where my partner and I, we run an organisation, a small cultural centre called Ströndin Studio, where we teach photography workshops and manage, uh, cultural projects that have to do with photography as well as host artists in residence from time to time.
12:55 Katie: Pari, would you be able to describe what you're looking at?
12:58 Pari: I am looking at a mountain called Bjólfur, which is the highest peak in this fjord. And Bjólfur is the name of one of the so-called early settlers who came here from Norway. And actually at the foot of Bjólfur are archeological excavations that have turned up remnants of settlement from the 10th or 11th century. There's this ancient and yet somehow very new young feeling about this place.
13:37 Jessica: I would like to add something though. It's kind of the elephant in the fjord. We can't forget here, like how dangerous these mountains are. We are living in a precarious situation, I think at a time that is becoming more and more precarious due to climate change. I would say this is a relatively new awareness because in the past people would say, “Oh, there's always been landslides and avalanches here”. But nowadays, I would say, yes, most people are thinking, “Oh dear, oh dear”.
14:09 Like with every summer that is warmer and every winter where we have more rain and less snow, that living at the base of these slopes and at the base of these mountains, we can't really ignore the changes that are happening around us.
14:34 Katie: What would you say is it about the place that attracts people?
14:39 Pari: We could use the whole session talking about that. You wanna, you wanna go first Jessica, because you are an artist and...
14:47 Jessica: Well, I haven't figured out why it attracts all people, but I can speak from my own experience.
I would call myself a landscape artist. I'm very interested in my work in looking at specific places and in particular, let's say, Nordic places. Coming from Canada, I mean, I have like an affinity with this type of landscape or space. And here in Seyðisfjörður, it's very unique. It feels like a frontier. And the light, for example – I mean for artists, this is something really important, and sound. So this whole surrounding area provides like an incredible inspiration.
15:48 Pari: The fjord is bound by mountains very tightly. You feel like you're living in the mountains, in a way. There's just one road into and out of the town, and so that makes it feel like you must take a journey to get there.
15:44 And there's something very beautiful about that passage. And then once you're there, you feel yourself to be in a very remote place. And that's in a way kind of conducive to thinking and, and, you know, making art. But at the same time, the only ferry to Europe comes here. It comes here once a week. And so there is an aspect to the town that, like maybe no other town in Iceland, makes you feel like you're somehow connected to the wider world. So it's this kind of duality between the two of those things.
16:27 Katie: Thinking about the programming that you're doing at Skaftfell, can you tell us a bit about how you're addressing environmental sustainability in that, or how you're keen to do that, both in a thematic sense and also in a practical sense?
16:47 Pari: Well, this fall we had an exhibition with the residency artist, Rikke Luther, who's both an artist and someone who does research in sand, concrete, uh, you know, extractions. And then we have a couple of exhibitions coming up that will do that in a very pointed way. But I would say that there's also a way to think about this in terms of how we do the installations of the exhibitions, to try to make do with ways of creating exhibitions where you're bringing in materials that can be recycled.
17:24 I was talking to Jessica yesterday about how I'm very keen not to put up and take down walls frequently. It just seems so wasteful. I mean, what do you do with the materials? You either keep them after you've taken them down, and that takes up space, or you throw them away. And we're talking about materials like wood, which has to be imported, for the most part, here in Iceland.
17:52 Our next exhibition will be a video exhibition, and instead of separating the installations with walls, we'll just use fabric and we'll be able to keep that fabric easily and use it some other time, and maybe even some other way. The other thing that concerns me quite a lot is not to take up too much space in what we do.
18:14 When I arrived, I noticed that there was a lot of space taken up with storage, things that might be used later, but you know, that storage takes up heat, it takes up electricity, you know, you're renting it. And that to me seems very unsustainable. And so we're making best efforts to kind of consolidate, giving away what we have if we can, you know, recycling it or taking it to the Red Cross so it can be used effectively by someone else.
18:44 But I just, I feel – and I live this way, too – that operating in as lean a way as possible is just a good approach to doing business and to living. Just trying in every possible way to have as delicate a footprint as you can. Another thing would be, you know, eventually converting all of our lighting to LED lighting so that we're using less energy to light our spaces.
19:15 But I think the ideal is to have as beautiful and flexible enough a space to have it be applicable to many different art installation situations. There's one other thing I wanna say along these lines. It has to do with public art. There is a space that's the Harbor Garden, where we have changing displays of sculpture.
19:40 But I'm very keen going forward that when we bring an artist in to create something new, that we have a very clear agreement with them about their expectations and ours, and also what are the long-term impacts of maintenance. And how do we protect the artist's moral rights in maintaining the work as it was originally meant to be, versus, you know, when do we recognise, realise that a work of art is no longer viable because it's not in good condition, or was never meant in the first place to be permanent?
20:19 And one of the things that I am working on now is to have a simple set of templates that we can use, so that there is clarity. Because in a landscape as pristine and beautiful as this, one doesn't want to introduce things without in that moment saying that it cannot be permanent or, you know, if it is to be permanent, that there's a process where there's general agreement in the community and all the parties concerned that there will be a commitment to maintaining it and to protecting it, you know, and that it's worthwhile to do that, and that it's built in such a way that it can be maintained relatively easily without the expenditure of a great deal of money or materials or anything like that.
21:10 So, I'm, I'm kind of keen to, to work on these problems here and set up some, you know, good templates to work with going forward.
21:19 Katie: Yeah. And I guess templates potentially that could then be adopted by other, you know, parts of the industry. I mean, do you guys have the feeling that these are conversations that are happening more broadly in the arts world?
21:33 Jessica: I suspect that most organisations or residency programmes or art galleries are having similar thoughts on how to proceed with, uh, guidelines and agreements on how artistic production should be undertaken in Iceland and how interventions in the landscape are conducted, and how we can reduce our energy consumption and waste in presenting exhibitions.
21:56 But I don't have the impression that we're that well connected, or sharing our, our thoughts on this as well as we could be. So I imagine this is a step that's gonna be taken in the next year or two, and Pari's been connecting at least the organisations within Seyðisfjörður to have these conversations. And so maybe from here we can go outwards to the rest of the organisations in East Iceland and then across the, across the country.
22:22 Katie: And I guess that's one of the reasons for NAARCA's existence, as I understand it, is really to link up and to share knowledge and through that, to accelerate these kind of changes.
I'd like to ask specifically about travel. Where do you see travel fitting into this picture, both for people and I suppose for art as well?
22:49 Jessica: So I was thinking too, when Pari was talking about reducing waste in the way that we design exhibitions, whereas in cities when things are much more accessible, it's just like, "Oh, I'm just gonna have that ordered or delivered", and maybe the cost is lower.
23:06 So there's less thought that goes into it. I think this community or this, this lifestyle here is used to reusing materials and making do with what you have. And then of course, now you're bringing up the people, you know – getting people here is another thing. And as an artist, I know that artists end up travelling a lot as part of their career, as part of their practice.
23:29 Uh, they travel for exhibitions, they travel to make work, to do research, and they travel to participate in residencies. And that has an enormous impact on the environment. So as an artist, it's definitely something that in the last 15 years that I, I really think about. Like, with every opportunity that comes up or every invitation there is to travel, there is a process of sort of reckoning.
23:53 What is the benefit of undertaking this, this travel – not just the benefit for me, but the greater good? What does it contribute to another community or to another organisation, or to art and thinking in general? I hope that most artists are considering it these days the way that they travel.
24:15 And of course, organisations need to do that, too, when they have expectations from artists to participate in their activities, and can have these conversations with artists: how do you get here? How long a stay are you going to have? How can you offset the impact of your travel?
24:36 Pari: Just recently I applied for funding for a Swiss artist to come here in the winter for an exhibition that will feature her work. And in the application to the Swiss Arts Council, there was a question about how we plan to address carbon offset. And I, I think maybe it's good to have that question come up more often. If only to make people more aware of it and think through how that can be done.
25:06 Jessica: I've heard a very good example of that being done with a university class. I teach at, uh, Concordia University in Montreal, and one of my colleagues, Kathleen Vaughan, she teaches in textiles and materiality, does a field school at the Iceland Textile Center in Blönduós. So she's bringing students from Montreal to Iceland, which is a trans-Atlantic trip, and part of the coursework for the students is to calculate their carbon footprint and to consider ways of offsetting that impact.
25:37 Katie: That's a really great concrete example of how you can integrate this thinking.
25:47 In terms of the sort of, I guess we could call it the climate justice side of things. You know, how do we go about dealing with the tension between the desire, and arguably the responsibility, to make residencies and make opportunities accessible to artists from the rest of the world, specifically from what we might call the global majority world, versus the need to reduce the impact of travel?
26:18 Pari: That's a tough one, because speaking as a kind of artistic director, you know, it would just be so fantastic to bring people to Seyðisfjörður from even more far away than they come now. In the spring, there was interest on the part of an artist who lives in the Himalayas. In her practice, she's addressing the sort of mythologies around certain mountains, and she wanted to come here where we have these, you know, beautiful mountains that may have their own mythologies attached to them.
26:55 And in the end, she just couldn't afford it. You know, let alone the fact that she would be coming from a great distance and, you know, how do you balance the need to be sustainable with the need to break out of a kind of bubble that you've created? I don't know how to reconcile that.
27:16 Jessica: It's always a, a question of balance, I suppose. And I mean, different residencies have different roles, but one of them certainly is about bringing artists from elsewhere to somewhere. And so not all residencies, but some of them, you know, inherently they involve travel. I think it's a question of, of finding a balance, then getting into conversations about how many artists should you have coming each year, what should be their length of their stay, and what is the benefit that they'll have, not just for the artists themselves and not just for the art institutions, but also on the host community. Yeah, I think there's not one solution, but I think with every residency programme, every institution, they have to come up with their own rationale where they achieve some kind of balance.
28:10 Narration: And what about the relationship between artists' residencies, artists in residence, and the communities that are hosting them? What does it mean for that to be a sustainable relationship?
28:21 Katie: How do we go about balancing the benefits that come with having artists-in-residence with the burden that that places on the community?
28:30 Jessica: Right, right. So I've, I've done a lot of thinking about this because I have parallel thinking about, you know, tourism in remote places. So, I mean, Iceland has been experiencing a huge boom in tourism in the last 10 years, and Seyðisfjörður as well.
28:48 And in parallel to that, you know, the country has also been experiencing a rise in artists' residencies visiting artists to the country and to small communities. So I think in both cases, with tourism and with artists, there are the cultural benefits of having people from outside come in, bring in different ideas, different way of doing things, different languages and so on, and sharing that.
29:16 But when it gets to be too much, it can be very overwhelming. It dilutes the quality of everybody's experience. So if we're looking just at the artist residency benefits on the community of Seyðisfjörður, I'm sure a lot of people would point to the fact that because we have Skaftfell and the bistro, that we have an extra restaurant and a bar. Literally, it serves the community and people are very happy about having this available.
29:47 And we have another organisation here, it's an educational organisation called LungA. And they bring artists and students here in the off season. It generates some social life and, and economic life for the community, which is really positive. But then there's always these little downsides where the community might start to feel that there's an oversaturation of artists visiting Seyðisfjörður, and put them like on a closer parallel to, to tourists.
30:17 Because when you host people, whether they're tourists or where they're artists, there is a lot of energy spent there in being a host – you know, giving people an orientation, simply just giving directions, for example. And with artists, while they might have the intention of sharing and connecting, some of their requests actually put some kind of demand on the community.
30:45 And some of these demands are similar demands that happen over and over again. So, as an artist I can even say that I have done this with the community. Conducting interviews takes people's time, you know, asking cultural questions that they've had to answer hundreds of times before. And so, you know, in one sense, the visiting artists, they can have like a really good impact on the community, but they can also drain the community of their resources and their time and their energy and and so on.
31:17 So it's something that Seyðisfjörður is really experiencing and trying to find a balance with. And here with our organisation, which is Ströndin Studio, we've decided to, uh, not make artists' residencies the most important part of our programme – that we don't necessarily need more residencies here – and focus more on sort of how, uh, photography can play a greater role in Seyðisfjörður.
31:43 So I think it's a lot about, as an institution, what can you do that will serve the community better? And as an artist to really be aware of this dynamic that happens between artist and host community, that I think a lot of first time artists-in-residence, they haven't had to deal with that and they haven't learned from that experience yet.
32:07 Katie: And maybe to extend that to the question of how artists-in-residence interact with the landscape that they're spending time in, what are some of the tensions there?
32:18 Jessica: I mean, this is one of the beautiful parts of being an artist-in-residence in Iceland. I think most, most artists, whether they're dealing with the landscape specifically in their art, they usually take advantage of going for these long walks, whether they be on roads or completely, you know, off-trail into the mountains. And I think that experience has like an enormous value for the artists. And as long as people stay safe, it doesn't have a negative impact on the community. But then there are ways that you need to behave in nature to respect the ecology of a place.
32:55 And because Iceland is just so different than other places, there are things that people need to know – just very basic things about places or vegetation not to walk on. It's very tempting here in Iceland to walk anywhere, 'cause you can, you know, there's wide open spaces, there aren't too many obstacles, uh, you know, aside from the waterways.
33:17 So you can just go and go and go. But we have very particularly fragile vegetation, such as moss, that people need to be aware of. And more specifically, I think artists have to know that they can't just take these materials from the nature and use them as materials for their artworks. That there has to be like an awareness of that as well. I think Pari also, you have some thoughts that come back to like actual artistic interventions that occur in nature and in the landscape.
33:47 Pari: Yeah, I touched on that before, um, again about if, if that's to be done, there should be a process, a kind of process that outlines what the parameters are of intervening in a landscape. And I mean, I personally feel strongly that, you know, unless it's going to be a major undertaking with a major benefit, that we need to take care to state from the outset that nothing is permanent. Maybe even make artists who come here aware of the fact that they should leave no trace, they should leave it as they found it.
34:26 Narration: One great case in point: UK-based artist Nicola Turner recently spent time at Skaftfell…
34:33 Pari: She made sculptures out of waste wool – the wool that the farmers, you know, don't use. And she created these sculptures that she photographed in the landscape, but she was very careful to take them away, and they're actually going to be recycled and used as booms in a, an oil containment area that we have in the fjord. So she was thinking through the whole process of how she was going to do her work to make sure that it would, in some way, end up having some benefit to the environment.
35:04 Katie: So thinking about the circularity of an artwork rather than just putting something out into the world and sort of, that's job done.
35:20 Thinking about these conversations that, that need to happen about sustainability – environmental, cultural – what are some of the ways that those can be made part of the residency experience, part of the experience of actually spending time in a place?
35:37 Jessica: I've, I've participated in many as an artist. I think most artists' residency programmes, I mean, they have some form of communication with artists before they arrive. And then there is a orientation once you reach the, the residency location. So these are two points to address ideas of both environmental and cultural sustainability with the artist from the get-go, so that the artist knows, for example, how they can travel to Seyðisfjörður, uh, in our case, in a way that has maybe less of an impact.
36:13 And once they arrive here, you know, things of like where to go and where not to go, who to talk to and maybe who to not talk to, you know, or "talk to me first before you go talk to that person". These kinds of like simple conversations that you can have as part of the residency organisational structure.
36:31 But, uh, you know, Pari and I have been talking about this quite a bit and I've also worked with Skaftfell as a thematic residency leader, where I've been able to direct like groups of artists in a way where that I'm fully accessible to them. It's not just an orientation process and then the rest of the residency is self-directed, but where I'm constantly available to guide people and to help people create the work that they wanna make without causing harm to others, whether that be the environment or to the community.
37:08 Whenever you welcome people – so whether you're welcoming tourists to your town or you invite people to your home – you know, you usually say, “Here's where you find the toilets”. Right? That's like, that's the first base. But with an artists' residency, I mean, people are staying for a long time and they're gonna be active and they're gonna be using things.
37:29 And of course you have to go much deeper than "Here's the shop and, and there are the toilets". You have to also guide people to, you know, let's just call it best practices when it comes to both nature and people.
37:42 Katie: Yeah, and I guess moving away from consuming the landscape.
37:47 Jessica: Right. Yes. Consuming nature and also consuming culture. And you know, that also gets back to the length of the conversations you need to be having because you can't cover all those bases in like a single two-hour orientation session. It's something that, you know, things come up organically, or if you have a residency programme where the artists and the residency coordinators, they meet regularly, maybe once a day or once every two days, where that you can keep having new conversations or go deeper into other ones.
38:24 It's not just a simple checklist of dos and don'ts when it comes to, you know, respecting a place and respecting others. It takes some time and it takes some building of un understanding to be sensitive to those things. And, and artists, I think they do want to know this, they crave this kind of knowledge because they come here with their best intentions.
38:45 You know, whether they're gonna just undertake research or they're gonna actually create and produce. I think everybody knows that there is an impact to what they're doing and uh, they wanna know, okay, what are the specifics of this place? What do I need to know?
39:04 Katie: One thing I wanted to ask about was the role of funding in all of this – so I guess the financial sustainability side of things. I'm sure you both agree that sustainability work in this context often depends on people taking the initiative, having the time and the energy, or, you know, doing it in their spare time and everyone is already so, so busy. Artists' residencies are often in precarious financial positions. So I'm curious to hear what you guys think about dealing with that tension – just that pragmatic fact that funding is an issue.
39:40 Jessica: The communication and discussions between artists and residency programmes, and also the discussions that are happening between residency programmes or other organisations – this is all taking time and people's energy, and most of the people involved in these conversations are people, you know, with precarious funding: arts organisations, artists, and so on.
40:03 So the onus, I think, up until like now has been that, you know, people are talking about this as part of their, their love for, for the environment or the cultural affinity and their own feelings of protection. And I think that we're squeezing a lot of people's time and energy to address this. And if the funding was better, then we could take much more time and do this much better.
40: 32I think that residency coordinators in general, when I've seen them as a participating artist, I mean, I can see how many hours and how tired they get, um, and often repeating the same things. It is a job and it's something that I think cultural workers should definitely be compensated for properly.
40:51 Pari: Having worked for one of the largest museums in the world, I can just add that this is a problem no matter what the scale of the arts organisation. There's never enough money and there's never enough staff, and so maybe you, one needs to approach it by saying, you know, what is the realm of possible funding and therefore how can I design a programme that can exist sustainably given those limitations?
41:25 Because I think here, especially, since infrastructure for the art world in Iceland is still emerging and evolving, and there aren't the same systems as there are in say, where I come from, where there's a tax incentive for private individuals to give to something where there is even a, a culture of private individuals wanting to sort of adopt an arts organisation because they love the mission of the organisation.
41:58 That has to be cultivated and it'll take time, and it might take some adjustments also in the way the tax system works, but it can start with just, you know, saying to oneself, what can we do with the money we have? And how, how can we spend it best? Because small or large, these are always the problems, always the problems.
42:23 Jessica: That's a, it's a great point, Pari. Absolutely. And I mean, for, for Ströndin as a very, very small organisation, uh, I mean, that's what we’re doing. We're just constantly looking at, okay, these are our resources and then what can we do within that sphere? And in our example, we are just, you know, dealing with less and less artists, for example, inviting the previous artists-in-residence back, based on actually whether we can work with them on a project. Because usually those kinds of collaborations, they have like a much greater and positive impact on both the artists and the host and the community again, so.
43:08 Katie: That's really interesting. And again, I suppose that tension between building up these longer-term relationships with specific people, versus making sure that opportunities are available to emerging artists. And yeah, I guess it's always going to be some kind of compromise.
43:25 Jessica: There'll always be a compromise. And also like not one system or one approach is gonna be like the winner or the answer to solving all the different problems in like cultural and arts programming and residencies. The point is, you know, to have diversity in the world.
43:45 Katie: I have one more question and I think this is something Jessica, that you mentioned that I found really interesting, which was about the sort of specific cultural context that you guys find yourselves in, and I suppose that anyone finds themselves in and the, the fact that conversations about climate change, about sustainability, to be effective, they really need to happen on a, a very emotional level, an intimate level. But actually in Icelandic culture, you were saying that's not always easy, that these challenging conversations don't commonly happen around the dinner table or between friends. Can you just talk a little bit about that? ‘Cause I think that's definitely something that rings true in a Scottish context as well, for example.
44:32 Jessica: Yeah, I think what I had mentioned was, you know, uh, comparing my experience living in Canada and being very sensitive to the way that we touch nature or dispose of our waste and just, you know, think about consumption. It's been radically different to living in Iceland. And I mean, that could be due to the, to the fact that there's so much nature here. It's very easy to take it for granted. I've seen some things happen here that of course must happen all over the world, but just throwing things in the sea, for example, like throwing waste in the sea.
45:11 I've witnessed this a number of times, and of course that makes me really uncomfortable. And I also feel that when you try to have these conversations about the environment, they're a little bit more difficult. I did a, a project about cruise ships in Seyðisfjörður and the pollution that is coming from the cruise industry, both in the air and into the sea.
45:33 And I was met with a lot of conflicting points of view and resistance to something that I thought was so obvious. So yeah, I find myself in a place that has different cultural views about the environment, or maybe views that are just changing now and are just shifting. And I think this is actually really interesting things to look at as an artist, but also consider from the cultural sector.
46:59 Pari: I do sense that in Iceland there is less directness and more kind of subtle innuendo. And so it's often, at least my brief experience, hard for me to get a sort of definitive reading on something. Yeah. Um, I, I don't know how else to say it diplomatically. People are very polite and they're, they're very conscious of not offending one another because – this is an expression you hear often – you know, "We are so few". You never know when you might need another person's help, and so you're very careful not to ruffle any feathers.
46:47 Katie: And I think there's something to be said for both approaches. Definitely having grown up in the UK, you're constantly expected to be reading between the lines. You know, there's just implicit assumption that you're rarely saying what you really think, and for people who come from outside of that, I think it must be maddening, just realising that it's so layered.
47:09 Pari: Yeah. I mean, in the States, you know, we would think nothing of going up to a stranger and saying, "You can't throw that away there. That's illegal".
47:18 Katie: There's a part of me thinks, yeah, more of that. You know, I, I think things here sometimes move really, really slowly because, you know, conversations happen in the abstract, but actually saying to someone, "Look, I don't think you should do that", or "Have you ever considered doing it this way?". The fear of that being perceived as a personal attack, I think prevents a lot of honest conversations happening.
47:42 Pari: I have to acknowledge that I'm a foreigner and I'm really, you know, always a guest, and so I have to be respectful of that.
47:51 Jessica: Of course I think it's really important that you, you speak up for what you believe in, but when you are a foreigner in Iceland, at first you might not even realise that, but you know, it does sink in that – hey, wait a second. There's things that actually, I don't know. I don't have this broad understanding or this very long background of what it's like to live here, what it's like to survive in Iceland.
48:17 So like as an artist, it's shed a lot of doubt on my own perspective on things. So I'm still going through a phase, you know, after seven years of where I don't like, uh, open my mouth so quickly. The thoughts go through my mind and then I take some time to be like, okay, this is how I see it, but maybe how I see it is not how it really is. And so I think this is a really complicated place to be because again, it takes time to figure out, you know, how can we do best.
48:54 Katie: I know we covered a lot of ground, and any of those topics we could have spent a lot more time talking about, but is there anything that you guys feel you'd really like to, to mention?
49:05 Pari: I just wanna say as I'm looking over the computer to this magnificent landscape outside of Jessica's window, that I never, for one second, not appreciate what a privilege it is to be able to come here and live. I feel extraordinarily lucky. I wake up every morning, thankful that I am able to have this experience of living in nature that I could never have in my home country. I am very grateful for that.
49:45 Jessica: I think that Seyðisfjörður is an extremely rare gem. It's a place where the spectacular nature is coming together with a community and with a culture of a specific size and a, and a very complicated and interesting history. It's no wonder that it's inspired so many artists to come here, and I hope that everybody feels the privilege that Pari is talking about, too.
50:17 Narration: To find out more about Skaftfell, visit skaftfell.is
For more information about Ströndin Studio, visit strondinstudio.com
In the next episode, join me for a visit to NAARCA’s Swedish partner, Baltic Art Center. I’ll be meeting artists Rikke Luther and Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas to explore the role of the artist in questioning, mediating and re-imagining our relationship to the environment.
50:57 Thanks for listening to this episode of Testing Grounds, from the Nordic Alliance of Artists' Residencies on Climate Action. Subscribe to hear the rest of the series, and find out more about the project at naarca.art. If you enjoy the podcast, tell your colleagues and friends, and leave us a review – it really does help us to reach new people.
51:18 This episode featured Julia Martin, Pari Stave and Jessica Auer. It was produced by me, Katie Revell. Our series music is by Loris S Sarid, and our artwork is by Jagoda Sadowska. This episode also featured field recordings from in and around Seyðisfjörður by Jan Krtička. Thank you Jan. Thanks also to Charlotte Hetherington, Alex Marrs, Alexia Holt, Leena Kela, Jacob Fabricius, Rose Tytgat, Helena Selder, Lise Autogena and Iben Mosbæk.
51:51 The members of NAARCA are Cove Park in Scotland, Saari Residence in Finland, Skaftfell Art Center in Iceland, Art Hub Copenhagen in Denmark, Baltic Art Center in Sweden, Narsaq International Research Station in Greenland, and Artica Svalbard, in Norway. NAARCA’s initial three-year programme is generously supported by Kone Foundation and Nordic Culture Fund.