Folk singer, poet, and gay rights activist Hörður Torfason began his weekly demonstrations in front of the Parliament building in Reykjavik on October 11, 2008, a couple of days after the government took control of Kaupthing, the largest private bank in Iceland. At first, only a few artists and activists joined him. Each week, a growing number of citizens followed suit.
Artists in Iceland were at the forefront of the response to the financial crisis of 2008, starting with the protests termed the Pots and Pans Revolution or Kitchenware Revolution. At a time of political polarization and the tenth anniversary of the financial crisis signalled by the Lehman Brothers collapse, the response of Icelandic artists, both in the capacity of citizens and artists, is an inspiring story. This article focuses on different roles several artists, Birgitta Jónsdóttir, Jón Gnarr, Libia Castro and Ólafur Ólafsson, Haukur Már Helgason, and Steinunn Gunnlaugsdóttir, played in the protests and ensuing events. Their personal stories reveal how each artist chose a specific role and strategy of public engagement, from participating in protests and forming new political parties to creating compelling narratives of the future.
While scholars and economists continue to quarrel about the causes of and responses to the 2008 World Financial Crisis, the case of Iceland in relation to its financial crisis and aftermath offers perhaps the clearest lesson to be learned. In the United States and elsewhere, governments socialized the losses caused by bankers. Today, this is viewed as one of the root causes of rising populism globally. In Iceland, however, the government was toppled and bankers were sent to jail.
Pots and Pans Revolution 2008-2009, Jaroslav Andel, 2014. Video, 07:24. Credit Jaroslav Andel, creative commons.
This wouldn’t have happened without the public responses started by artists and taken up by broader civic and political movements.
One of the first artists to join Torfason’s demonstrations was poet, artist, and activist Birgitta Jónsdóttir. She described the beginning of the protest: “I came to the first protests with Hörður and there were like five of us and twenty-five [representatives from] international media. And that sort of steadily grew quite big in the first month. On the first of December, which is sort of our Independence Day, we managed to gather all the different groups that had popped up to come together to protest. And as a conclusion after that, many people from these groups formed a think tank that we had in a sort of independent [academic] area called the Reykjavik Academia.”
In October 2008, philosopher and filmmaker Haukur Már Helgason founded Nei [No], the first online newspaper in Iceland that provided news and opinions about the protests. He later recalled its beginnings and his role: “I was in discussion with some people and we had the same feeling during the autumn of 2008 that people in Iceland didn’t know how to say or make a gesture of clear ‘No.’ So I started this medium and gave daily updates, news analysis and commentary. And it was the focus of some debate and the first commentary system in Iceland, so people could start a debate. Facebook was not as big as today. And it became somewhat central to those focused on protesting. That was my main role. I was writing and documenting, photographing, delivering and starting to give the events some sense.”
As the protests grew, they attracted people across a broad political and generational spectrum of groups, triggering a specific dynamic observed by Helgason: “A large part of those protesting were those who would have a year earlier said ‘I don’t take part in that sort of thing, I am a normal person,’ but found themselves angry and participating in a demand for change.” According to Helgason, the group that organized around Hörður Torfason was different from other groups that “were very intent on not being so polite and obedient, and at times actually intent on crossing any thresholds or lines of demarcation created by the police and the authorities.”
Helgason offers a nuanced observation on civil disobedience and violence that is often a matter of contention: “There was no violence in the sense of attacking people or anything like that. There was very little damage to property. The windows of the Parliament were not broken… What people mainly did was throw eggs, yogurt, and stuff on the building to allow themselves to degrade what is supposed to be tall and proud. One young man climbed to the top of the house of the Parliament and instead of the Icelandic flag that is supposed to be hung there, he hung the flag of the supermarket Bonus, a pink pig on a yellow background. Because of this unruly behavior, a lot of people felt threatened; a lot of parliamentarians were threatened by this chaos. This was very important in pushing for changes.” In Helgason’s view, it was this dynamic created by the existence and relationship of two different groups (on one hand, a mass of people, and on the other hand, some individuals allowing themselves to transgress certain rules on behalf of that mass) which made it possible for the protests to create the short-term changes and the impact they did during this four-year period.
There was a particular moment of that dynamic on display on December 8, 2008. Approximately thirty protestors got through the visitor’s entrance to the Parliament building and wanted to read a declaration. Nine of them were arrested. They became known as the Reykjavik 9 when they were, a year later, charged and prosecuted for “an attack against the Parliament” under Article 100 of the Icelandic penal code. It was a most serious charge that had been applied in Iceland before only once, in 1949, during the protest against NATO. The Reykjavik 9 case became a cause célèbre as more and more people viewed it as an attempt by the government to punish citizens for trying to exercise their constitutional rights.
In 2011, Helgason made a documentary about the Reykjavik 9 titled Ge9n (A9ainst). Ge9n comprises sequential interviews with the Reykjavik 9 recorded at specific locations, addressing fundamental questions raised by the financial crisis and ensuing protests. In this sense, it is a follow-up on Helgason’s earlier project Nei. Each of the interviewees talks about specific issues that reflect their diverse backgrounds, described in the documentary as: “three anarchist activists, two Christian socialists, a happy-go-lucky, hedonist mailman, one former small time crook…”
One of the interviewees is Steinunn Gunnlaugsdóttir, an artist who graduated from the Icelandic Academy of the Arts in 2008. In the documentary, she questions neoliberal ideology, the role of money in politics, the concept of the nation-state, and its dependence on the use of police and violence. Her critical points are implicit in her work Democracy is a Hot Dog, an ongoing project (video and installation) that puts forward a critique of representational democracy. According to Gunnlaugsdóttir: “The video piece is a satire about democratic elections and the alleged freedom of choice in voting. Iceland’s national dish, pulsa (hot-dog), represents democracy, downtown Reykjavík’s hot-dog stand (Bæjarins Bestu) becomes the voting booth and the elections change into the citizens’ choice between toppings and sauces. The hot-dog itself, however, is not a choice – it shall be devoured by each and every citizen, if not voluntarily, then with force.”
The artist presented the work during parliamentary elections in the spring of 2009 and then again in 2013. In addition to a video and installation, the initial presentation included posters distributed before and during the elections. To use Haukur Helgason’s phrase, the work degraded representative democracy as something tall and proud. The artist expressed the discontent of voters that resulted in major losses for the ruling parties as well as in the rise of new political parties. As subsequent elections in western democracies have shown, this feeling of distrust in the political establishment has grown throughout western democracies during the last decade. The political development in Iceland that followed the financial crisis was therefore a harbinger of protest movements, leading to the decline of traditional political parties and the rise of new and alternative parties that happened in many other countries later.
Artists in Iceland were again instrumental in these developments as the personal story of two well-known public figures, Birgitta Jónsdóttir and Jón Gnarr, demonstrates. Prior to the financial crisis, Jónsdóttir had been active around issues related to the war in Iraq, environmental degradation, and the Chinese policy in Tibet. She published her first book of poetry when she was twenty, responding to the September 11, 2001 World Trade Center attacks and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by inviting artists and writers from all over the world to contribute to anthologies of poetry and art titled World Healing Book and Book of Hope. During and after the protests in 2008, Jónsdóttir became a key organizer of various civic events and co-founder of new political movements and parties, the Citizens’ Movement (2009), The Movement (2009) and the Pirate Party (2012). By 2016, through her leadership, the Pirate Party had grown into the most popular political party in Iceland.
However, according to Jónsdóttir, “the first party that I helped to create was much more significant than the Pirate party… at the beginning of that era there were a lot of artists, creative people who were involved and engaged in a sort of being active, not only in creating parties and what not, but active in shaping a story.”
A popular comedian and actor, unlike Jónsdóttir, Jón Gnarr had not been active in political issues before the financial crisis. He didn’t participate in demonstrations, but the protests inspired him to respond to the financial crisis on his own terms, by giving political institutions, elections, and political parties the comic treatment: “I was working as a playwright in a city theater. I was writing a play about the crisis. Suddenly I had this idea. How about instead of taking the media, politics, and the financial sector onto the stage, how about taking the stage to the media? I wanted to create a spectacle. It was right after the collapse of big banks and it was a lot of confusion, anger, aggression and fear. And people were protesting every day and throwing beer bottles at the police and attacking the Parliament. And I just wanted to do something different. To use my anger in a creative way.“
Gnarr found an opportunity to materialize his idea by running for public office and staging his election campaign for Mayor of Reykjavik in the 2009 municipal elections, as a comedy. He registered a new political party under the name Best Party and his campaign ridiculed politicians’ election promises. In the party campaign video he among other things promised “free towels in all swimming pools, a polar bear for the Reykjavik Zoo… Disneyland, a drug-free Parliament by 2020.“
He argued, “I can promise anything, especially because I promised that I would break all promises anyway, because that’s what politicians do.” Since he often mentioned anarchism and Surrealism as his inspiration, the media labeled the Best Party as political surrealism. Gnarr summed up how he became Mayor of Reykjavik and humiliated the political establishment: “Because I was a clown and behaving like a clown, people were voting for me instead of for them.”
However, he found out that while it is possible and even effective to run a political campaign as a comedy or a joke, to run a city government is a different story: “I wanted to create a spectacle that everybody would admire… like fireworks, and then it would be over. But it wasn’t over. And so, it took me a long time to recover from it. I was burnt out. I was absolutely exhausted. I was popular and people hoped I would run again and continue to be mayor. And I didn’t want to do it. It was affecting my physical and mental health.”
Jónsdóttir tells a similar story, although her and Gnarr’s political style and vision were different: “The way I felt was being forever completely depleted. There was nothing left. I was running on my reserves for so long. Because basically when I was in the Parliament, I made myself into a person that was totally accessible to the world. That meant that I was being eaten alive because I didn’t have any filters. I didn’t have an assistant, anybody who would filter. So, I was completely vulnerable to this endless number of people who needed something from me. And people never asked me: Do you need anything? Can I do something for you? So, the danger is that people like artists are very open and unshielded. Because that’s who we are, because we are like big sponges taking in society and then reflecting it for what it’s worth.”
Reflecting on her own political experience and that of other artists, she points out the difficulties in advancing a vision within very structured places of power: “Whenever you go to places of power, like government […] it’s so horrible. Even if you never see yourself as a parliamentarian, a power person, everybody is projecting on you. When I learned that people were taking my words as an order, when they weren’t listening to me just as me, but as some leader, then I had to leave. Because I don’t want to be a leader. I made myself completely unavailable to being in that position. Because that’s one of the things that would take your integrity and destroy it. Being constantly projected on as some kind of power position figure.”
It’s not surprising then that Jónsdóttir summarizes her political experience in a negative way: “I cannot recommend it. It eats you up, it isolates you… The whole political system as it is structured doesn’t encourage a long-term vision, doesn’t encourage integrity.” A logical conclusion is then a belief that “we need a very different society and internal structures.” She makes clear that this sentiment was born out of the financial crisis and resulting protests and found its most explicit expression in the protesters’ demand to create a new Icelandic constitution.
According to Jónsdóttir: “Brainstorms were from various activists… or various grass root groups that came up after the collapse. The brainstorms were mostly about what we do need to do in order to prevent this from happening again. People felt that what had happened, it wasn’t only a financial collapse, it was a realization that everything we put our trust in as a nation, be it the academy, the media, the parliamentarians and the politicians, and the observatory organizations and institutions, it all failed us. So, we were thinking [about what we could do], and it very soon became clear [that] what needed … was to have a new Constitution done: a Constitution written by the people and for the people of Iceland. And that we needed to have a real division of powers, and that could only be achieved through a constitutional change. We also discussed that it would be very important that people, the community, would have a discussion about this new agreement. Our current Constitution is a gift from a Danish king, and even the Danish Constitution, that ours is a copy of, is much more modern than ours, because politicians have never [successfully changed it].”
Crowdsourcing a Constitution I, Jaroslav Andel, 2014. Video, 09:19. Credit Jaroslav Andel, creative commons.
It was again artists who anticipated public interest in a new Icelandic Constitution. The artist duo, Libia Castro and Ólafur Ólafsson, took it up as the subject of their work when, in late 2007, they commissioned the composer Karólína Eiríksdóttir to turn the Icelandic constitution from text to music. The idea came partly from previous work in which they got a singer to perform a rearranged lyrical variation that they created on the Icelandic National Anthem at a Reykjavik marketplace. Asked what made them interested in the Constitution, the artists referred to this previous work: “As we were appropriating and detouring the Icelandic National Anthem creating the Dada-inspired O, holy times thousand!, we thought about the fact that countries have anthems at all and how the music is and how the lyrics are and what effect or not both may have. Thinking of the lyrics of the anthems, and in particular the Icelandic one, which was originally written as a psalm, we thought of the Constitution and realized we had never read it or heard much talk about it, and thought that it was weird to know the lyrics of the anthem, or parts, but not even have read the country’s Constitution. […] We wanted to make the Constitution public, to a wider audience through music and moving image/video and do it in collaboration with the National Television in addition to an art space, the Akureyri Art Museum. We wanted the premiere of the piece broadcast live on television. We asked the [National] Television but they declined our request, though [they asked for] permission, after the performance (that took place on March 8, 2008, at the opening of the exhibition Bye, Bye Iceland – Farewell to an Old Concept, at Akureyri Art Museum) to broadcast… a fragment from the performance in that evening’s news. We agreed to that and sent them the material. Later, in 2010 when we approached them the second time, they agreed to collaborate with us on the project. In the meantime, we had realized that if we wanted the work to be broadcast by them then we’d need to get the [National] TV to produce it with us—that they would not be likely to broadcast the work if we would have produced it on our own and asked them to broadcast our finished piece (not made in collaboration with them).”
The artists not only co-produced their work with the National TV but also made its production itself one of the topics of the work, as well as portraying other people at work at the television station: “The music video work Constitution of the Republic of Iceland documents the performance of two leading singers, mixed choir, musicians and conductor, but also the television crew as they work on producing and filming the concert, and follows the crew and the musicians … at work and during their breaks throughout the institution, as well as the news department preparing for the evening news, the director working on his computer and people cleaning the building.” The purpose that the artists had in mind was “deconstructing and destabilizing (subverting) the normal standardized television production methods and product, in this case the TV studio music performance.”
The first exhibition of the video work produced with the National Television, The Constitution of the Republic of Iceland, took place at the Hafnarborg Centre of Culture and Fine Art in Iceland in 2011, three months after the new Parliament, pressed by the Citizens Party, initiated a process of drafting a new Constitution by passing The Act on Constitutional Assembly. The idea was to make this process as democratic and transparent as possible, so conceivably any citizen could participate in writing a new constitution of Iceland. First, 950 citizens selected at random from the whole country met as a peoples’ assembly to articulate general principles that would guide drafting the Constitution. Then, the elections to the Constitutional Assembly resulted in a selection of twenty-five members whose task was to draft a new Constitution.
The initial presentation of the artistic project The Constitution of the Republic of Iceland thus coincided with the beginnings of the very process of drafting the new Constitution. The plan was then to have the video broadcast on the day of the first meeting of the elected Constitutional Assembly. However, the meeting was delayed vis a vis bureaucratic inefficiency. The Supreme Court of Iceland annulled the results of the election because of complaints regarding election procedures. The Parliament then made a decision to appoint the members of the Constitutional Assembly to the Constitutional Council. The Council sought to make the process transparent by continuously communicating with the public by means of email and social media. There were approximately 3600 comments made by the public during the drafting process and 360 suggestions were incorporated in the draft.
The Constitution of the Republic of Iceland by Castro and Ólafsson and Karólína Eiríksdóttir was included in the duo’s exhibition for the Icelandic Pavilion at the Venice Biennial that opened on June 4, 2011. It was shown again at the National Gallery of Iceland in January 2012. On July 29, 2011, the draft of a new constitution was finished and presented to the Parliament. On October 20, 2012 the final draft as the basis of a new constitution of Iceland won the approval of 67% of the electorate in a national referendum. But the newly elected parliament in which conservative parties had a majority, never put the document to vote.
There have been numerous discussions about why the document failed to get through the legislative process and what could have been done better. Critics have often mentioned two main points. First, there was a gap between the participating public and the academy, especially among legal scholars who mostly chose to abstain from the drafting process. Second, in spite of an unprecedented objective to engage the general public in writing a constitution, some observers have pointed out that, as only 47% took part in the referendum, the participation of the public had not been sufficient enough to send a strong message to legislators.
For instance, Jónsdóttir argued: “The biggest failure was that we didn’t get a discussion in all the different communities—all the different townships—about the constitution. So there wasn’t a discussion among people over the dinner table, like ‘Hey, have you thought about how important it would be to have the natural resources in the ownership of the nation as a part of the constitution?’”
Although the Icelandic constitutional project failed to pass and has been the subject of criticism, it has caught global attention. It has become a source of inspiration to various participatory projects in a number of countries all around the world, including Ireland, Chile, Mexico, and Mongolia. It has been the first attempt in the history of humankind to engage all citizens in creating the supreme law of a country. Leading American constitutional scholar Lawrence Lessig described it as follows: “I think that the process for drafting this constitution is the most democratic process we’ve seen in the history of constitutions anywhere. We’ve never seen something like this. This process involved an incredibly intelligent mix between grassroots, citizen-driven input, expert-crafting direction, and an actual deliberative process for drafting the constitution that wasn’t controlled by insiders.”
Since the most recent election, the current government in Iceland has decided to prepare a new constitutional process. On September 27-29, 2018, the EDDA Research Center at the University of Iceland—in cooperation with the Prime Minister‘s office—hosted a conference titled “Democratic Constitutional Design — The Future of Public Engagement.” The goal was to inspire the constitutional process by discussing the “newest developments in democratic participation and public engagement” and by facilitating conversations between policy-makers, academics, and the public. The conference assembled leading constitutional scholars as well as experts on participatory practices such as deliberative polling and mini-publics. The third day of the conference delved deeper into roundtable discussions in which scholars, politicians, and citizens sat and deliberated together regarding topics such as governance, economy, and sustainability, all framed by the question of what kind of a world people wish to live in in 2035, what kind of society they should strive for.
The Constitutional Society of Iceland, the main organizer of this public debate, had been in touch with Castro and Ólafsson about their possible participation in this event, since the artists have been working on the issue of the new constitution in Iceland in a new project titled In Search for Magic – A Proposal for a New Constitution for the Republic of Iceland. Timing again didn’t work out as the artists had another commitment. Working with several composers, Castro and Ólafsson first organized a three-day workshop at their studio in Berlin. The purpose of the workshop was to explore “a structure for how to create the work together collectively.”
The second workshop took place during the Cycle Art and Music Festival under the title In Search for Magic at Kópavogur, Iceland, at Molinn Youth Center and Salurinn and Kópavogur Music School. The artists conceived the piece for both professional, amateur, and student performers, enabling parts of the composing as well as performing being open to a wider participation beyond the group of composers/musicians. The artists’ goal was to find “ways to compose the piece collectively—reflecting on, and in continuation of, the collective work of the Constitutional Council, as well as the civic grass-root work that lead to the writing of the new constitutional proposal.” Castro and Ólafsson thus see their collective art project to parallel and engage directly with an ongoing political process and struggle. They wish to “apply and test art’s potential magic and agency, taking part in the civic struggle for the implementation of the new constitutional proposal.”
To pursue that goal during the project’s second workshop in the premiere at the Salurinn Music Hall and Kópavogur Music School, Castro and Ólafsson organized the performances to take place spread out throughout the two institutions. They also intervened “into the conventional concert situation architecture/design of the music hall, by introducing a temporary floor-stage that [reached] in one level from wall to wall.” Their intervention envisions a more democratic design and protocol that parallels the efforts to introduce a more democratic constitutional design. Castro‘s and Ólafsson’s works thus link, in a symbolic way, social, political, and cultural forms and ideas such as a shift from top-down and individual approaches to more participative and bottom-up methods.
Iceland and its political and cultural developments triggered by the economic collapse can be seen as signs of broader social, political, and cultural processes that transpire a bit later and/or in a slower pace on a larger scale in other countries. As these developments still continue, they seem to be parts of a deeper change and transition that we don’t quite understand. Philosopher and filmmaker Haukur Helgason reminds us: “The history is ongoing. What the events actually mean hasn’t been fully unfolded yet. We are still waiting or working to finding a meaning. Or losing it, because it can also become completely meaningless.”
The Icelandic artists’ public engagements are important examples of the effort to understand and shape these ongoing changes. Their works and personal trajectories offer an opportunity to review a variety of ways in which artists inspire public engagements and/or initiate them directly. Their projects often advance different objectives and operate on several levels, critical, symbolical, emotional. They can lead to a direct political involvement as in the case of Jónsdóttir and Gnarr, but as this case also shows, this trajectory has its own risks and limitations. Artists can also provide a critical reflection and create a new space for it as Haukur Már Helgason’s example indicates. They can anticipate and bring out important themes in symbolic and performative ways like the issue of constitution in Castro’s and Ólafsson’s constitutional projects. They may also examine and critique concepts, principles, and values taken for granted by the general public, politicians, experts, and media, be it a specific form of governance such as representative democracy or a more general concept such as progress and growth, as in the case of some of Steinunn Gunnlaugsdóttir’s works.
Most importantly, artists can contribute to creating transformative narratives that connect all these functions and needs—emotional, critical, symbolical—in a powerful vision that will guide deeper political, cultural, and social changes that we need.
Hence a lesson we can learn from Icelandic artists’ public engagements might be a call to engage in bringing out these changes. Birgitta Jónsdóttir summed up this lesson in the aftermath of the public debate organized by the Constitutional Society of Iceland: “In order to get a real change, you don’t have to become a politician or enter into politics. You can have a much greater influence in different ways. To act on your ideas and to move into what we believe in… So instead of moving to The New Brave World or to 1984, maybe there is another story we want to move into. So, I call on all creative people who care about more than their navel base to get engaged: to create a narrative of the future. I want to carry on inspiring others and their feeling that they can be the change: to help them to figure out how to plant these sitting seeds of ideas into the ‘democracy garden,’ as I call it.”
 James Shaughnessy, Iceland’s Anarchist Comedian Mayor Is Moving to Texas, Vice, May 2, 2014.
 “In June 2010 an Act on a Constitutional Assembly No. 90/2010 was adopted by the Althing [Parliament]. The purpose of the Assembly was to review the Constitution of the Republic No. 33 of 17 June 1944 by also consulting a report prepared by a Constitutional Committee appointed by Parliament on the basis of the same act.” Herdís Kjerulf Thorgeirsdóttir, The Icelandic Constitutional Experiment: A Report, European Commission for Democracy Through Law (Venice Commission), p 3.
 Paul Fontaine, Why does the New Constitution Matter? An interview with Dr Lawrence Lessig, The Reykjavik Grapevine, November 11, 2016.
 EDDA is the acronym for Equality, Diversity, Development and Advancement. It is an interdisciplinary Center of Excellence in critical contemporary research, with emphasis on (in)equality and difference, the welfare state, societal transitions and transnational politics, and security and development.
 Mini-publics is a democratic innovation that comprises “an assembly of citizens, demographically representative of the larger population, brought together to learn and deliberate on a topic in order to inform public opinion and decision-making.” See Oliver Escobar and Stephen Elstub, Forms of Mini-Publics: An introduction to deliberative innovations in democratic practice, New Democracy, May 8, 2017. For a discussion of deliberative polling, see What is Deliberative Polling?