WHEN BJÖRK CRITICIZED Magma Energy Corp. chairman and CEO Ross Beaty in an interview with Maclean’s in November 2010, the Icelandic pop singer couldn’t have struck a deeper chord. Maclean’s subsequently pulled the interview from the internet after Magma threatened the Canadian magazine with a libel suit.
It’s not every day that a musician’s stance on environmental issues gets one of Canada’s top publications into hot water. But the threatened Icelandic landscape and environment weigh heavily on Björk Guðmundsdóttir. In Björk’s 2008 documentary Náttúra, which aimed to raise awareness about the destruction of Iceland’s wilderness at the hands of the aluminum industry, she sits lightly in front of the camera and from behind her black bangs, smiles and says, “The problem for Iceland is that our nature is all we’ve got.”
Unlike other artists who advocate for environmental causes but whose music is unrelated, Björk’s compositions embody and reflect her connection to and concern for the Icelandic landscape. The avant-garde, electronic, performance-driven artist with seven solo albums and an international reputation is at the helm of Iceland’s environmental campaign. She has also gathered attention for her opposition to Magma in Iceland since the Canadian-owned company bought 98.5 per cent of the formerly Icelandic geothermal-energy corporation, HS Orka, last summer.
Some see Sarah Harmer as the Canadian equivalent, with her connection to Southern Ontario’s Niagara Escarpment. In her 2005 song “Escarpment Blues,” Harmer asks, “If they blow a hole in the backbone/The one that runs across the muscles of the land/We might get a load of stone for the road/But I don’t know how much longer we can stand.” Harmer’s organization, Protecting Escarpment Rural Land, has been fighting to protect Mount Nemo, which is within the Niagara Escarpment, a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve.
Since the 2008 economic downturn in Iceland in which the country’s three largest banks failed and unemployment rose to 9.4 per cent from 1.6 per cent within a year, the country has been scrambling to regain financial stability. Iceland is already home to three aluminum smelters and there are more in the works. Laced with glacial rivers and studded with volcanoes, waterfalls and vast tracts of untouched wilderness, Iceland’s attractiveness to foreign investors in the aluminum business lies in its massive geothermal and hydroelectric-power resources that are cheaper options than coal, oil or gas for the energy-intense process of refining aluminum.
On June 28, 2008, one-tenth of Iceland’s 319,000 inhabitants attended a concert that Björk (dubbed “Iceland’s greatest export”) held with the Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Rós. The musicians aimed to draw attention to the government’s plan to expand smelter production. Since then, Björk has brought international media attention to the destruction of Iceland’s wilderness at the hands of private multinational corporations, has launched Nattura.info and, more recently, has begun petitioning the government.
Björk’s petition, which requested a referendum to keep Iceland’s energy resources in public hands, eventually garnered 48,000 signatures and seemed to have an effect. Magma recently announced it was selling 25 per cent of its interest in HS Orka to an Icelandic pension fund. At the time the petition was delivered, Björk encouraged her supporters to join outside the government offices in Lækjargata to “troll the petition to the government” by singing a protest song, published on her webpage.
Björk’s relationship to the Icelandic landscape is best understood in the context of a postcolonial, proudly independent Iceland. The island nation gained independence from Denmark in 1918, becoming a republic in 1944. As Nicola Dibben, a musicology professor at the University of Sheffield points out in her book Björk (2009), nationalist conceptions of Iceland have stressed “a ‘natural’ relationship between the land of the nation-state and the people that inhabit it.”
Iceland’s natural environment inspires Björk, who has tried to capture its essence in some of her songs, including “Jöga” from her 1997 album Homogenic. Dibben explains, “The beats in ‘Jöga’ are aligned with the idea of seismic energy, and can to some extent be heard as mimetic of ideas of the ‘raw,’ volcanic landscape.” Dibben says Björk’s music contributes to the very concept that we call nature, and that her tunes engender “a unification of the human and the natural.”
When Björk explains her relationship to the Icelandic landscape, she often mentions singing in the valleys and on the mountaintops in Arctic winds, and of getting down close to the ground. “You could sneak down next to the moss and maybe sing a verse, and then you would stand up and run to a hill and sing a chorus,” she explains in the 2003 documentary Inside Björk.
Björk’s newest album Biophilia will have its world premiere at the Manchester International Festival on June 30. Biophilia will explore the relationship of technology, nature and music, and is set to be released as a multimedia performance made up of “music, apps, internet, installations and live shows.” The tour will feature “a bespoke pipe organ that accepts digital information and a 30-foot pendulum that harnesses the Earth’s gravitational pull to create musical patterns.”
In addition to organizing musical events in support of Iceland’s environment, such as the Náttúra concert held in Reykjavik with Sigur Rós in 2008 and the recent three-day karaoke-a-thon in which Björk said they would “sing their resources back,” she continues to raise awareness about the aluminum industry. Björk’s music is a means of activism. Of her song “Náttúra,” she explained, “It’s just a celebration of nature and how unpredictable it is and you cannot control it and you just have to kind of like let it fall all over you.” Her sense of place drives her music and is derived from a tradition of Icelandic nationalism, which is wound up in nature. Where many musicians keep their music and activism separate, the land infuses Björk’s music in a way that makes her environmental activism flow seamlessly from it.
In an October 2008 issue of Harpers, Rebecca Solnit wrote of the dams built by American-owned aluminum manufacturer Alcoa two years’ previous in Kárahnjúkar: “To hear ordinary citizens speak about the dams, you’d think they lived under a vast tyranny; they speak of powerlessness, secrecy, intimidation, and loss.” The emotional pain and nostalgia for a natural landscape that has been changed irreversibly is so common as to now have a theory attached to it. Philosopher Glenn Albrecht suggests the term “solastalgia” to describe the feeling of “homesickness” that comes with the destruction of one’s own homeland. Solastalgia is “a form of human distress related to the lived experience of negatively perceived environmental change.” Björk’s songs and activism call out against this helplessness and instead suggest the power to make change.
“Our neighbors are nature,” said Björk in the retracted Maclean’s article. “Iceland is surrounded by mountains and ocean. Half of the food my family eats is from hunting. We’re an isolated island in the middle of the Atlantic, so we’re very aware of what we do to the island or to the ocean around us.”
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