This talk started on the Greenland Sea (Arctic Ocean) coast, with an Icelandic breeze and cup of coffee in Skagaströnd, which has 500 inhabitants and hosts the artist-in-residency programme Nes. This is one of the most remote residencies in Europe, which has a capacity to host 11 artists at a time. There is almost no presence of urban life: no fancy cafeterias, galleries and even no public bus connection. However, artists are coming here to enjoy remoteness, vastness of the landscape and solitude. Artistic director of Nida Art Colony Vytautas Michelkevičius is in conversation with Nes director Melody Woodnutt about diferrent modes of remoteness and what it feels like to live and work in such remote areas as Skagaströnd and Nida, both as artists and as curators.
Vytautas Michelkevičius: What has attracted you to come back again and again to Skagaströnd?
Melody Woodnut: Returning to Skagaströnd is emotional and complex when returning to live here due to the limitations of a rural location. My first time in Skagaströnd I came because I wanted a unique experience out of the city, I imagined it to be romantic because of its remoteness. Iceland was always appealing because of the Nordic beauty and small but incredibly unique concentration of creativity.
Then once I had been to Skagaströnd, it became my best contact here because of the residency and the way it provided access to the locals and traditional Icelandic culture, and that meant it became a good base to work from artistically and return to.
How would you describe remoteness in relation to Skagaströnd from positive and negative perspectives? What kind of other adjectives could you use to expand the notion of remoteness? (You were speaking about vastness..) Since you have been in Nida residency, could you compare it a little bit?
Yes I find the vastness and spacious environment very directly related to our humanity, the way that a space so vast, remote, rural or isolated pushes us to discover our own boundaries and limits. Our humanity and way of being is challenged as we deal with things taken away from us; places to socialize, public transport, entertainment, shopping, the arts, or other things we take for granted in cities. In winter, it may also be that the ability to leave the house during a blizzard is taken from us. It is challenging to work and live in a place so removed from the metropolis as Skagaströnd is; it feels very excluded from creative industries or other arts. Socially, there are less opportunities and speaking as the immigrant that I am, there are less social networks to rely on. To communicate about artistic directions, to discuss artistic ideas, or to find creative industry colleagues in Skagaströnd is just about impossible, creating another fractional loss of the soul that is swallowed by the wind and carried out to sea from this lonely fishing village.
However, it is not all so bleak! The remoteness here is also its greatest asset. I am enjoying the challenge it brings. Remoteness can also be a beautiful and simple thing. The same things it takes from us, it replaces with others. The peace and quiet, the spectacular visual drama of the ever changing skies, the incredible nature that is found in and around Skagaströnd is very unique. It enables artists to be here undisturbed without the distraction of the fleeting city environment, where you are just another face in a crowd. Artists are able to develop connections to the townspeople through the residency. It enables artists to discover more about the real Iceland.
Romanticism of a place untouched, under developed, and free of tourists enables visiting artists to feel they are discovering something very special, and in the case of Nes this holds true. I feel this untouched wilderness “edge of the world” feeling is very important to the survival of Nes also. We do not want to become another residency that has everything at your fingertips. We want to see artists push themselves and their limits. It is this experience that brings forth our humanity and enables insights and creative breakthroughs, or break downs! This is important; to embrace the challenge of living without, in the great expanse of remoteness. It is also important to remember this is often why people are attracted to Nes.
Try to spend several seconds looking at this panorama picture. You find yourself thinking like you are almost there or you would like definitely to come to this place. This is power of photography. You can feel Icelandic vastness, emptiness and remoteness. But what happens if you go down and start living in this village for a week, a month, 3 moths? The experience is totally changing from a nice picture into a felling of being inside remotely. More pictures about this and other remote residencies at http://remotenet.nidacolony.lt
Having been to Nida, I feel the remoteness is perhaps more present there due to the separation of artist colony and local life. Nida is not located in the town the same as Nes, and here locals and children might just drop by Nes to visit. The Board of Nes comprises of local townspeople that often show artists around, tell them stories or invite them to dinner. This access to Icelandic culture is a great asset to Nes, and one we are careful to respect, not to expect too much of, to abuse, or take advantage of. So, not all artists will have this same experience. However in contrast, I feel Nes is more isolated from the arts than Nida due to Nidas’ affiliation to Vilnius Arts Academy. Nes very much feels like it is outside of the Icelandic arts periphery completely. This is something I´m now working to change since commencing the role of Director in March.
I would not agree that Nida Art Colony is located further away from community than NES but I can see the clear difference since NES was established from both community and artists initiative and needs, whereas Nida Art Colony from artists’ needs. Of course Nida Art Colony is not in the center of local town (you need 10-20 min to reach it), however local people are coming to the cinema screenings and local school youth is attending workshops led by residents and students. Another difference is that Nida is a resort town and it is bigger than Skagaströnd. That’s why there is no such big curiosity from the local people and there are some more cultural activities around. Moreover, there is always something going on in the local cultural center, so we are not the only one place of attraction.
You said that you are the first director with artistic background. Could you tell us briefly who was running the residency before and what has changed since you have been here? And how it was established? What was the main goal initially and how has it developed till now?
Nes was set up by Hrafnhildur Sigurðardóttir, an artist and Board Member for SÍM Artist Residency, Reykjavik. She founded the residency along with commendable members of the community, who now sit on the Board of Nes. Hrafnhildur established the residency and handed over the reigns to marine biologists or townspeople to work and run the space. In retrospect, it seems this was absolutely necessary for this location, enabling the residency to find a place within the existent community with a site-specific context and network, given that we are a small fishing village. It is also important that the town feels supported and involved with Nes. It has been a really excellent way for artists to connect with the town and the locals, and form cross-disciplinary research or projects. It may not have been possible for these things to occur if it was not run by local people from outside of the arts. The residency has been a great way to introduce arts to the town, and I think the benefit of creating the residency initially outside of the arts has given it a chance to be more accepted and involved with people outside of the arts and locals in the town.
Now that Nes has been established in the community for the last 4 years, it is perfect timing to develop the residency with an artistic focus and direction. As I have recently begun the position of director 4 months ago, I have been assessing how Nes operates; changes are now being determined and understood through the current observations. A development plan is currently being put together, which roughly involves curation, new programs, and collaborations. I won’t be able to elaborate much more on this until further discussions are made with other parties. The main goal of the residency still remains the same, to create a space for artists to base themselves in Iceland, create opportunities for cross-pollination of disciplines, networking, creation, possible collaborations, and to experience Skagaströnd or work with the community. These goals intend to benefit both artists in residence, and the town’s development.
During our meeting you told me about Sea Food festival (S.E.A.S.) and the film festival which are going to be curated by you. As far as I understood, the main goal of them are to bring international artists closer to the local community and backwards – to bring the place and its specificity closer to Icelandic and international artists. This means identifying and employing both local and global resources. How do you plan to do this?
Curation of both these events aims to bring artists in touch with the site-specifics of the residency. I am interested in developing more interest around the immediate area of Skagaströnd in a way that profiles the town more creatively and engages arts culture to permeate into the periphery of rural and remote spaces. I believe artists have a unique ability to observe and see a place through new or fresh eyes. The townspeople are often blessed to rediscover their town over again each time they speak with an artist.
The culmination of global resources (say in the form of international cultural exchange, networks, innovations, artists and art works) when met with local resources within the town (such as local knowledge, local connections, unused spaces, local materials or natural resources/environments) work together to develop Skagaströnd into a thriving and artistically exciting place. The development of a new wave of culture within the town feels very progressive and evolutionary. It is exciting to think of the influence Nes has on youth in the town, we have young children who come to visit the artists, we have a mentorship program for youth and a general presence that most generations don´t grow up with if they live in remote areas. To think we may be making a positive influence on a young life developing into our future generations is exciting.
More specifically; S.E.A.S Festival (Site Exploratory Arts in Skagaströnd Festival) was founded by 2 local townspeople from the USA, Jacob and Andrea Kasper (acting directors in the interim before I commenced work here) and 2 artists, Henry Fletcher and Tanja Geis. S.E.A.S started originally as a seafood and art festival based around collaborations with chefs and Henry Fletcher who is a forager and nature guide. Tanja and Andrea are from arts backgrounds, while Jacob is a local marine biologist; these ideologies came together to construct a plan to combine the arts with sea and coastal resources. Since taking over the project, I needed S.E.A.S to have a curatorial framework so it would make sense as to why these disciplines are connected and why are we, Nes, doing this? Why not BioPol Marine Research Labs, or both BioPol and Nes? So I established the need for the thread that ties this project to Nes. Nes has a goal to engage with and give back to the community. My interest in liveness or engaged functional arts practice, along with the main common denominator: site-specifics, made this simple. S.E.A.S aims to work with site specific artists that may bridge the remoteness of the arts residency into the community. I wanted to curate engaged or live artists who feel the live audience is important to either their live process or final presented live works. S.E.A.S aims to connect artists with local culture, to develop the area, collaborate through coastal resources with chefs, and present to local people.
The film festival next year aims to bring artists from Iceland, Nordic-Baltic states, or internationals together at Nes particularly. I want to develop an arts profile and artistic integrity that works to provide artists with exciting opportunities here. Through curated and/or funded events that create site-specific focus, Nes will now work to build an artistic reputation. One of these projects will be the film festival. Film making is one discipline that I find effective in connecting with people outside of the arts through narrative. Skagaströnd also has no cinema. 6 filmmakers in residence will work to create short films to present alongside the international festival program, simultaneously profiling or developing the residency and Skagaströnd alike.
Iceland is based very much on its exceptional nature and tourism. You cannot escape from so many ads addressed to every visitor in a vast number of publications. Touristic curiosity is probably among the strongest motives to come to the residency in Iceland. How do you avoid this motive or maybe you employ it?
We definitely do not ignore Iceland’s beauty. And neither does the tourism industry. In the summer months I notice we do have more of these touristic artists applying. I don´t believe anyone would skip the chance to travel to some very unique and awe inspiring sights that are present in Iceland, to come to this small island and not explore it would almost be a waste of a trip. Artistically, we have artists who are very inspired by the midnight sun, aurora borealis, volcanic action, landscapes, or other attractions. I think to separate the artist from such an unusual environment would be detrimental to the creative process or the influence that is gained by cultural exchange of a residency. It is part of the environment here, of which Nes is intrinsically connected to. We encourage artists to be inspired by it. Nature may be a tourist attraction in Iceland, but it is also functional in the artists’ experience.
Seasonality is also an issue in the north of Iceland where very short mild summers are replaced by dramatic winters. How do the artists differ from season to season?
As mentioned, summer can be filled with artists who want to enjoy the milder and more manageable summer weather and see the nature; they can often be the shorter trip “arts tourists” who escape teaching or routine to attend the residency in their vacation time. In winter, I find more dedicated or specifically determined artists who stay for longer periods of time and who really are here to work. I prefer the winters, having attended all seasons here before as an artist or director.
During the transitional months of spring or autumn, between our two extreme seasons of summer and winter, I often find artists who are interested in a more varied experience. The weather or environment may have little impact on the work they are creating during spring or autumn, but more the ideas or general Icelandic influence outside of the climate is important to them.
After some time running a residency in Nida we have noticed that a lot of artists get overwhelmed by the beauty of surrounding nature and they start to make artworks straightforwardly from the natural materials and present their naïve discoveries as something new. However, for those who have spent more time here it is clear that it is kind of banal to present ‘not processed’ material (like sand or pine cones) as an artistic insight. Do you have a lot of artists working with nature and how they deal with this ‘first impression’ naivety?
This is an interesting question. Iceland does not necessarily have these kinds of resources available. The land can be very vast and bare, with natural phenomena appearing suddenly or ephemerally. Most of the beauty found is done through touristic trips and the influence this has on an artist’s work may not necessarily appear in physical materials. The most obvious visual appearance of the beauty or landscape is in film, however this is often accompanied by a narrative, or shot in such a way as to draw something else out of the environment that we did not see before. On the occasion that artists use things from the location, it often comes in forms of industrial or fishing resources, as we are a fishing village. Site-specific materials are not necessarily nature materials here; if they are they are often fairly unrecognizable. Artists must be careful that these things fit in with their practice and are not novel fascination. However, the sea, the mountain, and the horses here often feature in many works as I think they do develop a fascination with them. I would treat this as fun, and not always as a serious work reflective of their practice.
Could you describe everyday life in such a remote place like Skagaströnd? How does it go day to day for you and the artists? What kind of habits appear and what do you have to leave at home?
I am working to encourage artists to be self-sufficient here. It means to be able to navigate and improvise on their own. As far as habits go, the artists all work to their own schedule. Their houses are separate from the studios so they have a home space and work space; they can choose to be in either. Often there is not really anywhere else to hang out, but for the gas station, or a bar that is rarely open outside of summer. If you´re here in summer, the café is a third place to share or meet. I am currently creating a tea room within the studio building to create a space for general conversation, reading and drinking coffee together.
I do not tell artists that I have office hours, but that I am always available to contact via phone or email. I often work from home if there is a particularly, unnecessarily distracting group of artists in residence, or else if I just need to focus, as I get more work done with less incidental contact; I feel artists are able to experience the remoteness or focus just as easily in this place without the presence of the director in their studios. I do very much enjoy working from my office in the studios however and I am excited by a positive and proactive group of artists in residence and enjoy their creative company at work.
I am still testing out the format of Nes to fully discover the most effective way of operating, so habits have not completely set in for myself that I can think of.
One habit I notice is that when I close my office door, people are usually quicker in conversation as they understand I am busy. When I leave it open or ajar, then artists may chat more generally. It is one way I control my contact with artists while working.
I would suppose artists have a habit of leaving a few days early at the end of the month to travel and sightsee. Often, I find artists from the USA have the most questions about living here, operating household things, or generally find it more difficult or confusing. This may be because of a heightened displacement or perhaps less exposure to other cultures in general.
During the weekend in the village I have seen only kids and artists-in-residency. It seems like everybody is safely sitting in their houses. How do you bring artists and the community together? Does the community embrace them or do they stay aside? In such small villages contemporary art is always an alien. Do we need to mediate it or maybe it is better to find other ways of communication with the locals?
I find that our monthly welcome dinner brings the locals and artists together less formally and conversations flow around their common interests of Nes and Skagaströnd. The type of artist will always determine the type of interaction they receive. I have seen artists make local friends, acquire local resources independently, be invited to dinners or go on trips with locals. Otherwise, artists are happy to focus only on their work and draw from resources here that are not social. There are certain members of the community here that are always supportive of Nes and it is often a commitment they have decided on to invest in Nes and encourage or help the artists. Quite often they are members of the Board. To connect with other locals you may need to visit the bar after 01:00 or be adventurous and pave your own way with your interests or art projects to make the connections yourself.
Contemporary art does still feel a little alien here in Skagaströnd, although we have had some very contemporary performances and exhibitions or projects that have pleased and connected very well with the local community. I think for a practical farming and fishing village there is a lot of interest and sometimes it may not be necessary to bond just over art so much, but equally the ideas and interest in the village itself.
The town can be particularly hard to meet people, due to established family lives here, but if you ask or need to talk to someone, they are always very responsive.
How is it possible to keep professional contacts for curators who are working in remote places? Both of us are sitting in small villages, maybe reading some international newsletters and magazines and facebooking. But sometimes there comes a feeling that something is passing by while you are sitting here, and there is nobody to consult and discuss ideas with. Sometimes I am feeling the isolation within the local (Lithuanian) art context, whereas I am building international networks via common projects and trips.
Another side of this issue is a very easy temptation to overwork because there is nothing to do besides the work. There are no friends, no art places with openings, no fancy bars and shopping centres. What are we doing after working hours and on weekends? We are probably working on the existing and new projects because this is the only way to escape loneliness and isolation. Of course if you are a sporty or adventurous guy, you might use these possibilities, but they are also limited.
This is a very good point, and as I write this it is 02:45am. I have worked non-stop today since 10:00. This is particularly so because of upcoming deadlines and current events, but I do turn to work to fill in my time when there is nothing else I am able to escape to. In fact, the workload and responsibility of carrying a residency by oneself drives me to work longer hours than I should or than I am paid for, but I convince myself that it is important for my work to continue! Otherwise I convince myself there is no harm in just quickly checking those emails again after dinner, or working late to write a support letter for a potential artists in residence, or a report, or create a website for an upcoming project, etc. I came from a large city of millions where I could be entertained any night of the week. With this entertainment, artistic community, or dear friends absent from my life I am learning again how to be alone.
I have thought about developing a hobby, or work on my own artwork, but Nes always seems more pressing or overloaded that I feel my time is better spent getting it under control so that in the future I might actually be able to do these things.
I have relied on artists to socialize or go on trips with, or friends from Reykjavik to socialize with if I leave Skagaströnd for the weekend, but most people here are families and difficult to connect with or open up meaningful and fulfilling creative dialogues. I also feel the displacement from the arts community found in larger cities and believe that it is also part of my job to introduce that community to Nes. I do feel like I am missing out on something, however I also feel running this place alone doesn´t allow me time to connect with that anyhow. So the isolation from the arts community is very much related not only to the geographical isolation, but also from the workload that prevents me from having time to meet, mingle, and develop industry connections, or do things with friends. This may reduce with the implementation of an intern soon, or a complete restructure of how Nes is currently run. But changes will be made around this, which aims to correct this problem that ultimately endangers my ability to work with Nes sustainably, over a longer period of time. One position I would like to take is to work between both Reykjavik and Skagaströnd in order to bridge this isolation both personally and with regards to Nes in an arts context and professional development.
Let’s discuss artists’ needs and expectations a little bit. Their needs could be divided into technological and local orientation and curatorial help. The first and second are quite clear, but how do we deal with curatorial help? Are we able to provide professional consultation to all the artists? And how do we share our attention to every artist? We are sort of the only professional people in the town to help if they need help.
Discussing with artists their work and ideas can be an interesting and fulfilling part of my work, however I remember my role here as the director of an artist residency. I am not a teacher, tutor, or artist assistant. Our artists also tend to talk among themselves to gain creative feedback. I can help the artists to facilitate their work through local orientation and providing them connections to people who can help them.
In a recent feedback form sent to artists, I asked if they expected more help from the director to do their work; all artists answered “no”. If I have time I very much enjoy assisting them to undertake their work by helping with a film or install etc.
I allocate my curatorial energy to projects I am interested in, as I do not want to work on a project that is not my passion, interest, or idea, due to the danger of loosing interest in someone else´s dream and thus not working on it as hard as it deserves.
I have been handed some existing projects upon my commencement of working with Nes that I can see value in but are not in line with my objectives or interests (or workload), so I will undertake them as best as I can but ultimately I will not feel fulfilled by their completion. It is a strategic decision that these projects must not pass through without my ok in future.
There are different levels of remoteness in residencies. One might say that all the residencies in Iceland are remote; however, you can easily differentiate between them. The level of remoteness depends on how many local means you have to reduce the feeling of remoteness: bars, cafeterias, public activities, transport, etc. What else? Most of them help you to experience the urban feeling and reduce the change from home.
It may be that we associate remoteness as the absence of what we are used to. I would also assume people from the countryside would feel incredibly isolated if they were suddenly displaced into a thriving city with millions of anonymous faces around them and entertainment every night.
Remoteness and the vast expanse of emotional or geographical implications resulting from it can impact on the way we operate and experience our environment. Perhaps it is about coming to a compromise and understanding ourselves within new contexts and forming new ideas of who we are. It would be important also not to forget what makes us happy and find a way to bring this into our remote or isolated circumstances. If it is impossible to bring a burlesque show or a circus to town, I feel we must get out of town to see it.
And finally, do you have any tips how to survive remoteness and enjoy it?
I think we need to remember ourselves and respect our free time. Develop new ways of engaging with our surroundings. I have become more interested lately in domestic travel to simply get out of my town. This is also because there is no way to escape my identity as the director of Nes here. I am known as this, whereas in the city or traveling with people from other places or fields, I am not recognized as the director, it is just a job I do this alleviates some of the pressure or else the incoming discussions about work when I am in fact not working.
This text reprinted from the Third issue of Nida Art Colony magazine on Remoteness in and around Contemporary Art and residencies. The magazine is available to download here.