Björk is a symbol of her nation, Iceland. Though she has spent time living in London and New York and frequently travels for tours, she always feels a sense of longing and nostalgia for her home country. Since her breakup with artist Matthew Barney in 2013, she has mostly resided near Reykjavik, where she has observed a significant increase in tourism over the years. While the island used to only receive a few hundred thousand visitors per year, it now welcomes almost 2 million annually.
It is difficult to determine the exact amount of interest in volcanoes and glaciers that can be attributed to Björk’s efforts to promote her home country, but there is no denying that her eccentric and dynamic music, blending elements of opera, trance, and techno, has significantly contributed to the distinct coolness associated with her native Iceland in the minds of eco-travelers. As a result, when she lends her trippy voice to environmental causes, her impact extends far beyond the North Atlantic region.
She has been participating in demonstrations for three decades. She clarified to me, “but always in Iceland, where I am aware that it can truly bring about change – which could potentially serve as a model for other countries. We have,” she adds, “the biggest unspoiled nature reserve in Europe and many of us feel a sense of responsibility as its protectors, similar to how you guys are guardians of your own country.” She chuckles. “Maybe like Brexit?”
The person’s current interest involves trying to stop the intensive farming of salmon in Iceland’s fjords. This industry is not only a threat to the island’s wild salmon population, but also to the overall ocean ecosystem. According to her, this type of farming, which originated from Norway, is similar to factory farming and has been introduced in the last few years. She believes that this method of accelerated fish development leads to an increase in diseases, specifically those caused by parasitic sea lice. As proof, she shows photographs of deformed farmed fish.
According to Björk, the conflict between the environment and local economies is not a simple one. She believes that only a small number of people are employed in salmon farming in Iceland, comparing it to two Norwegian billionaires who caused damage in their own country before moving to Iceland. The recent escape of thousands of farmed salmon into Icelandic rivers caused controversy and Björk claims that these “mutant fish” spread disease among wild salmon. However, the salmon farming companies deny these allegations and state that they have measures in place to protect wild salmon and their licenses are subject to renewal if they do not comply with environmental laws. There is currently a police investigation into potential violations of these laws.
The fight against the growth of open-net farming is currently centered in a town named Seyðisfjörður on the eastern side of the island. According to her, many unconventional artists reside there and have been demonstrating in the streets and have filed a legal case, citing the need to safeguard biodiversity. As the protesters have depleted their financial resources, Björk is releasing a single to help raise funds.
The song was originally created in 2002. The artist had been searching for it in her extensive collection for years but couldn’t remember the name under which it was filed. By chance, while on tour in Australia, she heard a news story in her hotel room about a politician involved in a scandalous affair with the headline “oral or not?”. This reminded her of the missing word in the song’s title, which made her laugh. The song has a Jamaican dancehall rhythm and has been updated with the addition of vocals from Spanish artist Rosalía to give it a more modern reggaeton sound. The artist is excited to have Rosalía on board because it will help reach a Spanish audience, especially in countries like Argentina and Chile where salmon farming is a major issue.
Björk’s current Cornucopia tour provides a larger framework for her latest album, Utopia, which has a science-fiction setting. The tour is a live rendition of the album and includes a monologue by Björk’s friend Greta Thunberg. According to Björk, the tour’s theme is not post-apocalyptic but rather post-optimistic. However, it may seem contradictory to the fantasy elements in the accompanying animations.
I am curious if “post-optimistic” accurately reflects her current mood.
The speaker remains optimistic, stating that she has hope for the future generation. She mentions having many nephews and nieces, as well as her daughter Isadora who is 21 and son Sindri who is 37. She observes the drive and passion of these young adults, who are pursuing careers such as managing national parks and holding fossil fuel companies accountable. She believes that once these individuals take over leadership positions from the current older generation, positive changes will occur.
She addresses the hopes and fears of Cornucopia with her trademark humor. “We have left behind western society and begun anew on an island,” she explains. “And while we may be a mix of birds and flutes, similar to the strange fish in The Simpsons, we are content in our own way.”
She holds the belief that biology is more powerful than commonly thought and dismisses the post-apocalyptic aesthetic often depicted in Hollywood movies, where the future is filled with survivalism and weapons. Instead, she envisions a different possibility where humans become a blend of plants and mushroom spores. She sees this as an intriguing change that is beyond our control, but believes we will adapt to it because we are… what’s the word?
“Unbalanced?” I propose. Then: “ingenious?”
During the pandemic, she released her latest album titled Fossora, which derives from the Latin word for digger. In this album, she explores the concept of going underground metaphorically and reflects on the regenerative abilities of mushrooms, among other topics. As a result, she had the opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream of narrating a documentary based on Merlin Sheldrake’s bestselling book about fungi, Entangled Life. She believes that fungi can provide solutions to various issues, citing experiments with plastic-digesting mycelium and reports of radiotrophic fungi repurposing radiation in the Chornobyl region.
Fossora’s work includes not only enchanting mushroom meditations, but also touching farewell honors for her mother, Hildur Rúna Hauksdóttir. Hildur Rúna passed away in 2018 after battling a prolonged illness. She was a passionate feminist and homeopath who divorced Björk’s father (an electrician and labor union representative) when the singer was just two years old. Hildur Rúna raised Björk in a communal living setting. One may wonder if Björk views her environmental activism as a way to carry on her mother’s legacy.
“It’s a complex question,” she responds. “It’s like the age-old debate of the chicken and the egg. My mother raised me with a strong awareness of these issues. I was taught to view hamburgers as something sinful, and in cowboy and Indian movies, the cowboys were portrayed as the villains while the Indians were seen as the heroes. Even now, I cannot bring myself to listen to country music because it feels like supporting something negative. My mother was quite extreme in her beliefs. So, in essence, the answer is yes to your question. However, she wasn’t actively involved in protesting. It was in the 90s when my parents and I all became more involved.”
She reflects on the connection and then tries again: “I believe her most revolutionary action was removing me from the patriarchy to live in a small, leaky house on the edge of the untamed wilderness. In the 1990s, both my mother and father, along with our group of friends, became radical in our own unique ways, particularly in regards to the environment.” For instance, Hildur embarked on a hunger strike in 2002 to protest the construction of an aluminum smelter and hydroelectric dams in the Icelandic highlands by the US company Alcoa. She persisted for 23 days before ending her fast.
Was she successful?
The original plan was to use all of Iceland’s rivers for the construction of aluminium factories. While the factory was built, not all of the necessary dams were constructed. Iceland’s land area is comparable to England without Wales or Scotland. However, if the initial plan had been carried out, the highlands would have been destroyed in order to create the largest aluminium factory in the world.
The demonstration served as a model for her present campaign in certain aspects. “Our strategy is to be relentlessly determined,” she declares.
In the early 2000s, it was the tourism and culture industries that prevented Iceland from being taken over by aluminium. According to one person, at that time, the food in Iceland was limited to gas station hamburgers. However, this has drastically changed. Now, in even the smallest villages, one can purchase delicious local lamb and cheese, homemade beer, and there are also opportunities for activities such as glacier sightseeing, snowmobiling, and river rafting. 15 years ago, the only option seemed to be the aluminium factory, but we proved that there are other options available. Currently, many people visit Iceland to fish for wild salmon, and they would not come if they were catching genetically modified fish.
Over the course of time, she has experimented with various approaches to utilize her popularity in order to bring about positive transformation. Following the banking crisis, she endorsed a female-led green venture capital fund that provided initial funding for environmentally-friendly startups. Her Biophilia Educational Project from 2011 has been incorporated into the school curriculum, with the aim of inspiring children to pursue interests in music and technology similar to hers.
In 2019, Björk and Thunberg collaborated with Iceland’s prime minister, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, to officially declare a climate emergency in the country. However, when the time came, Jakobsdóttir did not follow through and did not even acknowledge the issue, which angered Björk.
Her past experiences have led her to believe that politicians will not take action to solve our problems unless they are culturally pressured to do so. In 2008, after the banking crash devastated Iceland’s economy, there were expectations for a revolution led by women. Does she think that opportunity was missed, or has it had an impact?
She responds, “It’s both a yes and a no. It’s a long and ongoing process. We were among the select nations that took action to imprison some of the corrupt bankers. Although, they could have served longer sentences and more individuals could have faced consequences, at least some were held accountable. This is not something that many countries have achieved. Despite our progress in promoting feminism, there is still room for improvement.”
A few days after our conversation, she intended to participate in Iceland’s inaugural 48-year-long women’s strike. During this strike, women across the country ceased work, childcare, cooking, and cleaning to march in the streets and bring attention to the ongoing gender pay gap. “We’re making progress, but we still have a ways to go,” she remarks.
I am curious about how she is treated during these protests – does she find it manageable to maintain a typical lifestyle in Reykjavik or does she have to be cautious about her whereabouts?
“It’s quite simple,” she explains. “That’s just one of the many reasons I adore Iceland – we don’t care about famous people. You might run into the president in the grocery store. If you try to act superior, you’ll be brought back down to reality pretty fast. There isn’t much of a social hierarchy here. It’s only the tourists who can be a nuisance for me when I’m out and about. But I simply avoid the areas where I know they’ll be.”
Was that one of the factors that motivated her return from New York?
Living in Brooklyn, I often felt divided between two places. Therefore, I never fully let go. My daughter attended school in Iceland before and after Christmas. The pandemic, which forced me to stay in my hometown for the first time since I was 16, only strengthened my connection to it. I have no plans to leave. I enjoy being in a European capital while also living near the beach and mountains. Additionally, all my loved ones are just a short walk away. The icing on the cake is that in the past 10 years, we have had top-notch film, music, dance, and book festivals here in Iceland.
It is undeniable that a significant portion of her cultural influence is attributable to her successful career. Despite discussing various topics, we have yet to delve into her passion for music. Does she still possess the same level of enthusiasm, at 57 years old, for recording and performing as she did before?
She explains that she frequently uncovers fresh songs on a daily basis and always has some idea brewing in her mind. While her main focus is on music, she does take breaks to dedicate around 20% of her time to advocating for environmental causes. She emphasizes that she is considering the well-being of future generations. She jokes, “I wish I had five bodies to do everything, but unfortunately, I only have one.”
Björk and Rosalía’s collaboration, “Oral,” is set to be released on November 9th.