PCA in Reykjavik

icelander-flag-graphicMy first impressions of Iceland were not exactly what I anticipated they would be. Before arriving, I had heard about the awe-inspiring natural beauty of this land, and of the exciting atmosphere of its capital city, Reykjavik. However, on the bus ride from the airport to Reykjavik, I was not so much awe-struck as I was curiously mesmerized by the harsh and unfamiliar landscape that whizzed by outside of our windows.  It was captivating, but in a strange and barren sort of way. Nowhere were there the waterfalls or jagged cliffs that I had heard so much about. Instead, there was a vast expanse of what appeared to be hardened lava floes, cracked and bubbled up here and there like a poorly installed carpet of dark, undulating signrock. The Atlantic Ocean lapped at the edges of this landscape, pooling in ragged bays alongside the shoreline. There were small collections of dreary looking houses, gathered together in what I imagined were tiny fishing villages, and there was an incongruously situated golf course nestled in between the otherwise stark lava rocks. It looked like the surface of the moon, but with water, people and golf.

When the bus rolled into Reykjavik, we were greeted by block after block of grey concrete buildings that lined wide, nondescript roadways. It looked like a warehouse district except for the fact that there were major luxury hotels along the route. There were also old, decrepid tenement buildings of the sort common in the UK. Construction cranes hovered over these neighborhoods indicating that there was a great deal of new development going on. My first thought was, “What an ugly city.”

Graffiti

Articulate Icelandic graffito.

After checking into our hotel – The Grand Hotel, Reykjavik – we walked toward the downtown area. The walk took us along streets that were almost abandoned. There were very few people, very little traffic, and no visible businesses. There was a great deal of graffiti, but hardly any litter on the streets. I was beginning to wonder what all the hub-bub about Iceland was about until we hit Laugavegur street and entered the city center. Suddenly the place was bustling. There were bookstores, bars, restaurants and cafes. It was starting to feel like the vibrant place that I had heard people talking about. And indeed, over the course of the next eight days, I would come to really appreciate the charm and excitement of Reykjavik.

The occasion for our visit was to attend the 2015 international meeting of the Popular Culture Association. My wife and I were both making presentations on the results of our separate research projects from a previous PCA writer’s workshop that we had attended in New York City in 2013. The conference itself was to last only three days, but we were staying in Iceland for a week, intending to explore this exotic country famous for its waterfalls, puffins, volcanoes and viking heritage.

reykjavik view

Reykjavik as seen from the top of Hallgrímskirkja.

Iceland turns out to be different from any other place that I have visited, and this explains my initial feelings of disenchantment. There are no descriptions that can adequately prepare you to appreciated the country’s unique mix of the spectacular and the mundane; the high-minded and the weird. The total population of the country is somewhere around 300,000 people with a bit more than a third of them living in Reykjavik. Seven Reykjaviks could fit inside of one San Francisco, and so it is no wonder that the city feels sparsely Streetpopulated and far from hectic. It took me a while to get used to the laid back pace. Coupled with almost 24 hour sunlight, I felt as if we had forever to wander around and not worry too much about time. I hardly slept while we were there; not because we were rushing from place to place, but because night never forced us indoors. Instead we spent hours wandering about, looking at museums, eating, drinking, listening to bands and relaxing in geothermal hot springs. Despite my initial perplexed impressions, when we were getting ready to leave for home, I felt as if I was turning my back on paradise.

PrikidThe food we ate in Iceland was, for the most part, really good. We had a couple of early morning meals at a place called Prikid, which is supposed to be one of the oldest restaurants in Iceland. The atmosphere was very comfortable and laid back. Downstairs is a small, dark bar crowded with friendly hipsters, while up the steep and narrow staircase you enter into a dining area with windows overlooking the main street. Rap and rock music played in the background, and the wait staff were all very attentive and good humored. The first day we ate there, both my wife and I had “Truck,” which is a plate of eggs, pancakes, potatoes, bread and bacon. During our second visit I had “The Breakfast of Champions,” which consisted of eggs, bacon, camabert cheese, bread and a cup of skyr, the delicious Icelandic form of yogurt. While it was fairly sedate during the day, when we passed this same place later in the evening, loud rap music blared from the interior and a line of muscle-bound security guards monitored the entryway. These are the two faces of Reykjavik: calm and laid back by day, but loud and full of energy at night.

author

Einar Mar Gudmundsson speaking to the PCA.

Seafood was the main fare that we had for our dinners, including Icelandic cod at the Scandinavian Restaurant and Bar, Langostino at Mar, lobster sandwiches from a food truck called The Lobster Hut, and a delicious piece of salmon at Idno. This last dinner was hosted by the conference organizers, bringing together all attendees to socialize and to hear a hilarious talk by Einar Már Gudmundsson, the Icelandic novelist and essayist who wrote Angels of the Universe. All in all, I had no complaints about Icelandic food, though I did not try the boiled puffin or the mink whale, two controversial dishes that apparently are more popular among tourists than locals.

The night life in Reykjavik is very energetic, with the streets, bars and clubs becoming packed with revelers by around 10 or 11 pm. Beer, which was banned until 1989, is very expensive, costing about 9 or 10 dollars a bottle, so it is apparently the Icelandic custom for people to do most of their drinking at home before going out on the town. When they do hit the streets, they are well lubricated and ready for a good time.

Bar11

Inside Bar 11.

Thinking that there was going to be an experimental music performance on the Thursday after our arrival, my wife and I wandered over to Bar 11, a place that would feel familiar to anyone who frequents punk rock or biker bars like the Zeitgeist in San Francisco. The interior walls are all painted black and adorned with pictures of skulls and coffins. The bartenders are all bald men with plenty of tattoos, who nevertheless are friendly and welcoming. When we arrived and asked about the night’s performance, we were informed that it was not experimental music that was on the schedule, but experimental stand-up comedy! I’m not sure how I got those two things mixed up. Maybe because I had (and still have) no idea what constitutes experimental stand-up comedy. As it turns out, the show was in Icelandic, and so neither my wife or I could understand what everyone else was laughing about. Retreating upstairs to a dark corner of the bar and sitting beneath a poster adorned with skulls, we passed the evening talking and listening to a looping tape of songs by X-ray Specs, The Adverts, and other classic punk rock bands. At around 1am in the morning, we wandered out of the bar and made our way along the waterfront back to our hotel. At that time in the morning, it looked like dawn was about to break, and once I fell asleep, it did.

show

Goth Girls Don’t Give a Fuck at Dillon.

The following Saturday we spent the evening at a bar called Dillon, where we watched three tremendous synth/goth/punk bands perform. The advertised name of the show was Goth Girls Don’t Give a Fuck and it was held in conjunction with Slutwalk, a global event held to protest the idiotic comments of Toronto’s police chief who made a public statement saying that if women didn’t want to be raped, then they shouldn’t dress like sluts. The bands on the bill this night were Antimony, Kælan Mikla, and Börn. Crowded into a tiny, upstairs performance space, the audience gathered around, many of us standing on chairs and grasping onto the rafters in an attempt to catch glimpses of the performers. The onlookers were young and old; there were plenty of tattooed 20 somethings in spiked leather jackets as well as aging, middle-aged punks, some still sporting mohawks and dressed in ripped up clothes. There were also men and women who looked like jocks and business people. It was an interesting mix with no “sluts” in visible attendance! Neither was there any thrashing or slam dancing, although a young woman did fall face first onto the floor after losing her grip on an overhead beam. While all of the music was great, it was Börn that really stole the show. Their energy and emotion were invigorating, even if I couldn’t understand the lyrics. They reminded me of early Siouxie and the Banshees, with the lead singer’s lilting screams and shrieks evoking a feeling of spooky mournfulness and angry outrage.  They are now my favorite Icelandic band!

viking

A Viking takes on a polar bear at the Saga Museum.

In addition to the nightlife, Reykjavik has a tremendous number of museums and art galleries. We attended a wine and cheese conference reception at the Asmundar Sveinssonar Sculpture Museum, we visited the silly, but educational and fun, Icelandic Saga Museum, and we spent almost an entire morning at the National Museum and the National Art Gallery.

 

 

Elephant Dick

An elephant penis on display at the Icelandic Phallological Museum.

But by far the most memorable – because the most bizzare – museum that we visited was The Icelandic Phallological Museum, which boasts the largest collection of animal penises in the world! We chanced upon this oddity while walking down Laugavegur street and were especially amused by the fact that it is situated next to a store selling bacon wrapped hot dogs. Now that’s cross marketing! The museum is filled with preserved specimens of enormous whale dicks as well as tiny hamster and mouse dicks. There are jars of bear cocks, seal pricks, dolphin dongs, and horse wieners. There is even an elephant shlong that puts most of the other stuff to shame!  And while there are partial specimens of human genitalia, the museum is still awaiting the donation of complete human penises from a number of donors, some of whom have promised to hand over the goods before they actually die! What some people won’t do for attention. There is even a movie that has been made, titled The Final Member, that focuses on the strange case of these over-eager donors. I have to admit that my amusement turned to nausea when I began to really think about the reality of someone having his ding-a-ling removed just so that it could forever be displayed in a plexiglass jar in Reykjavik.

Church

Hallgrímskirkja

There are few existing high-rise buildings in Reykjavik, although it appears that there will soon be a proliferation of them. Along the same stretch of road as the ultramodern Harpa Music Hall there are a number of tall buildings in the process of construction on the waterfront. The rest of the city is low slung, with a great number of brightly painted corrugated metal houses lining the streets. Commanding the city from atop a hill is Hallgrímskirkja, a 73 meter tall concrete Lutheran church, consecrated in 1986, that resembles a space shuttle poised for launch. Taking the elevator to the top of the steeple you get panoramic views of the city, along with a sense of just how small and quaint Reykjavik really is. Out in front is a majestic statue of Lief Erikson given to Iceland by the US in 1930 to commemorate the 1000th anniversary of Iceland’s “Althing,” the world’s oldest parliament. While Protestant Christianity is the most common faith in Iceland, apparently the second largest faith is comprised of Odinists, who worship the old Nordic gods. Wouldn’t it be appropriate, then, to also have statues of Odin, Thor and Loki squaring off with Lief Erikson for an epic battle? That would be cool.

Cemetery

Hólavallagr∂r Cemetery

The last place that we spent an extended period of time wandering about in Reykjavik was the Hólavallagr∂r Cemetery. This is a beautiful, well-groomed old place with monuments dating back to the 1800’s. It was an appropriate final destination for our time in the city; a reminder of human finitude amongst the distracting excitement of Reykjavik. What I found especially inviting, but unusual, about the place is how it sits nestled in a grove of birch trees, which offer complete shade as you browse and walk through the rows of graves. Ironically, the rest of the island has been deforested of precisely this variety of tree, and the ones growing here were planted long after the founding of the cemetery. Trees, it turns out, have prospered in a place of dead humans while they have perished where humans live. There is a message there.

The stunning sights and natural scenery outside of Reykjavik still awaited us. But I’ll leave discussion of that for another posting.

PCA/ACA Summer Writer’s Workshop

2013_summer_writer_workshopIn late June, my wife and I attended the first ever Summer Writer’s Workshop hosted by the Popular Culture Association and the American Culture Association. It was a great experience being in New York City and meeting a friendly group of scholars working in various areas of popular culture studies. I hope that the PCA/ACA decides to host many more of these sorts of events in the future.

The workshop was organized and led by Rosemarie Conforti, from Southern Connecticut University, and Joe Hancock, from Drexel University; both of whom did an outstanding job of putting together a series of meetings and visits that allowed participants to become immersed in the culture and the excitement of the City. Over the course of the week we had the opportunity to experience the offerings of New York while still having ample time to write, talk and debate. The participants were of diverse ages, interests and backgrounds, but what united us all was an enthusiatic concern with the study of popular culture and a desire to develop and work on our own particular writing projects. One of the true joys of the workshop was hearing about the various subjects being explored by the attendees, which ranged from research on video games and detective fiction to investigations into fashion and fat studies. It was inspiring – and eye-opening – to learn just how diverse the nature of popular culture studies is. The whole experience gave me hope that the image of college professors as  stuffy,  boring and arrogant is now a fading myth. I myself was filled with a renewed sense of confidence in, and passion for, my own somewhat unusual area of research.

af3cc5d892881eae0cb6b3f244cdfcd82b68f6bb445ab6d35a0c089eMy goal was to develop ideas for an essay on the nihilistic themes in the films of Darren Aronofsky. What initially attracted me to this workshop was the opportunity to spend time immersed in the atmosphere of New York City, which serves as the backdrop for many of this director’s most important films like PI and Black Swan. In Aronofsky’s work, the streets and subways of NYC often serve as visual metaphors for the human mind; and they are normally depicted as dark, mysterious and threatening. As we began wandering about, however, the actual streets of the City seemed anything but threatening and dark. The initial impression that I had was of a place bustling with activity, wealth and friendly people. This did not appear to be the hard-boiled, crime-ridden New York of days gone by! Yet, the more that we walked around, and the closer that I scrutinized my surroundings, the more I came to appreciate the significance of Aronofsky’s imagery.

calcagno-2010-06-28c.gifWandering about day and night, the labyrinthine quality of New York City streets and subway routes conjured a distinctive sense of nihilism in me. The streets are maze-like, turning in on themselves, leading one farther and farther into a tangled knot that ultimately goes nowhere. The subways –  those dark, underground tunnels – while they convey passengers to their destinations, also ultimately terminate in dead-ends. You could travel these tubes all your life, going round and round in vast circles, never leaving New York.  This is reflected in the subway map, in which the loose end of one train route becomes entangled with the various strings from other routes, forming one big jumbled knot of colored threads. Once you reach the end of the line, there is nowhere to go but to retrace your path. Whether above or below ground, people go here, there, and then back to where they started. If nihilism is a feeling provoked when, as Nietzsche claimed, a final goal is lacking, then the map of New York City offers a good metaphor of this conundrum. While superficially all is prosperity and purpose, the hamster wheel of absurdity is inscribed in the well-worn contours of the city’s infrastructure.

DSC00215In the process of wandering the streets, we had the opportunity to visit some of the particular locations that serve as settings in Aronfsky’s films, also stopping by the flat in the East Village that he used to own with Rachael Weiss. This was actually quite informative, as it reinforced in my mind the proximity of Aronofsky’s home to other NYC locations that he has utilized in his films. For instance, the club from Black Swan where Nina (Natalie Portman) gets drunk and experiences a breakthrough from her moral repressions, turns out to be right around the corner from Aronfsky’s flat. Could it be that the director’s own mental topography is reflected here?

Besides having the opportunity to simply experience the streets of New York, our workshop organizers scheduled a series of visits to some key sites and exhibits. These visits, whether intentionally or unintentionally, shared an underlying theme that served both to intrigue and to disturb me. Each place that we toured exemplified how living culture can become crystalized into a product that can then be sold back to the public as a commodity.

DSC00220Our first visit was to the Special Collection at the Fales Library at NYU. The curator, Marvin Taylor, has a special interest in punk culture, and consequently we were treated to an unexpectedly odd juxtaposition of artifacts. Old issues of Punk Magazine, the journals of Patti Smith, and videos of punk performances at CBGB’s are archived alongside ancient Greek texts and cuneiform tablets. This strange collection of  high and low culture, housed in the very same archive, unsettled me. As someone who grew up with punk, and who still defines himself as a kind of punk outsider, seeing the traces of my own subculture enshrined in a university archive made me wonder:  has the vigor and Dionysian energy of punk rock now been tamed and made safe? Is punk rock now a museum piece, no longer living, but preserved, mummy-like, under glass, only to be inspected with gloved hands? Am I, myself, now a part of a curious tradition that is of merely academic interest? I asked Marvin some of these questions, and while he acknowledged that these are relevant issues of concern, in the next moment we were back to perusing shelves of video performances by The Dead Boys that are archived in a vault along with first editions of Jane Austen.

DSC00287These same questions reemerged when we visited the punk exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art titled Chaos to Couture. The fact that Beyonce served as the honorary chair of a benefit in support of the show immediately gave me pause. On the other hand  John Lydon also was a consultant, so I thought there might be something authentic here. Upon entering the exhibition, I nonetheless fell into a state of bewilderment. Video images of Sid Vicious and clips from The Punk Rock Movie looped on huge screens, while the music of the Buzzcocks and X-Ray Specs played. A re-creation of the bathroom at CBGB’s occupied one room, next to the high fashion designs of Versace and Prada. The atmosphere that was conjured made me feel like I was in the Church of Punk Rock. Here were the holy icons of punk history juxtaposed with the creations of a high priesthood of fashion designers who were about as far from the original punks as St. Paul was from Jesus!

diyhardwareThis intentional incongruity between “low” and “high” punk fashion was accompanied by another, perhaps less clear irony. All through the exhibit, docents enforced a “no photography” rule and signs hung everywhere commanding that patrons not touch the exhibits. This was, once again, punk rock under glass, sanitized, made safe and boring. Faux graffiti was scrawled on the walls and I found it curious that while anarchy signs were present, conspicuously absent was any appearance of a swastika, that iconically punk symbol of offensiveness. I kept thinking that to spray paint such an image in the fake bathroom or on the fake alleyway walls would have been the most “punk” gesture that anyone could have made at this exhibition; yet it would also no doubt be misunderstood and condemned by those who desire punk to be safe, unambiguous and unthreatening. My unease continued once we left the exhibit, and we found ourselves in a gift shop where patrons could buy overpriced copies of Never Mind the Bollocks, band pins, t-shirts and skateboard decks. I kept thinking of the closing scene of the film Breaking Glass, where the main character finally sells her punk-rock soul to the corporate devil. When it becomes a solidified, commoditized and sanitized museum piece, perhaps punk has finally died. Anarchy in the UK? That’ll be $25 dollars, please.

DSC00239Just as we experienced punk under glass at the Fales Collection and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, we also experienced sex under glass at the Museum of Sex. The exhibits here were interesting – on one floor we learned about the most common search terms for porn, while on another we learned about the kinds of non-procreative sex engaged in by animals – but the idea of viewing pornographic images in the sterile and controlled confines of a museum was, yet again, a perplexing experience. I wondered how I was supposed to feel about all of this. Is the message that it is OK to look at porn so long as you feel no sexual arousal? As always, there was a gift shop, which if it were not in a museum would simply be called a “sex shop.” It’s shelves were stocked with dildoes, vibrators and hard-bound coffee table editions of pornographic photography. Within the context of a museum it almost seemed as if these objects were not intended for use, but rather simply to be admired and contemplated, like the high fashion creations we saw at the Met. I couldn’t help but think that maybe, as with punk rock, the best place to encounter sex is not in a museum at all! There is no shortage of punk clubs or sex shops in NYC, so why do we choose museum exhibits over the real thing?

DSC00319The most honest displays of commodification that we encountered during our workshop tours were at the clothing store Bergdorf-Goodman and at the New York Stock Exchange. Both locations are unapologetic icons of American excess and capitalist over-consumption, and so unlike with the punk exhibit or the sex museum, they can’t be criticized for being untrue to their core principles. We were told up front by our host at Bergdorf-Goodman that the store self-consciously cultivates an image and a clientele that is prestigious, elite and remote from the run-of-the-mill department stores and clothing boutiques that cater to everyday people. The managers here actually take steps to thin out the brands that they carry in order to become more and more exclusive as time goes on. They strive to be a store where only the rich and the powerful shop. Beyonce is one of their regular customers, we were told, and after hearing this I wasn’t surprised to see a pair of mohawk adorned skull cuff links for sale in one of the jewelery cases. Price: $7,000.00. Here again was punk rock for the rich.

DSC00602The Stock Exchange was our last scheduled destination, and it served as an appropriate capstone to the week. Considered a prime terrorist target, entry into the building is tightly controlled. There are barricades in the streets around the Exchange, and visitors need to be accompanied by a host. We were photographed and issued identification tags before going through metal detectors and being allowed onto the floor. Once inside I was immediately struck by how much it truly resembles a casino. Suspended from the ceilings are blue and green glowing boxes that announce where you are: NYSE. Beneath these are scores of  flat screens displaying the names of various companies and their stock activity. While the hustle and bustle is not as extreme as it appears in some movies, there are still plenty of men and women yelling at one another, running across the floor and pushing people out of their way as they rush to make trades. In the center of the floor is a news desk for MSNBC where cable broadcasts take place. At the closing bell, people cheered as if they were at some sort of sporting event.

The honesty of the NYSE was a sobering conclusion to our series of visits over the week. Here is a place that makes no excuses for what it is. It is a place where people are simply trying to make money. There are no attempts to disguise what is going on; the interior even looks like Las Vegas! The only irony here is that now that trades are made electronically and mostly by computers, the need for a building to house the Stock Exchange has passed. It is an expense that no longer needs to be maintained. Our guide told me that it is largely due to tradition that people still gather here, and that in 10 or 15 years, this building probably won’t exist anymore. Capitalism destroys its own traditions without regret. Maybe there is something punk rock about that after all.

DSC00429Incidentally, the New York Stock Exchange is just a few blocks away from a couple of other buildings that have ceased to exist. These particular buildings are now memorialized by two fountains occupying the footprints in which they once stood. By their absence, these buildings have come to represent the closest thing to a holy shrine that Americans have today, and it is perhaps fitting that at the 9/11 Memorial you must stand in line with tickets among hundreds of others before entering a park where people pose for pictures, after which they exit through a gift shop. In America, this is how we show reverence: we turn things into commodities.