It is difficult to find someone who embodies their country as much as Björk does. Although she has spent time living in London and New York and frequently travels for tours, she always feels like she is “holding her breath” while away, eagerly anticipating her return and reminiscing about the pure air of Iceland. Since her breakup with Matthew Barney in 2013, she has primarily resided near Reykjavik, where she has observed the significant increase in tourism to the island. In just 20 years, the number of annual visitors has risen from a few hundred thousand to nearly 2 million.
It is difficult to determine the exact amount of interest in volcanoes and glaciers that can be attributed to Björk’s personal branding of her home country. However, it is undeniable that her eclectic music, which combines elements of trance and techno with operatic undertones, has played a significant role in promoting the distinct charm of her homeland among eco-travelers. This is why her involvement in environmental campaigns has a much broader impact beyond just the north Atlantic region.
She has been participating in demonstrations for 30 years, she told me, “but only in Iceland, where I believe it can truly bring about change – which could potentially serve as an example for other countries. We have,” she says, “the biggest untouched natural area in Europe and many of us see ourselves as protectors of it, similar to how you Americans are protectors of your own environment…” she chuckles. “Perhaps like with Brexit?”
The current focus of her attention is to stop the widespread practice of salmon farming in Iceland’s fjords. She believes that this industry not only poses a threat to the island’s natural salmon population but also to the overall health of its ocean ecology. She states, “We were pioneers of organic farming, but in recent years, open-pen fish farming has become prevalent, essentially turning it into a factory process.” She goes on to describe the imported practice of intensive salmon rearing from Norway, which involves artificially speeding up the fish’s development. She also claims that diseases, particularly those caused by parasitic sea lice, are common in these farms and provides photographic evidence of deformed fish as proof.
In Björk’s perspective, the issue at hand is not a simple conflict between protecting the environment and supporting local economies. She believes that the salmon farming industry, which only employs a small number of people, is causing harm. She compares it to two Norwegian billionaires who have caused problems in Norway and have now turned their attention to Iceland. This situation has been compared to the country’s financial crisis, where a few individuals benefited greatly while the rest suffered. The problem gained attention in August when numerous farmed salmon escaped and invaded Iceland’s rivers. Björk explains that attempts were made to capture the fish, but it was unsuccessful. She also claims that these “mutant fish” carried sea lice and harmed wild salmon populations. However, the salmon farming companies deny these accusations and state that they have measures in place to protect wild salmon. They also mention that their licenses have an expiration date and will not be renewed if they do not follow regulations. An investigation is currently underway to determine if any environmental laws were violated.
The fight against the growth of open-net farming is currently focused on a village named Seyðisfjörður in the eastern part of the island. According to her, “many unconventional artists reside there” and they have been demonstrating on the streets and have filed a legal case in order to protect biodiversity. However, the protesters have depleted their funds and as a result, Björk is launching a single to raise money for their cause.
In 2002, the artist searched for a song in her vast archives but couldn’t remember the name it was saved under. While on tour in Australia, she heard a news story about a politician involved in a scandalous affair with the catchphrase “oral or not?” This phrase happened to be the missing word she had been trying to recall for her song. The song has a Jamaican dancehall style and to give it a modern touch, the artist enlisted Catalan singer Rosalía to add vocals and a “2023 reggaeton sound”. She believes having Rosalía on the track will help reach a Spanish audience, especially since Argentina and Chile, where salmon farming is a major issue, are countries where Rosalía has a strong following.
The Cornucopia tour, which is based on Björk’s previous album Utopia, adds a broader perspective to her latest song that promotes direct environmental action. The tour itself is a live rendition of the album, which takes place in a futuristic world described by Björk as “post-optimistic” rather than post-apocalyptic. As part of the show, Björk’s friend Greta Thunberg delivers a monologue that contrasts with the animated fantasy elements featured in the performance.
Is she feeling post-optimistic these days, I ponder?
“She remains optimistic,” she states. “I have many nephews and nieces, and I witness the peers of my daughter [Isadora, 21; Björk also has a son, Sindri, 37] pursuing degrees in areas such as national park management or taking on fossil fuel companies through legal action. Ultimately, I believe that once they replace the current 80-year-old men in positions of power, that is when we will truly see significant changes.”
In Cornucopia, she addresses these hopes and fears in a lighthearted manner. According to her, they have all sought refuge on an island away from Western civilization and have begun anew. Despite being mutants with traits of birds and flutes, similar to the odd fish in The Simpsons, they are doing well.
She believes “biology is stronger than you think” and has little time for “that postapocalyptic aesthetic of Hollywood films: we’re all gonna die and be survivalists with tinned food and machine guns.” Her preferred option is more: “We are going to be hybrids of plants and mushroom spores, you know, something interesting is going to happen with biology that’s out of our control, but I think we’re going to ride with it because we are – what’s the word?”
“Is the person becoming unbalanced?” I propose. Then: “Are they clever and able to adapt to difficult situations?”
During the pandemic, the artist released her latest album titled Fossora, a feminine version of the Latin word for excavator. In this album, she delved underground, figuratively, and explored the regenerative capabilities of mushrooms, among other things. As a result, she was given the opportunity to narrate a documentary based on Merlin Sheldrake’s popular book about fungi, Entangled Life – a dream she had always had of being like David Attenborough. She expresses her belief that fungi could provide solutions, referencing studies on plastic-digesting mycelium and the discovery of radiotrophic fungi using radiation in the Chornobyl region.
Fossora’s work not only features enchanting mushroom meditations, but also heartfelt and respectful dedications to her late mother, Hildur Rúna Hauksdóttir. Hildur Rúna, a strong proponent of feminism and homeopathy, passed away in 2018 after a prolonged illness. She divorced Björk’s father, an electrician and union leader, when the singer was just two years old and raised her in a communal living arrangement. One may ponder if Björk views her activism for the environment as a way to honor 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 to be conscious of these issues. I grew up thinking that hamburgers were sinful, and when we watched Western movies, the cowboys were the villains and the Native Americans were the heroes. Even now, I can’t stand to listen to country music because it represents evil to me. My mother had strong beliefs and was quite radical in her thinking. So, in essence, I am agreeing with your question. However, she wasn’t as actively involved in protests. My parents and I all became involved around the same time in the 1990s.”
She reflects on the connection further and then attempts to explain: “I believe the most significant radical action she took was removing me from the confines of the patriarchy and living in a small, leaky house on the outskirts of untamed nature. However, in the 1990s, my parents and I, along with our respective groups of friends, all took separate paths towards becoming more environmentally conscious.” For instance, Hildur went on a 23-day hunger strike in 2002 to protest against the construction of an aluminum smelter and hydroelectric dams in the Icelandic highlands by American company Alcoa. She eventually ended her fast.
Was she successful?
The original plan was to use all of Iceland’s rivers for the production of aluminium. While the factory was constructed, not all of the dams were built. Iceland is similar in size to England, excluding Wales and Scotland. If the plan had been carried out, the highlands would have been destroyed to create the largest aluminium factory in the world.
The demonstration served as a model for her present campaign in certain ways. She asserts, “In essence, we intend to be extremely persistent.”
In the early 2000s, tourism and culture played a crucial role in saving Iceland from being taken over by the aluminium industry. According to one local, the food scene used to consist of gas station hamburgers, but that has drastically changed. Now, even in small villages, there are options to try delicious local lamb and cheese, homemade beer, and participate in activities like glacier tours, snowmobiling, and river rafting. 15 years ago, the only option seemed to be the aluminium factory, but Iceland has proven that there are other possibilities. Today, many people visit for the opportunity to fish for wild salmon and they would not come if they were catching genetically modified fish.
Over time, she has attempted various approaches to utilize her celebrity status for creating positive impact. During the banking crisis, she endorsed a sustainable venture capital fund managed by women, providing initial funding to environmentally-friendly startups. Her Biophilia Educational Project, launched in 2011, has now been integrated into school curriculums with the goal of inspiring children to pursue music and technology like she did.
In 2019, Björk and Thunberg collaborated with Iceland’s prime minister, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, to acknowledge a climate crisis in the nation. However, when it was time to follow through, Jakobsdóttir remained silent and did not mention the declaration. Björk expressed frustration with her lack of action.
She believes that politicians will not take action to solve our issues without cultural pressure, based on her own experiences. After Iceland’s economic collapse in 2008, there were expectations for a women-led movement. Does she think this opportunity was missed or has it made an impact?
She states, “It’s a mix of both.” She continues, “It’s a long and difficult journey. We were among the select few nations that took action against the corrupt bankers by putting them in prison…although it would have been better if they had stayed longer and more individuals were held accountable. Not many countries were able to achieve that. Additionally, if we examine the statistics, we are one of the leading countries in terms of promoting feminism worldwide. However, there is still room for improvement.”
A few days after our conversation, she intended to participate in Iceland’s first 48-year full-day strike for women, during which women in the country ceased working, caring for children, cooking, and cleaning, and instead took to the streets to protest the ongoing gender pay gap. She notes, “We’re making progress, but we still have a ways to go.”
I am curious about the treatment she receives at these protests – does she have the freedom to live a typical life in Reykjavik, or does she have to be cautious about her whereabouts?
“It’s quite simple,” she remarks. “That’s just one of the many reasons why I adore Iceland – we don’t care about famous people. You might run into the president at the grocery store. If you try to act superior, you’ll be brought back down to earth pretty fast. There’s not much social hierarchy here. It’s mostly just the tourists that can be bothersome when I’m out and about. But I avoid the areas where I know they tend to congregate.”
Did that play a part in her decision to return from New York?
“When I owned a residence in Brooklyn, I was split between two places. As a result, I never fully let go of either. My daughter attended school in Iceland before and after Christmas, while I remained in Brooklyn. The pandemic only strengthened my ties to my hometown, as it was the first time I had been confined there since leaving at 16. I have no plans to leave, as I enjoy the unique combination of living in a European capital while also having a beach and mountain views. Additionally, all my loved ones are just a short walk away. And in the last decade, we have established some of the top film, music, dance, and book festivals in Europe.”
It is evident that a significant amount of her cultural influence has been achieved through her own career. Despite our lengthy conversation, we have barely discussed her music. At 57, does she still possess the same level of enthusiasm for being in the studio and on tour as she did before?
She states that she is constantly coming across new songs on a daily basis and always has a songwriting idea in the back of her mind. While her main focus is on music, she does take breaks and spends about 20% of her time advocating for environmental causes. She is mindful of the impact on future generations and dedicates her time to both music and environmental activism. She jokes that she wishes she had multiple bodies to accomplish everything, but she only has one.
The collaboration between Björk and Rosalía, “Oral,” is set to be released on November 9th.