Útúrdur Gives Iceland What it Wants [Icelandic Culture]
Here’s one last guest post from the wonderful Amanda De Marco. I want to publicly thank her for all of her contributions this week. I would send her a bottle of Brennivin as a token of my appreciation, but that shit is DEATH. For more of Amanda’s writings, be sure to check out Readux: Reading in Berlin. She’s also a frequent contributor to Publishing Perspectives. For now, here’s her article about the interesting bookstore and publisher, Útúrdur.
When I ask artists Dísa Björnsdóttir and Ingvar Högni Ragnarsson about running Útúrdúr,1 a Reykjavik bookstore and publisher, Dísa tells me they “started by answering a need for a more diverse book community.” It’s a theme they’ll repeat again and again: filling a hole, giving society what it’s asking for. For an American it’s a somewhat dizzying prospect; whatever it is that my society wants or needs or asks for, I can’t say I’ve ever had the feeling it was books. Nor have I ever interviewed anyone who said anything similar.
It’s a need that can exist in Iceland for two reasons. First, Iceland has a real, living literary culture with significant historical roots that results in people reading a lot today. Second, the 2008 financial collapse and subsequent governmental revolution made room for discussion in public forums, and made it necessary. Icelanders have a lot to talk about, and they’ll probably be doing it for a long time.
Útúrdúr is located a bit off the main drag in downtown Reykjavik, and when I walk in for our interview a customer is enthusiastically talking to Dísa and Ingvar Högni in English about the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. The conversation doesn’t sound anywhere near over, so I listen in and browse the books on the front table and displayed face-out on the racks.
They’re art books, chapbooks, hardcovers, many of them hand-made, some photocopied, in English, in Icelandic, in German, some published by Útúdúr, some by others, all of them in some way or another fascinating. I recognize a few books I’ve seen in the sexier bookshops in Berlin, plus a few copies of McSweeney’s, and an odd Believer. Other than that it’s all new to me.
(photo by Ingvar Högni Ragnarsson)
There are a few pieces of art here and there from an exhibition with Kling & Bang Gallery next door: an enormous felt hand hanging on the wall, a wine-rack stocked with nearly empty Coca-Cola bottles, a wood-framed plexiglass doghouse-thing filled with an inch or so of postcards and newspaper clippings and outfitted with pink neon lighting.
We take a seat at the desk next to the plexiglass doghouse and I receive a cup of the strong Icelandic coffee everyone serves when I interview them. At 28 and 30 Dísa and Ingvar Högni have both recently completed their bachelor’s (Iceland’s system operates along long-studying Scandinavian lines). Ingvar Högni, who also works as a photographer, attributes getting the chance to run an organization like Útúrdúr to the small society they live in: “What’s so interesting about Iceland is we can have these opportunities and get involved just by having that energy and enthusiasm.” Still he and Dísa seem like the kind of intelligent, bright-eyed people who would be doing exciting things anywhere.
Útúrdúr was actually founded as a bookstore in by six artists in 2007, but during their tenure, Dísa and Ingvar Högni are shifting its focus. As Dísa says, “What Iceland is asking for is books relevant to society.” Which is not to say that Útúrdúr didn’t provide that before, but its earlier publications, while often political, were expensive art books with long lead times. Its newer publications will be published more quickly to connect better with current events, and they’ll be more affordable.
Meeting the needs of a community means being in touch with the people who constitute it. “We don’t think of Útúrdúr as just a store or a publishing house,” says Ingvar Högni. “We think of it as a place where you can come and meet people, read, and listen to recordings.”
Later that week I return, this time at night, for a 100,000 Poets for Change event Útúdúr is hosting. I admit I was nervous before showing up — in a city of 120,000 people, how many capable performers can there be, and how many people will want to watch them? At eight there’s a crowd of 20 or so that grows during the next hour until the shop is packed. The audience is convivial but attentive, listening through hours of readings and musical performances. The performers have real talent, and overall the event is really impressive. When I leave at 11, it shows no sign of slowing down.
If it’s community-focused, Útúrdúr is anything but inward-looking. Ingvar Högni and Dísa are enthusiastic about partnerships with bookstores and publishers overseas, and they were positively excited about their upcoming trip to the New York Art Book Fair (now past). For ambitious young people trying to develop an innovative organization on a small island just below the Arctic Circle, the opportunity to meet with their peers face to face and to “make that connection and develop that trust” is invaluable, according to Dísa.
1 Útúrdur means “detour.”