Interview with Ólafur Árni Ólafsson & Libia Pérez de Siles de Castro
The Icelandic/Spanish couple Ólafur Árni Ólafsson (born in Reykjavik in 1973) and Libia Pérez de Siles de Castro (born in Madrid in 1971) have been working together since 1996 in socio-political fields of tension. Their installations often react to specific places, deliberately involving the visitor or passer-by. For this exhibition they confront an asylum seeker in Iceland with one of the fundaments of its cultural history, namely Njál´s Saga written in the 13th century.
As a Spanish/Icelandic couple currently living in Rotterdam you seem to be good examples of global citizens. Would you agree?
Ólafur: Well, there are many and different definitions of the concept ‘global citizen’ circling around, which makes it difficult to answer with a simple yes or no.
Libia: I would prefer to call it a ‘citizen of the world’, which some see as a response and an alternative to imposed globalization. I do find that I can identify with the idea of a cosmopolitan citizen, striking roots in the city or place I am in or have been living in, by having a broad and open understanding of heterogeneous and changing identities and a general view on the relationship between local and global matters. Of course, we are a result of the global, economic and political changes over the last 20 years or so. Now I live and work with Ólafur, who is from Iceland, and we live in the Netherlands, which gives us quite a complex heterogeneous background and rich cultural field to work from and deal with in our everyday life. Besides that we often travel and spend periods of time in other places, which gives us a broad understanding of the set of relationships between places, between the local and the global and vice versa. Living this way and having to uphold this way of life is something that is created through an operating globalized structure. You can also say that everybody is a global citizen since everybody is affected by globalization, but the question is: Who is affected, where, why and in what way? How many have a voice to influence global decisionmaking and how many people have access to global technologies? Who is allowed and encouraged to travel anywhere without a problem, and who is criminalized and pursued for doing so, or trying to do so? What you can say is that we have grown into a broad perception of where we belong; that we feel rooted in and disconnected from different places; that we feel at home and not at home in different places; we are migrants and travellers. Reality for us is not being a global citizen or bound to your homelands, as either one or the other, but rather that the homeland has come to be more than one place, and the perception of it has changed — maybe there is sometimes a sense of wanting to find ‘the place’ or of going back to something that is no longer there. Many people feel like this, which raises new questions about the way we live in the world today, ideally creating an awareness of mondiality or worldwideness. Knowing that all is actually connected to everything else and that one place should not be more important per se than another. Knowing that our different global, political and economic decisions are influencing each others’ cultural and social development — not for the profit of all but only the very few. So it would be a positive thing to grow into an awareness reaching beyond national constructed ideas if we want to be open to what is going on and grow and resist sheer homoegenization, to become rich in knowledge of each others’ differences and common grounds and invent new ways and temporary definitions of coexisting in a good way with each other, wherever we are — or not.
What can it mean in our time to be bound to one’s homeland?
Libia: I don’t know. If it means that a big part of myself has been formed and raised within the broad culture of Spain, which already consists of many places and different languages, then maybe I’m bound to that. What I can say is that I have strong ties to family and people I love there and that I follow events, that I often go and work there in order to relate myself to the place. Sometimes I also miss its climate and geography (but tourists do that too). My mother-tongue comes from there, as do my first experiences of growing up. So I would say I carry that heritage in me and that it created or constructed the basis of my persona or identity. I carry in me that landscape. Since I was brought up on the move in very different regions of the country, I had a perception of myself as being at home and yet a guest, i.e.after I remember becoming conscious of something called home. I already perceived ‘the homeland’ as a heterogeneous place that forms and decays like the rest of the world. It was not the unity many pretended it was, but rather a puzzle full of richness and heavy contradictions. I experienced racism and the very end of 40 years of nationalist fascism that sought the creation of the ‘Homeland’ as a united and repressed mess. So I felt bound to it just as to a part of something much bigger, which made the whole ‘Homeland’ thing relative, freer and at times really confronting and complex. But sometimes we miss being in very personal places that we know well; places whose culture and life you’ve known for a long time — its moods and rhythm, its language, jokes, bodies, bones, air, colours, sounds, smells. The place in which you can disappear for a moment within the mass, totally becoming one of the group. It feels perfectly easy and welcoming, something that you really know from within. The present matching with the past, with your memory, giving you a sense of belonging. But the crazy thing is that you could also experience this in a place that is not your ‘homeland’. You could say that this is matching an even older collective memory, a universal memory, Earth´s memory.
And how does Ólafur think about this? Perhaps the boundaries between Icelanders who live abroad and their homeland are stronger because of the geographical isolation, its unique language and small community?
Ólafur: Maybe, but I think it can also be equally difficult or easy for people from large places and non-isolated cultures to move to and live in other places. It is probably more person-related than anything else. I think everyone who goes to live for a longer or shorter time outside her/his homeland is forced to deal with new situations, habits and ideas in some way. Obviously Libia and I are not bound to our homeland in the sense of being stuck to or entirely dependent on it, fortunately neither in thought, emotion nor by law. But we are certainly deeply connected to and influenced by the places we come from. Luckily we were both born, or at least raised, in relatively rich and democratic countries and therefore we have both legal and financial possibilities to travel and live wherever we choose. Not that it is automatically easy, far from it, but it’s a possibility we have and for that we are thankful. We frequently stay for longer or shorter periods in different countries to work on projects and engage ourselves in both a formal and an informal dialogue with a given site and its populace. The fact that we come from different places and live in the multicultural city of Rotterdam very much influences our life and our
perception of life, forcing us to remember that things shouldn’t been taken for granted.
In your work for the HOMESICK show in Akureyri you worked with immigrants in Iceland reading from the famous Njál’s Saga. Can you explain the background to this?
Ólafur: To be exact, for this project we are working with asylum seekers, people who have fled their country and are hoping to get asylum in Iceland — a new home. Njál’s Saga is, as you say, famous and probably the best known of the Icelandic Sagas. With its iconic status it forms a deep part of Iceland’s cultural fabric — what it is to be Icelandic. By asking an asylum seeker to read from this text we want to jump the gap between the unknown and the known, the not-yet-accepted and the very-deeply-accepted or conventional. And with this gesture we want to continue to intervene in reality and put forward for a moment our own possible subjective version of the ongoing collective creation we call reality. Until now, when working with life-storytelling recordings, oral history, we have used real stories from people we already knew and thus contacted. Mainly from migrant workers, refugees and people in the process of asking for asylum (a process some of them have been in for 9 years). We have focused on experiences of displacement, on movement and changes in culture influenced by local and global matters and the relationship between the two. In our last works we started to make a bridge between past and present, like in our work Chapter 3: The Noise of Money, where as a part of the work we presented a mixture of stories from migrant workers living in Iceland, elderly Icelandic inhabitants and a few children. The stories from the older Icelanders were from a shark-hunter and a midwife, both stories going back 50 or 60 years. They told how fishing and hunting and delivering children took place in earlier times and of the changes they had experienced. The migrant workers told of how they came to Iceland, how their lives had been before coming here and how their lives have been in Iceland — and most of them had had experiences with the fishing industry, which they also told of. Maybe the very short stories from the three children form a certain bridge to the work we are doing now for HOMESICK, because the stories they told were three very different versions of Little Red Riding Hood. One was close to the original and the other two were somewhat altered versions, adding for example a maneating ghost. We wanted to continue with this more clearly fictive narration space but still keep it rooted within today’s society and everyday life. Choosing to have Njál’s Saga read by an asylum seeker in Iceland enabled us to reflect on the Saga from a new perspective, as well as giving us the chance to reflect on the issue of asylum seeking and the position of the asylum seeker from a new angle. In this context it is important to note that the Vikings who inhabited Iceland were themselves immigrants, many of them fleeing the growing power and domination of king Haraldur the Fair-haired in Norway. This is something that Icelanders as a nation have been taught to be proud of; that these Vikings chose to migrate and settle in a new place rather than to fight in their homeland or give in to the new power. This has been looked at, from the point of view of Icelanders, as being free spirited and adventure seeking. Another aspect is the legal one. Njál’s Saga tells how Njál repeatedly tries to solve matters by way of law instead of lawlessness. This is an interesting aspect to keep in mind when viewing the fact that now for the first time Iceland is confronted with a situation of migration equal to the one that has been taking place in the rest of Europe since the sixties, and going back as far as the Second World War. So only very recently have adequate laws been developed in the country on the issues of migration and asylum.