ESR 8 Blog May 2021: Marteinn Sindri Jónsson

Where is the new phone directory…?

“Hvar er nýja símaskráin?”
(“Where is the new phone directory?”)

This bizarre question, sprayed in black, greets those who take a certain underpass close to the Iceland Meteorological Office. It is not only strange, that a nameless street artist uses the city landscape as a canvas for such a trivial question. More importantly, it is many years since the Icelandic phone directory was published in any material form that would justify an appeal such as this one. On the contrary, the phone directory is completely online, constantly updated, hosted on the website (já being Icelandic for yes). It is a peculiar web address for a service that provides information about addresses and phone numbers, but still eerily representative of what is really at stake in this certain underpass — a new Icelandic constitution — written by a constituent assembly in 2011 and voted for by a majority of voters (75%) in a 2012 public referendum. Another, almost homonymous, slogan was ceremoniously washed off a large wall in downtown Reykjavik last year — a whitewash commissioned by the Icelandic authorities. There the message was not ambivalent or trivial at all:

“Hvar er nýja stjórnarskráin?”
(“Where is the new constitution?”)

In Iceland, there is a great deal of interest in the political purchase of the arts these days, evinced by the fact that artists Libia Castro and Ólafur Ólafsson were awarded the Icelandic Visual Art Prize in 2020 for yet another political art project concerning the constitution. The project, In Search of MagicA Proposal for a New Constitution for the Republic of Iceland was hosted by the Reykjavik Art Festival in fall 2020 and rallied numerous artists, activists, and members of the public towards a distinctly political end: to criticize the resistance of the Icelandic parliament and government to ratify the new constitution. It is noteworthy that a politically predicated art project is so sincerely celebrated by those art and cultural institutions hosting, awarding, and communicating the project. Of no less interest is the fact that the project is not only funded by art and culture funds (Nordic Culture Point, Nordisk Kulturfond, Mondriaan Fonds and the Icelandic Music Fund) but also two Icelandic municipalities, as well as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs!

The project is described as “a multivocal music and visual art performance bringing to life all 114 articles of the proposed new Icelandic constitution.” [1] The articles were set to music by composers, artists and musicians and performed by various participants under the artistic auspices of Libia and Ólafur. The group confesses to work “in the spirit of the civilian mass movement that brought about the so-called Pots and Pans Revolution, calling for an open, more active democracy where all voices are heard and attended to.”[2] In this context, it is important to keep in mind, precisely, that democracy is something that plays out in a public sphere, that Oliver Marchart suggests, is predicated on conflict, rather than on consensus.

A lot of people can stand around in a room and stare at the walls without a public sphere resulting from that alone. A public sphere results if and only if a debate breaks out among those standing around. … Only at the moment when a conflict breaks out does the public sphere emerge, with the breakdown of the consensus that is otherwise always silently presumed. The essential criterion for a public sphere that can be considered a true political sphere, and not just a simulation of a public sphere, is thus conflict or, to borrow a term from Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, antagonism.[3]

It is important to remember, therefore, that an art project, such as In Search of Magic (or the particular artworld celebrating it) is not the public sphere, in and of itself. When an artworld takes up a cause, for instance the notion that a new Icelandic constitution should be ratified, it is not accommodating the public sphere — it is rather playing a particular role in delineating a public sphere that not only arises when people go to the polls and a government whitewashes political slogans (while funding an art project dedicated to the exact same cause), but perhaps even when someone parodies a political slogan in a certain underpass near to the Icelandic Meteorological Office.

[1] Reykjavik Art Festival, 2020, In Search of Magic — A Proposal for a New Constitution for the Republic of Iceland,

[2] Ibid. Here an allusion is made to protests that took place in the wake of the collapse of the Icelandic banking system in 2008. For more on the topic see for instance Eiríkur Bergmann, 2014 „The Pots and Pans Revolution — and Defiance Abroad“ in Iceland and the International Financial Crisis, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 135-154.

[3] Oliver Marchart, 2011, „The Curatorial Function: Organizing the Ex/Position“, On Curating 9, 43-47, here 43.

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