On Monday Didier and I went aboard the Hafrún fishing boat for an all-day trip. Captain Jóhann Sigurjónsson and his three-person crew generously let us get in the way while they trawled from 6am until 3pm. They brought back six tons of fish, which was considered a light catch. It was extreme and harrowing and beautiful and I came away knowing that any deeper understanding of Skagaströnd had to account for this kind of work, the grueling routine of the fishermen who sustain the town. I’d suspected this but my appreciation for the tedious process of hunting, netting, trawling, capturing, killing, gutting and then unloading the fish back at the dock became physical and real and graphic.
530—Skagaströnd’s population, according to Wikipedia—was one of the only concepts I brought with me, and I’d decided early on that this would be the page count for the work. Both arbitrary and specific, having something to do with reality, but certainly no longer accurate. The mayor told me the actual population is more like 506.
In July I’d photographed this old boat sitting in the harbor—made in the Netherlands in 1955 from the steel of melted German U-boats, and one of the oldest trawlers in Iceland—and later realized, while looking at the photos, that it carried this same number, 530. And on Monday, in the middle of the trip in the Greenland Sea, as I was violently ill for hours off the side of that same boat, the physicality of the experience brought on some kind of clarity (or cloudy haze?), enough for me to understand that 530 had to be the title of the work. A random, specific number that embodies the town and connects its identity to this charged vessel that sits in the harbor—to me and my experiences here and the book itself.
The weight of the work.
So 530 it is. The full title is 530 (Sá veldur sem á heldur). It’s A5 size, 530 pages, color, with an inside cover and separate cover wrap with front and back folds. The edition of 50 prints at Svansprent in Reykjavík during the next week and I’ll pick them up on 30 August, and bring them back to Skagaströnd for book encounters.
The book encounters will happen 4–7 September at the country-western bar, the gas station, the café and the library (more details to come).
I’m at the backpacker’s café in Akureyri and I’m thinking about the book, taking shape. It’s just a matter of days until I send it to the printer in Reykjavík.
I worry about how it’ll be received. That it might be seen as a superficial view of the place. That my outsider’s coated view could offend people who live here. This tiny town is hard. Guarded, deliberate, private, protective, proud. Even in such a closed place, I’ve been welcomed by some and I’ve discovered beautiful characters, and they appear in the work.
I guess another way to say it is this way: that I feel vulnerable, creating a work in public like this. On-site, on-demand, in full view. Maybe it makes the work stronger. It certainly makes it much more of an event for me. The book as performative output.
Then again, my goal has never been to paint a portrait of this place. I would never dare to call this a representation of Skagaströnd. The work stands on its own and draws from my encounters. It’s a private, subjective take (how could it not be).
Could I call it a non-fiction fantasy?
The process that developed here builds on Weymouths, but this project is threaded with chance operations in a bigger way. My 39 chapters (I’ve been calling them movements) were mixed by chance to create a score that I’m using to design the book. Every step of the design of the book has been with this score at my side.
Chance feels important here. I described it to Emy like this: chance is my intern. I’m using it in the background like a loaded character. It’s a way to pair, juxtapose, determine. My hope is that it opens up the surface, that the images and texts can go beyond the smallness of fixed appearance.
This one was for outlaws. For outlaws? Ya in the cliffs… They live in the hidden world. Ya the hidden structures of a place, that’s also what I’m looking for. You know the things that are part of history, but that we’re still living with. That’s why I like this. Yá, yá. I could show me. We go there, if we get the warm weather, more in the hidden structures of a place, that’s also what I’m looking for. You know the things that are part of history, but that we’re still living with. That’s why I like this. Yá, yá. I could show me. We go there, if we get the warm weather, more in the hidden structures of a place, that’s also what I’m looking for. You know the things that are part of history, but that we’re still living with. That’s why I like this. Yá, yá. I could show you something up on the cliffs, because I was brought up under it. Really you lived right there? Yeah I lived just under the cliff there. I’m at 1 Mánabraut. Yá. Behind there. Yes I lived just under the cliff, so I know every stone there. Every stone. Maybe if I come over to the lab, maybe you could show me. We go there, if we get the warm weather, more in the summer hopefully, we could take a walk down there. Because in the harbor, was built up, this here, was an island. See what I wrote underneath? Island. Island, ya. I love the hidden world. Oh, in the cliffs…that that was their residence. And then then they had the outlaws. They put them there. So that’s einbúi. Einbúi means who lives alone. If you are staying alone in your flat, you’re einbúi. Yeah, hermit, right? Hermit. And I think it’s such, such a beautiful structure, you know? It really is. Ya it is. And Magnús said the water used to come up, before the harbor was built. Ya. All here around this building. Ya, down there. Because in the cliffs…that that was their residence. And then then they had the outlaws. They put them there. So that’s einbúi. Einbúi means who lives alone. If you are staying alone in your flat, you’re einbúi. Yeah, hermit, right? Hermit. And I think it’s such, such a beautiful structure, you know? It really is. Ya it is. And Magnús said the water used to come up, before the harbor was built. Ya. All here around this building. Ya, down there. Because in the cliffs… They live in the harbor, was built up, this here, was an island. See what I wrote underneath? Island. Island, ya. I love the hidden structures of a place, that’s also what I’m looking for. You know the things that are part of history, but that we’re still living with. That’s why I like this. Yá, yá. I could show me. We go there, if we get the warm weather, more in the harbor.
Take three, three cards.
You have to choose wisely
A lot of people around you
Good card, very good
I start here
Is it about navigation?
Last night someone walked over to my desk and I showed her the 530-page blank dummy and we were talking about the differences between a bound book and a loose deck of cards, like tarot. And I explained that the pages of this book will be minimal in appearance and open to interpretation, and that the sections are ordered by chance, and that I leave it to the reader to experience the book as he/she desires (front-to-back, back-to-front, flipping through, random encounters). “The one who holds it is the one responsible (sá veldur sem á heldur).”
And she said “oh, you mean bibliomancy?”
The use of books in divination. “Divination can be seen as a systematic method with which to organize what appear to be disjointed, random facets of existence such that they provide insight into a problem at hand.” The I Ching, famously.
I’m not sure I could better describe my practice here in Skagaströnd. A systematic method with which to organize what appear to be disjointed, random facts of existence. The problem at hand is unstated; the problem at hand is what the reader brings to the work. A specific question or a feeling or none at all.
It could be a question of identity.
How can we read the daily route of a fishing trawler at sea. The boat follows the whale. The whale follows the fish, who respond to the currents, the temperature, the light and salinity. The route marks itself, an automatic trace, the Orvar’s (arrow) pattern as it searches for the creatures. A drawn dance, a choreography of the town’s survival.
The ship draws its pattern each day and forms its historical archive of itineraries, but only fourteen days of data are saved. As the ship moves through sea time, the archive regenerates itself and disappears.
Late last night I used chance operations to order the sections of the book, 1–39.
If it’s a book. This morning, the printer told me that he made a dummy book and has doubts about the binding. I don’t know what he means, but I’m picking the dummy up later today and I’ll take a look.
If it’s not a perfect-bound book, I might create a set of 530 unbound cards instead. Each card would contain an image or text, and could be shuffled, dealt, spread, read. I love this idea of a reader-determined reading. Like tarot.
The cards could be wrapped simply in paper and I could hand-write a title right on top.
Earlier this week Steindór walked into the studio and was telling me about the town’s future, its quest for new resources, and wrote down a saying in my sketchbook: sá veldur sem á heldor. He translates it as “the one who holds it is the one who is responsible.” A lovely idea about a book—the reader is responsible. The reader holds it and the reader creates the order, makes a structure, interprets, reads, brings associations and dreams, gives meaning.
Orvar. Depths. Take three, three cards. 1815. Bank sea hermit. The box is a battery. Quota. Light. Fiskisúpa. Island. Einbúi. Sá veldur sem á heldur. ________. Yeah, we are just. Earth. Just in front of me. Mayor. Boat. Mirror. Town. Water. Back to God’s Country. We have our families. Scientist. Fuel. We have our connections. Those transparencies. 1964. Horse. Strong. Old Friendship ties. Þórdís. Self. 530. There’s one bird. Mountain. Rabbarbarabaka. Grandfather.
Is this the title of the work?
Or, sá veldur sem á heldor.
I’m tempted to say that this project is finished. Or, that this is a project that should never end. Somewhere between those two thoughts is where I am right now, exactly half-way through this residency in Skagaströnd, Iceland.
The structure of the book work started to reveal itself in the last few days, each collection of artifacts gathered into chapter-like segments. There are 33. Collections, chapters, links, artifacts, voices, evidence of a place. Some are transcribed interviews, or a series of photographs, or data found online (like the daily plots of a fishing boat that was docked here last week), or a list of words, or a recipe for rhubarb pie. The traced ruins of turf houses, the mountain of fish nets at the dump. Nothing more, nothing less.
Powerful language, all of it found in place. Words and images that stand on their own, no explanation required. I’m looking for the open space between lines and pixels where the residue of a particular place, at a particular moment, is left behind. To be read like the impression of a dream.
1 back to god’s country
3 yeah, we have our families, connections, strong old friendship ties
7 the box is a battery
11 those transparencies
16 take three, three cards
19 fjords, on the sea
20 bank sea hermit
21 just in front of me
22 there’s one bird
25 orvar (arrow)
33 hidden world
#25 orvar (arrow)
#33 hidden world
This one was for outlaws.
Ya in the hidden world.
Oh in the hidden world.
Ya the hidden people over there in the cliff over there.
They live in the cliffs.
They live in the cliffs, that was their residence.
And then then they had the outlaws. They put them there.
So that’s einbúi. Einbúi means who lives alone.
One kilometer at 60kph three days after the death of Walter de Maria, on the birthday of Marcel Duchamp, on route 744 between Sauðárkrókur and Skagaströnd, Iceland. 28 July 2013, 3:11pm. 21 photographs. Paul Soulellis and Kathryn Sawyer. (#1 and 21 above.)
Skagaströnd has one bar, one market, one gas station, etc. Áslaug serves homemade soups at the one café, which sits by itself at the sea, just behind our studios. I asked her if she makes any soups with fish (of course) and if she would send me a recipe. This is what I got.
2 tsk karrý
2-3 laukar (saxaðir)
3-4 hvítlauksrif (söxuð)
þetta er sett í pott og laukurinn látin meyrna ekki brúnast.
1 msk olía
þá er bætt í
1 1/2 L vatn
3 teningar fiskikraftur
2 teningar kjúklingakraftur
1 dós maukaðir tómatar
1 dós ferskjur + safinn
salt og pipar eftir smekk
1 peli rjómi
3 flök fiskur (ég nota þorsk, ræku og skötusel)
I ran it through Google translate and got this—
2 tsp curry
2-3 onions (chopped)
3-4 cloves garlic (minced)
This is placed in a pot and finished dead tender not brown.
1 tbsp oil
then adding the
1 1/2 L water
3 bouillon cubes
2 cubes chicken
1 can tomato pulp
1 can peaches + juice
salt and pepper to taste
1 bottle cream
3 fish fillets (I used cod, shrimp and monkfish)
I had serious doubts about the canned peaches. Wondered if the translation was wrong but decided to go with it. And I made it last night at Darr Tah Lei’s house with Kat and Jonathan. With a few adjustments: I added the olive oil at the start, added some white wine after the onions and garlic had cooked, added a chopped chile pepper, and only a drop of cream at the end. In fact, it would have been even better without any cream at all. And I interpreted the 3 cubes/2 cubes part as “3 cubes chicken bouillon.”
Then I strained the soup and added the cooked cod back in.
This soup was really good. Not just good but totally delicious. Memorable. We took the pot into the backyard and served ourselves and then I saw Darr’s neighbor Einar leaning over the fence with his beer. I offered him some soup in a mug and asked him what he thought, and he said “it was okay.” Said it needed lobster. Then he jumped the fence and joined us and by the end of the evening we were dancing and the pot was finished.
Darr Tah Lei and I sat on two chairs across from each other late last night. They were in another artist’s space and positioned deliberately, facing each other and very close, almost touching. In this position the chairs reminded me of Marina Abramović’s piece so we just started mirroring the artist is present—staring into each other’s eyes. We tried to sustain it and lasted about ten minutes. Some laughing and some conversation, mostly about Marina’s intentions, what the experience was like waiting there at MoMA to sit with her. We talked about whether it’s possible to stare into someone’s eyes and open up some kind of passageway to the soul. I’m skeptical, but I like the idea. I like the idea of a certain physical situation, two people looking or not looking, focused or not, as a way to meditate, to open up, to connect. An excuse to be present with another.
At some point another artist opened the door to the studio and I looked away and made some kind of gesture to her and shouted out that we were being present, that “the artists were present.” DTL said you’re really an observer, “you don’t miss anything do you.” And that when she looked into my eyes she saw a coat. I thought she said it looked like I have a cold. Are my eyes puffy? Cold? No, code. Like you need a code to understand me, I need to be decoded? No, coat—and then she spelled it out. C O A T. Covered up with a coat. Like, a coating.
A coating over my eyes.
I have to admit that I was immediately disappointed, and now I can’t stop thinking about this coat on my eyes. Because I’ve been feeling the barrier between me and this place. I’ve been frustrated with how the town seems guarded, distant—coated (or coded) in some way. That it’s inaccessible. What if I’m the guarded one?
I need to get closer. But I don’t know what that means. What it feels like is this: if I could, I’d like to sit across from that other chair and look into the town’s eyes. To sustain some kind of focus on this place and have the work reflect something intimate. This idea that a deeper understanding of the place will reveal a deeper work.
Maybe I’m already doing that. But I don’t think you get very far in two months. If I’m learning anything, it’s this—that to really become embedded, and to transform yourself within/of the place (to be of the place), you need a good amount of time. I’ve only got two months. When I got here, two months seemed endless. Now, almost halfway through, it’s not enough.
At what point is the observer engaging? Can the observer also perform?
I think I’ve been the observer forever. All of my work has this quality, even the projects I did in school over twenty years ago. When I spent a few days in Susquehanna and did my architecture thesis about the town, I didn’t dare speak to anyone who lived there. It never even occurred to me. Instead, I looked at it. Dipped in, but kept my distance. I worked with found objects, views, maps, photographs, and something grew out of that. I’ve often looked back at that project and wondered what it would have been had I talked with residents of the town.
When I took a semester off to do a film project I called it “eye view.”
In the last few years, I’ve started to talk to people as part of my work. I think it came from years of client work—interviewing people directly to understand their needs. 273 Relics for John Cage started with a recorded conversation with Laura in the driveway at the John Cage Trust. And that 30-minute conversation is embedded in the work.
I did more of that with Weymouths. And even more now in Skagaströnd. Talking, recording, transcribing. Forming relationships with people in the town. Light connections, but still. The woman who owns the café, the librarian, people I’m starting to meet as part of daily activities. The mayor. They’re all informing the work.
What more should I expect. It’s the ambition (and impatience) in me, wanting to go further, get more, do more. Or something earlier: the need for acceptance. As a child I found myself in a small village where I was unable to speak the language. Again and again, I felt like an alien, exposed, and covering up was my protection.
Here I am, forty years later, in a tiny village, looking to connect. Still coated. These trips are like time travel for me, feeling my way through like a child. Looking for resolution in the work.