‘I always wanted to be David Attenborough’ : Björk on protecting salmon, going on strike and magical mushrooms

The Guardian, 5 novembre 2023

The singer and activist is releasing a single with Rosalía to support action against intensive salmon farming. She talks about being a guardian of Iceland’s wilderness and how young people will make real change

It is hard to think of anyone as symbolic of their nation as Björk. The singer has lived away from Iceland over the years – in London and New York, and is often on tour – but when she’s been away she has always felt, she says, like she is “holding her breath”, both in anticipation of return and in memory of purer air. In recent years, since her relationship with the artist Matthew Barney ended in 2013, she has lived pretty much full-time near Reykjavik, where she has witnessed the great surge in tourism to the island, which has risen from a few hundred thousand annual visitors 20 years ago to almost 2 million now.

You couldn’t quantify exactly what proportion of that interest in volcano and glacier is down to Björk’s own one-woman nation branding, but there is no doubt that her wild and whirling music, with its operatic cutting edges of trance and techno, has done much to establish the unique cool of her native island in the eco-traveller’s mind. It is for this reason that when she adds her trippy voice to any environmental campaign, it has ripples well beyond the north Atlantic.

She has been involved in protest for 30 years, she explained to me, “but always in Iceland, where I know it can actually make a change – which later maybe could be an exemplary case [internationally]. We have,” she says, “the largest untouched natural area in Europe and a lot of us feel like guardians of this, you know, the way that you guys are guardians of whatever… ” she laughs. “Brexit, maybe ?”

Her current obsession is to try to halt the practice of intensive salmon farming in Iceland’s fjords, an industry that threatens not only the island’s historic wild salmon, she argues, but also its entire ocean ecology. “We were organic before organic. But now what is starting in the last five or 10 years is this open-pen fish farming, basically factory farming,” she says. She describes a practice, imported from Norway, of intensive salmon rearing, in which fish development is accelerated. Diseases – particularly those associated with parasitic sea lice – are, she claims, prevalent, pointing to photographs of disfigured farmed fish as evidence.

This is not a simple battle between ecology and local economies in Björk’s view – only a few hundred people are employed in the salmon farming businesses. “It’s like two Norwegian billionaires,” she says, exaggerating a little. “They fucked everything up in Norway. And now they have come to Iceland. People say it’s like the bank crash, a few people getting millions and [nobody else] getting anything.” The problem made headlines in August when thousands of the farmed salmon escaped and swam up all Iceland’s rivers. “We were sending divers with harpoons, trying to capture them,” Björk says, but the task was hopeless and she claims the “mutant fish” spread sea lice among the Atlantic stock. (All of these allegations of disease and mistreatment are disputed by the salmon farming companies. Speaking to the Guardian last month, a spokesman for Arctic Fish, the company responsible for the nets from which farmed salmon escaped, said : “We have systems in place that ensure wild salmon are not put at risk. On top of that, our licences have an expiry date. If we do not behave, we don’t get licences renewed.” There is an ongoing police investigation into whether environmental laws have been breached.)

The battle against the expansion of open-net farming is concentrated now in a village called Seyðisfjörður in the east of the island. “A lot of bohemian artists live there,” she says, “and they have been protesting in the streets and have brought a test legal case, which uses the argument of protecting biodiversity.” The protesters have run out of money, so Björk is releasing a single to raise funds.

The song dates back to 2002 – she had been trying to find it in her extensive archives for many years but had forgotten the name it was filed under. Then, serendipitously, on tour in Australia, a news item was playing on a loop in her hotel room. The news concerned a politician involved in a scandalous affair and the strapline was, apparently, “oral or not ?” – the word “oral” was, she says, laughing, the one she had been trying to remember, the name of her song. It has a Jamaican dancehall beat, and to update it she invited the Catalan star Rosalía to provide some vocals and a “2023 reggaeton sound”. “One great thing about having Rosalía in on this is we can get a Spanish audience,” she says, “and the countries where this [salmon farming] is the biggest problem are Argentina and Chile.”

If the new song represents direct environmental action, Björk’s ongoing Cornucopia tour provides much wider context. The tour is the live version of her last-but-one album Utopia, which is set in a science-fiction future : “Not postapocalyptic,” she says “but post-optimistic.” It features a monologue by Björk’s friend Greta Thunberg, “which clashes with the animation fantasy elements of it”.

Does post-optimistic describe her own mood, these days, I wonder ?

“I’m still hopeful,” she says. “I have a lot of nephews and nieces and I see the friends of my daughter [Isadora is 21 ; Björk also has a son, Sindri, who is 37]. These kids are all in university studying how to run a national park or how to sue fossil fuel companies. Basically, I think that when they finally take over from the 80-year-old men who run the world, that’s when we start to see real changes.”

She deals with those hopes and fears in Cornucopia, she says, “in my usual humorous way”. “We have all escaped to an island away from western civilisation and started all over again,” she says. “And yes, we are mutants of birds and flutes and so on – kind of like the weird fish in The Simpsons – but we’re sort of fine !”

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 ?”

“Unhinged ?” I suggest. Then : “resourceful ?”

“Yes, resourceful.”

Her most recent album – made during the pandemic – is called Fossora, the feminine version of the Latin word for digger. It saw her heading underground, metaphorically, and musing, musically, on the regenerative power of mushrooms, among other things. One result of that – “a dream come true, I always wanted to be David Attenborough” – is that she has been invited to narrate a documentary based on Merlin Sheldrake’s fabulous bestselling book about fungi, Entangled Life. “It’s one place we can look for solutions,” she says, referencing experiments with plastic-digesting mycelium, and the radiotrophic fungi reportedly discovered repurposing radiation in the Chornobyl area.

Björk hopes her collaboration with Rosalía will attract ‘a Spanish audience… the countries where [salmon farming] is the biggest problem are Argentina and Chile’. Photograph : Alejandro García/EPA
As well as magical mushroom meditations, Fossora also includes tender valedictory tributes to her mother, Hildur Rúna Hauksdóttir, who died in 2018 after a long illness. Hildur Rúna was a radical feminist and homeopath, who divorced the singer’s father – an electrician and trade union leader – when Björk was two, and raised her in a commune. I wonder if she sees her environmental activism as keeping her mother’s flame alive ?

“Good question,” she says. “It’s hard to know, like the chicken and the egg. Obviously, she brought me up being aware of all these things. I was brought up to think hamburgers were from the devil, and when we watched cowboy and Indian movies the cowboys were the baddies and Indians were the goodies. To this day, I can’t listen to country music because that’s, like, evil. She was quite radical in that way. That’s basically me saying ‘yes’ to your question. But she wasn’t that active [as a protester]. We – me and her and my father – all sort of started around the same time, in the 90s.”

She thinks about that connection a bit more, has another go : “I think her biggest radical thing was basically taking me out of the patriarchy to live in a tiny little house that leaked when it rained. Right on the edge of wild nature. But I think what happened is in the 90s, both my mother and my father, we all started in three very different ways, with our group of friends, becoming quite radical with the environment.” Hildur went on a hunger strike, for example, in 2002, to protest against the US company Alcoa building an aluminium smelter and dams for a hydroelectric plant in the Icelandic highlands. She lasted 23 days, before ending her fast.

Was she successful ?

“There were plans to harness all of our rivers for aluminium factories. They built the factory, but not all the dams. Iceland is the size of England, without Wales or Scotland. But if you had harnessed all the rivers to create the biggest aluminium factory in the world – as they wanted to – basically the highlands would have gone, that would have been it.”

That protest was in some respects a prototype for her current campaign. “Basically, we plan to be stubborn as fuck,” she says.

I love that in Iceland we don’t give a fuck about celebrities. You will meet the president in the supermarket
Back in the early years of this century, it was tourism and culture that saved Iceland from the aluminium takeover. “Food in Iceland was like, hamburgers at the gas station at that time,” she says, “but that has totally changed now. Every tiny village you go to you can buy amazing local lamb and cheese, and homemade beer, there will be people who can take you to see glaciers, or go snowmobiling or river rafting. Fifteen years ago, it was the aluminium factory or nothing. But we showed there are alternatives. Now there’s a lot of people who come here to fish wild salmon, and they’re not going to come if they are catching these Frankenstein mutants.”

She has, over the years, tried different models to use her fame to drive change. At around the time of the banking crash she promoted a green venture capital fund, run by women, that offered seed funding to eco-friendly startups. Her 2011 Biophilia Educational Project has become part of the school syllabus, designed to get kids following in her footsteps and studying music and technology.

In 2019, she and Thunberg joined forces with Iceland’s prime minister, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, to declare a climate emergency in the country, only for Jakobsdóttir to back out when the moment came. “She didn’t say a word. She didn’t even mention it,” Björk said later. “I was so pissed off.”

That kind of experience has convinced her that politicians will never be proactive in addressing the problems we face without the sort of pressure she tries to exert culturally. There were hopes for a women-led revolution in Iceland after the banking crash wiped out the country’s economy in 2008. Does she feel that moment was lost – or has it had an effect ?

“Yes, and no,” she says. “It’s a marathon. We were one of the few countries that actually sent some of the banksters to jail … Of course, they could have stayed longer in there and more people could have gone, but at least some went. Not many countries managed that. And if you look at the figures, we are one of the strongest countries when it comes to feminism in the world. But it’s not good enough.”

A couple of days after we speak she was planning to join Iceland’s first full-day women’s strike in 48 years, in which the country’s women stopped work, childcare, cooking and cleaning and took to the streets for a day in order to protest about the persistent gender-based pay gap. “It is getting closer, but we are still not there yet,” she says.

I wonder how she is treated at such protests – is it easy for her to live a relatively normal life in Reykjavik or does she have to be wary about where she goes ?

“It’s very easy,” she says. “That’s another of the reasons why I love Iceland, we don’t give a fuck about celebrities. You will meet the president in the supermarket. If you’re going to be on a high horse, you’re just going to be knocked down from it very quickly. There’s not much hierarchy here. It’s just the tourists that sometimes can be a pain in the ass for me if I’m out and about. But I just don’t go on the streets where I know they are.”

Was that one of the reasons that she came back from New York ?

“When I had a house in Brooklyn, I was half there and half here. So I never let go properly. My daughter went before Christmas to school here in Iceland, and after Christmas in Brooklyn.” The pandemic, she suggests, which saw her confined to her native city for the first time since she left home at 16, only deepened her roots. “I won’t leave,” she says. “I love the fact that I’m in a capital in Europe, but I live on a beach and I can see the mountain range. And then of course all my friends and family live literally five minutes’ walking distance from my house. Even better, particularly in the last 10 years, we have one of the best film festivals in Europe here, one of the best music festivals, one of the best dance festivals, one of the best book festivals.”

It goes without saying that a good deal of that cultural capital has been enabled by her own career. We’ve talked for a while, I suggest, and hardly touched on music. Is she still as excited at 57 about being in the studio and on tour as she ever was ?

“I’m always discovering new songs, every day,” she says. “And writing something, always, in the back of my head. I try to focus everything I’ve got on music, but I do stop once in a while, and maybe roughly 20% of my time I use to try to fight for these environmental issues. I’m thinking, obviously, about the next generation and the generation after that. Between those two things, that’s where all my time goes.” She laughs. “I wish I had five bodies,” she says, “but there’s just this one.”

publié dans The Guardian