Cool Running

Every August Iceland’s capital city closes down the streets for its hotspots to pop alive with Culture Night – a massive 10-hour festival.

Maria Roberts speaks to director of Visit Reykjavík, Áshildur Bragadóttir, about the power of people-centered programming.

Iceland’s star is rising: from creative musical icon Björk to the more recent indie-pop folk band Of Monsters and Men, through to instrumentalist Ólafur Arnalds, and hit export TV shows like Trapped. The capital city of Reykjavík has carved out a niche nightlife scene, and even the thermal spas have a cultural dimension – the month of February sees Reykjavík bubble with the very unique Winter Lights Swimming Pool festival.

Head to Reykjavík in the summer months, however, and you’ll find yourself in the midst of a massive celebration of everything to do with culture, from food to music, and art to dance, all genres are welcomed and everyone has a part to play. The whole event is organised by Visit Reykjavík, the culture and tourism body that manages six festivals in the city. One of these is Culture Night, a unique event that is driven by the people who love Reykjavík. The 2016 edition hosted more than 500 events – an enormous amount given it takes place on just one day (from 1pm-11pm). All the more surprising is that the city has only 150,000 inhabitants – in fact, Iceland’s entire population is under 350,000. Attendance figures are pretty impressive: last year Culture Night attracted 150,000 revellers – almost equal to half Iceland’s entire population.

‘The city was packed with people and the atmosphere was so fantastic,’ says Bragadóttir. ‘The festival adds a great deal to the city’s economy with many tourists travelling to take part.’

Heading into its 21st year, Culture Nights takes place on 19 August in 2017. It’s a massive undertaking as the curatorial team of just three manage proposals, brochures, PR, marketing and even the commissioning budget. More impressive is that the festival is entirely free – including shuttle buses on hand to transport visitors to the downtown district so that pedestrians have more places to play.

It’s a phenomenal undertaking and has successfully rebranded the city as a fun and innovative cultural destination. Have they been tempted to expand the festival beyond one day? ‘Not at all,’ says director Áshildur Bragadóttir. ‘We think it’s cooler to have one big event, happening all around the downtown area, just for one day. This way the crowds come and enjoy being part of the festival and with each other – instead of diluting the experience by spreading it over more days.’

And it’s a tried and tested method that appears to work: the Swimming Pool festival, for example, takes place across six municipalities, and lasts from 6pm to 11pm, though it is part of a large four-day Winter Lights Festival. Much like Culture Night, the Winter Lights Festival is also free, with all partners playing a part in making it happen. For this tourists and residents flock to the famous outdoor thermal pools, are entertained with themed performances, and a light installation is projected onto Hallgrímskirkja, the city of Reykjavík’s major church, in colours to match the Northern Lights.

It’s not that there is an endless pot of money to throw around: ‘We run Winter Lights Festival for less than five million Icelandic Krónas and 10 million Icelandic Krónas for Culture Nights.

‘To make it possible we work with the museums and partners. For example they organise the events, they cover the costs and manage the venues hosting the events – and we lend support.’

That support is pretty forthcoming: anyone wishing to take part (non-Icelanders can also apply) can submit a proposal and request funding. Grants of ISK10,000 (€822) to ISK500,000 (€4,100) are available. Though Bragadóttir points out that, ‘Many artists musicians and store owners in the downtown area participate without getting paid. Anyone can apply and participate: the more artists that apply and participate, the more places we can have events happening. Every year the downtown festival area gets bigger and bigger and we have to close more and more streets.’

But, of course, there isn’t the freedom to present just anything. ‘We don’t allow offensive material,’ points out the director. ‘Artists have to provide us with information about their plans, then these have to be approved by the board of Culture Night before we add the event to the programme and website.’

What happens as the festival draws to a close? As you’d expect from Icelanders, the day ends with a party, topped off with a massive firework display to illuminate the skies at the harbour.