Photo: Trusov/Shutterstock

My Failed Attempt at an Artist Residency in Iceland

by Alex Baumhardt Nov 14, 2013

I generally subscribe to the stereotype that saying you’re a writer is a roundabout way of saying you’re not gainfully employed. By that token, I’ll call myself a writer.

I’ve been living in Reykjavik for about two months now, an experiment with taking residence in a city fueled by creative energy. At times it seems as if nine of every ten Icelanders is writing a book of poetry or playing in a band or making paintings out of fruit dyes and candle wax. Last week I met a legitimate 9-to-5 drummer. That’s his job; it’s what he does. I’ve visited co-working units here where freelance whatever-ists rent desk space to focus on graphic design projects or photography. All of these people seem to have found a way to diligently throw themselves into passions that, in most industrial societies, would be considered hobbies.

While I was writing an article about a graffiti artist for a local magazine, I started learning about artist residencies as legitimate institutions for the type of work I wanted to do — namely, write short stories and freelance magazine articles. The artist I was interviewing told me about residencies he’d done in Australia, Scotland, and here in Iceland, where he and other artists were provided with free rooms and resources that allowed them to focus on their creative enterprises.

In researching artist residencies in Iceland, I found an irresistible call to participate in one of them, the N1 Artist Residency, which I could attend in more than 100 locations throughout the country. The N1 Residency Program requires no application and is free and open to the public. Residents have access to wifi, snacks, worktables, bathrooms, electrical outlets, almost anything but an actual residency to crash at. But the N1 Residency takes place over no set period of time, thus the resident is able to create for as little or as long as needed.

The N1 Residency takes place in one of Iceland’s chain of 115 N1 gas stations.

Refueling opportunities

The residency is facilitated by the Nes Artist Residency based out of Skagaströnd, Iceland. By facilitated, I mean, they made it up, or rather two artists, Australian Kat Danger Sawyer and American Paul Soulellis, did. Soulellis is a former Nes Artist-in-Residence, and the idea came to him and Sawyer while they were traveling between N1 stations documenting an unbroken kilometer of 21 road barriers in tribute to the American sculptor Walter De Maria. Sawyer and Soulellis were inspired by De Maria’s 1979 art instillation Broken Kilometer, an arrangement of 500 brass rods on permanent display at the Dia Art Foundation’s 393 West Broadway gallery in New York City.

I tried to see the lack of internet as some sort of fortuitous gift.

In cahoots with Nes, Sawyer and Soulellis schemed up this unconventional N1 Artist Residency for transient creatives like themselves. Anyone who participates in an N1 Residency is encouraged to send pictures or evidence of the stay to the Nes Artist Residency, though what will become of this material is as yet unknown. The actual N1 company has no idea that their gas stations are being touted as creative incubators.

On the Nes website, they’ve rebranded the commonplace features of an N1 gas station — snacks, coffee, bathrooms — into features of a creative workspace. They’re saying N1 stations are places of “refueling opportunities,” where you can both fill your gas tank and flesh out creative ideas. The residency is for “professionals working in fiction and non-fiction, social practice, intervention, blogging, design, architecture and inter discipline,” who can take advantage of “tea and coffee, conveniences and productivity while waiting for buses.”

Becoming an N1 Artist-in-Residence

I set off for my residency on a recent Sunday morning with laptop in tow and the intention of putting in some time on a short fiction story I wanted to develop. I went to the N1 Gas station along a highway ten minutes’ walk from my apartment. Already its most endearing quality is that, at 9am on a weekend in Reykjavik, N1 gas stations are about the only places that are both open and serving coffee.

This N1 is attached to a Subway sandwich shop and an upscale Mexican fast food place called Serano. The whiff of Subway — that distinct scent of processed deli meat and stale bread manufactured by Subways worldwide — caught me immediately. I scouted the aisles of snack foods in search of a proper gas station breakfast and settled on an overpriced, ‘Corny’ brand granola bar. That I’m describing a granola bar as overpriced should speak to the shame of being a self-proclaimed writer doing an artist residency at a gas station. I also bought a coffee and, as is the case in Iceland whenever you get a cup for coffee, it was mine to refill endlessly.

I sidled up to what Nes might call the ‘workstation’ but was, in actuality, a counter with a napkin dispenser, tall bar stools, and a view of the parking lot. There was no wifi network available nor electrical outlets, so I realized my residency would last as long as my computer could hold its charge or I broke down and left to check emails.

I tried to see the lack of internet as some sort of fortuitous gift that would keep me from hopping on the web to distract myself. I had read an article about novelist Jonathan Franzen’s practice of sequestering himself in a spare apartment in New York City with no internet connection, on a computer that had no photos, no music, no other programs but Microsoft Word. Perhaps Nes was aware of Franzen’s token piece of advice: “It’s doubtful anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.”

So I pushed the crumbs off the counter and wrote and watched people come and go. A man walked in with a black briefcase and I waited to see if he, too, would sit at the ‘workspace.’ Was he also a resident? Another man walked in with a camera slung over his shoulder. Perhaps he was coming to work on a photo essay chronicling the banalities of the homogeneous service station?

Both had only come in to pay for their gas.

At 9:53am, a man sat next to me with his hot dog and soda and I waited to see if he would pull out some paints or a notebook. He didn’t work on anything but his hot dog and then briskly took off.

I inevitably distracted myself. I looked at the inspirational postcards of Icelandic horses and elves on a display to my left, the rack of hair accessories and eyeglasses to my right. Gas stations, like supermarkets, are a great cultural barometer, food-wise. At an Icelandic gas station you have your shelves of dried fish, Danish Rugbrød bread, and Súkkulaðisnúðar cookies.

I imagined what I might put on my LinkedIn profile of having been an N1 Artist-in-Residence. “Took advantage of the residency’s resources to foster personal growth” (junk food), “to develop narrative craft” (i.e., me, right now, writing this article in the first-person), “to participate in a productive environment that fueled my creative process” (i.e., me interacting with the bottomless coffeepot).

Because the ‘workstation’ was close to the automatic doors, I left my coat on during my residency to fend against the cold. I stared out the window at the Subway sandwich flag fighting violently against the wind.

I can report that the bathrooms were stocked with all toiletries the Nes website had expounded and were spacious and clean. The N1 staff, unaware of the station’s covert artist residency, were still helpful and inspiring. “We’re in no rush,” the counter attendant had said philosophically when I apologized for taking so long to pick out my flavor of granola bar.

After two hours had passed, all I had really put together were different musings on my experience that morning. I packed my things and left with the inevitable products of a gas station artist residency: the narrative material for this article, a bag of Cheese Doodles, and a can of soda.

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