Iceland, Art & Me

23 Nov 2012

A few weeks ago, my girlfriend and I returned from a week-long stay in Iceland. While we were staying in Reykjavik, the Iceland Airwaves music festival was in full force. Similar to other whole-city festivals like SXSW, Reykjavik is transformed for one week into one big music experience. Bars, cafes, bookshops, public spaces, nightclubs, athletic arenas – nearly every establishment capable of hosting a stage participated in the fervor. Interestingly, and unlike SXSW, even the venues that clearly arose out in a just-because-we-can-and-why-not manner delivered an excellent sound experience. Icelanders are either spoiled by a high supply of great sound technicians or simply possess a lower tolerance for subpar sonics.

With those queer moments when I was hearing a great performance on the top floor of a book store – locals sipping coffee and working on the tabletops nearby, occasionally looking up to take in the music a bit more directly – I would reflect further on the part of Icelandic culture that most fascinated me. Even with the amazingly small population of the country – three hundred thousdand total, two hundred thousand of which reside in the Reykjavik area – there is an amazing amount of activity around the arts. You would think that there must be some decree that, if you’re an Icelander between the ages of 15 and 30, you must either be in a band, make music by yourself, or produce, or write poetry, or paint, or draw, or otherwise make art in some way. People talk about how lively the arts scene is in the Bay Area, but for some reason it doesn’t seem the same. And, perhaps the reason is that, in Iceland, it’s harder to make it commercially, and consequently the entire purpose and meaning behind the act of making art shifts. For me, this was quite a comforting thought that helped rekindle the drive to create and explore – a drive that once came so naturally.

Finding and Losing

My personal relationship with art has always been a tenuous one. Throughout childhood and my young adult life I viewed it strictly as a hobby. Not anything to be taken seriously, and not even something that I should feel like I had to pursue. It wasn’t until I was finishing up my engineering degree, the culmination of a sixteen-year path driven predominately by my left brain, that I started to consider if I would be happier with a different focus. While I certainly don’t regret my decision to follow through with my tech education, I nevertheless had the first thought that, perhaps, I actually needed to devote more energy into this part of myself.

My last years in college were some of the happiest I’ve had. In the time that wasn’t needed for software assignments, I filled some of the time with a variety of projects. I was a layout designer for a campus music publication and in complete creative control of another biannual campus publication. I played with ActionScript and created little toys, games, or animated e-cards for friends and family. I drew weekly comics for the school newspaper, and even at one point tried to explore doing an animated show (turns out, those require a fair bit more work than I could devote to such a thing.) The energy that I felt then, bouncing from project to project, feeling what must have been consistent inspiration… it was, in retrospect, a special time.

Fast-forward. After graduating, I found myself in San Francisco, working on a few freelance gigs and starting to focus on addressing “the real world,” which in the immediate case meant finding a job. Eventually, what started out as another project turned into a full-time position at a music startup. As with any startup, the work schedule would (and continues to) be quite demanding, and for the first time all of my energy was pouring into one thing. Time marches on, often too fast to even perceive. My friends started getting married and I would occasionally get the chance to catch-up with college friends. This past year, as I was catching up with one of my friends, we were discussing what we had been up to for the past years. After I told him I was still working at the same startup, he remarked:

Wow, I never imagined that you, after two years, would still be doing the same thing!

Though meant partially as a jibe at my erratic, project-crazy antics during college, something about those words shook something inside. I had worried about becoming too involved with work. I had worried about compromising. Had I?

Reasons to Not Try

The truth was, I had lots of reasons to compromise. I was committed to working at a startup – a startup which was still proving itself as a contender. It’s hard to be excited about starting a new project when you finish a week of home at nine, dinner at ten, sleep. It’s hard, but some people still do it. It’s hard to justify sitting focused on a computer during the only free time you have to spend with your girlfriend on the weekends. It’s hard to feel comfortable with doing something “just for fun” when it seems like everybody else is profiting off their projects. Like it’s stupid to do something just for fun when you can do something just for fun that also pays for the time investment you put into it – you just have to find that thing, is all. It seemed that there were so many reasons to not play around.

And yet, there was always this slight twinge when I would think about what I was accomplishing. I felt like I was missing something that was important to me, and feared I eventually might lose it altogether. The self can be a sanctuary for irrational fears.

Over time, I began to realize that the only thing holding me back was, well, me. If I wanted more time to work on pet projects, that was in my power. I could get a different job, or I could try to work less hours. I could work on things just for fun, because that worked fine for me in the past; I don’t need to Kickstart a project to make it worthwhile. Recognizing the level of control I really had over my future was an important course-corrective measure. Now it’s on me to continue on this trajectory.

Moving Forward

I’m looking forward to getting back in touch with my creative side again. Somewhere, a while ago, I compiled a list of all the weird ideas and things I wanted to create when I found the time. Here’s all that I can remember:

  1. Create a children’s book aimed at introducing readers to fundamental concepts of atomic and quantum physics. If it proves an unrealistic expectation, it can be tongue-in-cheek.
  2. Write and illustrate full-length graphic novel, subject unknown presently.
  3. Record a full-length LP, subject unknown presently.
  4. Help a friend with a simple app for the health community.
  5. Create a site aimed at capturing the transforming zeitgeist of the internet community as an online history database.
  6. Figure out some (legal) way of notifying myself the occupancy level of nearby tennis courts.
  7. Storyboard and film some music videos to songs that have evoked certain imagery for me.

I think there’s more than enough to keep my occupied. My hope is, eventually, instead of writing about the difficulty in starting projects, I’ll be writing about the difficulty in stopping them.

Vacations have a way of centering you. For me, I believe it’s the simple act of being free from all (or, at least most) thoughts about work, schedules, tasks, and errands. When the background noise gets turned down enough, you’re surprised at everything you couldn’t hear before. My latest trip did more to reinvigorate my desire to create, produce, and make than all of my time in San Francisco.