Dominic Boyer (Rice University) talks with Jón Gnarr, Founder of Iceland’s Besti Flokkurinn (Best Party) and Mayor of Reykjavík, April 2013.
Gnarr, founder of a political party some term "anarcho-surrealist," reflects on resisting conventional political categories, the April 27 parliamentary elections, and the politics of environmentalism. Boyer sees Iceland as "a bright light in an otherwise very dark time."
This interview is a supplement to Boyer’s article in American Ethnologist, May 2013: Simply the Best: Parody and Political Sincerity in Iceland.
Jón Gnarr: Hi. I'm so glad and honored. But quite confused like always. I'm so lost in my own brain, like a deer in a labyrinth. Wandering but always lost. I wandered upon this [passage from André Breton, First Manifesto of Surrealism 1924]:
To make speeches
Just prior to the elections, in the first country which deems it worthwhile to proceed in this kind of public expression of opinion, have yourself put on the ballot. Each of us has within himself the potential of an orator: multicolored loin cloths, glass trinkets of words. Through Surrealism he will take despair unawares in its poverty. One night, on a stage, he will, by himself, carve up the eternal heaven, that Peau de l'ours. He will promise so much that any promises he keeps will be a source of wonder and dismay. In answer to the claims of an entire people he will give a partial and ludicrous vote. He will make the bitterest enemies partake of a secret desire which will blow up the countries. And in this he will succeed simply by allowing himself to be moved by the immense word which dissolves into pity and revolves in hate. Incapable of failure, he will play on the velvet of all failures. He will be truly elected, and women will love him with an all-consuming passion.
Maybe I was 15 when I first read this. I am a product of a past I can’t remember. They said I had Asperger’s [syndrome] and ADHD and OCD. I don’t agree. I will nod just to support some kid that might be listening just to let them know its not over just because you were diagnosed with something. But to me we are just slaves of our brains and in much less control than we think. The brain is the god and the master. Breton didn't know of the Internet and now it has become our second brain and we just went from a solar system to a whole universe.
Dominic Boyer: In writing the article [for American Ethnologist] I tried to take very seriously your caution during the election campaign not to try to fit Besti Flokkurinn into some preconceived category. When it comes to politics there are many preconceived categories and they exert a lot of gravitational force to draw new ideas and experiments into their orbit (or destroy them). Convention always tries to eliminate innovation if it can. So, now that you've been doing this (being mayor) for a while, do you still feel the need to resist the conventional categories? Or have you and Besti Flokkurinn reached the point where these things no longer matter?
Gnarr: To us we are “doing time” in politics. We are just here for the experience, like tourists in a foreign country. Let’s say I was sentenced to jail and in jail I had sex with other men. Would that make me gay? Maybe to some. They call us “old school socialists.” But we really don’t care what they call us. They cannot categorize the Best party. We stand for nothing but joy, honesty and silliness. We have no real manifesto, no membership, no ideology. I refuse to be defined because it is death. In the words of E.B. White, “Analyzing comedy is like dissecting a frog: few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” I don’t wanna be just another dead frog so I keep on fighting.
Boyer: A politics beyond categories is refreshing since “normal” politics in most parts of the world today means always hearing the same ideas and discourse (e.g., free markets, privatization, economic growth) from supposedly different parties. Like in the U.S. where we have two parties that share 95% of the same political code. This sameness everywhere is why there is such widespread indifference to politics, just like in the Soviet Union before the collapse. I remember reading something you wrote where you said that you went into politics out of frustration. That you wanted to fuck the system in some way. But maybe not to attack politicians so much as to give people hope that humanity could be better than its political system. Is that right? If so, I want to ask what should the rest of the world be learning from the Best Party? For many of us, Iceland is a bright light in an otherwise very dark time.
Gnarr: Yes, it is right. I’m a virus, but a friendly one, harmful to the system but not to people. I hope I will inspire the introvert people all around the world to get involved in politics. My message is: There is no authority but yourself. Find your inner guru!
Boyer: Can you tell me a little bit about the relationship between the Best Party and Bright Future? Does Bright Future share the anarcho-surrealist method of the Best Party; is it somehow an extension of your experiment, or something altogether different? Related to this, I detect some (perhaps a lot of) ambivalence from you about working in politics – I’m sure it must be very frustrating sometimes. Would you want to continue after your term as mayor is up?
Gnarr: Bright Future is totally different from the Best party. It is a political party but the Best is more of a state of mind. There is nothing anarchic or surrealistic about it. [Bright Future] is more of a typical liberal democratic party. My support for it is mostly moral as many of my friends are involved. Yeah, a lot of ambivalence Most of the time it is business as usual and sometimes it’s fun but it can also be terrifying. I don´t know if I want to continue working as mayor. I’m doing time. It is mostly about surviving in a hostile environment. It is a bit like the people on National Geographic channel who are dropped into Alaskan wilderness somewhere and are forced to survive on their own. Why? Just for the hell of it and maybe to prove a point, to be able to live and tell about it. I shouldn't be alive, but I am!
Boyer: What do you find terrifying about working in politics? And, from where do you draw the strength/resolve to continue this work? Another way of asking the same question: where do you find the joy that allows you to maintain the Best Party state of mind and to keep going?
Gnarr: [There are] parliamentary elections here tomorrow. Polls show over 50% support for the conservative and the center party and some rise in nationalist views. Century Aluminum released a press release today saying they look forward to working with the new government and building new smelters in Iceland. So the right is on the rise and the left has left.
[Editorial note: The conversation between Boyer and Gnarr took place via Facebook messages between March 23 and April 28, 2013. On the April 27, parliamentary elections took place in Iceland. The center-right coalition of the Independence and Progressive parties, the exact coalition that had governed over the run-up to the Icelandic banking crisis, returned to power with 51.13% of the popular vote. News media singled out their opposition to joining the European Union as the single biggest factor in the coalition’s return to power. Bright Future, the new national party loosely affiliated with the Best Party, meanwhile received only 8.25% of the popular vote.]
Boyer: So, how did it go? Any immediate reactions to the election?
Gnarr: Shit! Democracy? No, anarchy!
Boyer: Alas! I am sorry. Is there a bright side? The best parody in the U.S. came during the Bush years because the authoritarianism became so obvious, savage and perverse. Why do you think people went back to this Independence Party?
Gnarr: I can’t get my head around it. They control the media. They publish what they want us to see. They are rich and they are powerful. They manipulate the public. The public likes to be manipulated? Are people that naive? I don’t know. One thing is for sure. They will want to start some heavy industry plans with Glencore and such companies. They want to use our natural resources to fuel the economy and finance their promises. I and we are very skeptical towards any plans to build more aluminum smelters and dam rivers. It might create a beef. But that was also my biggest disappointment with the last government. They did many good things. The Left Greens approved and fought for oil drilling in Icelandic waters. A Green Party happy with oil drilling on fishing grounds? Wtf! Why? It really doesn’t matter much if you are left or right, both have pros and cons and the leftists have such great ideologies but in the end money talks and bullshit walks and hey, oil creates jobs! It’s a game, just a game.