Seoul Biennale - South Korea, 2017

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The Hot Pot as Political Arena

Throughout Iceland, and especially in the capital of Reykjavik, one is never far from a "heitur pottur" or hot pot – a public vessel scaled to accommodate only a few people at a time, and filled with hot water fed from easily accessible geothermal reserves. Usually situated within swimming and recreational complexes, hot pots are special moments of physical and social intensity within cities, towns, and landscapes – no matter their context, they stand apart as focal points with a unique cultural significance. They provide literal points of heat and texture in the environment, and they catalyze moments of reflection and communication, relieving dark winter days with intimate moments of warmth. Like a neighborhood pub in other cultures, hot pots draw people from all walks of life, friends and strangers alike, all stripped of their uniforms, together in a beautiful environment of sounds and sense, where eye contact is almost unavoidable. The hot pot is a site of exchange. Interactions that arise include everything from personal rendez-vous to political debates.

The size and shape of the first public hot pot in Reykjavík was inspired by the hot spring on Reykholt farm, where Snorri Sturluson (1179 –1241), a prominent lawmaker and scholar, lived. Snorri’s assassination marked the end of the Icelandic commonwealth and its unique decentralized rule that arose after the settlement of Iceland in the 9th century. We imagine that Snorri soaked in his proto-hot pot for long hours, reflecting and debating with whomever joined him in the extraordinary and intimate space — perfectly scaled by nature for one conversation to unfold between people in a vulnerable state — naked and open to nature, but protected by enclosure and warmth.

The ‘reyk’ of Reykholt and Reykjavík refers to the steam emitting from hot springs. Reykjavík has the largest geothermal heating system in the world, heating buildings as well as hot pots. After the crash, the city of Reykjavik didn’t close down a single hot pot, but fortunately built more of them. The natural heating system, however, is under threat, as the public utility that administers the geothermal reservoirs of the capital area is now also invested in the production of electricity, an industry that has doubled in Iceland since the turn of the century.
Amid rapid urban development and foreign investment/exploitation, the production of electricity from geothermal resources is causing both environmental harm and social detriment. Poorly designed and managed sites compromise drinking reserves and air quality, and Reykjavíkians are subsidizing private energy and engineering companies that strive to greenwash the global aluminum industry. Citizens confront rising prices for heating and electricity, not to mention entrance fees to hot pots. As the veins in the rocks empty, they take hundreds of years to refill with hot water. New and deeper boreholes need to be drilled to fulfill contracts with international corporations who operate smelters around the coast that consume over 80% of the total electricity supply. If the massive drilling continues, it is doubtful that the geothermal reserves of the capital area will last more than 50 years. Reykjavík will lose its natural wonder and, with it, the vibrant culture of the geothermal hot pot. It is a myth that geothermal is renewable – it is not! Yet Reykjavík applied for and won the Nordic Council Nature and Environment Prize in 2014 for “its conscious work on the environmentally friendly use of water and production of district heating and electricity from geothermal energy."

Our installation invites a reflection on the (im)balance between, on the one hand, the harvesting and use of local natural resources and, on the other hand, the practice of trading resources between geo-political entities in the age of globalization. The recent history of an economic meltdown in Iceland and the ongoing global environmental crisis frame our thinking, and our Hot Pot embraces apparently conflicting trajectories: the human scale of togetherness and interconnectedness confronts the almost absurd scale of the stars. As we soak together, lean back and look up to the stars, we contemplate harvesting the far reaches of the universe for resources to save us from our self-destructive waste and irresponsibility, as if another chance will make a difference.

Collaborators on the project were:

Artist Brynja Baldursdóttir
Professor Thomas Forget
and
Film director Harpa Fönn Sigurjónsdóttir, but her film The Hot Tub was a part of the installation.