Unnsteinn Manúel Stefánsson, an Icelandic pop star and former judge of The Voice Iceland, pours a glass of wine. He has mass of hair made carefully unruly, a slight gap in his front teeth, and handsome cheekbones. “You have to bring the chorus into the first twenty seconds of the song.” He is addressing the artist Cally Spooner, sat opposite me. “It’s the catchiest part and it needs to hook people on the streaming sites. Otherwise, they will just flick past.” Spooner nods. The enthusiastic smile that has barely left her face all day spreads further at this criticism. Joining us at Snaps, a popular bistro in central Reykjavík is drag queen Gógó Starr, artist Ragnar Kjartansson, and Erna Ómarsdóttir, the artistic director of the Iceland Dance Company. We are an unusual party.
From these hopefuls it’s our job to assemble False Tears, a pop band that will release one song only
For the past three hours we’ve been at the Mengi arts space acting as talent show judges, watching, along with an audience of locals, a succession of would-be pop stars sing and dance for us. From these hopefuls it’s our job to assemble False Tears, a pop band that will release one song only: Nah! Nah! Nah!, an upbeat, autotune-heavy, light-R&B number carefully calibrated to break the French charts. Spooner has been producing the song over a series of exhibitions since an initial commission in 2016 by the Paris-based Fondation Galeries Lafayette. Though recorded with professional musicians, instructed by the Spooner by email and mixed and remixed by producers, the song still needs its bandmembers. Invited by American curator Margot Norton to take part in the 2017 Sequences festival, a biennial two-week programme of performance and video in Reykjavík (which has long proved radical in intent and result), Spooner hit on the idea of recruiting a sparkly group of Icelanders to front her French pop hit. In turn, Spooner handed the job of finding those sparkly Icelanders to the luminaries sat around the restaurant table. And me.
Back at Mengi, twelve contestants are reassembled. Most have responded to a social media callout, though two had been spotted by Spooner at a party by Reykjavík’s harbour the night before and another happened to be walking past Mengi, heard music and walked in with her ukulele.. The talent on display is varied: a young Icelander named Ólöf demonstrates she is a beautiful singer, with a strange lilting voice; another, Katrín Helga, plays the combs; a Canadian named Blair makes up a song on the spot, playing the piano to accompany his ad hoc lyrics; we sit through an opera recital and auditions that could barely be counted as such, given the lack of any perceivable artistic gift in many of the contestants. This latter criteria, we slowly begin to realise, is optional: we need faces and charisma. We need a pop group, not musicians.
We need faces and charisma. We need a pop group, not musicians
The second session, in which, having played them the song for the first time, we group our contestants into threes and fours, is the most productive. It’s hard to encapsulate the anarchy of this part of the day. Nah! Nah! Nah! plays over and over and over again, an ear worm burrowing deep into our heads. To this soundtrack the contestants add a cacophony of drum solos, practiced refrains, tambourines, obscure (even primal) dance moves; each arrived at through the briefest of interactions between these total strangers. (None of them had been told the format of the day and Spooner made much of this up on the spot.) A contestant writhes on the floor holding a snare drum aloft, two further contestants bang it in and out of rhythm. An electric guitar is strummed too loud. A girl shimmies on her own.
Locating Spooner’s practice – or even her precise role – in all this is tricky. It’s certainly not the song (just as well, I shan’t pretend it’s my kind of thing), something the artist acknowledges in the removal of her moral and legal rights as sole author. Instead, as she has done in other works such as On False Tears and Outsourcing (2016) at the New Museum, New York (where she employed rugby players and a movie director to choreograph dancers) and Warm Up (2017) at the Serpentine Galleries, London (in which a dancer continuously performed warm up stretches), Spooner acts as a Svengali figure orchestrating situations and relationships. Her artwork is not the pop song (or the performances), but the conversations – the play and learning – of their production.
Spooner acts as a Svengali figure orchestrating situations and relationships
Sat on a talent-show jury in Iceland I’m both in and out of my depth, both in and out of character. Spooner had asked us to mimic the theatrics of TV judges (the pantomime villainy of Simon Cowell for example); but our job is real – a real band needs to be found. Is this a performance or real life? In one closed session, as we discuss the contestants in a back room, Kjartansson impresses on us that we must have no thoughts to art; this is about money. The Icelandic artist (normally a sensitive, romantic, soul) was both acting the role of hard-nosed music exec (to whom though? – we were alone) and perfectly correct as to the lone imperative of manufactured pop. I found myself whooping and clapping like a wild fool, both in mimicry of shiny showbiz enthusiasm, but also because I genuinely wanted these people in front of me to do well.
Spooner apes commercial culture and satirises it from within. By blurring the boundaries between reality and fiction, generating confusion and sense of uncertain liberation, Spooner has created something akin to the ‘Temporary Autonomous Zones’ that Hakim Bey envisaged in his 1991 essay Taz: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism. For Bey a TAZ is a self-governing space of anarchic freedom, which might spring up in the cracks of society, just as the British free rave scene did in the early 1990s. In the craziness that Spooner whips up, one finds resonance in Bey’s poetic lines: ‘Chaos comes before all principles of order & entropy, it's neither a god nor a maggot, it’s idiotic desires encompass & define every possible choreography.’
Two boys – one 17, the other 19, friends who had attended together – are the first we all agree on. Their rapport together was infectious: mucking around, acting up, a mix of teenage nerves and bravado. A rapping, drum-playing drag queen (who was previously known to Gógó Starr – let’s not pretend Iceland’s drag scene is huge) is the second. Completing False Tears would be a French-Icelandic singer (“You can do the TV interviews!”), who we all agree is beautiful (it’s weird to write that, but pop music is intrinsically based on looks), and a Polish singer whose tattoos and penchant for pink beanies and bomber jackets we agree will complete a kick-ass look. On announcing the results Kjartansson jokes, “It will ruin your lives!” The band hug, jubilant. They are dragged off for a photoshoot. False Tears are cute. I hope they take over the world.
I realise I had been very nervous on behalf of Spooner (which one can read as empathy or patronising masculinity). I need not have been. Not because everything worked out – it did, of course, and Spooner will return to Reykjavík to shoot a music video with her pop protégés – but because the artist knew exactly what she was doing. She orchestrated, with a certain degree of premeditation, a perfect storm of chaos, confusion and exhaustion; of creative, mental and emotional strain (I needed alcohol and sleep after). Spooner didn’t know what would happen, but she built the space and parameters for something to happen. I, and I think most of us there, be it pop star-soon-to-be, judge, or audience – walked out into the Reykjavík night still not certain what had transpired. What rabbit hole the artist had thrown us down. ‘Avatars of chaos’ writes Bey however, ‘Act as spies, saboteurs, criminals of amour fou, neither selfless nor selfish.’ Spooner left with a grin.