Sep 23, 2013

Affective landscapes

Affecting landscapes

Popular music and environmentalism in a Nordic context

by Nicola Dibben

It’s a sunny day in September 2010 and I’m meeting Björk for the first time – invited to her London flat to discuss a project I might get involved in (it turns out to be what’s later named Biophilia). She starts telling me about it but at a certain point becomes a little distracted – she says she has just learnt that a major hydroelectric project in Iceland that she’d been protesting about is going ahead. Her dismay is evident.

Dreamland feature documentary trailer

Björk’s opposition to the Kárahnjúkar Hydropower Project was widely publicised at the time, and part of a more widespread struggle over the value and meaning of the natural environment in Iceland. High profile musicians attracted international attention to the environmental movement, bringing together protest against government conceptualisations of natural resources as private property that could be sold, and their association with villains of the 2008 banking collapse, and actions which directly promoted sustainable businesses and renewable energies to benefit the Icelandic nation. As I’ve argued elsewhere, music also helps construct ideas of nature and landscape: Icelandic music has been central to Iceland’s global presence and identity, providing it with a distinctive Icelandic as opposed to Nordic identity. In my research for this project I investigate how this distinctive identity has been mobilised by the environmental movement, and continues to shape debates around Iceland’s economic development.

So far, so good, but an inspiration for my current project was provided by the work of Icelandic geographer Karl Benediktsson on the role of photography in creating an emotional response to the affected wilderness areas. He argued that the aesthetic experience provided by documentary photography of the landscape and wildlife in the area mobilised people to care about the natural environment. Karlsson’s insights into the visual arts reminded me of the role and importance in sonic arts not just of representation (the way Icelandic popular music represents and thereby constructs a version of the natural landscape), but of affect and immersion. Listen to fans of Björk or Sigur Rós (another internationally renowned Icelandic band involved in the environmental protest) and the thing that stands out is their affective experience with this music. It also brought me full circle to the beginnings of my academic interest in Icelandic music – a case study of a Björk track used to investigate how music can be understood and experienced as if it offers a particular subjectivity and construction of emotional experience (Dibben 2006). Benediktsson’s insights sparked a connection: the affective experience of music undermines the dualities which typify approaches to the environment. It’s this idea which drives the project.


Benedíktsson, Karl. 2007. ’Scenophobia’, Geography and Aesthetic Politics of Landscape. Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography 89: 203-217.

Dibben, Nicola. 2006. Subjectivity and the Construction of Emotion in the Music of Björk. Music Analysis, 25: 171–197. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2249.2006.00237.x

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