Project Stories


Project Story: Birnir Jón Sigurðsson, author and climate activist

Photo: Nora Sayyad

During his time at Saari Residence, Birnir Jón Sigurðsson, Icelandic author and climate activist, decided to abandon a project that was close to finished and that was the reason he had applied for the residency. 


The goal: to finish a collection of short stories

Birnir Jón Sigurðssonin had planned to focus on finishing his collection of short stories during his residency. In this collection, he wanted to explore the possibilities of fiction to inspire climate activism in readers. What would encourage as many people as possible to take action against climate change? What prevents people from taking steps to stop the disastrous changes from happening?

Replacing fiction with fact

Even before Sigurðsson arrived at the residence, writing the manuscript had begun to feel like forcing words onto paper. 

“Reading through the manuscript, I found myself thinking, who would read this?” Sigurðsson says, describing his decision, which was confirmed in Saari, to drop the almost finished work.

“Of course, this was not the first time I quit something I had started, but it was the first time I quit something that was so close to finished.” 

His mind was free to think about climate activism from another perspective.

Sigurðsson's pose, in which the body’s weight is rested on one leg, resembles a classical contrapposto of Greek and Roman sculptures.
Photo: Nora Sayyad

“I ended up writing a series of articles on climate change for the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service. In the articles, I try to make the sheer scale of the phenomenon easier to grasp and to make it easier for people to understand who is responsible for it,” Sigurðsson says.

As an activist, the artist is also involved in another project. His handbook on climate activism, which Sigurðsson is writing together with Tinna Hallgrímsdóttir, is targeted at young people joining the activities of the Icelandic Youth Environmentalist Association and at other aspiring climate activists.

The handbook emphasises a broader perspective on climate justice, rather than the everyday choices of the individual. Those with power must take greater responsibility than those who are more disadvantaged, which is why the handbook focuses on influencing political decision-making.

Sigurðsson's pose resembles that of the Little Mermaid statue by Edvard Eriksen.
Photo: Nora Sayyad

The freedom to slow down

In recent years Sigurðsson has written such diverse works as a drama about growing potatoes, a children’s book called The Bird Cliff of Nowhere and a children’s opera based on the book. Even the coronavirus pandemic, which has been devastating to the performing arts around the world, hasn’t slowed him down.

It wasn’t until he got to the Saari Residence that he slackened the pace.

“For me, Saari was a place for just being an artist, being a person, without the idea of work justifying my existence,” Sigurðsson says.

Sigurðsson felt that the atmosphere at Saari Residence was conducive to breaking away from the concept of artistic work which involves the expectation that an artist should constantly be creating something new.

“It’s not very sustainable if the artist is expected to work tirelessly all the time. At Saari, I got an opportunity to relax, hang out and think without being required to do anything,” Sigurðsson says, reflecting on his experience.

As part of the community of residents, Sigurðsson feels he has learned that you can try to manage the uncertainty of being an artist by unionising and demanding, for example, appropriate compensation for the work done. During the same period at the residence, both poet Yolanda Castaño and graphic storyteller Eva Müller explored their artistic practice from an economic point of view.

“From them, I learned that creating better working conditions for art workers is a common concern and requires collaborative effort.”


Birnir Jón Sigurðsson

Through other’s eyes: Eva Müller, graphic storyteller

“Time is money. To make art, you need time. At Saari, we talked about the struggles that the difficult economic situation in each artist’s country had driven them into. Everyone’s struggles were related to time – time we desperately need to be able to make art.

We need funding, grants and a reasonable hourly wage for the art education or other cultural work we do and for the works we are commissioned to do. We don’t want to have to constantly compete for the same few job opportunities. Fierce competition creates a ruthless mentality of taking whatever you can and a toxic climate in our communities. A stable artist’s salary paid by the state would solve this problem. We need working conditions that give us the freedom to do our work, not conditions that drive us into isolation and poverty.”

Eva Müller, graphic storyteller, writer and performance artist, is one of the artists who worked at the Saari Residence at the same time as Sigurðsson. In her own work, Müller has also studied artistic work from an economic perspective. 

Photo: Nora Sayyad

Saari Residence’s Key Figures


artists, researchers or working groups work at the residence every year


artists in residence since 2008


different countries represented by the residents since 2008