Inspiring Stories of Remarkable People.

Jon Gnarr: The punk comedian who became mayor of Reykjavik

Iceland  /   /  By Manuel Gruber

INTRODUCTION

So we met a true anarchist. What comes in your mind, when you think about anarchists? Stone throwing, black wearing trouble seekers? Spittin´, stinkin´ sittin´drunk punks in the streets asking for your change? You´re completely wrong. Get over it. Ladies and gentlemen, we proudly present: Jon Gnarr! Comedian, anarchist, author, punk musician and the former mayor of Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital.

Before Gnarr and his friends from the “Best Party” promised free towels for everyone, a polar bear named Björk for the local zoo, an entertainment park for the poor, where the unemployed could stroke Goofy and that they won´t keep any promise.

And the people of Reykjavik elected them. What a shock, even for Gnarr. And in the four years of their legacy they kept their promise. No  polar bear, no funpark, no towels. Instead they erased the brutal amount of public debt, brought the electricity company which was about to ruin the city back to reasonable behaviour and drove the conservative people in the parliament crazy with their gandhi-style way of politics.

And when it comes to the peolpe of Iceland, Gnarr would be still sitting behind a mahagony desk and deciding how to bring the city to the next level. Some want to see him as their president. But Gnarr resigned just before an almost certain re-election. Just because he thought that the best way to fuck the system is to go shortly after the greatest victory. So we met him in Vienna for an interesting talk about fucking peoples heads with bright humour, true expertise and a huge amount of craziness.

So, feel free to meet a man with an extraordinary laughter, a sharp-shaved skin and a big tatoo of the British punkband “Crass” on his lower arm.

INTERVIEW

Do you still feel as an anarchist after four years in a mayors office?

Absolutely. I’ve never doubted my anarchist believe, my anarchist conviction. People have different opinions and ideas about the word. And the word “anarchism” is quite stigmatized. It’s like the word “god”. If you ask ten people about the meaning, you get ten different answers. I try to liberate the thought from the word, the feeling from the word. As an example: In Iceland, there is no McDonald’s. I have five children. Every time I take my children to a foreign country, they ask me: “Dad, is there a Mc Donald’s?”  I reply: “Yes. But you know, little fellas. It’s the most terrible place in the known universe. It’s everything that is horrible in this world.”

And you refuse to take them to this aweful place?

It´s the first thing we do when we leave Iceland. Fucking McDonald´s. And right after this we go to the next horrible place: Fucking Toys´r´us. But that´s the point about anarchism. I really don´t want to spend my money there or even be there, because their policy is in opposite to mine. But I would be an aweful dad, if I refuse to take them there.  Anarchism is liberal democracy. The five voices of my kids against mine. They are in majority. Anarchism is a form of democracy that respects the individual rights of everyone and the individual liberty of everyone. Anarchism is about getting the full flavour of life doing everything you want as long as you don’t harm other people with your behavior. Education is to tell my kids that we don´t go there every month and to explain them why this food isn´t healthy for them.

What is the main concept behind anarchism?

For me anarchism is about creativity and the search for a free will. Both are in a way childish, naive or utopian. And that’s something that we really need to understand in our society. Basic rights. Some people are very very upset, because the man next door may be gay. Get over it. It doesn’t have anything to do with you. As long as he’s not trying to have sex with you.

In difference to other anarchist’s concepts, like Kalle Lassn’s “Occupy Wall Street” you´re trying to change the system from the inside. Is this perhaps a new way of modern anarchism?

Anarchism has many faces. And one of the most effective faces is probably Christian anarchism. Christian anarchism, and the godfather of Christian anarchism is Leo Tolstoi and his theory “The kingdom of god is within you”. His ideas inspired the catholic workers movement in the US which has been beneficial to the labour movement in the US and in a whole other way it inspired Mahatma Gandhi. It became the philosophy of his movement and the revolution in India. The Christian terms change to Hinduian terms, but with the same elements and ideas. Anarchism is still strong in our societies, but it has other labels.

The idea of anarchism is too precious and too valuable to be kept away and now it has evolved somehow. What we see as anarchists, are very intelligent, creative people, who critizise everything in society through the security of their own home; from their laptops usually. I’m not sure if I totally agree if that’s anarchism. I think anarchists in general should be more concerned and more pro-active. They should maybe start and get more evolved.

Do you consider to become the president of Iceland?

Well I feel very honored that people really consider me as somebody that they would see as a president. It’s a little too early to say or even to decide if I could think of doing it, because I’m still recovering from the other job. I never was as tired as after the four years in the city council. To resign was like ending a relationship. We were kind of going in different directions. So it’s bittersweet. It’s like a break-up. And I would say, it’s too early for me to go into another relationship, because I need time with myself.

How will it go on with politics in Reykjavic after you decided to resign as a mayor?

Some people say: Things will never be the same. You changed the landscape of politics. On the other hand there are people who say that nothing has changed, because Jon Gnarr is a clown. We did everything different. Nobody knows how that will effect the future. If it will inspire people to do something completely different. I mean Björk completely changed the Icelandic music. Music will never be the same after Björk. So maybe “The Best Party” is the Björk of politics.

Why did you decide not to go for a second term as a mayor?

Well it was never my intention to go for a second term. And I was always very honest from the beginning. I had a countdown: How many days do I have left? It was something that I considered a concept with a beginning and an end. It was over for me. I did not really understand, it’s like writing a book. You know, you have this end. And people say: “Oh I liked this book so very much, why isn’t it longer?” Because it’s the fucking end of the book. Yeah, and my time in the mayor’s office was a good read, though.

Do you feel relieved now?

Yeah, I feel relieved now. But it’s mixed. It’s also sad. Because I got to know so many very good people and worked so close with people. For me it’s like any other project, that I’ve been working on like if I’m playing some character or something. When it’s over it’s a relief, but also a sadness. Sometimes you wish that you could go back and be in that production, but it’s over. So you have to find a new production, new project.

You didn’t expect to get elected. How was this transforming process from a comedian who can shit on everyone´s head to the most important person in politics right after the president?

It was a shock, really. For me it was like being put in a rocket and shot to Mars. Like walking around in a jungle. I had no idea where I was. But I compared with the situation of becoming a father for the first time. From being this guy, hanging around, having fun to the guy who suddenly had a kid. Of course that changes everything. “Oh, I think I go out tonight. Oh, no, I have a kid. Oh, I have to go to the store and buy formula, and feed the kid.” I know, I will never be the perfect father. There will never be a book with a photo of me on the cover that’s named “The perfect father”. But I really tried my best. I really tried to be honest and I tried to do an as good job as I possible can. I think the same applies when I was a mayor. I tried to do a good job, I tried to be polite, affordable, honest, I didn’t drive around in circles. I was an anarchist at that time, it didn’t change. You are leading in a way. And you’re encouraging, inspiring all the people. And that’s what I tried to do.

In those four years as a mayor, how was the communication with your colleagues? With people you didn´t choose as colleagues?

In the beginning we cooperated with the social democrats in the city council. And it went well. They were a bit afraid, but it went well. The leader of the democrats was told by everybody: “Don’t go into a cooperation with the best party. Because if it works out well, they will get all the credit.  And you won’t get any. If it won’t work, they will all blame you. So whatever you do, it’s a lose lose for you, and a win win for Jon Gnarr.” But they decided to do it anyhow. And I’m happy to say that it went very well and we have never had any serious disagreement, we have been able to discuss any problem that came up.

But there must have been people in the City council how literally hated you…

The opposition has been quite frank with their opinion on me. In their opinion, I’m just a populist clown and nothing more. They have been very brutal and disrespectful. And yeah, quite rude. We decided to deal with it in non-violent methods. That’s to say to return disrespect with respect and rudeness with politeness. And of course some people, especially from the right wing party, the Independent party, who were in the majority before, some of them were just shocked, upset and angry. And didn’t really understand what had happened and maybe were very much afraid of me and that explains why they were rude. But I say, you know, from this time as mayor I have not gained any enemies. I don’t consider anyone there an enemy of mine.

They will look back differently.

JG: If one of them attacked me really hard and told me that I am the worst major, selfish, arrogant and a shame for the whole country. I replied, that that is true. That I love myself and that I have to friendly oppose his position, that in my opinion, I´m a very good major and that I love him or her, too. Not in a sexual way. But that I´m proud of being in the same race like them.

We don’t have any philosophers, writers or scientist in our parliaments. Did we lose the culture of politics or was it never there?

Well we used to have it. There were more writers and poets and philosophers in politics. But for some reasons they all disappeared from politics and we now have the time of professional politicians. The professional politician is somebody who has never worked anything. Who has only been at school – usually a very good one – and is preferably a lawyer. They have found a way to be ahead in the game, to win the game, so from now on they are ruling. It’s complicated. That’s one of the reasons why I did what I did, I tried to involve creative people into politics. But then on the other hand you could say: What about the scientists? We used to have scientists in politics. Where are they gone now? Now scientists and politics are opposites. We have scientists say: “Well, we should worry about climate change.” And on the other hand we have politicians say: “Oh no, you are just lobbying, you are always lobbying for something.”

Could you imagine that the ideas of “The Best Party” take place in more parliaments in Europe or even in Brussels?

Yes, absolutely. Initiatives like “The Best party” are possible everywhere. All it needs are certain circumstances and bravery. In Slovenia, they have “The Strong Party” cleary inspired by us. I hear from people all over the world who are starting their version of the best party, which is usually a group of artists and creative people who want to bring about the change in their community, city or country. It’s an initiative that nobody had foreseen. And “The Best Party” is a way for the creative and the ordinary people to get more political.

But most of us hate politics…

Such a big part of democracy has been lost, especially through big business. Big business is controlling democracy and manipulating it. It is most visible in the US how big business is playing with politics. According to a 2013 study of a renowned American university, US can no longer be called a democracy. But democracy is for the people, by the people. “The Best Party” is the first little mammal in the world of the dinosaurs. The dinosaurs think: “We rule the world – you are little, meaningless and you cannot do anything.” But the time of the dinosaurs is over, the mammals are more cuddly and more nice and more intelligent.

Was the actual job more a show for you, an art concept, or was it politics?

I was playing, I don’t know which is more real, the mayor or me. Sometimes I feel the character is more real than me. So, I was very political, but also in another way, it was a character. It was in the role of the mayor. I don’t say that I’m not a politician, because I look down on politicians or disrespect politicians. It’s not because of that. It’s just because I’m simply not a politician. I don’t have what it takes to be a politician. I’m a creative person. I’m an artist. And that’s my true calling. Some people have a true calling for politics. They really enjoy politics. And that doesn’t mean that they are bad or cheap. I was just an outsider experiencing the world of politics from the inside. For me it was like playing a woman. And I like to play women. But I’m not a woman. And my advice to my friends and my children and people in general: Do whatever makes you happy. Do it. Whatever you do. Focus on the things that make you happy, because that’s what counts.

In retrospective: What would you claim as your biggest achievement?

If you consider the financial situation of Reykjavik in 2010 and compare it to now, it’s completely different. Reykjavik was in very heavy debt and especially the Reykjavik energy company. What the banks were to Iceland, the Reykjavik Energy was for Reykjavik with debts. And we put together an emergency rescue plan for Reykjavik Energy. And it was very ambitious and there were many people who didn’t believe in it and it was going according to plan. The plan goes until 2017. We managed to close the first budget in 2010 and present the budget. Some people will argue that “The Best Party” saved Reykjavik from bankruptcy. Reykjavik could have easily gone the same way as Detroit. We did something that hasn’t been done, that has been politically impossible to do. We finished a masterplan for the city and that’s just for anybody who knows city planning it’s a little book “the masterplan” which is a masterpiece of a book.

And your biggest failure?

When I look back at the time, there is nothing that I could find, that I’m disappointed with. I mean, there is no polar bear in the zoo, I was hoping to get a polar bear in the zoo. Preferably a female bear and name her Björk. In Björk’s honor. But there was nothing about the job. I think I did a very good job.

 

“WELL, MY DREAM WAS TO MAKE REYKJAVIK A MILITARY FREE CITY. THE FIRST MILITARY FREE CITY IN THE WORLD.”

 

Usually they had to dig into the dirt to succeed . Do you feel compromised or dirty as well after the years as a mayor?

No. Well, my dream was to make Reykjavik a military free city. The first military free city in the world. There is no army in Iceland, but we are a Nato country. I wanted to, and that’s maybe something I am disappointed we didn’t reach – I wanted all the military ships in the harbour, to go somewhere else. I made an agreement with the government, with the minister of interior, that there would never ever be any military traffic on the Reykjavik airport. And we signed this agreement, but they don’t keep it. They still have a military aircraft in the airport. They are very proud with that. That’s something I failed with. But I tried my best, maybe I was too polite, maybe I wasn’t aggressive enough. But I don’t feel like I have jeopardized my integrity or I have ever said something untruthful. I have nothing to hide or be ashamed of. I don’t regret anything. So now I don’t feel dirty or ashamed for anything. I feel I am more matured. I understand things better than I did before. It was very difficult task and it was difficult job, but I come out of it with hope, not with hope lost.

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What kind of advantage does dilletantism have to the professionalism of politicians?

An unforeseen opportunity for change. And it’s very surprising. In the Reykjavik Energy company, representatives from all political parties were on the board of the company. So they take all the decisions. In times of who shall we blame, they will blame each other. “This decision was the worst decision and it was made when the social democrats were in the majority”. And then the social democrats will come up and will say “No, it started in ’86, when you were in majority” and so on… When had a unique opportunity to enter the field. Because we didn’t have anything to do with the situation. And as we did it without blaming anyone for the situation, that gave us the permission. In the tradition of the professional politics, there is something that is of political risk. You have to do something that´s unpopular and people will hate you and don´t vote you again. That´s a hard fact for politicians, because they want to be in politics.

I didn’t worry about it. I wanted to explain to the people. As a part of the emergency plan of the Reykjavik Energy we raised the service fees for hot water and electricity by 20% and that’s something that people were not happy about. But I told them taht we had to do it. And I think it was an advantage to not be a regular political party. I think traditional politicians would have tried to push on this and hide that somehow. And brush it under the mat.

Why do you think satirical parties have such success in these times?

It´s time for a political change. And comedy can be a bridge. We are going through a shift in the democratic world. The general interest in politics, especially in voting, has been going down. In the last elections in Reykjavik, only 20 % of the youngest group voted. Comedy is a way of getting them back on board. Politics has this image of being very serious and very boring. And that’s not the case. Politics is about how we organize our societies and our lives. it’s not boring at all. Politics is stigmatized. Comedy is an effective way to get messages to people. When you have political debates, most people say, that the discussions are very predictable, you know beforehand what they´re gonna say. And nobody is interested in it no more. But if you have a comedian in, there it may be unpredictable. It may be something that you show interest in. Comedy is an intelligence. It’s a part of what makes us human. Humor plays a key role. Humor is an essential intelligence of the future. Humor let us keep up the dialogue in politics and in our families. Humor even helps us to take our kids to Mc Donald´s.

Additional information:

Jon Gnarr published his first book Gnarr! How I Became the Mayor of a Large City in Iceland and Changed the World in 2014 and the first part of his autobiography “Indianer und Pirat: Kindheit eines begabten Störenfrieds in 2015.

Text: Bastian Kellhofer, Manuel Gruber

Special Thanks to: Aktionsradius Vienna.

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