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No man is an island

Guests and guides during the performance 'Island'.
Guests and guides during the performance 'Island' in August 2020. Photo: Steinunn Knúts-Önnudóttir.

What is worth sustaining? Steinunn Knúts-Önnudóttir's research is all about a theatre audience facing themselves with that profound question.
"In my work I offer a frame or a situation for my guests to meet their own stories and their values through an encounter with a host in their own surroundings".

For 20 years, the Icelander Steinunn Knúts-Önnudóttir has tried to create a meaningful dialogue with the audience so that they become part of the artwork. She has developed the theatre's inherent power to resist destructive and materialistic values ​​in society by involving the audience in a questioning of what is important in life. She is currently a PhD student at Malmö Theatre Academy and her art and research are linked to Lund University Agenda 2030 Graduate School. Within the project she will investigate what sustainable and minimal methods can be used in transformative encounters with the audience.

Participation in focus

On the coast of northeast Iceland the participatory performance “Island” took place on a small island called Hrísey. The place is one of the settlements in Iceland that is defined as vulnerable as people move away. The plan is to make people stay by invest in education, culture, work and innovation that also can lead to new inhabitants. The performance is a part of the artistic research How Little is Enough? within the Agenda 2030 Graduate School of Lund University.

The performance started already when the audience boarded the boat that would take them out to the island. At the harbour at Hrisey the local children met up and guided the participants to different stations, places that are important to the inhabitants and also into the islander's private homes. While walking together with the children the visitors were invited to reflect on what it means to belong to a family, to a place, to a land and the art piece happened in the conversation throughout the way. The work was created in collaboration with the inhabitants of Hrísey and the whole island was a site of the performance.

When you get so close to somebody else's life, it bounces back on you.

Steinunn Knúts-Önnudóttir´s work is about the things that are worth sustaining and to reach to an audience with a question on what constitutes quality of life. Why should we want to sustain human life on this planet?  

"The performances I make are site specific and participatory and invite the audience to an embodied experience, you are not watching something unfolding on a stage, you are immersed in the piece.  It has the potential to affect the guests on a profound level. It is about connection. Connection to nature, to places, to people, to things - we as humans need connection", says Steinunn Knúts-Önnudóttir.

Trust in a stranger

Another work, within the research, No Show, that was performed in five private homes also took a very including grip on the audience.

Five private homes opened their doors to strangers and allowed them to get close to the everyday life that went on in the houses. The houses were empty and the host had written letters to the visitor sharing stories and describing daily routines and rituals that took place in the homes. The visitor was invited to contemplate things, notice things and do things.

"When you get so close to somebody else's life, it bounces back on you. Through the strangers you start to test your own values and your own rituals", explains Steinunn Knúts-Önnudóttir.

In the interviews with the visitors that she did after the performance she found that trust was a key element in the experience. The guests felt very humble being trusted to come in to a total stranger's home and that created a kind of affection. An affection that helped the audience open up to the artwork and let the experience influenced themselves.

Changes creates new ways

With a background as a performer, theatre director, dramaturg and author she has under a long time being very interested in how minimal the framework for the encounter can be. Even in the beginning of her career when she was a theatre director in Iceland she already started working with sustainable practices in the arts. She ran a moneyless theatre – the mission was to engage people in a dialogue rather than sell a commodity on a market. The theatre didn't use any money and the entrance was free. The theatre had a support from established cultural institutions in and got funding for the artists salaries from the state.
Steinunn Knúts-Önnudóttir wants to find a meaningful way to respond to the global crisis and is exploring the arts potential to trigger transformation with people.

"These transformations can be quite profound, but it can also be surprisingly small changes that can make an impact on your everyday life. The pact is – if you need to change something you need to do it."

The method is me

Steinunn Knúts-Önnudóttir also has a background as a theologist and a life coach.

"I think that when you are an artist you bring whatever you have done with you. Yes, I have been a leader, I have been a life coach, I studied theology but I'm also a mother of three and I'm quite concern about my children's future. I use all these tools that I have acquired into my work. My artistic method is me."

In her work, she combines both the artistic work with research.

"Artistic research is different to other research fields. If I was a theatre scientist I would have find myself in one place, in the role of the researcher. I'm always juggling between being the artist and the researcher. I like the jump between the two worlds. It is a fruitful combination."
The next piece that Steinunn Knúts-Önnudóttir is working on, Strings, is a performance work in two parts. The first part is a One-on-One performative encounter with the researchers in Agenda 2030 Graduate School, at their workplace at the University's and departments. The encounter will evolve around what motivates the researchers to do what they do. They will later be the hosts in the second part of the performance, performed in Kappelsalen/Odeum, Lund and Inter Arts Centre in Malmö.

"Hopefully it will be a very positive and open encounter between the researcher and the guests where you do not have to be anyone but yourself, there is no actual acting involved."

Facts about Agenda 2030

The 2030 Agenda is the United Nations' framework for sustainable development signed by the world's nations to end extreme poverty, reduce inequalities, solve the climate crisis, promote peace and equity, and much more. Lund University aspires to be a part of the sustainable solution and has therefore initiated a graduate school focusing on societal challenges and the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development.

About the Agenda 2030 Graduate School on  

Related links

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