Kiruna Pack up the city – we’re moving!

Kiruna in a collage: In search of memories
Kiruna in a collage: In search of memories | Copyright: Liselotte Wajstedt

An entire town in the north of Sweden has to relocate. Kiruna, established for mining, now has to make way for the mine. Liselotte Wajstedt is taking part in Kirunatopia, a project by the Goethe-Institut. She observed what the removal means as a native and expressed it as an artist. By Anne Kilgus

Sweden’s northernmost city has had a rather brief history. Kiruna was established in the early 20th century as a home for the workers of the nearby iron ore mine. Even today, almost every one of the approximately 20,000 inhabitants has direct or indirect ties with the LKAB mining company. The town cannot survive without iron ore extraction, while mining would be impossible without the people of Kiruna. So it’s hardly surprising that work in the mine shapes the identities of the inhabitants of Kiruna. Mining is part of everyday life. No one is worried about a nighttime explosion, but if a quake shakes the town in the daytime, they fear for family members working underground in the mine.

Just as belonging to a particular occupation shapes our identity, the place where we feel safe and at home shapes who we are. The streets we played in as children, our family home, our first own flat – precious memories are closely linked with all of these places. What happens when they disappear? This is what the scenario will soon be in Kiruna. Since iron ore mining is always moving, the town is being forced to move as well. A few kilometres away, the new city centre has already been planned; the first residential areas have been evacuated and await demolition. In a few years, the new Kiruna will come to life.

Liselotte Wajstedt is experiencing all of this first hand. The artist-filmmaker was born in Kiruna in the early 1970s. At the age of 17, she moved south, but she always kept close ties with her hometown. News of the upcoming move affected her all the more. Her place of refuge, the safe home to which she could always return, was in danger. To prevent losing a large part of her identity along with the city, she returned and began searching for places she remembered, spoke with family and friends and thus attempted to hold onto what would otherwise disappear into the huge abyss. She created her film Kiruna – Rymdvägen/Kiruna – Space Road.

In the film, Wajstedt tells the story of the town from its founding to the major strike of 1969-70 and until today. She speaks with her family about life in Kiruna and working in the mine, meets former classmates to talk about old times and opens her memories and her diary to the viewer in order to interweave her personal history with that of the town. “A town is not a town without the things and events in the midst of it,” the viewer reads at the beginning of the film.

Artist Liselotte Wajstedt in Kiruna Artist Liselotte Wajstedt in Kiruna | Photo: Lisa Kejonen Certainly, the perceived uprooting makes the city’s move seem especially threatening. But it is not entirely unproblematic even above and beyond this. They rents in the new buildings will be higher than in the old flats and the already poor medical care will be even more limited. The inhabitants of the Sami villages in the area around Kiruna also fear for their livelihoods. Those affected by the removal have no choice but to accept the plans as there are hardly any possibilities for co-determination. To examine and accompany the process from an artistic viewpoint, the Goethe-Institut Sweden invited artists from different countries to Kiruna back in 2011 as part of the project Kirunatopia. The artists got a first-hand look at life in the city and captured their impressions in works for an exhibition held in Umeå in 2012. Liselotte Wajstedt’s film was also part of the exhibition. She considers it her mission to give the people some of what she found during the search for memories. Yet she is far from finished with Kiruna. Wajstedt is already working on a second film in which she speaks with other people who are affected by the move as she is and with those who are actively shaping the process. What will the new Kiruna look like?

In theory, tearing down a city and rebuilding it almost identically a few kilometres away may seem simple. Liselotte Wajstedt thinks it is impossible. “Kiruna is named for the two mountains at the feet of which the city is located and that look a little snow grouses conversing. In Sami, these birds are called giron, and the name Kiruna is derived from that. The new city will be situated in a valley. That can’t be Kiruna for me.” Yet she is not entirely sceptical about the removal. “It’s also exciting,” she says. She plans to purchase a flat in the new town.