A portable San Francisco hits Iceland Airwaves
A couple of months ago, we got an email from something called “The SF Embassy,” saying they were going to bring over a rather large group of people from San Francisco, California, to lounge around Reykjavík during the Iceland Airwaves festival. They wanted to know if we could get them in touch with locals, and maybe help them organize something fun.
At first, this exchange was kind of confusing; for a minute there we had a hard time remembering if individual cities ran their own embassies or whether that was just a nation state thing. And then we got to thinking that maybe all the rich money start-up people in San Francisco (Tom from MySpace and his friends) had seceded from the US and were setting up embassies at cool music festivals around the world, as a sort of weird 21st century diplomacy.
But then we got it. The SF Embassy is actually a group of fun-loving San Franciscans that like to travel and bring the spirit of their fair city, one that’s arguably bubbling with creativity and good ideas (and money), around the world. And they were coming to Reykjavík to do that. This is great news! To celebrate, and to let you all know about it, so you can meet them during Airwaves, we got in touch with SF Embassy co-founder Gabe Benveniste and emailed him a few questions about the whole thing.
Gabe, who are you? What’s your background?
I was born and raised in Berkeley and I’ve lived in the San Francisco Bay Area my whole life. I dropped out of high school, started working at Pixar when I was 19 and founded a company called SonicLiving a few years ago. I sold it last year and we’ve been bouncing around music tech ever since then. My parents were artists who struggled to work out the business side of things, which has influenced me for making the world the kind of place where they could be successful.
What is this SF Embassy? Who’s in it? What does it do? Is it an official-type thing, like, are there members and membership fees and a clubhouse and stuff?
The SF Embassy is made up of people that like saying yes, who like making things and enjoy a certain kind of chaos in their lives. Not everyone is from San Francisco, but a lot of the folks are. It was founded by me and a couple friends, and it just got larger and larger.
We’re not associated with a government of any kind, but I really love the question of “what are you doing and how can I help?” It’s an idea that I think underpins the culture and ideas of San Francisco in a major way.
Who’s in this ‘embassy’? Anyone in particular we might know of? Or we might be on the cusp of knowing of?
Over the years we’ve probably had around 250 ambassadors. It started with just a circle of friends and grew from there.
There’s a chance you know some of the folks that are coming and a better chance that you’ve poked at, listened to, touched, read, seen, or played with things that the they’ve worked on. Lots of folks from the SF tech and music scenes, local and national politics, designers, coders, business folks, artists, spiritual healers, writers, people from the NGO space, chefs, founders, journalists.
Where have you represented in years past?
We did four years at SXSW in Austin, Texas. It was a beautiful shit show. Live music was seen, bacon was eaten, people fell in love, others got punched in the face, and I think someone’s company got funded.
INTO THE COLD
What does the SF Embassy do when it sets up shop in a strange city? Do you have a set agenda—are you on a mission you must accomplish—or is it more of a party down/have fun kind of thing?
I guess the mission is always to take a great group of folks and put them in a positive situation where they’ll be a little bit changed on the other side of things and a feel a little more at home.
For Austin, that meant creating an oasis in the middle the dense, drunken, cattle crush of humanity that is SXSW.
For Iceland, I think that means pushing them out into the cold and the music and the broken glass and the booze and the art and ambition. Hopefully we’ll have given them the right set of tools so they can get forge that feeling of being totally awe-struck while also feeling like they’re home.
I guess you could say the agenda is community building through hedonism.
And for the record, San Francisco happens to be a really fucking strange city.
Why are you coming to Reykjavík? Where’d the idea come from?
I came to Airwaves last year and knew we needed to the SF Embassy here. Amidst the gale force winds that were ripping roofs off of buildings I met a bunch of folks that changed my life, this place is beautiful and the music was fucking amazing. I’ve been to hundreds of shows and dozens of festivals and it was easily one the best live music experiences I’ve ever had.
The folks that I met were creative, ambitious, adventurous, and thought me a lot about myself and I realized that there’s a really amazing exchange that could happen here.
Iceland feels oddly familiar and accessible while also feeling so strikingly different. I think SF and Reykjavík share a kind of humble cosmopolitan vibe with a very integrated creative community. The challenges facing the cultures of San Francisco and Reykjavík are complimentary.
A big part of start-up culture in San Francisco is building things at a large scale. Things of that size can be really interesting but I think it can be hard for people to do that while still being true to themselves and their expression. I mean shit, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google, Pixar… it’s all right there. Burning Man was this beautiful and violent reaction to all of that.
The core of a lot of those things is emotional expression, whether it’s storytelling through film or creating a medium for people to communicate and be validated by each other.
I think there’s a lot of humanity, emotion and heart in the creative output the people I’ve met from Iceland. I think there’s something really important here that people should be exposed to, that they should embody. I think part of that goes back to this idea of building, creating for an audience that doesn’t feel totally abstract.
On the flip side, lots of the Icelanders I talked to had something really important to say or do but at the same time felt like it would be hard for their voice to be heard above the noise of everything that’s happening in the US and Europe.
Last time I was here I went to a sweat lodge and the shaman had said something which I had forgotten about until just right now which was “You can only give as much as you can take.”
HOT DATE AHOY!
Is this the first time the SF Embassy ventures out of the US?
Even though the Governor of Texas recently talked about secession, this is the first time we’ve made it out of the US.
Really? That’s a great honour! We’ll try our best to accommodate you guys for sure.
Do you know what you’re getting into?
No, really, we promise, on behalf of all Icelanders. Yeah, we’re fit to make such a promise. Now, what can we do to make your stay more pleasant, your trip more enjoyable?
Make sure the weather is good, okay?
Sure. Done. Anything else? Are you looking to set up meetings with folks or something?
Funny you should mention it.
Folks staying with the SF Embassy want to meet like-minded folks in Iceland. They want to talk startups, design, music, art, spirituality, government, whatever. A friend of mine from high school helped run focus group testing on the Obama campaign. Another friend who’s coming produced Apple’s digital ads for a big ad agency down in LA. Another friend is a spiritual healer and yoga instructor. Another one runs a indie record label that specializes in Nordic artists. Lots of designers and engineers.
Most of us will be in town from October 27th through November 5th. Hit up www.sfembassy.com, find some interesting folks, shoot them a message and go hang out!
THESE PEOPLE WANT TO TALK WITH YOU. YES THIS IS TOTALLY WEIRD BUT MAYBE IT WILL BE KIND OF AMAZING.
Anything to add?
The first time I came here I ended up locked in the basement at B5 for a couple of nights, which was a totally fucked experience. We ended up in this situation where someone threatened to kill a friend of mine. Luckily I was able to defuse the tension by starting a sing-a-long to “Greatest Love of All” by Whitney Houston. (Fun fact: Our fabulous intern, Kristján, shares the same birthday as Whitney Houston.)
Thanks for giving me a second chance.