The Icelandic Foreign Legion

The Icelandic Foreign Legion started as a conceptual project. First thoughts included ideas about what unites a non-uniform group of foreigners in a country like Iceland? What is the common ground? What could be their narration? In a larger sense also: How do they affect society? How does history change through immigration? Is there a History of immigration?
Iceland’s history of modern Immigration (The first settlements were technically also immigration to the country) goes hand in hand with the accession to NATO. Without ever having its army Iceland offered the U.S.A. to build an Airport to secure the air route between America and Russia during the cold war. Iceland benefited from the presence of the army and by being leveled up to one of the big players in this world. Later, after the cold war, the army left, and the empty airport was converted to an international airport, the gate for immigration nowadays. Instead of warplanes, airplanes full of tourists and immigrants would arrive. Iceland got a new army, with soldiers not born where they serve, unarmed, willing to protect it from being isolated from the world, a true foreign legion.

This Legion connects across different platforms, but only one brings them all together: A Facebook group called “Away from home, living in Iceland.” An endless archive of knowledge on how to find this specific ingredient, repair this machine, buy this piece, apply for benefits, and political opinions, discussions about important topics, daily politics, or social changes—the perfect place to investigate the initial questions that set this project off.
The process of this project was mainly characterized by questioning most of the steps taken on the way. Bringing together an undefined group of people, from different cultural backgrounds, with various political opinions, approaches of immigration, social statuses, ideas, and experiences, is a difficult task. The only way to solve this permanent tension is to get inspiration from the actual history of immigration, reuse gestures, visual identity, and things already there, which naturally lead to this project’s vision: A visual history and culture of immigration in Iceland.

If you had entered the installation, you would have entered a small military camp, mainly kept in grey, held together with white fishers yarn. The architecture constructed of metal bars and mesh fences seems cold and excluding, like the military area at the airport, but is open to entering and discovering this particular army. A bench and a seat would invite you to sit down to watch a video essay featuring a look at the former military base, the research, and the code of honor of this Legion. A folder attached to the chair with a metal chain lets you discover these soldiers’ common ground: The need to find things they need or remember from the place they grew up. Categorized and anonymously archived, you can flip through several requests from the last few days. A tablet also chained to a bench lets you discover the online presence of the Legion, a collection of all sections covered in the project. Also, a list of all airplanes that will arrive and depart that day is constantly updated. Leaning on a big fence, you would see a stick with engravings of a bird. You would learn that this comes from a painting of the first settlers where they smashed a pillar into the ground to claim this island. This gesture could be perfectly repeated nowadays by foreigners to claim the island themselves—repetition of history. You would meet a full-dressed soldier walking around the camp. He would answer all the questions you have and once in a while hiss a long blue flag in a ritual to welcome new immigrants or wish them farewell at precisely the times airplanes enter or leave Iceland. He would play a hymn and salute. On the flag, you would read flag laws, defining anti-nationalism by listing how to treat the banner of this army. The uniform would carry several patches, some representing the different departments of the Legion (assembled of the ones used by the U.S. army in Iceland), and some awards for extraordinary behavior in case of immigration, for locals as for immigrants. 
The only empty place you would find is a metallic tent.

More details about the separate pieces:

The Mesh

The mesh derives from providing a structure that creates rooms and separations but keeps transparency. The atmosphere lives from the non-existence of huge shadows. The designed vague shadow patterns add to the fictional layer and call a poetic vibe.

The grey and the thread
The grey colour of the mesh refers directly to the colour of the Icelandic Coastguard ships. It mirrors the physical appearance and associates the furniture with the military dispute. Since the cultural meaning of the grey comes from a local (but also international) known phenomenon, there is no need to question a choice of colour that anyways calls different associations for people of different cultures. The grey doesn’t apply meaning; it transfers the intention from the existing object. The white thread originates from two sources: One, an efficient approach of hiding sharp edges and making the furniture easier to carry. Two, the thread reminds of military camps and nautical environments and adds some calming element to the cold grey as a softer material.

The Shapes
The use of these materials and colours mingles with the shape of the installation. Objects are inspired by military camps, scout camps. Originally the scenography was planned as one by one resemblance of a small gate building on the old Keflavík Airbase to emphasize the connection to the area and history of the place. I had to drop the idea as soon as the decision was made that we were not exhibiting in the big hall in the museum and that we must work with a smaller and denser space. It might also have been a too ambitious approach, even though I think it would have added way more to the local military context than the scenario now. I am pretty happy with the camp scenario, even though I think it is too vague in what it communicates and too literal in what it resembles.

Nevertheless, paired with the material and the graphical language, it creates an atmosphere appropriate to the theme. I put the five pieces of furniture in two categories: Variable seating options and stage design. The bench and the chair work as possibilities to sit down together, talk, change positions, argue, discuss, debate. They are not directly related to the camp theme. The fence, tent, and flagpole build the frame and the markings that make it a military camp. It is exciting in this context that besides the fence, both others are weirdly modified and far away from their model because of their shape and unusual material. The tent, for example, misses its purpose of offering shelter from rain, wind, or sun. The wire mesh leaves light into the usually shut space.

The Flag
The flagpole is the only piece of furniture that is directly made for a concrete function: Fly a 3-meter, marine blue flag that carries the legions “Flag Laws.” The flag is parted into three parts (like the laws), silkscreen printed and sewed together. The flag is even lying on the floor when it is entirely raised. The flagpole is bent and not straight. A relatively easy mechanism makes it possible to raise and lower the flag.
The flag laws originate from a discussion in a Facebook group for Foreigners in Iceland. I made the post about continuing the tradition of open calls for proposals for the Icelandic flag. Many group members were offended by the open call, an entirely new form. Foreigners identify so much with the Icelandic flag that they see it as offensive if someone touches the topic. Further observations disclosed to me that nationalism and the use of national flags are very much related—flags as simple symbols that supposedly embody values and ideologies. For example, I observed the Flag of the U.S.A.: 6th of January 2021, a storm of the capitol by alt-white Trump fanatics. The U.S. flag appears on screen in entirely different contexts. While Joe Biden calls Trump out and urges him to stop the riots in front of the U.S. flag, Trump holds a speech in front of the same flag and spreads more hate and rage. Some of the invaders carry the flag while wandering through the capitol building, breaking laws and attacking pillars of democracy next to the same flag installed all over the building. At this moment, the flag says nothing anymore. The Foreign Legions flag laws derive from the laws for the Icelandic flag and shoot against precisely the idea of idealizing common national symbols and flags. The laws draw a specific alternative picture of a world where flags are thrown on the floor, burned, or destroyed without offending—personally, one of my favourite pieces in the installation. I am pleased about how it turned out visually, texture-wise and conceptual. My concern is that it is too apparent to print flag laws on a flag dissolved as soon as it hung on the pole. The combination of the fabric, the steel pole, and the raising mechanism add a layer of seriousness to the flag. It resembles a very official approach and perfectly portrays the primary message. Luckily, it also removes the possibility of misinterpreting the project as nationalistic or right-oriented. The flag will always be raised in a small performance when an airplane arrives or departs at the international airport.

The Folder
What are the things Foreigners must handle when living in Iceland? What are their needs, and what do they do when they don’t know who to ask? “Away from home – living in Iceland” is a semi-private Facebook group with 20.000 Members. The posts and comments documented in this folder are genuine and show us the answers to these questions. The community answers any kind of question from where to get a specific ingredient needed for a meal that one user knows from their country of birth to what the best health center might be. Through observing the daily communication on this platform, we can understand what this community is about: Seeking help from people that went through the same process of immigration, that are missing home sometimes, that try to reach out, or just need help with paper works and finding their way in this new culture. The gesture of archiving this evidence of foreign life in Iceland emphasizes the only common things we share: The minimal sum of experience related to being in a country that is foreign for one. It proves that “The Foreigners” don’t exist as a group. Reading the posts and comments on paper also creates a humoristic atmosphere that reminds me of theatre plays. A fictional layer is very welcome in this scenario. As a permanent growing part of the installation, other posts are added throughout the exhibition to create a notion of the now of the community. The folder is attached to the bench.

The Stick
Mirroring the first settlers and their tradition of dropping wooden Pillars into the ocean to let the gods guide them to a spot at the land where they would settle, the stick refers to this tradition. Still, it translates it to a welcoming ritual for Foreigners. Arriving Foreigners must make their pillar and place it at a spot in Iceland to tell Iceland that they are here. A very symbolic act that would create a new self-consciousness of Foreigners. It also allows interaction with nature, basically meaning the environment that one is here. The material varies from Foreigner to Foreigner but can only come from what one gets here in Iceland.

The Uniform
The uniform is inspired by the French Foreign Legion and fulfills the purpose of creating a valid character that I can take over. The cloth is modified and then sewed together. The pieces come from red cross stores and thereby from a place that Foreigners and Icelanders frequently use. If there had been more time, I could have put more thought and time into the outfit to make it more meaningful similar to the other objects. For now, it only works as a reference to festive military companies. It helps to use the uniform to get into the project role, but it also didn’t work as well as I imagined. I enjoyed it more to talk to people when I was not wearing it. It is also very daunting to most visitors since they don’t enjoy the interaction in this way. The uniform also functions as a carrier for the Batches. The uniform is hanging on the fence.

The Batches
There are two kinds of batches.
One represents the different departments of the Legion. The visual language comes from the historical batches that the U.S. Army used for their departments, teams, and at Keflavík Airbase. The batches still contain their original meaning by mirroring the existing graphics but are twisted by rearranging. It is essential that if one wants to create fiction, they should work with what already exists and flip it if possible. The bathes are produced with an automatic embroidery machine: Clean, exact, and graphically straightforward.
The other evolved from collaborating with a friend who does beautiful embroideries by hand. Together, we developed awards that we would give to Foreigners and Icelanders to award behaviour that contributes to an inclusive, diverse environment. It was essential for us not to emphasize any behavior that only motivates foreigners to apply to the local culture. In our scenario, locals are as involved in the process as Foreigners. Both sides need to try to create a more welcoming society. How they would look in the end was entirely up to her, I wanted to give her space so she could benefit by doing her work but also to outsource this work because of the large number of other objects that I had to produce. Both versions are attached to the uniform.

The Video Essay
The video essay was already planned very early on. On the one hand, I wanted to work with video and on the other because the installation would need something that creates a context to the research and history of immigration in Iceland that I built throughout the semester. I have a great interest in the format of poetic video essays. I believe that they can create the perfect mixture of valid information and poetic narration. Research material and graphical layers can add context and guide the audience towards a direction. Therefore, I enjoy it the most when explanations are mainly left out.
The video essay is displayed on a big screen that leans on the wall. I had to decide because my original idea of playing it on a small iPad had to be abandoned because of technical difficulties. Now, I am very grateful. The video essay gets a lot of visual space and becomes the focus.
The essay also contains the Code of Honour of the Legion. A discourse about how the individual Foreigner should treat others with empathy and respect. The opposite to what other codes of honour communicate. The rules benefit a lot from being on a big screen, so they take over the place when they appear on the screen and build the backbone of this project. I think they work very well between the research material as a filtered conclusion of what I learned from what I researched. The Video essay is shown on a big screen.

The Website
Several data ended and will end up on the website as documentation now. I used a view APIs to get recent data—for example, the times of all arriving and departing airplanes at Keflavík airport. The website also embodies all other objects just in a digital space. It creates an overview of all topics that are tackled. I also wrote it as a backup if the exhibition had been canceled because of covid. In my process, I used the website as a catalysator for the visual language that coins the whole experience. The aesthetics were decided before I started working on the furniture. The website contains several features that are directly referring to the existing objects. The website is displayed on an iPad attached to the double chair.

The Performance
The point that had to be changed the most. I planned on being in the camp dressed up in the uniform to involve people in discussions, maybe arguments about the project on the back of a fictional scenario. I also had to raise and lower the flag each day. In reality, people are more scared of getting involved in conversations. Most of the visitors rejected my attempts to talk to them. In this light, I decided to focus on the flag ritual mainly and otherwise walk through the exhibition to draw attention to the project. I planned the exhibition also as a space for experiments, to try out different kinds of behaviors to find out what works the best to involve a mixed crowd of people. Since the objects seem more like an installation, it is hard to fill the camp with life. Several objects are missing to complete the right atmosphere and make a stage for the performance.

I am looking forward to engaging more with the audience and documenting it to work further on the method.

Published in Furniture & Object, Textile Design

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