22 October – 30 October 2016 – Reykjavík Art Museum, Tryggvagata 17
In English, kwitchyerbellyakin is a colloquialism from the English phrase “quit your belly aching”. It is a casual but authoritative dismissal that means, “stop complaining”.
The expression surfaced in the socio-political landscape in Iceland during WWII. Daniel V. Gallery, the commander of a US naval air base in Reykjavík, dubbed the camp Kwitcherbellíakin as a witty boost to his troops, both acknowledging and dismissing their critical complaints of poor living conditions and harsh climate on the island. In good spirit, and as a consoling reminder of the troop home base in the Caribbean, steel palm trees were planted in front of the Fleet Air Club. These palm trees became an amusing and ironic symbol of the camp setting, evoking tropical paradise and sun, an endless bliss without struggle and worries. Considering the complexity and the accuracy of Commander Gallery’s execution, we can read Kwitcherbellíakin as the first art installation in Iceland.
Kwitcherbellíakin at the Reykjavik Art Museum presents unresolved narratives that speak to the camp-like conditions of today’s ecological and socio-political realities and the future that is unfolding in the shifting geopolitics in the Arctic. The locus to reflect on and stay with the uncertainty and our disturbed ground of being —our existential “belly aching” —was an abandoned checkpoint for the former NATO-base in Reykjanes. These narratives and future visions are framed by the past and present of this site, which is currently in transformation from a private, fenced-off territory to a public civilian site—its history marking the transition from Iceland’s Cold War past to its warming future.
The former NATO base on the Reykjanes peninsula, now Ásbrú Enterprise Park, stood at the front lines of the ideological rivalry of East and West during the Cold War. Now it sits as reminder of the race between the two grand ideological narratives of modernity and their version of “good life”— both of which, under the flag of progress, have had catastrophic consequences for humans and the environment. While the breakdown of Soviet communism has been evident for over twenty years, it is clear that we are now adrift in the ruins of capitalism.  Aptly named “Ásbrú”after the rainbow bridge between the earth and the gods in Norse Mythology, the site is a link between the past and the future, marking the transition from the Cold War to the “warm wars”of climate change. While it may be a wild dream that the north is turning into “sub-tropical zone”—to use the words of the author J. G. Ballard in his book The Drowned World —as the ice caps melt and temperature rises, this irruption of nature is more of a nightmare with catastrophic consequences for the planet.
This windy and barren field has played a central role in Iceland’s national project and its dreams of independence and modernity. A gateway to the world and foreign influence, the site has always been a subject of great controversy, driven by the colonial, racist, capitalist, and patriarchal values foundational to the making of the Icelandic nation. The Second World War and the prolonged presence of US military force fuelled economic growth, consumption, employment, and international contact. “The Beloved War”, as WWII was commonly referred to by Icelanders, had a different fate for Iceland than many other nations under foreign rule. Being one of the poorest nations in Northern Europe, Iceland became not only one of the richest countries in Europe at the end of the war, it gained its full independence from Nazi-occupied Denmark in 1944. Thus, Iceland reached its “utopian goal—its own tausendjahriges Reich—but it had happened through foreign invasion and occupation rather than through Icelandic actions”. The role of the war and foreign powers in the storyline of the Icelandic narrative of independence has, however, been “conspicuously absent”. The official narrative, as Guðmundur Hálfdanarson points out, “assumed that the nation had literally pulled itself up from poverty by its own bootstraps, or propelled itself forward solely through its own effort”. Yet another quiet storyline in the Icelandic national narrative is how the NATO base turned into a gigantic plant, channeling funds into the Icelandic national pocket and laying the foundations of local corporate clans and kinship dynasties. Moreover, Iceland’s march towards modernization was sponsored by the West through, among other sources, Marshall Plan aid, which fuelled Icelanders to bulldoze what was left of their traditional earthen architecture and become fully modern in new, high-tech homes; they constructed dams, laid roads, built factories, and drained wetlands—causing massive carbon dioxide emissions. The rush to modernity, however, was a selective process. While the flow of funds, technology, and goods from US sources was unhindered, the Icelandic government’s agenda fueled racial and social prejudices by requesting that troops of colour not be sent to the island; so-called “situation”girls involved with military personnel were ruthlessly shamed and displaced. The concern was that the “ethnic purity”of the Icelanders should stay intact: its population, culture, and the national moral order were seen as threatened by foreign pollution. At the same time, Icelanders remained unconcerned about the military’s actual contamination of the ground and water. And as it turned out, the military departed from the NATO base in 2006 without cleaning up their pollution.
The former NATO base and its surroundings, with its half-built aluminium smelter and rising silicon plant and data centers, can be read as a microcosm of Iceland, bearing strong marks of the present state of affairs: privatization, society in debt, high hopes of exploiting the Arctic, and aspirations of turning Iceland into a service station and commercial hub for new geopolitics in the Artic. The North Atlantic faces complications and challenges like never before in the warming future that will be marked by resource competition, emerging shipping routes, and melting ice caps. It is not a question of if, but when pollution from the exploitation of natural resources, transport, and accidental oil spills will devastate the already threatened biodiversity and damaged ecosystems in the Arctic. Future progress rests on the putative “great opportunities”that lie in this region. The Arctic is the last frontier where natural resources such as oil, gas, and minerals can still be found and drained. Icelanders (Eykon Energy) have already teamed up with the Norwegians (Petoro) and the Chinese (CNOOC) for oil exploration in the Dragon zone, north of Iceland. Moreover, the opening of new shipping lanes through the Arctic for part of the year will bring the traffic of global shipping trade to Icelandic waters. Iceland has already deepened its relations with the East by being the first European country (along with Switzerland) to enter into free-trade agreement with China in 2014. “Iceland is one of the eight countries of the future”, stated the Icelandic Prime Minister, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, in 2014 (referring to The World in 2050). While climate change has had a catastrophic effect on the world, the Prime Minister spoke rather of the great number of imminent opportunities that the environmental and social crises will open for Iceland: “There’s a water shortage, energy is becoming more expensive, land is in short supply and it is predicted that the cost of food will rise in the foreseeable future…So there are great opportunities for Iceland there and we are mapping it out”. Instead of throwing today’s entire economic system into question, Gunnlaugsson’s opportunistic and progressivist mindset relies on the old gluttonous attitudes that brought us to this point in the first place. The preservation and protection of a neoliberal ethos continues to reduce species cohabitation to the competitive market values of the here and now—even as societies and vast ecosystems sink deeper and deeper into precarious conditions. Despite the "morbid symptoms" call for the death of the old system, we seem to be nightmarishly stuck in a repetitive clean up of the wreckage—sustaining old forms and the status quo.
Iceland seems to be back to bargaining business deals with Super Powers and corporations—just as it did in the Cold War—in order to make the most out of current opportunities and its strategic location within renewed geopolitics in the North. Yet, while negotiating with other stakeholders, the small state has to “remain agile and flexible, friendly with all major players and open to all possible twists and turns in the development process”. The nation has become well versed in playing different identity cards, shifting the representation of Icelanders accordingly, from exotic natives at the border of the Arctic frontier to free-spirited Europeans, and innovative, opportunistic cosmopolitans. This ambivalence has become a somewhat intrinsic part of the nation, which left its traditions and the past in a haste for the “new world”, adopting models and structures from abroad to become a nation among nations, without reflecting on what it was becoming. Regardless of how hollow the projected image is, Icelanders—whether “children of nature”, innovative entrepreneurs, or peace-loving Europeans to name a few—actively perform and negotiate their identities to accommodate global politics, tourism, and media.
The Arctic race for influence, power, and wealth is underway, heightening former Cold War tensions. Russia, the only non-NATO Arctic state, planted its flag on the Arctic seabed in 2007. While Iceland’s Arctic policy, approved by the parliament in 2011, claims that Iceland is against “any kind of militarization of the Arctic”, current developments suggest that this is not the case: the Pentagon has already requested $19 million of the 2017 US budget for the renovation of the base airfield in Keflavik to facilitate surveillance in the North Atlantic and offset increasing Russian military presence. In one form or another, the dream of many Icelanders—that Iceland reverts to being a military base again, might not be so wild.
Since the NATO base was closed in 2006, the area has been under development as Ásbrú Enterprise Park, a community of innovation, education and business. The park, a self consciously transitional and liminal space, portrays itself as “The center of innovation in Iceland”in its calls for potential partners. The development of the Enterprise Park is in conjunction with the enterprise culture implemented in Iceland since the late 1990’s, when the island was turned into a globalized, neoliberal nation-state. Grandiose tales of “creativity and innovation”have been repeated in public discourse promoting entrepreneurialism. This “creative turn”in Iceland still permeates the present political and economic zeitgeist.
Neoliberal government policies demand that creatives and innovators in art, science and technology “stay alert, awake, and on the move. If they stand still in the context of today’s “‘mandatory entrepreneurialism’”, they…will be relieved of duty”. The prevailing neoliberal approach to creativity, with its entrepreneurial drive, relies on anticipated conformity, and quantifiable, progress-driven imagination. As Pascal Gielen points out, “Utopia and excessive imagination is out of the question in this ideology of realism.” This development contributes to what Gielen calls the “wet, flat network world”, a world where creation as mere differentiation has “neither depth nor height”, where art institutions and artists have been subjected to the “creative destruction” of neoliberal reforms, “swim[ming] hastily and blindly from one project to the next”. There seems to be no shortage of cheap and renewable creative recruits willing to contribute to the needs of neoliberal progress—and “to the lofty national project, right in step with marketing specialists, PR people, cultural managers, tourist agents, cultural economists, cultural advisers…and other specialists in ‘creative thinking’”. Cultural creatives have, or so it seems, accepted the national and supra-national policies of the creative industries designed to regulate, in collaboration with the market and the state, innovation and creativity. Cultural policies and the attendant public discourse make no distinction between not-for-profit visual art spaces, manufactures of souvenirs and other commercial products, video game developers, etc., despite the significant differences between the groups and the nature of their work, methodology, and goals. Spaces that traditionally provided a “spine to those who wish to stand up straight and undertake some daring creative act” have been eliminated, with dire consequences for authoritative position of art and artists’ ability to maintain control over their own field. Like every other industry, the creative industries have been successfully coopted by neoliberal government policies and are now “subject to performance-oriented, statistically measureable, pragmatic results—results that render [their] successes indisputably valid”.
Calling for a critical discussion of “the creative turn”is tricky in Iceland. Those who critique or question this development are seen as attacking the hard-working laborers of the creative class and run the risk of becoming disloyal to the high-minded belief that the creative industries constitute a genuine alternative to the more traditional production line of aluminium smelters, hydropower plants, and fishing fleets. Moreover, unlike the more traditional industrial plants on the island, the powerhouse of ideas absorbs labor, affection, and goods at bargain basement prices.
Notions of “encampment”reflect upon developments of the present socio-political and ecological realities. We live in a system that generates short-term thinking, “one big carousel of responsibilities that are continuously passed on”, while the foundations of the welfare state are liquefied, the environment degraded and species destroyed. Distinctions between private and public space are blurred, and lifelong insecurity, stress, fear, and burnout are normalized. Dominance, violence, profitability and linear progress—values central to the idea of modernity and its logic—have hit their limit. It is time to recognize that the unsustainable fantasies of the “good life”act as barriers to the well-being of humans, nonhuman others, and the planet. While the exhibition Kwitcherbellíakin does not provide answers to the question of “how to inherit this history”, along with its violence and exploitation, it stresses the importance of finding ways to “address the imaginative challenges of living without those handrails, which once made people think they knew, collectively, where people were going”.
While cultural critique is disappearing along with ecosystems and species, Kwitcherbellíakin attempts to address unresolved narratives of the present and make them visible. This project calls for greater awareness, more attuned listening, and the imagining of ways of life ‘“after economic growth”’ and outside of “instantaneous time”. The challenge to (re)tell one’s self and one’s place in the world requires new relations and imaginative thinking, feeling, and acting that do not endorse the prevalent exchange system or subscribe to individual self-valorizations of the neoliberal regime. It’s time “to look around rather than ahead”. Something is growing and crawling out from behind the illusionary curtains of modernity; interrupting forces challenge people to engage in new modes of thinking about human and nonhuman entanglements in our ecological coexistence. As Donna Haraway states, “We become-with each other or not at all”. The troubled landscape of the Anthropocene, an epoch marked by the profound change humans have made to the planet, calls for our recognition that the time of “fixes”has passed. Haraway advises, at this point we must “stay…with the trouble”; we need to rethink and contest borders of the nature and culture divide (including object and subject, science and art, facts and values)—the key mantra of modernity. Challenging established boundaries, in order to cast light on “the possibility of life in capitalist ruins”, is to keep close attention to the present precarity, suspense, disorientation, and the bellyache.
Ásmundur Ásmundsson, Hannes Lárusson og Tinna Grétarsdóttir.
Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015) See also Wark McKenzie, Molecular Red. Theory for the Anthropocene (London: Verso, 2015).. J.G. Ballard, The Drowned World (Berkeley: Berkeley Medallion, 1962), 35. Guðmundur Hálfdanarsson, “The Beloved War’: The Second World War and the Icelandic National Narrative,” inNordic Narratives of the Second World War: National Historiographies Revisited, ed. H. Stenius et al. (Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 2011). Guðni. Th. Jóhannesson, “To the Edge of Nowhere? U.S. Icelandic Defence Relations during and after the Cold War,” Naval War College Review 57 (2004): 114–37. Hálfdanarsson, “Beloved War,” 85. Hálfdanarsson, “Beloved War,” 92. Hálfdanarsson, “Beloved War,” 93. Sigrún Elíasdóttir, Marshall áætlun og tæknivæðing Íslands. Óbirt MA-ritgerð, (Háskóli Íslands, 2012). Hálfdanarsson, “Beloved War,” See Eykon Energy’s website: http://www.eykonenergy.com Nanna Árnadóttir, “P.M.: Climate Change Might Work in Our Favor,” The Reykjavik GrapevineApril 2, 2014, accessed October 2, 2016, http://grapevine.is/news/2014/04/02/pm-climate-change-might-work-in-our-favour/ Árnadóttir, “P.M.: Climate Change Might Work in Our Favor.”Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1971), 276; Maria Hlavajova and Ranjit Hoskote, “In Place of an Introduction: Future Publics, or the Rest Can and Should Be Done by the People” in Future Publics (The Rest Can and Should Be Done by the People). A Critical Reader in Contemporary Art, ed. Maria Hlavajova and Ranjit Hoskote (Amsterdam: Valiz, 2015), 8. Alyson Bailes, Margrét Cela, Katla Kjartansdóttir and Kristinn Schram, “Iceland: Small but Central,” in Perceptions and Strategies of Arcticness in Sub-Arctic Europe, ed. Andris Spruds and Toms Rostoks (Riga: Latvian Institute of International Affairs, 2014), 96. Anna Sofie Gremaud, “Ísland sem rými annarleikans. Myndir frá bókasýningunni í Frankfurt árið 2011 í ljósi kennninga um dullendur og heterótýpur” [Iceland as a Place of Otherness. Crypto-Colonial and Heterotypical Perspective in Imagery from the 2011 Frankfurt Book Fair],Ritið 12 (2012): 7–29; Bailes et al, “Iceland: Small but Central”; Ásmundur Ásmundsson, Hannes Lárusson and Tinna Grétardóttir, Koddu. (Reykjavík: Félagið Koddu, 2011). Hildigunnur Sverrisdóttir, nd., Hin kakófóníska staðarmótun lýðræðisbarnsins - eða hvað er arkitektúr? Unpublished manuscript (Reykjavík, 2016). “A Parliamentary Resolution on Iceland’s Arctic Policy (Approved by Althingi at the 139th legislative session March 28 2011),”, accessed October 2, 2016, https://www.mfa.is/media/nordurlandaskrifstofa/A-Parliamentary-Resolution-on-ICE-Arctic-Policy-approved-by-Althingi.pdf. Gregory Winger and Gustav Petursson, “Return to Keflavik Station: Iceland’s Cold War Legacy Reappraised,” Foreign Affairs, February 24, 2016, accessed September 23, 2016, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2016-02-24/return-keflavik-station. See “Ásbrú: The Center of Innovation in Iceland,” accessed September 23, 2016, http://www.asbru.is/english; “Ásbrú Enterprise Park: Innovation Powered by Green Energy,” accessed September 23, 2016, http://www.freetradepark.com/down/upload/Asbru_brochure_en.pdf. Tinna Grétarsdóttir and Bryndís Björnsdóttir,“Run for your Life,” in Scarcity in Excess: The Built Environment and the Economic Crisis in Iceland, ed. A. Mathiesen, et al. (Barcelona: Actar Publishing, 2014). Pascal Gielen, “Institutional Imagination: Instituting Contemporary Art Minus the ‘Contemporary’,” in Institutional Attitudes: Instituting Art in a Flat World, ed. Pascal Gielen (Amsterdam: Valiz, 2013), 25. Pascal Gielen, Creativity and Other Fundamentalisms (Heijningen: Japan Books, 2013), 41. Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Demos (London: Routledge, 2010). Gielen, Creativity and Other Fundamentalisms, 41. Ásmundsson et al., Koddu, 25. David Hesmondhalgh, Defining the Future EU Culture and Media Programmes, public hearing, European Parliament, Brussels, April 26, 2012, accessed August 16, 2016, http://www.europarl.europa.eu/document/activities/cont/201205/20120507ATT44555/2012050. Pascal Gielen,“Institutional Imagination,” 19. Tinna Grétarsdóttir, Ásmundsson, Ásmundur, Hannes Lárusson, “Creativity and Crisis”, in Icelandic Meltdown: Causes, Implications, and Consequences of the Collapse of the Icelandic Economy, ed. Gísli Pálsson, and Paul Durrenberger (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2015), 103. Pascal Gielen,,“Situational Ethics,” in The Ethics of Art: Ecological Turns in the Performing Arts, ed. Guy Coolsand Pascal Gielen (Amsterdam: Valiz, 2014). See also, Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. D. Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998). Gielen, “Situational Ethics,” 22. Gielen, “Situational Ethics,” 22; Tinna Grétarsdóttir and Bryndís Björnsdóttir,“Run for your Life,” Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011). Isabelle Stengers, In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism (Lüneburg: Open Humanities Press, 2015), 23. Tsing, Mushroom at the End of the World, 2. Stengers, Catastrophic Times, 24. Gielen, “Situational Ethics,” 27. Tsing, Mushroom at the End of the World, 22. Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013). Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), 4. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 4. Tsing, Mushroom at the End of the World.
Artists/participants: Amir Shokrgozar, Ato Melinda (in co-operation with The Many Headed Hydra), Ásmundur Ásmundsson, Dani Mila, Emma Haugh (The Many Headed Hydra), Georgios Papadopoulos, Hannes Lárusson, Kristín Loftsdóttir, Maryam Tanha, Mikkel Myrup, Orkan Zeynal, Pia Lindman, Rohholah Rezaei, Skark, Suza Husse (The Many Headed Hydra), Tinna Grétarsdóttir, Torpikey Farrah, Unnar Örn Jónasson Auðarson.
Kwitcherbellíakin Installation by Ásmundur Ámundsson, Hannes Láruson and Tinna Grétarsdóttir.
Untitled Broken rainbow
Ásmundur Ásmundsson, Hannes Lárusson and Tinna Grétarsdóttir in Ásmundur Ámundsson, Hannes Láruson and Tinna Grétarsdóttir.
collarboration with Skark. In collaboration with Amir Shokrgozar, Dani Mila,
Maryam Tanha, Orkan Zeynal, Rohollah Rezaei, Tropikey Farray.
Unaffected Land [Tracing the change in ideas about change]
Freezer, Ground Soil. found objects , soil sample from the former Nato base (Ásbrú)
Sound Methodology: Revertebrate, Turf / Revertebrate, Mud
Ato Malinda, On Fait Ensemble, Video, 2010, as part of The Many Headed Hydra; Sea Body Infrastructure Image.
The Many Headed Hydra: Sea Body Infrastructure Image. By Emma Haugh and Suza Husse.
Hannah Black in response to On Fait Ensemble by Ato Malinda (download text)