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Identity Land – space for one million identities

Droog Lab and Eric Kessels have come up with an imaginary society for one million people.  Theirs is a new type of society packed with speculative products that create bonds between people, urban nomads who find it difficult to really identify with any one location.

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 15-11-2012

A national identity is an organic phenomenon. It is never static and always subject to political, social and cultural movements.

It’s a tedious moan these days to hear how globalization has led to a homogenization of cultures. It is a given that everywhere from Sydney to Barcelona will be home to many of the same shops selling the same things, cafés that sell the same coffee, and with people who share similar lifestyles and even value systems.

Countries like Belgium are even less able to pin point tangible examples of who they are and why. It is a country of converging cultures. They are a hybrid people with three languages, a population that reflects centuries of rule by overlords from France, Spain, Austria and Holland as well as more recent immigration from Congo and Northern Africa. There are also over a hundred thousand expatriates in the capital Brussels, home of the EU and NATO headquarters, which represent 10% of the city’s population. Typically, expatriates stay for a short spell and then depart. That makes for a very disparate population.

Using this lack of identity as a start point Erik Kessels has gone about seeking a creative way to solve the problem by inventing an identity for a one million people.

Identity Land – space for one million identities
draws on the cultural icons and characteristics that usually collide to create character.  Currency, language, literature, music and politics.

For this exhibition, designers and artists created ways to provide products and realms that could feed and eventually define who a people are.

“This idea works in Belgium because it really is an extreme place,” says Erik Kessels co-founder and art director of communications agency KesselsKramer in Amsterdam. “Through 2010 and 2011 they had no government for 541 days. And if you talk to the people there about this issue they also think that not having any clear national identity is a problem. They do not feel good about it.”  

The situation in Belgium is exasperated because of the entrenched language divide. There are three official languages – Dutch (or Flemish), French and German. This creates a split and sometimes even a clash that is carried over into politics and makes democracy an even more fractured process.

“But it is not just Belgium,” says Kessels. “This lack of identity is more common and widespread than people think. A lot of smaller countries have multiple identities, like Holland for example, which has also experienced a lot of immigration. It gets to a point where there really is no longer any single fixed identity.”

In the Netherlands, Moroccan and Turkish immigration has become a political policy. “For the past decade there have been a lot of problems,” Kessels says.

Populist politicians like Geert Wilders have been playing these insecurities. It seems that a weaker national identity leads to insecurities amongst individuals who feel increasingly disenfranchised and threatened by changes that they feel they have had no say in. Such insecurities can be manipulated by fear-mongering politicians who aggravate people’s fear of difference.

Holland’s own Princess Maxima, herself an immigrant from Argentina and now married to the crown prince, once famously quipped that there’s no such thing as “the Dutch identity.”

“It was a slip of the tongue, but also really interesting,” says Kessels. “I mean she is an outsider and comes here and sees all these different identities. Her remark wasn’t even meant to sound bad because that description isn’t even necessarily negative.”

Using this uneasiness and sense of the undefined and unknown, Kessels thought it would be interesting to create an experiment. Rather than define a narrow identity, he has turned having multiple identities into an advantage.  

Based on his team’s research they discovered that creating a sort of post-nationalism is possible. A situation beyond the twentieth-century nationalism that embraces more movable and nebulous national borders.

“Personally I find it really encouraging and even comforting that one country can have a lot of identities,” Kessels says. “You just need to work out how to turn it into a personal advantage.”

Maybe it will never happen, maybe it can never happen, but using the familiar KesselsKramer experimental and irreverent approach, Kessels, with the rest of the team,  has created potential icons for a post-national identity for one million fictitious citizens.  

Identity Land is populated by a very involved and politically active society. “There are fewer protections, but more possibilities,” explains Kessels.

The national borders are not fixed, the public services flexible, and the language and media are open to become whatever the people desire.

In a design by Thomas Lommée, a car can be a delivery van, an emergency vehicle or a taxi; and the border between one country and the next can be the horizon, which moves with science rather than politics.

“You go on the street and hail an ambulance,” Kessels explains. “It saves a lot of time.”

Of course none of the products presented in the exhibition are to be taken too seriously. They are mostly provocations – titillating eye-openers, albeit ones with the power to really make visitors rethink the possibilities.  

“The exhibition is an experiment, but the subject is not,” says Kessels. “I think the underlying point is to make people realize that they can be proud of coming from a multi-layered place. Everyone has a sense of pride in where they come from, sometimes it is just a matter of working out how to define it.”

And that the “products” exhibited are not strictly usable fits the Belgium character, which has always been a hotbed for absurdist art. “The surrealism movement was huge,” explains Kessels, referring to the movement represented by painter René Magritte of ‘This is not a pipe’ fame. “Being unrealistic is in their DNA.”

A transparent flag that always changes depending on where it is hung by Edith Dekyndt, a coin not marked with a member of royalty, but polished down to a mirror by Helmut Smits. These aren’t realistic products, but products designed to show how a disparate group of people can feel more unified. But then again, there’s no reason why a country couldn’t adopt this mentality.

The latter is one of the more revealing objects included in the exhibition. The absurdity of the results remind one of the way Andy Warhol confronted his viewers with the upcoming consumerism of his day. Now Erik Kessels appears to say to the global, cosmopolitan elite: you really want to live your life without roots in a local community? Here’s your non-identity. Live with it.

And it is not overly unrealistic in so far as design will always play a role in creating national identities. Design reveals taste, culture and aesthetics. Design communicates.

“The difference these days is that there is multiple choice,” says Kessels. “There is less consensus. I think the car that can be anything best exemplifies this.  Everything seems chaotic, but one just needs to work out how to feel comfortable with the confusion while at the same time finding some meaning or relevance in it all.”

And on another level one could posit the question: Are any of these experimental attempts to define a national identity any more random or irrelevant than what is actually being used to define who we are?  

“Often national identity is brought back to a souvenir,” says Kessels. “How stupid can you make it? It is so clichéd and tacky, but yet somehow these icons like windmills and clogs make people feel secure… even though the content is largely artificial, it is no more absurd than the emblems and artefacts that many people cling to as a way of feeling a part of a bigger entity.”

According to Kessels people living in a country do share something, but that something can no longer be defined.  Neat definitions no longer apply. “We live in this big pot of soup,” he says. “It is not a pure soup, but a soup brimming with many different types of vegetables, which can also be really tasty.”

And that’s because as the car carrying a moving horizon by Helmut Smits in the exhibition shows, borders are not as fixed or relevant as any Homeland Security office likes to think.

The film, created by Hans van der Meer visualizes this better than any words can say. It depicts a football match played by two teams. Each player on both sides wears his own individual uniform. The game starts and it is impossible for fans to pin point which player is on which team. It is chaos, but it is its own chaos, and it is up to us to find ways to make sense of it.

Identity Land – space for one million identities
Opens November 17 and runs until December 2nd.
Z33 – House for contemporary art

Images (top to bottom):

Team
by Hans van der Meer; Border by Helmut Smits; Vehicle by Thomas Lommee; Coin by Helmut Smits; Flag by Edith Dekyndt & Land by Droog Lab
 

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