NORTHERN EXCHANGE COLD WAR HISTORIES AND NUCLEAR FUTURES
A Cold War Projects Collaboration in Iceland, 2016
H-3 Hรถfn and H-3A H3-A Stokksnes (above), H3 Hรถfn (below)
COLD WAR HISTORIES AND NUCLEAR FUTURES IS A SOCIAL ART PROJECT THAT TOOK PLACE DURING
AUGUST 2016 IN FOUR ICELANDIC COMMUNITIES:
HÖFN, KEFLAVÍK, VESTFIRÐIR, ÞÓRSHÖFN. The project combined public engagement, conversations and collaboration among many people - artists, university students, the general public and, importantly, members of each of these communities where we worked. The communities all hosted early warning radar stations that formed part of NATO’s extensive early warning defence system across North America and Europe during the Cold War period and continuing into the present time. Conversation and discussion formed the heart of our project, giving it meaning, purpose and momentum. The stories we collected give personal insight into the early warning radar sites which were operated by the American military, and extend our sense of the Cold War period not only as it exists physically in the northern landscape but in the memory. We worked closely with artists Ásthildur Björg Jónsdóttir, without whom the project could not have taken place, and Elina Härkönen whom we met through ASAD (Arctic Sustainable Arts and Design) a thematic network in the University of the Arctic. In collaboration with them, and all our students, we could build on our on-going exploration of the Cold War period in
the northern and Arctic regions. The way we worked together shifted over time, with the project evolving as more people became involved, and as we moved across different virtual and geographical spaces. Each person and community of people brought new ways of working, different expectations and background experience. The project gained momentum as we worked, thus the longer we engaged with local communities, the more opportunities arose, such as our invitation to go inside some of the NATO domes. Our experience in one community positively impacted on our work in the next, enabling us to readjust priorities, shift our positions and engage differently with our collaborative participants, including learning about more contentious issues such as environmental contamination, attitudes to Icelandic people who socialised with the Americans, and the politics of the time. Excerpts presented here from interviews have been edited for clarity. Roxane Permar and Susan Timmins Cold War Projects, Shetland
Artists and students from three universities in the ASAD network (Arctic Sustainable Arts and Design, University of the Arctic). Artists: Ásthildur Björg Jónsdóttir, Iceland Academy of Arts; Elina Härkönen and Timo Jokela, University of Lapland; Susan Timmins, Shetland; Roxane Permar, Shetland College University of the Highlands and Islands. Students: Anu Corin, Valerie Gemkow, Venni Ahlberg, and Iiris Perkkiö, University of Lapland; Rebecca Boyd and Elizabeth Crichton, Moray College University of the Highlands and Islands; Dagrún Magnúsdóttir and Elín Sveinsdóttir, Iceland Academy of Arts
WE CREATED A GEODESIC DOME WHICH WE TOOK TO EACH OF THE COMMUNITIES. In Reykjavík we got permission to install the dome at Höfði House, which was the site of the summit meeting between Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan in 1986. Some view this meeting as the beginning of the end of the Cold War. This location gave historical resonance to the stories, memories and perceptions each participation shared.
“It is the rich yet intangible network of relationships woven with people and places, knowledge gleaned and awareness raised, that is the real and powerful outcome of this journey of creative engagement. I have certainly found participating in the project very rewarding. And perhaps it would be no bad thing if today’s global military leaders took more notice of that all-important human element, not only in their awareness of ‘Cold War Histories’ but in their strategising for ‘Nuclear Futures’.” Rebecca Boyd, 2016
We took a geodesic dome to each place. We set it up for the first time in Ísafjörður in front of the Culture House where there is a library and a local history museum.
The triangle gave participants in the project a space for their voice and become visibly part of something larger. They wrote and drew on them with invisible ink and glow-in-the-dark paint and used ultra-violet torches to see what they had written or drawn.
NATO used a radome to house its radar installations, forming a local landmark that is familiar to communities throughout the Northern regions. It creates a shared point of reference while symbolically making visible participants’ memories and perceptions of the Cold War period.
The triangle is a key element in Cold War architecture; it is the basic form used to create the ‘bubble’, as Icelanders call the radome. It also resonates with the nuclear danger signs which proliferated during the early Cold War period.
In ísafjörður we delivered in-service training workshops for art teachers, exploring placed based approaches to education and socially engaged art.
The dome provided a way for people to work together whether building it in each location or choosing where to attach their triangle. It attracted attention, and helped to initiate conversations.
In Þórshöfn we set up the dome in the local swimming pool, which also houses the library.
NATO RADAR STATIONS, HISTORIC AND CURRENT Iceland played an important strategic role during the Cold War period alongside other northern communities in the Arctic region, including Shetland, Faroe, Canada, Alaska, Greenland and Norway. As a founder member of NATO, Iceland became part of the new front line for defence against the perceived threat posed by the USSR. The four original radar stations, H-1, H-2, H-3 and H-4, were built and manned by the United States military in the early 1950s. The American military bases were gradually abandoned and
new radar installations were built, although they remained in the vicinity of each of these communities. The Americans left their last base at Keflavík in 2006, although the US Navy returned in 2016 to deploy maritime patrol aircraft. The current radar stations, indicated by [NATO] following the name, are used to track potential air, surface and sub-sea military activity and are also used for weather and air traffic control. Today the Icelandic Coastguard operates these installations on behalf of NATO. Iceland has no armed forces.
H-1 Rockville & H-1AKeflavík “When I started work in 1988, it was here in Rockville. What you saw here when you came into the area was a guard post and here we had the operational centre called Ice Rock. It was the Iceland operation centre. Then you had the two radars.There was a search radar and a height finder, so one was doing the search and one was seeking the height. There were two towers similar to what you saw at Stokksnes. And then you had the buildings. Even though we had the big base nearby there was a squadron that stayed here all the time so it was kind of a mini base. The Americans put the trees down when they left and they are still there!” Vidar Alexsson, Keflavík
Keflavík was a US military base until 2006. While many of the remaining buildings are empty, others are used as housing, hotels and a variety of enterprises. Street names have been kept and are written in Icelandic and English.
COLD WAR MEMORIES EXCERPTS FROM INTERVIEWS H-1A Miðnesheiði
"H-1A now is only one radar because it is three dimensional. It's both the height and the search, so you have that combined now. Then you had the two radars. There was a search radar and a height finder." Vidar Alexsson, Keflavík
“There is one guy I know who lives close to my house who was stationed here on the base. He was in the Air Force. He married an Icelandic girl and now he works here at the airport. He speaks very good Icelandic. (Laughs) When I was growing up it was so loud in school on Wednesday mornings when they were flying above the school. It was so loud, the teacher just had to stop, and wait. Zhoom, zhoom!” Kolbrún Lind Karlsdóttir (Kola), Keflavík
H-4A Bolafjall, near Bolungarvík
“They started to build the road to the radar station. To do so they had to use very big trucks, one of the attractions for the kids. It was forbidden, but some of the drivers allowed the kids to sit with them and ride in the trucks. I know my son did only once. I heard it much later.” Margret Sævnn Hannesdóttir, Bolungarvík
“From where I live I cannot see the radar station but I can see the mountain, and I can see the glow from the radar station. You can see it from far away, you can see the glow even though you can’t see the buildings.” Systa Aðlbjörg, Bolungarvík "The buildings were built with materials from Holland. That was cement blocks they shipped to Iceland, and the houses were very good. Most of the troops there had to stay two to a room but the officers stayed alone in their barracks.” Odinn Eymundsson, Höfn
"I’m actually from the place where we went to look at the radar station, and what I put on the triangle was a big snowflake because in the winter we have lots of snow, and my father-in-law works at the radar station in the winter. So I wrote a few words down on the triangle that remind me of the radar station. It was words like family, and friends, and love and snow because it’s a very high mountain. It’s very dangerous to travel up and down, and he has to do that every day in the winter when it’s very dangerous conditions.” Elín Sveinsdóttir
Straumsnes Air Station, NATO ID: H-4, was established in late 1956 as a general surveillance radar station, located atop Mount Straumsnes in Iceland. After the site was closed in 1961, the facility was abandoned and the buildings left to deteriorate.
“Straumsnes was very special. Everything, including those concrete slabs, had to be landed, had to be beached by barge, and later by landing craft. And that was my father's job. They had to be hauled by road that had to be built, a seven mile road, up to the mountain and erected there. So when the time came for it to close there weren't any barges any more and no heavy lifting equipment to take it apart and remove it. It would have been way too costly. So it was just left in place. Of course there were occasions while the base was being built when rubbish was thrown over the cliff but mostly it was just the workers doing it for fun because normally there is some wind that comes up against the mountain and rises. We used to play by taking a handkerchief and wrapping it around a stone and throwing it over. After a while...(the handkerchief)...would come back up. It discards the stone and flies up." Friðþór Eydal, from an interview in Reykjavík, August 2016 The film stills shown here (left) are reproduced by kind permission from Friðþór Eydal.
H-3A Stokksnes, near Höfn
"And they had the Douglas DC supply plane that came, I think, two times a week from Keflavik up to Höfn. Then we had the airport by the ocean across the harbour, so they had to come by boat to the mainland here, and it was quite difficult. The English military built the airport there and then they moved it here to the mainland. At the end of the month an officer came up with the money to pay the troops. So he would sit there and get the men to show their ID card and get cash money. Not bad." Skarphéðinn Ólason, Höfn
"I started working here at Stokksnes when I was 16 years old and I worked there for two summertimes on my vacation from the school, it was my beginning of learning English. I made friends with many of the troops. At this time there were maybe 180 troops on the base and perhaps ten Icelanders worked there. I worked in the kitchen in the beginning and a little bit outside, too. I got a good connection with the people there and made many friendships. At this time it was the Vietnam War. The troops were lucky, they were happy to get their station in Iceland, no need to go to Vietnam. They were happy to stay here. Of course they were very isolated but they were happy with that, most of them. They were also isolated from Icelandic people. They had to get permission or a travel pass to go out of the camp." Skarphéðinn Ólason, Höfn
"Some were against the base being here, but it was very few who were against it because it was a really big economic influence, a lot of jobs when there weren’t…(many)…jobs here. Of course it was just people and they needed us maybe more than we needed them. (Laughs) I mean to communicate." (His father was free to meet with his friends from the base) "But they didn’t come home, I don’t remember them in my home. I think that was their rules and the contract (in order) to not make too much influence on the community." Óðinn Eymundsson, Höfn
"They didn’t interact (with the people in the village) except maybe with those people who were working there.…They asked for permission to play golf when the golf course was opened. But no, it was declined. They asked for permission to go swimming in the swimming pool. And no.…(I was)…probably too young to have any feelings about it but I found it ridiculous. Well, I looked at them like people…they were just people like everyone else in town. This was like an isolation camp or something....(Before) the Vietnam War they didn’t want to come here. They came here, not because they wanted to....They were just shipped off and sent to God knows where....Some of those fellas were probably my age, some of them were probably a bit older....They said they would rather be here than in Vietnam." Guðny Svavarsdóttir, Höfn
"Here there was very little mix with people at the base. When they decided to have the army here there was a lot of protest, and it was a really big fight. It was the first time they had used tear gas, that was in Reykjavik.” Ari Þorsteinsson, Höfn
“I was a kid when they were here. It was quite a big thing, this American base. I remember when the big ships came into the harbour and out of them came big trucks. They sailed up to the shore and the water came over the road. It was a really big thing." Óðinn Eymundsson, Höfn
“My father was working there when I was young. He sometimes brought something from there. In Iceland we weren’t really poor, but there were a few things, you know, that were difficult to have, fruit or even timber. My father had friends there and he took them to fishing in the countryside and to the glacier ....When they left, they slowly left. There was some talk about how a lot of people would lose their jobs. My father was not working there any more. He was a pilot here, most of his life. It is a dangerous harbour here….If they came back? If the base would rise again, it’s an interesting question. I would rather not, but if it’s necessary for the country and the world, I would accept it." Óðinn Eymundsson, Höfn
“Gradually I started to sort of feel offended for Icelandic people having NATO bases…in Iceland because we are independent people, and…it didn’t serve any purpose to my mind, well, it didn’t feel right…I mean it’s like an invasion and I was really happy when they left, finally.... We were told that they were armed, and they probably were, but we never saw any weapons. They came unarmed to town when they came once a week.” Guðny Svavarsdóttir, Höfn
"Most Christmases they had a party for the kids. They were very nice parties and the kids liked them very, very much. They had Santa Claus. He spoke English and all the kids thought it was the real Santa Claus. They were very good about the Christmas parties, and the decorations were nice. I remember they had shows coming up from Keflavik that had come from America, university students and people who travel around to make shows for military people." Skarphéðinn Ólason, H¨öfn
Þorshöfn is the nearest community to the former US base H-2 and the current NATO station H-2A. Ránar Jónsson (left) took us under his wing, getting permission to go to H-2A, and also took us to the site of the former base H-2 (right). The annual Christmas parties on that base were very memorable to everyone with whom we spoke. The toys were very important, and they still talk about them after all this time. This stuffed toy (left) is the first gift we were able to see from these parties, having been carefully saved for many years. "I remember that there was not communication between the soldiers at the radar station and the inhabitants, but they had the Christmas celebration and we as children found that they wanted us to like them very much, and they invited us to this Christmas celebration at the radar station. Most of the children went there, to the celebration, but we were never allowed to go there. There were certain people that were not allowed to go to this celebration and that was those children from the more left oriented families. But a lot of the children went and they had so much fun. They came back with candy and saw all these movies and cartoons, and they really loved it. My mother and my father didn’t agree on politics, but my mother encouraged us to go there, me and my brothers, and she said, ‘Don’t tell your father.’ (Laughing) We went, and we came back with loaded bags of candy and wanted to give some to our father and the whole family. That was a very difficult Christmas for us at our home. (Laughing) So we never went there again, even though our mother told us to go. We didn’t do that because this was something you don’t do. (Laughing) But we noticed how friendly they were, and we didn’t understand why our parents had this attitude towards it.” Ari Þorsteinsson, Höfn
"When we were walking there today we found this trash all around. I’ve been up on the mountains, I don’t know how many times, and I’ve never seen all this trash. So my view on the Americans has changed in good ways and bad ways. They got people jobs, and they had a huge impact on the people where the bases were. Most of them were good people according to the memories of the people that still live here. But, seeing what they have done here, I can understand the landowners for being really angry about how they left things, because they are our guests, the Americans, and we allowed them to come here, and they should respect the country.” Ránar Jónsson, Þórshöfn
"We had this carnival, and the soldiers had this big hangar where they had booths and sold corn dogs, hot dogs, hamburgers, Kool-Aid, a lot of American stuff we didn’t get downtown. We went every single year, and a lot of families came from the capital. We got to see different things and taste something different.” Kolbrún Lind Karlsdóttir (Kola), Keflavík
"We were also allowed to go to the gym once a week. We were there once a week playing basketball with the guys out there. We didn’t have any good place for that. It was very friendly and I think they were happy about it, to have us for a game once a week." Óðinn Eymundsson, Höfn
“They had clubs there, and bars and theatre and gym and sports hall and bowling alley, pool tables. It was nice, it was nice, especially to go and play poker with them in the evening." Skarphéðinn Ólason, Höfn
"My memories of the base were from when I was little and we used to sneak under the fence to go Trick or Treating and do a lot of stuff we were not supposed to. Sometimes we went to play with our dolls and when we saw the soldiers coming we ran, and we left the dolls behind. We used to dress up...(at Halloween)...and sneak underneath the fence. When we were Trick or Treating sometimes we met the...(military)...police and they would ask, 'Icelandic?', and we’d say, ‘No, no, no!', then they’d say, ‘Yeah, yeah. Come, get in the car.' And they drove us back down. We got out of the car and just found another hole and snuck back in. Every single year, it was always the same." Kolbrún Lind Karlsdóttir (Kola), Keflavík
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS We would like to thank all those people who shared their recollections and knowledge so generously and without whom this project would not have been possible. The project has involved many people who have helped in numerous ways. We are particularly indebted to Ásthildur Björg Jónsdóttir from Iceland for her enthusiasm, insight, commitment and belief in the project. Her tireless work as gatekeeper in Iceland made the project succeed. Her family, friends and colleagues equally embraced the project, not only clarifying information about the period and the role of NATO historically and today, but also facilitated interviews, visits and invitations around Iceland that enabled a very special, and privileged, experience of engagement with Iceland’s people and places. We are very grateful to Albert Eymundsson from Höfn and Ránar Jónsson from Þórshöfn who helped us with local interviews and knowledge. The students and artists who formed the collaborative core of the project not only worked tirelessly but contributed welcome insight, decisionmaking and clarity to the process. Photographs were taken by Susan Timmins and Roxane Permar unless otherwise indicated in the caption.
© ROXANE PERMAR AND SUSAN TIMMINS, 2019
The book is about the socially engaged art project, Northern Exchange: Cold War Histories and Nuclear Futures, which combined public engagem...
Published on Jul 31, 2020
The book is about the socially engaged art project, Northern Exchange: Cold War Histories and Nuclear Futures, which combined public engagem...