AAJ Press

The UN and Pierre Derks’s Blue Helmets – Jonathan Vickery

The UN and Pierre Derks’s Blue Helmets: Jonathan Vickery   –

Without much exaggeration, I dare to state that the public art project entitled Miniscule Blue Helmets on a Massive Quest‚ is possibly the biggest art intervention in public space ever staged. And the minimal means by which this staging takes place, is quite disarming, and even funny. In 2009, Dutch Graphic Designer from The Hague, Pierre Derks, packaged and distributed small plastic soldiers (50,000 made bespoke from Shantou, China). In part with the support of new Dutch contemporary festival – TodaysArt Festival – the distributed package contained instructions, and soon made their way around the world. Further, with the appearance of a wesbite devoted to ‘sightings’ of the miniscule blue helmets, Derks began to attract media attention. His self-designed book on the project is introduced by a UN official. Blue Helmets, are after all, the United Nations security and peacekeeping corps symbolic military uniform.

But are these UN soldiers? The photo reportage – an urban art version of war photography – now testifies to over 50,000 soldiers with blue hand-painted helmets, berets or hats, taken up station all over the world, from Montreal to Mount Everest to the United Nations General Assembly hall in New York. Pierre Derks says ‘Each Miniscule Blue Helmets was equipped with a leaflet containing instructions to (photo) ‘shoot’ the soldier on location‚ and upload the image with a geotag to the website. This call for interactive collaboration resulted in a filled world map, as shown on www.minibluehelmets.com.’

IMAGE. Blue Helmets: Group

He continues: ‘The tiny modification, done by a dab of blue paint, radically converts the innocent toy army men into a political icon. Changing the context by placing the soldiers in public space, contributes to this new symbolism and exposes them (out of the blue) to a wide audience.’ This was certainly the case. As a designer (and not ‘public artist’) he is attentive to the graphic and symbolic power of small and otherwise harmless toys. As images, they are globally recognisable, and have generated media and public attention precisely because they are small, harmless, unobtrusive yet replete with political meaning. The Blue Helmets are both war and peace, of the people and of inter-state negotiations, both toys and killers. Often poised to shoot, or taking up territorial formation prior to a raid, the miniscule blue helmets mark out public space as a space of conflict and its resolution. Their paradoxical presence – as ‘peacekeepers’ not peacemakers – means that one is never sure whether they will act [see contributor Linda Polman’s book, We Did Nothing: Why the Truth Doesn’t Always Come Out When the UN Goes In (2003, with Rob Bland)

 IMAGE: Blue Helmets: High Line Park, New York, USA

Derks explains: ‘Their mass manifestation in the public domain implies that the potential of getting confronted with a heavily armed blue helmeted soldier is within reach of a global audience. Although it is obvious that the encounter is rather different from running into a real-life Blue Helmet, it might just trigger the same questions and feelings about their presence and deployment. Examples of such reflections are the cliched qualifications of being ‘frozen observers’ and having a ‘pure symbolic function,’ which are being said to fit both the Miniscule- and real-size Blue Helmets or the paradox of armed peacemaking/keeping. Their presence changes a street into a conflict zone. The neutral characteristics and the undetermined goal of this art project leads to an interesting diversity of interpretations and meaning, in which the iconic quality of the figures instantly give rise to responses and debate about relevant, related issues.’

IMAGE: Blue Helmets: screendump http://www.minibluehelmets.com

As a public art strategy, Derks’ work betrays for major objectives, the first of which is spatial: The deployment of the Blue Helmets through a process of co-creation, interactive situations and collaboration, he has ensured that the visual form of the work maintains a strong and ever moving discursive content. For the co-creation and collaboration does not emerge without first a critical encounter of questions and some research into the identity and purpose of the project.

Second, reflexivity: The project is only visible from its individual interventions, the soldiers in space and their photographic interaction by contributors or spectators. There is no public art bureaucracy or arts management framework within which people must fit. Derks explains: ‘The world map, on the projects’ website, functions as a virtual canvas, monitoring the progress of the intervention in real life. This raises the question of whether the online documentation plays such an important role in the project that the qualification‚ intervention in public space‚ is overruled. Photographing the artwork became a goal in itself, which makes sense considering the instructions in the leaflet. It appears to have dominated people’s holiday trips and for some it even became an actual goal in life.’

Third, mission: many urban art projects are sure about their artistic objectives and even contractual public commitment, but not often explicit on a ‘mission’ or broader sense of purpose. Here the Miniscule Blue Helmets are literally on a Massive Quest. The ‘quest’ does not need to be articulated to capture the imagination of those who have invested their time in locating and reporting on Blue Helmet presence. The animation and public attention that these small additions to public (or sometimes private, corporate, civic institutional) spaces are able to generate, is instructive. The project is interventionist without imposition, without the usual superiority that is embedded in ‘works of art’ or the roaming presence of the artist, and whose visual manifestation is entirely through the aesthetic sensibility and creative initiative of its spectators.

Which brings us to the fourth characteristic: iconicity. The Miniscule Blue Helmets are iconic, yet not linguistically explicit as to their identity. There are no insigna or flags or other UN symbols that might fix the semantic value of each item. In a semiotic sense, they shift between icon and symbol – between empirical visual connectedness and cultural convention. Their iconicity is ultimately a function of a general political consciousness, as in reality they look like any other soldier – the blue hand applied paint connotes perhaps an act of imposture, deception, or even terrorism. This ambivalence strikes at the heart of the Blue Helmet phenomenon – soldiers threatening violence for peace, proclaiming that they have no enemies, acting on interminably vague and compromised UN Security Council resolutions, the soldiers themselves taken from the poorest countries of the world desperate for UN cash, and with no explicit political objectives other than to persuade a town, a city or country to join a compliant community of the US-dominated democratic world order.

IMAGE: Blue Helmets: Batu Caves, Malaysia

You can order your copy of the book here:


Projects website: http://www.minibluehelmets.com

About Jonathan Vickery

I research the politics of contemporary culture, the role of culture in the public sphere, and cultural economy discourse in International Development. I also work as an art critic, editor and public speaker.


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