"Sort of Aloof"

"Sort of Aloof"

Visions on 'Embedding'

Why do artists, organisations, biennials and even a city terrain embed themselves, in another environment or even in an environment where they already are?
That question was addressed during an afternoon conversation at the Symposium Casting the Seeds of Tomorrow on June 4, 2015, at the Navy terrain in Amsterdam.

Artists, curators, designers, and cultural programme directors shared their visions on 'embedding', interpreting and giving meaning to a state of mind: somewhere on the line of coming, being, going.

Diana Krabbendam: "What actually is ‘embedding’? How long can you do it? When are you embedded and when have you not yet reached that point? In 2006, we started The Beach, a cultural initiative in a neighbourhood in the Amsterdam Nieuw West district. As designers we wanted to find out what kind of neighbourhood it is by becoming part of it rather than looking at it from the outside. Sooner or later, you become fully embedded. And then you can’t use that word anymore. Then you are ‘there’, and you have a new situation, which calls for different ways of working. I find that exciting.”

Hedwig Fijen: "With Manifesta, we embed ourselves in a new city or region in Europe every two years. It varies every time. There are so many different parties that want something from you. And there are also parties that don’t want to have anything to do with you, that don’t want you to become embedded at all. Maybe that process of collaboration and conflict is precisely what can transform the situation at hand, turning it into something unique.”

Liesbeth Jansen: "The desires and interests of all the parties that have, or want to have, something to do with this Navy terrain are extremely varied. From now on, that simply will be part of the identity of this place. For 360 years, it was a closed terrain of the Navy’s, right here in the middle of the city, with its own history, its own identity, and own standards. What’s interesting is that the national government has not directly put it up for sale. The city signed a contract to develop this terrain in an organic fashion. I have been asked to present the basic principles for its development in 2018, when the Navy is gone, or almost entirely gone. So, I still have about four years to try out all sorts of things.

“In buildings on the front yard, the area presently accessible to the public, I’m pleased to say that 15 tenants have already established themselves, including the municipal archaeology workplace and Startup Delta*, an initiative for innovative companies promoted by Neelie Kroes [former European Commissioner – ed.]. People with ideals and vision. It makes for a nice campus atmosphere. There’s also a plan for giving temporary accommodation to give recently graduated foreign artists and scholars, so that they can stay here after completing their studies.

                                                  Campus atmosphere

"I can very well imagine that the Navy people find it hard to accept the Ministry of Defence’s decision that they have to leave. It’s logical that they don’t welcome the changes with open arms. But I base my work on respect and am trying to preserve the identity of this place throughout the process of change. I find it fascinating that these Navy people unflinchingly go out on a dangerous mission when necessary, but that they are very emotional about having to leave here.”

Hedwig Fijen: "It is their home, after all."

Liesbeth Jansen: "Yes, it is their home. I am a guest, but a guest with a task, a commission. The way I work is by putting together a programme. That’s my approach.

                                                  Guest with a task

“How can you breathe new life into this place? I don’t think the answer is to start from a design, a building plan, but to start from a programme, the content. Not in order to preserve that content, but to let it play a role in the city, and in the neighbourhood from which this terrain has been separated for so long, and then to do something with that for the future. That’s why Sjoerd ter Borg’s proposal appealed to me so much: The Land inside the Walls.”

Sjoerd ter Borg: "I asked five writers to tell a story about this place. First, we introduced them to its history and culture. Municipal Archaeologist Jersey Kalovski told them about its history, while Hans Bartelsmans, the acting commander of the Navy, gave them a tour.

                                                  Writers can describe what is,
                                                  what has been,
                                                  what could have been,
                                                  and what could be.

“To me, telling stories is not only a way of becoming familiar with a place, but also of doing something with it after that. An entrepreneur will come up with a business plan, an architect with a building plan. We asked writers to map out the terrain. Writers can describe what is, what has been, what could have been and what could be. I find such a mingling of physical and fictitious worlds interesting. It opens your eyes, and that’s what we wanted to do with ‘The Land inside the Walls’ project."

Jantine Wijnja: "I’d like to return to the question of when you are embedded and when you have not reached that point. ‘Embedded’ is a flexible concept, just like ‘artist-in-residence’. I see a residency as an organised encounter, a facilitated encounter, but one that you also do something with, so that it acquires meaning.

                                                  Sitting at a desk doing nothing

“Embeddedness is less organised; its status is ambiguous. I’m thinking of the artist Pilvi Takala, who inserted her presence in an office building. Only a few managers knew about it. For instance, one day she stood in the lift. Or one day she sat at a desk without doing anything. People didn’t know if she worked there or not. I think that’s a good one. Residency or embedded: I find both of them interesting, especially as states of mind."

Erik Hagoort: "A characteristic feature of artist-in-residence programmes and embedded situations is that the stay is temporary, and that this is known by the parties involved. The guest remains an outsider. Or, an ‘incidental person’, in the words of John Latham, who cofounded the Artist Placement Group with Barbara Steveni in 1965. The fact that your presence is acknowledged, and yet not defined, is what makes it productive.”

                                                  ‘Incidental person’

Daan Heerma van Voss: "That might indeed be true. I was in Mali only a very short time. I went there for a week to visit my cousin, who was working in Mali as a scout. That helped, having someone there to vouch for me. My cousin removed the initial obstacles. I didn’t try to cancel out the differences between the soldiers and me, to pretend that I was one of them. They wouldn’t have accepted that. Nor would it have made any sense. At first, I kept sort of aloof. I waited until they invited me, to play sports with them or to show me something. I didn’t want to impose myself. That worked well. After about five days, I could go everywhere with them, and I had the feeling that I was part of things. Looking back, it seems like I did all of that consciously, but that’s not the case. It was more of an intuition on my part. They knew that I would only be there for week, and they also knew that the result of my stay would be a big article in de Volkskrant. It was clear-cut; there was never a question of real integration. So the ‘embedding’ went well because I didn’t try to eliminate the distance between us. That’s my experience.”

Diana Krabbendam: "It’s different for me. It’s not about keeping a distance but getting into the changes and playing a role in that. Sometimes society gets snarled up. All of the top-down, hierarchical organisations and activities stop functioning. There’s a need for something different, different ways of working, different relationships. Artists can show where the snarls are, or where the relationships are weak. And sometimes they can make new connections. Art can fulfil that role. Not as the icing on the cake, but integrated in the changes.”

                                                    Throwing the guest,
                                                    out of the house.

Hedwig Fijen: "What I think is exciting is the unpredictability of the artistic process. In a business environment, the relationship between a guest and a host is clearly defined, with stipulated conditions and contracts. But with art, it’s more open. The guest can behave like a parasite, take over the host’s house. The host can throw the guest out of the house. Such processes are interesting. Organisations and governments can learn from that and use it.”

Sjoerd ter Borg: "That has its challenges, however. I was lucky here to meet Liesbeth, who was enthusiastic about my proposal for ‘The Land inside the Walls’. Daan was lucky that his cousin was working in Mali. But with many organisations, it is very hard to gain an entrance. You have to meet that one person who is willing to be an ambassador for your idea and can convince the rest to go along with it.”

Liesbeth Jansen: "Of course, it all depends on who the idea is relevant for. If it is mainly relevant for the artist and that’s the first matter of importance, then I can imagine that the organisation will be less interested in investing in it. The curiosity has to come from both sides. I myself feel I am a guest in this neighbourhood. At first, the residents thought that I would be initiating all sorts of festivals on the terrain. They were surprised that I want to maintain the neighbourhood’s tranquillity.

                                                    If I already knew what to do,
                                                    it would just be a question of carrying out a plan.

“The CPNB [Collective Promotion for the Dutch Book – ed.] once made me a great proposal about holding a reading festival here. Nothing ever came of it, unfortunately. The idea was that all of the festivalgoers would spread across this terrain and read something. That would have made a wonderful picture. People keep asking me: What are you going to do? I tell them that I don’t know yet. If I already knew what to do, it would just be a question of carrying out a plan. And that doesn't appeal to me.

“I personally think it would be a great pity if this ends up being zoned for residential use only. With the former ADM shipbuilding yard, people campaigned to keep the industrial buildings and preserve the identity of the terrain. That did not succeed, and instead we now have the most uninteresting residential district that Rem Koolhaas has ever built, no identity whatsoever. I would find it horrible if this Navy terrain also became a residential area like that.

“What I am trying to do is create opportunities for new interpretations of what there once was and what there is now. It would be wonderful if this terrain could keep changing with the times. Not with a single function, but being embedded in the city, an area that is a living part of the city, yet offers peace and quiet, like in the eye of a storm.”

Edited by Erik Hagoort
Translated from Dutch into English by Jane Bemont

 *Startup Delta has since moved. Building 27E on the Navy terrain will be given an international allocation, for makers, co-work spaces and start-ups.

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