Rotterdam’s need to rebuild itself after having been almost completely destroyed in 1940 eventually allowed the city to develop a thriving architectural community, one that grew organically, and whose unusually experimental aesthetic has been hallmarked more by the urban environment generally than by necessarily constructing buildings. The city is now home to innovative Dutch firms like OMA (Rem Koolhass), NOX (Lars Spuybroek) and MVRDV (Winy Maas), whose presence attracts international creatives of all stripes.
Likewise, the city’s strong contemporary design status is in part an outgrowth of that post-war architectural influx, and can boast renowned names like Dre Wapenaar, whose myriad tents (for everything from childbirth to piano recitals) situate him somewhere between artist, designer and behavioral facilitator, while fellow local Hella Jongerius fuses craft with technology to reinvent all manner of household objects.
The presence of these two communities has in turn helped foster a visual arts environment in which many practitioners incorporate elements from the worlds of architecture and design, perhaps most signally in the case of Joep van Lieshout, whose Atelier Van Lieshout has for more than a decade been producing work both playful and serious: a ready example is the harbor-based, autonomous pod city of AVL-Ville, which, with its own flag and currency, spontaneously declared its legal and cultural independence from the surrounding land.
Yet while these and other flurries of interdisciplinary collaboration abound, the idea that the various creative communities here influence each other more than they might elsewhere isn’t necessarily accurate. Though Rotterdam plays host to weighty institutions like the International Film Festival Rotterdam, the Nederlands Fotomuseum, the v2 new-media organization and the Netherlands Architecture Institute (which even launched its own Venice-like biennale in 2003), many local artists indicate that, as surrounded as they may be by ample opportunities for hybrid forms of collaboration, they nonetheless go abut their work much as artists do in cities that don’t boast such a rich cultural infrastructure.
Curator Arno van Roosmalen, who after ten years at Rotterdam’s Tent space recently moved to The Hague’s Stroom Center for the Visual Arts, laments the lack of interdisciplinary activities, especially in a city with Rotterdam’s innovational possibilities. “I think the concentration of various institutes and organizations is very important to the city as a whole, and it makes the city attractive,” he said. But despite the best intentions, “I think the degree of exchange is minimal. The worlds remain very isolated, and it’s hard to generate any structural kind of mutual interest.”
Many Rotterdam-based artists point to their city’s lack of a well-developed gallery scene (unlike, say, Amsterdam), which absence leads to a situation in which artists produce their work locally and then exhibit it elsewhere, thereby echoing the practices of local architects and designers who use their Rotterdam base to design projects that are then constructed beyond the city’s borders.
Local native Amie Dicke, for example, has been showing work in Amsterdam, London and New York, but not Rotterdam. Dicke, who once toiled in the hallowed halls of Koolhaas’ OMA, witnessed first-hand the synergies that can result from the steady stream of highly-driven, semi-nomadic culture workers (for example those who flock to OMA year after year). Yet she and many other visual artists here see it primarily as a city that allows people to work hard, and then display their results in other parts of the country or the world.
Some artists actually appreciate Rotterdam’s lack of emphasis on the visual arts, for example Marc Bijl, currently a resident at New York’s International Studio & Curatorial Program. “Those cultural institutions are an extra, but they’re not why I went to Rotterdam,” he said. “It’s actually nice that the visual arts take this slightly more modest position there. For a city of its size, there’s a relatively small number of visual artists.”
Which is not to say that inventive examples of cross-disciplinary projects are a rarity. Observatorium, for instance, is a trio of Rotterdam artists who primarily create manifestations based around the themes of urban planning, and strive to make art more of a concern during the construction of new architecture. To reach this end, they’ve recently initiated projects that explore how architects should deal with the archaeological treasures a new building site exposes, or how to make the arcane architectonic craft more intelligible to the general public, for example by having a working architect spend office hours building maquettes amidst throngs of convention-goers.
And the v2 Organization, which organizes the long-standing Dutch Electronic Arts Festival, is by its very nature interdisciplinary, relying on various expertise at all stages of a project. “It’s impossible to do what v2 does without what being interdisciplinary,” said v2 event programmer Stephen Kovats. “Plus it’s bloody expensive, so we need to collaborate.”
Another good example of interdisciplinary cooperation is the D-Tower, a 12-meter high translucent structure in the town of Doetinchem, conceived of by artist Q.S. Serafijn and Rotterdam architect Lars Supybroek (of NOX), whose help was sought out to construct the sculpture; its styrofoam blocks were carved using a computer-driven saw that was necessary to achieve the D-Tower’s Gehry-esque curves. The structure’s skin reacts to local resident’s “moods” (which they enter via a related website). The tower changes colors depending on the input to the site – blue indicates happy, green angry, etc. – thereby directly involving the work’s ultimate users in “their” tower, as opposed to the more typical pattern of installing a public artwork in its new environment and then essentially leaving it there. The structure of the tower itself is similarly integrated – the legs and body form part of the same fluid surface, reinforcing the idea of combining various types of knowledge as seamlessly as possible.
Yet NOX’s website categorizes this project under the “art” heading, while their descriptions of more traditional architecture projects are housed elsewhere, implicitly reconfirming the divisions between disciplines.
This attitude is also echoed by Rotterdam artist Aleksander Komarov, a native of Belarus who appreciates the presence of Rotterdam’s architecture and design communities, as well as the impressive work they produce, but does so mostly from afar. “I just want to state my personal opinion with my art,” he said, “and I’m not looking to collaborate with architects or designers.” He thinks of the city as a constantly growing sculpture, in welcome contrast to the monumental Soviet architecture that his own work both pillories and transforms.
Artists Nienke Terpsma and Rob Hamelijnck, who edit the Rotterdam art zine Fucking Good Art, see the city’s constant evolution as something that draws in cultural producers of all vocations. “I think that lots of artists who choose to live in Rotterdam love the fact that the city isn’t finished, and never will be,” said Terpsma.
One area of investigation shared by both the design/architecture as well as visual arts communities is how to escape the confines of conventional museal and architectural spaces. Koolhaas’ books are perhaps better known than his buildings, and likewise, from the agitprop, graffiti-driven events of Marc Bijl to the myriad social experiments of Jeannette van Meeswijk or Erik and Dirk van Lieshout, many of the city’s young artists are as happy outside the white cube as they are inside.
After having staged several events in shopping malls and metro stations, for example, Dirk van Lieshout’s recent No Exit project was a good example of mixing design and architectural elements together in order to question conventional art-world constructs. He gamely reconfigures the gallery as a sleek and shiny piece of airport architecture, resembling the non-place tubes that shuffle passengers between gate and aircraft. The entire space is taken up by the construction, except for a small opening near the ceiling that reveals the feet of the living gallerist sitting at his desk, working Oz-like to control the entire glossy spectacle below. The work leaves the visitors to their own devices in navigating their way through the strange and narrow space, as they implicitly become part of the piece.
Another local artist experimenting with museal spaces is Nicoline van Harskamp, whose recent Blue on the Street project catalogued the city’s private security forces – bodyguards, bouncers, department store watchmen – and later brought them into the TENT exhibition space for a group photograph, thereby turning the project into both an aesthetic as well as a socially engineered event: not only can an artistic space be taken beyond the confines of the gallery, but the outside world can also be taken inside and transformed into art.
Yet despite the minglings that such projects encourage, Van Harskamp remains nonplussed by the various potential collaborations at arm’s length throughout the city. “It’s great that there’s this whole domino effect, and that these communities bring different people here to work,” she said. “But they don’t influence me that much. It’s not really relevant to anyone I know.”
Director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute Aaron Betsky suggested that what Rotterdam’s various creative communities share is congruent affinities, rather than a pronounced desire to work together. “I do think there is a sense of shared sensibility amongst these artists and designers and architects,” he said. “A love of almost cold modernism, an interest in large-scale and somewhat empty spaces, in the artificiality of the material world. I don’t think it’s because these people are hanging around in cafes talking to each other, but I think there’s something that attracts them to this city, and something that those of us who live here find beautiful about it.”
(Originally published in Flash Art in January 2005)