Sjaak Langenberg's texts often serve as a starting point for an intervention or a project, but they can also be read as independent dissertations. It's not uncommon for a publication to come out of a project, but Langenberg also writes columns and essays outside the context of projects. These frequently find a place in publications in magazines, catalogues, newspapers or his own publications.
Welcome to We educate one another, our presentation of the Rietveld Research Residency. The Rietveld Research Residency is a joint initiative of the Gerrit Rietveld Academy and the Mondriaan Fund. It offered us the opportunity to focus on a research project for a year. In 2012 we were affiliated for two days a week with the Sandberg Institute, the master program of the Gerrit Rietveld Academy.
The ongoing economic crisis provides fertile soil for social transition and new forms of collaborative practice. In order for these collaborations to come about, a new type of intermediary is needed. The apparent conflict between different worlds seems to stand in the way of solving urgent social problems. In order to understand one another's words, another language needs to be designed, one which can build a bridge between, for example, the world of art and that of care for the elderly; between social design and the financial sector; between free art and real estate. There is a need to educate one another. To make a start with this, in our research we seek out comparisons between our own art practice and the practices of behavioural therapists, philosophers, conjurors, transition-managers, idealistic admen, and illustrious figures such as the politician Antanas Mockus one-time mayor of Bogota who facilitated increased traffic safety by retraining policemen as mime artists.
Mieke Moor. She is a philosopher and organisational advisor with management consultancy Twynstra Gudde who specialises in issues concerning basic knowledge of 'organisation': the human ability to manage the everyday chaos of reality. Much of our daily activity is dominated by the business of organisation through policy planning, strategy memorandums, organisational charts, we attempt to get a grip on the complexities of our world, create an overview, and master the risk factor. Often, within this organisational mania, little space is left for an awareness that, what is 'really important', is actually impossible to organise. Much of value is dismissed within the paradigm of usefulness. Within the healthcare system, for example, the 'violence' of organisational mania is palpable. Moor has investigated this theme comprehensively in her 2012 PhD, expanded into the book, 'Between the lines. An aesthetic view on violence of organization', a daring book about the relationship between art and work.
Our second guest is: Anita van de Looij. During the course of her study in Transition Expertise (Veranderkunde), she developed a new method in which she utilised artistic interventions to tackle organisational issues. She investigates the characteristics of artworks situated on the border between art and organisation(s) and is working on a book on this topic. She has been, among other things, head of Sustainability, Energy and Environment for the city council of Tilburg.
Our third guest is: Sjoerd ter Borg. He studied political science at the University of Amsterdam and, together with Anne Janssens, formed a creative project bureau. Following that, he was part of Vacant NL at the Sandberg institute and conducted design-based research into temporary uses for empty buildings. This led to the plan 'Uitgeverij van de Leegstand' (Empty Property Distribution). Together with Mattijs Voordenberg, he recently made a documentary about the future of student activism. During his political science study he frequently discussed the topic of 'wicked problems'. Ter Borg thinks that it is precisely designers who should be involving themselves in these societal problems, because policy is always written from one particular perspective.
And our fourth guest is: Tabo Goudswaard. He is a social designer. He graduated in 2009 from the Gerrit Rietveld Academy, from the department of Fine Arts (DOGtime). He develops artistic strategies for (bogged down) social issues. He is currently structurally affiliated with Geen Kunst (it translates roughly as Art-Less), which is part of the larger Twynstra Gudde consultancy bureau whereby artists and advisors work together to achieve the greatest possible impact on societal issues. Goudswaard is also the initiator of public research project SocialDesignForWickedProblems it is within the framework of this investigation that we are working on the societal issue 'financial unconsciousness' which was submitted by ING Insurance/Nationale Nederlanden.
Shortly, each of them will show in a ten minute presentation of how they, each in their own way, act as translator and guide between the world of art and the world in which they usually operate. Then later on we will discuss their views about the collaboration with artists concerning various social issues. What is the added value? Is it possible to pin down a particular method or are certain methods to be avoided? Which role do they see for themselves as an intermediary between art and client? Can they already see the beginnings of a new 'in-between language'? How does one convince patrons of the importance of working with artists on issues of social importance? Etcetera.
I would also like to mention Peter Hop who unfortunately cannot be here with us today but who certainly deserves a mention as he has been an important key figure for us. Peter has been involved for years with issues concerning the field of 'innovations in care'. Geared to, and driven by, developments in society, he continually attempts to hook organisations into innovative thinking about organisation within care and welfare facilities. Alongside paying attention to the areas of production and control, according to Hop, organisations should offer space to artists and surrounds-analysts in order to remain in connection with what is happening out there in the surroundings.
"What exactly is your research about?" Already in the first week of our stay at the Rietveld and the Sandberg we were being confronted with this question. The glass-walled studio which we were offered as workspace made this question even more compelling there was nowhere for us to hide.
According to the definition of the essay in Wikipedia, 'The essayist gladly makes connections which would be absolutely unthinkable within a specialised scientific field.' As counterpart to the maxim 'to show is to know', artists have always been somewhat contrary connectors. In this way, artistic research is very different from the research being done at the university and this is where the hidden treasure is buried.
There was most definitely a red thread running through our research. The material we explore now begins to fall into place in actual projects. In retrospect we could describe the route we followed thus:
Disenchantment with the traditional exhibition model led us, during the nineties, to take public space as our work terrain. The scale on which we worked changed constantly. In our documentary The Expansion of the Mastenbroek Polder, a polder encroached on the city and after the credits had rolled, the film seemed to find a continuance in real life, the result of which was that farmers developed a positively offensive stance. The topsy-turvy world suddenly appeared to be a viable one. In the project Saudade, a pile of builders' sand that smelled of the sea, near the entrance to the new neighbourhood Houten Zuid, transformed into a fragment of a dune landscape. We had 84 writers on the banks of the Lemmer-Delftzijl canal, writing, in the space of one day, the Biography of the Canal, and we gave a Japanese geisha the assignment to appear before windows of the inhabitants of a residential care home in Utrecht Overvecht in a window cleaner's gondola.
Because so many art commissioners had no idea which way to go with art in public space, there was a huge amount of room to experiment. But was it art in public space we made? Looking back it was 'Social Design' avant la lettre. Although Social Design is also not really the right designation I'll come back to that later.
As relative 'outsiders', we researched links within society, from schools to residential care homes, from new towns to polders. We went in search of the specific 'angle' of the place. We made an intervention, temporary or permanent. Through the interventions, inhabitants or users were able to see themselves, their surroundings, or the problem they were dealing with, from a different angle. Sometimes it led to a change in behaviour. Often things occurred that we had not anticipated.
The impetus for works of art in public space were often banal they were simply related to the places where money for art could be generated: new town neighbourhoods, renovation projects, government buildings, infrastructural projects. We managed to bend those 'banal' impetuses into plans with a catch and an inner necessity.
We had fled to art in public space in order to escape the artificial exhibition circuit. Now it seemed that 'art in public space' was no longer the right context to execute projects.
And perhaps it never had been.
If we are not artists in public space, what are we then? What is the right context? And who are the right middlemen? Initially we thought that we would have to change something in our work method in order to enlarge the impact of our work.
We wondered should we develop into a 'communications office', employing unusual ways of putting societal issues on the agenda, on the cutting face between art and the applied arts? And if so, what can we learn from organisations outside the field of art who are debating these issues? And what can they learn from us? Can artists capture a niche for themselves where organisational advice bureaus and PR and marketing companies leave a hole? Is art coming off second-best because commercial and political actors set the scene and are gaining more and more grip on the world and on public opinion through their knowledge of behavioural psychology and the use of social media? We need a counter-attack to behaviour-driven advertising and personalized promotion. We could adopt their strategies and hurl them back like a boomerang. At this stage of our investigation we thought about the possibilities of using these same psychological behavioural insights for idealistic goals, art projects with social impact,
Sometimes the dividing line between socially engaged art and idealistic advertising is extremely thin. We looked into the strategies and visual language of idealistic advertising, the ways in which companies and multinationals use design to define their role in society, and we compared these with the strategies of artists, documentary makers and politicians such as Antanas Mockus, the former mayor of Bogota, who hired 420 mime-artists to make fun of traffic violators, because he believed Colombians were more afraid of being ridiculed than fined. Absurd behaviour changes strategies with incredible results a politician as a social designer.In the project Fora & Fauna that I developed for the exhibition festival Ja Natuurlijk/Yes Naturally How art saves the world, which took place in and around the GEM Museum for Contemporary Art in The Hague, I further investigated the grey area between art, communications and idealistic advertising. I organised a writers marathon on Facebook and Twitter in which 16 writers from various backgrounds (philosophy, biology, literature) crept inside the skins of a plant, an animal or an object, in order to examine reality from that perspective and to give a sharp edge to the discussion on the relationship between culture and nature. For Yes Naturally I worked intensively with Lieke Timmermans on communications, and Martine Willekens, PR. We educated on another. Social media is being used in art presentations purely as a promotional tool I wanted to use social media as a platform for discussion, so that the essence and theme of the art manifestation Yes Naturally would be analysed and debated. Indirectly, this debate was 'promotion' for the exhibition. Fora & Fauna began with Esther Gerritsen in the starring role as Welwitschia mirabilis (Tweeblaarkanniedood), a plant that can grow to be 2,000 years old. Her contribution produced discussions with followers about immortality and about the relationship between man and plant.
Philosopher Ann Meskens discussed 'as vacuum cleaner' with her followers about the relationship between man and thing. Why do we 'stroke' our smart phones and tablets and not our vacuum cleaners? Maria Barnas as dry rot was forced to defend herself straight away, because a follower who was himself troubled by dry rot couldn't understand how Maria could describe this inconvenience so aesthetically via her poetic tweets. During the exhibition, Fora & Fauna was represented through 16 low-tech smart phones. Visitors could scroll both mechanically and analogously through the twitter messages that writers had posted.
Within our Rietveld Research Residency we also looked at the field of work of change-experts and organisational advisors. We began reading management literature and books by behavioural psychologists. We discovered that behavioural psychologists sometimes undertake absurd investigations that come close to being artistic interventions in social issues. One is unlikely to find the management book You too can learn to manipulate control over yourself and others (Manipuleren kun je leren, controle over anderen en jezelf)
We developed the concept for The Night Service, in which we investigate the sub-consciousness of organisations and companies. The idea is that we spend a night in an organisation or company without ever meeting the employees. When everyone has gone home we inhabit the empty office chairs, log in to the intranet, and seek for the dreams which have remained unfulfilled by day. We commit small interventions on the work floor whilst the workers sleep, and we make a report of our quest in a 'shadow book-keeping'. As daytime's counterpart, the night is an excellent time to reflect on organisational issues and existential questions on the work floor. What is the meaning of work? Why do we do what we do? How do we relate to one another? Art can be a catalyst for things which otherwise remain unspoken.
We consider good follow-up important. We don't do this ourselves our night-time presence should remain a mystery. Anita van de Looij makes sure that the reactions to our night-time interventions are canalised and that the effects of such an intervention can grow into something sustainable within an organisation.
In the project SocialDesignForWickedProblems' of which Tabo Goudswaard is one of the initiators we are being promoted as social designers.
Are we all of a sudden social designers rather than artists in public space?
We concluded that, among other things, financial awareness is too much, and too often, about money and financial knowledge, and not about people's motivations and their needs. The financial services sector suffers from financial autism. Another mindset could lead to a totally different relationship toward money and goods.
Who or what would you like to insure against, for which there is (as yet) no insurance?
In this fashion we want to be able to reveal what the employees really consider important in their lives, what their motivations are. It shows that one can think in a very fundamental manner about what insurance actually is. It lays bare uncertainties but also ones own responsibilities. We challenge the self-learning abilities of the organisation. It brings a very different human scale into the mega-company that is Nationale Nederlanden. And it can lead to very different kinds of insurance products in kind.
Insurance companies ask us to think about our pension, but how visionary are insurance companies? Can they actually see 30 or 40 years ahead? How far does their empathic ability reach? It is precisely bankers and insurers who seem to look only a short way ahead, the whole reward system and policies are based on short term scoring.
Returning to Are we all of a sudden social designers instead of artists in public space? The public research of SocialDesignForWickedProblems wants to make social design into a recognisable and manageable method, give a stronger methodological base to the practice of social design, and to facilitate the connection between the value systems of artists and those of other parties in society such as governments, businesses and other organizations. Although we wholeheartedly agree that social design deserves more visibility and resonance, we question whether a methodological basis is the best way. Time and again our expertise is formulated differently: Artists are good at thinking out of the box. Artists think 'around' things. Artists reframe social issues and create new approaches and perspectives. This latter definition, which comes from the pen of SocialDesignForWickedProblems, we might well rate as the best. Yet, it remains a methodical interpretation that never fully reflects our disruptive practice. And is methodology really necessary in order to better sell this art practice?
Ultimately during our Rietveld Research Residency, we discovered important answers through the work of two authors. The books of Jaap Boonstra and Mieke Moor reinforced our impression that our anti-methodological 'strategy' might just be really productive.
'More than 70% of the transition programmes in organizations either get bogged down prematurely or else fail to achieve the intended result,' says Jaap Boonstra, professor of 'Organizational Change and Learning' at the University of Amsterdam. Planned change is not sufficient in a dynamic environment filled with ambiguous issues. He introduces a new approach to change, based on the chaos theory. 'Organizations are on the border of stability and instability. Unstable situations lead to creativity. Organizing, innovating and learning are dynamic processes in which people interact and communicate. This type of change has no clear goals. It's an open procedure. It goes beyond planned change. It's like walking on water.'
With Peter Hop, who started off in nursing, became director of a nursing home, and is now active as an advisor in the field of 'care renewal', we found the ideal intermediary. With Peter we are starting a new project at ORO, an organisation that offers care to people with Down's syndrome or autistic spectrum disorder. The context of the assignment is an institutional terrain in transition, in which outside society is becoming increasingly more intertwined with the world of the inhabitants, whereby you can, of course, immediately begin to question who really has the learning difficulties. A large number of behavioural psychologists have pointed out the fallibility of our reasoning. We consider ourselves to be rational beings, but we just muddle along
What makes this assignment so different from others? It's not an art assignment. And there is no art commission. We don't have to deal with a designated art budget, but with a realistic project budget. We are immediately gathered around the table with all those involved in the transition of the institute's terrain. We are able to immediately delve deeper into the organisation and the material. The stakes are higher. We owe that to Peter's expertise, Peter knows this world through and through. At the same time, he sees the disruptive value of art. Peter detests institutions that observe the neighbours' renovation and then, out of a lack of creativity, simply copy it.
Someone with knowledge of behavioural psychology can add extra value to art projects, but if one takes it even further, and really delves deep into the content, we think it's possible to take it all a step further. There, where art in public space ends, new territories can be exploited.
In short: we think that this form of co-creation can offer a fantastic new future to artists and designers who want to apply themselves to societal issues. That's why we have also invited Sjoerd today. Because we think that a political scientist who is educating himself in the arts is going in the direction that we should all be taking. We have to educate one another if we hope to get to grips with current societal and economic problems. The research doesn't end here, today. We have a long way ahead of us.ฉ Sjaak Langenberg, 2013. All rights reserved. This text is intended solely for personal use. No part of this publication may be reproduced or displayed without prior written permission from the author.