Lunch is a good time for meetings. I had been introduced to Melle Smets http://www.mellesmets.nl (he rents one the apartments in the building from SidM) at the Neverland Cinema so over lunch I chatted to him to find out more about his work. He told me about his project travelling along the highways in of The Netherlands to see if was possible to live on them. This project then became a book with his partner on the highway, Bran Esser called Snelweg Verhalen and is about to become a documentary on TV. The project also resulted in a new museum dedicated to the Dutch highways.
From living in a car and making it his home for this project he then travelled to Ghana to a small town dedicated to making new cars from scrap cars called Suame Magazine. Here he lived with the local craftspeople and with them built a car. The car was designed to be the best car they could think of with multi-functions, for example a truck that also doubled-up as a market stall. Why did he do all this?
Melle is interested in the study of landscape, how humans and land interact and the exchange between us. He is also interested in stories and what we can learn from them. He talked about our fascination with the ‘new’ and how this is seen as exciting but he feels we don’t ask enough about the ‘old’. He asks, ‘What is real innovation, there are so many things that are labelled innovative but are they really – perhaps the bicycle and the condom?’ (we are in Netherlands after all). He uses the word ‘de-systemisation’ , first thinking about all our systems and strategies and then re-looking at what we don’t need and also what we can utilise from the modern to do something constructive not obstructive. This is what led him to his current work at the university of Utrecht as he decided it was important to be where there are policy makers and where there is currently funding for innovation.
His current project has been to set up a new department at Utrecht university that is called The Department of Search (just ‘Search’, not ‘Research’) that brings artists and scientists together. He is two years in and is finally getting somewhere. At the beginning, he just had to squat on the fields outside. I asked if they tried to remove him, ‘Yes of course’, he says, but because of his previous work, the media knew him and obviously began a feature on what he was doing. An irresistible story for them and probably highly irritating to the establishment, but of course it meant they needed to listen to his proposals and so now they are and he is beginning to work within the university not from the outside. They have had some investment from the municipality but not much yet from the university itself. I thought of the Institute I am involved in in the UK at the University of Leicester where they had to convince a panel to invest in research into Cultural and Media Economies http://www2.le.ac.uk/institutes/cameo In the UK we are used to doing things from the inside out not outside in. Perhaps we are worried about not being taken seriously if we try another way. Melle’s way has brought in networks of artists and thinkers including journalists who didn’t have access to the university previously. There is an event this year called the Big Campus Debate which brings the network together and it will be interesting to see what this new movement achieves.
My next visit took me 5 minutes around the corner to Banierstraat 62 to the studio of artist Daan den Houter http://www.daandenhouter.com. He shares the building with two other artists who have studios in it and the ground floor is their common space which is kitted out as a semi professional kitchen that people can hire out.
Two years ago Daan founded the B-Cademy, a year-long post-academic course for young artists that teaches them how to survive as artists. They travel from all over the Netherlands and each month they spend a day at the space where they have visiting lecturers and can discuss how to survive including having the tools they need to run a business. To be selected they need to bring along their artwork and be willing to donate a large piece to the B-Cademy (worth 500 Euros) and several smaller pieces (each worth 100 Euros) that are given also to visiting lecturers as payment. This first exercise teaches them about how to price their work before they have even begun the training! There is also a show where they can sell at the beginning and at the end of the year where they can sell pieces. This, as I know from my own graduate support project WebinArt (which will support 40 graduates for an 8 month programme ) is wholly absorbing work. I asked if people stayed in touch, ‘Yes, they do’, he says and it’s great to see their confidence grow as a group over the year. Last year they had a few drop outs which he said was hard to deal with as with as they invest so much in the ten that are chosen.
In addition to this work, Daan received some of the Art of Impact funding from Stad in de Maak to start his kitchen. This is set up as a Foundation which seems to be the equivalent of a Social Enterprise in the UK. It is a semi-professional kitchen at the ground floor which can be hired by groups for dinners etc. There is also a garden which opens towards the small square. Anyone can hire it whether for their own parties or families or local providing a service, as long as they leave it how they found it. The income from this helps subsidise the rent for the studios and is another income strand for the artists themselves.
I was fascinated by Daan’s journey as an artist and how he combines both the social side of his work and his own practice. He is always having new ideas. This is a theme with everyone I have met so far, the ideas stream out of them like an energy force. He showed me some of his new pieces where he is working with ice. The work was kept in the freezer and when it is taken out for the exhibitions it basically takes 4 hours to melt. The recent collaboration with his girlfriend, a photographer saw the ice works melting over her photographs. I loved these pieces. Dan uses vibrant colours and all his work explores a way of looking at questions you ask when your own sub-conscious reacts to the world you are looking at. Amongst his work, there were so many pieces that could be the subject of a long blog in itself e.g. the canvas that is painted over every few weeks, the metal cubes with one that holds some gold inside, but for this blog it wanted to know about Daan’s role at Stad in de Maak. He was the first ‘visual’ artist I had met who was part of the project and he juggles his time working on everything. He is a director too, though not as immersed as the others and of course what he’s interested in foremost, he says, is the art so he keeps coming back to that.