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The art of unsettling: mobile architecture and its political surplus value


Gijs van Oenen


The 20th century is no more, and the last remaining grass lots between motorways and railway tracks in the Netherlands have been designated ‘Vinex’ locations– target areas for new urban development planning. The small Dutch territory is now entirely caught in a matrix of land use plans, procedures and permits. Entirely? Well no, a handful of small unruly pockets of land are still stubbornly resisting colonization by the planning culture. It is round these indeterminate domains that my narrative unfolds. Stacked containers, dismantled masts; mobile architectures as undefined encampments, temporary refuges from the imperatives of public-private regulation. The question is: what is the potential surplus value of these artistic havens? How can they hold their own within PPP, the empire of Public Private Planning – that is to say, how can they survive without becoming permanently alienated from PPP society, while simultaneously resisting its assimilating tendencies? How can we voice the feeling that these final indigestible remains of Dutch soil are of vital importance for the political, cultural and social metabolism of a Netherlands otherwise planned to capacity?

This feeling – that mobile-architectural artworks enable counterpunching in times of PPP – is not without problems; the history of artistic intervention in political plan-making has always been a touchy business. Take the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio who in 1919 set sail with a small band of adventurers to capture the town of Fiume (now Rijeka in Croatia), where he proclaimed a ‘free state’ that lasted a year or so (anyway, longer than the average post-WWII Italian government). Then there are artists who are not actually on a political mission, limiting themselves instead to producing politically engaged art; right or left, these also appear somewhat suspect. Think of Leni Riefenstahl’s film Triumph des Willens or Bertolt Brecht’s ‘Lehrstücke’ (learning plays). Of course more appealing examples also exist, such as the Social-Realist murals of Diego Rivera in Mexico, Picasso’s Guernica, or AVL-Ville, the anarchistic free state founded by the Dutch artist Joep van Lieshout in Rotterdam’s former docklands. It’s a difficult genre – but not an impossible one.

The notion of ‘free state’ as wielded by Van Lieshout actually reflects very well both the strength and the problematic side of the mildly anarchistic order he aspired to in AVL-Ville (a free state that, like D’Annunzio’s, lasted for about a year). On the one hand, this is a domain where normal laws and rules are momentarily suspended – a moderately transgressive zone where tinkering on is more important than measuring off, and improvisation takes precedence over permits. The accent in free state is on ‘free’: free from the bureaucratic propensity to intervene and regulate, from planners, allocators and inspectors. Once the Dutch weekly Vrij Nederland (Free Netherlands - what’s in a name?) published an interview with an escapologist who for years had plied his trade in a travelling circus. He enjoyed his work, but preferred to let his wife deal with the red tape his self-employed business often ran into. ‘I’d rather hang upside-down in handcuffs ten metres above the ground on a burning rope than have to discuss matters with a civil servant’, he confided with the reporter.

That is the true spirit of the free state: a place without civil servants, where you are free to drop dead unsupervised – undisturbed, yes, but also uninsured and uncared for. Not everyone is cut out for this kind of freedom. But the free state has another obverse, which becomes apparent if we shift the accent to the second term: ‘state’. Van Lieshout latched onto this as well, which is why he has commissioned his own constitution and fitted a machine gun on a Mercedes pick-up truck, warlord style – deterring potential enemies all the way to the Heyplaat across the Maas river. The free state is a state too, with its own rules, borders and means of enforcing order.

AVL-Ville was a state of its own that militated against what Van Lieshout was wont to describe as ‘the state monopolies’ – not just monopolies on violence but also on more mundane matters such as waste disposal, the provision of energy and sewerage. However, this political notion rests for many reasons on wishful thinking, reasons that are of interest to devisers of new humane game parks - or parasites. Firstly, political alliances, even regular nation-states like the Netherlands, have no further need of anti-aircraft guns. Unquestionably the Netherlands is a sovereign state, yet during the entire 20th century it has not been able or willing to seriously defy hostile forces. In the War against Terror it dispatched ships in the direction of Afghanistan, but first made sure that ‘no heightened risk’ was to be expected (but then what is the point of going?), and sent fighter planes on condition that they wouldn’t have to fight. ‘Leaving church before the sermon’, as the old Dutch expression goes. Cowardly? Maybe, but the valuable lesson here is that firepower is no longer a condition for sovereignty. Old-fashioned defence of national borders has been out of the question in our particular western dominions. These days Schiphol airport (and not the Rhine) is the main port of entry, or perhaps even more to the point: the service windows of social services departments, housing corporations, schools and hospitals.

This brings me to my second footnote to the political pretences of today’s ‘free states’. These days, institutions such as those named above are no longer just part of ‘the state’. They have either become independent or gone commercial, having been commodified in the interests of efficiency operations, liberalization and a unified Europe. It is therefore no longer possible to engage in politics by taking over vital state organs, as one would have done in good old revolutionary times. Those organs have in fact already been taken over, that is to say, they have been outsourced and commodified in the name of PPP. These days, you can’t simply proclaim an independent state; you have to ‘repossess’ it from a Kafkaesque network of public-private collaboration, driven by the liberalized eroticisms of deregulation and competition.

And that’s a best case scenario. If we are not so lucky, we will be faced not with public-private collaboration but with their conflict instead. On the one hand we find an increasing proclivity to rules and regulations, by a government that is lured by the prospect of strict enforcement rather than toleration; on the other hand, we encounter a market system that seems to falter more than function. With the economy faltering and stock markets crashing, many dreams of public-private services go up in smoke.

How in these circumstances can we continue to project the contours of a free state within the tight building alignments and meticulously calibrated sight lines of the PPP-imbued Vinex areas? What are the parameters for practices of artistic freedom in the monocultural life of newly bred neighbourhoods? Well, these parameters can perhaps be found in ‘parasites’: unstable places, mobile fixations, nomadic nests, artists’ impressions in the true sense of the word: no more – but equally no less – than ‘impressions’, that can be swept away over time, artistic markings acting as temporary stations for local facilities, from youth centre to local café, from billboard house to airstream caravan.

Here the ‘state’ in ‘free state’ refers less to public governance or national territorial borders than to a way of being, a condition or characteristic of living and dwelling in the new frontier of the polder. It is here that art must make use of what is locally available, what is vacant or disused, what has slipped through the cracks of the PPP matrix. In the absence of abandoned industrial heritage, such as we encounter in former dockland areas in cities such as Amsterdam, Rotterdam, or London, it makes sense at locations like Leidsche Rijn to take those domains yet to be appropriated and have them temporarily function as free territory. We should take the word ‘function’ literally, as it is a less a question of establishing than of inciting, of having something happen, of setting the pace instead of pinning in place.

The aspect of incitement illustrates the fundamentally Utopian nature of free states or independent territories. Unlike ideologies, which reflect dominant ideas and seek to enforce existing order, Utopias are attempts to conjure up alternatives to the status quo. According to the sociologist Karl Mannheim, who introduced this distinction, a world without Utopianism would be horrendous, a society of individuals only concerned with their own interests. He feared this would lead to a social science limited to techniques for adapting people, to a socialism that replaces the broad Utopian perspective with the narrow-minded view of councils advising parliament and trade unions focused on mere details. Indeed, something resembling the political-administrative environment (Umwelt) in which we live today, and pretty much the reason why free territories - whether AVL-Ville, Leidsche Rijn or the anarchistic Free Radio 100 in Amsterdam – seek to achieve an autonomous state within a state.

Common to practical utopianism and mobile architecture is that they construct tangible, serious yet not top-heavy parameters/parasites for alternative habitats. In that sense, they are both light: like modern life generally they have moved beyond ideology, are fleeting, indicative and suggestive rather than normative or binding. This could be called conformist, and perhaps even opportunist. But on the other hand it means that the modern utopia does not feel the need to isolate itself from civil society and its emancipatory tendencies. Utopians are modern, emancipated citizens too – not least because the government (read the hypercomplex totality of public-private networks, or PPP) literally and metaphorically provokes it. Utopians apply for subsidies, engage in fundraising, or work from a commercial basis the way Van Lieshout does. This is where ‘state art’ meets ‘street art’; social recognition and artistic or philosophic pretence attain common ground and shared social objectives.

Apart from being light, utopian free states can be educational. This, again, derives from the nature of utopia as a direct, socially oriented way of life. A basic facet of utopian free territories is not so much the right to do as you please regardless of the welfare of others, as the experience that in the event of setbacks, problems or conflicts you have to look for a solution yourself without the support of priest, policeman or insurer. At times this leads to chaos, indifference and even disaster – see the recent ‘free states’ of Enschede (the fireworks explosions) and Volendam (the café fire). But there market ideology rather than Utopia held sway. In less commerce-prone utopias, the ability to manage for oneself and with others takes precedence over filing claims, or settling up. This can only be done in a culture which in and through its very transgression and relativism towards rules is able to develop self-regulating and self-restricting capacities. What our society needs above all is to restore, not clear-cut standards but the capacity to put up with deficient standards. And this for me is the essence of the much-discussed ‘gedogen’ – ‘tolerance practices’, or ‘forbearance’ – in the Netherlands: not spineless or lax, but resilient and creative.

Too little is it recognized that an unruly legal order may well imply a strong sense of standards. Indeed, legal orders are well served by people who master the art of colonizing contumacious places, ‘informal areas’ and ambiguous zones in such a way that they do not turn illegal, chaotic or fundamentalist. It is exactly this colonizing that teaches one to develop ways of dealing with the wildness of daily life, ways that are more productive than the categorical rejection of unruly practices as illegal, or the commonplace rhetoric of ‘the law’s the law’ and ‘we’ll just have to stick to the rules’.

This brings me to the legal-philosophical core of free territories and more generally of practices that are, shall we say, worthy of toleration, or forbearance – which to me is no disqualification but very much an honorary title. The point here is that illegal practices conducted within a legal order have a chance of success, that they get on speaking terms with that order though without immediately adopting the law’s particular speech and accent. This, then, is the surplus value of ‘mobile architecture light’ in Vinex times: not occupying, retaining and prescribing but provoking, exploring and ‘standing out’ (Ex-istenz, in the Heideggerian sense). In an article in the contemporary arts magazine Parachute Patricia van Ulzen pinpoints a factor common to the work of both Rem Koolhaas and Atelier van Lieshout, that it performs ‘according to the rules of efficiency and functionality and yet remains wide open for the bizarre and the intangible.’ That for me is the most relevant parallel to be drawn between aesthetics and ethics, artists’ workplace and political free state; creating and maintaining openness within the given order, advancing unruly order, learning to embrace wildness.



Jennifer Allen, ‘Up the Organization’, in: Artforum, April 2001

Atelier van Lieshout, The Good, the Bad + the Ugly (Rotterdam 1998)

Frank Manuel and Fritzie Manuel, Utopian Thought in the Western World (Harvard 1979)

Gijs van Oenen, Het surplus van illegaliteit (Amsterdam 2002)

Gijs van Oenen (ed.), Ongeregelde orde (Amsterdam 2002)

Saskia Poldervaart, Tegen conventioneel fatsoen en zekerheid (Amsterdam 1993)

This article has appeared in  Parasite Paradise. A manifesto for temporary architecture and flexible urbanism. SKOR (Foundation for art and public space) and NAI publishers 2003, p. 14-19.

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