Out of This World - a Preview

Advice in favor of artistic activities at De Meelfabriek (Flour Factory) industrial site, commissioned by SKOR (Foundation Art and Public Space) and SLS (the Leiden Student Accommodation Foundation)

“As a child I was fascinated by my local museums and inspired to mimic its display methods,” writes James Putnam in the foreword to his book ‘Art and Artifact, The Museum as Medium’ (1): “I gathered flower-pot fragments, bits of rusty old iron and oddly shaped stones, arranging them in the glass-fronted bookcase in my bedroom and labeling them as imaginary ancient artifacts. Besides suggesting my ambition to become a museum curator, it is perhaps significant that my instinctive, naïve enthusiasm for collecting and presenting objects in such a manner is motivated more by their evocative display than by any historical authenticity.”

Although the above-mentioned book by Putnam is one that you can browse without ever wanting to put it down (I will often be quoting from it visually), such a statement is of course like swearing in church if you want to relate it to art and cultural activities in the oldest university city in the Netherlands: Leiden. In this context I am mainly concerned with the playful pleasure to be gained in contact with artifacts and other artistic beauty. Towards an account then of how, in the potential residential community of a renovated Flour factory complex with roughly 400 inhabitants, the presence of art might be dealt with.

The key to this is the historically arisen concern with science, arts and cultures which is self-evidently present in Leiden. Signs and artifacts from the earliest history of mankind are preserved here and made accessible to the public in numerous museums. While in addition virtually all the faculties of the University of Leiden are nonetheless bursting with carefully managed treasure-houses. For an initial orientation towards the recommendation at hand, seven professors from the University of Leiden were generously prepared to give me a guided tour of all these rooms, which are not normally open to the public, explaining the amazing extent of materials and objects available for numerous studies concerning the meaning of our past.

Subjects enough. The Faculty of Sinology: the Van Gulik collection, for example, with story telling, dissertations on standards and values, models for children’s drawings, horoscopes, medicine, games, botany and zoology, graphic design, letters, erotic prints from the 17th and 18th century. In the Bibliotheca Thysiana: the Blue Atlas, plants, birds, fish, frogs, seasons, superb illustrations of costumes, music for lute from the 17th century, symbols of the dance of death. A random selection from the University library: everything about cartography, pieces of music, about ‘making art’, Oriental collection, a plan for a water reservoir in Middelburg, maps of the polders, land registry, administrative documents. In the Anatomical Museum: human skeletons in all sizes, from unborn children to adults, preserved body parts, some demonstrating diseases. Collection of old and modern graphics, likewise photography, photographic apparatuses and curiosa, at a rough count around 3000,000 items kept at room temperature in drawers. The science of paper: examples of all types of writing support, material for stories based on personal bookkeeping, prints with stories, letters, contracts, etc., some of them on the oldest parchment dating from the 9th century BC. And I’ve not even mentioned the Botanical Gardens, the Observatory and the faculty of Archaeology. In short too much to enumerate, a few ‘Wunderkammers’ full. All in all a good deal of material that (also) lends itself to (creative) translation and inspiration for today as well as research into the meaning of it all for our future.

All of this together can, for someone who wants to hold their ground in today’s reality, yield quite an incongruous picture. There can never be enough hammering away at the fact that some awareness of our past is of eminent importance. The paradox is clearly described by Frederick Turner, Professor of Arts and Humanities at the University of Texas: “Any present inhabitant of the past is also the fore-runner of a prophetic seer and advance guard of the future. A contemporary cliché holds that we should pay attention to the future, because that’s where we will spend the rest of our lives. It would be more accurate to say that we should pay attention to the past, for the exact same reason.”

Turner says this at a time when the turnover rate of our attention, our ability to deal with what we come across, and all the influences that make themselves felt on our lives, is greater than ever. The influence of electronic and other media play a part in this. The technological developments too that play a role in representing who and what we are and the sorts of drama and otherwise that that can produce, provide us with more and more ideas about an ‘as if’. For film and television it has long been possible to show us vivid things as though they were real, even though they do not exist. An actor, once he is electronically recorded, can multiply himself and combat danger coming from all sides in situations that could not possibly exist. We are becoming more and more accustomed, in increasingly advanced games if so desired, to the naturalness of a virtual world, which can be endlessly falsified.

Not far from the headquarters of the Leiden Student Accommodation Foundation (co-owner of the Flour Factory), and after I had suddenly encountered the aroma of freshly-baked bread (an aroma that reminded me of the importance of ‘breaking bread together’), I stood watching a blacksmith, such a one as I remembered had once existed. It was a perfectly executed decor, so to speak, of something whose existence I had once known but was now nevertheless confronted with in reality and not as something staged in an amusement park. The blacksmith was doing his work, from forging horseshoes to manufacturing fancy railings. I would like to place the blacksmith immediately within the concept for the Flour Factory, in the sense that this is not a question of a reconstruction, but of actual reality. I’m coming to speak about this while a section of the two-yearly representation of worldly art potential is described to me: “At ‘Utopia Station’ (part of the Venice Biennial 2003), the trivial, the ephemeral, the haphazard, the unabashedly useless, the would-be useful, the overtly unlovely – all play a role in the conceptual framework of thinking about a better world.” (2)  Artists are now mostly following the concepts of curators instead of being on hand to give their own direction.

From a blacksmith in Leiden to the Venice Biennial is certainly to turn a tight corner, but I assure you, there’s a place for everything. The request, after all, was to advise on the organic embedding of art and cultural elements in the redevelopment of the Flour Factory offered to the Leiden community for reusing. Disneyfication already lay in wait with my coveted blacksmith, and if art and culture still want to manage to acquire a garish place these days then you all too soon arrive at tourist attractions like Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao or the Tate Modern in London.
“The Democratic revolution coursing through society has changed our very definition of culture. The key to the reputation of, say, a singer in an old order would have been who liked her. The key to fame today is how many like her. And by that yardstick Madonna will always trump Jessye Norman. Quantity has become quality.” (3)  As far as I am concerned viewing figures ought not to provide guidance, which brings us, it seems, right into the discussion that has been raging for years concerning the Stedelijk Museum and which eventually resulted in what seems to be the closure of the museum for the coming years.

Rutger Wolfson, one of the ‘young Turks’ as regards new ideas about art, suggested solving the crisis by simply abolishing the perspective of art history. He sees it as an atrophied point of view: “You should not look at art from the viewpoint of the traditional canon, but from the present. What is it about, what does it have to say now.” (4)  I’ll leave this discussion to the specialists. I’d like instead to focus on Faulkner’s statement, “The past is not dead, it’s not even past.”

Having arrived at this point, I can supply as an initial run-down: a playful contact with things, a serious understanding of the past (in Leiden, in my opinion, that can hardly be different or better, priority being given to quality, not quantity), not an amusement park but something other: confronting the present with the past. Only not so emphatically, but casually, so as to stimulate individual positions.

Allow me to clarify what the Flour Factory seems able to offer in spatial terms. We’re talking about a gigantic building to which Peter Zumthor’s architectural ingenuity is attempting to give a useful image. What this yields - given the current phase - is living and working space for students, living and working space for private individuals, varying from flat to so-called loft, in addition to studios, offices and working spaces with numerous possible uses. This exercise is provisionally intended to indicate which spaces you can designate for art and culture and why.

In the most recent version it has now become possible, apart from a considerable amount of space reserved for parking cars, to literally walk between, to and under the various buildings. A covered water-side walk in a whimsical pattern that at the same time opens up the industrial site in various directions towards the city. (You frequently hear by the way that the Flour Factory lies on the ‘wrong side’ of the city, something that in my view means that the programme to be sketched out should help open up the area.) I do not see these promenades as constants, but as journeys of discovery constantly changing in time. Almost as a seduction manoeuvre, an area can be created in which art mixed with, or in confrontation with, artifacts in the possession of the University, can also have a place.

A grant from the Fund for Art, Design and Architecture (BKVB), enabled me to do my own thing as an artist for the duration of a year in one of the P.S.1/MoMA studios in New York. Almost round the corner from the flat on Lexington Avenue where we were living, you walked on the way to the Metro past a large window of a certain Doug Taylor. His window was always full of a changing variety of high-quality curios. Selections from the growing supply of discoveries were to be encountered in almost weekly variations. Taylor went from time to time on forays into the hinterland of America, just as I myself looked for a lot of material for my visual work on interminable walks through New York. A lot of what Taylor came up with and what I found myself ended up in visual works. The crucial aspect for this story, however, is the special aura of that shop window, a sort of nagging promise of adventure. A Wunderkammer with continually changing contents.

I am thus adding an element here to what we have in the way of an inventory, namely the phenomenon of shop windows, located on the walking routes across the Flour Factory complex. These can vary in size depending on use and intention: flat, shallow, or looking onto a studio. Contrasts can be presented in this way almost in passing, visually or spatially, depending on the nature of what is on offer.

Mixed in with the experiences one gains while walking, I see here also the smithy, or an excellent bakery, or a first class chip shop or herring cart, a small flower shop, all of them sliding in and out between windows as transplantable set-pieces telling their own varying story, with continuously new lines of approach for the imagination to follow. The adventure of superior traditions brought to tireless self-evidence. Or as Frans de Ruiter put it in his Performance cum Oration, or ‘Perforatie’ as he called it:
“Above all I advocate giving unconditional space to the freedom of the artist and the scientist, freedom that he must and will demand for himself, to make something new whose indispensability nobody could have foreseen.”

And who knows, perhaps that is an interpretation of the ‘Museum as Medium’, the museum more as inspiration than as literal interpretation. For the slowly developing total picture we are still missing the introduction of two other elements. Both are derived from what the University of Leiden has to offer further, or from what the idea of a place almost bursting at the seams with an accumulated past can supply in the way of meanings. The nearest we get to it now is the fact that De Ruiter’s oration was also the starting shot for the creation of a Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
A no mean future achievement is that it will be possible only here, in Leiden, to obtain a doctorate as an artist (as a scientist that was already previously possible). In the Flour Factory, then, students from this faculty will not only be living, but also coming to work, in what we will call ‘cells’, and studios and laboratories. There should therefore also be spaces provided in which the results of diligent experiments can be shown and tested.

Together with so much stable science, now too there will be the surmised presence of visual arts, and together all the ‘higher’, the almost banal presence of pure craftsmanship that I would certainly wish to ascribe to a blacksmith, a chip fryer, a herring seller, and a flower arranger or baker. However, these are only examples, signals. All the performances of the Bread and Puppet Theatre from Vermont, USA, feature bread baked parallel to the performance, which at the end of the performance, crusty and supplied with a generous layer of mashed garlic, is shared amongst the public. That recipe would have its place here, so that ‘breaking bread together’ can continue to exist as knowledge and meaning. A sidestreet perhaps, but still.

We now come to the second, still missing element in my story. In periodically putting together a programme for DasArts participants, it was always my conviction that, with all these teaching methods, all this transfer of knowledge - firmly planned and presented - , you had to insert moments at which ‘the stairs should be smeared with soft soap’. To see whether, when you turn the whole thing on its head, you can’t create a situation that allows for new insights, new applications of creativity. To create a place where recognised rules are dislocated in order to establish them anew.

When we now have imaginary walking routes with here and there all manner of ways of looking in, which moreover can be variably programmed, when we schedule students for a new faculty in studios and working spaces and create places for presenting the results, when all of this succeeds in being enriched by an environment of deeply felt historical awareness, the knowledge of which is represented by corresponding artifacts, when a small complex would be present in addition to performance space, then I would like to advocate here the presence of a department of the Museum of Jurassic Technology. As inspiring haven, but also as container for fantasy and imagination for the public, visitors and students, artists, together. A museum as medium, as a place for play.

The Museum of Jurassic Technology was set up in 1989 by David Wilson. Besides its main building in Los Angeles it also has a small branch in the Karl Ernst Osthaus Museum in Hagen, Germany. I am advocating a literal branch of this idea in the Flour Factory. It would be simple to achieve by granting a temporary professorship in the Faculty of Arts (Arts and Sciences) to David Wilson. An individual interpretation of the phenomenon would then be an inevitable consequence.

Barbara Kirshenblatt Gimblet, Professor in Performance Studies at New York University’s Tisch School of Drama and faculty head, characterises the Museum of Jurassic Technology as follows: “What I so value about David Wilson’s work is how he redeems what might be called garbage knowledge, the outtakes of science, wrong information, and discredited theories, starting with Noah’s ark, which he offers up as the first museum. ... What the Museum of Jurassic Technology ‘saves’, if you will, is an original imaginative capacity, historically formed, in an era of scientific uncertainty. As if to say, without the ability to imagine the improbable, we will fail to imagine, let alone recognize the possible. Using the museum itself as medium, as his art practice, Wilson works with the poetics and possibilities of the unknown, the unknowable, the unauthorized, and the purely speculative.”

There you are, a final missing link. Leiden already has a Naturalis and there’s a Science Park on the way. I do not envision large-scale explications for the Flour Factory. It’s more to do with a form of tracking, not restricted to a building but present as the sum of things in an area for whoever has become curious about it. I mean that it should be a question of a climate in which creative art should be situated, adjusting itself in time, in the past, present and future. I think that it will turn out to be possible, in the course of the complex’s existence (say 4 years), to create a contact with things which will turn out to be a meaningful addition. Living in the place or visiting it (to see how you can take walks there again), as well as a creative link with the Faculty, can thus be effectuated.

Now is not the time to come up with a grandiose, ambitious plan (as if the development of the Flour Factory is not in itself that already) for the latest art centre, the latest palace for events, or the latest umpteenth festival. If you take a good look around you’ll descry a growing fair-like atmosphere, with numerous festivities and events. The aim should be an organic and small-scale beginning, allowing space for activities to grow, so that firm roots can be developed for when the activities can manifest themselves in full maturity.

Now is the time to make a provisional summary and inventory of the spaces available. The important thing here is that buildings are still able to change their function or use. A hotel today can be a large-scale fitness centre tomorrow, a studio an office, etc.

* The above-mentioned walking routes have only recently been planned, but are possible. How to make portable display windows along these routes, how many there should be, and how large they can be (from poster stands to studios) still has to be worked out. The structure of the complex makes it easy to design a modular system that can be applied at different spots.

* At present there are two buildings in the complex bearing the title Art Building and Studio Building, located fraternally next to each other in an L form. The Art Building is the oldest building in the complex and rather closed. On the upper floors, except for the fifth, there is an open well running along the entire height. Each floor has a gross surface area of approximately 170 square metres. The so-called cells (roughly 3 x 3 metres) could be made on two floors. Table, chair, bookshelf. A total of about 30. At full capacity 35 students take part in the Faculty of Arts.

The ground floor and the first floor, which could include a passage through to the second art building, I want to reserve for the Leiden branch of a Museum of Jurassic Technology.

The last remaining uppermost floor can either be a Dojo (a space for combat sports), for which there is local interest, or a sound studio for the benefit of the Faculty of Arts.

* The adjoining Studio Building has 7 floors, not including the ground floor, each of which has a gross surface area of 290 square metres. I propose putting part two of the Museum of Jurassic Technology on the first floor. On each of the next four floors two studios, partly soundproofed, and if not soundproofed then for using as rehearsal space or for small presentations with a very restricted public presence. Each of the three remaining floors allow space for two studios for artists in residence. Half has to be left over in any case for storage. The top floor has a loft and studio for a foreign guest or an artist in residence.

* There remains a large area underneath the silo building (Battery Building). Next to an artificial harbour is a grand café. The rest of the area is still open and is characterised by the presence of heavy columns supporting the concrete silo chute. The height in this part varies from 7 to 3.5 metres. A space of around 300 square metres can be created here, which, in its entirely or divided up, can be used for theatre and performances, perhaps alternating with larger exhibitions. The space in this section is challenging and each time the artists involved will have to make their own creative use of it.

N.b. 1 Other than for a guest artist from abroad there are no living spaces here for students or artists in residence, who are presumed to live elsewhere in the complex.

N.b. 2  The display windows are filled by the artists in residence, by the participants in the activities of the Faculty of Arts, and with artifacts from the treasure-houses of the university and other international sources, decided by an editorial board still to be established.

To sum up, what is now at hand, what this is:

We’re talking about a guiding advice, containing the basic features upon which the further programme can be elaborated.

The main features are:
a. the walking area, with display windows
b. The integrated living/working presence of students from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences of the University of Leiden and
c. the presentations, not only in display windows, but also in working spaces and presentation spaces for students participating in the study programme.
There is now room for:
d. a presentation space for other faculties (small, larger or specific presentations)
e. A permanent branch of the Museum of Jurassic Technology, also to facilitate cross-connections with other creative entities, as suggested here.
It will be a matter of:
f. artists in residence from the Netherlands and one from abroad, with presentations of work produced during these residencies.
In terms of the use of working and presentation spaces it should be possible to take up (for example) events elsewhere in Leiden.

Still to follow are initial and secondary policy supporting appendices, floor plans, pilot schedules for programming, the use of display windows visualised in various storyboards, a brief survey of potential forms of cooperation other than those already mentioned.

(1) James Putnam, Art and Artifact; The Museum as Medium. Thames & Hudson, London, 2001.
(2) Linda Nuchlin, re Utopia Station, curated by Molly Nesbit, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Rirkit Tiravanya. In: Artforum, Sept. 2003, p 179.
(3) Fareed Zakaria, The Future of Freedom. W.W.Norton & Company, New York, p.14,
(4) Pam Emmerik, Het autisme van de kunstbeschouwers. In: NRC Handelsblad, Cultureel Supplement, 12 Sept. 2003, p. 18. (n.a.v.  ‘Kunst in crisis’ Uitgeverij Prometheus)

Leiden (NL)


SKOR/SLS. Edited by Anja Krans. Translated by Nancy Forest-Flier