Polderland ist abgebrannt

The demonstration in The Hague against disproportionate, arbitrary and punitive cutbacks was a predictable failure in that it did not sway parliament. Zijlstra's plan was debated in the Second Chamber immediately after the demonstration ended officially. A smaller, unofficial demonstration moved from the Malieveld, where the large gathering had taken place, to the parliament buildings at the Binnenhof - where charming encounters with the riot police ensued. As was to be expected, the debate did not see the government budge on any of the major issues. A few symbolic sweets to the provinces outside the metropolitan Randstad area, but that was about it. All the institutions and media that have been mentioned before remain under acute threat.

That being said, the demonstration was a success in that it gathered seven to ten thousand people and instilled in them (well, perhaps not all of them, but lots of them) the need to engage in long-term activism that cannot simply be a fight for funding. Rather, they have to attack this coalition in its entirety, on points ranging from the crusade against halal meat to a flurry of measures that increase social inequality - and attack it with acts of the imagination that forge new social montages. Consensus-driven polder culture has been dead for some time now, and it is now patently clear that clinging on to the illusion of "business as usual" is no longer an option. (See also Dominiek Ruyters's piece on the Metropolis site, in Dutch.)

Of course, the material basis for a lot of crucial practices is still being undermined. It remains to be seen to which extent intellectual and artistic life will remain viable in the land of Wilders. That they will morph and mutate is certain.

Image by Gert-Jan Kocken (banner by Willum Geerts).

Protest in and between Rotterdam and The Hague

"Finally Less Art" was the massive June 22 front-page headline of a national Dutch newspaper whose "trendy" name, nrc next, says a lot about the state of the media and public debate in Holland. The article raised some valid points about the high number of art schools in the country, but the headline created the pernicious suggestion that the proposed cutbacks are a salutary measure rather than a destructive attack on an entire infrastructure. In general, even the so-called "quality newspapers" have hardly conveyed any sense of urgency over "Butcher" Zijlstra's measures.

In France or Germany, the middle class has still has a bourgeois self-image which, ideologically suspect and self-deceiving as it may be, makes appreciation for art de rigueur. The Dutch press response, such as it is, shows that the Dutch bourgeoisie has abolished itself, leaving behind a middle class defined in purely economic terms, without an ideological Überbau—apart from some perfunctory belief in a Dutch a "culture" that is identified with a whitewashed past. Attempts to mobilize the opera-visiting faction of the VVD (the right-wing liberals) have proven futile. Hence the rather desperate attempts from the cultural field to appeal to the only rationale for anything: the economic rationale. Hey, we're already generating extra funding! We're being business-like! We're part of the creative industries—they were supposed to be important, right? And in any case, if we're all going to be unemployed we'll just cost the state more money. Meanwhile, art institutions have predictably started a lot of individual petitions to save their respective skins. It is tempting to attack them and to accuse them of ditching solidarity for "each man for himself" politics, but the existence of these petitions is not the problem. Rather, the problem is the lack of a general strategy to influence what remains with the public sphere with a discourse that refuses to accept the ideological framework created by Zijlstra.

This also means that the art cutbacks in their present form must be seen as one form of social engineering among others employed by this government. Far from being a "natural" consequence of market imperatives, these post-political policies must be questioned—must be politicized. In the process, the legitimacy and necessity of art must redefined. One can no longer count either on nineteenth-century bourgeois reflexes or on late-twentieth-century narratives (that were historical compromises between social-democratic ideals and neo-liberal dogma) about the support of art as part of the creative industries. Obviously this is easier said than done, especially given the plurality of actors involved, and it is getting late. The decisive day in parliament is coming Monday, and the signs are not good at all - which is why everyone should support and participate in the last-ditch effort to mount a protest that will at the very least be highly visible. The so-called Mars der beschaving will march from Rotterdam on June 26 to The Hague on June 27; see http://www.marsderbeschaving.nl/. On Monday afternoon a big demonstration will take place on the Malieveld:

Update: Jorinde Seijdel has published an excellent analysis (in Dutch) on the Metropolis site. She stresses the bankruptcy of a certain Dutch art world habitus, which suffered from ideological over-identification with the state apparatus. The Dutch art world has long been riddled with members and voters of D66, the liberal-with-a-social-touch party that engineered the "Purple" coalition of the 1990s, whose "end of ideology" Third Way agenda suggested that a post-political paradise was within reach by combining liberal economic policies with a stripped-down version of the welfare state. The upheavals the Fortuyn era put an end to that pipe-dream, though D66 remained the party of choice for the managerial layer of the cultural field - the last stand of an enlightened bourgeoisie that refused to problematize its own brand of technocratic post-politics.

Bankruptcy has one advantage: structural problems can no longer be denied. As Jorinde suggests, the time has come to form coalitions with groups and individuals in other fields, and between fields; to organize. Issues of visibility have proved to be a fruitful point of departure for forms of aesthetic activism such as Petra Bauer and Annette Krauss's Read the Masks, Tradition Is Not Given, and the collaborations by Matthijs de Bruijne and others with cleaners and domestic workers. At the "Populist Front" symposium that Open organized in March (Open being the journal edited by Jorinde, which is now under threat), I was struck by the unwillingness or inability of many speakers to discuss concrete tactics and strategies. Apparently on March 18, Wilders-style populism could still be regarded as a quaint phenomenon in need of leisurely analysis. How things have changed.


Image: Detail of Matthijs de Bruijne's Thrash Museum, installed at Hoog Catharijne in Utrecht as part of a manifestation of the Cleaners' union, March 19, 2011.

Petition Inflation

Predictably, there´s a wave of online petitions responding to the draconian and destructive cutbacks. The wording of some of them is more than a little dubious, as they seem to go out of their way to mimic the government´s neo-liberal phraseology and ideologyarguing that a little bit of subsidy actually produces great economic gains, and so on. But in advance of and in addition to (hopefully) more fundamental forms of contestation, these petitions are still highly necessary, and there is no excuse for not signing them, if necessary with clenched teeth. Note that the deadline is the 20th of June, so make haste!
The general petition against the culture cutbacks, which is in Dutch and appears to be aimed exclusively at Dutch citizens, is here: http://petities.nl/petitie/bezuinigen-op-cultuur-zonder-alle-feiten-nooit?page=1 

The same procedure is followed by the petition in support of SKOR and the journal Open: http://petities.nl/petitie/waar-is-de-kunst-in-de-openbare-ruimte-gebleven

SKOR also encourages its international supporters to sign this petition. If you don't read Dutch, you can find instructions on how to do this (it's a tad complicated) here: http://www.skor.nl/artefact-5550-nl.html.
An international petition in support of the Rijksakademie can be found via http://t.co/ttwaodc, while De Ateliers is here:  http://www.de-ateliers-must-stay.com/

Edit: An open letter in English has just been distributed via e-flux. You can sign it here: https://spreadsheets.google.com/spreadsheet/viewform?formkey=dHkxbE5rVDZ5bGQ0UU9QUnJHbzdULXc6MQ 

And you can leave a statement in support of the Jan van Eyck here: http://janvaneyck-adefendablespace.tumblr.com/ 

Slash & Burn

The Dutch secretary of state for culture, Halbe Zijlstra, has published his policy plan for coming years. In contrast to the official recommendations given to him by the Raad voor Cultuur (an advisory body), the cutbacks will not be spread out over a number of years, but will take immediate effect in 2013. The budget for visual art will shrink from 53,3 to 31 million. If Dutch politics is marked by a tension between populist rhetoric and neoliberal dreams of market-driven excellence, this paper is dominated squarely by the latter, though it takes the form of a kind of scorched earth politics that will find the approval of Zijlstra’s de facto coalition partner, Geert Wilders’ PVV.

Among the more damaging and destructive decisions is the complete cutting of funding for the following (which in most cases will mean their disappearance):

-The so-called post-academic art schools; these include the De Ateliers, the Rijksakademie and the Jan van Eyck Academie. These institutions have been instrumental in fostering international exchange among young artists and a less anti-intellectual, more discursive culture in the Dutch art world. They offer a number of young artists (and, in the case of the Jan van Eyck, theorists) a stimulating context for residencies during which they can continue to develop their practice. Their disappearance would leave a gaping hole.

-The NIMK (formerly Montevideo), an institution for video and media art. It seems that museums should simply take over the collection. Media art as a field with specific requirements is history—a history that will of course not be written, for the happy people of Polderland under VVD, CDA and PVV have no need for history. A national canon is more than enough.

-All but six “presentation institutions” (as local jargon has it). To be precise, six of these institutions will be allowed into the “Basisinfrastructuur” and get structural funding. Others will be left to fend for themselves (for specific projects, they may be able to get incidental funding from a diminished Mondriaan Fonds—the merged Mondriaan Stichting and Fonds BKVB). On the Metropolis M website, Dominiek Ruyters speculates that these six institutions will be Witte de With, de Appel, BAK, Marres, Noorderlicht, De Vleeshal. Some of these names would seem to be on the list mainly because of a holy cow called “cultuurspreiding” (spread of culture). This cow is worshiped with particular zeal by Zijlstra’s Christian democratic collation partners of the CDA. In short: art for the provinces, where the CDA’s remaining voters reside. Hence (supposedly) Noorderlicht in Groningen, De Vleeshal in Middelburg and Marres in Maastricht. That the first two in particular are far less relevant than a number of institutions based in the main cities is irrelevant. It has also been decided that each of the main cities can only have one institution in the Basisinfrastructuur, so if De Appel is in this means automatically that no other Amsterdam-based institution can be, for that reason alone. What was that thing about excellence again?

-SKOR, the Dutch foundation for public art and its journal Open. The Sekula and Burch film the Forgotten Space, which I review in the new Texte zur Kunst, would not exist without SKOR. While I have been extremely critical of the Dutch tradition of "public art" in which art is often supposed to stand in for the social, in recent years SKOR has started to develop in an interesting way. It is now called "Foundation for Art and Public Domain," indicating the transition from a narrow understanding of “public art” to a more fundamental engagement with the notion of publicness in different fields, virtual as well as physical. Open, published by SKOR, spearheaded this transition under Jorinde Seijdel’s editorship, and it has been a rare local publication (published in a Dutch and an English edition) that can articulate important issues and shape debates in a way that goes beyond the horizon of neo-provincialism.

The Dutch art world is marked by a plethora of frequently complacent institutions and an arcane array of subsidy channels, so some downsizing need not be disastrous. However, almost halving the budget is patently disproportionate and wantonly destructive. What's more, in many ways this plan is an unholy alliance of ideological dogmatism and cowardly compromises. Excellence and the market, yes, but let’s not forget about the people in the province of Zeeland. Let’s glorify international success as the ultimate proof of excellence while abolishing the Rijksakademie and the Jan Van Eyck and turn Holland into a stagnant backwater. Let’s claim to be confident that “the market” can fix things on short notice and stand by the dogma that noble private patrons are just itching to support the arts while showing our contempt for these arts with every gesture and every utterance, suggesting that potential patrons would really be better off buying a yacht.

There is an odd proposal in Zijlstra’s plan to offer support for fifty “top talents,” again using the language of excellence; but if these are the top talents, shouldn’t they of all people be able to fend for themselves, according to Zijlstra’s logic? And where will these talents be allowed to develop if not at the Jan van Eyck, De Ateliers or the Rijksakademie, which will be eligible for these 50 places but devoid of much-needed structural funding? Far from stemming purely from the need for financial cutbacks, these are punitive and vindictive measures that appear to be designed to destroy all that stands in the way the reduction of art to mind-numbing blockbuster events and glossy decoration. Nothing could be more political and ideological than this brand of economism.

Meanwhile, the situation at the universities is hardly less grim. Suddenly notions such as "the knowledge economy" and "creative industries," which have been crucial shibboleths of the Dutch version of social-democratically inflected neo-liberal politicy-making, don’t seem to be worth a penny. Or rather, they show their true face: they always were at the service of imposing a relentlessly economistic logic on education and art, resulting in a re-establishment of strong class divisions. Either you can afford education and art or art education, or you can’t. Bright young art and humanities students today face becoming a lost generation. That’s the culture of excellence for you: social engineering under the guise of letting “the market” take its "natural" course. 

Domeniek Ruyters's Metropolis M article, with some interesting responses, is here (in Dutch). A joint public response to Zijlstra's plans by various institutions and organizations is here (again in Dutch).

An online petition is at  http://petities.nl/petitie/bezuinigen-op-cultuur-zonder-alle-feiten-nooit

Images from Zachary Formwalt's videos At Face Value (2008) and In Place of Capital (2009). 

Texte zur Kunst no. 82: The Forgotten Space

Texte zur Kunst no. 82 (June 2011), an issue on artistic research guest-edited by Tom Holert, contains my review of Allan Sekula and Noël Burch's film The Forgotten Space, which was finally completed last year after an extended stay in development hell. The Forgotten Space is a filmic continuation of Sekula's Fish Story project, and investigates the impact of container shipping in Europe, the US and Asia, charting the "forgotten space" of the ocean and ports. My text relates The Forgotten Space, as a Marxian essay film, to recent film projects by Alexander Kluge (Nachrichten aus der ideologischen Antike) and Hito Steyerl (In Free Fall).

In related news, New Left Review no. 69 (May/June 2011) contains some of Sekula and Burch's notes for the film, and issue no. 21 of Open, which is dedicated to the topic of  (Im)mobility, features an essay by Brian Holmes on containerization which is accompanied by stills from The Forgotten Space.

The film's official web site is here: www.theforgottenspace.net