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Art in the Drente park is a political decision!

— general framework —
Art in public space is much debated and criticised, often with reason. “In the Dutch field of forces the image keeps popping up of politics as a strict father, which takes a little boy named Art by the hand and guides his steps through the world.” This quote by Mark Kremer is an indication of the dependent and at the same time precarious position of art that addresses an environment in which political and economic interest rule supreme. “Planners see art as an effective means to uplift the quality of the built environment. Their ambition is directed by a political agenda, which in fact leaves little room for artists, because their work is subordinated to larger projects.”
In spite of energetic attempts, art in public space cannot keep up pace with autonomous art, which still sets the tone. In De moderne leegte (The Modern Void) Camiel van Winkel minutely describes the failure of public art in the 1970s and 1980s. Artists may have begun to reflect in a more sophisticated way on art in public space, but today’s built environment is still being festooned with far too much rubbish. We cannot conclude from practice that art’s thinking in the 1990s has resulted in essential improvements.
Many artists have therefore started to focus on a personal or social engagement, with which the urban environment is manipulated from the point of view of relationships between people. Political and economic difficulties are thus avoided, but obviously this kind of art fails to actively contribute to building the urban environment. Others, in an attempt to unite the best of both worlds, are looking for interdisciplinary collaborations. The resolution to collaborate, however, too often demands from the artist that they accede to their hosts’ doctrines. The result of the collaboration is mostly documented in a booklet, but rarely goes beyond that.
The dividend of many years of skor, Stroom, afk and other mediating commissions for art in public space, and the multitude of memorandums, essays, debates and lectures is disappointingly low. The balance shows that years of discussions about content have resulted in only a handful of artworks worth the mention. The reason for this is a simple paradox, which exists because of the toilsome relationship between art and the political context in which art grows: One wants the art one doesn’t want, and the other way around, one doesn’t want the art one wants.
An artwork in public space needs to optimally support political interest in that space. A completed artwork has always gone through a long trajectory in which its functioning has been scrutinised by many interested parties. In the Dutch culture of consensus, this means that there is hardly any artwork produced which has managed to keep any edge. But an uncritical artwork cannot fulfil its artistic function, and therefore cannot answer the initial demand to improve the built environment with meaningful art.
The reason that most artworks in public space are not artworks at all, or are artistically of no consequence, is a snake biting its own tail. These are artworks meant to have a meaning, while at the same time they were not meant to have one at all.
The moment has arrived to recognise the inadequacy of a debate on art’s content, as long as its political premises are not debatable. Your request to an artist in your memorandum ‘Public Space Zuidas, Proposal in outlines’, is no less than the following: “What we want to achieve with art in public space is the creation of an identity with its own experience value, which is deeply original and not copyable, with the aim of further deepening and differentiating the current market position of a town, as a result of which that unique position can be claimed even more convincingly in the future. (…) This way, something new will be created that can inspire others. Moreover, this way art in public space can take new directions. One should look at this process also as a search for sensible and meaningful possibilities, which connect past, present and future. Art, therefore, is an essential part of the Zuidas. This fits in with Amsterdam’s rich tradition of art in public space. This phenomenon has now become generally accepted, but on the Zuidas it will play, not a general, but a specific role.”
You will understand that a climate of consensus and compromises does not provide the best of circumstances for embarking on such an optimistic request, with so many edges. Should the real art practice of the past years be retrospectively applied to the wording of this commission, then it would have looked something like this: What we want to achieve with art in public space is that after years of bureaucratic hair splitting nobody will see any problem anymore in artworks which do not seriously weigh on the budget and which can be expected to provoke no dissent among the populace.
If there should be the kind of art on the Amsterdam Zuidas that answers your question, then its only chance to succeed is the ascent of a political climate in which artworks that can bring about this result can be made. I have therefore interpreted my commission to develop an encompassing vision for art in Drente park as a reflection on the conditions which make art possible. I would like to present my proposals with the motto: Art in Drente park is a political decision.

— problem field —
As part of the Zuidas, the Drente park has its own characteristic as is amply described in the ‘Drentepark Urban Development Programme’. In addition, the Drente park has its own field of problems which should be taken into consideration in order to adequately engage art.
Separated by the afc sports accommodations, the Drente park lies isolated at the edge of the Zuidas, as a residue area.
The afc sports fields will have to be fenced in with high enclosures, which will invalidate the sense of space suggested by the plans. It will become a confined area, which will result in a sharp contrast between private and public space.
Drente park will be under high logistic pressure, having to cope not only with transport to and from the park as a whole, but also with access to the accommodations below the sports fields.
There is hardly any sense of coherence among the existing buildings, which are placed as enclaves vis-à-vis each other. Notably the nuon zone will be a barely accessible area to the public. The existing architecture is utterly functional, radiates an ambience of stuffy offices and is ugly.
The human scale is missing. Despite the addition of residences, it will be difficult to create a self-evident relationship between living and working.
In view of these difficult circumstances, your brief makes high demands on the art. In my view, art in public space as we know it (and as I described in the introduction) cannot actively improve this environment. There looms a situation in which art is employed as compensation, but results in becoming a sorry emblem of unsolved problems.
I would rather propose something which will surely improve conditions in Drente park, but which therefore demands completely different economic and political conditions.
— design —
An artistic masterplan covering the whole of an area, like in this case the Drente park, mostly results in abstract conceptualisations, which are to be considered in an ensuing process. Convinced as I am that the actual ‘making’ is not only a practical outcome of a concept, but an important part of its very content, I consciously aimed at effectuating a vision on Drente park in a number of concrete proposals. This will make the discussion about the political context of art less abstract and less non-committal. The aim, therefore, is not to conceptualise art, but its premises.
The proposal I put to you comprises of two parts, two approaches on different levels. The first proposal is geared at the lack of human scale in Drente park and the inaccessibility of the nuon area. The second proposal is thought from a broader perspective and addresses the image of the Zuidas and the significance of Amsterdam as a metropolis.
— 1 —
The nuon area should actually be in an industrial zone. It is characterised as a functional arrangement of buildings tuned to an impeccable economic flow. Subjective aspects seem to be of subordinate interest. Infrastructure and buildings display a high degree of efficiency, but (or better: and) are at the same time a showcase of architectural and urban anarchism. I choose to see this as a quality of this area, and a reason to amplify this aspect.
Currently, the nuon area has no public space. The buildings are fenced in and access is prohibited. Dismantling the fences and making the area public will not change the industrial ambience. My proposal is to make this public space into an artwork that emphasises this ambience.
Everywhere in the Netherlands there are efficient products of existing public services: mail boxes, telephone booths, urinals, cash dispensers, etceteras. I would want to collect a generous number of such products on the nuon terrain; a similarly anarchist conglomeration of elements as the buildings, but adjusted to human benefit. It will also introduce human scale to the area. The aggregation of these products will result in a surreal image while at the same time generating activity and guaranteeing functional usage.
The most important product in the design is a windmill. Close to a windmill, the transport of energy is palpable as an impressive sensual experience. Here, the windmill functions as an intermediate between man and the economy of this environment.
As Holland’s prime innovative product, this windmill will be a utilitarian monument of modern man’s efficiency. It would be the first time a windmill is placed in an urban area for artistic reasons. Therefore, it should be considered to paint it gold.
An artwork always appeals to people’s perceptions. Mostly an artwork represents a certain contrast to a functional environment it is placed in. This artwork aims at avoiding such contrast; no distraction, no diversion. By inserting the human aspect, as a cogwheel in a smooth economic machinery, the nuon terrain will gain in character and clarity.
The realisation and financing of this work will have to take on a project character, in which collaboration between municipality and businesses, notably nuon, of course, will be necessary.
— 2 —
Due to the height of the surrounding architecture, the kpn-telecom tower will be shortly too low. kpn considers extending and embellishing this tower, in order to comply once again to technical and eventually esthetical standards.
This moment could be seized to build a new kpn-telecom tower that not only fulfils technical and aesthetic demands, but undeniably underlines the ambitions of the Zuidas. A tower that will place Drente park, as the entrance to the Zuidas, in a completely new light. A monument, which is perennially connected to Amsterdam and which has only to be seen once to permanently inscribe itself into people’s memories and which therefore will be known world-wide.
Against all odds a crazy artwork, no less. In short, an artwork that your brief calls for.
But also an artwork with a completely different political and economic dimension than usual. One which, in order to reach this artistic goal, demands of everyone involved to forget about any conservative instincts they might have. There is no room for reserve and bureaucratic repression here. Only when forces are joined and high-calibre political and economic ammunition is used can it take shape. My proposal is to start this project and try and expand it.
The ‘poldermodel’ which has for so long dominated the Dutch political landscape, would render the artistic ambitions formulated by you in this commission principally unattainable. If after so many years of failed art in public space one lesson can be learned, it is that ‘acting normally’ proves not to be ‘crazy enough’.
During a trip to Rome or Paris it may not be appropriate to consider the political and economic conditions which have made all this urban beauty possible. But back home, there should be a notion of the ambition, the pride, the guts and even the expediency needed to change public space into art.

Source: Hans van Houwelingen, clarification of vision on art, Zuidas Amsterdam / Drentepark, 2003