Who is… We ?

Two weeks ago I received an intriguing invitation from the artistic duo Bart Stuart & Klaar van der Lippe. Directly I thought back in time, some two years ago, about their workshop concerning artistic collaboration, when we ended up standing in the crowded heart of Amsterdam, on the Dam, making a huge network of rubber bands. It was a great experience of participation, while we got the public fully involved, all age groups and cultures included. By making this flexible network, literal by the elastic bands and figuratively with the people, we claimed our space in a very positive way. It was fun to do and fun to participate and importantly, questions were raised by the public simultaneously. In this manner, reflection appeared to be an integral part of life as it was inherent generated by the action. To me, it sure proved the power of participation and imagination.

The actual invitation was clearly stated. Bart and Klaar were looking for a cooperative bunch of artists, who wanted to join in a field research about ‘what is we?’ for their project JUST PRACTICE – forms of ‘we’ in public space. The guiding questions were: What forms of ‘we’ do you still see around you. Which forms do not occur anymore? What happens when you place such a rare form in public space? The research consisted of observing people, noting what they do, and doing a joint design which could be documented and photographed. Well, I was lucky to be part of this fine experiment, curious about the ‘we’ interactions in public space too.

Therefore, as a group, we went this time to another remarkable place of our capital, a shopping center in Amsterdam North.  33 Years ago I lived here in an apartment building as a young student doing an internship. However, Amsterdam North was not particularly the place to be, as I found out. But I was really happy with my small room. I quite vividly remember living in the building without knowing your neighbours or their nationalities… there was no real we-ness in my block, so to say.

This shopping centre was also the place where I bought my first classical albums. Here I learned to appreciate – or better – fell in love with the piano concertos of Beethoven. Listening in pure solitude to piano concerto no. 5 while living alone in an adventurous city, amongst the many who I did not know… in my mind this music always connected to this odd but imaginary contrast of me and they, the soloist and the orchestra. The pianist who starts playing but is realising he needs the orchestra to make a good piece (of life). A memory that instantly came back when we were walking under the bridge giving entrance to the marketplace. It is intriguing how memory works… often friends ask which music reminds you to what… here it was about the place of my past that functioned as point of reference.

Then we walked onto the ‘renewed’ mall, which is decorated with white tubes, mainly along the roofing. Apparently the architecture had to be marked with some kind of iconic symbol at the entrance. The name of the shopping mall was attached to this gate-like quite peculiar tube framing. However, signings and even a security camera were attached to the icon. Function and form, is one following the other, and what about these design aesthetics, I wonder? Iconics should be simple to grasp/catch/…

Nevertheless, in the mall was quite a cosy feeling on this Saturday afternoon. It was busy, but not overcrowded. Families were eating, elderly drove their scoot mobiles, people walked along with their bike, behaving well because biking was not permitted. Friends were having a good time. It was sunny, a lot of older people were sitting around and chatting. There was no police to be seen and in short, it was the multicultural community at its best: WE are getting along.

In between were 12 artists with papers and pens and camera’s. Observing and counting as real birdwatchers do. Only, this time the birds were people who watched us as well. A man asked me, “you are clearly from an organisation, because I saw others with those papers too, can you tell me the way to the dance palace“. Sadly, I had no clue where to point him too or that it would be an outdoor event. But later that afternoon, in a corner of the market place a DJ in fifties tradition played his album music and lots of people danced on the street cheek to cheek, in lines and whatever forms. There was a good initiative of we, as in we with a joint-past.

How do you look at people when you are counting? Well, I soon found out that I focussed on their activities first and foremost. It is about ‘thinking in verbs’ again, because for me this comes closest to reading their motives. What is motivating people… to walk on, to talk, to wait, to watch on their phone, to eat or to sit right there? From activity and motive you might see something about their attitude in this activating environment, as the shopping mall is.

In reflection on my personal observations, apart from activities I also try to listen to people’s dialogues. These fragments tell their part of unique stories and give me inspiration and sometimes new ideas to work from. Although it is not the objective here, an artist stays an aware creator above all, I think. Mattie, my fellow-researcher/colleague artist/photographer made a lot of pictures as this is certainly part of his trade too. So, listening to these spoken fragments can be revealing and thus I reported some relevant ones back which were to my mind connected to the field questions.

Body languages here show some apparent disturbance by the ‘older youth’



Then Bart and Klaar invited us to do some joint performative actions. All were dressed in blue to give us (some) unity and we rehearsed group figures. A perfect circle, a cordon for a queen, a walking chain and so on. The public watched us acting. In short it was the warming up for what was to come.

The culminating idea was now to express the state of we in a performative image. We brainstormed about how to form an iconic visual together that expressed for example collaboration, responsibility, dismissal, struggle and other linguistic terms. We tried some new figures and rehearsed and optimised them. Then we went back to the square in the centre of the mall. This time we got dressed in golden suits to get the main focus on the group manifestation. The public was watching us stumbling in our first figures. We were a bit handicapped in seeing because of our covered eyes, but that made us try harder. We voiced out to each other what should be happening as an we-organism. We accomplished some figures, I believe, but having no visual feedback yet, we have to wait to see the pictures from our photographer Phillipe. It felt fun and fine, the public watched and appreciated it, there was trust and laughter, above all we-ness was in us.

This experimental workshop, however brief, was a great beginning in trying to find communicative visuals to show group processes. The transforming idea of visualisation of social concepts in public space can be contagious. It has similar power as dancing together, but here is much more intent and it will be more communicative. Now, it is about how to approach the joint design process, there is lots to invent. What are the looks of different states of we-ness as its main question.

Being interdependent is essential, only a respected I can attribute to a richer WE. The group in this workshop understood that intuitively. Some kind of collective authorship was going on.

Last but not least, I got energised by this kind of interactions, so please let these worthwhile actions continue. Thank you and go ahead together Bart&Klaar !