From the post-socialist Dutch city to the retro-socialist city… and back!


2008, administrator

Or, how to subvert today’s imperative to re-stage non-capitalist social relations in this so-called post-utopian age?

1 The housing question in post-socialist Netherlands.

1. The Netherlands as the most socialist country West of the Eastern hemisphere. In 1901 the Housing Act came into being (which is early compared to other Western European countries, France; the Netherlands at the forefront of the world on the level of housing arrangements for workers/the masses, with the exception of England perhaps). Of course, this was done from a social democratic, ‘welfare state avant la lettre’ perspective: to ensure a healthy, educated, docile, loyal workforce (strong corporatism). For that purpose, housing corporations were founded. Large scale housing for the people was erected in the interbellum (‘prewar’) and after WWII (‘post-war’); Spangen was even build during WWI. (One of the only countries where squatting is legalized – one has the right to occupy empty buildings under certain conditions)

2. Post-1988: processes of normalization. The reform of the housing act in 1988; basically a (neo)liberalization. The guiding idea of the reform was that it’s unhealthy to have huge chunks of the housing stock outside of the market; it doesn’t work anymore; it weighs too heavily on the finances of the state; it doesn’t allow the corporations to maximize their potential (they now had a lot of dead capital, they couldn’t maximize), it stands in the way of fresh, experimental projects, it is anachronistic in the context of the contemporary housing market that is – supposedly – less about housing the masses. So the line of the argument is that rather than the end of housing for the people, it’s the liberation from the outdated norms of the bygone era of industrialization and mass culture, and its projection into a housing market that is more demand-driven, in which housing has become a service rather than a right, a lifestyle choice rather than a bare necessity, etc.

With regards of this process of normalization, one of the key argument pro the reform was precisely the exceptional status of the housing situation in the Netherlands: the fact that, in contrast with other more ‘laissez faire’ countries, it had been too much focused on the collective production of housing, and therefore had to make ‘a leap forward’ (catch up) and gear up to a more market driven housing production by restructuring – a code word for privatizing – huge chunks of its collectivized housing stock (conforming to ‘international-global standards’).

So it’s clear that ‘normal’ means market (‘that’s the way things work’) and normalization means that housing corporations had to operate in conformity with market principles (no more state subsidies; they have to become financially solvable/self-reliant). In short, their main task is still to realize social housing, but they can/have to do this by using strategies used by project developers. They can for instance sell some of their stock to augment their capital, build housing to sell for high income groups, etc. – if this would help them to finance projects for lower incomes.

(Inversion of the roles: in the beginning of the century programmes for housing for the people were meant to enable the right conditions for capitalism to stabilize itself, now the capitalist organisation of housing is seen as creating the conditions of existence for social housing.)

3. The so-called problem neighbourhood and the discourse of integration. This neoliberal discourse was accompanied by a sociological-pathological discourse on abnormality – everywhere in the cities so-called ‘problem areas’ were identified, neighbourhoods with high concentrations of disadvantaged groups, immigrants, crime, drugs, polarisation, etc. – coupled with a discourse on ‘integration’: by ‘breaking up’ the self-enclosed ghetto population, thinning it out and distributing it more evenly in the city, and bringing in fully integrated, successful population groups (‘a fresh wind’), one wanted to counter the downward spiral, free these unfortunate people from their ‘self-destructive drive’, etc. This integration discourse is of course the social version of the normalization discourse: here also, the argument was that for to long ‘we’/Dutch society had allowed these asocial developments to develop (closed a blind eye?), and that it is long over-due that ‘we’ put a stop at this ‘state of exception’?

This integration discourse conveniently? combined with the normalization discourse as the so-called problem areas are as a rule neighbourhoods with large quantities of corporation housing (often as much as 70 percent). Its outdated make-up (floor-plans), delapidated condition, exclusive focus on rent, etc., was seen as one of the main causes behind the social anomalies in the problem areas.

4. The Grand Make-over. So, in conclusion, all sorts of arguments combined and mutually reinforced themselves to legitimize one of the largest restructuring operations in the Netherlands since long, called ‘The Grand Refurbishing’ (mainly in the four largest cities and twenty middle-large cities in the Netherlands, started some ten years ago): one economic and neo-liberal, one social and aimed at integration, one physical and ?. This development has turned the Netherlands from one of the leading countries in solving the housing question, into a country at the forefront of a neo-liberal and neoconservative organisation of housing – the formerly unique, highly emancipatory housing projects have become the main victims of this development (and an easy victim for all that, if only because, as collectively owned property, it is more easy and cheap to restructure it, as opposed to privately owned property).

2 Taking the restructuring to a higher level, or: Welcome in My Backyard!

1. Welcome in My Backyard! and the Grand make-over of Hoogvliet. Typical for the Grand makeover is that within the restructuring a huge budget is reserved for socio-cultural projects. Even stronger put, the past few years there has been an explosion of cultural interventions/activisms surrounding the restructuring of problem neighbourhoods – one can even speak of a new genre or school. Most exemplary (both qua scale and ambition) is the initiative entitled WiMBY! – an acronym that stands for ‘Welcome in my backyard!’ – conceived of and managed by an office for architecture history called Crimson, during the restructuring of Hoogvliet, a satellite city of Rotterdam.

The modernist Hoogvliet was build after the WWII (first 1951) on the site of an old fisherman’s village. It meant as cheap housing for the labour-force of the Rotterdam harbour and especially the petrochemical industry (it was planned close to the Shell oil refinery plant). ‘A palace with a shower’. The suburban Hoogvliet… The total number of inhabitants – in both the modernist and suburban Hoogvliet) is a little less than forty thousand (37000, in 2004). It was mainly the modernist part that was recently labelled a problem neighbourhood and targeted as such. Restructuring started in 1999 and is scheduled until 2015, 1700 housing units (total housing stock of the corporation), XXXX (‘Development vision Hoogvliet’: 45% low income housing, 40% middle-high income, 5% high income; thematic urbanism; 55% single family housing, 45% multiple family housing) (total amount of housing units is 17000, of which 5000 are up for demolition/refurbishing).

In their first news-letter, WiMBY! described their mission in the following terms:

Wimby is the name of an independent foundation that aims at taking the large-scale restructuring of Hoogvliet to a higher level. […] WiMBY! develops and realizes a varied series of experimental buildings, small-scale projects and co-operations [samenwerkingsverbanden] within the field of architecture, urbanism, fine arts and socio-cultural projects. Further, WiMBY! brings together inhabitants, entrepreneurs, government officials [ambtenaren], researchers and designers to discover and direct the future of Hoogvliet. […] WiMBY!’s goal is to turn Hoogvliet into a sustainable and attractive place for living and working and make it known [bekendheid geven] . The programme of WiMBY! is based on the conviction that the reinforcing, renewing and exploiting of the current characteristics and qualities of Hoogvliet, physically as well as socially, is the best and most inspiring foundation for the future of this post-war city.

Over the years WiMBY! functioned as the container in which a multiplicity of cultural actors from different backgrounds (designers, architects, artists, urbanists) came together to intervene with regards to the restructuring. This ‘multiple author’ was asked to engage with both the victims and the project developers. The outcome was an eclectic sort of cultural activism; a selection of the myriad of projects of which WiMBY! itself once claimed that ‘the only consistency is that there is no consistent method behind it’:

  • – Heerlijkheid Hoogvliet (several open-air festivals, a polyvalent community hall for the many associations in the neighbourhood, playgrounds, pet cemetary)
  • – Co-housing project (with a shared cleaners facilities)
  • – Specialized housing for musicians (‘24 hours musical court’)
  • – Hoogvliet’s ‘Logics’ (an interactive website where people could test out and vote for different future scenario’s for the physcial environment.)
  • – The projecting of colourful portraits of inhabitants the grey, modernist housing blocks
  • – Etc.

2. WiMBY! and retro-socialism. A common denominator of all initiatives undertaken under the banner of WiMBY! is their concern for the collective dimension/social infrastructure/marginalized groups that are threatened to be ‘restructured away’ due to its low- or non-profit character (so its emphasis is on people and not on ‘concrete’, on people and not the profits). In this sense WiMBY! can be seen as the ‘survival’ of, or return to the modernist-socialist spirit of the original founders of Hoogvliet – but then as a sort of post-modern version (in short, a retrosocialism). This is already apparent in WiMBY’s name and central ideological motto: ‘Welcome in my backyard!’ that gives it an emancipatory edge. As they put it:

… we believe that each town or city can become its own Utopia simply by saying ‘Yes!’ to every excess. By not making it conform to a generally accepted idea of what makes a town good, but exaggerating all that makes this town this town. Most of all we believe that the more precarious the position of a town, the more possibilities it has to develop unique, really new, newly real attributes and attractions. So to every situation that would normally provoke reactions of ‘Not in my backyard!’, we say: ‘Welcome into my backyard!

3. Relational art with Dutch characteristics. Although no reference is made to it by WiMBY!, we can see it as a street version of what French art theorist Nicolas Bourriaud’s labeled ‘relational art’, as the art typical for the nineties and beyond: a form of art that no longer aims at creating objects, nor at provoking/shocking their audiences (avant-garde) but at generating new social bonds, organizing encounters, engendering a dialogue between different social groups, etc. In short, it wants to provide an alternative for the current general mechanisation of social functions by using art as “a factor of sociability and a founding principle of dialogue”.[i] In the same vain, WiMBY! wants to offer alternatives to the commodification of Hoogvliet’s housing stock, its inscription in the economical schemes of globally operating project developers, by acting as a symbol of openness that provides the different parties involved (private and public parties, neighbourhood organisations and individual citizens) with a platform where they can reflect upon the coming demolitions, negotiate their respective desires and project alternative planning protocols and design experiments. In short, it is difficult not to see in the production of images by WiMBY! the application of Bourriaud’s famous statement that: “[o]ne of the virtual properties of the image is its power of linkage, (…) flags, logos, icons, signs, all produce empathy and sharing, and all generate bond.”[ii]

> Our critique of WiMBY! will serve a double purpose: as a way to tackle both the phenomenon of retro-socialism in post-socialist Netherlands, and the praxis of relational art.

3 The art of idealistic conformism

1. Saying ‘yes!’ to the inevitable socio-economic cleansing of one’s neighbourhood. What is striking is that WiMBY!’s strong social ‘constructivist’ commitment did not prevent it from accepting the massive restructuring (socio-economic cleansing) of Hoogvliet as a historical fact. Even worse, as a office for architecture history, Crimson in a series of collages historicized/rationalized Hoogvliet’s make-over by comparing it to the ‘creative destruction’ of Rotterdam by the Nazi bombardments in WWII (the entire centre of Rotterdam was whipped away). Think of the simulated dialogue underneath one of the collages depicting the devastating post-war cityscape of Rotterdam:

One utterly destroyed town. Two men. Man 1: we are witnessing the death of our great city. Man 2: Absolutely not! We are witnessing its glory. The bombs and fires were followed by five years of flattening and cleaning until the debris had yielded a perfect act plane. It took another ten years to conquer the emptiness with a collection of perfectly new objects. White was never whiter, concrete was never as mousegrey than that of the buildings parachuted on the emptiness created by the destruction of Rotterdam.[iii]

WiMBY!’s key slogan of ‘Welcome into my backyard!’ takes it one step further: it not only calls upon Hoogvliet’s residents to accept the developments that, at least according to them, are inevitable – more than that, they have to welcome them, affirm them, see them as an opportunity, a blessing. Note also how WiMBY!’s central motto follows the form of the Superego (the exclamation mark: ‘thou shalt’): enforcing upon its subjects – albeit in a vein of both naivety and enthusiasm – an affirmative ‘open’ take upon reality. So, while WiMBY! presented itself as being critical towards the demolition programmes – as something that creates unrest among the residents of Hoogvliet, as a market operation aimed at profitability, etc. – its passionate plea for openness addresses in the first place the local people. The WiMBY! slogan demanded of them to see the restructuring as the broadening of their life-world, to transgress their sedentary instincts and accept the nomadic nature of today’s world, and to seize new opportunityies.

2. Conformism in the sign of its opposite. This crazy superego demand – the sinister fact that this ideology of affirmation and adaptation is mobilized to make the people of Hoogvliet accept the neo-liberalization of their neighbourhood – brings us to the basic contradiction of retrosocialist/relational projects like WiMBY!: it always takes the form of a ‘third way’ that unproblematically merges conformism with social activism. Think of Bourriaud’s claim that: “[i]t is not modernity that is dead, but its idealistic and teleological version.”[iv] In other words, it is believed that only if art accepts the existing social processes – i.e. the ruling capitalist regime and all the forces within it – art will be able to fulfil its role of opening up and expanding this reality through artistic practices. Or again, as Bourriaud claims of the exhibition space:

This is the precise nature of contemporary art exhibition in the arena of representational commerce, it creates free areas, and time spans whose rhythm contrasts with those structuring everyday life, and it encourages an inter-human commerce that differs from the ‘communication zones’ that are imposed upon us.

We are thus confronted with the paradoxical situation where conforming to the ruling capitalist regime, and renunciating any politicization of the current socio-economic organisation, is presented as the precondition to democratise that regime.

Again it should be clear that this conformist attitude presents itself in the form of its opposite: as an idealism – not to say blunt utopianism. Think of Bourriaud when he inverts what he calls the negative, ‘melancholic’ tendency in the work of Jean-François Lyotard. Bourriaud: “Postmodern architecture is condemned to create a series of minor modifications in a space whose modernity it inherits, and to abandon an overall reconstruction of the space inhabited by humankind.” For Bourriaud however, this very ‘condemnation’ comes to the fore as a chance: “a chance… to learn to inhabit the world in a better way, instead of trying to construct it based on a preconceived idea of historical evolution.”[v] It is at this point that art is again invested with immense expectations. As a symbol of democracy and openness, art is put forward as the chosen subject, no longer to subvert capitalism, but to prevent the current capitalist regime from its self-induced closure. This it does, as we saw in WiMBY!’s case, by using the virtual property of the image to engage all parties in a new dialogue and build a new sense of community at the local level.

4 Relational art as an Ersatz social space

It is significant that this democratic role for art is heralded as inevitable at the very historical moment that the virtue of democracy itself becomes more and more corrupted under multiple forces raised by capitalism. Think for example at the way the urban arena is today filled with populist images of safety, wholeness and identity, icons of different religious fundamentalisms, corporate identities, etc. One should be blind not to see the massive mobilisation of the ‘virtual property of the image to create bonds’ for all sorts of worrying and dubious causes. However, what is most important for our discussion is that it shows how the conceptualisation of art as a ‘symbol of openness and democracy’ is above all a compensation for the abovementioned renouncement of the democratic consciousness in the political realm itself. While the current power regime is not ready to question its own workings, it is the art sector that is granted the responsibility to politicize the last remains of the social fabric.

WiMBY! for instance specifically targeted informal spaces of social exchange that are not yet commodified (such as a kennel for dogs, a hang-out spot for youngsters, an emergency space for schools, etc.) and granted it a critical value. Although it is still unclear what the critical potential of these type of spaces is, it is clear what the benefit is of this strict division of labour between the ruling elites and cultural forces. Let us recall that in the typical situation of what psychoanalysis has called the ‘transferential relationship’, two partners always complement their mutual shortcomings. So the advantage is that while the current elites openly state that ‘there is no alternative’ to capitalism, the art sector keeps up the appearance that there still is some commitment towards democracy and openness. The point is thus that with this, the aesthetical regime compensates for a hiatus in the ruling order (i.e. their self-acclaimed incapacity to do anything else than adjusting all social relations to the logic of capital) and thus prevent people from giving up their confidence.

This ‘winning combination’ however only works insofar both partners stick to their implicit yet strict division of labour that supports their cooperation. This would become immediately clear the moment relational artists would take their own presupposition dead serious: i.e. that “relational art takes as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space”.[vi] What would happen for instance if WiMBY!, enthusiastic as they are about working with Hoogvliet’s existing social processes, had claimed that all the buildings to be demolished are genuine places of social exchange and, that it therefore would be unacceptable to destroy them – even when they do not meet contemporary living standards and aesthetical quality levels. Or inversely, what would happen if WiMBY! simply argues that also the idiotic leftovers of social space are better demolished – since it is only a fake? This gesture would not only mean the collapse of the strict division of labour between both partners, but also release that which the alliance between politicians, project developers and cultural actoer were suppressing all the time: a situation in which the local people would give up their confidence in the ruling power.

With this we encounter a so far concealed ideological function of relational art: it is the provision of an ‘ersatz’ social space by using the virtual property of the image to create a bond between the ruling regime and the people – rather than a real intervention in the political space by confronting the dominant relations of power and production. The scandal, if you like, is that through this simulation or staging of a sphere of openness and respect, cultural forces mobilize the people to act against their own desire.[vii] Once included in this sphere where all the parties – project developers, local government, and the people – freely negotiate their respective desires, people can no longer choose to politicize their frustrations.[viii]

5 The functionality of relational art’s dysfunctionality

So even if the last couple of years we have witnessed a major redistribution of the rights to authorise the social sphere towards ‘relational’ artists’, it would be misleading to say that today it is a case of what Boris Groys recently termed ‘equal aesthetic rights’. On the contrary, the promotion of cultural forces to a privileged partner never goes further than granting them a say in marginal, relatively unimportant aspects of society. It is clear that the ‘multiple authorship’ is merely a formal equality that is not supposed to be expanded onto society as a whole. While being a partner art is never granted the full political mandate to redesign the social organisation in a way that endangers the interests of the powers that be. The transferential relation between art and politics can therefore best be understood in terms of what Slavoj Zizek has called ‘interpassivity’.[ix] Cultural forces are allowed to propose whatever they want to democratize and open-up a given situation, as long as their proposals do not endanger the grip of capitalist developers on this situation.

6 The economical benefit of zones of exception

We cannot however limit our interpretation of relational art’s retrosocialism to the sphere of ideology alone. This would further feed the misunderstanding – one for which Francis Fukuyama is to a large extent responsible – that capitalism itself is here to stay as a natural and essentially ‘good’ development, and moreover, as the end result of all developments, but people for one reason or another choose to cling to the image of another possible world of social harmony. Let us recall Bourriaud’s idea that Marx saw in art, besides it mercantile and semantic qualities, also a representation of a ‘social zero’:

… an interstice term used by Marx to describe trading communities that elude the capitalist economic context by being removed from the law of profit: barter, merchandising, autarkic types of production, etc. The interstice is a space in human relations which fits more or less harmoniously and openly into the overall system, but suggests other trading possibilities than those in effect within the system.[x]

Do we not here encounter one of the basic contradictions of late capitalism as defined by Ernst Mandel: the very fact that in order to reproduce itself capitalism is forced to neutralise herself ‘in her own womb’?[xi] While it may seem that the commodification of social relations is all-pervasive, it is clear that capitalism must violate its own laws in order to keep itself alive. Not only are people in the Third World on a massive scale abandoned to their own pre-capitalist means of subsistence, firmly locked outside the logic and logistics of profit, also in our own ‘First World’ we are confronted with countless examples in which pre- or non-capitalist forms of production are re-enacted. Think of the rising amount of ‘creative flex-workers’ who are increasingly dependent on strong family ties for their social security and health, and their close network of co-flex-workers for possible commissions. These informal human relations are not simply ‘outside’ the capitalist system, but are on the contrary an integral part of it yet kept as if it remains outside. It is a principal law of capital that it will always seek to ‘externalize’ the costs of its reproduction towards non-capitalist socio-economic formation. Not only the social net of the family is exploited to outsource the high costs of social welfare, also the informal creative sector is mobilised to recreate something with aesthetics something that money cannot pay: a bonds between people and the ruling regime. Is it then not cynically to summon art to repeat this logic?

From here we have to reconsider Bourriaud’s conceptualisation of ‘relational aesthetics’ as a re-enactment of modernism in the sense of liberation and emancipation, without its direct servitude towards a specific political-ideological system. This idea is of course based on the commonplace that any such servitude would turn art into an authoritarian, utilitarian, rational teleological and/or political messianistic force. This very phobia of functionality – expressed in Bourriaud’s sneering remarks against all ‘cultural Darwinisms’ – however transfers upon relational aesthetics a ‘functionality to the power of two’. Relational art is functional towards the current socio-political system precisely in its non-functional character: in its holy democratic ambition to do nothing but ‘keep open’ the situation whatever it takes, it turns itself into a reserve army of cultural Darwinists in the service of the current power regime.

7 Can art short-cut the ‘crack within’?

This inconsistent, self-contradictory state of capitalism has an immense impact on the debate of the political role of art, since it disproves the basic claim of Bourriaud that “all social relations today become mechanised and commodified” – which is clearly reflecting the Leftist myth of the market as an all-powerful monster. Instead of giving way to the compulsory idea of finding new strategies to break open our capitalist order, we think it is more effective for cultural forces to follow the advice of Slavoj Zizek and address in the first place the ‘structuring of the order itself’.[xii] In the context of Hoogvliet for example it is clear that the capitalist regime there – i.e. the local government and the project developers – in order to reproduce itself are forced to permanently subvert their own capitalist logic. In order to avoid social uprising they cannot but open up the fixed restructuring schemes and allow some space and consideration for social interactions. In this way, any discussion about how to subvert the ruling regime has to take into account that each system is always already subverting its own logics – also and especially the current capitalist regime.

The crucial question is thus whether cultural forces will use this inconsistency or ‘crack’ in the system to downplay the asocial character of the current regime? In the restructuring schemes in Hoogvliet, this inconsistency is, on the contrary, used to argue that the developers are not ‘the bad guys’ but are also concerned with social demands. Or, differently put, the question is whether, and if so how, relational art is able to manipulate the existing ‘gaps’ in the system so as to bring the people to the point that they are no longer willing to negotiate their longing for deep social relations with the profit-making of capitalist firms? This would allow them to subvert the dominant capitalist logic of compromi

Krakow, January 5th, 6.30 p.m.


Tags: English

Categories: Urban planning

Type: Article