The necessity of enthusiastic artistic leadership in the formation and activation of creative coalitions in the Netherlands: the Rotterdam Code


2009, Jap Sam Books

1 Creative coalitions and artistic discipline

1.1 The need for creative coalitions

In these days, there is a great need for a new vision of society that can serve as a foundation for the transfer of power to the people. Only an original vision can end the old-fashioned, antagonistic view on society. According to this view, clearly demarcated parties – ‘Citizen,’ ‘State,’ ‘Capital’ – each satisfy their own needs at the cost of others. In such a framework, there is no space for a fertile climate of cooperation between citizens, authorities and market participants. The outmoded idea of defending one’s own interests through opposition to the interests of others feeds mutual distrust and enables the people to remain deaf to interested parties.

In order to break through this archaic, hostile view and the fears and passivity it generates, it is extremely productive to view society as an interlacement of forces and participants, constantly on the lookout for synergy so as to obtain the maximum yield. The substantial advantage of this framework is the fact that concepts like ‘State,’ ‘Capital,’ or ‘People’ no longer exist. These abstract entitities now fall apart into a multitude of participants who – each at their own operational level – wield a certain expertise, call on their capacities and seek after their interests. Interests, which, moreover, may coincide locally and temporarily with those of others. Thus, a space of deliberation is opened culminating in immediate emotions of unity and involvement between the participants striving for a democratic solution in which everyone comes out a winner.

This dynamic vision on the social process is only possible insofar as so-called creative coalitions are actively sought for. All political, economic and civil participants should be persuaded to voluntarily weigh their respective capacities and desires in relation to specific projects. This democratic cooperation allows the different participants to exploit the creative capital that they collectively represent. A creative coalition offers the best guarantee for obtaining the highest social benefits and for sustainably securing these benefits vis-à-vis the individual interests of the participants.

1.2 The leadership of art

The formation of a creative alliance however, doesn’t come naturally. The trickiest impediment is the historically grown distrust amongst citizens concerning cooperation with partners in society. Moreover, the paternalizing attitude of the authorities and market participants toward human capital obstructs the formation of coalitions. Yet, all of this resistance vanishes into thin air as soon as creative coalitions are put to work and start to pay off. It is only at the moment that human capital is exploited to the fullest within a given creative coalition, that each party involved can and will acknowledge its inexhaustible surplus value. It is crisp and clear: a creative coalition shouldn’t merely be formed, it should also be proactively put to work so as to pay off.

A leading role within the formation and activation of creative coalitions is reserved for the artist. Concerning this capacity, two fundamental traits of the artistic discipline should be kept in mind:

1) First, art has an exemplary function. The formation of creative coalitions is – be it consciously or not – an essential part of the artist’s daily practice. In pursuit of their creative ideas, artists are constantly on the lookout for interested third parties who are prepared to contribute to the process of realization. Especially in case of so-called ‘art in public space’ or art executed within in the context of problem neighborhoods, it is commonplace for artists to enter into coalitions with authorities (municipal and district), semipublic organizations (housing corporations), market participants (developers) as well as organizations operating in the social midfield (neighborhood associations), regarding implementation, public support and financial needs. The incredible inventiveness shown by artists inspires citizens and beams out across the whole of society.

2) Second, art actively contributes to the creation of a climate of trust in which civil capital can be voluntarily exploited. Of old, art has been a social practice promoting a sense of community through the playful discovery of newly offered possibilities. Lately, there has been a return to this essence in the discourse of ‘relational art.’ This art movement employs creative capacities so as to develop an interactive platform where citizens can relate non-antagonistically to the different participants who are active in their environment, such as enterprising fellow citizens, market participants and authorities. Once again, art practices founded within the context of public space or problem neighborhoods lead the way: through artistic activities, the people are being immediately and playfully involved in a creative coalition with their former opponents, such as housing corporations, real estate developers and the government.

1.3 Advantages for the art sector

The natural leadership of art within creative coalitions confronts artists with an evolutionary leap forward on the artistic shop floor: the times of unaimed artistic engagement are over. The art sector would do well to remember that its noble effort within the formation of creative coalitions will not only benefit swift social functioning, but especially the art sector itself. The many advantages can easily be summed up! The role of art within creative coalitions will

– end the marginal role of art within the social system;

– end art’s relation of dependency on the fickle esthetical desire of the art consumer for constantly novel and sublime works of art;

– end the artificial life of art practices within an undemocratic system of grants;

– disclose new artistic working areas and add new potential clients to the artists’ networks;

– realize a substantial growth in artistic production;

– enlarge the art sector’s sphere of influence;

– contribute to the professionalization of art;

– contribute to the general recognition of art as an independent social actor and new avant-garde.

For any authentic artist, the decision is an easy one: he refuses to marginalize any further within a globalized world and resolutely claims the new leadership of art over the transfer of power to the people. Thus, the artist terminates the overstrained ambition of art to liberate the people from their revolutionary role in the progress of history; instead of assisting the people in their process of emancipation, artists thought that they themselves were to realize social change. In his role as initiator of creative coalitions, the artist incites the citizen to identify his own creative potential and to employ this capital within solid partnerships. The task and challenge of the avant-garde artist is to help the people help themselves. Thus, art comes ever closer to its natural role of ‘vanishing mediator,’ a role proper to the true revolutionary: art creates the conditions of social change without wanting to define or effectuate it.

2 Creative coalitions in practice

In order to efficiently and effectively form and activate creative coalitions, artists will need to respect a number of rules that determine the circumstances and limits of their artistic engagement. These rules of engagement are important, for creative coalitions obligate the artist to act outside of the safe, institutional borders of the museum or art gallery. The new working field is formed by the unconventional context of public space or problem neighborhood, within which urgent social conditions (like civil disorder) demand decisive action. Besides, artists will not be able to fall back on outmoded rules concerning artistic engagement, such as the ‘autonomy’ of art. Moreover, artists will need to reckon with a large increase in semi-artistic participants as initiators of creative coalitions, most importantly designers and architects, due to their greater availability and more docile attitude.

The relevance of these rules of engagement is threefold:

1) Standardization of artistic action within the formation of coalitions (increasing visibility and consistency).

2) Synchronization of the political and artistic components of creative coalitions.

3) Exclusion of unfair competition and ambiguous coordination.

Rules of engagement offer artists a number of operational handles that determine

a. where art is to be employed for the promotion of creative coalitions;

b. vis-à-vis whom art is to be employed;

c. what art is to undertake within in given circumstances;

d. when art is to be employed;

e. how art is to be employed in order to reach its intended targets.

2.1 Where? (Location)

In the formation of creative coalitions, artists should exclusively focus on areas of conflict in Dutch cities. When defining the field of action, they should always investigate whether an area suffers from one of the following problems:

– dereliction and destruction of the physical environment

– lack of social cohesion and enterprise

– high level of unemployment

– religious fundamentalism and/or right-wing populism

– unstable support for planned development

– tension between autochthonous and allochthonous communities

– loitering

Within these conflict situations, the artist is the designated party to challenge all groups to seek creative alternatives through mutual consultation. For the authorities and the market no longer possess the focus, knowledge nor means to solve all of these issues. At the same time, it is nothing but natural that the inhabitants themselves contribute to a solution for the problems they themselves have been the cause of.

2.2 Who? (Target group)

In accordance with the considerations concerning the selection of a location, artists need to focus on two specific target groups where their leadership can manifest itself to the fullest.

1) Socio-economically weak groups: groups historically known for their lack of creativity and enterprise. In the past, they have got away easily thanks to the protection of the government. As a result of the new cooperative bond between government and market this is no longer an option. The challenge for art lies in making these specific communities self-responsible and in activating them within creative coalitions.

2) Highly inflammable groups: groups which for political or religious beliefs fanatically cling to an antagonistic world view. Because other social parties (government or market) by definition appear as the ‘Other’ sabotaging their own development and who therefore have to be eradicated, these groups display a non-cooperative attitude. Here, the challenge for art lies in surpassing the ‘us-against-them’ sentiment by showing how creative coalitions form an ideal platform for the protection of private interests.

2.3 What? (Task)

The artists’ assignment within the formation and activation of creative coalitions involves a fourfold task:

1) Artists will have to break through the citizens’ natural mistrust by playfully and spontaneously acquainting them with the innumerable possibilities creative coalitions can offer them.

2) Artists will have to make the market sensitive to the hidden civil capital in the Netherlands and stimulate it to supply credit to spontaneous private initiatives.

3) Artists will have to stimulate the government to think beyond organizing possibilities for community participation and to create public support by valorizing all useful, creative civil initiatives within its policies.

4) Artists themselves will have to learn to no longer give in to emotional reflexes concerning the autonomy of the artistic discipline, and, in view of a well-filled portfolio of commissions, balance autonomy and service.

2.4 When? (Timing and means)

The tactics to be employed by the artist are highly dependent on the attitude of the targeted civil population during the process of the formation of creative coalitions. Concerning this attitude, five levels can be distinguished (with decreasing degree of civil sympathy), each supplemented with a provision for the artistic action the artist will have to deploy.

– Level 1: docile (cooperative):the civil population subscribes to the necessity of creative coalitions and deploys them in practice. No specific artistic techniques apply.

– Level 2: stubborn (passive):the civil population resists the creative coalitions at an ideological level, but deploys them in practice. Except for vigilance, no specific artistic techniques apply.

– Level 3: stubborn (active): the civil population refuses to deploy creative coalitions in practice. Use targeted artistic acts of persuasion to remain in control:

o organization of artistic festivities in the neighborhood;

o increase in physical presence of artists;

o initiation of sample and pilot projects in the field of creative coalitions.

– Level 4: offensive (physical): the civil population physically resists creative coalitions and is impervious to reason. Use defensive tactics to canalize the threat:

o creation of a platform where problem groups can express themselves;

o incorporation of local esthetic traits in communication;

o manipulation of the obstacles through delocalization and gentripuncture.

– Level 5: offensive (damage): the population is prepared to employ violence and/or damage property and persons in its resistance to creative coalitions. As for now, artistic tactics are little sufficient, due to the lack of a more offensively adjusted repertory. In this case, the population should be controlled through the use of non-artistic, police action.

2.5 How?

Considering the unique, open-minded approach which is so particular to Dutch artists, it comes as no surprise that exactly here, the artistic sector has organized itself so as to formalize its behavior within creative coalitions through the Rotterdam Code. This code concerns a number of rules, intuitively understandable for any engaged artist.

The Rotterdam Code

1) Never approach your target directly; use detours and metaphors.

2) Always legitimize an intervention in strictly artistic terms. In case of conflicts of interest, stress the fact that the relative autonomy of art forms a condition for its social productivity.

3) Reject an antagonistic attitude. Respond with attainable, concrete alternatives that produce immediate effect and verifiable results.

4) Enchant friend and foe by breaking through the usual cliches surrounding artists (serious-minded, sophisticated, unshakable). Let yourself be noticed through a pragmatic, no-nonsense attitude.

5) Never explicitly take sides in a social situation (each party always has a point somewhere). Rely on the equivocality of artistic action.

6) View every opponent as a potentially interested party, partner or financier. Anticipate on universal themes such as durability, social cohesion and national interest.

7) Avoid the suggestion that you are the driving force behind your intervention (so-called ‘solo actions’). Create the impression that you merely anticipate on existing processes.

8) Occupy a role which is unorthodox in the art world as well as in the outside world, thus avoiding easy identification and critique from both sides.

9) Never act on the basis of certain presupposed ideals or reigning ideologies. In every single circumstance, cherish a healthy distance.

10) Do not venture afield too much. Remember that art is and remains a man’s handiwork.

Wanted: new role models

The work of the Rotterdam based artist Jeanne van Heeswijk offers a broad range of new roles possible within the formation and activation of creative coalitions.

1) Storyteller: Within the redevelopment of problem neighborhood Nieuw Crooswijk (Rotterdam), the project ‘Will-O’-The-Wisp’ (‘Het Dwaallicht’) focuses on the stories of upset inhabitants. For the inhabitants of the neighborhood, a narrative monument is installed by accumulating their many stories, restaging them publicly and disseminating them in a door-to-door publication.

2) Capacity developer: Within the context of urban restructuring, the project ‘Face your world: StedelijkLab Slotervaart’ (1) introduces an urban planning process based on intensive participation of local inhabitants. An old school is transformed into an urban laboratory in which youngsters may design, conferring with experts, their own park.

3) Neighborhood programmer: Within the newly developed residential district Ijburg (Amsterdam), the ‘Blue House’ (‘Blauwe Huis’) project reserves one of the houses for research and exchange of ideas concerning the appropriation of public space and creation of a history for the neighborhood. Other artists, architects and researchers are invited to enter into a dialogue with each other and with the inhabitants of Ijburg.

Attention: this summary enumeration does not provide a complete list of ready-made artistic positions, but rather unlocks an area within which the artist can experiment freely and art can be a medium of communication back and forth.

Sample project of new leadership

Creative coalitions provide an indispensable tool in the battle against the NiMBY syndrome, well known amongst citizens. NiMBY is an acronym for ‘Not in My Backyard!’ Confronted with planned development, an individual suffering from NiMBY! will spontaneously develop feelings of resistance and aggression. It is heart-warming that Crimson – an architecture-historical research bureau – staged its actions within the restructuring of the Hoogvliet (Rotterdam) residential area under the slogan ‘WiMBY!’ The optimistic and uncomplicated exclamation ‘Welcome in my backyard!’ effectively anticipates any possible negative reactions and focuses on open-mindedness and trust – open-mindedness toward the future and trust in the good intentions of the parties involved.

It is a singular fact that Crimson did not propose any fixed strategy or means. Being the historical company they are, only one fact was beyond any doubt: a vigorous, new start is necessary at any cost in order to reappraise the notorious, modernistically planned problem neighborhood Hoogvliet. Through WiMBY!, they made it possible for designers and artists to take their responsibility. A high degree of empathy with the daily sorrows and expectations of the inhabitants was uniquely combined with great insight into the economic and political interests. In dialogue with the inhabitants, numerous projects were defined and subsequently developed in cooperation with the housing corporation and multinational enterprises involved (Royal Dutch Shell, for example). This resulted in a diverse portfolio, ranging from designs for parks, youth centers and alternative home furnishings to the organization of workshops, neighborhood feasts and public inquiry events.


(1) EN: Slotervaart is a neighborhood in Amsterdam.

This essay will be published Autumn 2009 in: Jonas Staal (ed.) Power… to which People?!, Episode Publishers, Rotterdam 2009.

Tags: English

Categories: Art

Type: Article