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click opera - From free state to slave camp
February 2010
 
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Thu, Feb. 21st, 2008 12:08 pm
From free state to slave camp

Joep Van Lieshout is a very interesting man. It's hard to know what to call him -- artist, designer, architect, town planner, provocateur, trickster, amateur butcher, anarchist, Dutchman? Perhaps he's not even a man at all -- after all he's better known as Atelier Van Lieshout. So maybe he's a collective, a company. Ten years ago, when I bought a big fat coffeetable book of his funky caravan designs, I would probably have told you he's an architect, a maker of bathroom fittings with some quirky ideas and some brilliant Dutch primary colours. But in the ten years since then he's become something much more interesting, and somewhat more disturbing: first a founder of utopian mini-states, then a designer of slave camps.



Back in 2000, as he explained to ArtForum at the time, Van Lieshout founded a utopian, anarchist free state in his work compound in the Rotterdam Harbour: AVL-Ville. The idea started with AVL's works about autonomy -- with the caravans and self-sufficient dwellings AVL had been making in the 90s.

"In 1998," Van Lieshout explained to ArtForum, "we got a commission to design an urban-planning project for Almere, a new city that the Dutch government began building in the province of Flevoland in the '70s. We came up with a plan for "Free State Almere," which would have sealed off the city from the rest of the country. Unfortunately, our proposal was rejected, so we decided to create our own free state around the atelier. I wanted to make a beautiful spot for people who work at AVL. We're not interested in having everyone come to live at AVL-Ville; it's intended only for past, current, and future employees. Currently, five of our interns live here, and more of our workers plan to move in this summer. Maybe in twenty years AVL-Ville will be bigger, but it'll never be massive". Van Lieshout had plans to make the free state a franchise; there'd be an AVL West Coast, AVL Asia, and so on.

In fact, the free state only lasted nine months. As Van Lieshout explained in a Tate talk with Marcus Verhagen, this experiment which was supposed to grow to 1000 people and last 1000 years (and which some compared to a Steiner community) was closed down by the authorities, a victim of the rise of right wing parties and political change in Holland. "A lot of people turned against the soft law which allowed soft drugs and prostitution," Van Lieshout explained at the Tate last November. "We were on TV, we were the ones sticking out. So the authorities came to me, and they were not very collaborative. We got a lot of inspectors. We had a bar and restaurant without building or restaurant permits or an alcohol license. We had a farm, so we had the European farm inspector coming, saying "You have to have concrete here, and special tanks for the shit, you have to sterilize..." We had this heating system, renewable energy, and they said "No, no no, there should be a filter..."



After 2001 -- reflecting political change in Holland itself, and the Western world in general -- Van Lieshout's work took a much darker turn. His interest in Utopia flipped into an interest in Dystopia, and particularly how the Nazi death camps were an expression of the ambivalence of rationalism and Modernism. The autonomous, anarchist experiment of AVL-Ville, which grew its own food and recycled its own waste in a way that would have been recognizable to 1970s Dutch hippies, turned into a series of teasingly amoral studies of total institutions, slave colonies and work camps.

It began with 2003's The Disciplinator, a sort of log cabin gulag in which everything is based on multiples of four. "The elements are intended to be used 24 hours a day by a slave force of 72 inmates," camp commandant Van Lieshout specifed. "There are 24 bunk beds that can be occupied three times a day; 24 places to eat with 24 cups and 24 dishes; 36 places to work and 36 files with which the slaves complete the useless task of reducing tree trunks to sawdust; and four toilets, four showers, four cups and eight toothbrushes (so two inmates can brush their teeth at the same time). Running like a clock, The Disciplinator produces little else beyond the passage of time and sawdust. In this nightmare, total functionality meets total futility."

His next project was much more productive. SlaveCity, begun in 2005 and ongoing, is a work town for 200,000 slaves (100,000 men, 100,000 women) who work for seven hours a day in office jobs (call centres, data input), another seven hours in the fields and in the workshops meeting the community's own needs, then have three hours of relaxation before sleeping for seven hours. The town may not be much fun to live in, but it's rational, efficient and profitable, generating €7 billion net profit per year. It's also very green, a zero-energy town where everything is recycled.

Van Lieshout told the Tate (itself an organisation, it's worth remembering, built on slavery and the sugar trade) that although SlaveCity no longer embodied the "big dream" of AVL-Ville, its dark cloud did have a silver lining. "Within this SlaveCity there will be something beautiful -- good health care, beautiful buildings. We're reformulating good and evil. Two slave cities could really change things for the better in the world.... There'd be renewable energy, self-sufficiency, no carbon dioxide, everything recycled, even the slaves themselves, who'd be composted, digested with bio-gas... 200,000 people for a better world, it's a good sacrifice".

Let's just hope they don't make it a franchise.

22CommentReplyShare

eustaceplimsoll
Eustace Plimsoll
Thu, Feb. 21st, 2008 11:31 am (UTC)

Is SlaveCity a conceptual thing or does he actually intend to realise it? Anyone willing to go to those lengths in order that his fellow humans can spend seven hours a day manning call centres and doing data entry must be a sadistic nut, no matter how amenable the environment.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Feb. 21st, 2008 11:53 am (UTC)

Art holds up a mirror. "Can that be us?" we cry.


ReplyThread Parent
imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Feb. 21st, 2008 12:13 pm (UTC)

But, to give that a fuller and more considered answer, and to relate it to our old discussion about Islam and Postmodernism, I think it's useful to look at Van Lieshout's swing from an interest in libertarianism to an interest in authoritarianism as a consequence of the binary way we form concepts. Our ideas, and our ideologies, depend on a close relationship with their opposites.

When you declare an interest in autonomy, you are actually declaringg an interest in the vector autonomy / dependence. An interest in libertarianism is also an interest, inevitably, in authoritarianism. We shouldn't be surprised when Van Lieshout, founder of a free autonomous state, tells us that his bedside table is heavy with books on Nazism.

Look at the time our own culture was at its most liberal, in the 1960s. It was a mere fifteen years after the Nazi era (in other words, as close as 1993 is to us today). It's not that we started again from scratch in 1945; rather, everything we did was determined by a huge effort not-to-be-Nazi. That's what created the hippy liberalism of the 1960s, just as fundamentalist Islam and the "decadent" West create each other, or just as the Catholic church's interest in virtue creates its interest in vice.

I know you probably won't see it this way, Eustace, but it was worth a shot!


ReplyThread Parent
uberdionysus
uberdionysus
Troy Swain: Black Box Miasma
Thu, Feb. 21st, 2008 06:50 pm (UTC)

As usual, I think that's too simple an analysis, and deeply unfair to Van Lieshout.


ReplyThread Parent
imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Feb. 21st, 2008 07:02 pm (UTC)

Is it "deeply unfair"?

In his Designboom interview, Van Lieshout says: "there is always a juxtaposition of rational and irrational, good and bad, beautiful and ugly. contradiction is always present in my work." Asked what books are on his bedside table, he says "they are all books about the third reich! (laughs)".

I'm not criticizing him above at all, I'm just saying what he says himself about the "vectors" of his interest and the contradictions they embody. But you're welcome to expand on why you think it's "deeply unfair" if you like.


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uberdionysus
uberdionysus
Troy Swain: Black Box Miasma
Fri, Feb. 29th, 2008 10:20 pm (UTC)

Crap, I forgot to respond to this.

Basically, I think it's deeply unfair because Van Lishout is obviously working on many levels, yet your post (while admittedly deliberately succinct) condenses everything he's doing to one facet (a facet I find uninteresting).

Again, this is one of the problems of essentialism - reducing everything to its essence, regardless all evidence to the contrary of said essence.

You have been on the wrong end of essentialism when people claim that your Asian fetish clouds your judgments and makes everything you say suspect. There may be some truth to the claim, but it is a hopelessly naive and reductionist stance, and it's a stance that ignores all other aspects of your thought and self.

What Lishout is doing works on many levels and I think it's provoking and intelligent. I think your analysis is too flattening, and does his intellect and work a grave disservice.

But please not I'm not a relativist. But I'm also not an essentialist, and I think the world is too complex to constantly reduce to binaries (and definitely more complex than Hegel's simplistic binary dialectics).


ReplyThread Parent
rinusvanalebeek
rinusvanalebeek
rinusvanalebeek
Fri, Feb. 22nd, 2008 11:21 am (UTC)
postcard from Holland

Nice.

First, I am Dutch.
Second, this slavething is, believe it or not, Dutch humourism.
It is anarchistic and extremely anti-authoritarian.

Being turned of from his utopian community by rules and regulations,
this reaction ("if I can't do it my way, I am going to do it your way")
should also be seen in the context of rising right wing populism. The political movement of the megalomanic drag politician Fortuyn won the elections in Rotterdam. Society split up politically. Culturally, the Netherlands are still recovering from this trash attack.

For those who need a second and third word to understand well:
These slavecamps are a moralistic statement and a "fuck you" to the elected elite.


ReplyThread Parent
eclectiktronik
eclectiktronik
eclectiktronik
Thu, Feb. 21st, 2008 11:38 am (UTC)

(whoops, hadn't logged in)..

This type of thing seems to have a precedent in the US with the religious fanatics and the live-in, authoritarian, total-submission ethos of their cults (Waco, anyone?)

My question is: how long before this Van Lieshout fantasy idea appears in the US presented as some kind of 'solution' (to ghettoes/crime/terrorism/islam/fill-in-the-blank)? History has shown that many Americans display a remarkable willingness to embrace fascism, especially if it is dressed up by the military-industrial complex with a bit of patriotism and sloganeering.....


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Feb. 21st, 2008 11:52 am (UTC)

Well, exactly. Reversing the old quote, we could say that history plays the first time as farce, the second as tragedy.

Edited at 2008-02-21 04:17 pm (UTC)


ReplyThread Parent
lord_whimsy
lord_whimsy
whimsy
Thu, Feb. 21st, 2008 09:10 pm (UTC)

History has shown that many Americans display a remarkable willingness to embrace fascism

...and History has shown that many Europeans display a remarkable willingness to invent it.


ReplyThread Parent

imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Feb. 21st, 2008 12:36 pm (UTC)

This being Holland we're talking about, I suspect soft drugs were the one thing AVL-Ville wasn't busted for. And since everyone living there was employed by an architectural practice, I very much doubt they were junkies. No, it was all stuff about EU farming regulations, alcohol licenses and so on.

But yes, you're right, it's not really surprising it didn't last. JVL expected the Dutch authorities to turn a blind eye to small infractions happening in an art context, which they may well have done if there hadn't been political capital to be gained from symbolic moves against liberal culture, and if AVL-Ville hadn't got a lot more press than expected.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Feb. 21st, 2008 01:10 pm (UTC)

I find there's a bit of a conflict going on between your second-last and last paragraphs there. You're saying you move in a community that uses class A drugs every weekend, and breaks the law. But you're saying that another community doing the same thing shouldn't have done it. Does the same apply to the drug-using gay community? Should they expect to be shut down for their activities?

Edited at 2008-02-21 01:10 pm (UTC)


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Feb. 21st, 2008 02:10 pm (UTC)

I think you've overlooking the extent to which AVL-Ville was an artwork. Art's a bit like Christianity -- every loser wins. You get paid in publicity for every fight you have with the authorities. JVL discovered this when he put a cannon on the front of a Mercedes and entered it in an art show. The mayor of the Dutch town the show was held in made a stand for his own political advantage and had the show shut down. But he got slapped down by the culture minister for being so silly. A bit like your petty chemistry teacher, in fact.

Edited at 2008-02-21 02:10 pm (UTC)


ReplyThread Parent
crowjake
crowjake
crowjake
Thu, Feb. 21st, 2008 02:16 pm (UTC)

I started writing this story recently about Hitler winning the war and becoming furer of the world. And this is pretty much what ends up happening. As ever, though, people aren't all straight, so the gender separation doesn't work. People might want to work less hours, or more hours or they might have disabilities or depression which mean they can't do as much as everyone else. So for SlaveCity to work you need to remove all the spanners in the works, regularly. You can't just achieve the city and for it to sustain, you need to delete/edit people who can't be edited. You need "slave maintenance" who get rid of all the people you can't deal with; very helpful.

I wish I was him though, (Mr. Lieshout that is, not Hitler)... There seems to be artists all over the place talking about the ideas i have in my head... by the time i get there everyone will have already made my points hah!


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tinyfolk
tinyfolk
Aloysius Dad
Thu, Feb. 21st, 2008 03:06 pm (UTC)

The fascinating thing to me is that if it weren't called SlaveCity, and if it were presented a little differently (i.e. with the emphasis on the productivity, the ecological benefits, the physical beauty, etc.) I think a whole lot of people would say, "that's a great idea!" Honestly, I think there are a lot of people who voluntarily live a lifestyle not that far removed from what happens in SlaveCity: seven hours at an office job, then go home do yardwork, physical labor (even if it is in the form of going to a gym, etc) and then a little bit of alone time and go to sleep for seven hours to do it again. The differences are so small, it's really just a) the concept of it being regulated/enforced and b) the (illusion?) of it being a lifestyle created/chosen by the person in question.

The more I think about it, the more I'm not sure what exactly it is that makes it unpalatable other than the idea of everything being regulated by the same entity, the fear of which every good, individualistic American has instilled in him/her from birth.


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desant012
||||||||||
Thu, Feb. 21st, 2008 03:37 pm (UTC)

Look at those rats go. But in this case, the rats are sheep, and the sheep are all of -you-. Think about that one for a while, it might just blow your mind man.


ReplyThread Parent

(Anonymous)
Thu, Feb. 21st, 2008 03:20 pm (UTC)

The joke might be this...

Utopian communities throughout history have always failed and resulted in disaster (money issues, jealousy, apathy, etc). The result tends to be the opposite of what was intended.

Keeping this rule in mind, if you started a community based on awful things--with the opposite of your intentions actually occuring--then you would end up with a really great place to live.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Feb. 21st, 2008 04:21 pm (UTC)

Ha, interesting... it might work, unless there's some kind of law of entropy in the universe ensuring that, rather than all plans having the opposite result of the one intended, all plans just always turn out worse than expected.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Feb. 21st, 2008 09:09 pm (UTC)

Like reverse broken windows (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fixing_Broken_Windows). If I build a shanty cottage in a gated community, will they transform it (fixer up) into a Mc Mansion?


ReplyThread Parent
brokenjunior
brokenjunior
Thu, Feb. 21st, 2008 04:48 pm (UTC)
meanwhile: all play and no work

Additional visual references on "Lager"-aesthetics:




Pig City by MVRDV, 2001




LEGO Concentration Camp Set by Zbigniew Libera , 1996




Hell by Jake and Dinos Chapman, 1999 (destroyed 2004)


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Feb. 21st, 2008 04:53 pm (UTC)
Re: meanwhile: all play and no work

It's funny, in his Tate talk Lieshout says that when he got a commission to do a piece at Schipol Airport the only two restrictions were "No pigs and no sex". So he did this piece without pigs or sex -- a skull-shaped building offering privacy for people who went inside it -- but suddenly it had to fit the fire regulations too, so nobody was allowed in.


ReplyThread Parent
pay_option07
pay_option07
Fri, Feb. 22nd, 2008 03:13 am (UTC)
Facism or a single hive mind

I feel this is reluctantly being revisited as a new concept with variations of linguistics and trends.

http://www.nationalgeographic.com/pyramids/pyramids.html#who


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