February 21st, 2008


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.