New Economy - Workshop: report

Report by Lisa Haskel about the New Economy workshop.

The workshop went on the road for the day. Though being in Rotterdam, it never had to go very far to experience extraordinary variation in the city's fabric. 

The morning began at Witte de With, Rotterdam's contemporary art gallery with an international reputation, and its current exhibition. The Gallery was exhibiting three works of Muntadas: two were re-staged installations - "Between the Frames" and "The Boardroom", the third was an exhibition concluding a new work that took place in a number of sites in Rotterdam over one year between October 1998 and September 1999: "On Translation: The Audience". It is this last work that held primary relevance to the workshop. 

The flyer for "On Translation" contains a notice: "Warning: Perception Requires Involvement". This statement very much summarises the work's premise. The project consisted of a large moveable screen, reminiscent of a mobile advertising billboard but slightly smaller scale: designed for those intermediate, transitional spaces between the outsides and insides of public buildings - specifically the lobbies of cultural institutions around Rotterdam. Each month, a new image - each a form of collage and in a style reminiscent of popular culture - was presented in a different setting, from the art museum to the stadium. The image was simply placed in the lobby, quietly transforming the architecture and inserting a critical presence into the gap between the street and the legitimate venues in which all the occurs can be immediately identified as art. The project aimed to intervene on the level of perception, creating a disturbance in the space. The alien presence proposes that the architecture and interior designs of institutions condition the perception of those spaces, and that in creating a disruption it can sensitise its users who can then decide to question the normality. Muntadas writes: "On Translation: The Audience refers to the act of viewing, reading, listening and so forth, as an act of translation and interpretation within institutions of the city". As a summary or review of the project, each image was displayed in a different room of the gallery, together with a case of publicity material and official letters relating to the project from the corresponding host institution, and some snap-shots of the image on-site, in the midst of different movements and interactions. 

This project falls clearly within the stated objectives of the Witte de With. Its director Barthomeu Mari, had earlier described these as to expand the notion of contemporary art and contemporary art practice, but to still work within the given architecture of the gallery and the language of the art exhibition. A project such as In Translation perhaps falls into some of the contradictions inherent in these aims. The exhibition could only deliver a transformed idea of the object itself, complimented by a representation of the object's presence in its specific sites. Neither the project itself or the curation allowed for any concrete feedback on its effects or sense of extending the possibilities that the work aspired to open up. While this might not be the artist's aim in this particular case, it was clear that the practice of contemporary exhibition-making already militates against this possibility. 

The afternoon excursion began with a walk across the Erasmus bridge, over the strong and wide Maas river with its spectacular bridges, moving from the older and human scale architecture of Rotterdam city centre into the new development areas in the South. The under-construction corporate HQ of PTT telecom, designed by Renzo Piano provides the current gateway into the re-development zone. Kop van Zuid is an urban development strategy for the South of Rotterdam; an area on the opposite side of the Amass river from the City Centre. Since the 1960's changes in the shipping industry has pushed the main working areas of the port westwards towards deeper waters and bigger docks, leaving the older port area with huge tracts of disused warehousing combined with some low-cost and poor quality public housing. This area is now undergoing rapid "regeneration". The objective is to create a mixed-used environment, with mixed economy residential areas, offices and amenities including shops, restaurants, cinemas and cultural organisations. The opening and key investment by the city was the building of the Erasmus Bridge, opened in 1996, which connects the city centre with South part of Rotterdam, transforming the movement and economies between different parts of the city.

At the information centre of the Kop van Zuid, a public building with displays of both the history of rotterdam and the new building plans, we were met by Jean Piret, one of the planners of the new city. Piret presented a short history of Rotterdam; the impact of the 2nd World War bombing and the city's shifting economies and populations as these have impacted upon and shaped its built environment. Piret presented an extraordinarily malleable notion of the city. Nothing seemed outside of the possibility for re-designing, re-designation and re-definition. The human and social qualities of space and place could all be manipulated and constructed via its architecture, and even its "natural" foundations: mainland, islands and waterways, could and should be re-made to create the desired environment. The objective of the development was presented purely as a social and long-term economic project: the role of private finance and any need for direct financial returns stayed firmly in the background. This, of course, is not an unexpected approach for a city planner. But perhaps surprisingly, M. Piret did not immediately grasp the intersection between his own work and a group of people involved in cultural production, despite the fact that the city is clearly thriving on a representation of itself as constantly renewed and renewable, and invests in cultural activity as a significant part of the re-development engine. Leaving the visitors centre, we all admired the ariel view photographs, architectural models and interactive displays: a thoroughly seductive, but absolutely material, isolated and depopulated set of representations of the urban domain which stand in clear contrast to the diverse, intersubjective, fluid and connected conceptualisation of a city shaped by collective forms of agency that is being articulated and refined through the lecture and workshop series.

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