Kamiel Verschuren

State of the City – We, A City Without Institutes

Today, the City of Rotterdam, like many other cities, celebrates itself, but in fact is bankrupt, self-indulgent and puts anything or everything of value for sale.

Under the guise of an economical crisis, the social program for the city is fully off; repressive governing has become a distant CCTV-monitoring, and political power – through budget cuts on bureaucracy (read: democracy) – has been centralized again. The ‘City of Architecture’ is saving itself by saving prestigious building projects such as De Rotterdam and the Timmerhuis, both architectural projects by OMA*, by renting them with public money to keep up its metropolitan appearance. The civil servants who no longer (want to) live in the city themselves, have given themselves a 5-star hotel as an office, with the highest square meter price in the Netherlands, to compensate for their disinterest in their own job.

Where the city once was ‘open’, offering opportunities for self-organization, allowing artists’ initiatives and individuals to create affordable space for development and growth, today many initiatives and groups are forced to move elsewhere to make space for ‘bijzonder wonen’** (extraordinary living projects), or are confronted with a retroactive bill for the overdue maintenance over the years, leading to a maximum ‘cost-covering’ rental price.

The creative city is emptying out and seems to be moving elsewhere, Brussels or Berlin, making room for the outdated business model of the cultural entrepreneur: ‘Pak je ruimte’ *** (Grab your space). Thinking that current events in the world have already shown us that the neo-liberal ‘profit on-the-other-model’ is a catastrophe – in our town it seems they are just getting started.

But then again, We do not live in the City of Rotterdam, We live in a different city.

We, A City Without Institutes

This city hosts about 200.000 people.

People from anywhere live there because they cannot live somewhere else. People from other cities do not know where it is, and if they do, they do not want to go there.

This city is not represented, has no representation through institutes or organizations, and is not visible on any city map. It lacks public space. There is no sense of celebration of a shared space, no public life. It holds no communities.

Neighborhoods are sliced up by infrastructural structures. The urban space is merely functional, allowing anyone to leave in the direction to elsewhere. No one works there, or even wants to work there.

This city is on the top of every list related to exemplary metropolitan issues such as unemployment, crime, poverty and diversity, but it also has the fasted growing and youngest population. It exists!

It is also a place where new things are being tested, social experiments, technical experiments, because if it works there, it should work anywhere.

It is a place nobody really cares about, so you can do nothing or whatever you want! And there is space!

Taking responsibility is creating.
Make your own rules so nobody else has to make them for you …
You can say whatever you want, but then it is you who has to do it (and vice versa)…
Always leave a place better then you found it …
If something does not work, you have not tried hard enough …

In 1988 we, as the artists initiative foundation B.a.d, while still studying at the academy for Fine Arts Rotterdam, squatted a former cable factory in the North of Rotterdam. This allowed us to work after school hours, during weekends and to work on projects for a longer period of time; all things that were not possible at the art school.

In 1991, we squatted a former school building in the south of Rotterdam, in the district of Charlois, Rotterdam South.

The building was recently abandoned due to reformations of the educational system in the Netherlands, by which all school buildings were handed from to Ministry of Education to the city governments. The former school board dissolved itself without assigning the property to the city, thus leaving the building without an administrative owner.

For 20 years, we maintained and used the building as a studio complex, holding about 18 studios, workshops, project spaces and an artist-in-residence with 6 to 8 spaces for guest artists. About 600 international artists from all over the world have made use of the residency spaces since.

In 2013, we were able to sustain the studio complex for another 25 to 30 years. Legally, the building was appointed to the city government, who had to sell it to a housing corporation. We invited the corporation to renovate the building with and for us, for a price we could pay.

Today the studio complex holds six households, 18 studios with about 24 artists, three guest studios and a central hall that we use as a project space. What’s interesting is that we pay the full rent for the building through the rent for the individual houses and studios, leaving the collective space as a pre-paid ‘free’ space.

In 2004 we, as foundation NAC (New Ateliers Charlois), started an independent self-management organization and culture fund, voluntarily managing empty houses in the district of Charlois, owned by the housing corporations, who held about 80% of the housing stock. The housing corporations would offer NAC all the houses that no longer fit the housing market for free, and NAC would take over their management and ‘rental’ contracts. NAC would offer these apartments to (young) artists as living and working spaces. The artists would contribute by paying a user’s fee of €110 per month to the foundation, thus creating an independent collective fund for maintenance and cultural activities. In 2010, NAC held about a hundred addresses, in three clusters, used by about 175 artists from all over the world, collective project spaces, residencies and inner gardens.

NAC was never a plan, but developed over the years. Besides offering living and studios spaces to many artists, and producing art projects and supporting new initiatives, NAC became an important and reliable social, financial and cultural contact and partner in the area.

Today, as the world has changed, NAC is working on sustaining the different clusters of housing into a more permanent condition to provide housing and studios for cultural producers in the area.

In 2012, through the collaboration and long negotiations with the corporations and the municipality, NAC also managed to generate 14 new and permanent studio spaces at Gouwstraat, for which it enforced a social rent that for some time became a new standard for the square meter price for studio spaces in Rotterdam South.

In 2004, Studio Pompstraat was created offering several studios and a large workshop in a former garage. The studio was initially used as a collective production space for the art manifestation NewCanvas©Poetry&Art for Poetry International Festival Rotterdam with editions in 2004, 2005 and 2006. The manifestation offered work experience and opportunities for artists in the area, providing them with new skills, income or funding to invest in equipment and the experience of working collectively. In 2011, Studio Pompstraat was sustained as a studio complex for at least another 25 years, now holding about 6 studios for artists and designers.

In 2010, three artists’ groups – NAC, RAAF and Jeanneworks, all active in the South of Rotterdam – joined forces and started foundation Stedelinks010, a project organization that invests in the social and cultural infrastructure of Rotterdam South. They joined forces to work together, and by doing so bypassed a price competition they were invited for, winning the prize money with a collective plan of about 100.000 euro.

With 10 projects, Stedelinks010 wants to create a stronger infrastructure for the new and existing cultural organizations in the South.

Since 2017, an independent ferryboat, ‘VeerpontZuid’ , connects the districts of Charlois and Katendrecht, bridging the missing link in the best panorama of Rotterdam. The ferry offers pedestrians, cyclists, students and commuters a free passage across the river during weekdays. In the weekend, a contribution is asked to generate more finances to sail more hours per day. The ferry is like a hub or pod, connecting people and also functions as an information point for art & culture in Rotterdam South.

In 2015, in collaboration with Vitibuck Architects, Stedelinks010 started a new alliance named foundation Charlois aan het Water. One of the foundation’s projects is the start of a new public spot at the waterfront of Maashaven, Paviljoen … aan het Water, using an abandoned pavilion – once used as an office for shipping the city garbage of Rotterdam. The pavilion is located in the middle of an industrial zone, awaiting future transformation.

During the summertime, it is used as a project space and non-commercial cultural restaurant/bar hosted by several local cooking teams. In wintertime, the space is transformed into a residency for artists and other cultural producers, with the intention to use it as a base camp in engaging with the physical and social surroundings.

Paviljoen … aan het Water is a very realistic project but also part of a greater plan to create a public infrastructure in the South of Rotterdam, a social place for encounters and a place to allow people to enjoy and celebrate the shared space.

*OMA: Office for Metropolitan Architecture; Dutch architectural firm based in Rotterdam. Responsible for the KunstHal (Rotterdam 1992), Timmerhuis (Rotterdam 2015) and De Rotterdam (Rotterdam 2013)

**Inspired by the success of the Rotterdam ‘klushuizen’ (fix-it-yourself houses), the municipality of Rotterdam offers privileged individuals the opportunity to collectively buy old (school) buildings or other business premises and transform them into unique homes.

***Pak je ruimte (Grab your space) is the name and slogan of the self-building concept of the City of Rotterdam, the selling of lots through the municipality’s estate agents

Kamiel Verschuren

Kamiel Verschuren is a conceptual interdisciplinary artist, working in a broad international practice with a special interest for the public domain and the artists’ position in society from different positions – as drawer, (spatial) designer, designer of public space, organizer, initiator, social activist, observer, urban advisor, landscape artists, producer and publicist. He works individually and within divers partnerships with other artists and organizations.

Abroad he is and has been active in several long-term collaborations with FSKE-Studio Galeria, S-Air (Sapporo Artists in Residence), artist initiative La Source du Lion; and with the cultural organization doual’art in Budapest Hungary, Sapporo Japan, Casablanca Morocco and Douala Cameroon.