The Netherlands, that small country with big ambitions that lies below sea level, has been battling water and trying to outsmart it for decades. Traditionally, our strategies have included using dikes and reclaiming land, as well as developing the iconic Dutch windmill to generate energy. In recent years, we have seen new innovations in both water-management and renewable energy. The Dutch are familiar with using design to counter climate change on many levels: from floating architecture, to glow-in the dark bike-paths, to self-powering (solar) furniture. The creative sector – nurtured by progressive educational institutes such as the Design Academy in Eindhoven – seems to be aching to transition towards a more sustainable society. You’ll find below an overview of my ten favorite art initiatives dedicated to building a more aware, balanced, artistic, fossil-free and sustainable future.
Note: This list is non-exhaustive, in random order, and does not include individual artists, design studios, projects or educational institutes – only art initiatives. And it’s also not entirely objective as I work for (at least) one of them!
Though Mediamatic describes itself as an “Art and New Technology” space, their more recent projects are rather low-tech and involve a lot of food-related stuff (which I like!). Think fermentation feasts and reading Russian literature to cabbages (no joke). Mediamatic is very active: They organize over 40 presentations, 25 workshops and three exhibitions each year. It’s a cool space to attend an artist-led workshop or to enjoy a locally crafted beer overlooking the (rising?) waters of Amsterdam.
We realize that humankind is facing a lot of ecological challenges, like climate change, overpopulation, pollution and epidemic health problems. Therefore, we reflect on the value and meaning of nature and on processes which are more in harmony with our own organic identity. The old idea of nature as the opposite of culture is replaced by the insight that we as humans are part of nature and also responsible for its development. So, everyone should be part of this conversation. Artists especially can show us to observe, think and see in a different way. That is why the focus of Mediamatic is now on art, biology and technology.
—Manon van Daal
2. Cultureland AIR and De Buitenwerkplaats
De Buitenwerkplaats is beautifully located in the Dutch polder, with views stretching for miles over the flat, rural landscape. Both skilled architects with sustainability at the heart of their practice, owners Maud and Dagobert re-built this former farm themselves. In addition to providing great spaces for work meetings, (organic) cooking workshops, and a wood workshop, they offer a separate residency program for artists called Cultureland AIR. The residency starts with two weeks in Amsterdam, where the artist can explore the cultural and scientific life that the city has to offer. After two weeks, the artist retreats to the polder for time, reflection and inspiration surrounded by this classic Dutch landscape.
We are convinced that the creative and philosophical approach to sustainability is indispensable, for we as humans need to fundamentally rethink our relationship to nature. By offering our residency to artists for this purpose, we hope to provide some beauty and consolidation for all. That is why we started Cultureland AIR.
—Maud Aarts and Dagobert Bergmans
3. Jac. P. Thijsse Lab/ Van Eyck Food Lab
Ok, so this is not totally objective because I run this lab! But it’s exciting stuff; it consists of a garden, a greenhouse, Food Lab and residencies with the Thijsse Lab for Nature Research. Currently, architect Rain Wu and chef/designer Marente van der Valk are in residence at the Food Lab, and duo de Onkruidenier are in residence at the Thijsse Lab. De Onkruidenier (a Dutch play on words) has been conducting their research on what humans can learn from plants when it comes to adapting to changing conditions – especially in relation to halotolerance (salt tolerance) of plants growing near the sea. Plants are remarkably smart and adaptive, and keeping in mind that we live in a world where 97.5% of all water is salt water, shouldn’t humans become a more halotolerant species? As part of this research, de Onkruidenier is growing sugar beets and beach beets, watering half of them with seawater and half with freshwater, while tracking how they change, among many other things.
The newly established Food Lab, which includes an artist/chef residency program, is a place for artists to research in depth their relation to food, and explore what food means in our day and age in the light of ecological and social issues. The kitchen and café-restaurant of the Van Eyck function as the physical basis of the Food Lab where experiment, encounter, cooking and (a lot of!) tasting come together.
Just come and visit and taste!
I got to know Satellietgroep back in 2009 when they organized a residency program in containers on the beach. The program was called Badgasten and explored the social and ecological impact of the sea and coastal transition zones on cities, people, communities and environments. Today, almost ten years later, water remains a recurring theme in their many projects, which involve artistic fieldwork and connecting with locals and experts.
We see more and more examples of contemporary artistic projects that place our environment (or Umwelt, as the Germans put it more accurately) at the core of their work. There seems to be a global wave of artists and designers that address the ways in which humans interact with and affect the climate and climate change. And that’s great! We need to critically investigate perceptions of our human footprint as a cultural phenomenon.
Taking the visual arts, design, architecture and urban planning as a starting point, Stroom focuses on public space and the urban environment. It aims at being a hospitable and stimulating platform. Stroom organizes exhibitions, projects, lectures, workshops, research, debates and excursions to stimulate the transfer of knowledge and the development of ideas concerning art, architecture and related disciplines. They also publish books such as Facing Value, a recent publication that aims to rethink the scope and language of our value system. Check out their projects Food Print and Upcycling as best practice projects nicely demonstrating the positive and tangible impact art projects can have on society.
Stroom has initiated countless meaningful initiatives that blur traditional borders between public space, social themes and art over its nearly 30 years of existence. As the youngest member on the program team today, it’s my mission to scan, challenge, wonder and continue to tease out: what is the societal potential of art and imagination?
6. Farm of the World
Tucked away in one of the northernmost parts of the Netherlands, in an old farm called The Kreake, the nonprofit organization Farm of the World aims to increase our awareness and help us develop sustainable relationships with art, nature and culture. It was initiated by artist Claudy Jongstra for Leeuwarden European Cultural Capital 2018 to explore new and sustainable futures for the countryside. Jongstra creates art pieces and architectural installations from hand felted material. Committed to the value chain of creation, she raises her own sheep, keeps bees, cultivates a botanical garden and grows her own plants for dyes. A central question therefore is: How can the countryside contribute to a social, sustainable and dynamic local environment? The starting point of the project is an abandoned farm in Húns, twelve kilometers from Leeuwarden. By bringing in people from all over the world to work together with local resources, The Kreake becomes productive again – but this time, as an example of how creativity and cooperation can bring life to a formerly abandoned rural farm.
7. Waag Society
From workshops on conducting citizen science in order to make our living environment a healthier space, to exploring the potential of dying fabric with bacteria (!) as an alternative to the highly polluting textile industries, it’s all happening at the Waag Society, an institute for art, science and technology which, over the last 22 years, has built itself into an international pioneer in the field of digital media. They concern themselves not only with technologies related to the Internet, but also with biotechnology and the cognitive sciences – areas that have a huge impact on our culture and identity.
Intuitive and curiosity-driven research by artists and designers is paramount. Artists and designers know better than anyone that they must question technology in order to get to the bottom of things, overthrow sacred cows, stimulate imagination and fantasy, create unexpected connections, and –above all – search for meaning.
8. De Ceuvel
When a group of architects won a bid to create a “regenerative urban oasis” in the old shipyard in the North of Amsterdam, they decided to “upcycle” old Dutch houseboats that were about to be demolished, and give them a new life on land. Thus, De Ceuvel was born. The boats now function as workspaces and aim to catalyze even more ideas around sustainability; they host organizations such as Metabolic, The Tipping Point and The Dutch Weedburger. Soil-cleansing plants have been sowed around the boats to clean the heavily polluted industrial grounds. Nothing is wasted in trying to fix these polluted grounds: Nutrients are recovered from the urine of the waterless urinal in the Metabolic Lab and Café de Ceuvel to fertilize the aquaponics plants in the Green House on the roof of the lab. The produce from this Green House goes straight into the kitchen of Café de Ceuvel. Furthermore, Café De Ceuvel and Metabolic are building a bio-waste digester to turn the restaurant’s kitchen waste into biogas. Workshops, guided tours, readings, concerts, lectures and other cultural events are regularly organized.
We want to lead by example, showcasing what the transition to a contemporary circular lifestyle looks like. Through art and cultural programming we inspire and involve kindred spirits, becoming part of a growing movement of people who embrace the idea of a sustainable city, country and world. The transition to a circular economy and society is not just a technical transition, it is also a cultural transition: people have to learn how to deal with new techniques and world-views.
The island of Schouwen-Duiveland is a rare gem. Protected from the sea by dunes, dams and dikes, and dependent on a thin layer of fresh water just below the surface, it is threatened by rising sea level and other forces of nature. Humans have regulated the dynamic balance between fresh and salt water as much as possible. As a result, a delicate system has been created in which people live and work, and continuously balance threats to safety, economy and the natural heritage of the island. How do you make minuscule water life visible? How does a bird connect its nest with the rest of the world? Where exactly does the subterranean border between fresh and salt water lie? These are questions that the Bewaerschole in Burgh-Haamstede asks its artists to engage with.
Both national and international artists are doing artistic research on the island and sharing their results through exhibitions, publications and social media. The common theme for all artists is the balance between fresh and salt water.
Based in Amstelpark in Amsterdam, Zone2Source is an international exhibition platform that offers artists a space to create projects at the intersection of art, nature and technology. Artists are invited to rethink the relationship between humans, technology and the environment. They explore alternative practices through exhibitions, workshops, debates and performances which take place both in the glass pavilions and the outdoors. Zone2Source is concerned with a return to the source in order to observe and experience anew the complex natural world of which we are a part.
The urgent ecological crisis mankind is facing does not only require a change of practices in the way we deal with nature but a change in mentality in order to rethink the position of man itself. Rather then seeing ourselves as separate from nature, we need to learn to understand the complex entanglements which make us part of ecological systems so that notions of care can become part again of designing our technologies and systems. Art can play an important role in developing new imaginations to rethink the relation between human, nature and technology.
This article is part of the Top Tens series.
Curator Yasmine Ostendorf (MA) has worked extensively on international cultural mobility programs and on the topic of art and environment for expert organizations such as Julie’s Bicycle (UK), Bamboo Curtain Studio (TW) Cape Farewell (UK) and Trans Artists (NL). She founded the Green Art Lab Alliance, a network of 35 cultural organizations in Europe and Asia that addresses our social and environmental responsibility, and is the author of the series of guides “Creative Responses to Sustainability.” She is the Head of Nature Research at the Van Eyck Academy (NL), a lab that enables artists to consider nature in relation to ecological and landscape development issues and the initiator of the Van Eyck Food Lab.