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Stroom Den Haag Profiled
byVagabond Reviews

Design Academy Eindhoven, architecture, urban environment, Cyprien Gaillard, lectures, debates and libraries, James Turrell, Platform for Architecture, institutional forms

Stroom Den Haag (an independent foundation) is a centre for art and architecture with a wide range of activities. Starting from the visual arts, architecture, urban planning and design the program focuses on the urban environment.

Stroom's policy is not committed to any particular movement. The centre is open to everyone with stimulating ideas or a need for information regarding art and the urban environment. It aims at being a hospitable and stimulating platform. Starting from this mentality Stroom, in collaboration with other institutions, wants to contribute to the permanent development of the reflection on the city and the part that can be played by the visual arts in this context.

Stroom organizes exhibitions, projects, lectures, workshops and excursions. It initiates research and debates to stimulate the transfer of knowledge and the development of ideas concerning art, architecture and related disciplines. Within this context Stroom expands its library, develops web dossiers on its website and issues publications. In addition, Stroom's policy is focused on stimulating the art climate of The Hague and improving the visibility of art and artists from The Hague.

The topic of ‘being public' is the connecting factor between many of Stroom's activities. Stroom mediates, advises and offers suggestions to artists and supports a large number of projects in public space.The name Stroom was chosen because it stands for energy and movement.

Vagabond Reviews: Perhaps we can start with a question about artists. Could you tell us a bit about how you go about supporting artists? What specifically is the modus operandi?  What are the various means by which artist can engage with Stroom? Do artists approach you? Do you for example get involved with artists through direct commissioning?

Jan Wijle: I will start by describing a bit more about Stroom’s practice regarding artists. As you can see on the website we have a different task for our local artists and for artists we involve in art projects. The first task starts with artists, the second with art.

Local artists can apply for all kinds of support. First they have to prove they can work as a professional. There is a selection process twice yearly. Once selected it is possible to take part in Stroom’s documentation service centre which is also open to the public in both physical and digital form. We invite curators from abroad to visit artist’s studios. Various presentations and exhibitions are organised following a system of grants.

Because we are able to get to know them better it sometimes makes sense to involve a local artist in a commission. It has to do with budgets, when a regular presence is needed etc. Or just because they are very good and they can compete with other national and international artists. Of course there is always the frustration of being treated as ‘just a local artist’, but that aspect was stronger 10 years ago than it is now. It’s all part of the local art climate, necessary for any cultural policy.

When we involve artists in the Art Program there are different ways of doing so, depending on the initiater and the funder. Stroom has its own program of exhibitions, lectures, debates and research. We are free to invite anybody we want to, including speakers or researchers who are not into art as such but who come from another field that affects art. The Stroom program is funded by the City Government, National Art Fundings (Mondriaan Stichting, Stimuleringsfonds voor Architectuur) and sometimes sponsors.

Of course architects and designers are regular guests alonside artists but filmmakers, philosophers, scientists or researcher can also participate. Because we focus on the urban issues in art and architecture (and everything between and around) we are famous for being an ‘art center that only presents architecture’ (the artists), or ‘a center for architecture that is far too artistic’ (the architects). Fortunately there is  a growing constituency that is interested in the wider field of art, architecture and the urban environment and the Stroom aproach.

We also involve artists outside Stroom mostly for projects in public space. In such cases the question of which artist is invited depends a lot on the commissioner. Typical commissioners include, newly built schools, housing corporations, the City Council (or a department of the City Council) and also private groups such as the Mandela Sculpture Initiative group.   

Generally speaking we form a committee for every situation with representatives from the commissioning party along with Stroom representatives. We formulate the commission together. Stroom proposes between five and ten possible artists. Together we choose one, two or three for the next round. And so on till the project is made public, contracts are signed etc.

Sometimes we succeed in initiating a public project ourselves, either permanent or temporary, for example,  the James Turrell piece. Such projects are sometimes linked to a special occasion or sometimes follow on from an exhibition program as is the case with French artist Cyprien Gaillard (for more information see the archive of the Public Space Projects on the website).

The majority of art-related public projects in The Hague are initiated by, advised by or coördinated through Stroom. A sculpture or art project initiated by someone else that needs a formal permission from or approval by the City Government nearly always passes through our office.

Vagabond Reviews: Our second question concerns how Stroom Den Haag goes about influencing architecture and urban design in the city. How are those relations structured at an inter-organisational level? What are the opportunities for artists, architects and urban planners to form creative alliances?

Jan Wijle: In the beginning of the nineties the Public Art Program became the most visible part of Stroom’s practice. It got even stronger when we started an exhibition space in 1993 concerning presentations on art related to the city. These were sometimes specific to The Hague but mostly concerning The City in general. This had to do with a shift in artistic practice since the mid to late eighties, when artists wanted to relate to serious matters in society. So a shift from concerns about sculpture on the most visible site, to works of art related to urban issues. Using strategies unfamiliar to the artworld, the results were sometimes hardly recognizable as art. Some works were temporary or spread over a region of the city. The program also included research, lectures and activities which did not necessarily lead to a finished work of art. The physical object was not the most important result anymore. Instead an attitude was formulated, like a pair of spectacles through which one could look at the city and observe urban issues.

At that time we invented the Stroom Travels: the idea of travelling through your own city ‘curated’ by an artist, a scientist and a designer. This involved a maximum of 50 people at one time in an intense experiencing of the city over a whole day with special food at special locations. For me, Stroom Travels were the perfect demonstration of Stroom’s policy at the time. It was where architecture and design came together in a natural way. We discovered that visual artists wanted to build real places for real people and that architects wanted to use the stage of art to present their conceptual ideas for the city. Designers at that time started to function as conceptual artiists. We built a park on the waterside with artist Vito Acconci. We worked with leading Architecture Studio MVRDV on a solution for PigFarming, ‘Pig City’. We commissioned more and more designers for artworks in schools, for example, designers from DROOG design or the Design Academy Eindhoven. Most importantly, discussions on urban matters were held outside the bounderies of the art/architecture world. New disciplines were invented or old ones were combined.
For five years now we have housed a ‘platform for architecture’. The City Government asked us to do so since we were focussing more and more on the urban environment. In Holland we have more than 40 such platforms for influencing local architecture. Most of them are focused on Architecture for new buildings. We are more interested in all disciplines that deal with the city and with urban issues. Not all architects are happy with this attitude, finding it ‘too artistic’ while some artists conclude ‘there are only architects at Stroom’.
You might ask have Stroom really influenced practice on design and architecture in The Hague? Probably a little. We have perhaps been most influential at the level of urban and landscape design than on the architectural level. At the level of Public Space we sometimes cooperate on the design of it.

Vagabond Reviews: You mention ‘being public’ as the connecting factor for all of your programmes. Could you expand on what ‘being public means in relation to your thinking about art and public space in the city?

Jan Wijle: ‘Making Public’ was the title of a book we made with New York-based artist Vito Acconci about all his projects and plans for public space. He was aware of the fact that you can produce a public art project but that it is necessary to make it public. From the start of Stroom we knew that you address a different audience when working in the public domain and that we were not in favor of ‘plop’ sculptures.  

The big difference between Art in Public Space and Art in an Art Context is the way people look at art. In a gallery there’s a selection of people who enter the space. They know that they are going to see art so every piece of paper, every object or environment will be approached as though special and with the idea of a meaning to be deciphered. In the street nobody asks for art and nobody expects it. So you have to be sure that either it ‘looks like art’ or that it’s not important people recognize it as art. On the other hand you want people to get involved in some way, to experience whatever it is you want to show them.

In the seventies we tried to engage people in public art through intensive democratic procedures which hardly ever resulted into great artworks. And there are many examples of public artworks that were rejected by the public at the start and defended as ‘theirs’ some years later. So what to do?
In our opinion a good public art project needs to give access to everyone in some way, including the non-expert observer. A good project reveals itself in layers and over time, getting richer to ‘art people’ as well as to the general public. That’s not easy: let’s call it a challenge! From the beginning of Stroom we informed people living around an art-project in advance and during the installation. When it’s installed we try to celebrate it with all the people involved and surrounding it. In this way we try to make the work public.

Vagabond Reviews: It seems that a key aspect of the work of Stroom is to explore the potential for interdisciplinary practice and learning. How important is research and the Knowledge Centre to the work of the organisation?

Jan Wijle: Along with the projects we develop, we have a lecture program, publications and debates on all kinds of urban issues. These discussions are sometimes political and mostly reflective. The Centre of Knowledge is a kind of active library, that started as a documentation centre to back up the exhibitions related to the urban environment. Over 15 years the collection of books and documents has grown into a really specialised library on all subjects related to art, architecture and urban issues from a wide range of perspectives. Students come to study here and it is an inspiration for everybody working in these fields and also to ourselves. In the Netherlands Stroom is the only institute that is specialised in this way I think.

Vagabond Reviews: Clearly civic space and cities have a whole range of institutional forms of governance concerned with roads, planning development, entertainment, parks, public order and so on which together constitute the matrix of codes, legal structures, resources and disciplines which organise a city as a particular set of constraints and possibilities. Can you characterise the kind of relations that Stroom have formed with those structures of civic governance?

Jan Wijle: This question mentions ‘a whole range of institutional forms etc.’ and so it is. It is impossible to find transparent ways of cooperating with all these institutions. Stroom is in a position whereby almost every work of art that’s going to be installed in the public domain will pass through us. But it would be so much better to participate in the start of a public art project and sometimes even to prevent it an early stage. Therefore you need a good network within all these institutions. Each department has it’s own codes. There are political issues that are not easy to understand: art is always considered as an incidental but most of all it depends on individuals.

Stroom Den Haag is supported financially by the city of The Hague. The program is also made possible by the Mondriaan Foundation and the Stimuleringsfonds voor Architectuur.

Established by Ailbhe Murphy and Ciaran Smyth in 2007, Vagabond Reviews is an interdisciplinary platform committed to developing creative and collaborative models of knowledge production through a combination of art interventions, research practice and critical analysis. Major projects to date include Open Space research for Dublin City Council and the Cultural Review with Fatima Groups United.

15 June 2009