A Cut and
Renée Turner, the De Geuzen Foundation, and Jason E. Bowman
De Geuzen is a foundation for multi-visual research which was established
in Amsterdam in 1996 out of the necessity to create a forum in the Netherlands
for critical inquiry, reflection and production with regards to visual
culture. De Geuzen has three core initiators, Riek Sijbring, Femke Snelting
and Renée Turner who operate as a collaborative art and design
team which creates context specific projects. Its intention is to promote
an interdisciplinary and cross-cultural dialogue that opens up new positions
and perspectives with regards to visual culture. De Geuzen's practice
includes curation, art, design and programming in the form of symposia,
exhibitions and educational workshops. Its goal is to initiate situations
where visual practices are viewed and understood as an integrated social
Jason Bowman: Now that I've seen your mission statement I want to
ask a blatant question: I know what that means but how does it function
on an organisational level?
Renée Turner: Our structure is hybrid to say the least. De Geuzen
as an entity has three different capacities. It houses studios and a place
for public events and we also operate as an agency.
De Geuzen came about through a mixture of events and interests. There
is a thin line between hybridity, flexibility and confusion and when we
began, we were closer to the latter. Riek, Femke and I studied together
and during our post-graduate studies we worked in various configurations,
curating exhibitions, creating installations and visual interventions.
Although our affiliation with each other was not formalised, the roots
of our current collaboration began there. Things became more solidified
when I started renovating a space in Amsterdam with two other artists,
Marco Cops and Cesare Davolio. As I was reaching the end of my studies,
I thought perhaps different agendas could be combined and accommodated
by the space. So the building's interior has been constructed with
flexible usage in mind.
De Geuzen has separate yet interdependent functions and I guess it would
suffice to say that the culmination of all these functions constitutes
the foundation as a whole. The overall rent of the complex is covered
entirely by renting out four individual studios. Not all occupants share
the public face of De Geuzen but we see them as integral nevertheless.
It's a mix of both public and private. When the agency is hosting
a public event, two of the studios are emptied out and a dividing wall
opens to create a larger public space.
JB: So what are the immediate benefits offered by the structure of having
a foundation which incorporates an agency and a studio complex?
RT: There are many benefits, but most important is the fact that we, as
an agency, do not have to depend on government funding for the use of
our space therefore we have a guaranteed forum. Our programming can shrink
or expand depending on our financial situation. Although the Netherlands
has more funding for the arts than most other countries, we felt this
flexibility was an indispensable safety mechanism.
JB: The agency practices both at its own location and in other contexts.
Is the space also responsible for generating the necessary income to fund
RT: No, we don't generate a profit from renting the space, and our
entry fees tend to be pretty low. For programming and projects, we have
to fund raise for operational costs.
JB: I know that you have recently started to receive funding from the
Mondriaan Foundation but that previously you were self financing. How
has the receipt of state funding altered the practice.1
RT: In the past we really relied heavily on donations of time, energy
and money from our friends. And I have to stress that there was not that
much money circulating among us. After a while however there were limits
to the amount of begging, borrowing and stealing that we could do. Plus
all of these negotiations took time and much was left up to chance or
luck. Because we had a desire to push our projects further and find ways
of bringing in broader audiences, soliciting funding from the Mondriaan
was one way of preserving a degree of continuity in our programming.
JB: Has the receipt of Mondriaan funding changed the way you operate in
terms of pace?
RT: Yes, to a degree because when you receive state funding, you're
held accountable to an external body. Before our only accountability was
to ourselves and our audiences. There was a sort of an intimate and immediate
response in terms of programme planning. Now with subsidies we have to
plan and apply in advance. I would be lying if I said that does not affect
our practice. However it has also opened up other possibilities which
were not previously available to us.
JB: Beyond these structural elements, De Geuzen represents itself as a
foundation for multi-visual research. Can you expand on how you understand
your practice as being researched based?
RT: Well, first of all let's incorporate the term 'multi-visual
research' into the equation. It plays with the very tenuous relation
between art and theory, there is a degree of contradiction. But at the
same time it sets a tone for our activities. The three of us are visually
trained. Femke is a designer and Riek and I are artists. Our individual
practices have always included a visual means of acquiring and disseminating
information. Admittedly, our definition of what that means is amorphously
broad and manifests itself differently within each of our projects. And
from the beginning we wanted our projects to be investigative, similar
to laboratory or field work.
JB: Do you mean in terms of art experimentation?
RT: Not really, experimentation seems like a bankrupt term in relation
to art now. It is a word that is often used and seldom actualised. Basically
through the matrix of research we wanted to allow for rehearsals. It has
been our aim to create a space where the unfinished or speculative could
be tested with audiences. Outside of academic structures, there are very
few venues, if any, where this can happen. And although playing with this
notion of research, I think we have always understood our work within
the frame of art and therefore we don't necessarily look towards
achieving the sense of conclusion which other forms of research may be
held accountable to. Despite this, it is very important to develop methods
of analysis within our practice, a kind of internal and external check.
We have to continually scrutinise our own work and process with an eye
on how our projects resonate beyond our own interests.
JB: Can we move on to talk about De Geuzen in practice? The first work
of yours I saw was 'The Walk-in Reader'.2
While many of the other works in this exhibition were centred on architecture,
your work seemed much more expansive and escaped the limitations in representing
urbanism solely via architectural or design vocabularies.
RT: Yes, thematically the exhibition looked at the processes of urban
transformation taking place in the Netherlands. And I think Hou Hanru
was struck by the post-Koolhaas generation and their almost utopian drive
to address social problems through design. For us however, it was crucial
to shift or contextualise the debate on buildings and urban planning in
order to look at the social forces and networks that have and continue
to shape the city of Amsterdam.
JB: So how did you assume this position within the context of an exhibition?
RT: We set up a kind of temporary resource. It included an archive where
books, videos and internet URLs were collected around related themes ranging
from the ways in which people make themselves feel at home in the city,
to how so-called illegal or black economies function within the structure
of mainstream economies, to how people map out their living environments,
circumscribing the communities they belong to. Everything we gathered
was made available to the public and there was a photocopier where people
could copy books for free. Besides the more librarian ethic, we programmed
weekly events based on our selected themes. The events took on different
forms from round table discussions to tours through the city. We involved
a variety of people from diverse backgrounds and specialisations, ranging
from Joke van Kampen, the chief editor of the homeless newspaper in Amsterdam,
to a social geographer, Dr. Rob van Engelsdorp Gastelaars. And with every
event, more information was amassed and added to the archive. For us,
it was an act of gradual social contamination. The space soon operated
as a point of convergence where people returned or became regulars.
JB: One of the things which really struck me was the way that 'The
Walk-in Reader' did not attempt to become responsible for accuracy
RT: It was never our ambition to be accurate, in fact we tend to do a
lot of dancing around issues. Our approach rarely aims for a direct hit
so to speak. 'The Walk-in Reader' was a forum, a resource and
a podium that not only addressed various social networks but became one,
a nucleus of activity within the exhibition.
JB: This notion of being or activating a nucleus of critical activity
seems to punctuate the identity of De Geuzen generally ...
RT: Yes, I think it has always been our aim to create sites where various
social texts intersect or even collide.
JB: In terms of the exhibition at De Appel, De Geuzen's work seemed
to be simultaneously servicing the context of the exhibition and, for
me, also problematising how social contexts were represented by many of
the other works.
RT: It was never our intention to provide a discursive bridge between
the other works and the public, but there was an element of wanting to
contextualise the larger debate which Hou Hanru was raising. So in that
regard we did occupy the very ambiguous position of facilitation.
JB: I wanted to ask you more about your relationship to facilitation.
In Britain facilitation by attaching interpretative or pedagogical methodologies
to art works within the extant ideologies of the museum, gallery or theatre
is developing into a burgeoning service industry. To me, many of the British
forms of facilitation seem to be opaque - in that there is frequently
a loss of critique or a tendency towards homogenising audiences. You appear
to be traversing this by assuming a position as a research based foundation
which also practices agency and is consequently able to develop and promote
a less conclusive and less reductivist sensibility ...
RT: I think it's important to look critically at the trend of using
discourse as an interpretative or translative device. My suspicion is
that institutions want to become "user friendly", levelling
the productive tension between art practice and discourse. Undoubtedly
this desire comes out of a very real pressure to attract broader audiences
with the hopes of securing funding. However, I am not sure if eliminating
complexity, or using discourse as a process of distillation for art is
the way to attract broader audiences. In fact, the complexity and controversy
raised through the friction between art and theoretical debate has the
potential to enliven interest. Ultimately there is something disturbing
about using discourse to legitimise or explain art, and reductive is the
right word, in that neither art nor theory benefit from such a model.
JB: But at the same time much of your practice does appear to be looking
at the relationship between art and theory and consciously advocating
discourse and debate.
RT: The relation is there but not the same as the standard institutional
use. Here I want to go back to the idea of multi-visual research and what
that could mean. Between the visual and the verbal we try to establish
a series of relays, a kind of dynamic exchange between the two.
JB: De Geuzen also produce 'visual objects' as part of these
internal relays such as the pop corn funnels, made from the script, which
you distributed when you screened Guy Debord's 'Society of the
Spectacle' at De Geuzen or the series of take home quotes. Are they
used in some sense to orientate the more conceptual or theoretical elements
of your practice?
RT: In a strange way your question reiterates the perceived divide between
these practices and I think that they are more mutually bound through
the relays we establish. We use visual elements which are playful and
others which are instrumental and on some occasions they also surf beyond
the rational, therefore traversing between what is conventionally referred
to as theory and practice.
JB: So is there any common aim in your uses of such 'visuals'.
To me they seemed to be centralising around notions of distribution. This
seemed particularly apparent when you mailed out 'the inventory'
after 'The Walk-in Reader' closed.3
RT: Distribution is an undeniable aspect and so is accessibility or creating
multiple points of entry.
JB: Do you mean in a directional sense?
RT: In a way yes, but rather than a sign it operates as an evocation.
For instance, the modular glossy red table at De Appel was designed for
multiple uses; it gave the space an area of concentration and continuity.4
The design sets the tone, acclimatising audiences. Depending on the arrangement
of the table in the room, people were enticed to either sit and privately
read and view, or it was clearly arranged for discussion and direct encounter.
On other occasions the visuals took on a performative role, activating
audiences. At the opening of 'The Walk-in Reader' we served
a cake with the map of Amsterdam printed on it. The result was an almost
carnivalesque atmosphere with people scrambling to cannibalise their own
JB: This role of evocation seemed to change with your more recent work
'Our Image is Our Own'?
RT: In the context of 'Midnight Walkers and City Sleepers',
an exhibition which commissioned artists to work in the Redlight district
in Amsterdam, we were initially invited under very specific conditions
to be a part of the debates surrounding the show5.
However, we were conscious that it may be more appropriate to employ and
deploy other strategies and skills within this context. One of the things
which is problematic with that area is that most of the time it is defined
by its tourist industry, the sex industry, which is of course the most
visible. We didn't want to reiterate that very clichéd or
surface perception of the area and yet we didn't want to evade the
omnipresence of that industry. For this reason we decided to initiate
a collaboration with The Red Thread (De Rode Draad), the prostitute union
which occupies a significant position both physically and socially in
the area. As three women, we were also intrigued by their operation as
a prostitutes' rights organisation and what that entails.
JB. When you're working in socially engaged practice many of the
invitations to work are placed into the context of a thematic exhibition
for a limited period of time and within the auspices of the curator's
selected themes and sites. This format may appear to also relocate the
artist as tourist.
RT: I completely agree on both accounts. It seems that if you take on
social issues there is a perception that there is an easy transferability
from issue to issue, one week a critique of the museum the next queer
theory. For clarity of argument let's separate, however crudely for
the moment, two bodies of reception. First there is the commission by
the curator or curators. Then there is the second context which is the
concrete social or physical environment about which the commissioner has
asked you to work. By second here I don't mean to distinguish these
realms hierarchically. And I guess our attention is often directed towards
that second context, the one that reaches far beyond the premise of the
JB: So, it seems that you're suggesting a reconceptualisation of
how exhibitions are used and received ...
RT: Well, I can't really address this as a general modus operandi
but through the format of 'Midnight Walkers and City Sleepers'
we were able to seize the opportunity to work with The Red Thread. The
exhibition offered a means of entry and we were able to reroute both intention
and attention. And no doubt, the inevitable question of longevity arises.
Certainly it would be ridiculous to hop from theme to theme according
to the curator's choice. If social engagement is a part of an artist's
agenda, it is important to ask: How and should we sustain that connection
after the exhibition, or temporary highlight, has taken place? In terms
of this particular collaboration, it was very clear after our initial
meeting with The Red Thread that our involvement would have to be long
term in order to come to grips with the complex social and economic dilemmas
these women face. More importantly we would need time to examine how those
issues reflect upon the position of women in general.
JB: I frequently view exhibitions or commissions of socially engaged practices
as 'host contexts' ...
RT: Host is really the appropriate word, but rather than being a guest,
I consider our relation to be somewhat parasitic.
JB: So did you find a way of successfully limiting the overall objectives
for the context of this exhibition whilst recognising the more long term
process orientated objectives. Also how did this initial engagement manifest
itself in a particular product?
RT: After our first discussion with The Red Thread a very practical need
emerged. On the windows of the rooms in which the prostitutes stand there
is usually a sticker reading "No Pictures". The Red Thread has
become the distributor of these stickers and quite simply they had run
out. We discussed the possibility of a kind of message of solidarity among
women from The Red Thread and De Geuzen. But that is not an easy task
because the union is not actually looked favourably upon by the proprietors
of the brothels. Our solution was to come up with a sticker with the no
pictures icon, a simple image with the camera with a red slash through
it and the words NO PICTURES. But on the back we had silk-screened in
florescent pink the text: OUR IMAGE IS OUR OWN. The slogan, normally the
focus in politically oriented work, in this case is disposable. In order
to use the sticker the slogan must be split apart and pealed off. The
slogan becomes a moment in use, a temporary comment or thought, a way
of incorporating a degree of fragility into a political situation. There
is another element which we haven't discussed with regards to the
exhibition which is the hijacking of funding which went on. We were able
to redirect attention and money.
JB: One of the issues which seems to continue to confront socio-specific
art practice is that it needs to traverse a degree of suspicion from certain
partners with whom it wishes to consult or collaborate. How did De Geuzen
strategize in relation to this?
RT: It was made very clear that although we are all women, there is an
element of exoticism or tourism which cannot be eradicated. And I think
it was important to acknowledge that dynamic from the beginning. At the
same time, although none of us have been prostitutes, there was a connection
in terms of being women concerned with the ability of women in general
to have control over their bodies and representation. Most importantly,
women should have the right to set the perimeters of the use of their
own bodies. It is fair to say that prostitution is at the edge of female
representation, but it is nonetheless a condensed or concentrated formulation
of those issues relevant to all women. Their position raises the very
fundamental question of where the border of "NO" is drawn. Also,
I think it is important to say that the relation with The Red Thread is
not one way. We were interviewed in their magazine "Blacklight"
which then recontextualises our own practice and connects us with a very
different audience from that of the exhibition.
JB: I see how this element of detour or rerouting operates outside of
the De Geuzen space, but how does that element function in relation to
events held at your building?
RT: In our own space we set the perimeters of our projects so detour is
not the word I would use because we establish the route. Our building
provides the space for things to move or be processed at a slower pace,
there is more of a laboratory feeling where controlled research, or reflection
can take place.
JB: But in some sense the space also advocates a facilitatory role. Recently
I saw four presentations here on the theme of 'the real' which
were all inconclusive and constituted presentations of research in progress
by artists, essayists or cultural critics6.
How do such events influence the direction of De Geuzen?
RT: Through events held in our space we are able to broaden the base from
which we work. By this I mean, we use our events to expand and push our
own research plus we extend our collaborative capacities. Our space is
relatively intimate and our programme format is closer to symposia which
allows us to establish an active and interactive dialogue between speakers
and audience. The question which has now arisen is how to extend that
research further, beyond the immediacy of an event, and towards extended
invitations to participate, confront and inform.
JB: I know your organisation like many in the Netherlands at the moment
are developing their funding applications for new projects and organisational
restructuring. Can you say something about how De Geuzen plans to capitalise
on its existing research base and how this will influence its parallel
RT: Our aim is to make follow-up publications to our events, not in the
sense of a catalogue or documentation, but as a continuing forum, an extension
of our enquiry. Through generating printed matter and creating a web space
our goal would be to tap into other audiences who might challenge the
limits of our thinking. In fact, these forms of distribution and access
might well be the accountability check that I spoke of earlier.
1. The Mondriaan Foundation is one of the largest funding agencies in
the Netherlands offering both structural and project support for Dutch
cultural organisations and initiatives.
2. 'The Walk-in Reader' is the title of an installation made
by De Geuzen for 'Unlimited.nl-2' an exhibition at De Appel
which was curated by Hou Hanru.
3. Following the exhibition, De Geuzen mailed and distributed a booklet
listing the entire contents of 'The Walk-in Reader'.
4. De Geuzen collaborated with Apolonija Sustersic in designing the space
of 'The Walk-in Reader'.
5. 'Midnight Walkers and City Sleepers': on location in the
Red Light District, was a multi-site art event in Amsterdam which was
curated by Hedwig Fijen, Maria Hlavajova and Theo Tegelaers.
6. 'The Mediated Image: Testing the Surface of the Simulated, the
Virtual and the Real', was De Geuzen's most recent in-house
Renée Turner is a Texas born artist, based in Amsterdam and
is one of three core members of De Geuzen. Jason E. Bowman is an artist
who is currently undertaking the Scottish Arts Council's Amsterdam
Studio Residency and conducting a series of interviews on organisational
frameworks of contemporary arts practices. These extracts are from conversations
which took place in June 1999.