John Thackara | Essays

Open Season on Dutch Cultural Innovation

In a memorandum titled More than Quality the Dutch Arts Minister Halbe Zijlstra has announced savage cuts to the country's arts budget. Among media arts & technology organizations to lose their structural funding are such long-term friends and partners of ours as STEIM, Waag Society, V2, Submarine Channel, and Mediamatic.

This means that pretty much the entire field of internationally focused and future-oriented innovation, education and development, which has distinguished the Netherlands for many decades, is to be demolished practically overnight.

I hope you will consider joining me and sign the petition — but first let me give you an example of what's at stake.

I received two books from The Netherlands this week which are good examples of the kind of work that will disappear if these cuts go ahead. The first of these, in the “Open” series, is entitled (Im)Mobility — Exploring the Boundaries of Hypermobility. It's a project of the Foundation for Art and Public Domain, or SKOR. As described in her introduction by Jorinde Seidl, the book is about  “the search for an alternative lifestyle that is no longer dominated by speed and continuous mobility”.

Essays in the book, which is edited by Eric Kluitenberg, and include an interview with the social geographer David Harvey, describe the ways that advanced communications technologies are enabling an increase in physical and motorized mobility for some people and commodities — but that these accelerating flows stand in sharp contrast to the experience of a growing proportion of the world's underclasses. For them, harsher border regimes, surveillance and identity control are being intensified at a rapid pace.

The second book, Open Design Now, is a project of Waag Society and others. It includes essays, cases and visuals on various issues of Open Design. The book contains examples of Open Design that range from RepRap and $50 prosthetic legs, to the Instructables Restaurant. (I contributed a short rumination on the aristocratic Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin.)

The Dutch arts minister argues that “the market” can surely fill the gap left by the disappearance of state funding for the small organizations that created these books. His argument is at best disingenuous and at worst a bare-faced lie. (See this article reality check about business funding of the arts.)  Commercial publishers are themselves struggling to survive and there is no prospect that they will take on this kind of edgy, critical project without some kind of support.

It can seem futile just to sign the petition. Please at least get hold of the books and then judge then whether this kind of work deserves to disappear.

Comments [10]

Even a cursory look inside Open Design, shows the vast majority of designers waving their "open source" marketing flags, while engaging in "Open-ish" practices. Empasis on -ISH.

Sure, they talk about the RepRap; that is truly open. But they also talk about Droog's "downloadable design," which is not open whatsoever. Just because you download something does not make it open. In fact, its missing some of the most important open features: OPEN DESIGN IS FREE, AND PEER-TO-PEER. Droog's downloadable design is AT COST, AND DESIGNER-TO-CONSUMER.

The only advantage of this kind of design is:
— it makes Dutch culture seem like it engages in "future oriented innovation" when it's not; it just has lots of government grants to promote things that sound innovative
— it makes Droog look like they're no longer the bourgeois design retailer that they are, that slops around a "chest of drawers" worth tens of thousands of euros, and then pretends to stand for the human, the people, the hand-made...

And it's no surprise to see Thackara self-promote on this website. How nice that designobserver.com acts as an advertising platform for its contributors. All the while, tying this hard sell with the soft sell of progressive Dutch politics.

At the end of the day, this post, and this book, are nothing but corrupted gestures. Not only do they make themselves look like fools, but they give "design," "the left" and "alternative movements" a really, really bad name. Shame.
C. Tate

From the Open Design website: "Crowdsourcing is a way for occasional communities to work together: rhizomatic collaboration." Crowdsourcing is just a business buzzword. Want to make profit in the future: get all your work crowdsourced. Don't pay your workers. Any progressive designer should stop idolizing this dangerous economic trend. And should stop using it as an alibi for stoping cultural cuts. The arts deserve better. So much better.

CT, Ouch! Still, if one is to be lashed, better that it be done by someone pure and uncorrupted like you - better hygiene that way. But please, my enlightenment is incomplete: precisely which of these different kinds of corruption am I engaged in, that so enrage you?

Jackie, you are right to warn about the misuse of buzzwords - especially if they dress up as 'new', or try to privatize, phenomena like collaboration, or social solidarity, that are as old as culture itself.
John Thackara

You mentioned this in our phone conversation, I thought you would be interested in John Thakera,s views.
Frans Van Der Put


Thanks for bringing this to the attention of those outside of the Netherlands. For many centuries the visual arts culture of the Netherlands has exerted an important and outsized influence. This new myopic policy, while trying to salvage the biggest of the cultural food chain by killing off the smallest, will only result in a dead arts ecology.

Andrew Blauvelt

This is a lamentably misguided act of self-harm on the part of the Dutch government.

One venerable Dutch institution that could be damaged by this policy is the Jan van Eyck Academie in Maastricht, which fears a drastic cut to its budget.

This powerhouse of fine art, design and theory is one of the most challenging centers of study and research in the visual arts, a precious space for all kinds of exploration and experiment. The academy has achieved a degree of international impact through its projects, events, publishing program and highly committed graduates that goes way beyond its modest size.

There is a website, Jan van Eyck — A Defendable Space, where graduates, colleagues and admirers are giving their support.
Rick Poynor

Postscript: In talking to well-informed Dutch friends this week, it's become clear that these cuts are not the absent-minded collateral damage of economic crisis: the Dutch government explicitly wants to expel troublemaking artists from the state system. If that leads to what Andrew describes as a 'dead arts ecology' - well, they'll be satisfied with that outcome.

The Dutch cuts parallel developments in the UK. There, the entire education system is being focused tightly on STEM subjects - science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Policy makers in both countries say they stand for innovation. The sick aspect of the situation is that their actions are designed to stifle it.
John Thackara

Innovation nourishes itself on the re-interpretation and application of diverse ideas to existing processes, products and services. Artist and designers contribute to diverse takes expanding the societal and scientific dialog. De-funding of the arts has the same effect like the outlawing of undesired viewpoints experienced in central and eastern Europe until 1989 - marginalising ideas and forcing artist and intellectuals into party lines or the underground. Arts funding are peanuts compared to the inefficient European and national funding mechanisms for companies. EU policies direct funding to people centered innovation methods, the Dutch governmental decision favors isolationist approaches.
Jan-Christoph Zoels

John -- the Wikipedia entry you point to for corruption begins with "In philosophical, theological, or moral discussions, corruption is spiritual or moral impurity or deviation from an ideal." Perhaps in design discussion, corruption is a professional deviation from its ideal.
C. Tate

De-funding the arts only concerns designers whose clients are arts organizations. This might seem strange to Americans, who might have a few art-based client here and there. Many Dutch designers often ONLY work for arts organizations, or teach at art organizations; so you can imagine how threatened they feel.

— When the post office cuts were on the horizon: silence from artists and designers.
— When the post office was privatized: silence.
— When health care was privatized: silence.
— When garbage clean up was privatized in Amsterdam: silence...

Silence for thirty years.

And then...

Arts cuts.
Oh no! How dare they! We artists and designers are important in society because we are actively political and the government just wants to silence us.

Only reason why designers are all up in arms about the art cuts is not because of "the role of arts in society" but because of their "drying up revenue streams."

One of the arguments coming from artists and designers connected or working with Jan van Eycke is that: how dare the government cut arts funding; it only wants to cut dissent. Yes, dissent. The government is evil because it doesn't understand how socially and politically active and important these artists and designes are. Yet there has been too much silence for 30 years for this argument to hold any weight.

Shame on Dutch designers for letting their society slip away over thirty years, only to turn around and prove the free-market theory on human nature: SELF-INTEREST


Jobs | July 19