Can individuals from differing generations and backgrounds share in political and social progress? Can the medium of film be employed to construct social space? These are questions examined by Dutch filmmaker Wendelien van Oldenborgh in her exhibition ‘.As for the Future.’. Comprising two video installations, the exhibition includes one new work that is part of Van Oldenborgh’s project for the 2017 Venice Biennale, where she will represent the Netherlands.
For both works, Van Oldenborgh filmed the encounters she initiated between groups of people who attempt to reckon with loaded generational or social differences. Prologue: Squat / Anti-Squat (2016) was filmed within Amsterdam’s Tripolis office complex, designed by the socially minded structuralist architect Aldo van Eyck. In early 2016, the mostly vacant building was semi-occupied by squatters as part of a protest action by the refugee advocacy organization We Are Here. At Van Oldenborgh’s invitation, activists, students, writers and filmmakers gathered in the building to share experiences of social struggle. In the film, a storyline emerges out of a polyphony of voices discussing the under-acknowledged participation of immigrants, mostly from the former Dutch colony of Suriname, in the squatters’ rights movements of the 1970s.
The empty building in which Van Oldenborgh’s subjects stand, which was designed under the sweep of social progressivism in the early 1990s, is today partially managed by an ‘anti-squat’ company. In the Netherlands, where squatters’ rights were once well established, landlords now offer inexpensive short-term occupancy of unrented buildings to prevent habitation by squatters. Asylum seekers, meanwhile, often find themselves in a legal gridlock: most don’t qualify for social housing, yet they are
not allowed to work, which results in many ending up homeless. Made amid a surge of right-wing activity in the Netherlands (and a tense build-up to the March 2017 national election), Van Oldenborgh’s film points to a troubling reality: in spite of the Netherlands’ socially progressive self-image, recent events have reinforced the injustices and xenophobia that are the legacy of the country’s colonial past. Social progress is hard won and easily lost, and many battles need to be fought anew.
The second film on view, Bete & Deise (2012), also documents a politically loaded encounter initiated by Van Oldenborgh: here, between two Brazilian stage performers, Bete Mendes and Deize Tigrona. The light-skinned Mendes, a well-known actress and political activist, was twice arrested and tortured for her engagement in anti-dictatorship actions in the 1970s. After the military dictatorship in Brazil imploded in 1985, Mendes was elected as an MP, becoming the Secretary of State for Culture of São Paulo. Tigrona, on the other hand, is a funk carioca musician whose song Injeção (Injection, 2004) was sampled by M.I.A in her track Bucky Done Gun (2004). In the film, Tigrona raps about her mother’s kitchen appliances rumbling from the din of a nearby nightclub, alludes to her struggle with depression and her fight for custody of the child her drug-addicted sister wanted to give away. Her profanity-fuelled rhymes exorcise the social, sexual and racial violence she has experienced. Mendes, as culture secretary, dutifully explains intellectual property rights to Tigrona, who remains poor despite having authored a song sampled by an international pop star. But Tigrona feels incapable of improving her situation: she keeps her day job as a cleaner.
As in Prologue: Squat / Anti-Squat, architecture here becomes loaded with political meaning: Mendes and Tigrona stand within an unfinished building, engaging not in real dialogue but in unresolved monologues. Unlike the participants in the new film, they do not reach a consensus. Yet, what divides them are not distinct worldviews nor varying experiences of class or ethnicity but their distinct experiences of socialization – and the two irreconcilable lives that have resulted. Common to both works is Van Oldenborgh’s suggestion that recognition of personal and historical narratives is tied not always to merit or integrity but to power.
Main image: Wendelien van Oldenborgh, Prologue: Squat / Anti-Squat, 2016, film installation in two parts. Courtesy: the artist and Wilfried Lentz, Rotterdam