Conversation with Leire Vergara about OpTV

I would like to start asking you about the specific context of the programme of OpTV, in relation to its temporary location in the neighbourhood of Transvaal and about the initial interest of setting up a collaboration with the art structure Optrek?

Transvaal is a low class residential area in The Hague, with a lot of social housing. Much of the original indigenous Dutch population has been replaced by foreign immigrants, who are mainly of Moroccan, Turkish and Surinam descent. It copes with the typical problems of poverty, crime and badly maintained housing. The city council has developed a drastic urban renewal plan for Transvaal, which involves breaking down 3000 houses and replacing them with 1600 houses, destined for more up-market sale. Most of the original inhabitants have to leave, and the streets are emptied block by block. Sometimes the vacant lots are temporarily rented out to students or artists as a kind of ‘anti-squat’ remedy, until the time comes of their demolition. This is the context in which mobile project bureau OpTrek was established, an artists’ organisation that follows the route of the demolition for a period of three years. They organise projects in the neighbourhood in which they invite artists or architects to reflect on the transformation processes of Transvaal. OpTV was developed in response to the premises laid out by OpTrek. They had commissioned the artists Michiel Voets and Jeroen Bisscheroux to design an architectonic extension to their new temporary office. (OpTrek has to move out of their offices every six months or so, when demolition starts, and move on to a new one.) ‘Jack’, the orange unit with the video screen, already existed (on paper) before we were invited to make a programme for it. This unit has been described as a lookout, as an eye, observing the neighbourhood and absorbing its stories. Its hi-tech polished exterior is in stark contrast to the character of the façade, suggesting that the new time has attached itself to the old wall of the house.

You have coined the term “specific TV” in regards to the programme you have presented in such a context. However, it transcends the idea of site-specificity to broadly research several issues such as urban planning, migration, Politics of representation, participation… What kind of tool has OpTV been for you?

The purpose of OpTV is to act as a window on the transformations that Transvaal is going through, connecting experiences of daily life on the ground to developments in society, and placing them within a broader framework of changing political policies. The challenge is how to achieve this without getting caught up in the problems of misguided representation, given that we interpret Jack as a beautiful, but suspicious vehicle of ideology. Suspicious because of its provocative territorial claim, and the asymmetry in its capacity for communication. Bearing in mind that its strong visual presence would overshadow any ‘message’ that we have to deliver, we decided at an early stage that to achieve the greatest ideological freedom within the project, we would have to reflect on the meaning of the unit in its locality, from a position of absolute ambivalence.

OpTV is a site-specific project, not just in the sense that it is made for a physical location, but also in the sense that it tries to locate itself ‘topographically’. I.e. as a node, with the understanding that a node is not specific or isolated like a point is, but defined by all the lines that go through it (from other locations). Just as one does not really look at the video screen, but at light that passes through it, or reflects off it, like a two-way mirror. It is no coincidence that we often speak of OpTV in the third sense, as if it is a conscious and separate entity. With OpTV, we are involved in a role-play, in which we can be both despotic and egalitarian at the same time. It enables us to conceive of a programme in which technocratic urban redevelopment propaganda goes side by side with grassroots squat protest videos.

This broad collection of material could be interpreted as a potential archaeology of urban control. However, you have referred to it as somehow dysfunctional, in what sense?

When we were invited to develop a video programme for the public structure that would be playing in Transvaal, it was this ambivalent positioning of the art or the artist within its local context that influenced the choices we made in our project. Instead of taking up a fixed 'political' stance, which would have befitted the populist climate in Holland, we playfully explore a wide spectrum of 'functionalities' (for lack of a better word). In this sense, our video programme is in itself a dysfunctional 'instrumentalisation' that offers a broad selection of films within an ambivalent and opaque ideology. We have been determined in mixing high culture with low culture, local with global, and activist with government propaganda. We have openly invited submissions, and actively scouted or created contributions ourselves.

For us this ‘dysfunctional’ aspect of OpTV shows very much its own promiscuity in offering itself as a channel for the propagation of whatever ideology. It is in this promiscuity that it paradoxically seeks its freedom from being exploited. To do justice to the name Jeroen Bisscheroux and Michiel Voets gave to their object: ‘Jack’, OpTV wants to penetrate the local fabric of Transvaal on many different levels, not just as a positive force of alliance, but also in terms of antagonism, potentially causing a short-circuit. However, it is all about interpretation, and in that sense you could call the video programme also an ‘archaeology’ of representation, within the specific context of urban control. But we still associate archaeology with the traditional ‘cultural studies’ perspective, and we would identify more, for example, with the re-reading of archaeology through queer theory (or queer archaeology). In this case it is not about replacing one universal view with a better one, it is about proposing a view, conscious of a potential multitude of alternative readings.

This is relevant to the way in which some appropriated material like the police documentary about the local security in Transvaal works in contrast with your work Monitoring the Dordtselaan for Maximum Peace of Mind, or even Inge Hoonte’s Family watching TV, where she records different people watching TV in their own homes. What has been the methodology employed within the selection of the works?

With open calls and advertisements in the local newspapers, we have set up OpTV as a participatory programme. We have invited people from the neighbourhood to appropriate it as a channel for their own agenda. Yet the participatory aspect of OpTV is not its ultimate goal. In fact, its open access is probably not even very effective, nor does it offer a formula for the successful ‘empowerment’ of whatever political identity.

At all times contributors risk having their message hi-jacked and reversed by the context. The same goes for the inclusion of the voice of the authorities, as in the police video, or in the interviews with local officials. These reversals of meaning are not something we aim to manipulate in order to illustrate any hidden agenda of our own. Our relation to the content is one of almost scientific disaffection.

We consider public space an ideological concept, rather than a physical manifestation. Establishing OpTV in the local framework of Transvaal and pinpointing its position in correlation to public space, allows us to trace and reflect on the transformations it is going through. Thus, our interest in making this process public stems from our ideological interpretation of the purpose of art, in which changing the perception of the world is tantamount to changing the world itself.

It is interesting the way you have referred to “Jack”, as a two-way mirror. I was thinking of how this screen functions as a multi-channel dispositive for analysing public space, but at the same time it can tell us very much about the idiosyncratic position that you as artists or OpTrek as initiators have to employed when working directly within this context. Somehow, there is a problematic dichotomy here that has to do with criticality and responsibility. This can be related to a possible instrumentalisation that comes from the initial invitation to work in Transvaal.

It is a common policy of housing corporations to place students, or artists, in houses that are marked for renovation or demolition. That is to say, after the original tenants are evicted, these newcomers are offered a temporary lease agreement against reduced tariffs, in return for the waiver of normal tenants' rights. In part, this is to prevent squatters from taking over the empty property. Another reason is the so-called beneficial effect of creating 'breeding places' for culture in what would otherwise be regarded as backward and marginalised neighborhoods. In other words, the temporary artist newcomers are appreciated for the positive role they can play within the gentrification process.

Paradoxically, much of the sympathy of housing corporations towards artistic initiatives, can be ascribed to the efforts of the squat movement. In the seventies an activist and quite militant movement that aimed to put affordable housing on the agenda of the politicians, it was met first with a lot of repression, that later turned into 'gedogen'. Squatting was 'legalised' within certain terms, for example if a property had been standing empty for 12 months. One of the arguments the squat movement used with increasing success in their fight for social acceptance was their cultural significance for the city. Many of the squats organised activities such as filmscreenings, discussions, and housed cultural cafes and studios for artists. The term used was 'Broedplaatsen' (Breeding places for culture). In the late nineties, this became a valid argument for the partial legalising of squats, in line with the growing parallel concern of the city councils with the cultural impoverishment of their city.

After a while, city councils started using the same terminology in their own policies, and initiated some 'broedplaatsen' of their own. Not everybody was equally charmed with this sudden development, and criticised this policy for being a disguised anti-squat remedy.

What does this imply for the artist operating under these circumstances, i.e. facilitated by the housing corporations with a studio and a place to stay, or commissioned by the city council to develop a project within a marginalised neighbourhood? It is tempting to describe initiatives in these conditions from the perspective of an institutional critique, and dismiss it all as the instrumentalisation of the artist by the higher powers. But to do this would imply speaking from the position of the privileged outsider, and do no justice to, among other things, the proximity between the artist and the society (other than art society) that can be achieved in the neighborhood projects. On the other hand, artists have all too readily assumed a pioneering role for themselves, working as 'social mediators' in that proverbial neighbourhood. There is a tendency among artists working in the social realm to over-identify themselves with the established ideology of the squat movement, and of the leftist values of the eighties. This is understandable in the light of the traditional affiliation between artists and different activist / youth movements. But it is also often in exasperating disregard of the intricate relationship between today's society, the institution, and the art it supports. In short, 'community art' projects avail themselves all too often of an outdated avant-garde rhetoric.

This conversation between Leire Vergara and the artists Iratxe Jaio and Klaas van Gorkum took place in 2005