The Mobile Project Office OpTrek

In the summer of 2002 this temporary (non-profit) organisation of artists moved into the multicultural district, Transvaal, close to the city centre in The Hague. In the coming years, the municipality of The Hague plans to demolish and radically restructure this neighbourhood as part of an urban development plan. OpTrek is concerned about the many all-embracing social and spatial changes and their consequences for the neighbourhood and its residents. OpTrek is interested in the political background and wider context in which these developments will take place.
For a period of three years, OpTrek has set for itself the goal of visualising the social and urban-development transformation in Transvaal through works of art designed to reach a wider public. In this regard, we are inviting other artists/architects to realise projects in the public spaces of the neighbourhood. With this effort, we would like to contribute to the general discussion about future developments of urban space, along with posing the question of what position artists could take in such situations.

The municipal plans for urban-renewal areas, such as Transvaal, are embedded in a development that is currently taking place not only in the Netherlands, but also in other European cities. It is a dynamic that has come about as a result of globalisation processes. Cities are competing with the international market. The idea behind city branding is to help hype up the images and make cities more appealing to certain target groups. Low-income residents who live in old city districts on expensive land, which are close to city centres, must make way for wealthy owners who can afford to buy the new houses that spring up after the large-scale demolition of the old districts.
Remarkably, as part of municipal urban-renewal policy, artists are purposely being employed at home and abroad during this interim stage of demolition to new building to upgrade the districts. The aim is to delay the delcine of the districts, to keep the streets livable and safe, as well as to attract potential buyers through the artistic aura. In this way, art will be used to brighten the difficult period between demolition and new building, by helping to mitigate the effect on people who are being forced to leave their residential environments.

The mobile project office, OpTrek, is aware of this policy. It primarily takes the position of a ‘witness’ that reflects the locally complex situation and places it in a wider context of urban and social developments. By means of artistic projects, we add a visual voice to the changes in the district and focus attention on the consequences for the residents. We record the history of the district, the stories of the people who live there and endeavour to expose the economic and political structures.

The Office

OpTrek’s mobile office repeatedly moves from one vacant house to the next. It serves as a base of operations, breeding ground and meeting place. On average, we spend six months at an address and then, in tandem with the demolition, move to a new location. The façade of each new mobile office building undergoes a change designed to reflect our presence in the area. At OpTrek’s first address on the Scheepersstraat a Japanese artist, Tadashi Kawamata, marked the façade with a construction of floorboards from demolished buildings in Transvaal. The construction cut right through the windows to the interior, where Kawamata allowed the floorboards to run through the building, creating new spaces in their wake.

The Assignments

Besides the façade projects, we initiate an average of six larger projects in the public spaces of Transvaal each year, along with various smaller, spontaneous activities such as lectures or film evenings. We commission multidisciplinary artists at home and abroad to develop projects that reveal their visions of the changes in the district. They can make temporary use of guest studios in the district. This puts them in direct touch with the neighbourhood and enables them to develop and execute their ideas. For us, the projects are like magnifying glasses focused on the district, which enhance the effect of unobtrusive details such as personal stories, the current and disappearing social structures and the political policy of the area. OpTrek alternates as initiator, mediator and curator at the start of each project.
OpTrek does not have its own exhibition space. The projects mainly take place in the public spaces.

The Projects

Not all projects target the same public. Alternately, we concentrate on a project at district, city or national level. Per project and per level, we decide which means of publicity we wish to use to reach the desired audience: printed invitations, wall posters in streets or e-mail messages to selected groups.
There are projects realised at district level in which the local residents, their involvement and participation, receive full attention.
Projects at city level explore the political policy behind the restructuring and urban developments in general. Lectures and presentations given by OpTrek that mostly take place outside the district are part of this level.
Around the world architects, urban-development planners and visual artists collaborate to explore the urbanisation process and, consequently, future urban space. OpTrek seeks national and international contacts with related artists. With some we exchange experiences; with others, we form a type of collaboration.
Even though the three levels have their own effects, funds and publicity strategies geared towards a specific group, they are mutually connected. This enables the various public groups to meet and exchange perspectives. An important criterion with each project is the question of whether we are in a position to achieve that.

The role of the artist

Besides the daily duties inside the organisation, such as progress discussions with artists, publicity and funding arrangements, we participate in the life of the district. We visit neighbourhood meetings and other get-togethers in Transvaal to learn about the visions, dreams, concerns and questions of the local residents. We keep the people in Transvaal informed about our own activities by talking with them, by publishing articles in local newspapers and posting current information on the district website.
OpTrek is part and parcel of this lively, sometimes problematic but always energetic, district where we engage as visual artists. This compels us to find answers to several questions. What role can an artist play in urban and social developments? Is it is possible to play a significant role simultaneously in the district and in the field of art? Through our presence in the neighbourhood and the projects that we realise, can we create public support for critical interventions? What are the effects? Do they come at the expense of good relations with the municipality and the housing associations?

Reflecting on the position of the artist in the urban-renewal process is an important task of OpTrek. This is reflected in the programmes and choice of artists that we invite.
OpTrek’s 2003 programme was primarily geared towards building a network of local residents and officials, starting an audio archive with interviews, making the organisation transparent and creating public support in the district. In 2004 we concentrated on the substance of formulating commissions, the working methods of the artists, as well as the visual language and type of presentation relative to the location in the district.
Some projects took on a political nature. For example, PIEK’s project, Do-it-self Demolition, was geared towards the municipality’s distribution policy.

In 2005 OpTrek developed strategies designed to utilise and reverse the situation that occurs during the stage between demolition and construction, when stagnation and destruction isolate the district. The ultimate aim is to utilise the interim stage and make it productive. The Rotterdam architect duo, Jan Konings and Duzan Doeple (RAL 2005) are working on the Hotel Transvaal project, a plan to draw attention to the large-scale vacancy problem by utilising buildings due for demolition as inexpensive sleeping quarters in the district, of which there is currently a shortage.
With the project Guests of Transvaal, the artistic group WochenKlausur from Austria launched the idea for a debating centre with a view towards connecting the district of Transvaal to city’s cultural centre. Their plan is to invite social and cultural institutions to share their expertise with the district and to engage in a dialogue with the local residents and other interested residents of the Hague. The plan is being realised in collaboration with the Institute for Latent Knowledge and the District Debate Council.
Four years of research by OpTrek will be rounded off with the symposium, The Artist in Urban Renewal: lap dog or pit bull? The central theme of this symposium is the role of the artist and the client.
We have found that artists and artists’ collectives are also working in similar circumstances, sometimes in the same way, sometimes using different methods. Theoretical research projects such as the organisation, Public Space with a Roof (PSWAR) and 66 East in Amsterdam, stand side by side with projects such as Dwaallicht (Will o’ the Wisp) (2004-2005) from Jeanne van Heeswijk in Nieuw-Crooswijk, Rotterdam, and Pleased to meet you Ypenburg (2005) from Marjet Hartskamp and Tim Eshuis in 7X11, Ypenburg. There are even autonomous approaches, such as the Artwalk project from Holger Nickisch in Amsterdam.

Besides the different approaches, there are also recognisable common aims: providing insight in the change processes, designating the political mechanism around urban renewal and identifying the special qualities of the neighbourhood and its residents.

The Hague, December 2005