Thomas Hirschhorn’s Bijlmer Spinoza Festival: Untethering Banlieue Stereotypes
Brianne Cohen, PhD Candidate, History of Art and Architecture, University of Pittsburgh
In 2008, Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn staged a maximalist, mass-media-driven artwork in a banlieue of Amsterdam: the Bijlmer Spinoza Festival. It transformed a quite socially charged site into a makeshift cultural center for mediated congregation and public discourse. Out of a symbolically precarious environment – made from cardboard, plywood, and packaging tape – Hirschhorn crafted a framework for multi-generic, cross-citational, self-reflexive, and embodied discourse (utilizing television, theater, the Internet, philosophical lectures, poetry, radio, and much more).
Since the turn of the century, Hirschhorn has staged a number of participatory artworks in banlieues throughout Europe, and many critics have wondered about his aims and strategies in working with economically-depressed immigrant communities to construct them. The Bijlmermeer neighborhood is no exception. In the mid-1970s, the Dutch government filled the high-rise blocks with Surinamese immigrants from its ex-colony, creating what was known as the “first black town in the country.” Over the decades, the mass media has stigmatized the neighborhood in terms of poverty, crime, and delinquency, and recently, the Dutch government has invested heavily in its revitalization, tearing down over half of its original blocks and subsidizing social programs in the neighborhood. Hirschhorn constructed this cultural center not only in remembrance of a renowned seventeenth-century Dutch philosopher, Benedict Spinoza, who advocated values of tolerance and freedom of speech, but also to highlight – with residents – the history and image of the neighborhood itself.
Ultimately, Hirschhorn’s installations in banlieues do not attempt to mobilize the precariat for legislative changes and civil rights, but instead, to redefine preexisting terms of attention/circulation concerning their widely stereotyped and marginalized publicity. In other words, the artist challenges the monocular, homogenizing vision of a dominant public and mediascape. The Bijlmer Spinoza Festival instantiated a type of counterpublic, insisting upon the necessary interrelationality of diverse strangers, but also advocating a restructuring, in Michael Warner’s terms, of “the symbolic process through which the social imaginary – nation, culture or community – becomes the subject of discourse.” Hirschhorn’s participatory installations are public interventions. They create a messy “world-making” that mediates strangers in a self-reflexive and embodied manner, transforming a reductive discursive binary of us/them into an enriched framework for heterogeneous, multidirectional, and web-like collective association.