Pietsie Feenstra (ENG)
Book The Beste Place 2007

The Best Place: a cultural exchange about past and present
What can be considered the best place to be? What did you do at that particular place? Wapke Feenstra explores the landscape of the community of Hardenberg by concentrating on the ground. Her project becomes a walk along cultural expressions on the countryside. She illustrates historical moments and monuments. But she also opens up new readings about contemporary experiences by just being there, present at that specific place, listening to stories of the inhabitants who illustrate vividly why a certain place is experienced as the best place to be. In this book, Feenstra takes pictures, collects experiences, listens and gathers together visions and actions. Antje Schiffers paints in the farmyard. In exchange for her painting, she receives a video-film recording the work of the peasant. The art project The Best Place activates the cultural ground in this rural community: it becomes an encounter with inhabitants, places, stories and images. It is a journey about the symbolic of the ground.
In this article, we will question this journey by situating this project within studies on heritage and Conceptual Art. We wish to illustrate how the artist tells us a story, such as by making it a film, sticking together images. It becomes a story where everyone can situate his or her own personal story inside this collective composition. This book allows the reader to discover by words and images how the past comes into life into these experiences in the present.

The Dynamics of Heritage studies
Since the 1960s, Conceptual Art has become a recognisable and identifiable movement.1 Putting, in public spaces, ideas and thoughts, like texts written on a wall or objects placed in a certain location, creates by their interaction with the surroundings an image that represents a concept. This movement can only be understood in its diversity, as a certain concept is the point of departure of its expression. Due to the identity of the artist, it is possible to bring to life artistic concepts in public spaces (and thus not only in museums or art galleries). In the 1990s, a new impulse was given in thinking about the exchange between the audience and art.2 The different ways of interacting with an ever-larger audience also stimulated the questioning of changing urban cultures.

Wapke Feenstra places her project in a rural environment and creates a direct interaction with the inhabitants. In particular, this rural component could make us think of Land Art, because this form of Conceptual Art pays attention to nature and landscapes.3 Also born in the 1960s, Land Art was exhibited on a more regular base in the 1970s. Artists could, for example, show parts of the landscape by appropriating it and then de-contextualising it by showing it inside another location; for example, by putting stones into a museum hall, by exhibiting pictures and stories about walks in nature, or even by questioning work on the land using the painting as a symbol for the land by working on the canvas with a plough. This way of focusing on different elements of nature should be related to new ways of perceiving landscapes, which should historically link back to the 1970s, which was the same period during which the peasantry experienced increasing difficulties to survive economically.4 But even if Wapke Feenstra thinks about land and ground, her project should be situated in contemporary debates on heritage studies, as she has an historical approach that involves perceiving the landscape in her ‘interactive performances’. She organises meetings and asks questions about perception, questioning aspects of human life that are deeply rooted in the personal memory of the inhabitants and land-users.

The place as landscape
Contact with the inhabitants of the community of Hardenberg was therefore fundamental. They received a flyer at home and Feenstra advertised in the local newspaper, inviting them to react. The text was appealing: ‘You can meet Wapke Feenstra everywhere and give her suggestions about The Best Place to come with her text cart. [...] Is there a location that should not be missed in this journey and in this book? Do not hesitate to react.’ Many reacted, with the places being considered and visited respecting the order of receipt. The reader of this book will have an impression of how perceptions of landscapes are questioned. For centuries, the landscape had already existed as a genre in Art History. But how could one define ‘the best place’ as a landscape? Giving a definition could immediately provoke debate, as new interpretations of landscapes are always coming to the fore: for example, observing an urban environment can also be experienced as a landscape. For this project we define the concept of a landscape as a spatial perception of the environment where stories and encounters can give an interpretation of this perception. The place, in a certain space, that is considered as the best place, is defined here as a perception of the landscape. This delivers a diversity of images.

To describe a place as ‘the best place’ is a personal observation. It is the physical presence of the artist
that brings to life the perception of the environment, while Wapke Feenstra works with a bottom-up approach: everyone may speak. This process allows the description of new images of a place. The artist creates a sort of ‘film’: her presence gives the sub-titles. She marks the shots by travelling around with a text cart tagged with The Best Place that enlightens when she arrives. The inhabitants could choose the places to visit, provided that they were locations in the public space. Already-shared spaces were therefore opened up for new stories with pictures printed in this book and for the reader – they will live further in his personal memory.

She also uses an instrument to drill into the ground. This is an original way of perceiving landscape, as instead of only observing the surroundings, she penetrates deeply in the soil and analyses the composition of the ground. Let us relate this way of analysing the ground to the term ‘heritage’ (‘erfgoed’ in Dutch). The term is frequently used and it is therefore important to define it for this project in relationship to Conceptual Art. In studies about heritage, the ground is central in the Dutch etymology of the term: ‘erf’, means the yard where the farm or house is located. ‘Goed’ in Dutch is like ‘good’, representing possessions, thus the house, the farm and the yard.
Directly related to the term ‘erf’, is the verb, ‘erven’, which means to inherit goods (house, farm, yard). History shows us that, by their economic position, the agrarian community and in particular the landowners had a huge influence on community life: owning land meant having influence on important decisions, having a powerful position. These possessions have been inherited from one generation to the other. By analysing the soil, the perception of heritage receives a new dimension in this project. Wapke Feenstra plunges almost physically into the earth, with her auger. Gathering together materials and making charts of this soil means that she pays attention to a fundamental aspect of heritage: a personal feeling, on that piece of land – relating it at the same time to our personal experiences by telling a story about its perception.

In this process, Wapke Feenstra creates sites of memory by penetrating into the earth. The composition of the soil explains why a certain piece of land was convenient for agriculture, where the used-up ground was, where lots of peat was burnt, why poor sandy ground became available for recreation in the 1970s while peasants’ existence became ever-more difficult. Tilling the land by agricultural mechanisation had enormous consequences for the way of organising the landscape.5 When we situate her initiative in heritage studies, we think immediately of the ground breaking study Les lieux de mémoire by French historian Pierre Nora (1984).6 Nora refers to some crucial sites of memory of French national history, such as the Panthéon in Paris where key people in France’s history are buried, and an article about the origins of the Marseillaise, the French national hymn, among others. Sites of memory can be very diverse, but the term ‘sites’ grounds all ideas in Nora’s book. In this artistic project, Wapke Feenstra analyses the way of organising a rural community by making charts of the composition of the soil. With this project, the ground becomes a site of memory for the agrarian community, by bringing to life the past, and a place is created for the past in the present: The Best Place situates the soil as a site of memory in contemporary art and culture.

Another important initiative is travelling around with the text cart. These are normally perceived along the motorway to indicate changes in the route, a diversion, or work-in-progress. Parking a vehicle that enlightens the text The Best Place provokes a paradoxical reading: by travelling around with it, the best place is not a fixed place. This text can be displaced at every possible moment, and therefore inspires reflection about location. At the same time, the auger relates this experience to the composition of the soil. This activity symbolises an anchor in the physical material. But the text cart continues its journey and creates the sub-titles in this ‘film’ about landscape perception. The artist does not impose any norms. Everyone may explain why a certain place is so convenient, so nice. Why that specific place near the water is so beautiful, because there is this typical vista. Or why sitting next to the brook Reest, at a certain moment of the day, when the sun shines so beautifully on it, is
such an impressive experience. Everyday life has its own places that we remember so well and where we remain with a lot of pleasure or think back to. As in this artistic project, inhabitants and the artist meet up, share new experiences about the nicest place: they comment on their favourite landscape, their personal environment, their private yard as a personal place.

The term performance should therefore be related to landscape perception. In this context, the book of the archaeologist Mike Pearson is revealing. The title In comes I. Perfomance, memory and landscape, indicates that Pearson visits certain places of his childhood, describing them as memory sites. As he states: ‘In Comes I is an exercise in chorography, seeking places of performance and other related locations.’7 In his journey around landscapes of the past, he quotes Cosgrove: ‘But those for whom a place is a familiar domicile – insiders – do not necessarily see land as landscape. To apply the term landscape to their surroundings seems inappropriate to those who occupy land and work in a place as insiders.’8 Pearson reflects on landscape perception during his visit of the environment of his childhood by giving performances on certain places; he distinguishes a landscape of his childhood, a landscape to discover, a landscape of the present tense, fantasy landscapes, etc. The words from the title – ‘In comes I is the ubiquitous opening line for characters in local traditional drama’9 – indicate how he is the central actor and with his performances delivers new readings. The project of Wapke Feenstra can be situated in this approach of landscapes, with the main difference being that she creates interactive performances new images, through photography, through placing the text cart, by making her subjects tell stories, by drilling the soil. Her performance invites observation of the surroundings, theatralises this performance. She creates a point of view on a specific best place.10

Cultural heritage and landscape
This project very well reflects current debates on heritage. In new studies about architecture, landscape and archaeology, increasing attention is given to the perception of nature and the environment as something that can be described for its experience. In his speech Landschap vol betekenissen. Over het omgaan met historie in de ruimtelijke inrichting (Landcape full with meanings. About coping with history in spatial organisation),
professor A.N. van der Zande underlines the importance of the experience of surroundings when formulating new projects about the organisation of landscapes.11 The speech of professor Eric Luiten, Tot hier... en nu verder. Ruimtelijk ontwerp en historisch besef (Until here and now further. Spatial design and historical consciousness), should also be mentioned. He proposes a beautiful comparison of contemporary society: ‘We find ourselves together in a fast and unequal process of internationalisation and enlarging horizons. The “traveller” in us is ready to adapt himself to this acceleration, but the “gardener’ in us needs at the same time frames of references: a domain and a story, that allow himself to interpret the fast changes and internalise it.’12

It is obvious that experiencing our surroundings and paying attention to history is considered increasingly
important in society; historical consciousness or ‘memory’ are topics in research that also influence the perception of landscapes when they involve studies about spatial arrangements. In this project, landscape is questioned from the point of view of what could be the best place. This implies a direct question to an earlier experience of the inhabitant. The experience implies an historical journey through the consciousness of the orator. I wish to connect it to the visions on cultural heritage introduced by Jan Kolen, who approaches it from a concept of ‘historical tissues’: these are the historical layers present in our perception of the environment.13 With the opening up of European borders, more attention is being paid to the local: ‘glocalisation’ is an increasingly central topic on the agenda. What is close to us and experienced as comfortable transforms itself into a monumental value in this ‘film’ by the words of the inhabitants and by the registration of important moments. It transforms discourses into monuments: they become sites of memory.

The aura of the ‘best place’
Let us pay some attention to the existence of a sort of myth around an artist as a person who can create beautiful things that can touch deeply. What does this artist do? Wapke Feenstra installs a ‘text cart’ as a sort of performance. This vehicle inspired people to reflect on the best place. It creates an idea about the environment: about the past, the present, about the ground, about heritage for every one. It is this act – to incite people to think about the best place – that is conceptually put into life. Moreover, Antje Schiffers participates in the process of creating. She installs herself with an easel and a paint brush in front of the farm and paints a part of the heritage. She sits concretely in the yard and asks the farmers to share their perceptions with her on a video, recording their own activities. By the actions of both artists, Walter Benjamin’s text again becomes relevant. In his famous text,
L’œuvre d’art à l’époque de sa reproductibilité technique,14 Benjamin discusses the loss of the aura of creation due to the mechanisation of reproducing images, especially by photography. He underlines the ‘here and now’ of creation as a sort of indication of uniqueness of this process. Even if so much can be reproduced, being present at a certain moment during the creation is essential for the creation to feel authentic.15 In this project, we find again this ‘here and now’ experience of Benjamin by paying attention to the process of creation of art. Focusing on the production or description of images imposes a reflection on the process of creation.

The more traditional painting-performance of Antje Schiffers can be considered as a direct questioning of the authenticity of art. However, in this artistic project her performance also goes further, as by her act of being there she first deepens out the creation, but her physical presence on the yard is a direct reflection on heritage. She is there on that ground, as the territory where the farm or house was constructed. Painting the farm creates an image of a building that for centuries was the centre of the agrarian community. A farm is an historical place in which the production of food was central. Moreover, a choice was made to maintain these farmers, who still produce, rather than installing monumental or recreation farms. Antje is there in the yard, where the farmer is doing his work. Even if this is done with machines, it is an active, authentic farm. The observed landscape, representing the vision of the best place, also represents the ‘aura’ by accentuating this process of creating: by observing, telling stories, gathering material. The myth of the artist is updated, while different time dimensions are mixed up. Creating is of all times, even if the way of doing it will always be different. This brings us to the photographic images of this project.

Photographic moments
This book contains different moments, each of which illustrate the idea that ‘I have been at a certain place’. As Roland Barthes describes in his book La Chambre claire, photography gives us an impression of a reality that has existed.16 The images show us impressions that could easily be imagined, as if we could walk through this landscape. It is as if Wapke Feenstra was walking herself through this environment when she makes pictures: the frames are not portraits of a so-called ‘beautiful’ image, but seem have arisen from a viewer that walks through these surroundings and takes pictures. Let us analyse some of them, to focus on different time layers.

We observe two hands that peel off an apple.17 Next to the table, we see a chicken and a cock – certainly eggs will be eaten here. Both animals looksharply behind them, observing what happens. The pan stands open on the table, without a lid; some apples are in it. The hands exude strength and activity. The photo shows an instant of time: the hands portray her ‘being there’. A cup of coffee is waiting for her on the table. It is a recognisable Dutch impression, a private moment outside in the garden, with the chickens keeping her company. Observing their attitude, one can guess that they are used to have human beings coming close to them, even if they can shoot away very quickly, as their expression shows us that the situation is somehow different for them. Another picture presents a boy near the water, fishing, while behind him there is an impressive attraction park with huge machines to make the clients float through the air, looking for sensations and stimuli.18 He sits calm near the water, concentrated on his fishing-rod. Both pictures are instants of pleasure, of enjoyment of being in a place that makes us forget that time passes by. Being there becomes eternal in this picture.

Other pictures show us working on the land.19 Beautiful blue skies accompany the image. The diversity of green colours illustrates nature in all its richness. It is the changing of the seasons that gives the Dutch landscape so many beautiful new colours and creates atmospheres in the blue sky that contrast completely with the green colours of the trees and landscape. Working on the land is for all ages: a tractor that transforms pieces of dried grass into packages of hay. Young boys are helping to put the pieces straight, so that the tractor can run over them by transforming them into hay packages. Human intervention can be noted: young and old invest their energy into this process. A current image for a rural surrounding illustrates the special relationship of the countrysider to nature, in particular the dependency on changes of the weather. Rain could poison this hay: there is time pressure and they work intensively with a (still) beautiful blue sky, without dark clouds above them.

Taking these pictures transforms these instants into monuments of a rural environment. At first we look
at it as a picture of a rural surrounding today, but our regard then goes further. Roland Barthes makes an
appealing distinction between ‘studium’ and ‘punctum’ in photography that could direct our readings.
‘Studium’ could be described as being fascinated by these pictures, looking at them with focused attention, while ‘punctum’ means being struck by a detail that is determinant for the picture, such as something that appeals directly to us.20 It is the young boys who strike me: they are in a hurry, while they turn around the bales of hay. It looks like it is a calm day, there is a blue sky and the tractor drives on the land with a strong rhythm. Beautiful weather and hay means transforming this part of nature into food for cows or horses for winter. We all know that the blue sky is never eternally blue, so they are in a hurry. In his book Hoe God verdween uit Jorwerd (How God disappeared from Jorwerd), Geert Mak illustrated the relationship of dependency of the agrarian community towards nature. Religion could be related to this dependency of the weather. Through the use of machines,
it seemed that this relationship could be more or less controlled. However, we are again confronted with enigmatic new phenomena due to climate change over the past ten years. In these pictures, we observe ‘History’: beautiful weather, a tractor, a blue sky, but also time pressure. The ‘punctum’ of the picture is given by the boys, who work so hard and fast at putting these pieces of hay into the right structure. Their young age represents an aspect of dependency that has existed since all time towards nature: this image shows historical consciousness about the agrarian community.

New regards on heritage
The recent attention to direct surroundings in studies about cultural heritage should be related to the confirmation of the European Union. Being a small country, the Netherlands are absorbed into this wider political structure, and the Euro in particular has definitively changed feelings towards local identities. Paying attention to one’s own region is increasingly common, ‘glocalisation’, a need to feel connected with our direct environment. This project in the community of Hardenberg questions the value of cultural heritage by gazing on what could be the best place: it is like a landscape that surrounds us. These images systematically question time: Barthes’ ‘punctum’ calls our attention to different time aspects, for example the young generation that participates inside this ancient tradition of working on the land and shows the same time-pressure as earlier generations. It is like the time is stopped on the photo, but at the same time questions an experience of earlier periods, of now, of the ground, of being present at a certain place.

This reading should be related to the other images in this book. The French film philosopher Gilles Deleuze wrote on different types of film images in his groundbreaking book L’Image-temps.21 Film images show different time-layers. Deleuze introduced the term Image-cristal, using the metaphor of a crystal gathering together different time dimensions in a same image, the actual and the virtual.22 The pictures illustrate these dimensions of time: it is a static image, but the past is virtual and comes to life through our ‘punctum’, through the objects, through interaction with the person at a certain place, by the hands peeling the apples. The movement of peeling is so characteristic that I directly associate with the peeling of potatoes. I feel like I could almost directly observe her hands moving, preparing this archetypal product of the ground, which has been a basic component of Dutch cuisine for a very long time. The hands give a time dimension by their strength, the sun-spotted skin and the naturalness of the movement that can be noticed even on a static image. An ‘image-crystal’, or an
image with different historical dimensions, that portrays rural life in the summer of 2007 in the community of Hardenberg, where a tradition again comes to life.

Many of the pictures in this book portray rural life with different time dimensions. It is the artist who, representing the tradition of Conceptual Art, puts her ideas into the space. She creates moments that focus on the ‘punctum’ of the experience, underlining the historical dimension of the process of experiencing the environment. It is not only the text cart that can be displaced, she also displaces herself and makes art that can be displaced. The Dutch word ‘verplaatsbaar’ links back to the term ‘baren’, which bears the connotation of giving birth. This symbolises the central concept of her project, now realised at a certain place, but which can again be displaced, on and on. Updating this process of creation is shared with us. We can enjoy our surroundings, with our personal experiences, with our gaze, on our private heritage.

October 2007, Pietsie Feenstra

1 Daniel Marzona, Uta Grosenick (ed.), Conceptual Art, Köln/London, Taschen, 2007.
2 I am thinking of Nicolas Bourriaud’s approach, entitled, Esthétique relationnelle, Dijon, Les presses du réel, 1998.
3 Michael Lailach, Uta Grosenick (ed.), Land Art, Köln/Londen, Taschen, 2007.
4 Ton Lemaire, Filosofie van het landschap (Philosophy of the landscape), Baarn, Ambo, 1970, p. 7. Geert Mak, Hoe God verdween uit Jorwerd (How God disappeared from Jorwerd), Amsterdam, Olympus, 1996,
p. 20. Both Dutch studies give an impressive overview of the changes in the perception of landscapes.
5 Geert Mak, ibid., p. 29, p. 35.
6 Pierre Nora, Les lieux de mémoire. Paris,
Gallimard, 1984.
7 Mike Pearson, In Comes I. Performance, Memory and Landscape. Exeter, University of Exeter Press, 2006, p. 9.
8 D. Cosgrove, Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape, Beckenhalm, Croom Helm, 1984, p. 19-20, in: Pearson, op.cit., 2006.
9 Cosgrove, op.cit., p. 17.
10 In this context I want to mention the text of Sonke Gau, Extension of Communication on Ethnographic Approaches in Antje Schiffers’ Work and the Paradoxical Structure of the Authentic, Secession, Verlag der Buchhandlung Walter König, 2007. The author analyses in a lucid way the theatricality of the performance of Antje Schiffers, laying bare the mechanism of authenticity of this performance. Thinking of authenticity is analysed here as a concept, in a public space.
11 Speech presented by prof.dr. A.N. van der Zande, Wageningen 20 April 2006. Landschap vol betekenissen. Over het omgaan met historie in de ruimtelijke inrichting (Landcape full with meanings. About coping with history in spatial organisation).
12 Speech by prof.ir. Eric Luiten, 11 October 2006. Tot hier... en nu verder. Ruimtelijk ontwerp en historisch besef (Until here and now further. Spatial design and historical consciousness).
13 Jan Kolen, Het historisch weefsel (The historical tissues), pp. 46-62. In: Erik A. de Jong, Iwan Baan, Jos Bazelmans, Jan Kolen,
Perspectief. Maakbare geschiedenis. Rotterdam, Stimuleringsfonds voor Architectuur, 2007.
14 Walter Benjamin, ‘L’œuvre d’art à l’époque de sa reproductibilité technique’. Première version de 1935, pp. 67-113, in Œuvres III, Paris, Editions Gallimard, 2000.
15 Idem, p. 72.
16 Roland Barthes, La chambre claire. Note sur la photographie. Paris, Editions de l’Etoile, Gallimard, le Seuil, 1980.
17 Pages 174-175, 229.
18 Pages 104-105, 229.
19 Pages 50-51, 94-95, 230.
20 Idem, p. 48-49.
21 Gilles Deleuze, Cinéma 2, L’Image-Temps, Paris, Les Editions de Minuit, 1985.
22 Idem, p. 92-128.