Saskia Monshouwer
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Book launch huisboomfeest

Paul De Bruyne

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Saskia Monshouwer (ENG)
Published in huisboomfeest book (Dutch). Available at Jap Sam Books, Heiningen NL.

A Tilburg Neighbourhood
Piushaven (Pius Harbour) is a long stretch of water that connects the edge of Tilburg city centre with one of the city boundaries, the Wilhelmina Canal. It touches on five neighbourhoods, each with its own character and layout depending on its location in relation to the centre and the canal. Piushaven is a motley collection of disused industrial terrain, work yards, an occasional factory, and neighbourhoods jam-packed with huddles of ground-level housing dating from different architectural periods. Only in the Jerusalem area will you chance upon a few portico flats. A reorganisation programme has left Piushaven with many of the characteristics of an urban expansion, since neighbourhoods that originally seemed to lie on the periphery are now unequivocally annexed to the centre.

It was with Piushaven in mind that Wapke Feenstra developed huisboomfeest (literal English translation: house-tree-feast), an art project that reflects on the reorganisation. Because of this, the project falls under the much-discussed category of artworks that explore urban renewal and urbanisation processes. But house-tree-feast has its own focus. Urban reorganisation can be approached from any number of perspectives – architecture, economics, spatial planning to name just a few. Feenstra chose to concentrate specifically on how people live and how they experience their surroundings – not just because she is intrigued by the workings of cultural space but also because this approach enabled her to make direct contact with the local residents, the people who experience the organisational changes first-hand. Feenstra`s project depended to a large extent on their cooperation and input.

For six years groups of residents went on walks through the neighbourhood at fixed times determined by the seasonal changes. During these walks they were given information on the local plants and trees. They recorded the way the neighbourhood looked and observed their living environment. Another part of the project consisted of the construction of a website and a databank. The residents could show their own photos on the website while information on plants and trees was stored in the databank. Below is a brief summary of these activities. The aim of house-tree-feast was to explore the workings of cultural space in residential neighbourhoods by collecting visual details.

Three words, three segments
The title house-tree-feast conveys both the content and the purpose of the project. To some extent these three simple words – house - tree - feast – represent three segments, each constituting an aspect of a neighbourhood.
HOUSE stands for home, for shelter, for indoors – everything private. As a segment, house represents the street. An everyday image of doorbells, decorative touches on the outer walls of homes, signs and symbols, traces – everything public. During the walks the attention of the participants was drawn to details from their living environment. Anyone could post photos on the website via a neighbourhood webmaster. Meantime, students from Tilburg University were assigned the task of observing the neighbourhood and writing essays. Their stories and semiotic analyses add an extra dimension to the images.
TREE stands for the second segment: nature. The Piushaven neighbourhoods are teeming with it. As the area fans out from the centre to the edge of the city, it connects with various nature areas, including the Moerenburg landscape park, the banks of the Wilhelmina Canal, the Leij stream valley and Leijpark. But there is no shortage of green in the neighbourhoods themselves thanks to, amongst others, grassy squares and verges, a legacy of post-war architectural designs.

The twigs, leaves, fruits and suchlike that the walkers gathered on their expeditions were used to launch a web xylotheque, a databank dedicated to the local flora. Gradually, the residents realised that the trees and plants in the immediate surroundings, such as the Sugar Maple at the corner of Piushaven and Lancierstraat, might be more than prime examples of their species – they had socio-cultural significance as well. Indeed, the Piushaven zoning plan for 2009 contains a reference to the strong emotional associations connected with the area around a hollow tree.
For Feenstra, the socio-cultural importance of trees always came first. Without vegetation a visual analysis of a residential neighbourhood can never be complete. Moreover, changes in vegetation reflect the progress of the seasons. House-tree-feast places particular emphasis on what Feenstra calls `cyclical time` and hence includes the passage of time and the rotation of the seasons. The sights one sees in a neighbourhood are not static. On the contrary, they enact the dynamics of time, which are part and parcel of our experience.

The segments house and tree have elements of `mapping` – the physical delineation of a geographical area. The third segment connects the two. Feast implies togetherness and contact. But feasts may also be bound to seasons. And, people like to publicise what are essentially private events: for example, they hang a stork in the window to announce the birth of a child to the outside world. Christmas lights do not only adorn living rooms, but also gardens, streets and shopping precincts. The feast likewise harbours the concept of cyclical time. When signs and symbols are used to communicate messages in the street, changes occur over time, changes which forge the chain that links the get-togethers and activities, the walks and gatherings. Previously unnoticed details acquire individual meaning in a process of particularisation that unveils the workings of cultural space.

An analysis
The description of the project highlights the countless meanings anchored in the work. This aspect is evident firstly on the website, where the project is visualised and photos of the actual surroundings can be viewed. Secondly – and more importantly – it is evident in the underlying structure, the concept of the work, which, as it were, provides the framework and the instructions to direct, shape and steer the actions and observations of the residents. This is what makes house-tree-feast such a unique project. Besides encouraging people to engage with their surroundings and with art, to capture – and possibly change – their perception and experience, it lifts the veil on the run-of-the-mill, everyday street scene. It visualises the experiences of residents in a specific locality and, by placing extra emphasis on the passage of time, it acts as a mediator for existential experience.
The work as a mediator for experience is a classic motif in the oeuvre of many artists. The project can therefore be seen not only as an extension of the conceptual and engaged art of the 1960s and 1970s, but also in relation to, say, landscape painting, and later, landscape photography, especially in light of the human image that emerges from visual arts movements in different periods in history. But perhaps this comparison is a bit too hasty. After all, house-tree-feast is first and foremost a contemporary project, bursting with new questions and approaches. It assumes that the public will play an active role in and be a part of the artwork.

Communication game
In a sense, one could say that Feenstra has created a communication game that unites elements of social interaction and contact via the Internet. The link between neighbourhood and Internet is formed by semiotics or the study of signs. Though semiotics, as an academic exercise, accounts for only a minor part of the project, it plays a unifying and explanatory role and has near-metaphorical significance. Semiotics helps us to understand what Feenstra means when she talks about cultural space: she works on the assumption that everything around us is culture; culture that can be read but also written. The role of the users of cultural space is not passive, but active in different and – perhaps to them – totally unexpected ways.

People set up signs and leave traces – which can also function as signs. Often these signs and traces are amazingly `ordinary`. Even `wear and tear`, a slow process of decay that leaves traces, can be read. Wear and Tear (in Dutch: slijten) is a work by gerlach and koop, an artist duo from The Hague, who, in 2008, carried title-cards of this work in their hip pocket. Later, these cards were hung in a crumpled and distressed state on a wall in the Kröller-Müller Museum. Wear and Tear became a sculptural technique. But a neighbourhood is not a museum. House-tree-feast was about photos taken by local residents, about items they had gathered, and essays people had written, to record cultural signs and codes. The ordinary became special, and sometimes, hideous objects acquired beauty. The students placed fragments from the street scene, including gable decoration, in a broader and – sometimes – historical context, as shown in the piece on the devotional implications of the ornamental tiles picturing the Virgin Mary.
The contributions from the residents radiate enthusiasm. Besides showing something from the surroundings they convey some personal message. The residents are proud of the hitherto unnoticed details of their own everyday reality, which, for a while, has been transformed into something special. So, the project not only highlights and traces the reorganisation, it is a protestation against the albeit necessary but nonetheless crude and intrinsically brutal acts of deconstruction and reconstruction which accompany such interventions.

The emphasis on semiotics might suggest that house-tree-feast is only about signs and cultural codes, but nothing could be further from the truth. Essentially, it is an ongoing dialogue with the reality of the residents in which meanings are – as it were – being constantly recalibrated.

Space and freedom
No grey without green, no cities without shrubs, grass, birds, trees. Nature is also part of the dialogue in house-tree-feast. Tree represents cyclical time and, at the same time, delivers a necessary contrast with house. Trees and shrubs form part of the cultural space and can be read as signs. But still, they seem to impart a different meaning from that of the street elements. Tracing and mapping nature in Piushaven triggered a whole array of emotions that sharpened the meanings of house-tree-feast.

Nature and culture are divided by a shifting line with cultural and philosophical implications. In one sense, everything qualifies as culture, simply by virtue of the fact that, being human, we read, conceptualise and utilise everything around us, including nature. However, the meaning of nature, as opposed to culture, is unique. The opposition between nature and culture co-determines the way we position ourselves in the world. In the nineteenth century, for example, nature was whatever had nothing to do with culture or civilisation; there were barbarians and there were noble savages. Since then, nature has turned into something that is in need of protection and stewardship. It is everything that is good – self-evident. Modern governments work with this awareness. Statistics and questionnaires, public input and efficiency studies are translated into facts & figures and plans are drawn up. Such exercises are productive, democratic and may also promote sustainability, because nature is part of the equation. Attention focuses on numbers of trees, hectares of green landscape, and rare plants. Everything is inventoried and accounted for – but still it feels as if more and more nature is disappearing. Sometimes it does – quite literally: in most zoning plans urban nature in the form of parks, grassy verges, gardens and stretches of wasteland falls under the common denominator of `greenery`.

Greenery sounds innocent and it is, of course, technically correct. A park is green, a wood is green. The same can be said of farmland, which is just as much cultural landscape as urbanised area. And, fuelled by the deepest respect for human activity, density is inexorably on the increase. More and more urban spaces and their environs are being sequestered. The chinks between the gables and the edge of the street, between urban and rural, are being cemented up and plastered over. What remains of nature is delineated and contained, as a park, with a function.
The calculations, questionnaires and public input may generate neat ideas, like the `pocket parks` in Piushaven – patches of green between houses, with a social purpose – but our minds are still plagued by gnawing thoughts that our room to move is diminishing. Perhaps this involuntary response is tied in with one of the quintessential connotations of nature. Freedom – a connotation which is derived from the contrast with culture.

Freedom has become suspect as a concept. Are we not united, dependent on one another for our interpretation of the sign system? Community, accountability, identity, safety – yes, of course, but we still need freedom. And I do not mean the abstract concept of freedom discussed by philosophers or the freedom associated with the autonomy of art and the artist. I am talking about a freedom that is reflected in a desire. A yearning for space and horizons, space separate from ourselves, space that is undefined and amorphous, the opposite of culture. The pursuit of this kind of freedom is an artistic objective. It plays a role in house-tree-feast and, against all odds, has attached itself to the gathering expeditions and the web xylotheque. Tree represents more than cyclical time, more than education, more than the interpretation of signs, because neighbourhood greenery is precious to many people. They may not recognise it as nature, but they do recognise it as a sign of freedom. In the course of the project an interaction evolved between the metaphorical significance of tree in house-tree-feast and a real desire to conserve nature.

The ritual interim
But the yearning for freedom is more than an artistic theme; it is a cultural fact that manifests itself in all manner of cultural institutions. It has a place in playing and in play – remember homo ludens – and it is the crux of the feast. For besides being a cyclical confirmation of social contacts, of kinship and solidarity, feast stands for freedom. In one respect it forms a ritual interim, a momentary time-out from the strictures of society, a space for deviation, for doing things that – under normal circumstances – are out of bounds. Carnival in the south, even Queen`s Day. The free market on Queen`s Day stands for tax-free trading, forbidden the rest of the year. It is not my intention to simplify things; every feast has its own freedom and its own rules, but you could say that, in general, the combination of enjoyment, community and anarchy is characteristic of feasts. On some occasions the anarchy is experienced as positive. There was heartfelt approval for the closure of the motorway when FC Twente, winners of the league championship, returned home to a heroes` welcome. Unruly revellers who stop trains to Amsterdam on Queen`s Day are regarded merely as a social nuisance.

The symbol of the feast as a meaningful exception to the cultural norm has been used regularly by artists, from the dada feasts of the 1920s and 1930s to the performances and happenings of the 1960s and 1970s. Artists like to make use of cultural interims, and Wapke Feenstra is no exception. The feast in house-tree-feast was initially approached from a semiotic perspective. It was about the signs that people set on feast days, about sharing and contact, because a feast is a defining moment, a time for harmonising meanings. During feasts people can tacitly check out in a congenial atmosphere whether others subscribe to the same codes as themselves. Differences can be ironed out.
The feast in this case blends in with the theme of the project as a whole: for, a feast is also distinct and differentiated. A communal feast strengthens the memory. And memory is important when people reflect on art that is not viewable in museums, art that cannot be conserved. Memory offers a place for this kind of art.

House-tree-feast is a special art project which turns the spotlight on the neighbourhood and visualises collective experience at the same time. It is a social sculpture, accessible and pragmatic, with a high conceptual value. It does not aspire to solve problems, it is a celebration, born of curiosity and admiration for the everyday things in life.


Saskia Monshouwer (Amsterdam, 1962) works as a curator and publicist in Amsterdam. After graduating in Cultural Anthropology from the Universities of Nijmegen and Amsterdam she embarked on a career as an art journalist. She started freelancing in 1998 and mounted her first exhibition in 2001. Monshouwer pursues her particular interest in the relationship between art, the general public and the contemporary living environment through close involvement in artworks and artistic projects.
As a freelance curator and researcher, Monshouwer has worked for, amongst others, the Gate Foundation multicultural art institute in Amsterdam and the Artwalk artists` initiative in the Staatslieden district, also in Amsterdam. She further collaborates in European projects organised from Schloss Ringenberg in Hamminkeln (Germany).