`Landmarks`, Wapke Feenstra (ENG)
Published in Performance Research VOL 15 (4) - editors Mike Pearson and Heike Roms

We can create landmarks – moments of memory – within and about landscape by bringing the history, the land and the experiences together in an encounter and then re-telling the story in words and images. In this article I talk about drilling for soil samples and two projects – The Best Place and Former Farmland – in which performative conceptual art uses landmarks to create new landscapes.

Moments of memory
Standing in a landscape involves a whole array of physical events. We stand there – literally – with our feet on the ground, we look around us and we engage with our surroundings. All of this is interspersed with memories that dwell in the bodies of the people. But memories can also dwell in neighbourhoods and the land itself. In an article on farmland in the north of the Netherlands, which I co-wrote with Pietsie Feenstra, lecturer in film science at the Sorbonne Nouvelle Paris III, I describe how I create landmarks by drilling for soil (2). We were above all interested in the physical duality that people experience when they stand on land that is farmed and used. Writing in the art publication De Beste Plek (See: The Best Place, Wapke Feenstra, a cultural exchange about past and present, Pp. 231-240, December 2007), Pietsie Feenstra presents her vision of visual culture and landscape by analysing the contrasting effects of moving and stationary images within the tradition of film science: “These contrasting effects also find expression in the creation of new images about the landscape: new ‘montage’ reflects deeply embedded patterns of cultural heritage, land ownership and landscape management. These new visions harbour the ‘places of memory’, a term coined by Pierre Nora in 1984 in Les lieux de mémoire (6) to characterise places that tell us about the past – places where, says Nora, the past still has an ‘influence’. A conceptual artist could make new landscape architecture experienceable by creating a web of interaction and spreading it across time to expose the different historical layers. This new landscape image would be co-produced with the local residents and the visitors, who would bring it to life in their imagination. They are the creators of moments of memory.”

‘Cultural soil drilling’ as a literal landmark
Since March 2007 I have been collecting soil samples at different locations. Using an auger, I extract samples up to a depth of one metre and store them in bags. The labels on the bags state the depth at which the sample was extracted. I began drilling during a stay in Grizedale Arts. My aim at that time was to link interviews with land users and owners (mostly farmers) to communal soil-drilling exercises. Since then, soil-drilling has been the key to interactive interviews and a joint performance in various other projects. It revives the relationship between culture and land at that moment and the shared memories and associations are reconstituted in word and image. Sometimes the land was presented to people as a series of photos with analysis and sometimes – quite literally – as material. Communal soil-drilling never fails to loosen tongues.

Searching for and creating landmarks: The Best Place
The Best Place describes a journey through Hardenberg, a rural area in the east of the Netherlands. Flyers were handed out from door to door beforehand asking people to nominate their own ‘best place’. Not exactly a routine request in an area like that with a dwindling population. And the flyer said that I would be publishing a book about ‘The Best Place’. The nominations poured in, some places were mentioned only once, while others were a clear favourite for many. I visited the first fourteen places that were suggested and marked each of them for a day with an illuminated sign on the text car saying ‘The Best Place’. They included some well-known local ‘best places’ such as the lime kilns in Dedemsvaart – and one very private ‘best place’ known to only a few people: the father-and-son fishing nook.

I parked myself at the weekly market in Hardenberg and at the lime kilns, I descended on Reestdal and stood on an estate at the height of the harvest festival. People do things at a best place. So I invited the nominators to tell me what I could do that day. I picnicked, went on guided tours, made a herbarium, and was bombarded with information from passers-by. And the fishing nook? Well, we fished. What else?

I took lots of photos at The Best Place and left every time with a metre of soil extracted with the auger. The soil analyses introduce the locations and feature in the book along with the stories and photos of the place. A complimentary copy of the book – now available in bookstores (3) – was given to everyone who participated in the project.

Redefining Farmland in urban areas: Former Farmland 2008 & 2009.
This art project brings the duality of physical and mental space to life by deploying new media: a mobile phone with an internet connection. Nowadays, there is nothing exceptional about standing on a piece of land and being in contact with the entire world. In the outskirts of Saragossa, Linz and Oldenburg the former use of these urban areas was revived by collecting stories about working the land from farmers and their children and by passing them on via the mobile phone. During an hour-long walk marked out on a leaflet, the visitor encounters eight landmarks, each telling its own story. Among them are an old farmyard tree, a neglected orchard, a farmhouse and even the local supermarket, which stands on former grazing land. The walk across the land and the stories of its former uses are illustrated in the telephone with photos of the landscape and farming activities that are still going on a few kilometres farther. Food still needs to be produced: the farming that is relived here through memories continues elsewhere on newly purchased land. Or it is being carried out by other farmers who live farther away from the city and who have modernised their agricultural methods to stay in business. In the Former Farmland walks various layers of experience intertwine: we read memories, walk through present-day urban neighbourhoods and look at photos of the local farming activities and the reshaped landscape. Sophie Lea Perry put this into words in 2009:

“In a world where perception is often based on exterior judgments and visual stereotypes, Former Farmland makes visible the simultaneous overlapping layers of meaning that lie within our neighbourhoods, out of sight, until now unknown to other citizens.”
((7)From: Former Farmland Oldenburg, Sophie Lea Perry, Landscape 2.0, p.109).

Former Farmland, besides having a local impact, has featured in exhibitions and thus received attention in urban centres of art and culture. During the exhibitions group tours were organised, where people took it in turns to read aloud the texts on the screen. The route was made available online (4), after the exhibition closed in Saragossa (EXPO 08), Linz (Ars Electronica Festival 08) and Oldenburg (Landscape 2.0).

Looking at landscapes
Introducing new values and opening people’s eyes to new visions of their own surroundings is a dynamic, ongoing process – a process which I, as artist and instigator, was a part of in the above-mentioned projects. Perhaps all that art and culture needs as a basis is a piece of land which people claim for themselves and then add extra layers. When these layers are made visible, new openings and dimensions are created: I call these landscapes. And the creation of small-scale landmarks allows the bigger picture to emerge. Landscape is complex. In art history in particular landscape is a genre that can channel indefinable feelings and narrate our relationship to our environment. As such, it is in stark contrast with the way in which I, as a farmer’s daughter, came to know the landscape of my youth. Through performative conceptual art I can recognise and mark my own perception and that of others. As I wrote in the leaflet for Former Farmland: “When farmland is swallowed up by the city the farmer is well paid but his knowledge of the fertile land has no value at that moment.” I do not have to explain to the farmer that another value of the land is being highlighted here – a cultural value. In all the projects the relationship between what the land and the landscape generated in resources and the current use of that land proved a true eye-opener for non-farmers in particular. The primary industry forms the bedrock for habitation and therefore lies at the basis of art and culture. I make landmarks because we live in a time when the earth is crying out for attention and when ideas on, amongst others, food production call for inclusive thinking (1). It is important to draw attention to global issues within contemporary conceptual art, for we must continue to shape new visions of landscape. Developing new visions and creating images is not a superfluous, exclusive or elitist activity. After the efforts of Vito Acconci, Bruce Nauman, Robert Smithson and others in the 1960s and 1970s to re-educate the public by exploring the body and the operational space of art, it seems that now, in 2010, the continued sharing of art space, the introduction of more image-makers and the communal creation of new landscapes is a necessity.

Wapke Feenstra, Rotterdam, March 2010

Translation Kathleen van Overzee - McMillian

1. Boerwinkel, Feitse. 1975. Inclusief Denken, Bussum Uitgeverij: Paul Brand.
2. Feenstra, Wapke and Feenstra, Pietsie. 2009. Inzicht met Uitzicht Middag-Humersterland accessed 7 June 2010
3. Feenstra, Pietsie. 2007. “A cultural exchange about past and present”. In The Best Place, Edited by: Feenstra, Wapke. 231–40. Rotterdam: Veenman Publishers / Gijs Stork.
4. Former Farmland. 2009. accessed 7 June 2010
5. Grizedale Arts. 2010. accessed 7 June 2010
6. Nora, Pierre. 1996. Realms of Memory: Rethinking the French past, New York and Chichester: Columbia University Press. trans. Lawrence D. Kritzman
7. Perry, Sophie Lea. 2009. “Wapke Feenstra – Former Farmland”. In Landscape 2.0, Edith Russ Haus for Media Art, Oldenburg, and Kunstverein Springhornhof, Neuenkirchen, 102–9. Heidelberg: Kehrer Verlag.

Cultural Soil Drilling