TED2014 Fellow Jorge Mañes Rubio is an artist and perpetual tourist who investigates invisible, forgotten places — Chinese cities submerged by the Three Gorges Dam Project, a little-known Pacific island paradise destroyed by mining — creating artworks that reimagine and revive these sites as attention-worthy destinations. Here, he tells us about his latest art project, in which he created a “new nation” in response to the social struggles of a small neighborhood in Amsterdam.
SOCIALDESIGNFORWICKEDPROBLEMS is a pioneering project that aims to research the impact that designers and artists could have if working together with governments and other political/social organizations. I was asked to team up with design studio Muzus and come up with a new proposal for Columbusplein, a public square in Amsterdam West. Politicians and social workers from the area were looking for a different perspective on how to tackle several social issues in the neighborhood, such as bullying among the youngest ones and the lack of a community spirit between all the neighbors.
The first thing we found out during our research is that the demographics in the area are quite unique, with a very multicultural and multiethnic population. Even if the new generation is born Dutch, they still find themselves growing in between different identities (Third Culture Kids TCK), creating a great deal of confusion specially among the youngest ones.
It is also important to say that more than 20 social organizations have been present in the neighborhood for many years, helping those families that struggle the most, and arranging all kinds of activities for kids and their parents. I was overwhelmed to see how much is done by them. But these organizations are also very heavily structured, with little interaction between each other, and showed very small room for changes.
We thought that whatever we would come up with should not only involve the neighbors, but it should also be welcomed by all these social organizations, and somehow reframe their work in a new way, bringing them all together under a common purpose. It all sounds great, but how do you do that?
The answer came to me while walking around Columbusplein’s sports field on a sunny Saturday afternoon. I couldn’t help but notice the beautiful effect that all the lines and colors created on the court. The analogy between this space and the plurality that inhabits the neighborhood was the spark that initiated everything. That image would later become the flag of a new micronation, a rich mix of cultures, colours, identities — all different but nevertheless intertwined as one. The neighbors would have the chance to create their own nation, their own history, their own identity, all from scratch, and the different social organizations would finally have a strong story that would tie together their hard work.
Amsterdam West received the idea with enthusiasm, but they also remained very skeptical about the viability of the project. A new micronation sounded like an utopia, lots of work, plus how this concept would address social issues such as bullying was not clear.
In order to give shape to this micronation, we created several events, the first one being a competition to create a national secret sauce for fries, the favorite local snack. There was a great response from the neighbors, both adults and kids, coming from all kinds of backgrounds (Turkey, Morocco, Surinam, Netherlands) and the inherent freedom of the event allowed us to observe the behavioral dynamics of the kids from a completely different perspective. Columbusplein was writing its own history for the first time, the winner of the secret sauce contest, a 9-year-old named Sophie, was featured in the nation’s first stamp, and now the secret sauce is being used in local restaurants and markets.
For the second intervention, I decided to step up the game, think big and create Columbusplein’s first Space Program. We thought space exploration and new technologies will be very important for future generations, plus all the important nations have a Space Program right? And we don’t want to stay behind! So together with some young national astronauts, we went to visit the European Space Agency in Noordwijk, where we learnt everything about the International Space Station, the way astronauts live up there, and got ourselves ready for our first mission, which I called Mission Kite.
One day later, kids were creating their own tyvek kites, featuring drawings from lunar modules, planets, space ships… After customizing and assembling them together, it was time to start the mission, and kites were flying in Columbusplein for the very first time. The reaction was great, and even police officers and social workers spontaneously joined the event. After a few minutes, a small group of kids who were mocking the participants had to sit down and watch the rest have fun, wondering why they didn’t join the workshop themselves. The Space program was important not only because it played with kids’ ambitions, but also because for the first time, social workers took ownership of the art project.
More ideas such as an alternative currency featuring social workers on the banknotes or a passport to keep track of citizens’ involvement with the micronation are already on the table. Social workers are being invited to readapt their activities under the Republic of Columbusplein’s perspective, and a new approach based on positive potential instead of problem-solving has been shaped. Amsterdam West recognizes the value of the energy and excitement that the fictional micronation’s concept has created in the neighbourhood, but is also asking for more time and a more detailed plan to evaluate if this new approach could be the right path to follow, and how to fully involve all the social organizations active in the area.
My work as an artist is to imagine a different world, and create little bits of it. The micronation concept allowed me to do so, and allowed the kids and the workers in Columbusplein to be part of it. The micronation of Columbusplein is an art project for the neighborhood, but that doesn’t turn it into community art. Projects like this open new possibilities that might expand the future impact of artists on social issues, going beyond the pre-established white cube context.
SOCIALDESIGNFORWICKEDPROBLEMS is an initiative by the New Institute, Twynstra Gudde, social designer Tabo Goudswaard and Doen Foundation.
The micro-nation of Columbusplein was created by Jorge Mañes Rubio and Muzus with the support of Amsterdam West.
All images are by TED2014 Fellow Jorge Mañes Rubio. To find out more about his work visit www.seethisway.com