On the road with PAPA
Late in 2012 Anke Coumans, professor of the research group Image in Context asks me whether I would like to make the PAPA format I developed available as a research tool to her research group and to Minerva Academy. It is a clear method for artistic research in situations which are too often cloaked in vagueness. This crystallised and compact method for photographic observation allows students to leave the academy and step into the ‘real world’. I understand the question, but handing over the idea I have been working on for so long takes a little getting used to.
PAPA Participating Artists’ Press Agency has become what I dreamed of in 2006. As an artist who has been making work in public spaces for over thirty years, I wanted to concentrate on the research aspect of my work. Letting go of the idea of making a ‘fixed’ piece of artwork. Selling the research process of my work as a product is something I have already done a few times, usually for clients such as urban development authorities in big cities. Moreover I wanted to see the world as one big public space now we are all connected through the internet. Making work for this worldwide public space, together with others, while everybody stays in their own country, that was my dream. I called it an artists’ press agency, not knowing what that might look like or how I would bring it about.
I have always loved the research side of my work. Artistic research is what it is, where you question yourself, the other and the location until the ideas start flowing. I first started doing this in the theatre group Dogtroep, of which I am one of the founders and in which I worked as a theatre maker for seventeen years. The process of setting up a production on location, using local materials and working together with local technicians and musicians, was just as important for creating a myth on the spot as the final performance was.
I stayed true to this principle of a public creation process when I left the group in 1992 and started working as an individual artist, this time with different means and very different outcomes. I started making art for public spaces, such as those in hospitals, schools and train stations. The digital revolution of the moment not only brought a great availability of new technology in video and photography, but it also brought us new a public space. That of the internet. I like to set up hybrid projects which take place both in the virtual and in the physical public space. This is how I set up a big research project with all the children and teachers of a primary school. I get two web designers involved and the children from group 8 make 150 drawings which are immediately uploaded onto the internet. Parents and others can see how the school is slowly transformed into a drawing of a building, that you can ‘walk around’ in, go up and down the stairs, in and out of classrooms etc. All classes choose a research subject and the teachers send the children into the school to discover all kinds of things. The children make drawings, take pictures, go around the classrooms with questionnaires, make comic strips and animated films. All stories are ‘hung on the walls’ of the virtual building in the same place where the actual action takes place. This brings about a completely different dynamic in the school itself as well. The inspector who is visiting the school can hardly believe his eyes, all those children running around and everything going well. What a kick, that the virtual space allows you to work with more than 200 people on the same thing and that the whole world can track that process from the first moment!
From the early days of the internet I have been keeping a blog about how I work. This way clients, the people for whom the artwork was intended and other interested parties, can see the creative process which brought about the artwork from the very beginning: www. merrynomad.org. For some assignments I keep a special blog, like that about the artistic research in care home De Bieslandhof, for which we later designed De Coupé (The Carriage), a train compartment for Alzheimer patients: www.bies.nu.
In the same way I left Dogtroep in 1992 because I had the feeling that public spaces were not as public anymore as they had been before, I feel in 2006 that virtual spaces are not as open and free from commercial interest as they have been. Time for a new ‘move’. Back to the physical public space with the internet as infrastructure through which you send messages, that is my plan. I decide to stop making ‘fixed’ artworks and find a form to share research assignments with more people in the world. In 2008 I feel ready to go into the world and build up the press agency bottom-up, by working locally with photographers and artists. In a journey which in the space of two years takes me to Dhaka in Bangladesh, Lagos in Nigeria, Sao Paulo in Brazil, Detroit in the USA, Rotterdam in the Netherlands en Bishkek in Kirgizia. I develop the format and build a network. In 2010 I see the crowning of the project with two assignments in which PAPA works as I intended it to. We carry out photographic research into how a newcomer lives in Dhaka, Rotterdam, Detroit, Sao Paolo and Lagos. The photographers stay in their own country and, all on the same day, they take their cameras to a newcomers’ district to take photographs of whatever ‘catches their eye’. The photographs appear on the PAPA website as in a wave. First the ones form Dhaka, five hours ahead of us in time, then the ones from Lagos and Rotterdam, then seven hours later the pictures from Detroit and Sao Paolo. In three weeks’ time we see the creation of a story about what worldwide migration means. In the 180 pictures which were uploaded we see the similarities and the differences between the lives of the newcomers in the different cities. The outcomes are ‘delivered’ in all kinds of ways. In one area in Rotterdam the photographs are projected onto the windows of a cultural centre while the project is still running. PAPA was the client for this beamed exhibition which was made by notDef Hanco Camper and Sibe Kok. For Noorderlicht, the photo exhibition in Groningen notDef created a ‘narrative space’ with the PAPA-pictures, an installation in which projected images, sounds and street objects together make an environment in which you can be in the whole world at the same time.
We also sell picture-stories for books by others and have sold five photo essays to the Volkskrant. In 2012 I publish The Making of PAPA, a book in which the method is explained, the history of the initiative is told and a great number of photographic stories show ‘how people cope in the world’. I go in search of assignments for me and the PAPA network.
On the 19th of April photography teacher Harold Koopmans, Anke Coumans and I meet to discuss what is needed to transfer the PAPA format. Do Anke and Harold understand what the essence of the format is, why it works? What kind of website is needed as a shared digital workstation? And who is going to make and manage the website? Do they understand the importance of side coaching? Because, although there are only a few simple rules, and the photographer has great freedom in safeguarding her or his own style of taking pictures and writing, there are a few boundaries that need to be protected. Like, for example, the idea that you ‘go about without a preconceived plan’ and that ‘you take pictures of whatever catches your eye’. That you do not document an idea, but that you surprise yourself and others with what you find. And who is going to interpret and edit the material afterwards? We decide that I will set everything up, such as the website and the manual for the photographers. That I will supervise the first walk, coach the participants during that week and chair the concluding meeting and write a report. I will include Harold in the process from the very beginning. I make him co-editor of the website. This way he has a complete idea of how everything works. Halfway during the process Harold takes over the project and I am stand-by.
Meanwhile, Anke has spent a lot of time in bringing about contacts with various institutions who will be working with us. Care home Blauwbörgje, including the ‘Living Lab’ which researches the future of care, and with an institution for Higher Professional Education for facility managers. Great, we can start really quickly now. A month later the project begins. In addition to Harold and myself, four Minerva Academy students, all from a different study programme, participate in the walk. There is also a student of Facility Management and luckily, also a member of staff of the care home itself, Sabina van der Laan. In ‘Living Lab’ sweaters we enter the building with our cameras, in separate teams. There is enough to explore: the auditorium, the physiotherapy room, the administration, hallways and staircases for residents and visitors, the sections which are reserved for staff, the technical support room, the garden with the children’s farm, and much more. There is one residents’ department where we can take pictures: the Tulip. Not all at once. If one group is inside, the others have to wait.
As ever I love roaming around with my camera. You look at things in a different way when you take pictures (of whatever catches the eye). You collect details which may later become a story. But when you’re taking pictures you don’t have to think about that yet. That comes later, when you put the pictures on the shared blog www.papafinds.com. Only when you add a title and a text, you start wondering what it was that ‘caught your eye’. After the walk, which lasted about two hours, everyone has collected enough information to be able to select two new observations a day and place them on the blog from the comfort of their own living room. You can let these two photographs contrast or choose pictures which reflect the same phenomenon.
We will meet again at the end of the week in Blauwbörgje to discuss the results. Using the website we project the photographs of the photographers separately on the wall and she or he will talk about her or his experiences. We write down what everyone tells. It’s always magical to see how you take pictures in the same place, at the same time, and how different it is what everyone saw. On the one hand you have the personal stories with their similarities and their differences. And on the other all these observations together tell the complete story of that place.
It’s a good thing that Sabina van der Laan is here as well. From her position as an insider she shows us the other side of what struck us. To us the bars on the window in the smoking room which leads to the flat roof may seem a restriction to freedom, but Sabina tells us that the bars are intended to protect people. That a dangerous situation arose when an Alzheimer patient climbed onto the roof unsupervised.
I will be there during the first day of the second week, but I won’t be taking any pictures. It is a new experience for me to observe the process from a distance. Earlier it was not possible to look at ‘my own work’ as an ‘outsider’. But things are going well without me. I see new photographs appear on the website daily and in the cc of the mails to the students I read how Harold challenges them and how he reports about the presentations on the concluding Friday.
After the project has been concluded, we still see each other for the discussion which takes place at Minerva Academy. Anke, Harold, four Minerva students, the student Facility Management and me. Had I had the final responsibility, I would have led the discussion to a conclusion, based on an analysis which I had prepared at home with the material from the website and the personal presentations. Now I am one of the discussion partners and join the conversation with an open mind. We talk about how everyone has experienced the project. Who would like to see a follow-up and how everyone thinks the project should be reported to ’t Blauwbörgje. The method is something everyone is happy with. How you can discover so many things in so little time and with so relatively little effort. And wonderful to do as well. A few students certainly want to continue. Swanhilde and Allard want to spend time with a resident and show us the world the way this person sees it. How do you do this when someone has Alzheimer’s? Ideas come from everywhere. Now, a few weeks later, surfacing in my memory a few:
– Can Wies who studies illustration start making comic strips about Blauwbörgje, with the perspective of Sabina as a main character? ‘I am Aaltje’ (a real resident who features in one of Sabina’s ‘posts’).
– Or the couple who are just getting into that tiny little car on the first photo that Wies uploaded, can they also get a part?
– And why is the children’s farm tucked so far away in the garden? Can Maurits who does architecture, do something with that? Bring the children’s farm closer to the house so people can see the lama and the goats, the chickens and the peacock from their windows? Wouldn’t that be much nicer?
– And then the small, almost clumsy little notes which are everywhere, can Gisanne, the graphic designer not make a lovely little book with this? With informal signposting and warnings such as ‘Beware, intruder’ with a little drawing of Mikkie the cat below it?
And it would also be really nice if Harold would make a beautiful project with the residents and their old photographs. He already made a start with one of the residents. http://www.papafinds.com/anders-belicht/winschoterdiep/
And then we wonder how we can distribute all the material, the photographs and the texts, in a different way than just the website. Can we make a beautiful exhibition with all the images? Can we play the sound fragments in elevators? And what would it be like if at the locations where the pictures were taken we would not hang up the photographs themselves but just the texts about those photographs? Then you could make signposts to guide visitors along the sounds and the locations with text plates. Then they can go on a kind of journey of discovery as well, just like we did with the photo walk at the time.
For the report about the Blauwbörgje project a new idea is generated as well. The original idea was that Harold and Anke would do that together, but now it seems better to let as many people as possible report. We’d like to do it the way we are used to at PAPA: every photographer tells her or his own story based on the photographs on her or his website. Since so many ideas surfaced during this meeting, we would like to give the staff of Blauwbörgje the same opportunity to take ‘ownership’ of the project. Give them the chance to respond, express their wishes about how they would like to see the work presented and what they would like as a follow-up. Only then will we share our own ideas with them about this.
At Blauwbörgje we meet the whole crew of the Living Lab: the director, two geriatric doctors and the IT-specialist. Sabina is on vacation, but luckily there is another member of staff from the Tulip department. Guided by the presentations of three students an open discussion with the staff members of the care home ensues. The director sees all kinds of ‘blind spots’ in the photographs, things that are there but that you do not see anymore in daily life. The staff of ’t Blauwbörgje is moved by how surprised the students were about life in the care home, as expressed in their stories. It is so different from what the young people thought. More human. ‘If only more people knew this!’, one of the staff members calls out. ‘Can we not communicate this?’ Fortunately they understand our enthusiasm about exactly that informal part, the unfinished and in our eyes the ‘living aspect’ of the house. The danger of this kind of research is that something that thrives in the shade, will disappear when it ‘comes to light’. The staff is just as enthusiastic as we were about the notes with the little messages and about the slightly cluttered corners. Corners with things for which apparently there was no closet space at the time and now those objects are cosily tucked away in the hallway. You see that they are being used, that empty box and the piled-up cushions next to the copier. http://www.papafinds. com/anders-belicht/volkstuin/. They have a completely different look to the ‘created’ still-lives, the kind of stage-managed little spots in which you only recognise the trouble that was taken to suggest there has been some activity.
Just as in the conversation with the students the week before, all kinds of ideas are surfacing now. The photographs can be shown outside on an advertising pillar in front of the building, with the texts underneath as a kind of continuous comic strip story. The staff of the Tulip, but also other staff members, really enjoyed the blog and not just Sabina’s contributions. Many more would like to join now, and use the PAPA method to look at their own workplace and appreciate it anew. To be able to discuss what works and what doesn’t and how things could be changed very simply. Members of staff suggest whether the ‘audit’, the yearly evaluation which appears in many A4s with text, could not be published as a report with images. Made by a selection of staff members from all different departments. Using the PAPA-method of course. And Minerva Academy is very welcome to visit them again next year with the PAPA professional development class.
What stays with me is the wonderful and new experience of handing over my work just like that. Something I have made, and to see others use it. It has become clearer to me now just how the equality which is deeply rooted in the PAPA method, continues to be an element in the discussions. One photographer is not more important than another, there is no hierarchy in the pictures on the website. During the discussions of the results one opinion is not more important than another. You have the opportunity to see through someone else’s eyes and become aware of how they think. Different opinions can co-exist. This is helpful in the conversations, in which ideas can tumble over each other. In which nothing has to be recorded, as yet. That I was able to experience this, is because I was able to look at it from a distance. See how Harold as a (well-loved) photography teacher who really knows his students, deals with the material. It’s not the first time he has taken students outside the walls of the academy on assignments, such as an industrial zone and the situation in which he set up collaborations with asylum seekers. See how Anke in her own expert way makes sure ‘things stay open’, and how she invites people to explore new pathways, this taught me a lot. How she is aware of the fact that all parties involved are here with their own agenda, have their own reflections on what’s been happening. Because we made sure this process was kept open all the time, everyone was able to express what was valuable to her or him, and how they would like to continue with it. To see that these different outcomes can co-exist is very valuable to me.
Had the Blauwbörgje research been my own personal assignment, I would have concluded it with the design and execution of an artwork, such as the Carriage or the visual report like the tourist guide I made for the sleepy little Rotterdam borough Hoogvliet. Others make use of what I created outside of my own range of vision. The residents of the care home used the Carriage; the Urban Development Service Rotterdam used the tourist guide.
It is a new and wonderful thing for me to see how the process can continue to meander. Without me. While I watch. That it can bring forth all kinds of things, from which everyone can benefit. This way for me the dividing and sharing really turns out to be multiplying. I remain stand-by, to follow the process and, if necessary, to give those involved some advice.