Letters from Somewhere. Yesterday. / Bik Van Der Pol

Dear M.,

How are you doing? It is hot here, unusually hot. The warmest day ever in September, I read somewhere. You asked me: What do we need, now, when we look totalitarianisms right into the face, worldwide, while there are so many problems that are rushing towards us at hurricane force. This is such a big question. We saw it all coming but we thought: no, it will take the other direction. It will turn. It won’t come to us. But then, suddenly, I saw that picture. In the newspaper. Or was it online? I don’t remember. But it showed the ‘team’. The team of the leader, the boss of it all. And the team consisted of family members. Only. Sons. Wives. Daughters. Sons of daughters. Daughters of daughters. Daughters in law. And out of law. Lawless. Admiration, united in devotion. All saying: yes. Yes. And Yes. Yes, of course. All loose if they don’t stand with the tribe, don’t they?

So, where does that leave us, the rest of us? What does this have to do with us, here, now? Nothing, some would say. But it is obvious that all this will not be without consequences for us. It divides us. It sets us up against each other. It holds us back from thinking, from solidarity, from community, from listening and speaking to one another. I am confused.

Dear M.,

Under the signs of the hottest days ever, the wide-spreading disease, the panic and ongoing neglect of its origins, by all of us, has brought us here.

Paul Virillo wrote that the invention of the ship was also the invention of the shipwreck. With the airplane also the plane crash was invented. But a plane crash is nothing. It’s a joke compared with what lays ahead of us. After flying, social media is the worst and the best invention ever. We are onto full crash course now. With the invention of mobility in its many diverse shapes and forms, of bodies, thoughts, opinions, gossips, and goods, the big collision with the planet, the ground we stand on, live on and live from, is invented. Stolen, molded, used and abused for so many other purposes than intended. More than imagined, even, beyond imagination. Why, for what and for whom we need to ask, no? That is where we are now.

Dear M.,

I am back. You started fantasizing last time we spoke. About art and the nature of creativity and of wonder. About earth. About nature itself. About imagination. About sharing. About desire. About community, the commons, common ground.

About how to get there. What if an art institute would be run by residents, you asked.

And yes, I completely sailed with you, with these ideas. I am completely on board. They are so attractive, aren’t they? But I need to think further if it is possible to imagine, with you, that participation, participatory processes, sharing, could save us. Can art save us from the despot’s battens, drag us away from the gates of hell? That is quite a big ask for art. Art does not change the world. People do. You want me to give you an answer now. Something that would solve the problem. Now. An art institute run by residents is a great idea, but, hold on. Running together would mean: communal ownership, but what does that mean, communal ownership? Owned by community. What community? Is there a limit? Some rules need to set or developed along the way.

All that engage need to invest. All are needed. Collectively. There is no such thing as a free ride. To choose between land and people is to set apart. And separated surely no common ground is formed. What about responsibility? Time? It takes time to learn. Time to listen. Time to share, open the door. Time to empathize. Time to imagine. To feel, for another. The nature of imagination and wonder is also the wonder of learning to fly and to crash as well. You have to invest in order to know. No responsibility undermines.

But that spark. Of communal ownership. Hold it dear. It goes against everything that is going on now.

Because breaking-down time is now. Never before the communal of community has been so far away. We have to insist on what we share.  Let’s dig. Feet on common ground, looking for a for a place to take root.

Dear M.,

We did not see it coming, but the strategy made so much sense: prioritizing land over people. Why so surprised now that ground is lost? We did not see it coming that building common ground takes courage.  Now the future of communal voices is science fiction from the past. Speculative fiction that explores the potential consequences of scientific, social and technological innovations. It can also criticize present-day society and is often said to inspire a “sense of wonder”, a feeling of awakening, wiki tells us. Yes, wiki inspires us. Sense of wonder. Sometimes written as Sensawunda. Senza Wunda….: without wonder? Ha! No wonder!


Dear M.,

To decide. Dismiss or reject. Choose. Taking care means to work. No participation without responsibility, learning, investment of time. Never finished with that. Always moving. Being in between, becoming, yes, may become institutionalized, if we agree that participation of the many oh so different voices, is fundamental to democracy. This democracy as we know it today, has left people behind. It, we, all, did not listen to each other. Still don’t. We have to accumulate knowledge and understanding through listening. To underline listening, while we continue to do things. Listen, listen and be acute.  To accumulate to support the coming-into-existence of a critical mass that takes part.

If a government says: “you are not free even if you think you are”, all sense of freedom and democracy has gone. Rights of citizens are being told to you by a higher power. State of emergency.  How can an art institute then work? Without a community, without freedom? What if the community has no access? You don’t meet by coincidence any longer. Technology cannot solve this. No. It is instrumental in defining who gets access and who not. Only food is accessible, but no other public services like museums, libraries, universities, schools, art institutions, are. Covid gives extra control of the citizens – and institutions that are part of civic society. There is an invisible removal, a cancelling, a deprivation, a breaking down of communities, through technology. Policing the citizens is becoming very concrete. The breaking down of community, what a disaster.


Dear M.,

I want to tell you about the Allegory of Good and Bad Governance. It is a fresco on three walls in the city hall of Sienna, in Italy. Made by Ambrogio Lorenzetti between 1337 and 1339. Its image, location and context are important to consider. Could this fresco, a document of another time, help us to think about today? What kind of insights do these images provide in the presence? Can a document come to mean something else through time? A listening, to images, that can function as a form of repair.  A tuning in to produce new forms of relationality.  The context in which the fresco came into existence is important, and I paraphrase from an article I read about this fresco: in the 14th century new types of administration were developing in Europe. In Siena, was ruled by the Council of Nine, an elected group of citizens who were not aristocracy – and I was told that the Nine had no conflicting interests and should not be susceptible to lobbying or pressure from the establishment.  Essentially, the common good was considered more important than the individual good, and governors – as well as any inhabitant of Siena – should place the common good before their individual well-being. The nine were locked in the city hall for three months, after which they had to come with proposals how the community should be governed. It is also interesting that this remarkable period in the history of this city was a period of prosperity. But, yes, of course it is easier to agree on what bad governance is, than what good governance is. Can good be applicable worldwide, universal? Like UN declaration of Human Rights?  Or should it be in relation to different cultures?  Should it be economically efficient (by law, rules, and regulations) or should it be an interpretation (of understanding what is good governance)?  How to imagine abstract notions: civic community and civic responsibility. That, Lorenzetti understood, is the biggest challenge of his time. And of our time too.  Or, instead of locking up a group of people to come up with good ideas, lottery, an old idea from Athens, may also work to renew interest in participation. However, I like the idea of the nine better. More extreme. Think. Look. Listen.  It happens during the act of being locked in. Full engagement, pressure, makes something happen. Alive in that very moment.  Wild ideas. And then imagine how the civic community and civic responsibility can be taken seriously. And develop scenarios. For the future. Would something like this work today?


Dear M.,

We……need to continuously build a future archeology. See. Listen. Tune in. What other bits of history lie just below the surface? An ecosystem where and in which we can develop and take care. Museums, libraries, archives, governments, soil, air, water, forests, plants and deserts, our bodies. To understand better how to use them and how do they use us. How we need. Each. Other. To do, learn, look (at), understand, how to continuously develop an alert criticality to grow together.


What if we take it back to the schools?


Yours, as always, A.