For artists, standing on the sidelines is no longer an option. Elke Uitentuis is very definite about that. Cuts (which have hit artists hard), the Arab Spring, the global economic crisis, the new nationalism in the Netherlands and all the other problems have ensured that artists can no longer remain aloof. "And that's a problem," says Uitentuis. "Because how can you resist yet still remain true to your artistic values? On my course here in Enschede, I was taught that art must always be ambiguous and never unambiguous because then it's activism. Art had to be self-reflective and was never allowed to refer to politics."
In 2007, Uitentuis and her associate Wouter Osterholt organised Wolkom yn it Heitelân ("Welcome to the Fatherland") in Leeuwarden. This comprised a debate on the power of protest against the tightening of the Dutch refugee policy. For this project, Osterholt and Uitentuis invited a number of people including fellow-artists Klaas van Gorkum, Iratxe Jaio and Jonas Staal. In 2010, this group decided to commence operating as the Social Experiment collective.
Set in motion
"If you immerse yourself in a particular issue, it will generate images. Once you have images, you can make art," says Uitentuis. She adds that the collective does not simply want to reflect social developments but also to set them in motion. And that does not have to result in the unambiguous. "There are a number of levels in this visual language." Uitentuis has discovered that art can most certainly refer to politics and admits that she is an artist who is seeking answers rather than raising questions. "I want to understand the world and make it better."
When ArtEZ Studium Generale asked Social Experiment to hold an activity in Enschede, the group decided to investigate the changing relation between art and political reality. Elke Uitentuis: "It's because of the drastic reductions in subsidies that we artists have finally realised just how much we depend on politics."
The five artists decided to organise a three-day training "for resilient art". Lecturers from the police academy held classes in interrogation techniques and dealing with violence. The participants slept in log cabins on the Enschede campus and spent their evenings reflecting on what had happened that day.
From lawyers to anarchists
"I got far more out of it than I thought I would," says student Lynn de Rijk after the weekend. "I particularly learned a lot from the discussions with the other participants. They came from different backgrounds: from lawyers to anarchists. Nowadays, you find yourself far more frequently answering questions from people, who almost attack you for being at art school. And they always want to know what the point of art is. During this weekend, I learned that you must first be able to define the world in which you live so that you can then describe the point of art in that world. I never realised that I didn't know that; but I did realise it once I was confronted with issues that are never discussed at art school. I think my work will become more politically engaged because of this weekend."
"An intense weekend," concludes Klaas van Gorkum once it was over. The group of participants comprised ten students, ten outsiders and the five organisers. Van Gorkum: "Everyone came to the weekend with different ideas. Some of the participants thought that it was going to be like the Stanford Prison Experiment and were looking for a hidden meaning that didn't actually exist because we spent so much time reflecting on what happened. Others were more interested in their attitude vis-à-vis authority and particularly the police. I was struck by the fact the police are so heavily involved with observation. Also during interrogations. Naturally, as an artist you're doing exactly the same thing. And just as officers must keep an open mind when embarking on an interrogation, so you must also work in an unbiased way as an artist." Elke Uitentuis: "For us, it was also about breaking through passivity. Looking at the potential for a new form of organisation." Klaas van Gorkum felt that that was quite noticeable during the experiment. "The group dynamic was such that some participants realised that they could make active interventions in their daily transactions." Elke Uitentuis: "Of course, a totally different organisational structure is utopian; there's a basis that you have to bear in mind. We want to get a grip on life and the politics that directs it. The question is whether or not you want to be part of a competitive structure. At this point in time, almost all of us are slaves to our own lives and particularly their rapid tempo."
Klaas van Gorkum: "One of the participants was a musician, who talked about an opera without a score and which consisted of everyday conversations. You can also regard this Social Experiment in the same way. Everyone had his or her own role. It won't just influence our work, in a certain sense it was our work."