`Boerenzij - The Rural Side`, Wapke Feenstra (ENG)
Introduction for an exhibition and event proposal - written in January 2018.

All over the world, city and countryside are perceived as separate or even dichotomous entities. Urban lifestyles and culture are regarded as key and rural migration to urban areas is usually interpreted as cultural progress. This view of the relationship between rural and urban smacks of cultural barbarism. It is my intention to add nuance by activating and visualising the rural knowledge and attitudes that exist in the city and ultimately by revealing a shared rural mindset.

We are in the migrant city of Rotterdam. In the twentieth century residents of Rotterdam-Zuid were said to live on the boerenzij - or the ‘rural side’ - an appellation that was definitely not a compliment. The flow of rural migration that was triggered by the demand for dock workers ensured that this part of the city soon became densely populated: the new city-dwellers came from rural regions in the Netherlands, Southern Europe, Morocco, Turkey and the western colonies. Today, most of the agricultural work is carried out by temporary migrants from Eastern Europe. In this project I will apply recognised artistic techniques to draw on the cross-cultural memories and knowledge that exist within the urban community. This will facilitate a process of collective conceptual exploration and find expression in the development of new creations. It will take place in a series of steps and public moments. The project begins with kitchen table talks and drawing sessions in Rotterdam-Zuid in which memories and knowledge are shared and visualised. It concludes with public screenings in Rotterdam-Zuid and an exhibition in TENT-Rotterdam. The layered micro-analysis of this specific context will form part of a wider investigation. In the Boerenzij project I will learn from settled migrants, passers-by and newcomers. The purpose is not to produce a local document but rather, in the words of Walter Benjamin when he compares the making of a micro-analysis to a phased crystal, to expose the structure of a greater dynamic by focusing on a single moment.

Boerenzij presents a complex challenge because there are many times and places that have to be given a voice. There are participative and representative moments across the entire creative process, from intimate and private to patently public. The basis will be formed by all sorts of private rural worlds and neighbourhood observations at micro level, which will lead to the emergence of a more abstract image as a result of the angle of approach, the framing, and the chosen method of reporting. The activities (as known in March 2018) are still being developed and focus on:
1. Neighbourhood and soil
2. Kitchen table talks
3. En plein air drawing sessions at Maashaven and Rijnhaven (the docks)
4. Balcony scenes
5. Exhibition and public screenings

Migration from the countryside to the city is causing urbanisation and rural shrinkage across the globe. But migrated rural culture is not regarded as a welcome enhancement to urban art and culture. I will take a closer look at this disdain. My starting hypothesis in Boerenzij is that migrant workers from rural areas retain their rural culture for the rest of their lives, sometimes unconsciously and in the background. Often, it lies hidden behind closed doors. A few objects and memories might be shared within the family circle, but even there they may remain untouched and unmentioned. Memories of the rural culture of origin are stored in various home languages and in the private sphere. But is this knowledge and culture inaccessible outside its original rural context? Or could the rural mental space that exists in a migrant city be made more visible? It is precisely because of the cross-cultural nature of rural knowledge in urban environments that there is no shared rural identity that is recognisable to others (fellow city-dwellers, civic art and the wider population) or even to the various people who are themselves involved. To instigate new ideas of rural cultural identity in the city, we must organise perceptions and visualise what is currently fragmented or hidden.

Current developments in Rotterdam are generating momentum for a project that will open new perspectives on what rural migrants have brought to the city. The Boerenzij, situated between Maashaven and Rijnhaven, is moving away from the ‘urban periphery’ and becoming ‘part of the centre’. Densification and new buildings that overlook the port are bringing the centre ever-closer. High-rise flats with panoramic views are attracting newcomers, particularly young urban professionals. The Boerenzij is disappearing – part of it has gone already and the rural presence seems almost to have died out. The urgency of this project rests on the fact that there are still some people in Rotterdam-Zuid who hail from generations that came straight from the country.
My own situation will also play an important role: I have lived and worked in Rotterdam-Zuid for more than twenty-five years and as the daughter of a dairy farmer in Friesland I can draw upon and apply my own rural knowledge in the observations and interactions in Boerenzij.

Though the Boerenzij project homes in on Rotterdam-Zuid, it connects with the worldwide dominance of the urban perspective and culture and highlights the absence of a more complex interaction between rural and urban. Since 2012 more attention has been paid to the planning aspects of the countryside, most notably in the observations of Rem Koolhaas.

“Koolhaas said that there are obviously architectural and cultural reasons to consider the countryside (which he defined as “anything that is not the city”), but in the wake of Brexit and President Trump’s election, “there’s also a political reason to look at it.”(…) “It’s a very ironic situation,” Koolhaas said, “that we are at the same time ignoring yet are profoundly influenced and infiltrated by the semiotics of the countryside.”(NY Times, 30 November 2017).
But do such observations really confute the assumed dichotomy between rural and urban? What can we make of the urban-rural debate if rural culture is first ignored only to be reintroduced later as a spatial, cultural and even political problem in which the countryside is again seen as something outside the city and even as an outsider that exerts a negative influence on cosmopolitan urban culture? Apparently, under the influence of current political interests, the countryside is back on the cultural agenda. But to me, that is an unnecessary and a largely futile detour. The dichotomy was always false, but it was maintained because something could be gained from denying a relationship between city and countryside. Is there a different way? Boerenzij will touch on some illuminating and complex paradoxes by showing that urban and rural are interconnected not just through primary industry, agriculture and natural resources but also through migrated rural cultures, some of them interwoven with the city for decades. By ditching the idea of a dichotomy and by thinking and working from the concept of ‘stretched space’, rural knowledge and culture can be made more visible in metropolitan cultural centres. The time-worn urban vision of the countryside will then no longer be taken as read. A wider perspective on cross-overs between urban and rural cultures can make our own conception of culture more inclusive.

In recent years rural culture in metropolitan contexts has become a topic of research. In 2017 I travelled to Kanto (Guangzhou) in China. I worked in an Urban Village and took to the streets with dried beans, a moleskin and other rural objects in order to establish initial contacts for a project for the Times Museum. During the process I had a lot of direct contact with migrants from many different rural regions across China and I managed to gain some insight into their rural knowledge and lifestyle: there, at an improvised farmer’s market on the edge of this metropolis, I was instructed on how to skin an eel. That same year I was invited by Ruang Rupa to hold a workshop in Jakarta where I latched on to projects in which groups of women, aided by urban farming subsidies, managed to rid the city riverbanks of garbage and rats. The project attracted attention worldwide but the word ‘farming’ was somewhat premature since most of the cultivation took place in pots and containers and there was scarcely any knowledge of how to grow vegetables. In both cities – Kanton and Jakarta – I asked the people I met about the generation in which their rural background originated. The difference between the two places was striking: Kanton is a young city where many residents have come straight from a rural setting. In Jakarta, by contrast, only one out of every thirty-five women had parents who had been raised in the countryside. That difference made me curious about ways in which rural knowledge could be traced among migrant communities in metropolitan environments. In the Boerenzij project I will apply these insights to the migrant city of Rotterdam.

(This project runs from Summer 2018 till Summer 2019 - texts are under construction)..