Posts Tagged 'cultural diversity'

Art, Posters, Graffiti, Stickers and Tags = Smear, Smudge, Scribble and Scrawl

Marja Salaspuro, Amsterdam — No discussion, No tolerance, No Smudge in the Clean Image of Helsinki. Zero tolerance towards graffiti includes a strong resistance against an open discussion around what is allowed in the public space.

Last week in Helsinki, a celebration of the Anti-Smudge project gathered as a counterpart, a public demonstration demanding legal graffiti painting places. The battle was ready, several participants of the demonstration got arrested, newspapers were filled with discourse of war. To be honest, I don’t care who is right and who is wrong (I guess nobody is perfect), but I want to spread a dream of more open discussion around what is allowed in the streets of Helsinki.

Hierarchical Division

Yesterday I found from my unloaded moving box following post card. It is presenting Slovenian artist Igor Stomajers project called ‘Foreign’. Foreign was displaying current verdicts about the different countries and was especially emphasizing the stereotypical division between East and West Europe.

'Foreign' was exhibited by Visual Corresdondents

 In Stomajers’ art work, the hierarchical division between the East and West changes once you try to read the sentences. The words tumble and meanings become interchangeable, just like in the current Graffiti/War discourse in Helsinki. There is a need to break stereotypes between ‘East’ and its scrawling subcultures and ‘West’ the Public Work Department of Helsinki city. In the end, a discussion about what visual elements are allowed in the urban public space should be an ongoing dialogue following the changing needs of the citizens and done in a manner which respects diversity and freedom of expression. Unfortunately, tolerance towards more diversified street communication is zero.

For those who are not aware, an Anti-Smudge Campaign has been in charge of Helsinki’s effective cleaning process towards all kinds of unauthorized street communication in the public spaces. The definition of ‘SMUDGE’ includes graffiti paintings, posters, stickers and basically anything added in the urban public space. The zero tolerance means that there are no legal graffiti painting places and even ordered paintings have been eventually removed. The project has been going on for 10 years, but effective cleaning hasn’t stopped the dream of more open discussion around what is allowed in public space as this weeks demonstration showed.

West has solved the Problem

On Tuesday the ‘invitation only’ event in Finlandia Hall gathered Clean Image supporters for celebrating 10 years success of Anti-Smudge campaign. According to their statistics: in 1998 there were in excess of 67.000 smudges or graffiti in Helsinki, while last year the figure was a mere 5771.

The ‘invitation only’ event meant also effective gatekeeping. The reporters were kept out. According to Helsingin Sanomat, a national daily, even two Helsinki city councilors Paavo Arhinmäki (left party) and Kimmo Helistö (green), were evicted to enter the event. Not to mention that possible contradictory voices such as Youth Department was not invited neither.

Not everybody are convinced about the efficiency of zero tolerance policy (neither that Anti-Smudge has proved anything else that cleaning is done effectively). In fact, the demand for neutral non-aligned research around Anti-Smudge Campaign was even headlined in the main national daily newspaper.

Article in Helsingin Sanomat 22.9.2008 (main newspaper)

Article in Helsingin Sanomat 22.9.2008 (main newspaper)

Meanwhile in the East

Around 500 people took part in a “Smudge Fest” public demonstration, which was organised as a counterblast against the Anti-Smudge campaigns’ Anniversary celebration. The demonstrators were gathering around Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art to demand legal graffiti painting places. By nine o’clock in the evening, the police had apprehended 27 demonstrators for throwing bottles, vandalising police vehicles, and spray-painting shop windows.

Afterwards the City is pressing charges for 1500 new smears which appeared during the chaotic “Smudge Fest” demonstration. Meanwhile demonstrators are accusing police force for being too rough, and the newspapers headlines emphasize emphasize ‘war’ position.

Calming down the young demonstrators in Helsinki

News material from Helsinki: Calming down a young demonstrators

How about some tolerance and understanding?

This blog post is an open invitation to explore more tolerant ways to approach the battle around visual street communication in Finland (and everywhere). Actually stickers have already taken room from paintings. 

If you have seen some incredible projects that were celebrating urban visual language, feel free to share. Helsinki needs new tools for expressing (legally) more diversified voices in the city space. Maybe creativity can be solution.

Example of Concrete Ideas:

At the moment in Amsterdam, there are several projects related to Graffiti as a part of urban play and more sophisticated methods (easier to ‘remove’ or temporary by nature). Two of them are presented as a part of the Experimenta Design and Picnic cross media week.

More information:

Graffiti Research Lab

Outfitting graffiti artists with open source technologies.

Projects like Green Graffiti might claim a better status for Graffiti among entrepreneurial citizens: 

Green Graffiti

Stealing beauty

Martijn van Berkum, Rotterdam — Busy, busy weeks. But I have to squeeze in this article since the art work in question is one of the funniest and most intelligent works I have seen the last months.

Stealing beauty is a 20 minutes video art work by the Israel-born artist Guy Ben-Ner. It’s a parody on typical sitcom soap opera’s on television, staged in different IKEA stores over the world. We follow the fictive lives of Ben-Ner, his wife and their two children as they struggle with problems that are drenged with moral and cultural issues. The camera is put up without authorisation of the IKEA stores and people are walking by, looking into the camera and intervening in the imagined lifes of the Ben-Ners, while price tags change from euro to dollar to yen.

The real Ben-Ner and his family themselves have migrated to the United States and in a very comical way the video issues problems of migration, of trying to fit in, trying to adapt to a Western way of living. “Honey, I’m hohooome”, is the first thing Ben says when he arrives in an IKEA living room. But their foreign accents, and their hilarious comments on the peculiarities of Western-American culture reveal that they don’t fit in precisely. References in their texts to Marxism give a hint, for instance when the children yell “children of all nations unite” when they are arguing with their father. The want for dissolving into a collective, symbolized by the globalized IKEA consumer ideal, is apparently stronger than maintaining your own identity.

For more information, please check this great article in the New York Magazine Art Review.  

A four minute trailer of the video:

Stuff white people like

#37 Renovations: All white people are born with a singular mission in life in order to pass from regular whitehood into ultra-whitehood. Much like how Muslims have to visit Mecca, all white people must eventually renovate a house before they can be complete.
– Taken from Stuff White People Like

Cultural diversity is a big thing on this blog. We are trying to make sense of our countries as a place where Western and non-Western cultures can live together. We travel the world and report on our findings. And, not in the last place, all contributors are from different countries.

Nevertheless, we are all white… And there’s no nicer way to break it to you, but my legs look like milk bottles when I wear shorts in summer, I listen to 80s rock, Michael Jackson and Sonic Youth, my favourite sport is soccer and I love Asian restaurants.
So check out the blog Stuff White People Like if you feel like laughing your ass off, or, in case you are white, are in urgent need of some self-knowledge and perspective.

Oh, and please also look at the stock photography the website is using, which, at times, enhances the irony to almost unbearable heights:

#51 living by the water

But there is more than meets the eye. The articles on Stuff White People Like implicitly reveal how power and subordination is exercised through seemingly benevolent issues such as ‘knowing what’s good for poor people’, ‘diversity’ and ‘travelling’. Which proves in the end that point #50, irony – which ties together the whole purpose of the website – is in fact as white as white can be. And, moreover, is a way to justify overruling, criticising and domination of other cultures, as we saw for instance in the Danish cartoon conflict.

Some of my favourite points:
#70 difficult breakups
#62 knowing what’s good for poor people
#55 Apologies
#24 Wine
#18 Awareness: An interesting fact about white people is that they firmly believe that all of the world’s problems can be solved through “awareness.”
#15 Yoga
#7 Diversity: White people love ethnic diversity, but only as it relates to restaurants.
#4 Assists: In basketball, it’s kind of a must so that white guys can carve out a niche and guarantee acceptance on a team.

Lise Harlev against populism

At the end of January, beginning of February an anti-Islam movie by the Dutch populist politician Geert Wilders is due. Prime minister Balkende is seriously preparing for a global crisis; the government summoned Dutch embassies in Muslim countries to prepare for the worst; ‘different cultures’ in the Netherlands are asked for a wise and calm response. This may become The art work of 2008.

I’m not sure whether I should feel pride or shame of the fact that the populist voice has discovered the power of art and images. Was I ever worried that art might have become obsolete, upper-class elite, abstract avant-garde or intellectual nihilistic? Well, if it is any comfort, art is real politics today, more than ever. Submission, by Theo van Gogh and Ayaan Hirsi Ali; Sooreh Hera depicting Muslim prophets as homosexuals; the Danish cartoons; even the media images of the 9-11 attacks should be considered as ‘great works of art work according to Damien Hirst‘.

What disturbs however, is the over confidence and know-it-all attitude or these works. What they lack is a sense of uncertainty, of not knowing the truth, of asking questions rather than providing easy answers, of approaching the world with an open mind.

I often catch myself defending my own country. But do I really think it’s a good place? Or did I just grow up believing it is?
I’m thinking about Lise Harlev whom I met at the Momentum 04 Biennale in Norway. Her work ironically plays with these populistic, slogan-like, rhetorics. But rather than confirming their two dimensional statements, she replaces the slogans with personal questions. The posters have this special quality of her personal uncertainty, of NOT knowing it all and asking questions on identity rather than providing easy answers.

Eindhoven / Forms of resistance


The Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven organised the exhibition Forms of resistance, which comprises works from different periods that deal with activism. The exhibition contains many posters, all of them fantastic old-school silk-screen art works. I’ve photographed couple of them.

Furthermore, the upcoming year the Van Abbemuseum will enter the second half of the project Be(com)ing Dutch, which deals with issues around multiculturalism and national and cultural identities, currently some of the most urgent issues in the Netherlands. Reports on these activities will follow; please check the first debates on streaming video here.

Multicultural boiling point

The public debate about the Dutch multicultural society – and in particular the integration of Muslim culture – has been infested by populism, false sentiments, anger and xenophobia. Last week, all usual suspects spoke out again in the media when the director of the City Art Museum in The Hague banned a controversial work.

The possibility for open-minded people with balanced ideas – by and far the majority – to have a proper and rational discussion has been trampled on. Extremists on both sides have hijacked the debate with dogmatic, hyper-emotional and uncompromising arguments. An interesting point is that art plays a conspicuous role in conveying, or communicating, some of these ideas. One famous example is the film Submission, made in 2004 by Theo van Gogh and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, dealing with the suppression of Muslim women, which led directly to the murder of Van Gogh, and indirectly to Hirsi Ali fleeing from the Netherlands to the USA.

Last week the Iranian artist Sooreh Hera broke the news when her photographs were banned from the City Art Museum in The Hague by its director Wim van Krimpen. The pictures showed homosexual lovers wearing masks of the prophets Muhammed and Ali. Van Krimpen had no problem with issuing the difficulties of homosexuality in Islam culture, he disapproved of the provocative and insulting nature of the photographs.


Again, issues of freedom of speech, of religion and sexual orientation were discussed, and again, the debate was hijacked by the usual, populist suspects. Political parties in The Hague argued that art institutes cannot shut out the public debate and political issues, others claimed that the museum had violated the freedom of speech, and provocative works could not be banned simply because they are provocative.

I think the decision was perfectly sound. The argument that the museum avoids political discussion is false. Its decision to avoid a provocative work, which would further polarize a public discussion that’s already been spoiled and infested, is purely political. The viewpoint of Van Krimpen is to have a discussion which is balanced and avoids further polarizing. Moreover, this decision shows that, as a museum, an artist, a theorist, a politician, any stakeholder in this discussion, you have a choice. Not regarding participation in the discussion, or avoiding it, but a choice in the way you want to discuss it.

Currently, the public debate is completely dominated and corrupted by two extremist opinions: the first is the populist viewpoint, which means showing the work without any questioning, because criticizing the political content of art – based on rational arguments – is immediately disregarded as violating the freedom of speech. Second is the Islamic extremist viewpoint, which allows only the complete rejection of Hera’s work, which has been expressed by death threads towards Sooreh Hera, who is now in hiding. Consequence: end of discussion.

Certainly, the utopian ideas of a multicultural society, dating from the eighties and the nineties, must be challenged, but extremist opinions must be as well. Currently, anyone on the left favoring a proper, balanced discussion regarding multicultural issues in the Netherlands is being disregarded as left extremist, against freedom of speech and terrorist-in-action. And on the other side of the spectrum, any right-wing party favoring a proper discussion, is disregarded as secular extremist, anti-religious, racist and xenophobic.

To use the famous words of Spike Lee: “Ye’ all need a chill!”. And to make my point, please check the following feverish, raging fragment of Lee’s Do the right thing, because this is where we are now: at boiling point.

Amsterdam, El Hema

After the fantastic MSLM magazine a new joint Arab – Dutch project has been launched that aims at integration and emancipation of Muslims in the Netherlands. El HEMA – an Islamic version of the Ur Dutch retailer HEMA – is a witty and irresistibly charming exhibition. Nonetheless, despite the quality and efforts, the project leaves the most important questions unanswered.

This week a copy of a HEMA establishment opened underneath the Amsterdam City Art Museum. It sells typical Dutch products in an Islamic version: a halal version of a Dutch sausage, Chocolate letters (candy for a Dutch feast) in Islamic typefaces, complemented with a fashion line by Arab designers, and a modern Arab typeface design.


Hema is a stylistic icon, their designs have won many prizes around the world. Their image is emblematic for Dutch identity: unpretentious, simple, unexotic and steady. I must say that it seems for me to be a leap of faith to use this image as a context for an Islamic identity. And herein lies the problem of the project. It is very successful in creating a recognizable modern Arabic typeface and fashion line, however, the mould in which they are casted is unarguably ‘Made in Holland’.

Now I don’t want to burn down the whole thing. Art, design and fashion have the possibility for social experimenting. Which is exactly the kind of creativity we need to solve problems of integration and Islamofobia. The one thing currently missing in the Netherlands is a model for living together; for being integrated without losing the Islamic identity; for being Dutch without the fear of losing identity and such tacit things as feeling security and selfconfidence. The quality of El Hema is its joint effort of Islamic and Dutch staff (almost thirty in total!) and creating a feeling of togetherness as such.

Nevertheless, the problem remains that it concerns a Dutch model, superimposed on Islamic culture. A Western avant-garde concept of breaking with traditions and social-political critique, applied to a problem which is only partially Western. The issue of identity should begin with a simple question: What is being Islamic today? Then followed by the question what being Islamic in Europe means.

The models for dealing with this identity-issue that I see in the news are either extremism or the withdrawel in ones own community. Both models are an answer to integration by simply ignoring it. They avoid the difficult task of inventing a model that allows Muslims to both maintain their identity and to participate in a Western society.

This is an issue that needs to come ‘from within’; it’s a question of emancipation. El Hema is a very respectable Dutch proposal to what integration could be, but still, one side of the story. The other side is where work needs to be done: an Islamic proposal of what integration could be. One that comes truly from the Islamic soul, respects their identity and attempts to place it within the European community.

I very eagerly look out for an art project that will manage to do some social experimenting from that point of view.


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