Bert Scholten @ het resort
Het resort has always been good at setting the scene for their residencies by choosing off the beaten track locations that have something ‘extra’ to them. They systematically uncover local histories and stories from the fringes of society and by doing so, they are priming every residency with a special charge even before the artists show up, leaving it up to the residing artist to make the most of it. They operate in and around the city of Groningen, generally already a place considered to be peripheral by the dutch art world and yet for this edition they decided to venture out even further and head on into the countryside of Groningen. A region which often makes the national and international news due to the frequent earthquakes caused by human operations related to gas extraction. It is deemed the richest province of the Netherlands thanks to the presence of fossil fuels, yet the local residents are the ones who profit the least from it, if at all. The site for this residency specifically, the village of Pekela, was claimed to be the worst place in the Netherlands to live in by the magazine Elsevier in 2010. So even before Bert Scholten has set foot in the municipality, things are already looking pretty interesting from the get-go.
Scholten, a recent Rijksakademie resident, is frequently described as a contemporary troubadour, as he resorts to a tradition in which songs were a means of spreading stories. Much of the inspiration for his works find their origin in old folk stories or local news items, often from the Northern Netherlands. So in this case Scholten is right at home in the municipality of Pekela, which was formed in 1990 when Nieuwe Pekela and Oude Pekela merged together. Schoten stayed in the latter for a month in September, 2020, during which he had conversations with the locals about language, imagery and memories. The results of his residency are presented at the exhibition “Nat Karton” in a temporary exhibition space in the city centre of Groningen.
Central in the exhibition space there is a plywood wall that separates the space into two; on the one side you find a pallet with a pile of newspapers and on the other side the wall is used to project a video on. Two surprisingly comfortable plywood seats are available for watching the video documentation. As per usual the spectator is warmly welcomed by members of het resort with a glass of cava, which has become something of a signature move of theirs. So as you take a seat, cushioned and with a glass of cava in hand, you are ready to take in the full 35 minutes of the video documentation. The video shows him delivering newspapers in the village of Pekela and is shot from a camera mounted on an old fashioned mailman trolley that Scholten managed to buy on Marktplaats. The sound of that trolley in the video is absolutely deafening and makes it sometimes hard to hear what is being said. Occasionally you hear Scholten talking to the curious locals, explaining what he is doing and sometimes he reflects on his own project while delivering newspapers. It also offers many insights into the daily life of the village; kids playing around, people looking at a waterside deck being demolished, etc. He also briefly shows a clip of him being interviewed by the local news outlet RTV Noord. Considering the video was shot in December 2020, the vistas are what you would kind of expect from the countryside of Groningen if you are familiar with it; a bit drab, grey and very humid.
When you observe the video and the newspaper you notice that Scholten steers clear of what usually tends to dominate the discourse concerning the village and its surroundings (eg. the earthquakes or the bad reputation about the quality of life) and instead he talks about the local history, language and traditions. A lot of which was informed by his collaboration with the former strawboard factory Siep&Co. Also, rather than focussing his efforts on making artwork meant to extract the cultural diversity from Pekela to be enjoyed elsewhere, you can tell that he mostly invested his time and energy into coming up with something that can also be enjoyed by the local population, even during the corona crisis. The solution he came up with was to turn all his findings into a newspaper he made especially for Pekelders (the people of Pekela), which was printed in an edition of 6500 and subsequently delivered door-to-door by himself. The newspaper features a list of words that are related to the strawboard and peat digging industry along with many suggestions on how to revive those words, such as using them for memes, music or in spoken language. There are also suggestions for other projects such as using barrel organs playing in sync on either side of the central canal. Looking at the responses of the local residents in the video, I highly doubt that any of these suggestions will ever actually happen but what the newspaper mostly does is trying to give new energy to the local community and point at what could be lost if they don’t safeguard it. It is giving new ideas about what could be done to reinforce, revive and celebrate their cultural identity and for them to truly claim their history and stories as their own, rather than letting anyone else run away with it.
“Nat Karton” raises a lot of questions about the responsibility of the artist and the rest of the artworld. Especially residencies that are located in far away places and their respective communities tend to rely on this type of format in which the local culture is used as a source for the production of new artworks, where often the locals open up towards the artist without there being a great return on their investment and without them having much to say about what is done with the results of the research. “Nat Karton” puts a lot of question marks around this type of artistic practice and shows a rethinking of this while wondering out loud about what we have to offer in return for being granted access to other communities and their cultures. It’s a reminder to us all to maybe rethink our contemporary artistic practices and to analyse whom they really benefit in the end.
Nat Karton by Bert Scholten is on view until 30-05-2021 at Het Resort, Oosterstraat 11 in Groningen.