Beyond the City

French team of Kiblind Magazine takes us through a tour of Europe, to explore the role of culture in the city of tomorrow

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Author : Kiblind Magazine

Photo Credit : Kiblind Magazine

From their politics to their geography, each of the cities visited by the We are Europe project has a different story to tell. However, with the honourable exception of Belgrade, there is one common thread that unites them all: not one of them is a capital.

And while this impacts each of the cities in a different way, it does mean that they all exude that delicious air of the outsider. To take the Netherlands – for want of a better example -, while Amsterdam remains the country’s heavyweight champion, The Hague embraces its challenger status with gusto. It may be home to the Dutch parliament, the Royal Palace and the International Court of Justice, but when it comes to reputation, tourism and appeal, The Hague has got used to playing second fiddle to the so-called Venice of the North.

Which is a real shame, as it actually has some fine canals of its own. “Yes, it’s a city that has a very ugly image, very institutional. But it’s also home to so much talent.” Olof van Winden, director of the TodaysArt festival, perfectly sums up what makes The Hague unique: under the cobblestones, there is fire. 

First Tour

This is the story of The Hague: a stone’s throw from Amsterdam, a short hop from Rotterdam, forever minding its own business, getting on with life. And while its counterparts keep people talking, attracting praise and criticism in equal measures, The Hague quietly goes about building its somewhat misleading reputation as a teacher’s pet. Indeed, from the moment we step off the train at Den Haage Centraal, The Hague is on best behaviour.

Somewhat taken aback, we make our way through a gleaming business district: all meticulous towers and impeccable cleanliness, this is an area where an endless stream of bicycles share the roads with silent trams and improbable tricycles, but never cars. Not the scene you might expect on the doorstep of the city’s main railway station. But something is missing; everything is too airy, too clean, too silent for a city of its stature. We find ourselves searching for something to get our teeth into.

The bicycles, the trams, the precise cobblestones, the skyscrapers that give way to historical palaces, the canals, the giant Hema, the countless Starbucks? At first glance, it all seems too clean, too pure. But we’ve been told that there is something stirring beneath the surface, a force that occasionally rises up in the city’s more marginal districts. Olof – him again – has been living in The Hague for the last 15 years and confirms our suspicions: “There wasn’t much here, but I just felt that there was something to do.

TodaysArt 2019 © Maurice Mikkers, TodaysArt

And so, it was time to walk, to dig and to break through that too-good-to-be-true veneer. For below the surface, a different, artistically and socially innovative future starts to emerge. The Hague must not be allowed to suffocate under the weight of its international stature; or to be unnerved by its eye-opening demographic make-up (nearly 50% of its population are foreign); or, indeed, to be intimidated by its proximity with other epicenters.

And just as well, because that’s really not how its residents see things. “The problem with Amsterdam is that it’s full of tourists; maybe it’s a bit less sincere because they have to make do with the city’s image. Here, perhaps we have a bit more freedom,” explains Joris van der Poel, the owner of Het Magazijn, a brand new club and the only venue in the city centre to hold a sacred 24-hour licence.

A Strong Cultural Heritage

The high priest of Amsterdam nightlife, Mirik Milan himself, confirms as much: “The Hague really is more experimental when it comes to electronic music.” True, true. Even though, seen from afar, Amsterdam and its internationally-recognised musical institutions such as Rush Hour, Dekmantel and (now extinct) Red Light Radio seem to ride roughshod over all other Dutch cities, The Hague is actually matching its illustrious neighbour blow-for-blow. The second city has its own legends, its own activists, its own ways of making itself heard.

With early pioneers including the Acidplanet crew, I-f, Legowelt, Unit Moebius and Rude 66 – not to mention labels like Bunker and Viewlexx – The Hague can look back with pride on having been home to one of the finest burgeoning techno scenes in Europe. But, as you might imagine of an artistic fabric woven in squats and at rave parties, the hyperactivity of the early-1990s scene had trouble engaging a wider audience. In the style of Underground Resistance and their transatlantic model, however, such artists and entities seem more at home in the shadows, keeping the institutions of the city centre at arm’s length.

There was Bunker, there was I-F, but people were still wary of it. There was a big underground scene in The Hague back then, but no context to spread the word,” Olof van Winden tells us. Thankfully, the noughties were only around the corner.

TodaysArt © TodaysArt

At the start of the century, the city authorities started to get wind of that new art scene and wondered whether – hold on a second? – it might be a good idea to see if maybe a little help wouldn’t hurt.

Their revelation could not have come at a better time: the city’s premier festival, the North Sea Jazz Festival, was in the process of being kidnapped by The Hague’s traitorous neighbor, Rotterdam, and the stage was therefore set for a new generation to reinvent the city as a playground for the arts.

Their confidence boosted by two successful editions of the CulturNaacht initiative, a team headed by Olof van Winden explored the possibility of launching a two-day event designed to present arts and digital culture at several venues across the city and in front of the widest possible audiences, from the curious to the converted.

And so, TodaysArt was born: an artistic space allowing the local scene to express itself and international projects to share their creations. But beware, for according to its director, “this festival is not a showcase“. The idea is to be open to everything, to “take different subcultures, put them together and see what might come out of it“. “The night is open to all ideas, to all people; it’s not just about club culture, we want to broaden people’s horizons.” Without hesitation, we can say that it has been a huge success.

A New Bubbling Generation

First and foremost, in terms of the music, TodaysArt has shown the public that anything is possible; that there is a place in The Hague for even the most cutting-edge electronic music, out in the open as part of an official event.

A nightclub named PIP Den Haag was the first to get its foot in the door that had been knocked ajar by Olof van Winden and his comrades. PIP Den Haag is a venue showcasing electronic music from both the local scene and further afield, which doubles up – brilliantly – as an internet radio station of impeccable taste. Intergalactic FM‘s mission is to preach the good word to the wonderful world of the internet, while at the same time contributing to the greater recognition of the artists it supports.

What’s more, thanks to the work carried out by local figures such as DJ Overdose and DJ TLR, with his Crème Organization label, the city is also helping to keep European record stores stocked with innovative sounds.

TodaysArt © Marc Mikaelian, TodaysArt

And today, a new generation is also at work, as witnessed by the opening in 2017 of Het Magazijn by Joris van der Poel and Arend Lakke. Located at the very heart of the city centre, in the basement (naturally) of the cute Bleyenberg restaurant, the club plays host to a constant stream of parties that can last up to 36 hours, as was the case with the celebration held for the venue’s first birthday.

Joris gives credit where it is due, noting that “the authorities are cool and, when they’ve had the power to change things, they’ve occasionally taken the opportunity to do so”. “There are lots of festivals that have been launched this year,” confirms the co-founder of ‘Het’, “particularly thanks to the new organisations making waves, such as District 25, which founded The Crave Festival and puts on nights all-year-round, like Club25, which we host. Which means that, although Rotterdam still attracts a lot of people, audiences are increasingly choosing to stay and party here. There are more people listening to and making electronic music. People who we’d never seen out at night before are coming to our club, which is nice.”

As we leave our basement meeting, however, it’s hard to avoid reflecting once more on that strange sense of duality in The Hague. On the one hand, here is a unique artistic scene of rare vibrancy, embodied by the club that we’ve just visited. But just over the road, we look upon a line of enormous terraces, the sort you find everywhere, exhibiting so little personality that we suddenly start to question whether our meeting with Joris van der Poel had even taken place. It is a sense of unease that only grows deeper at night, as we pass by a series of strange local bars and tourist-trap coffee shops.

The Netherlands’ second city had lost its edge once more. TodaysArt is another organisation working to fill this void at the heart of the city. Beyond its artistic merits, it is also stimulating public discussion. And not just in confined spaces inhabited by likeminded people, but outdoors in the real world, where it uses new tools to bring members of the public closer together.

One of the best examples is the RUIMTE project which, by attempting to re-establish the agora principle at the heart of citizen debate, is playing a central role in these efforts. By using the architecture, urbanism and design tools developed by the ZUS, Collective Works and Refunc studios, RUIMTE is establishing a genuine, real-life public space in which to re-imagine public debates on both cultural and political issues. In a city that is home to so many instruments of Dutch and European democracy, the creation – albeit temporary – of a public square dedicated to inter-citizen dialogue strikes us as a truly excellent idea.

About the Author

Kiblind is a trimestrial publication dedicated to visual culture and contemporary illustrations, created in 2004. Several years later, its team launched a specialized agency based in Lyon and Paris.

Article initially published in 2018.

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