1 till 3 July 2016

The Treasure of Opsterland

Interview by Agnes Winter

On Saturday 2 July 2016, a unique local product – Wild Treasure (Beastige Skat) – was unveiled at Kunsthuis SYB in Beetsterzwaag (Friesland, The Netherlands). Wild Treasure is a little silver case shaped like a Frisian forest bean, inscribed with a message and enswathed in a soft moleskin pouch. It was conceived and created in recent months by ten local residents under the guidance of artist Wapke Feenstra. Feenstra spent a residency at Kunsthuis SYB in April 2016, where together with this group, she explored the history and identity of the region, with the ultimate aim of expressing them in a new product. Wild Treasure can now be purchased at the International Village Shop (an offshoot of Myvillages) alongside many other specially developed regional products from all over the world. I spoke with some of the participants about the concerted, creative process, which culminated in Wild Treasure, and with Wapke Feenstra about the International Village Shop and Myvillages, the artists’ collective she has run with Katrin Böhm (DE/GB) and Antje Schiffers (DE) since 2003.

Wild Treasure

Feenstra came to Beetsterzwaag with a clear purpose in mind: to develop a new regional product for Opsterland under the auspices of the International Village Shop, an art initiative first launched by Myvillages in 2006, which serves as a platform for dozens of temporary and permanent shops that sell regionally-rooted products which tell stories about the population and history of individual rural communities. Under the banner of ‘New Village Goods’, Feenstra and her colleagues team up with local residents in various parts of the world to create products that uniquely reflect local culture and history.

She did this in Beetsterzwaag with a group of interested people from different backgrounds, including a farmer, a goldsmith and a photographer, but each with strong Frisian roots. The first meetings began with brainstorming sessions to find stories and objects that typify Opsterland. The stories came thick and fast, often continuing till late in the evening, washed down with a glass of beer and some homemade cheese. Stories passed down from generation to generation about legendary figures, the regional landscape, untamed and wild, and how people lived in the past. One particularly intriguing story was about Dr Tonckens in Beetsterzwaag, who is said to have inherited a fortune from the Van Teyens, a patrician family, under dubious circumstances. Did he hide it in his garden or Beesterzwaag forest? No one ever managed to find it. But who knows? Maybe, someday, it will turn up.

The group also talked about the surroundings of Beetsterzwaag and the forests that define the landscape. Many wild animals lived and roamed in these forests and, of course, everybody hunted and poached in these days. Poaching wild animals such as deer, rabbits and pheasants was integral to the local character: hard and obstinate. Another observation made by everyone was the stark contrast between rich and poor, which was endemic in Opsterland. Wealthy farmers and landed gentry ran the show and further enriched themselves by buying up land and selling peat. Nowadays, people are reminded of this wealth by the stately mansions and landscaped parks and gardens in Beetsterzwaag. Around the same time, hordes of poor labourers worked their fingers to the bone on the land and cut peat for starvation wages.

At the first meetings some participants were still finding their bearings. What was expected of them? Where were all these random ideas and stories leading to? Douwe van der Velde, a goldsmith with a studio next door on the High Street, was a bit bewildered by the first meeting: ‘So many ideas were being tossed around. It seemed pointless. I remember thinking that it was going nowhere, but then, despite my doubts, it all began to crystallise out so beautifully.’ Artist Wietske Lycklama à Nijeholt did not know what to make of the first meetings either, but now says that they were crucial to the process: ‘Everything had a purpose. Here was I thinking that nothing was happening, but these sessions were so important. At the end of the day, everything found a place in the product.’ It was by coming together several times, with a bowl of soup or tea and cake, that Feenstra managed to build a trusted environment where people got to know each other better and dared to be creative. Rinske Sieswerda, who runs the goldsmith’s business with Van der Velde: ‘What I found fascinating about this project was the way Wapke brought everything together and drew so much from each of us.’

Besides telling stories, the participants were asked to think about the form of the product. How could that Opsterland character find expression in something that people would want to buy? There was no shortage of suggestions. Why not choose bone as a material? It was used by rich and poor alike for making jewellery and utensils. The disclosure and preservation of local stories was a recurrent theme in the sessions. The participants hit on the idea of making an object that could be used for keeping something you cherish. Inspiration came from the silver cases that Feenstra found in the local museum – little receptacles, often engraved with images and stories, that were used by wealthy people for storing exotic wares such as nutmeg.

The design was inspired by a typical local product: the forest bean or wâldbeantsje. These yellow beans, which grow in Frisian forests and were once the fare of poor people, have found their way onto the menus of classy restaurants in the region. It was soon clear that the case had to be shaped like this bean, enlarged to fit precisely into the palm of the hand. Van der Velde made a model of the bean with a 3D printer that he normally used for fashioning jewellery. He then converted the model into a plaster mould in which the silver case could be cast. One line from a love letter written by Lycklama à Nijeholt was engraved on the surface: ‘Cherish and embrace me and I’ll be good to you’. The letter, intended for the new owner, was inspired by the many stories that came to light during the process. In tribute to the natural surroundings of Opsterland and the hunting tradition, this exquisite pocket-sized silver case comes in a moleskin pouch with a pale pink drawstring.

Meantime, Durk van der Schroor from Beetsterzwaag converted an old suitcase into a display cabinet containing forest beans that he had grown himself. This would be used to exhibit the silver case and transport it to other events organised by the International Village Shop. Hence, the new product, duly christened ‘Wild Treasure’, was produced solely in the region. The proceeds from the sale of each case will be used to make another one, so there will always be ten in circulation. The new regional product made its public debut during the art weekend in Beetsterzwaag on 2 and 3 July.

What made the deepest impression on many of the participants was the collective, creative process that led up to Wild Treasure. Sieswerda: ‘This project was about so much more than the end-product. It was about bonding as a group and how Wapke managed to achieve that. I felt out of place at first, because Douwe and I are do-ers. But once we started delving, I felt enriched. The sessions made me think more about where I live. I became more aware of my surroundings.’ Lycklama à Nijeholt also found working in a group a memorable experience: ‘When we came together for the first time, we were pretty much loners, each with our own quirks and fixed ideas. Then we opened up to one another, and eventually something intimate and precious evolved. The fact that this led to the emergence of a product in which everything fits together so beautifully is just awesome.’

International Village Shop

Wild Treasure from Opsterland is now one of the many regional products in the International Village Shop. This autumn, it will travel further afield to Leipzig, where it will feature in the large retrospective The International Village Show mounted by Myvillages at the Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst (Museum of Contemporary Art).

The International Village Shop was founded in 2006 by Myvillages, an artists’ collective which Feenstra has been part of since 2003. Together with Kathrin Böhm (DE/GB) and Antje Schiffers (DE), Feenstra explores the potential of rural communities as a space for cultural production. They have organised a whole array of activities, ranging from small, informal presentations to large participative projects, exhibitions and publications.

Agnes Winter: What prompted you to set up Myvillages?

Wapke Feenstra: ‘I have known Kathrin since 1993. We used to talk a lot about our upbringing in a farming community and commiserate about the lack of space and attention in the art world for backgrounds like ours. Eventually, we decided to set up a project ourselves in a village and link it to an art institute. By then, Antje had also arrived on the scene. Kathrin had met Antje in Mexico. She lived in a village and, like us, came originally from a rural background. But we couldn’t get the project off the ground, because no-one was interested. They were happy to work with us, but not on topics such as ‘villages’ or ‘rural communities’. At that time, around 2000, ‘urban’ was high on the agenda. The 1990s was the decade of interactive and performative art with movements such as ‘relational aesthetics’, which focused on urban groups. So we decided to branch out on our own.’

They began with themselves and their own backgrounds, showing their own villages to one another. During their first public presentation, in Antje’s home village of Heiligendorf, they introduced products from the regions where they had grown up. Feenstra served Frisian clove cheese and mare’s milk from her sisters’ farm. They posted reports of the visits to their villages on their website and set up an association. And that was how Myvillages came into being. After their first solo projects proved successful, they were asked to mount exhibitions. In 2007, Myvillages gathered momentum and, since then, it has managed many projects all over the world. The artists often involve local residents in the creative process, pursuing a quest for engaging stories and resources and skills specific to that region.

AW: What made you choose rural life and villages as your subject?

WF: ‘Wherever I am in the countryside, questions rise in my mind that make me curious. I notice that I have so much rural DNA that I can be a discussion partner; for instance, I can tell people about how things happen in our own village. There are so many aspects of that landscape and countryside that interest me. How they provide for our needs, our shared dependence on them. Take networks and social relationships. In the village I grew up in there is a very clear structure; I recognise similar structures in other villages. We communicate differently from city people. I have some very good friends whom I have known for forty years and who grew up in a city, but I notice – and I think this applies to Antje and Kathrin too – that people who are brought up in a village relate differently to one another. You learn a shared concern and responsibility – unwritten rules that are intuitively felt, in other villages too.’

AW: In 2006 you started the International Village Shop to present products that express regional identity. The International Village Shop also sells new regional products that you have created with villagers in different parts of the world. What made you decide to open a shop?

WF: ‘We have all played shops at some time in our lives. We’re familiar with the behaviour on both sides of the counter. It is a social ritual that everyone knows. And selling is a form of communication. It’s about value, something that has been made. It is a direct, universally understood dialogue about a product. When someone in a shop says ‘It costs too much’ or ‘I don’t need it’ you can respond. In that sense, these objects are not just shopping items, but communication artefacts as well.’

AW: Did you work with participation projects from the start?

WF: ‘Yes, I daresay you could call it participation, but I prefer to draw a distinction between exclusive and inclusive art. I think that we always try to tell the story bottom-up. It is imperative that art does not become ever more exclusive. Conceptual art, as it unfolded in the 1960s, has turned into a kind of language that concerns itself mainly with form, even though the vision at that time was about a different relationship with the audience and co-production rather than consumption. So, if you group our art projects together with the participation art of the 1990s, then I find that a bit tenuous. There’s a lot more to it; it is contemporary conceptual art. The underlying ideals, which we also saw in Situationism, about introducing everyday life into art – these could now assume a new form. And in all sorts of worlds, including urban neighbourhoods. It’s just that I have a special rapport with rural life, and I can access it too, because I grew up in it.’

AW: You have run projects in villages all over the world. Do you notice a difference in the way people think about local identity and villages?

WF: ‘Yes, more and more of our projects are outside Europe. But they should always be about engagement and not about admiration for the unfamiliar. You learn so much about a country when you get acquainted with rural communities. You understand class differences in the UK much more clearly when you work in a rural environment. But the way people think about local identity is always different. There are local residents everywhere who can tell you wonderful stories about that. They always return to the cultural history and natural resources of the place, even though that might not explicitly emerge in the first stories. The landed gentry play a strong role in cultural history of Beetsterzwaag, but there was also a strong workers’ movement. So, identity and local stories are pretty much intertwined. It’s different, wherever you go, but there are always people who are ready to throw themselves into it, who are expert story-tellers or have experienced something first-hand. It’s wonderful when that happens.’

AW: In Myvillages you concentrate on villages and rural environments, but all three of you live in a big city, Rotterdam, London and Berlin. Does that add a bit of nostalgia to your projects?

WF: ‘My own personal vision of the countryside could easily tend towards nostalgia. But I am constantly stopped in my tracks by the reality that comes from all the interactions. There is an awareness of history in the work we do, an awareness of change. In the past, eighty percent of villagers were producers, right there on their home turf. The artist in his studio was also a producer. That small scale, the sense that you are very close to your own product, might be a bit nostalgic. But I believe that art is a place where you can show that and highlight the dilemmas it raises. There is something Utopian about our work, I think. There is hope in that rural environment, a cultural well that will never dry up, and the strength that comes from creating something together. Now – thank goodness – there is more sharing in art. When I was a student, the tendency was to keep your ideas to yourself and there was a strong emphasis on exclusivity. But I don’t believe that this is where the strength of art lies. It lies in creating things together, sharing ideas and questioning your identity and beliefs. What is creation? What is culture? Keep asking yourself these questions, but put them to other people as well. That is something I still believe in. It might sound a bit old-fashioned to some people, but I think it will last.’

AW: You said that when you first started, the art world and the social debate revolved mainly around urban themes, but now there is much more interest in local themes and artisanship. Is rural life making a comeback?

WF: ‘Well, I don’t know if rural life as such is making a comeback, but there is certainly a growing interest in rural themes. We do not make statements or ethical judgements with our projects. Our aim is to make things visible, to represent and define together what needs to be shown. We work, for example, with farmers whose meat we would not eat, but we still find the process interesting to see. The dilemmas of those farmers are just as interesting as those of organic farmers. That might explain why people don’t read much of a political message in our work. In my opinion, the political message is not that I pretend to be the best agriculturalist – which I am not – but rather that I am working in the rural domain, which is still largely regarded as part of the cultural periphery. And in the fact that we are three women; because the rural domain has traditionally been dominated by male imagery. The rough side of rural existence. The political message also lies in the fact that we portray daily life without making judgements.’

AW: Looking back, what do you regard as most special about this project in Beetsterzwaag?

WF: ‘The total commitment of the group. People thought long and hard about how all the little things would come together and would not settle for anything less. I’m exactly the same. I push and push until it’s right. There was a lot of that in the group. I liked it. At a certain point all these elements and stories came together. And, we had the good fortune to have a goldsmith in the group, who made the silver case.’

AW: What struck me most in my interviews with you is that this project was not just about the local product, but also the way it evolved. It seems to me that what lies at the core of this project is the collective creative process and the way the different stories and insights eventually converged in Wild Treasure.

WF: ‘Yes, I think that is the essence of art. How you redefine and re-create at a given moment. You build a new relationship with an object or your environment. We have lost sight of that in art because of consumption. Everything revolves around the market. In these processes you make moments of creation special again. That’s the best part. And that, essentially, is why I find this work so interesting. You make a framework where that can happen and, as an experienced creator, you guide it a bit, but you never know when the penny will drop or the flame will ignite. Sharing that with others is a wonderful experience.’

Agnes Winter

Groningen, January 2017

(Translated NL-ENG by Kathleen McMillan, Haarlem NL)