In reaction to the first measures against the spread of corona in Belgium, the Flemish-Dutch house of culture and debate deBuren set up an online platform where reactions of artists to the bundle ‘Bezette Stad’ by Paul van Ostaijen and the situation around de corona crisis were posted. The digital city was aptly named ‘De Besmette Stad’ and grew out to be a project that is still being developed, making it difficult, but exciting, to predict the impact it will have on its employees, artists, audiences and the future.
The Flemish-Dutch house of culture and debate deBuren is an organisation established in 2004 by the Dutch and Flemish government to celebrate and promote the shared language and culture of the Low Countries. It endorses a great number of projects concentrated on (but not limited to) imparting the public with knowledge on- and love for the Dutch literature and the Low Countries culture. They also foster a number of talent development projects aimed mostly at young writers and photographers and make public participation possible by organizing writing contests and debates. Their online presence predates the Coronacrisis: the vast collection of podcasts, articles and more has been a big part of their collection for years.
deBuren operates from the Belgian city Brussels, but their physical presence crosses that boundary often: from their ‘writing residence’ in Paris to lectures, debates and poetry readings all over Belgium and the Netherlands. Aforementioned are often recorded and published online after the fact – together with their vast and continuously updated podcasts, lectures and articles amounts to a huge collection on Low Countries culture accessible for everyone who wants to read, listen or practice.
The organisation is originally funded by the Dutch- and Flanders government, but they themselves seek additional funds for specific projects, whether temporarily or more permanent, stretched over the years. The organization consists of about 17 staff members but employs a lot of additional staff for the execution of their projects, ranging from artists to audio engineers. The same goes for partners: a lot of the projects deBuren undertakes are in cooperation with different organisations relevant for the project at the time. This way the organisation develops and maintains a lot of relationships within the cultural world.
‘Contaminated City’ (‘Besmette Stad’) is a multimedial online project started by the Flemish-Dutch organisation deBuren, which aims to respond to the Coronacrisis and the ramifications of it for human lives. Inspiration for this project was drawn from the Dadaist classic ‘Occupied City’ (Bezette Stad) by Paul van Ostaijen, a bundle of poems distinguished by its rhythmical typography, coincidentally created 100 years ago in 1920.
The idea this project began with deBuren’s Director Willem Bongers-Dek and writer Matthijs de Ridder. On March the 13th, the day Belgium went in lockdown, Bongers-Dek texted de Ridder, who has been working on a biography on Paul van Ostaijen, about creating a podcast called ‘Besmette Stad’. The wordplay on the original title of the bundle ‘Bezette Stad’ by Ostaijen was enough to convince de Ridder, and the project started. Soon evolving from a podcast to a digital city, more than 60 artists were asked to react to a portion of the bundle in their own way (what turned out to be a group of about 120) – the result is a website that both celebrates Paul van Ostaijen’s masterpiece while capturing the spirit of a society in lockdown.
The project wasn’t -and isn’t- limited to its online presence: in the beginning stage of the project, in order to further the immersion for artists and public alike, 29 online reading sessions were arranged. These ‘bookclubs’, in addition, were montaged and published in video’s that still can be viewed today in order to construe the creation process. The project generated a lot of interest with similar institutions and gives way to interorganisational collaboration, both online and in real life. deBuren reported additionally collaborating with institutions such as ‘De Brakke Grond’ (a Flemish house of culture), ‘Eye filmmuseum’ (based in Amsterdam) and held an online lecture in Pakhuis de Zwijger (also based in Amsterdam). Most importantly, they soon went hand in hand with the Paul van Ostaijen Society, and with this collaboration gained even more traction in their project. In fact, the project was such a success a mobile educational installation will be travelling through Belgium, the Netherlands and even Germany this year. As of the writing of this text, two books have come out and one is on the way.
The immense size this project grew into made that it had an impact on innumerable people. With the enormous amount of reactions from artists, institutions and the public, the text from Bongers-Dek to de Ridder turned out to be a project we luckily haven’t seen the end of yet, and provides us with a contemporary view on real time human reactions to the coronacrisis.
Because of the immense size this initiative has grew into, the impact that it has had (and still has) is difficult to describe. To begin, it has breathed life back into the work of poet Paul van Ostaijen and has made it more accessible and relatable to people who would have never come into contact with it otherwise. That in itself is a feat, but that is not all.
Impact on the artists
The project has given artists the chance to express themselves in the context of Paul van Ostaijen’s bundle, to give way to their feelings surrounding the crisis they faced themselves in the light of a crisis a century ago. It not only gave them purpose in an uncertain time, but also bread on the table – financial security was one of the concerns a lot of self-employed people had. The results are as human as all of our experiences, and in turn, bring the public a birds-eye view of a society in lockdown to which we can all relate to.
Impact on the public
There have been a lot of products that have come out of this initiative. One of them is a walk through Antwerpen along the sites Paul van Ostaijen wrote about, first used to further inspire the artists that worked on their version of some of van Ostaijen’s work, but later accessible for everyone. deBuren reported that teachers of all types of schools made grateful use of this for their lessons and commented on their relief on the wider availability of material the project created. [Number of visitors to the website/24 hours of Paul van Ostaijen to be added]Impact on the organisation
The initial text exchange between Bongers-Dek and de Ridder has turned out to be the start of one of the most successful projects deBuren has ever had. The project, that already is immense, will grow even still: there are plans for multiple exhibitions in Germany, accompanied by the translation of the collection of reactions the artists made in the beginning. The website is going to be made more diverse in its useability and converted to a more sustainable webpage to conserve it for the future. We don’t know how much further this project will go, but it is certain we haven’t seen the end of ‘De Besmette Stad’ yet.
The original idea for ‘De Besmette Stad’, whether it was a podcast, or later a collection of reactions from artists to the coronavirus based on van Ostaijen’s classic bundle, has grown out of its proportions. It is amazing that a simple play on words has caused such a movement towards the recognition of a 100 year old bundle and a contemporary piece of art in which so many artists contributed to a (hopefully) lasting documentation of the human experience during the corona crisis.
- Bongers-Dek, W. (Director of deBuren) and M. de Ridder (Writer and coproducer Besmette Stad), interviewed by N. Kaiser on October 21st 2021.
- deBuren, Jaarverslag 2020, (version October 19th, 2021).
- deBuren, “Over ons – over deBuren”, (version October 19th 2021)
- Paul van Ostaijen Genootschap, “Occupied City”, (version October 21st 2021).
Nina Kaiser (Quiosq))