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Art & Design Education

How will our covid-generation art & design graduates shape tomorrow?


Willem de Kooning graduation exposition review after lockdown­­

This weekend was the last day of the first onsite art & design graduation exposition of the Willem De Kooning Academy (WdKA) in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. It was the first time since the lockdown that the academy could provide an onsite exposition in the building. The show presented graduates from 2020 and 2021. I took in the exhibits and share my thoughts about some of the projects of our 150 graduates. Additional information about each project can be found in the online graduation catalogue.


I was curious to find out how these graduates who struggled through the covid-pandemic would position themselves in this exposition. My first impression was a strong sense of awareness of today’s global challenges and an eagerness and sincerity to take part in shaping or saving tomorrow’s world. Or in the words of one of the visitors: “there seemed to be no interest to celebrate sex and alcohol this year”.  If anything, these graduates cannot be accused of being too self-centered or naive. It made me reflect on whether their relationship with the outside world is how today’s graduates measure themselves.


Family and relationships were some of the themes I first identified. Frank Stok shares a letter to his ‘mom’ and presents visual translations of memories of his mother, who passed away 14 years ago. Emily Roberts-Allen presents a guilt-blanket depicting herself with her mom, as part of research into stepmother/daughter relationships. Jip van de Beek had a project Like Mothers, Like Daughters that explores the influence that generations have had on their bond. Parental relationships also play a role in the documentary Aftercare, which poses the question: “what education is needed in figuring out what it means to be queer?” by Mauk van Emmerik. Julia Gat provides insight into the daily childhood life of five unschooling siblings through photography and film. With her project Hamsa, Hamsa, Hamsa, she invites us to reimagine the practice of learning. She states: “Growing up in the specific open context of alternative education initiated a conscious desire to open up a dialogue about the complex, layered issue of tomorrow’s schooling and the ways we perceive learning as we move towards a rapidly changing future”. Relationships could also be about ‘the other’. Like illustrator Katta Rasche  who provides food for thought for the young adventurer to travel consciously. In her project The Orientourist she tries to demystify predefined assumptions about the Other‘, the world, and our own position in the global context.


Another theme was materials. These projects were often embedded in a larger social context. Product designer Steffie Peters wants to create awareness about the value of our materials. In her project Harvest, she questions the way society deals with materials and explores new ways in which local materials can be harvested. “Harvesting no longer has to be done from a field of sheep, but can now be done from other sources that are created by mass production and mass consumption”. Another example of this is the project Fir(e) by Roy the Regt. Roy sees wood as a CO2 depot and has developed new types of building constructions for the use of spruce timber. This is the cheapest and least durable type of wood and is in his view currently undervalued. Shanti Versnel explains her research into Dutch wool: It is about a product and its lifecycle, giving insight into the time and labor invested by the people that keep an old craft alive today”.  Though these projects seem to focus on specific materials one could argue they are actually about relationships too.


The most prominent theme of the exposition was activism. Activism in Wikipedia’s description: “there was a visible effort to promote, impede, direct, or intervene in social, political, economic, or environmental reform with the desire to make changes in society toward a perceived greater good”. If there was a red line that connected all projects it was the graduate’s ambition to raise their voice, claim space and take the streets. Sometimes inconspicuously and sometimes bold and loud. Claire Ouwejan presented her Dark Matters installation with which she wants to inform us about the binary narrative of day and night in the western canon. Amrith Zoete created an installation Foreign Object,  based upon techniques and materials of the pig-slaughterhouse. He wants us to re-evaluate the current food production methods through materials, techniques and behavior. Koen van Rijn intervenes in public spaces with his project Building Walls. By copying/re-contextualizing materials and objects from the municipality, he presents his inconspicuous works in public spaces.


Other forms of activism were more confrontational. Repelsteeltje describes herself as: “a squatter, anarcha-feminist and activist constantly researching and fighting the harm this white suprematist capitalist patriarchy does to me and the people around me”. Julian Crestian has a frame in his video that says: “the work is not finished because I had to make rent”. He explains his project (Anansi and the cuckoo in their tower)  is “a reflection on personal and social aspects of living in a time of precarity within this capitalist post-colonial society”. The Zebra Machine is a bold act of activism by Lieke van de Meer. She took her bike mobile to reclaim the streets on a quest to draw many more zebra crossings to stimulate change in the public space. And sometimes activism can be smooth and clever like the carpets of Elnaz Assar that show that going to a protest or calling your local politician is no longer the only way to raise your voice particularly in Iran”.


Critical views towards the world and the awareness of today’s challenges were also represented in the virtual world. Maria Mombers , a multi-disciplinary illustrator, designed a workshop in collaboration with MAMA Rotterdam. They invited digital natives (age 12-23) to create their ‘perfect virtual world’ as a tool to stimulate self-expression. Graphic Designer Rodrigo Cardoso reimagines the internet as two opposite and extreme versions of itself. The project includes an experimental handbook for internet autonomy with a critical reflection on online experiences. Multiple graduates warn of the dangers of algorithms. Ruben Staps criticizes temporary digital culture with his research into online identity in the age of biometric surveillance technology. He says: “being seen alive is being reduced to information, that is used to govern our lives”. Suze Hoek created an online platform in which she ‘provokes the algorithm’. Game developers who have constructed interactive online worlds are critical too. The game characters of Maya Bloem and Jackie Stam’s game state: “they struggle with their feelings of their ancestors who destroyed the climate and the biodiversity of their home”. Hannah Sterke, an advertising creative, warns us with her project Go Back to the Kitchen about toxicity towards women in the online gaming world.


However diverse and different each of the individual projects was, I felt a strong relatedness in all of them. Like the project, CORALation by Sophia Bernson illustrates each project allows us to feel the urgency and remind us of our shared responsibilities in today’s world. Or the project by Adara Godschalk (a.k.a ‘A.God’) who lay between the paint and her canvas every day for the duration of the event. She lay there to show us her devotion and obsession and to share the value there is in chaos and uncertainty. As challenging, chaotic, and uncertain as to the future maybe it’s their time now. However, we want to interpret time, like dual-degree graduate Eveline Duim questions in her research project The Missing Time. For these graduates, it was the time in which covid-19 was introduced. Based upon the exposition I believe this development has raised the awareness among them that to shape or save the world we have to speak up and work on our relationships. I look forward to continuing to follow the development of this eager and bold next generation of artists & designers. And I thank them for their dedication and commitment to contribute to our world.

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