The time in between Godelieve Spaas, Week 8
My first post in this seriesstarted with a photograph of an empty meeting room at Rabobank. Empty buildings fascinate me. There is something desolate about them, something lonely and simultaneously magical. I love thinking about what could happen in all those big, silent rooms. What could be created there? What could I do in them, make in them? In my imagination, I stage a dance performance on the stairs near the main entrance. I curate an exhibition of tableaux vivants, walking dialogues, and artworks from the collection that tell a story about the bank of the future. I picture people spread throughout the building, standing up to share their stories about what this period has meant to them.
It’s a bit similar to what the portraits made by Martin en Inge Riebeek do. Their short films, just a few minutes each, show people speaking directly into the camera and explaining what is essential to their lives. Many of these stories are about change taking place in people themselves or in their surroundings, and what that change means in their daily lives.
Rabo Art Collection, Martin and Inge Riebeek, Ostende, businessman on the beach
The coronavirus pandemic has forced us out of the buildings we work together in. In the bat of an eye, we learn to work remotely, we switch between doing no work and lots of work. We consult each other, talk, drink coffee together, learn, and experiment without touching each other. We navigate a wide variety of platforms, digital meeting rooms, and make more use of convenient and not so convenient tools to collaborate on mind mapping, writing articles, and giving readings. I wonder how that changes people and what it will mean when we slowly start to return to all those deserted buildings.
Do we still need those places? Has this changed us so much that we won’t want them anymore?
Personally, working at home suits me fine. My relationship with my laptop has improved a lot and I’m pretty handy now with Zoom, Skype, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, and all that. I see my co-workers, students, and other artists more than enough.
Two weeks ago I had my first real-life meeting with two co-workers for the first time in ages. Initially I’d resisted because driving an hour there and an hour back struck me as a waste of my time. I finally gave in and a few days later, I got into my car. After two months at home, it honestly felt really odd, but also like an adventure. It was also very strange to have a meeting while social distancing, as we enjoyed the coffee, tea, and lunch we’d brought ourselves.
It was an ordinary meeting: pleasant, not exceptionally interesting. On the way home in the car, I was brimming with energy and felt so happy. At the time, I hadn’t yet made any connection between my good mood and the meeting we’d just had.
Being with People
The university I teach at, Avans, announced last week that we’re going to be working mostly online until at least February 2021. I didn’t mind this news, unlike a lot of my co-workers who were deeply disappointed. They miss their students, their colleagues, the interaction, but most of all they miss the subtlety and adaptivity that working together live makes possible. Ine Mols recorded a poignant and beautiful spoken word poem about that. When I listened to it I cried, for myself and for her, even though I didn’t fully understand why.
Last weekend I slept in a hotel again, went for a good walk, and out to eat. As I sat reading and drinking my tea outside, I could hear the leaves rustling in the wind, mixed with the murmur of people talking, bits of conversation between other guests in the outdoor seating area. And then I felt joy literally flowing into my body. I was so indescribably happy. That’s when I realized that simply being around other people does so much for my mood. Just being a part of shared little habits and experiences. Sharing pieces of daily life: eating together, feeling the same sun on your skin, seeing the same light sparkle through the same trees. It’s no problem for me to work remotely—I may even be more efficient that way—but it brings me less happiness and gives me less energy.
Working remotely allows me to look at my work from a distance. It’s like looking at the world through binoculars. People, events, and activities all at a remove from me; I have no direct relationship to them at all, I gaze at them like a spectator. Distance is not strange to me as a researcher. It’s actually comfortable.
But it’s also so wrong. I want to be a part of what I’m researching. I want to share my findings and develop and experience things with other people that make the world a better place.
For a minute I almost believed that distance worked. But it doesn’t. Not if you want to make a difference. Not if you know that you can move a bigger mountain together than you can alone.
Looking for Paradise
Working at home has its benefits, certainly. And sometimes it’s a better fit, sometimes it isn’t. Should we leave all those buildings empty?
On top of Rabobank’s offices on the Croeselaan in Utrecht, a neon work by Martin and Inge Riebeek flashes the words “Imagine” and “Being There” in alternation. In this artwork, the artist duo raises the question of what Paradise might look like.
Rabo Kunstcollectie, Martin en Inge Riebeek, 2005
The contrast between Paradise and most office buildings couldn’t be bigger. A garden of Eden, abundant and beautiful, versus a building filled with boredom, defined by uniformity and scarcity.
Most of us work in enormous buildings, endless open-plan offices, impersonal conference rooms, endless cafeterias. These places don’t reduce the distance between people, in fact, they may increase it. The coronavirus has revealed to me how important it is to have places we can meet each other, share experiences, end up in casual conversation, and places where small rituals and habits can form. In short, we need buildings arranged around beauty instead of efficiency, buildings which aren’t uniform but subtle, adaptive, and proportionate to the needs of the people who use them and the human desire for shared experiences and togetherness.
Imagine being There
Will there ever be such heavenly work environments? The 6th-century Irish monk Brendan set out from his home on the west coast of Ireland in search of an island which was supposedly heaven on earth. This island was depicted on many ancient maps but the exact location was never specified. People say Columbus went looking for the same island.
Rabo Kunstcollectie Brendan’s Isle by Fiona Tan 2010
Brendan undertook a dangerous journey by sea, facing bitter cold and treacherous conditions, but he never found the mythical island named after him. Perhaps it’s not about finding paradise after all, but really about looking for it.
We should make new types of work spaces. Let’s start with looking, making, experimenting with, and experiencing what works and what doesn’t work. Less is more, I’d imagine, so smaller, more intimate, and in the middle of the action. Abundance is important too: there should be lots of different spots and places, many types of beauty, and above all, a lot of sharing. Maybe we could combine all offices and make them communal. So we can be in all sorts of places, exchange, experience, and work together. Like Brendan, let’s go on an adventure to discover and create places where we want to be together to organize the good life.
ZMartin and Inge Riebeek spoke about the impact of the coronavirus crisis in an interview available on the website of the Stedelijk Museum Breda.