Margaret van Eyck — Renaming an Institution, a Case Study
What does it mean to rename an institution? Some thoughts on the power of words, on thinking and working together, and on making books.
The Beginning / A Beginning
On May 13, 1948, three men (Leo Willem Linssen, Emile Clément Mathieu Alphonse Batta, and Gerardus Peter Johannes van Meyel) gathered at a Maastricht notary’s office, with a capital of one hundred Dutch guilders, to set up the Sint Bernulphus Stichting (Verleger 2018a: 34). The aim of this foundation was, according to the founding charter, to establish a Catholic academy of fine and applied arts, to be called Jan van Eyck Academie. Named after the Renaissance painter from Maaseik, a village north of Maastricht, the institute was originally conceived as a counterpart to the non-denominational Rijksakademie in Amsterdam (founded in 1870).
Almost thirteen years later, on January 14, 1961, the Jan van Eyck Academie moved into its new building on Academieplein 1, designed by Modernist architect Frits Peutz. As part of a well-documented procession throughout the academy,¹ the bishop of Roermond, Pieter Jan Antoon Moors, blessed the building (Verleger 2018a: XXII–XXV), after which Ynso Scholten, state secretary of the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture, and Science, addressed the audience with a speech (Verleger 2018a: XXVI–XXVII). [Fig. 7 ↓]
Finally, another 56 years later, in April 2017, I moved my studio to Maastricht to work at an institution in that very same building, now called Van Eyck — Multiform Institute for Fine Art, Design and Reflection. “Jan” had disappeared; quite literally even from the academy’s outside wall. However, new names had appeared in the meantime, on the inside: Charles, Heimo, Hubert, Jac[obus], Pierre, and Werner — local Limburg figures chosen to lend their names to the institution’s newly structured “labs,”² i.e. the academy’s workshops and library. An all-male lineup. Unintendedly fitting for an academy that is run entirely by men (on the level of management, cf. the positions of Director, Business Manager, and Head of Artistic Programme³), one might think, yet utterly disturbing at the same time.
Out of this wonderment — and annoyance — Margaret was born. Initiated at Van Eyck academy in Maastricht, the Netherlands, in April 2017, Margaret van Eyck developed into an ongoing, collaborative art and research project at the intersection of feminist intervention, institutional critique, and the politics of (re-)naming.
What was a design fiction first, a cheaply printed, black-and-white Photoshop collage [Fig. 15 ↓], hung on my studio wall inside the academy (Verleger 2018a: X–XI), soon leapt into reality: After some weeks of research and conversations, Margaret vinyl letters were installed above the painted Van Eyck lettering (Verleger 2018a: 182) next to the main entrance on May 12, 2017 [Fig. 1 ↑]; marking the 69th anniversary of the founding charter’s signing on May 13, 1948. Soon, more names followed: Anne, Elsa, Luzia, Thérèse, and Wilhelmina joined their male counterparts throughout the building, as well as on the institution’s website.⁴
And although Margaret vanished from the façade (Verleger 2018a: XIII–XVII) after a brief existence of only eleven days (due to a layer of anti-graffiti paint on the wall), her ghost and the additional lab names created a parallel world, a field for discussions, questions, and confusion — which was only resolved two months later, on July 11, when the official opening of Margaret van Eyck Academie took place. Besides an extensive procession of a collective body moving through the institution and repeatedly performing a series of rituals to re-appropriate the building (Verleger 2018a: 117–130), a temporary intervention at the library took place (Verleger 2018a: 131–164), and a series of “side effects” was caused (Verleger 2018a: 165–173).
From Fiction to Reality
The whole process and effort mentioned above was characterized by a radical openness and a productive indefiniteness. A participatory and adaptive process, the idea of Margaret van Eyck proved to be both an observation tool and a trigger for discussions. (And change, ultimately.) These ideals, which have been an integral part of the project from the very beginning, are being upheld within the structure and design of the two publications (Verleger 2018a, 2018b) edited in 2018 that document Margaret van Eyck. [Fig. 5 ↑]
The printed book as a “space-time sequence” (Carrión 1975: 7) provides a much more durable frame for reflections, connections, and questions — thus allowing for the project to both reach a wider audience and to make a lasting impact beyond the site-specific installations and ephemeral performances that took place at Van Eyck during the one-year period from April 1, 2017, and March 31, 2018. The publication is split into two volumes, which, conceptually, is very much in line with the project’s overall approach of commenting on existing (institutional) structures and adding new layers of meaning. Just like the academy itself, the publications are of multiform nature, analogous to the “cellular and porous structure that typifies the openness of the Van Eyck.”⁵
The first, Volume One: Research, Interventions, and Effects (Verleger 2018a), was published in March 2018. It is a primarily visual (i.e. pictorial) “essay” that comprises of research material (found in the archive and library of Van Eyck, different Maastricht institutions, and online), work process documentation, as well as project-related ephemera; all documenting the site-specific installations and ephemeral performances that took place at Van Eyck during the aforementioned one-year period. Besides, it also contains five bespoke biographical poems by Bernke Klein Zandvoort (Verleger 2018a: 51, 67, 79, 95, 111) [Fig. 8 ↑] and an alternative version of Le Tigre’s 1999 song Hot Topic, rewritten by Jessica Segall (Verleger 2018a: 133–154).
The second and final volume, Comments, Contexts, and Connections (Verleger 2018b), functions as a commentary on what is documented in the first one. It is what could be called a sourcebook, a collection of “readings” and contextualizations of the project Margaret van Eyck. Taking Volume One as a point of departure, it contains a series of texts (ranging from academic papers, to essays, conversations, and poems) by a variety of international protagonists from within and outside of the institution: Afro Xylanthé, Alexandra Phillips, An Onghena, Dominique Hurth, Hagen Verleger, Katherine MacBride, Levi de Kleer, Luca Soudant, Madelon Hooykaas, Martino Morandi, Matylda Krzykowski, Mia Melvær, Nick Currie, Nina Glockner, Raewyn Martyn, and Sachi Miyachi. All of their contributions are referencing Margaret van Eyck in one way or another — from explicitly examining (even problematizing) specific dynamics within the project to tangentially suggesting kindred ways of thinking in their own practice:
- Artist Madelon Hooykaas revisited a 1994 text by Elsa Stansfield and herself. Under its new title, Working Together, this poetic exploration sets the tone for the whole volume — with key words such as “journey,” “desire,” “patience,” and “pursuit” triggering a stream of associations and connections regarding the other contributions included in this book. By adding an exclamation mark to the title, it comes to function as the project’s motto, both ideologically, and as a very practical method of resistance: Working together! (Verleger 2018b: 17–20)
- Providing an overview of the project, whilst knowingly digressing, A Conversation About Margaret took place in Brussels on March 13, 2018, between Katherine MacBride, Mia Melvær, Martino Morandi, and Hagen Verleger. Its form pursues the overall project’s dialogical and processual nature: the conversation, once transcribed, has been subsequently edited, revised, and commented upon by all four authors. The resulting text organically covers a diverse range of topics related to Margaret van Eyck, from the Anarcha Gland Project and Wikipedia, to Belgian women’s and lesbian archives, and beyond. (Verleger 2018b: 21–54) [Fig. 9 ↓]
- Book designer and researcher Hagen Verleger reflects on an artifact presented in Volume One. Uncovering the etymological roots of the terms at play, “transgression” and “conglomerate,” his short essay links a geoscience phenomenon to philosophical contemplations on the metaphorical qualities of Margaret van Eyck. (Verleger 2018b: 55–60)
- In dense prose form, artist and writer Katherine MacBride addresses the Library Intervention that took place at Thérèse Cornips Lab in July 2017. Granularly getting into the sweatiness of this group effort, MacBride’s solidarity in sites of temporary hospitality, do what you can with what you’ve got describes the encounters in the library and observes how “making change is dirty, tiring, boring, upsetting, enraging, finding your allies. Unending.” The writing — absorbed, immersed, yet excursive, volatile; earnest and angry — ends with two stage directions, suggesting it to be a script awaiting further performance. (Verleger 2018b: 61–73)
- Artist Dominique Hurth, reworking material of previous research and performative work (which used the format of guided tours of museums), highlights artistic strategies of “parasitizing” institutions from within. As a result, Hurth’s panels, visually referencing photographic contact prints and Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, point towards a rewriting of history, towards a personal feminist art historiography beyond the usual canon of the white Western male “genius.” (Verleger 2018b: 75–88)
- Artists Nina Glockner and Levi de Kleer met in August 2018 to discuss Building as Body, or: How to Defenestrate Gender by Doubling it. Based on their own experiences, they draw connections between self and institution, body and building, fiction and reality — thus providing a perspective on the politics of naming and gender that synthesizes the personal and the public. An intricate illustration by artist Sachi Miyachi mirrors these thoughts on a visual level. (Verleger 2018b: 89–113) [Fig. 13 ↓]
- The condensed writing of artist Alexandra Phillips’ essay Mary, Jackie, Penn and Grand Central is concerned with the way women have been remembered in history: Margaret as the kin of Jan, Mary Cassatt as the sister of robber baron Alexander Cassatt, Jacqueline as the wife of Kennedy and Onassis. The meandering paths and (seemingly) loose connections are based on Phillips’ research — an excerpt of which she invites the reader to explore in the text’s postscript. (Verleger 2018b: 115–120) [Fig. 10 ↓]
- A conversation about pay equity for female rugby players led artist and researcher Raewyn Martyn to write Elite Professional Players, an essay structured into three sections — titled “Elites,” “Exceptionalism,” and “Infatuations” — that effortlessly links a vast variety of topics: from thoughts about the value of work, visibility within institutions, and representation to ruminations about troubled aspects of Margaret van Eyck and the power of questioning. (Verleger 2018b: 121–136)
- In her short prose piece Dubitable Advice, writer Afro Xylanthé interweaves two different narrative threads into one polyphonic Barthesian “text-tissue”: A transcript of TV commentary on a women’s football match, and the scene that unravels among V, S, and A while watching said game in a domestic setting. (Verleger 2018b: 137–140)
- Researcher Luca Soudant focuses on the “feminist doings” of the sticker material used in Margaret van Eyck. Introducing the vinyl letters applied throughout the academy — Margaret, Luzia, Wilhelmina, Thérèse, Anne Pétronille, and Elsa — as “noise-parasites” within the institution allows Soudant to position them as agentic feminist matter. Soudant comes up with a “de-anthropocentrized” version of Sara Ahmed’s feminist killjoy, and subjects it to Karen Barad’s concept of intra-acting, which ultimately leads them to a conclusion in the form of a critical call-to-action. (Verleger 2018b: 141–169)
Besides the ones mentioned above, there are three more contributions that are located at the peripheries of the actual book — each of them for a distinct aesthetic and conceptual reason:
- Designer and curator Matylda Krzykowski devotes a particularly meaningful space within the book to the late artist Marianne Eigenheer (1945–2018): a quote by Eigenheer spans across the inside front and back covers. This bracket frames the book, situated in a space of trespassing and transgressing alike — a space between the outside and the inside, the world and the book, the cover and the content, the reader and the author. Decidedly personal, Krzykowski’s dedication functions as both a universal wake-up call as well as an intimate commemoration of a truly exceptional artist.
- The contribution of songwriter and author Nick Currie (a.k.a. Momus) is hiding in plain sight: Currie, whose quote about parallel worlds is among the original inspirations for Margaret van Eyck, has written fictitious biographies for each contributor to this book. They are mingling uncommented with the actual ones, turning part of the Vitae section into a parallel world of its own. (Verleger 2018b: 172–181) [Fig. 11 ↑]
- Artist and graphic designer An Onghena has created a series of five different bookmarks to accompany the Margaret books. A useful tool in itself, a bookmark usually exists in a state of in-between: both inside and outside of the book, linking it to its reader and to different ways of use. The Margaret bookmarks carry collages on one side, and on the other side a short text analyzing the systems of power within the 1970s printing industry — serving as a link to Onghena’s original contribution to the opening of Margaret van Eyck Academie on July 11, 2017: a series of mimeograph prints produced live on location.
“But why make a book⁶ in the first place?” (Or rather two books, that is.) This question was triggered by a former Van Eyck artist-in-residence whose strong opinions and criticism of Margaret van Eyck were brought to my attention by hearsay⁷ recently. The concern they voiced, apparently, was specifically about the project manifesting itself in the form of a printed publication and that, by doing so, it was using — and thus abusing — “feminism”⁸ as mere “content” for a supposedly superficial graphic design project that is nothing but an exercise in style.
The short answer to that question (“Why make a book?”) is: I am a book designer. This is what I do. Making books — conceiving, editing, designing, publishing — is my practice, my way of making sense. (Or trying to do so, at least.) But since short answers aren’t necessarily the most interesting ones, let’s complicate this a bit by asking another question, pointing into the direction of what the artist I just mentioned brought forward, and taking their criticism seriously: Is making a book not contradictory to the very ideas and ideals of feminism? Is making books not a way of conflicting oneself, and also of being complicit with the updating and continuation of existing narratives and hierarchies in the process of meaning-making that any feminist strives to abolish? Am I not risking to further stabilize structures of exclusion and oppression by participating in a capitalist production model that reduces the book to a mere commodity — when, for instance, Stéphane Mallarmé called it a “spiritual instrument” (Mallarmé 1998: 254) once?
The commercially produced book is a commodity. It is being sold and bought, it lives and circulates within the capitalist system. Margaret van Eyck is no exception in that regard: It was printed at a commercial printing house (without any institutional funding though), it comes with an ISBN, you can order it online⁹ (not on Amazon though), and you can buy it in a selection of independent bookstores and museum shops¹⁰ (in Europe, North America, Asia and Zealandia so far).
The commodification of the book is closely connected to a historic shift in “conceiving of the book as content, rather than object” (Borsuk 2018: 100), a shift that is mainly rooted in the advent of copyright law. Over the past centuries, the material aspects of the book “have been naturalized to such a degree that we now hardly notice them, since we have come to see content as the copyrightable, consumable, marketable aspect of the work” (Borsuk 2018: 109). However, we cannot separate a content from its form and vice versa. They are one. Any “content” is always already presenting itself in a “form,” a form that bears meaning. We cannot not design; in a way, everything is designed, be it consciously or unconsciously. And with that agency comes responsibility on the part of those engaged in the processes of design, in our case: book design. A book is not a text (or “content”) originated by a single author, it is also an object and the result of a complex process of collaboration that includes the spheres of writing, editing, design, printing, binding, publishing, distribution, and reception.
As actors within this network of production, we need to ask: Are we inscribing ourselves into the existing paradigms, or do we use our tools within the process of book-making to dismantle and denaturalize those seemingly stable conventions in a way that renders them visible as what they are: arbitrary and learned codes that signify objectivity, confer legitimacy and, as “authorized forms of expression” (Burdick & Sandhaus 1995: 57), “consolidate claims of cultural power” (McVarish 2010: 300)? On the one hand, “design’s reiteration of ‘seamless’ forms” (McVarish 2010: 300) naturalizes authority, but on the other hand, critical intervention on the level of design potentially “expos[es] the seams [and] undress[es] the power dressing” (Burdick & Sandhaus 1995: 53).
The Margaret van Eyck books, like the initial lettering work which can be seen throughout the building and online still, chose to tackle this task with what can be called a parasitic approach, utilizing a feature of books that Johanna Drucker describes as follows: “Books […] have the power to introduce non-standard thought into the arena of public discourse through the Trojan horse of an ordinary appearance” (Drucker 1998: 178). Just like the vinyl letters were (and are) a virus infecting the omnipresent visual identity of the institution with basic means of graphic design, the books, by presenting themselves to their readers as standardized, commercially produced, perfect-bound paperbacks that easily fit on any shelf and in most pockets, are able to infiltrate the very institutions they critique.¹¹ That way, the books manage to stay under the radar, or rather they manage to “pass”: To pass in both the sense of passing as “just” a book, but also to physically pass institutional thresholds and selection processes, allowing them to end up in libraries, archives, and collections. Thus, ensuring their very survival. (An aspect that is critical to books, who, historically, have proven to be precarious entities.¹²) However, once a book is “out there” in the world, in a reasonable edition, it is virtually impossible to get rid of it again. (Another thing history has proven, gladly.)
This leads us to another aspect closely related to what has been said before: the old idea of the book as a democratic multiple. In a text about artists’ books, Johanna Drucker writes: “The idea of the democratic multiple was one of the founding myths of artists’ books […].” (Drucker 1998: 175). However, according to Drucker, most artists’ books fall short of actually becoming said democratic multiples: Hence the “myth.” The same is true of non-artists’ books, too. They are, to a certain degree, exclusionary as well: In order to engage with a book, you need to be able to see, have vision, and in many cases you need to be literate, formally educated, and of course you need to have the financial means to buy books and/or have access to structures that lend them (cf. Pater 2018: 1). Still, one can argue that books have the potential to become subversive vehicles (think of the Trojan Horse approach) and ideally catalysts of change. By referencing the modernist tradition and using a veil of “seamless” design, as mentioned earlier, to obscure their motives, the Margaret van Eyck publications succeed: They are able to infiltrate and undermine the very systems they critique — and are part of at the same time.
Not the End / Another Beginning
With Volume One almost out of stock and Volume Two out in the world, I am now in the process of researching alternative ways of re-publishing both books. Ways that are possibly more in line with the project’s innate feminist, anti-patriarchal, collective, and processual approach. What could such reissues look like? Where might they take place? In print, in the digital realm? (It is ironic of course, especially in this context, to distribute this very essay via a commercial online publishing platform like Medium.) That aside, another question to be dealt with, and one that is related to accessibility as well, is language: Could there be translations into tongues other than English, even beyond the Western and European scope? How would these translations change the books and the ways in which they are received?
To conclude, these two books are not solely the mere documentation of an ephemeral intervention or an artwork. They are not an endpoint to a project, a carefully designed object that you put on your shelf and feel good about in the sense of “being done with the debate” and “having paid your dues.” Instead, these books — like the vinyl letters — are just one more manifestation of what Margaret van Eyck can be. They are a proposal, they are a weighing up and a fathoming of possibilities. It is up to us to take this idea where we want it to go. Margaret van Eyck can take place at any location, at any time, and can be operated by, in fact, anyone. It is me sitting here today, writing this; and potentially us — you and me — talking about it at some point, to someone (or to each other). It is all the conversations that have taken place and all the shifts in people’s perception they caused, and all the things to come.
Margaret is an intervention.
Margaret is an experiment.
Margaret is an investigation.
Margaret is an idea.
Margaret is a vessel.
Margaret is a mirror.
Margaret is a question.
Margaret is a demand.
Margaret is a gesture.
Margaret is a tool.
Margaret is a parallel world.
This essay is based on a lecture given at Van Eyck academy in Maastricht, the Netherlands, on Sunday, November 18, 2018.
Borsuk, Amaranth (2018): The Book, Cambridge: The MIT Press.
Burdick, Anne / Sandhaus, Louise (1995): “Know Questions Asked,” in: Emigre, issue 34, 52–63.
Carrión, Ulises (1975): “The New Art of Making Books,” in: Kontexts. A Review of Visual / Experimental Poetry and Language Art, issue 6/7, 7–15.
Drucker, Johanna (1998): “The Myth of the Democratic Multiple” , in: Drucker, J. (ed.): Figuring the Word. Essays on Books, Writing, and Visual Poetics, New York: Granary Books, 175–183.
Mallarmé, Stéphane (1998): “Quant au livre / Das Buch betreffend” , in: Goebel, G. / Rommel, B. (eds.): Stéphane Mallarmé. Kritische Schriften, Gerlingen: Lambert Schneider, 232–263.
McVarish, Emily (2010): “The Crystal Goblet: The Underpinnings of Typographic Convention,” in: Design and Culture, volume 2, issue 3, 285–308.
Pater, Ruben (2018): The Politics of Design. A (Not So) Global Manual for Visual Communication  (4th edition), Amsterdam: BIS Publishers.
Verleger, Hagen (ed.) (2018a): Margaret van Eyck — Renaming an Institution, a Case Study (Volume One: Research, Interventions, and Effects), New York: Peradam Press.
Verleger, Hagen (ed.) (2018b): Margaret van Eyck — Renaming an Institution, a Case Study (Volume Two: Comments, Contexts, and Connections), New York: Peradam Press.
 The book, of course, is not only a highly complex, but also “a fluid artifact whose form and usage have shifted over time and under numerous influences: social, financial, and technological.” (Borsuk 2018: xiii). What I refer to as a book here, the printed and bound codex, is but a specific fraction of a range of diverse cultural practices. ↩
 I don’t think I know the person and have only learned about this indirectly, sadly. ↩
 As if there was one such thing like a universally agreed-upon definition of feminism. ↩
 http://margaretvaneyck.tumblr.com/post/172589878175/stockists, accessed: February 14, 2019. ↩
 These design and production decisions are, of course, “calculated, highly determined, aesthetic choices intended to create [a certain] image” (Drucker 1998: 176), as Johanna Drucker puts it. ↩
 “Not only are their physical forms (including the tablet, scroll, codex, and variations) susceptible to decay, their power to spread ideas make them vulnerable to censorship, defacement, and destruction, particularly motivated by ideological and political difference.” (Borsuk 2018: 179). ↩