The building Het HEM opened in June earlier this year (2019), and since visiting in July I have been telling everyone who visits Amsterdam (and people who already live here) to check it out for themselves. But each time I find it hard to pin-point exactly what it is. Is it a museum with a bar? Is it a gallery with a nightclub? Is it a place to eat and read? It’s all these and more; its impossible to pin-point exactly what it is (for arguments sake, let’s call it a cultural space but this doesn’t really do it justice). However, this is what makes it great and it’s why you should experience it for yourself. It isn’t actually in Amsterdam and it’s a bit of a journey away by bike and/or ferry but I think that only adds to its allure.
As I said, I visited Het HEM in July for their opening exhibition: each exhibition a chapter which tells a story. The first was Chapter 1NE, curated by Edson Sabajo and Guillaume Schmidt from Amsterdam fashion brand Patta, which gave new insights into hip-hop’s culture and also how culture takes shape in communities: developing through inspiration, influence and application.
“In Chapter 1NE, Edson and Guillaume gave Het HEM a welcoming start, one that will have long-lasting resonance”
Kim Tuin, Director Het HEM
Read more about Chapter 1NE here.
For Chapter 2WO, the Chilean-American artist and composer Nicolás Jaar was invited to curate the space. Jaar is renowned for layered and complex compositions and for his musical versatility; over the last decade he has been a significant innovator within the electronic music scene. In the first meeting with Jaar, he quoted Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, an American professor of Anthropology when he said “Don’t look ahead, look around”. According to anthropologist Anna Tsing, “by exploring the ‘livelihoods’ around us, we can better understand how economic and ecological tensions affect our shared environment and how we can work toward a more pollution-resilient ecosystem.”
Chapter 2WO was not an exhibition which opened on the first day and stayed the same until the end. Part of the exhibition was Jaar’s interaction with the space and surrounding area. His fourteen-week stay in Zaandam will was an intensive exploration of the site: the Hembrug. Together with a team of young scientists* (the Shock Forest Group — named after the nearby ‘Schokbos’, more on this later) he conducted research into Het HEM, from which the site’s historical, sociological, archaeological and geographical data served as the source material for the work he produced both about and from the location where it is played.
“Our current time is dominated by rational knowledge of data and facts. Hard certainties and alternative facts are difficult to tell apart, and although we are increasingly measuring and looking, we seem to have forgotten how to know things. What role can music play in this? As a form of communication that goes beyond facts, words, gestures, music penetrates deeply into our being and touches emotional understanding within us.”
The starting point for the this research was the immediate surroundings, that of Het HEM and the Hembrugterrein. For this exhibition and exploration it’s important to understand the basic history of this site.
“At the Hembrug site in Zaandam, behind high fences and strict security, the Artillery Establishments from 1895 produced firearms, artillery and ammunition for the Dutch army. In 2003 the site’s military functions were suspended and the first artists and creatives came to settle. A decade later, a few entrepreneurs followed after the government’s go-ahead to redevelop the site into a residential and recreational area.
Since 2017, Amerborgh International has been the owner of the former munitions factory on this site, a two-hundred-metre-long white building from 1956 on the banks of the North Sea Canal. In 2018, Het HEM BV was founded as a subsidiary of Amerborgh to give the munitions factory new purpose as a meeting place for contemporary culture.
The controversial history and origin of the industrial area provides a contrasting framework for questioning the role of people and society. The expansion of the city of Amsterdam to Zaandam and the gentrification process that this entails also give direction to our programme.”
Part of the history of this site, and an important factor of this exhibition is the Schokbos aka the Shock Forest, a forest which was planted in the 1920s, north of the Het HEM building and other factories. It was intended as a buffer between the factories and the residential areas and was also used for ammunition tests as well as storing munitions and explosives. This forest is what gave Jaar’s research group its name: the Shock Forest Group. Was this forest made to benefit the nearby residents, insulating the sound from the factories? Or was it made to hide what was being made here from the general public—in essence machines and supplies which fuelled wars and death around the world.
It is interesting to think about if the people who built and used this forest for these purposes realised that they were damaging the environment in such a way. The story of the site is very much told in the language of humans (people, production movement) in this era of human induced ecological crisis: the Anthropocene. But it is not just humans who we should listen to.
Non humans are an integral part of the site. This shock forest, which took the brunt of explosions and storing of munitions, remained polluted and contaminated long after the industrial activities stopped in 2003. In remediating the soil† many trees were cut, the Shock Forest Group could see from each tree’s natural archive (its tree rings) how the trees were affected by the climate, insects, production, sales and in general, humans. Such data from these trees was been translated into data and sound.
The story of Het HEM was and is to be heard from all perspectives.
The findings of the Shock Forest Group were displayed in several spaces in Het HEM and consisted of a number of newspaper clippings which explored the actions of and against the munitions companies in the area, graphics and logos related to the companies, physical cuttings of trees showing their rings and how they dealt with the pollution and other sound-based pieces.
*The Shock Forest Group consists of Katya Abazajian (🇺🇸 1993), Sheryn Akiki (🇱🇧 1993), Pantxo Bertin (🇫🇷 1991), Axel Coumans (🇳🇱 1993), Paula Dooren (🇳🇱 1992), Susanna Gonzo (🇮🇹 1990), Pamela Jordan (🇺🇸 1981), Daria Kiseleva (🇷🇺 1989), Erica Moukarzel (🇺🇸 1993), Simon Skata Lindell (🇸🇪 1989), Sjoerd Smit (🇳🇱 1991) and Bert Spaan (🇳🇱 1982). They are a group of cartographers, linguists, coders, sound makers, biologists, geneticists, graphic designers and engineers.
† This area was remediated with a view for future recreational use.
As well as this physical and sound-based response to the area, Jaar and Stockholm based, Vincent de Belleval produced the site-specific piece of work: Retaining the Energy but Losing the Image. This is a multi-sensory installation consisting of ten rotating rotating reflectors (parabolas) which capture and emit sound and light. I got to experience this artwork at night, in the dark and with the company of one other person, allowing us to experience the purest version of it.
It was a somewhat eerie experience, these rotating machines are like robots, which randomly created obscure and ominous yet soothing sounds. Standing high up and looking down, it was possible to see all ten moving in unison.
“Sound is spatial. Just like light, it has a source, but it also spreads everywhere around us, creating interactions and forms of intimacy. With music, we tend to focus entirely on the source. This is like looking directly at the sunlight. The glare means you no longer see how the rays reflect in the space around you.
They (the rotating reflectors) create an ever-changing environment of interlinked reflections and feedback chains. The title alludes to light and sound diffusion, signifying how the energy of the sound and light is kept in its reflections but not in its source. Due to their parabolic shape, the reflectors can also vocalize sound, creating hallucinatory surrounding fields.”
Throughout Amsterdam Dance Event, this space and reflectors were the setting for numerous musical performances by Jaar and his contemporaries, each night adding a different perspective to the piece, some of which can be seen in this video. [6.20–10.12]
Similar to Chapter1NE, Chapter 2WO was quite vague… but in a good way, it asked more questions than it answered and left me on a trail to discover more through my own research.
Chapter 2WO was on display from September – December 21 2019. The next chapter, Chapter 3HREE will be curated by the art director and stylist Maarten Spruyt.
“The group exhibition featuring more than 20 works of art takes the impressive architecture of HEM as a basis for experiential program. Mostly installed in the 200-meter long underground shooting gallery, we present a literal experience tunnel vision, which seems endless and hopeless in the beginning, but gradually becoming more pleasant.”