Niels Bekkema

This essay was written in response to the exhibition “Shyness of the Crowns”, that was curated by Beatriz Alonso. The exhibition was shown in museum Frac Lorraine in Metz, France, among other places. The essay will be published later this year, along with other responses in writing to the exhibition.
Thank you: Matthew Stadler

Straight Roads and Other Ghosts

I still don't know what the phrase “residential counsellor” means, but according to some paperwork I kept, that’s what I was. I helped people who came to the Netherlands looking for asylum. They had a variety of needs. The process of applying for a residence permit began for them with an X-ray. If the doctor found dark spots on their lungs they would be quarantined, because those spots can indicate tuberculosis. Those cleared went through a biometric process that converted highly personal somatic specificities into data, the first steps in becoming a Western bureaucratic entity. All this happened in the north-east of the Netherlands, near the border with Germany, in a complex of concrete buildings that used to belong to the Department of Defence. Some asylum seekers could continue their application there, others were sent to the facility where I worked.

That facility was in a disused prison in the middle-of-nowhere, if such a thing can be said to exist in a small country like the Netherlands. The prison had been abandoned some years before. The refugee crisis of 2014 broke out abruptly and seemed to take everyone by surprise, so only the bare minimum was done to convert the old prison into housing. A tall chain-link fence with barbed wire on top still surrounded the grounds; there were metal poles with closed circuit cameras on every corner; and, the only way in or out was through a high metal gate. It was summer, there were swarms of mosquitoes everywhere, and, to prevent them from entering the bedrooms, mesh nets were taped over the open windows. The refugees had to be told repeatedly that they were not in prison, that, in fact, the gates were all left open. But a fence is a fence; even stripped of its function it preserves the difference between inside and outside. That same summer I read two books, a collection of short stories by Katherine Mansfield, called The Garden Party, and Roland Barthes’ How To Live Together. I didn’t think much of them then, but three years later, while driving from the Netherlands to Metz, France, to see an art exhibition, I realised how reading these texts had combined with my work as a residential counsellor to shape my understanding of borders.

To get to Metz I borrowed my friend’s old Volkswagen. It excited me because, except for the automatic gearbox, it was identical to the model my parents owned when I was growing up. In my childhood summers I sat in the back of that car as my parents took turns driving south, as many middle-class Dutch families did, to France, Switzerland, and sometimes Italy. They planned the trip carefully because nothing annoyed them more than traffic jams. This must have been before 1995. The Schengen Area wasn’t fully established, so free movement of persons between most European countries wasn’t possible yet. Much to my parents disgruntlement, border queues were inevitable in the summer. One time the queue between Germany and Austria stopped us for nearly an hour and I saw some passengers exit their cars and walk in the green grass next to the emergency lane, coordinating their pace with the speed of the queue. The snake-like line of cars ahead and behind us all moved and stopped together, in sync, rhythmically surging forward, as both drivers and walkers approached the border gate. Much later in life my father taught me the art of bringing a car to a halt. The key is to release the break pedal a fraction of a second before the car stops because this obscures the difference between motion and standing still. After those long days of driving, the speed of the car lingered inside me, like a spirit level's bubble swaying back and forth before settling still in the centre.

My partner and I left Rotterdam to drive to Metz early on a spring morning. The car's navigation system kept announcing “this route crosses several countries”, but that was the only evidence to confirm this fact. The prefab customs offices at, respectively, Zandvliet, Sterpenich and Croix de Bettembourg were abandoned. Signs announced any changed road rules or speed limitations, but the transition from country to country was subtle and fluent. Traffic flowed like a river from the Netherlands to Belgium, into Luxembourg, and finally into France. From our apartment in Rotterdam you could follow a similar route on the Maas River, upstream away from the sea, and also end up in Metz, but it would take too long (besides, just the idea of parking a boat gives me nightmares). So we followed the European road network and whenever traffic signs announced a border coming up, I paid close attention in search of an edge. But of course, countries' edges aren’t easy to discern, not in this part of the world anyway. There’s just asphalt shifting from a darker grey to a lighter one, a slight shift in building styles, the changed languages of traffic sings and gradual changes in landscape. Soon, like water coming to a boil, the flat horizon began to break up into small hills. The Dutch word “glooiing” does not translate easily into English, but outside the car, a “glooiing” grew: a stretching, continuous ripple, as if the landscape was slowly raising its many backs.

In the asylum where I worked the border was obvious. The tall fence no one bothered to pull down looked over your shoulder wherever you went. I suppose it was kept up for convenience sake. If the facility retained all the elements of a prison, it would be simple to convert it back. It must be easier to allow freedom inside a former prison, than to be detained in a prison that is no longer a prison. I mentioned all this to a colleague who downplayed my observations. Didn’t I know refugees still fled by commercial airlines? Whoever reached the Netherlands by airplane was immediately put in a detention centre in Amsterdam Airports’ international zone. That facility was an actual prison, one with closed doors, where you are locked up while anonymous officials assess your application. I didn’t know that. Yet I’d been in that international zone years ago, when I was a dishwasher in one of KLMs’ airplane hangars. The job paid little and to cross that border I had to show my passport every day to the customs officers. The bus driver wouldn’t wait for me (despite my often being the only passenger) so I sat on a bench outside, waiting for the next bus, and looked woefully at traffic signs warning drivers to grant passing airplanes right of way, but that’s another story.

After four hours of driving we were in France, and soon we reached Thionville, where the A31 freeway we'd followed since Luxembourg-city met the Moselle River and veered southwards. The Moselle used to separate the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg from Prussia, and, as we followed one of its arms into Metz, nature (or perhaps just an absence of buildings) gradually gave way to the city. Nondescript warehouses and corporate offices flourished in this transitory zone, a prelude to the old city, which itself was built with cobblestone and golden yellow Pierre de Jaumont limestone extracted from a 2000-year-old quarry close by. After Metz, the A31 and the Moselle continue south for another 50 kilometres or so, until they part ways at a town called Pompey. If you follow the Moselle further you end up at the slope of Mount Drumont and the river’s source.

In Metz we found an underground parking garage on L’île du Petit Saulcy, one of three islands at the confluence of the Moselle and Seille Rivers. I’m no good at parking. It took me four tries to park the car the way I was taught, neatly between the designated lines so that neighbouring drivers could exit their cars comfortably. It was a fifteen-minute walk to Frac Lorraine, the museum that hosted the exhibition. From the bridge crossing the Moselle, the ochre- yellow Saint Etienne Cathedral rises over the neoclassical buildings and old warehouses. The museum is housed in one of the oldest structures in the city, its foundations dating back to the 12th century, (a century before the construction of the Cathedral began).

The exhibition was called, The Shyness of the Crowns, which refers to the behaviour of growing trees. The formation and demarcation of boundaries
in the realm of certain trees follows a process of negotiation. Some eucalyptus, black mangrove and other tree species exhibit surprising social behaviour when the crowns of neighbouring trees grow to equal heights. Instead of knotting into each other, the branches and leaves maintain a distance, allowing each other some space. Harmony and individuality prevail. Looking up, you can see the gaps of daylight that separate the trees. One consequence of this botanical deference is that some daylight seeps through the foliage to the soil, allowing underlying plants to bloom. I’ve looked for this phenomenon in the Netherlands, but trees aren’t that social here. For example, the prisoners' forest, surrounding the refugee asylum, was composed of pine, beech, oak and poplar. Their needles and leaves increase the acidity of the forest floor, ruining any opportunity for plants to grow. The growth of that forest is governed by competition: the tree that grows the highest catches the most light and has a stronger chance of survival—until the state decides it’s time to trim all the growth, of course. Vegetation can grow, but only on human terms and conditions.

The village nearest to the refugee asylum is called Veenhuizen. The name refers to a peat extraction process that took place in the village and its surroundings, dating back to the 14th century. In the 19th century, peat extraction became institutionalised. A rectilinear grid of rational ambitions was overlaid on the land. Still today, landforms are rectilinear and circumscribed by straight roads and canals, which both frame and prevent the many fields, pastures and forests from escaping their predesignated sites. “Veen” some of the refugees explained to me, phonetically sounds like the Arabic word for "where": أين. Indeed, where were they? All the facility’s residents dealt with homesickness, desperation and isolation in some form. Without cars it took a long time to reach Groningen, the biggest nearby city. As a result, most people ignored the open gate and stayed in the asylum, playing cards and soccer. To help them get to Veenhuizen, with its supermarket and bus stop, we bought bicycles. On quiet days we taught basic repair and cycling skills. “Cycling is about the eyes”, I explained. “The bike follows the eye’s glance, so whatever you do”, I said, “don’t look down, or you’ll fall. As you gather speed, it gets easier, the forward momentum will keep you balanced”. The secret to cycling is slowness. Finding a balance between gravity’s pull and the two rubber wheels resulted in a game with only one rule: whoever passes the finish line last, without touching the ground wins. It was one of the more popular games that summer, and on quiet days I watched the slow races with my colleagues. It was fascinating to see the contestants twist and contort their backs, as they tried to resist gravity and avoid the fall that, for many, proved to be inevitable.

In the museum at Metz I saw an eighteen-minute-long black-and-white video projected onto a wall. The camera was low, capturing the legs of the artist, Helena Almeida, and her partner, Artur Rosa. Almeida wore a black dress, Rosa cream-coloured trousers. Their shiny black leather shoes rhymed with the black floor tiles. A black thread bound Almeida’s left leg to Rosa’s right. The couple walked away from the camera, to the white wall in back, and then returned, over and over. It was hypnotising to see the place where their legs touched. It kept shifting. Almeida kept rearranging the thread. When they made the video in 2010, Almeida and Rosa had been married for 50 years, and maybe that was the reason why the piece radiated calmness—they walked as if they had all the time in the world. No two people move in the same way. Bound together, you must adapt to each other’s rhythms and move your joined legs as if they were one.

Shaukat, a man in his mid-twenties from Syria was the best at balancing the bicycle. Nobody knew how he did it. He had fled Syria by travelling to Libya, an unusual route. Most Syrians living in the asylum arrived via Turkey, afraid to cross the dangerous Sinaï peninsula into Egypt. In Benghazi, Libya, he paid a smuggler to join a small boat crossing the Mediterranean. He’d been here for two months, and nobody knew when his procedure would go forward. The immigration system was overwhelmed, so Shaukat, together with hundreds of other people, had been “parked”, as the immigration service puts it. With nothing to do, he spent his days reading and cycling. Once, I saw him standing still on a bike for nearly three minutes. My sense of balance is like my ability to park cars, meaning I’m not great, so his skill fascinated me. I asked him how he did it, but he wouldn't say. He was afraid the others might copy his trick.

I had also spent that summer cycling and reading, in my case, the Katherine Mansfield and Roland Barthes books. The Barthes text asks how communities can uphold both collective rules and individual rhythms. Fundamental to his project was the term “Idiorrhythmy”, describing a method for people to live together but also apart—like moths circling the same flame, individual waves crashing on the same beach, or the intricate network of open spaces that emerges when eucalyptus trees grow to similar heights.

The obsolete fence continued to function as a divide between refugee and citizen, between those at home and those not. As a residential counsellor I crossed that divide into a daily life that looked similar to theirs but was entirely different. They waited for their rights while I left each day and returned, collecting my pay for the service of “counselling” them. I had authority, whereas circumstances had stripped them of theirs. Nevertheless, each day, like them, I cycled and read. I remember being particularly struck by a metaphor near the end of “Voyage”, one of the short stories in Katherine Mansfield’s collection, when a girl called Fenella, lying in bed, hears from above “a long, soft whispering, as though someone was gently, gently rustling among tissue paper to find something. It was grandma saying her prayers...” Within the intimate context of this single sentence, tissue paper and a whispering voice are no longer distinct entities, but rather become intimately coupled.

Of course I had read metaphors before, but now, looking back at the act of balancing the bike and the tidal pattern of Almeida and Rosa’s performance, at the time spent waiting at borders and the indifference with which I can cross them now, from one political zone into another, from one culture into another, from one history into another, I can see that edges are often boundaries and openings at once. And boundaries are vast, non-existent territories where freedom and metamorphosis are common currency.

My last day in the asylum I went to say goodbye to Shaukat. I woke him up when I knocked on his door. The mesh net in the window was torn, and swarms of mosquitos had kept him up all night. After I explained I’d be gone in a few hours, and we’d probably never meet again, he agreed to tell me how he balanced on his bike. “The secret lies in the eyes”, he said. “You have to keep them fixed on the horizon, and imagine you're a ship balancing on a stormy sea”. I tried a few times, but I can't do it.

In 2016, Niels Bekkema (Groningen, 1989) completed his Master of Fine Arts studies at the Piet Zwart Institute, and has lived in Rotterdam since. His work has been exhibited in the Netherlands, Germany, and South Africa, and he has been an artist in residence at Banff Centre for Creativity and Arts (Canada, 2018), and at SOMA Summer (Mexico-city, 2015). Alongside his practice, he works as a writer for the digital journal The Polity of Literature, published on, and as a fine arts teacher for graduating students at the Minerva Art Academy in Groningen (the Netherlands).

© Niels Bekkema 2019
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