Tower of Babel: meet the artists! Edition 8 – Tina Lenz

For the project Tower of Babel at NDSM, we speak with the eight artists that each contributed to this art installation in their own way. Through a variety of workshops, they invited Amsterdammers to reflect on their vision of the city of the future. Together, they created multifaceted artworks that are displayed in an eclectic wooden tower construction at NDSM, on display until the end of the year. In this eighth and last edition: design anthropologist Tina Lenz.

Don’t forget to also watch her video interview, made by Anna Sidorchik (OatStudio):

Next to this video interview, Teus Hagen met with each artist for some more in-depth questions. They meet for a conversation on her boat studio on the Amstel river. Just as she unites various disciplines in her work, this boat is also a fusion: between a workplace and a piece of home. And all this in the middle of Amsterdam, where she never gets tired of observing the capital city’s countless faces.

Photography: Victoria Ushkanova

We asked each workshop participant the following question: what does your ideal city look like? How would you answer this question yourself?

My ideal city is an environment where many different cultures come together. That’s where I feel incredibly at home. If a place is very uniform, I will be miserable there. For me, it’s all about hybridity. You often find that in big cities, and in those conditions, I very much feel at ease. At a young age, I was already yearning to go to a big city. Amsterdam is still quite small, then. In Brussels, on the other hand – where I also lived – you travel through all layers of society in a single tram ride from Schaarbeek to Ixelles, and that teaches you a lot.

In my eyes, everyone is an artist.

How familiar were you with the story of the Tower of Babel? What aspect of this story speaks to you the most?

The painting (‘The Tower of Babel’ by Pieter Bruegel, ed.) is an established work, everyone knows it from an early age onwards. But for the extra context, I decided to pick up a Bible. What appeals to me is the fact that this story can be brought to our time with a new interpretation; as a kind of 2.0 version. The painting has a historical character and such a universal Biblical story is easily placed in the past. But by placing it in the context of the city of today, the story gets twisted around – from the fragmentation of one language as God’s punishment for man’s pride to the bringing together of multiple languages in one tower. This also allows the political significance of the story to be taken to a higher level. And it might be possible to have a Tower of Babel, like the one at NDSM, in every city and to start this conversation with even more people.

This project has triggered something in me. I see it not only as a response to a painting but also as a social vehicle for new dialogues on polyphony and for literally hearing more voices from the city.

What is your connection with NDSM and how well do you think this project fits in a space like NDSM?

I visit NDSM regularly, but not on the weekends. I like that it attracts such an international crowd and that it attracts so much as a free haven for artists. I know it mainly because I often cycle past it. But to work with the mosque El Moutaquine, for example, was really an eye-opener. What I really like about this project is that I’ve really been able to enter new places. Doors have opened in places that I would otherwise not have known about.

I think I knew NDSM in a very mainstream kind of way, but I have now discovered an extra layer that is actually much more interesting to me. Everything that is organized in a large way is fantastic, but for me, it is more about the everyday people who are embedded there. That’s where my curiosity lies.

The original Tower of Babel story symbolizes a balance between pride and ambition on the one hand and humbleness on the other hand. (Humanity yearns to achieve the highest possible by building a tower to heaven, but God punishes them by being for being overconfident and too ambitious.) As an artist, how do you balance pride/confidence with modesty/humbleness?

Yes, and I like how this project exposes that. To me, everyone is an artist. That’s why, within my profession as a design anthropologist, I invite people to create together. During the workshop ‘Paper Paradise’ we worked with paper, which is vulnerable material. So that was a symbol of letting go. But then what is left for me as an artist and designer? Of course, I want something fantastic to be placed in the Tower of Babel, but I can’t direct it completely. You want to maintain control, but also hold on to it a bit wherever it’s possible. For example, in the quality of the banners and typography. A bit of vanity arises there. This interaction between the other and the self – as it is explained in anthropology – will always be present. I let go of agency, but I’m also proud that all 40 participants expressed themselves by making a personal contribution.

That interaction I find very interesting. It wrings and it clashes in me, but in a good way. Let’s be clear though: it’s not an ego document. It’s about the people who ultimately made it. Their stories, symbols, and rituals. The Surinamese Indigenous women, men from the El Moutaquine mosque, ladies from the Language Café at Huis van de Wijk de Evenaar, and my friends during the workshop at Chinese bookstore Ming Ya all own the four welcome gates. For me, as a design anthropologist, it’s about creating a framework and allowing others to pick it up and move forward with it. Whether it was the participants or the people who will soon visit the Tower of Babel as they sit down for a bite.

A city of hybridity. I can totally sit back and relax in that.

Being an artist is an individualistic profession at times. The Tower of Babel project, however, is about a collective and bringing together all kinds of works made by many different people. How do you feel about this collective way of making art?

I don’t operate so much in an individualistic way anymore, I’ve grown out of that over the years. What I did for the Tower of Babel I hope to do a lot more in the future; I like to facilitate and I want creativity and stories to come from other people as well. But it has to be more than community art or creative therapy. The story itself does need to be powerful, too, with a clear concept, framework, and stage for others. It has to make participants feel safe, and open up something in them that makes them reach the next level. We are now talking about a pre-existing, physical tower, but people can also build a tower within themselves.

In Arnhem, where I am associated with Bureau Ruimtekoers, I am working on similar projects. Take people out of a shopping mall or an owner out of a döner kebab store, and they will see that they can create themselves, not only verbally, but also visually or through interventions.

How does your discipline – design anthropology – contribute to polyphony and diversity in the city?

Design anthropology is by definition a discipline based on participation, and that includes local collaboration and inviting people into the design process. The anthropologist observes, does embedded fieldwork, and invites people to analyze together from various cultural interpretations. The designer creates in the public space, and as such takes in cultural insights for building a common future. So by combining these two disciplines, you look at how polyphony from the past and present can be applied to the future, without necessarily having an end goal in mind. It’s about design emerging from society.

That’s what I like about the Tower of Babel: it’s an open, democratic process. I hope that with projects like this we are moving towards a new world. There is still too much top-down regulation originating from The Hague and the old boys’ networks. But so many people – from social designers to the people at Stichting TAAK & Stichting NDSM-werf – are exploring ways of doing politics from the invisible perspectives that deserve a clear voice. I really like to participate in that, to loosen up and generate something in people.

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