Twenty-first Century Birdwatching

Amsterdam, October 2013

Overhead bird silhouette ID card from Cornell Ornithology Lab. Our first ancestors could tell a lot from looking at the sky. Spotting and recognizing birds provided crucial information about the weather, where to find food, and what predators were near. In the twenty-first century urban landscape, knowledge of the natural environment has been replaced by our knowledge of technology. Most of us can’t tell the difference between the call of a osprey and a hawk, but everyone can tell the difference between a Nokia ringtone and an iPhone ringtone. We have grown so accustomed to technology that we perceive it as our natural habitat.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) will become ubiquitous in our new habitat. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) predicted that in 2030, 30,000 commercial and government drones could be flying in U.S. skies. The military seems to anticipate this changing relation with nature and technology in naming its drones: global hawk, heron, killer bee, mantis, predator, reaper, raven, sentinel, scan eagle, etc. Electronic birds hovering in the air, circling over warzones, until they spot their prey and attack. Crashed MQ-1 Predator drone. Photo: Courtesy of U.S. Air Force.

Loss of Link

It is important that we learn to identify drones, by sight and by ear, and adapt to this changing environment. But we also have to learn their behavior. A drone is remotely controlled by its pilot via satellite link. When the link with the pilot is lost, a drone can behave erratically or unethically, and become a danger to friend or foe. In 2008 an Irish peacekeeping drone over Chad lost its link with the pilot, and it automatically set course for its homebase in Ireland. Since it had not been reprogrammed for its base in Africa, it crashed somewhere in the Sahara after running out of fuel without ever making it home.

Instructions decal on MQ-1 Predator drones to return the drone in case of crash. Image: U.S. Air Force.

A more serious case of a ‘drone gone rogue’ story happened in 2009 when a fully armed drone was flying westbound over Afghanistan and lost the link with the pilot. The U.S. Air Force was forced to shoot it down, in order to prevent the drone from flying into Iranian airspace and unknowingly unleashing a possible conflict. The satellite link from the drone to the pilot is its lifeline, the only part that is still human. This prevents drones from being able to fly over the North or South pole, something which piloted aircraft can do. Since data links rely on communication satellites over the equator, the poles are simply out of reach. The detachment of body and soul means a crashed drone is just a wreck. Pilots that crash are mourned and remembered as heroes. When a drone crashes, the pilot can fluently switch to another drone, a new body.

Smile recognition, Photo: Nikon.

Surveillance in Full-HD

‘They don’t get hungry. They are not afraid. They don’t forget their orders. They don’t care if the guy next to them has been shot. Will they do a better job than humans? Yes.’, explains a Pentagon official in ‘Wired for War’. Yes, drones can fly up to 33 hour missions, while pilots cannot fly longer than 10 hours. A new crew simply takes over, while the drone stays in flight. Drones on solar energy are being designed to be in a permanent state of flight. Their endurance, together with their sensor technology makes drones the perfect surveillance weapons. They carry high definition digital cameras, infrared cameras, and they can be fitted with a Gorgon Stare sensor.

Gorgon Stare technology. Image: Airforce Times

Named affectionately after the Greek myth about three sisters whose gaze could turn someone into stone, the Gorgon Stare gives us a peek into the future of surveillance. Its 1.8 billion pixel camera can cover an area of 16 km², large enough to identify individuals within the area of a small city. Its cameras can follow twelve different targets at the same time. Surveillance’s wet dream, but also an analysts’ nightmare. The Pentagon said drones took so much video footage in 2009 alone it would take someone 24 years to watch it all. How can one analyse this amount of video? The answer is again, technology. The research institute for the U.S. military, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is currently working on visually intelligent software that can analyse video footage, and identify suspect behavior, or identify suspects using face recognition. From hours of video, this software is designed to pick out the terrorist, the car thief, and the protester amongst innocent bystanders. But can software tell the difference between a kid building a sandcastle and a terrorist burrowing a home-made explosive? When drones are increasingly used domestically, we may find ourselves in a state of permanent surveillance where algorithms end up deciding who is a target and who is not.

<i>Friedrich der Große als Perseus</i>, Christian Bernhard Rode, 1789.

Mirror Image

How does one resist such invasive technology? During a BBC report in 2011, a soldier of the U.S. military explained how a group of Taliban fighters couldn’t be seen at night, because they used space blankets. Since drones and helicopters use infrared cameras at night, the Taliban found space blankets an effective way to hide body heat, making someone invisible for infrared cameras. Developed by the U.S. space agency NASA in 1964, space blankets are thin sheets of mylar with a metallic reflective agent. Originally designed to insulate satellites, space blankets turned out to be a great way to keep body heat inside, or hide body heat. Using cheap materials to counter expensive military sensors is exemplary for the tactics used in asymmetric warfare. In this case both were developed by the same space and defence industry. The mirrored material of the space blanket reminds us that any surveillance, no matter how advanced, is merely people watching other people, and no matter how expensive and advanced technologies are, they do not win wars alone. We find the tactic of the mirror as a weapon again in the Greek myth of the Gorgon sisters, name giver to the U.S. Air Force surveillance technology. Like the Taliban, the Greek hero Perseus could only defeat the deadly stare of the Gorgon sisters by using a mirror to deflect their gaze.

Space blanket Hiding from heat-sensitive drone sensors using a space blanket, Drone Survival Guide.  Design: Ruben Pater, 2013.

Permanent State of Conflict

Despite their faults, drones have proved very successful for the military. The ability to wage war with very little casualties (at least on the side of the drones) has dramatically expanded the military drone programmes. On the African continent alone, the U.S. flies drones from nine known bases. Given the radius of a Reaper drone, the U.S. can reach all corners of the continent, except its ally South Africa. With the ability to fly almost everywhere, als long as the host country gives permission, U.S. drones are adopting the role of a global police patrol, able to strike anywhere, at anytime. This is shifting the notion of war towards a state of permanence. U.S. drones have attacked in Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Mali, all without declaring war. The question is not just how this real-time ubiquitous surveillance will influence people’s behavior. Sooner or later, other countries will want the same abilities to take out unwanted targets anywhere in the world. Already more than 87 nations have drones, of which 26 have larger drones equivalent to the MQ-1 Predator. For instance, Russia has been critical about the U.S. drone programme, but is also busy developing its own $8 billion drone program. Western countries who support the U.S. drone program are creating a precedent for other military powers.

Drone Survival Guide. Design: Ruben Pater, 2013.

Drone Survival Guide

In 2012 I created a document that shows the silhouettes of the 27 best known military drones, all to scale, and lists the countries that use them. It also lists a series of countermeasures to avoid detection by the drones’ sensors, and how to disrupt them. Designed as a folded document, it can be carried with you at all times. Printed on metallic coated paper, the front side can be used to reflect sunlight and blind the drones’ camera, which is one of the countermeasures. The document can be downloaded and printed and distributed freely by anyone. Originally published in English and Pashto, people are invited to create new translations of the countermeasures, which are posted online. Currently 32 languages are available. The Drone Survival Guide is not useful for survival, for anti-drone warfare, nor is it an act of anti-American propaganda. It is made with the sole purpose of sharing information about a phenomenon that is quickly changing warfare, and which many do not yet fully understand. The Drone Survival Guide is a civilian initiative, self-funded and made with public information, to balance the information provided by actors with a political or commercial agenda.

Download a free PDF or order via Paypal at:

Printing by drukkerij SSP and Kees Maas zeefdruk.
Pashto translation by Hamida Babak. Using the Drone Survival Guide to blind the viewer, 2014.

Winner of an Excellence award at the Japan Media Arts Festival 2015.


Bumiller, Elisabeth, and Tom Shanker. ‘War Evolves With Drones, Some Tiny as Bugs’, New York Times. June 19, 2011.
Department of Defense. ‘Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Roadmap: 2002-2027’, Office of the Secretary of Defense. December 2002.
Dobbing, Mary, Amy Hailwood and Chris Cole. ‘Convenient Killing: Armed Drones and the ‘Playstation’ Mentality.’ London, The Fellowship of Reconciliation, 2010.
Easterling, Keller. ‘An Internet of Things’. E-flux Journal #31. January, 2012.
Singer, P.W. ‘Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century’. Penguin, 2009.
Finn, Peter. ‘Domestic use of aerial drones by law enforcement likely to prompt privacy debate’. The Washington Post. January 23, 2011.
Koring, Paul. ‘In the Arctic, drones could close the gap’. The Globe and Mail. July 9, 2012.
Lake, Eli. ‘Drone footage overwhelms analysts’. The Washington Times. November 9, 2010.
Linebaugh, Heather. ‘I worked on the US drone program. The public should know what really goes on’ The Guardian. December 29, 2013.
Manaugh, Geoff. ‘Drone Landscapes, Intelligent Geotextiles, Geographic Countermeasures’, BLDGBLOG. January 2012.
Nakashima, Ellen, and Craig Whitlock. ‘With Air Force’s Gorgon Drone ‘we can see everything’. The Washington Post. January 2, 2011.
Rattner, Ehud. ‘DARPA’s New High Resolution Camera’. The Future of Things. October 20, 2009.
Tietz, Jeff. ‘A Day in the Life of a Drone Pilot’. True Slant. April 16, 2009.
Turse, Nick. ‘Mapping America’s Shadowy Drone Wars’, TomsDispatch October 16, 2011.
Greenwald, Glenn. ‘NPR’s domestic drone commercial’. Salon. December 6, 2011.

Behind the Blue Screen
پشت صفحه‌ی آبی

Amsterdam, October 2014

The amount of news that reaches us every day is massive. Tweets, news blogs, photos and videos pour in from the far corners of the world. At the same time there are countries from which you do not hear a lot of new stories at all. Like Iran, where the state censors journalists, and only a few foreign correspondents are allowed. Director Jaap van Heusden and I wanted to explore new ways of digital storytelling.

Countries with high levels of censorship on the World Press Freedom index, Reporters Without Borders, 2013.

Reporters without Borders creates a World Press Freedom Index each year, with countries rated by press censorship, jailed journalists, and internet monitoring. All the way at the bottom you find countries like North Korea, Eritrea, Turkmenistan, and Iran. As a journalist it is difficult or even impossible to your job here, and this becomes apparent by the limited amount of new stories we hear from these countries.

Dutch newspaper treated by Iranian censor. From Censorship Daily, Jan-Dirk van der Burg, 2012.

Censorship Daily

One of these countries is Iran. In 2012 there were only three western correspondents allowed in Iran, a country of 80 million people. They were not allowed to travel outside Teheran without permission, and could not report on demonstrations. When Reuters did a report about women’s martial arts, they were banned from Iran for a year. The last BBC correspondent left in 2009, and Iranians that worked with the BBC were jailed. Thomas Erdbrink is one of the last correspondents, reporting for the New York Times and the Dutch NRC Handelsblad. He received his Dutch newspapers with blue tape meticulously applied by the Iranian censor to cover any ‘indecent’ parts. In 2012, photographer Jan-Dirk van der Burg made a book called ‘Censorship Daily’ with facsimiles of the newspaper clippings. Inspired by their work, we adopted the blue tape as a method to circumvent censorship.

Teheran streets during our trip in December 2014. Photo: Ruben Pater

Forced Marriage

Our project started during a masterclass of the the Dutch Cultural Media Fund. At this masterclass two people from different disciplines are brought together to develop a new media project. This is how I came to work with director Jaap van Heusden, who is a renowned film director and screenwriter. We were both interested in countries that are underrepresented in the daily news cycle, and the use of methods like citizen journalism and unreliable sources. Because we had some Iranian friends we decided to focus on stories from Iran. Beside the fact they told us great stories we had not heard before, Iran also is a very highly educated country and has the second highest internet connectivity of the Middle East. This seemed like a good first case to start with, to record personal stories from Iran as video selfies, which we would collect, translate, and publish in the Netherlands.

Digital Traffic Jam

We decided to use mobile devices to record the video stories. After all many people in Europe and Iran have access to a smartphone, which has acceptable recording capabilities. However using the internet to transfer the stories turned out to be not that easy. Internet traffic is monitored in Iran, and by sending the files digitally we would not know who could see it, and with what consequences. We did not have any political objectives, but we did not want to take any chances. It is well known that the Iranian Cyber Police is well equipped and highly effective, and several NGOs working on free press around the world said they work in almost every country except Iran, precisely for this reason. Since our project did not have political goals but was about storytelling, we did not want to use encryption or anonymous browsers, but a more social way of sharing the stories.

Wireframe still from ‘Scramble Suit’, Kyle McDonald, 2011.


Disappointed with the limitations of digital data transport, we turned to analogue transportation. Before digital networks, information was transported between two computers by simply using a floppy disk. This method of carrying digital information in an analogue way is called a ‘sneakernet’. Used in Burma in 2000 to smuggle footage out of the country, it has been used historically for secure transportation of data. We chose to transport the data through a via-via network. We knew people that travelled between the west and Iran, and we could use mobile devices to bring the stories back. All we had to do was to create an application capable of recording our stories in a safe way.

‘Body and Soul’, John Baldessari, 1989.

Art as activism

Our recording application needed to have some safety features to make sure stories could be recorded with a minimal risk of identification. First we would deleted all the metadata from the footage, and secondly, we let the app generate a mask for each person telling a story. Face recognition technologies today are advanced, and the most sophisticated ones are used by governments for security purposes. We wanted to use the same technology for protection. A developer helped us to design a mask that would automatically cover the storytellers face. The mask needed to have the facial features, so you could get some of the storytellers emotion.

News anchor in front of a blue screen.

The color and design of the mask was inspired by blue tape of the censor, the rest of the image was made black and white. The blue screen also referred to news organizations who cannot work in countries like Iran and need a blue screen to record news from abroad. The image of the videos reminded us of the works of conceptual artist John Baldessari, who often blocked out people’s faces in his works. This artistic angle was on purpose. Journalistic projects in Iran are risky, however if it is an art project, the government is much less likely to see it as a threat. Art in this case is used to mask a broader application of the stories. As a final safety feature, every storyteller could watch their recorded message, and choose to delete it if they weren’t sure that they wanted to share the story.

The Video Series

After about six months we had collected more than 30 stories, and six months later more than 70. Some stories were just too long, or just not interesting enough. We needed stories that would be interesting to a wide audience, and have a journalistic value. Eventually we selected about one in every six stories for publication on the Dutch website ‘De Correspondent’, our publisher. De Correspondent (the correspondent) is an online journalism platform focused on background stories and investigative reporting. They had started in 2013, and seemed like a perfect fit for our project.

Stories from Iran

In October 2014 we published the first three stories, and again in November a second series of three stories. We were pleasantly surprised by a set of surprising stories, which changed our perception of the country. Stories about young men trying to get out of the military service, stories about learning to deal with the authorities in into Iran itself, but more about the daily life and passions of its people.

We premiered the video series during a special evening about ‘Stories from Iran’ in Pakhuis de Zwijger in Amsterdam, organized with De Correspondent. Moderated by the Dutch-Iranian journalist Bahram Sadeghi we invited a political scientist, a storyteller, a journalist, and a reader to share their stories about Iran. The public was involved to ask questions and share their own experiences about the country.

Presenter Bahram Sadeghi in the Zwijger. Photo: Janus van den Eijnden

Although this project started as an investigation into journalism, we do not consider our project to be journalism. It is an ongoing attempt to use new technology to find stories which we do not hear otherwise. We are avid fans of print and TV journalism and the work that journalists do is more valuable then ever. But because of cutbacks in journalism and the censorship by governments, we also need to develop different ways of getting stories out. The stories we bring are everyday stories that can help us understand the context of a different culture or country.

Questions from the audience in the Zwijger. Photo: Janus van den Eijnden

Read the article about the project and watch the videos here.

Official Selection South by Southwest festival 2015, Austin Texas.
Nominated for a Dutch Directors Guild Award, 2015.

Made with Jaap van Heusden. Production Jos de Putter. Deputy editor-in-chief Karel Smouter. Funded by the Dutch Cultural Media Fund and the Creative Industries Fund NL.

Double Standards of Somali Piracy

Amsterdam, July 2012

Somali pirates on the deck of the seajacked ship Zen Hua 4, 2008. Image: Reuters

The world is waging war against the pirates of Somalia. Hundreds of warships are patrolling the waters around Somalia to secure the maritime trade. When you realize 90% of the world's goods are transported over sea, imagine the threat piracy poses to the supply chain of the global economy. In Double Standards we see a different side to the stories about piracy: the seajacked ships and the companies behind them.

April 2010, Dutch marines board the German vessel MV Taipan, after it was seajacked by Somali pirates. Image: AFP

Piracy in Somalia started when warlords ousted dictator Siad Barre after a 22-year rule. The absence of a functioning government brought foreign fishing vessels to Somali waters to empty its fishing grounds through illegal fishing. Somali warlords struck deals with European companies to dump chemical waste in Somali waters. The evidence surfaced after the 2004 tsunami when dozens of containers with toxic waste washed up on the Somali shores, causing immense health problems for the local fishing communities. The fishermen took up weapons and started defending their fishing grounds against illegal fishing and waste dumping by foreign vessels. Skirmishes led to seajackings, which turned out to be a much more lucrative trade than fishing. Soon the self-proclaimed ‘civil coast guards’ became a professional criminal enterprise. Piracy went to become a million dollar industry with investors from Dubai with pirates using satellite phones and GPS devices.

How do fishermen seajack an oil tanker?

Every seajack starts with the intelligence that a ship with valuable cargo is in the area. Small pirate boats (skiffs) set out with RPG-launchers and machine guns to the vessel, shooting and threatening until the ships stops and can be boarded. When a ship is captured it is taken to the Somali coast and held until the ship owner pays a ransom for the ship and crew. Ransom money can run up to $4 million or more, depending on cargo and ship owner. If you consider the cargo of a full oil tanker is worth $200 million, a $4 million ransom for crew and ship doesn’t seem that unreasonable. In 2008, there were 111 attacks of which 42 were successful seajackings. When you consider 22,000 merchant vessels pass the coast of Somalia every year, the amount of seajacked ships is small but its earnings high. In the peak year 2010, pirates earned $238 million in ransom money.

New flag designs for nine of the seajacked ships.

There is no such thing as free shipping

We should not underestimate the importance of maritime trade, which accounts for 90% of all international trade. Annual turnover of the industry is an estimated $8 trillion. The Dutch depend heavily on maritime trade with Rotterdam as Europe's largest port, and with Dutch companies like Shell oil there is a significant interest in oil and gas. When Somali pirates started to pose a threat to the shipping industry, the Dutch government sent warships with drones and helicopters, and stationed marines on Dutch commercial ships. Not just the Dutch, almost every industrialized country has sent their navy to Somalia to protect maritime trade. Annually the world spends $2 billion to fight piracy, which is twice the amount as was spent on aid to fight the famine that hit Somalia and the horn of Africa in 2010.

Left: Somali pirate 2010. Right: Dutch pirate Willem II van der Marck Lumey, leader of the Sea Beggars (1542-1578)

Qua Patet Orbis*

In the Netherlands, the use of military force in Somalia to protect maritime trade is widely accepted amongst politicians, while other military operations like Afghanistan and Iraq led to strong debates. With the stories of a Dutch navy fighting pirates, a nationalist sentiment reemerged of the 17th century golden age when the Dutch were the most powerful seafaring nation on earth. In reality the Dutch were heavily involved in piracy as well at the time. The Watergeuzen (water beggars) were rebels who attacked and plundered Spanish ships. These Dutch rebels were essentially pirates that ultimately helped to drive out the the Spanish and established Dutch independence. During the times of the Dutch East India company (VOC), the Dutch used licensed pirates called privateers. These ‘legal pirates’ were given a government license to attack and capture enemy ships. Navy operations in Somalia today resonate well with the Dutch as proof of the reemergence of the Dutch as a global maritime power. The reality of the conflict is a much more complex situation with a global south that supplies labor and raw materials, but does not share in the wealth that is created with it.

Double Standards publication. Printed on newspaper stock and hand-bound with flag rings. Design: Ruben Pater.

Flags of Convenience

The maritime industry is a very competitive business. Consumers are looking for the lowest prices, and shipping transport is still the cheapest way to move cargo. By using a system called ‘flags of convenience’ the shipowners have found ways to cut corners and stay profitable at a very high cost. In reality the vast majority of commercial ships do not use the owner’s nationality but buy a ‘cheap flag’ from another country. This allows the ship owner to pay little or no taxes, dodge environmental regulations, and pay the crew a slave wage. For example the largest maritime fleets in the world are Panama and Liberia, although you will not find those vessels in their harbors. Ships can change nationality overnight with an online form and a fee. This allows shipowners to be legally anonymous and difficult to prosecute in civil and criminal actions.

For example, in 1999 the tanker MV Erika ran into a heavy storm, and spilled thousands of tons of oil off the coast of France, causing a major environmental disaster. The ship sailed under a Maltese flag, the oil belonged to the French company Total, the crew was Indian, the ship was operated by a shipping company registered in the Bahamas, and it was owned by two Italian companies. Through this administrative maze it was difficult to establish responsibility.

Double Standards publication, spreads.

Double Standards

The research for this project focused on international ocean faring ships that were ‘seajacked’ by Somali pirates between 2010 and 2012, based on the data of the International Maritime Bureau. The intent was to investigate each ship’s owner, nationality, cargo, and history to establish the nature of the maritime activity in relation to the acts of piracy. During the three years, 59 ships were seajacked, of which only four used the same flag as the ship’s owner. In many cases ship owners were companies based in tax havens like the Bahamas, and different shell companies set up for each vessel. The largest group of vessels was flagged in Panama and Liberia, and many were flagged in obscure small island states like the Marshall Islands, Antigua and Barbuda, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. While researching the ships and their owner companies, I encountered stories of fraud, illegal fishing, arms trade, and even terrorism. Several ships directly violated the UN sanctions against Iran. But by far the most common activity was tax dodging and maltreatment of the ships’s crews. While many shipping tycoons are living a life of luxury and excess, it is the ship’s crew that suffers most in the piracy conflict, with some crews being held hostage for many years. The research resulted in a publication and installation with the ship’s flags.

‘Unmapping the World’. Lisbon, Portugal, 2013. Photo: exhibition team.

Violent acts like piracy should not and cannot be justified. Crew members have been tortured and have died at the hands of the pirates. But it is absurd to think the complex problems that face one of the poorest countries in the world, can be solved by sending warships and soldiers. We should be aware which 'national economic interests' we are securing by sending our military to Somalia. Illegality and fraudulent behavior has infected the maritime industry with its flags of convenience, exploiting human labor, and dismissing environmental regulations for financial gain. This project clearly shows the moral voids this system has allowed to exist, with very little criticism. Our need for cheap goods transported across continents appears more important than an ethically responsible maritime economy. The international community (EU, NATO, UN) not only justifies this behavior, but enforces it using military power.

‘International Poster and Design festival’. Chaumont, France, 2013.‘Who you gonna call’, Sandberg Institute graduation exhibition, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 2012.

Made as a graduation project at Sandberg institute master of graphic design, Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Printing by Newspaperclub, Glasgow, United Kingdom. Binding by Binderij Hennink, Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Download the full publication and access more data on the project website.

* Qua Patet Orbis is the motto of the Netherlands Marine Corps, which translates to ‘As far as the world extends’.


Bahadur, Jay. ‘Somali pirate: ”We're not murderers...we just attack ships”’. The Guardian. May 24, 2011
Eijsvogel, Juurd. ‘Europa gaat Somalische piraten op land aanvallen’, NRC Handelsblad. April 5, 2012.
George, Rose. ‘Flying the Flag, Fleeing the State’, The New York Times. April 24, 2011.
Muna Ali and Zahra Murad. ‘Unravelling Narratives of Piracy: Discourses of Somali Pirates’, Darkmatter. December 20, 2009.
‘Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships Annual Report 2010’, ICC International Maritime Bureau. January 2011.
‘Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships Annual Report 2011’, ICC International Maritime Bureau. January 2012.
‘Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships Annual Report 2012’, ICC International Maritime Bureau. April 2012.
Rickett, Oscar. ‘Undercover bij Oliedorstige Somalische Piraten’, VICE Magazine. October 27, 2011.
Tharoor, Ishaan. ‘How Somalia's Fishermen Became Pirates’, Time Magazine. April 18, 2009.
‘Toxic Dumping: Pirate Excuse or Ongoing Abuse?’. Somalia Report. April 8, 2011.
Wetsels, Hans and Peter Kruit. ‘Een prima dumpplek. Nederlandse missie in de Somalische Zee’. De Groene Amsterdammer. December 3, 2014.

Mom, am I Barbarian?

Istanbul, September 2013

Biennial map. Design: Ruben Pater.

In the midst of the Gezi park protests in Istanbul the 13th biennial took place, discussing the exact same issues that ignited the protests in the first place. When the Turkish cities turned into teargassed battlefields where police and protesters clashed, I was working at Lava in Amsterdam on the visual concept for the biennial. This article looks back on the design process and the events surrounding it.

Sketch about the spatial hierarchy and urban transformation. Design: Ruben Pater.

In december 2012, curator Fulya Erdemci announced her ideas for the 13th Istanbul biennial. This biennial would use the public domain as a political forum to address the massive urban transformations happening in Istanbul. Old city centre neighborhoods like Tarlabaşı were being torn down and inhabitants forced out to make way for expensive condominiums and hotels. Parks and public spaces where replaced by shopping malls, and two new satellite cities were planned to be built on the outskirts of the city.

The title Mom, am I barbarian? (from a poem by Lale Müldür) was meant to kickstart a new debate, with the role of the ‘barbarian’ as a mode of resistance in a political debate where gentrification is promoted as a victory of civilization over barbarity.

Design interns Lisa and Marina working on sketches.

Waiting for the Barbarians

The term barbarian is derived from the Greek word barbaros. It is an onomatopoeia of babbling, and was used for someone who was not Greek. Today we use the word barbarian synonymous with uncivilized, but literally it means anyone speaking an unknown language. Even today ‘civilized’ states wage wars on ‘barbarians’ (e.g. terrorists, extremists, immigrants, etc.) in defense of civilization. As in the 1980 novel by J.M. Coetzee Waiting for the Barbarians, the ‘civilized’ often end up resorting to barbaric methods like torture and murder themselves. President George W. Bush famously said after the 9-11 attacks: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists”.

Left: A chinese whisper sketch, inviting twelve people to copy the previous title. Right: Typography reference, logo of TOKI, the Turkish housing Ministry.

Barbarism Begins at Home

I started in september 2012 on a visual concept for the biennial with the help of Lava interns Marina Gärtner and Lisa van Kleef. The design concept needed to reflect the strong statement of this biennial, and guide the viewer towards its message. We decided to use the relation of the civilized and the barbarian as an oppositional force in every item.

Biennial poster. Design: Ruben Pater.

Since items had to be in Turkish and English, this bilinguality seemed like a good starting point to create relations of power between languages, and it also referred to the origin of the word ‘barbarian’. I created some scenarios to find out how you can achieve this on paper between two people. Lava interns Marina and Lisa helped me by writing each in one language, Turkish or English. By writing one language first, the text would occupy space on each sheet of paper, forcing the other to use the remaining space. Switching between formal (typeset) and informal writing (handwritten) each language in each item, would be the starting point, then drawing lines between the two, mapping this hierarchy, but also referring back to walls, streets, and architectural forms.

Posters for the biennial public programme. Design: Ruben Pater. Poster for the film programme. Design: Ruben Pater.


Five months after the vision for the biennial was made public, a group of people gathered in Gezi park in Istanbul to protest the demolition of the park. The government wanted to replace the park with the Ottoman military barracks from 1806 that once stood there, and turn it into a shopping mall. This act is exemplary for the ideology of Erdoğan's AKP, a mix of Islamic imperialism and neoliberalism (so-called Neo-Ottomanism) with complete disregard for the secular freedoms that are fundamental to the Turkish republic. Taksim square and Gezi park have great symbolic value for Turkish secularism, as it is one of the last spaces for freedom of expression. That is why, when the police violently evicted the protesters from Gezi park, the protest quickly grew into a massive revolt with an estimated 3,5 million protesters nationwide.

Taksim square, Istanbul, June 2013. Photo: Bulent Kilic for Agence France-Presse.


When the riots spread across the country the biennial issued a statement of support to the protesters and called for an end to police violence. However, there was also criticism. Although the biennial could speak freely, their main sponsor Koç Holding built tanks for the Turkish army. Some artists in the Gezi protests called for cancellation of the biennial, and let the topic be handled by the Gezi park movement. Although Turkish artists were divided about whether or not the biennial should continue, signs and internet memes popped up that made fun of the biennial title.

Gezi park banner with a word play on the biennial title: ‘Mom, am I human?‘ Photograph: occupygezi tumblr

Conflict and Consensus

Following the events in Gezi park, curator Fulya Erdemci decided that the biennial would go on, but it would be free of charge, and would cancel all interventions in public space so they would not interfere with the Gezi movement. For some artists this felt like a retreat into the white cube, like artist Ahmet Ögüt who suggested an anonymous biennial, with interventions everywhere in the city by unknown artists.

Antrepo, the main biennial location. Photo: Ruben Pater.

Because of the shift in the biennial concept, the curator asked the design concept to change because it originated in public space and the urban transformation, and it was important to show signs that the biennial was listening to criticism and changing its position. The biennial asked the public programme design would now become the overall identity.

Posters in Cihangir. Photo: Ruben Pater.

Watching Riots from the Ivory Tower

In July of 2014, I spent three months in Istanbul designing posters, publications and signage. There was no biennial opening, but the artists, staff members and VIP's were invited for drinks on a hotel rooftop. By then, riots in Istanbul had started to flare up again, and on the day of the unofficial opening, the city was filled with teargas and riot police. When me and Hans Wolbers, director of Lava, finally made it to the hotel rooftop through the teargas, we encountered a scene of artists, staff members, and VIP's, watching the riots from the safe elevation of the hotel rooftop while enjoying free drinks. I could not have imagined a better metaphor for the problems this biennial faced.

During its two month opening the biennial turned out to be a succes with a record of 337,429 visitors, three times more than the previous edition, despite all the discussion and negative sentiment. As I was in Istanbul it was wonderful to see artworks of great quality like the performance by Héctor Zamora, and works by Angelica Mesiti, Bertille Bak, Cinthia Marcelle, Halil Altındere, Hito Steyerl, José Antonio Vega Macotela, Mika Rottenberg, and Nicholas Mangan.

T-shirt design. <i>Barbar</i> is Turkish for barbarian. Design: Ruben Pater.

Barbaric Speech Confusion

This biennial shows how things become problematic when sponsor and marketing goals start interfering with artistic and political visions. As a designer, cultural differences turned out to become more of an issue as the discussion around the biennial increased. Although I worked together with Turkish designer Özge Güven, not speaking Turkish prevented me to understand the complex relationship between the Istanbul art world and this biennial. The design of the biennial could have been much more effective, if rooted more in the social and collective struggles going on at the time.

Made at Lava.
Thanks to Fulya Erdemci, all biennial staff, and the Lava design interns for their hard work.

Visit the biennial website
Lava biennial work

Winner of a Gold Award at the European Design Awards 2014

Design Interns

Andreea Marciuc (RO)
Bruno Landowski (FR)
Lisa van Kleef (NL)
Marina Gärtner (DE)
Özge Güven (TR)


Erdemci, Fulya. ‘13th Istanbul Biennial Conceptual Framework’, 2012.
Erdemci, Fulya. ‘Mom, am I barbarian?’, Curator text, 2013.
Ögüt, Ahmet. ‘Another World Is Possible - What about an Anonymous Istanbul Biennial?’ Art Leaks, 2013.

A Hyperreal Artistic Spectacle

Amsterdam, July 2014

In the summer of 2014, Selby Gildemacher, Anja Groten, and I were asked to curate the last week of a 10 week festival about ‘Lightness’ in Mediamatic. As we would be the grand finale of this series of exhibitions we wanted to create a spectacular event where people could enjoy art through entertaining attractions. ‘Pret Park’ (amusement park) is an art exhibition filled with superficial experiences as a method to talk about the value of sensationalism and entertainment in the cultural sector.

Marcel Wanders climbing the Stedelijk Museum as a ‘design-King Kong’. Image: Eigen huis & Interieur.

On February 1, 2014 the solo exhibition of designer Marcel Wanders opened in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. An unexpected move, since the Stedelijk is known for exhibitions by cutting-edge artists like Mike Kelley, Steve McQueen, and Aernout Mik. Although Marcel Wanders is well-known and commercially successful, he is not considered relevant in the design world by most standards. When the magazine Vrij Nederland reported that same year that Wanders had donated €500.000 to the Stedelijk museum, both parties denied any relation between the donation and the exhibition. Above all, this exhibition in the Stedelijk is exemplary for the flirtatious behaviour of high brow art institutions with celebrities to boost visitor figures.

Map of Pret Park. Design: Ruben Pater.

outrageous spectacles

The art world has a complex relationship with the spectacle. On the one hand we see a rise in blockbuster exhibitions, celebrity artists, and luxurious art fairs. On the other hand there is a lot of criticism as well about the influence of the entertainment industry and commerce in the art world. The Turbine Hall at the Tate modern is meant to display large spectacular works by artists like Anish Kapoor, Olafur Eliasson, and Ai Weiwei. Works sponsored by Unilever, created to overwhelm us with awe. The public wants to see spectacle, and expects no less in an art exhibition.

The Dutch government encourages spectacle through its new arts funding policy. Minister of Culture Bussemaker has argued that publicity reach and visitor figures should play a larger role in public funding of art. This is the next step in quantifying the experience of art. An artistic vision is no longer enough to apply for funding. There needs to be hard evidence that visitors will line up to see this exhibition.

Pret Park exhibition. Photo: Ruben Pater.

diabolical amusement

Pret Park loves spectacle for all the right reasons, but we are critical as well. If art is forced to adapt to the ‘attention economy’, how can we expect to preserve its transformative and critical role? Pret Park created space for artists and the public to investigate the concept of ‘lightness‘ and the spectacle, and its possibilities.

There is no spectacle without the spectator. We asked the participating artists to turn Pret Park into a hyperreal landscape in which visitors get scared, amazed, lost, energized, disappointed, moved, curious and confused. 13 artists worked together to help create an amazing event for which many artworks were especially made for the exhibition.

Left: ‘Blindfold Rollercoaster‘, Frank Koolen, 2014. Right: ‘Pure Functions Drink Bar’, Hannes Bernard, 2014. Photos: Ruben Pater. ‘Mascot Lab’, Tessel Brühl and Jaroslav Toussaint, 2014. Photo: Ruben Pater.

unimaginable attractions

Yasser Ballemans (NL) showed his interactive sculpture ‘Wave’. Hannes Bernard (ZA) created three especially brewed refreshing energy drinks to enhance the Pret Park experience. Tessel Brühl (NL) and Jaroslav Toussaint (DE) created a special mascot during the week, Helmut Dick (DE) created a new sculpture titled ‘Order of the Angles’, and Frank Koolen (NL) performed a blindfold rollercoaster. Roel Nabuurs & Willem van Amerom (NL) brought their Insectenbar with snacks of horror, Stefan Schäfer (DE) built a selfie house of horror, Christoph Scherbaum (DE) showed his work ‘Juke Closet’, and Maartje Smits (NL) made a work about playful captivity. Vladimir Turner (CZ) showed his movie ‘Merry-go-round’ and created a terrorist photo opportunity. Yuri Veerman (NL) invited people to use his stardust machine, exchanging hard earned currency for spectacular destruction.

seductive playgrounds

Designed by Anja Groten, the floorplan offered three routes through the Pret Park, the Hyper-reality route, the Nerve-wracking route, and the Hyper-active route. Using the amusement park as a conceptual form, the routes and the space offered none of the physical elements of an amusement park (rollercoasters, large constructions, shops, wheels of fortune, rows of people) but rather its experiences and emotions printed on large banners hanging over the exhibition, and as hidden experiences at each interactive artwork.

Pret Park debate.

explosive hair-raising visions

During the exhibition we wanted to facilitate public participation and discussion, so we created a series of events. There were artist talks by Vladimir Turner and Helmut Dick, a selfie extension workshop by Stefan Schäfer and Selby Gildemacher, a mascotte workshop by Tessel Brühl and Jaroslav Toussaint, and a sound performance by Christoph Scherbaum followed by a screening of ‘Punishment Park’ (1971) by Jeffrey Babcock with snacks of horror by the Insectenbar. A debate was organized about the role of the spectacle in the art world and moderated by Annelys de Vet. We invited artists, curators, designers and directors to join the discussion and share their view on the artistic spectacle.

More photos on the Mediamatic page.

Curated and designed by Selby Gildemacher, Anja Groten, and Ruben Pater. Printing by the Stencilzolder, Amsterdam. Thanks to all the participating artists, Jurgen Bey, Annelys de Vet, and all the debate participants.
Funded by Mediamatic, Amsterdam.


Kan, Leslie. ‘Spectacle’, Theories of Media Glossary, University of Chicago, 2004.
Leclaire, Annemiek. ‘Portret: Marcel Wanders’. Vrij Nederland, 2013.
Kemmer, Claudia and Daan van Lent. ‘Bussemaker is te streng bij cultuursubsidies’. NRC Handelsblad, 2014

A Taste of Dutch Colonialism

Amsterdam, April 2011

Negro Kiss, close-up. ‘Dutch Sweets’, Leon Dijkstra and Ruben Pater, 2011.</i>

In the Netherlands it is perfectly normal to enjoy a ‘jew cookie’, a ‘negro kiss’ or a ‘moor’s head’. Some of these Dutch sweets are centuries old and considered part of Dutch heritage despite their offensive names. Some of them have been renamed recently, but the stories behind them go back as far as the 1600s. Leon Dijkstra and I decided to collect information about the names and stories behind these offensively-named Dutch sweets.

‘Cocos palm plantation in the Dutch East Indies’, anonymous, ca. 1895 - ca. 1915. Image: Rijksmuseum.


The history of Dutch cookies begins in 1602 with the establishment of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) as the first Dutch colonial charter company. The VOC was set up especially by the States General of the Netherlands in order to profit from the Malukan spice trade. The Maluku islands is an archipelago in the east of present-day Indonesia. Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, English, and Arabs fought intensely over possession of the islands, which were valuable for its spices like nutmeg, cloves, and mace.

In 1605 the Dutch joined forces with the Islamic Hitu population and conquered the islands The Hitu rewarded the Dutch sole rights to purchase their valuable spices. The VOC enjoyed huge profits from its spice monopoly through most of the 17th century, and by 1669, the VOC was the richest private company the world had ever seen. The earning from the spice trade helped spawn a cultural golden age in Holland with painters like Rembrandt, Johannes Vermeer, and Jacob van Ruysdael.

Map of the Maluku Islands by Pieter van der Aa<, 1707.


Half a world away from the Maluku Islands, it was Amsterdam that became the centre of the spice distribution. All the spices were stored and traded here, making exotic spices like nutmeg, cloves, and cinnamon abundant in the city. Bakers used these exotic spices to make different variations of cookies like speculaas, a type of spiced shortcrust biscuit that contained cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, cardamom, and white pepper, and peperkoek (Dutch ginger bread) made with pepper, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, succade and nutmeg. In 17th century Amsterdam, speculaas and peperkoek were popular at the annual children's holiday Sinterklaas on December 5. Because of their large appetite for cookies, inhabitants of Amsterdam were nicknamed ‘cookie eaters’. Even the English word ‘cookie’ comes from the Dutch word koek.

<i>Sinterklaas</i>, on December 5 in the 1600’s. A basket of spiced cookies can be seen in the bottom left. Steen, Jan Havicksz. ‘Het Sint-Nicolaasfeest’, 1665 - 1668. Image: Rijksmuseum.


In 1949 the Dutch were forced to give up its East India colonies after pressure by the United Nations, and Indonesia declared independence. The Maluku were denied autonomy from Indonesia and many fled to the Netherlands. After 200 years of plantations, slave trade, and huge profits, Dutch colonial history had ended, but the influence of the spice trade and colonialism remained. During the 1950s, racial and cultural sensitivity was not as widespread as it is today. Some of the Dutch sweets were still named: 'Negro kiss’, ‘Moor’s head’, ‘Old hags’ cake’, ‘Jew Cookie’, ‘Jew fat’, and ‘Bastard Sugar’. Although the names were not necessarily derived from racial slurs, the fact that few found them offensive, reveals how colonial history can influence a lack of cultural and racial sensitivity.

Jew Cookie. ‘Dutch Sweets’, Leon Dijkstra and Ruben Pater, 2011.


Amongst the 10 Dutch Sweets in the booklet, the ‘Negro Kiss’ is the most infamous example of offensively named candy. A kind of marshmallow dipped in chocolate, the Negro Kiss’ originated in Denmark 200 years ago as Negerkys and spread throughout Europe as Negerzoen (Holland), Negerküss or Mohrenkopf (Germany), Negerinnetetten (Belgium) and Neekerinsuukot (Finland). In almost all European countries, the name was changed to ‘Chocolate Kiss’ by the 1980’s, but in Holland it didn’t happen until 2005 after a complaint by the Stichting Eer en Herstel Betalingen Slachtoffers van Slavernij (Foundation for Honor and Restoration for Victims of Slavery). Today, only in the German-speaking part of Switzerland the name ‘Negro Kiss’ is still in use.

Old Hags’ Cake, close-up. ‘Dutch Sweets’, Leon Dijkstra and Ruben Pater, 2011.

The colonial era is a dark chapter of Dutch history but its influence is unmistakably part of what Holland is today. Tourist flock by the millions to see the beauty of Amsterdam’s canal streets and the works of Rembrandt and Vermeer, which could not exist without the colonial profits of the VOC. They bring home Stroopwafels (Syrup waffles), Peperkoek, or Speculaas to enjoy some of the spiced cookies the Dutch are known for. There is still a strong link with Holland and the Maluku islands. Many Maluku have immigrated to Holland after Indonesia’s independence, and the Maluku government in exile (Republik Maluku Selatan) is still based in the Netherlands today.

Negro Kiss. ‘Dutch Sweets’, Leon Dijkstra and Ruben Pater, 2011.


In the last decade many of the offensive names of these sweets in our book have been changed, although there has been strong debate about the subject. This is the reason why some sweets like the ‘Jew Cookie’ and the ‘Moor's Head’ are still in use today. When we look at the role of traditions everywhere, they function like language, a fluid continuously changing set of historic references adapting to the modern age. In recent years, another debate has divided the country even more: the children's holiday Sinterklaas, where people dress up in blackface as slave helpers called zwarte pieten alongside a white saint called Sinterklaas. Activist and artist Quincy Gario has been at the forefront of the peaceful civil movement to rid the Netherlands of these last remaining racist traditions that are still being celebrated today. Although the first steps have been taken to end the blackface traditions, the fact that Gario is continuously slandered and threatened for his work tells us many are unable to accept the natural evolution of traditions.

With this book we hope to create some context behind some of these troubled traditions and help better understand the past of Dutch culture with the stories behind ten Dutch Sweets.

‘Dutch Sweets’, Leon Dijkstra and Ruben Pater, 2011.

Dutch Sweets is designed, collected and written by Leon Dijkstra and Ruben Pater.
Mimeographed by the Stencilzolder, Amsterdam in blue and red. For sale for €9 (NL) or €16 (World) at Motto bookstore.


Van Boven, M. W. ‘Towards A New Age of Partnership (TANAP): An Ambitious World Heritage Project (UNESCO Memory of the World – reg.form, 2002)’. VOC Archives Appendix 2, p.14.
de Smet, Tom. ‘Koek aan de gracht’, Biscuitworld, 2007.

The Fall-out of the Glitterati

Amsterdam, June 2011

Exhibition poster, silkscreen gold and black, Ruben Pater, 2011.

It was less than an hour after the earthquake when the first waves hit the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in Japan. The 14 meter high waves overwhelmed the 10 meter seawall, and flooded the generators causing the cooling systems to fail. It was the first act of the largest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1989. Less than three months later, a group of graphic designers organized an exhibition with a strong political angle inside a former nuclear shelter in Amsterdam.

Office worker hiding under the desk during a nuclear attack,‘Wenken’ publication, Jurriaan Schrofer, 1961

Weeks earlier, I had found an old publication from the cold war era in abandoned apartments nearby. De wenken (Warnings) was a small booklet designed by Jurriaan Schrofer in 1961 for the Dutch government to prepare citizens for a nuclear attack. The publication gave ridiculous instructions like hiding under desks during a nuclear attack. Writer Harry Mulisch immediately wrote a parody, further ridiculing the already unpopular Bescherming Bevolking (population protection) institute responsible for national preparation in case of an attack.

Fast forward to 2011, at a former nuclear shelter in the Vondelpark in Amsterdam. The Vondelbunker was part of a nationwide construction program of fall-out shelters. Contrary to common belief, fall-out shelters do not protect people from a nuclear attack, but are designed to keep people alive during the nuclear fall-out afterwards. At this fall-out shelter the exhibition would be held.

Left: Original anti-nuclear power protest logo by Anne Lund, 1975<br>Right: Button designs for the exhibition, 2011

Smiling Sun

When I was invited to design promotional materials for the event, I immediately thought about the recent discussion about nuclear power after the Fukushima incident. The show was titled ‘The Future is So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades’, after a popular song from 1986 by Timbuk3. The chosen song speaks about a nuclear scientist hoping to make big money through his studies. Set in a former nuclear shelter, titled after a 1980s nuclear protest song, it was clear nuclear energy had to be part of the exhibition’s promotional design.

The first image that comes to mind about nuclear energy is the ‘smiling sun’ icon from the 1970s protests. Used in many countries, the logo was first designed in Denmark for the Organisationen til Oplysning om Atomkraft by designer Anne Lund. A red image of smiling sun was accompanied with the text Atoomenergie? nee bedankt (Atomic energy? no thanks). It has become one of those graphic icons that are very powerful and still used today for protests against nuclear energy. I adopted this famous smiling sun, but I gave it a new look for this exhibition.

Page from the invitation booklet. Design: Ruben Pater, 2011.

Clouds of Glitter

Despite all the references to end of the world scenarios and nuclear distaster, the designers are a talented and joyful bunch, and a graduation show is always exciting. So I decided to create a glitter fallout rather than a nuclear one. Besides its obvious use in celebrations, glitter has become a LGBT protest meme with the ‘glitter bomb’ , where glitter is thrown at politicians that speak out against gay rights. Using glitter as a weapon for protest is a brilliant tactic, and it relates to the work of the designers in the exhibition whose projects were all political. U.S. Republican Rick Santorum glitter bombed by activists in 2012. Photo: AP.

The poster design featured particle typography hidden in dark clouds, with a layer of gold glitter on each silkscreened poster. The main image re-establishes the idea of nuclear fall-out, as a glamorous apocalyptic explosion of festivities, using glitter as material. The sensation of hazardous stardust of graduating talents unleashed on the world.

Commissioned by the Sandberg institute. Printing by drukkerij SSP and Kees Maas at the Rietveld Academy.

Poster detail with glitter particles. Ruben Pater, 2011.


VPRO, NPO Geschiedenis (Dutch only)

Delta Deluge

Amsterdam, November 2010

Map of the 74% of the Netherlands that is above sea level. Design: Ruben Pater, 2010.

Over half of the world’s population lives in delta and coastal communities, and the Netherlands are a prime example of this fact. Water provides a means of life and it attracts people. The downside is evident: these areas are prone to flooding, and too often suffer loss of life and huge economic losses due to catastrophic floods. Because of climate change we will see more and heavier floods in the world’s deltas, and we should acknowledge the precarity of these fertile but overpopulated areas. This project is a research into the future scenarios as the Dutch delta is threatened by rising sea levels.

The Dutch are known for living on land formerly known as sea. As early as the 11th century, coastal areas were reclaimed from the sea by enclosing them with embankments. Large European rivers like the Maes and the Rhine flow into the Dutch delta and these rivers flooded often. Living in the Netherlands was living with floods, whether is was the sea breaching dunes or the flooding of lands surrounding the rivers. To protect their reclaimed land the Dutch built dikes along rivers and large fortified dunes on the west coast. Today 26% of the Netherlands is below sea level, which also happens to be the economic centre. Nine million people live in this western part of the country and it is here were half of the Dutch GDP is created. Floods continue to pose a serious risk for the Dutch and their economic prosperity.

Weather signature of the 1953 flood. Design: Ruben Pater, 2010.

Temperature’s rising

There has been growing awareness about the effects of climate change since the 1980s. The international community took the first steps in 1992 with the Kyoto Protocol to globally reduce greenhouse gasses. Unfortunately the world’s largest polluters; China, India, and The United States refused to be part of it, rendering it worthless from the start. Denying climate change was not uncommon amongst politicians. U.S. President George W. Bush said uncertainties in climate science were too great to demand direct action, and his administration put political pressure on scientists to understate global warming and downplay its effects.

Left: Flood warning. Right: Polder politics, the Delta commission. Design: Ruben Pater, 2010.

It wasn’t until 2007 that the sense of urgency of climate change became more widespread with the movie ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ (2006) and the fourth assessment report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007. For the first time the IPCC report clearly stated that climate change was man-made with a 90% certainty. The report warned that if no immediate action would be taken, temperatures could rise with 4.8°C by 2100, with catastrophic effects.

Left: The largest Delta cities. Right: Decline of global rice production and population growth. Design: Ruben Pater, 2010.

Climate hype

The Dutch were in the spotlights when the IPCC listed them as one of the ten countries that would be first affected by the rising sea levels. Until then, the risk of flooding had been a long forgotten topic in the Netherlands. Now the Dutch government had gotten the message and installed a special commission called the Deltacommissie (delta commission) to prepared a Deltawet (delta law) that would prepare the Dutch flood fortifications for future scenarios. Current flood fortification standards had fallen behind, and it was calculated that a breach in the North sea barrier, however unlikely, would cause an estimated 400.000 deaths and cause 400 billion euro in damages.

In 2010 the political tide changed. The libertarian VVD became the largest party, a party that did not acknowledge climate change was man-made. They formed a government with the right-wing PVV who publicly said: “Stop spending money on a unproven climate hype”. Journalist Marcel Crok wrote a popular climate-denying bestseller in 2010: Staat van het klimaat (State of the Climate) in which he called the IPCC report ‘biased’. Although 97% of scientists agreed global warming was man-made, the Dutch were persuaded otherwise. A third of the Dutch did not believe climate change was caused by human activity. Under this government it is not surprising no action was taken to inform citizens about rising sea levels. The relation of the Dutch with water was actively promoted as ‘joyful’, with commercials showing happy swimming children with a styrofoam map of Holland.

IPCC scenario’s for global warming. Design: Ruben Pater, 2010.

Dutch Delta Technology

"God created the earth, but the Dutch created the Netherlands.” is a famous saying Dutch engineers like to use in their presentations when they go around the world to sell ‘Dutch Delta Technology’. Centuries of experience have given the Dutch tremendous advantage in knowledge about water management. Dutch engineers are deployed around the world and considered highly skilled in offshore activities, dredging, and water management. If your export product is delta technology, rising sea levels offer a growing market. Dutch engineers are working in flood prone cities like Jakarta, in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina, and New York City after hurricane Sandy. As a sinking country, the Dutch are better in selling their climate expertise abroad than in informing its own citizens about the risks at home.

Climate refugees and global borders. Design: Ruben Pater, 2010.

Delta Cities

Worldwide 634 million people live in delta megacities like Tokyo, New York, Mumbai, Shanghai, Jakarta, and Dhaka. Western countries like the Netherlands, the U.K. and the U.S. have the funds to build expensive flood defenses and invest in urban planning, but not the megacities in Southeast Asia whose densely populated informal settlements make them much more vunerable to floods.

Another perspective is the food crisis. Due to draught and rising sea levels, food production is projected to drop the coming 50 years, while the world population is expected to grow to 14 billion by 2100. Most of the world’s rice is grown in Southeast Asia, and rising sea levels means more saltwater and less place to grow food. At the same time flora and fauna is projected to drop by 20-40% worldwide. This confluence of events challenges us to take collective action in the next 50 years.

”It is fair to say that modernization has not prepared us especially well to the impact of the ecological crisis. Instead of preparing themselves, they entirely forgot they would have to equip themselves emotionally, institutionally, and legally for the tasks of a politics of nature.” - Bruno Latour


Bruijn, Jan Anthonie and Meiny Prins. Orde op zaken. Verkiezingsprogramma VVD, 2010.
Latour, Bruno. “Politics of nature: East and West perspectives”, Ethics & Global Politics, 2011.
Pachauri, R.K. and Reisinger, A. (Eds.). Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2007.

Are you Prepared for Flooding?

Amsterdam, April 2011

First Dutch Flood manual. Design: Ruben Pater, 2011.

Of all natural disasters floods are the most common. They cause more damage than all other natural disasters combined. In the Netherlands large parts of the country are below sea level, which makes the country very vulnerable to flooding. Global warming has caused sea levels to rise, and sooner or later the Netherlands will be flooded again. This flood protection manual provides practical information to prepare you and your family against a flood. So you will be better prepared for future scenarios.

How the water has changed the Netherlands throughout history. Design: Ruben Pater, 2011.

In 2005 hurricane Katrina caused a major flooding in New Orleans. The disaster took the lives of 1,833 people and caused a property damage of $108 billion. If such a flood would happen in the Netherlands, one of the most densely populated countries in the world, its effects would be much more devastating. Despite this high risk, 80% of the Dutch do not worry about the risks of flooding. This manual was founded in an earlier research about the relation the Dutch have with water and climate change.

Dutch flag evolution in times of climate change. Design: Ruben Pater, 2011.

Water is your friend

Until recently, the Dutch government did not actively inform its citizens about the risks of flooding. Campaigns were launched presenting water ’as a friend’, to be enjoyed for recreational purposes like sports or river landscapes. While countries like the U.K., Japan, and the U.S. provide detailed online information and free leaflets about how to prepare for flooding, in the Netherlands there was no such information available. In his dissertation ‘Flood Preparedness’ from 2010, Teun Terpstra from Twente University describes the lack of communication about flood risk by the Dutch government, and why general disaster preparation campaigns do not work. In order for citizens to take action, disaster risk communication needs a sense of urgency.

Flood instructions, First Dutch Flood manual. Design: Ruben Pater, 2011.

First Flood Manual

Since the Dutch government was not informing citizens, I decided to create the first Dutch flood manual to provoke government officials and influence public opinion. The manual contains basic flood preparedness information taken from official flood warning documents in the U.K., and local Dutch sources. Besides a chapter about flood preparedness and what to do during a flood, the manual also includes a speculative chapter about a world where the land is permanently flooded. A new infrastructure is proposed, where the ‘country formerly known as the Netherlands’ becomes a giant windmill park with advertising billboards, so money can still be made from tourism and water sports.

Life after the Flood, First Dutch Flood manual. Design: Ruben Pater, 2011.

Survival is a False Idol

Having a flood manual at home does not protect you from a flood, nor does the Drone Survival Guide save you from drone attacks. Survival as a narrative is often used to distract attention from the root causes of these dangers. Instructing citizens how to survive a flooding is cheaper than stopping rising sea levels by cutting down CO2 emissions and slowing down economic growth. This shifts the responsibility of global collective problems to the individual. If you are not prepared for a flood, you are to blame when you drown, and not industries and governments that keep polluting and let sea levels rise. By using the survival narrative I try to use this same sense of urgency to talk about the underlying environmental and socio-economic problems. The flood manual is a strategy to have people discuss climate change and how this will affect our way of life if we do not act today, and in Holland flooding is the most urgent way to do this.

Flood Desk Enkhuizen, Zuiderzeemuseum, Enkhuizen. Ruben Pater, 2012.

A New Collectivity

Neoliberalism has shifted responsiblity from the state to the individual by privatizing critical infrastructure and cutting public services. While the dangers of global issues like climate change and income inequality are growing, governments no longer accept responsibility for collective well-being, but instead emphasize the power of the citizens’ own agency. A narrative is presented that if only citizens buy more energy-saving lights and water saving shower heads, climate change can be averted. In reality one factory can use same the amount of energy of a large city, and unless governments cap emissions to a sustainable level and promote green energy on a large scale, the effects of climate change cannot be solved by consumer behaviour alone. The complex global issues of our time demand a new kind of collective responsibility that supersedes the actions of individuals or individual countries.

Flood Desk. Zuiderzeemuseum, Enkhuizen. Ruben Pater, 2012.

After the Flood

Between the IJsselmeer and the the North Holland lowlands lies the old fishing town of Enkhuizen. This area has always been threatened by floods, and this is where the Zuiderzeemuseum asked me to create an installation as part of an exhibition about water. I chose to transform a building into a flood information desk. A fictive government agency would be there to inform citizens about flooding. However the flood information desk would be unmanned, and a kind voice-over would inform visitors that the flood desk had been abandoned due to flooding, and they had to await instructions. Everyone knows the feeling of powerlessness when a government institution is unavailable, and for me this was a way of addressing how governments retreat from public domain and shift responsibility to citizens with devastating consequences.

Visit the project website if you wish to order a manual or to find out more about the project. Dutch only.


Terpstra, Teun. ‘Flood Preparedness’. University of Twente, January 15, 2010.
‘What to do before, during and after a flood’, Environment Agency, November 2010.

The Excess
of Success

Amsterdam, March 2011

Amsterdam Zuidas. Photo: Paul Abspoel.

In Amsterdam’s financial district Zuidas, property prices are the highest in the Netherlands, and still office spaces remain vacant. This project is a way of using this space to supply a common need. Surplus is a bar which pops-up in empty office spaces at the Zuidas using discarded materials, objects and foods from neighboring businesses. This way excess materials can be reused to create a space for social interaction and meeting other Zuidas inhabitants and workers without barriers of income or social class.

“From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly everything is possible again.”
- Mark Fisher, ‘Capitalism Realism’, 2009.

The appendix

The Zuidas (South Axis) is a financial district in the south of Amsterdam which has been under development since 1998. The place was never particularly pretty or liveable, but it is strategically placed next to the A10 freeway, close to Schiphol airport, and has a train station where international trains depart. The city has chosen this connected wasteland to become the next ‘La Defènse’ or ‘Canary Wharf’.

Architect Rem Koolhaas mentions the importance of the Southeast area in his plan for the IJ embankments back in 1991. Since the centre of Amsterdam cannot grow, new centres like the Southeast need to be explored: “It’s relatively simple to let these areas thrive; because `freedom is the decisive factor of these spontaneous developments, freedom in connections especially’. It has been said that these developments are also in the interest of the city. But this could be a dangerous paradox: the centre would become the appendix of the appendix”.

Beer coasters silkscreen printed with left-over inks as invitations to the Surplus opening. Printed at the Rietveld silkscreen workshop with Kees Maas.

Limits of Growth

By 2006 the Zuidas was growing quickly with the economy at an all-time high. All the big banks and law firms wanted a piece of it, commissioning architects like Norman Foster, Rafael Viñoly, UN studio, and Toyo Ito to build their new offices there. The Zuidas was making money fast and pushed forward in 2007 with an expensive plan in to reroute the freeway and train lines underground, thus creating a connecting ground surface for more real estate. The final step would turn the Zuidas into a full-fledged new centre.

As fast as the buildings rose from the ground, the construction stopped when the financial crisis hit. Banks that had just finished their new headquarters had to be bailed out by taxpayers. By 2010 many offices were vacant, totalling a 14% of all office space. Since the Zuidas is mainly made up of offices, the district is completely deserted after business hours and on weekends. From this scenario I was asked together with other students of the Sandberg Institute Design Department and VU University to come up with ideas to increase liveability in the Zuidas.

Found materials at AKZO headquarters on the Zuidas.

Wasteland Zuidas

From the start, the Zuidas had been a high value area. With every square meter counting, there was no incentive to use the space for parks, playgrounds, or open water. The consequence is that unless you work at a big firm or you live in an expensive condominium, there is no reason for you to be there.

Many students that participated found the premise of the project questionable. Designing liveability in a district that only the most wealthy can afford to live or work in, is a rather paradoxal question in times of crisis. Therefore many of us started to investigate the fabric and structure of the area to find out what was lacking.

Map of the Zuidas with all vacant office spaces highlighted.

Free Zuidas

When I obtained a map with all the vacant offices on the ground floor, it showed empty overpriced office spaces as scattered physical voids of the value that had vanished after the financial meltdown. Like laid-off office workers, these were valuable assets that had been rendered obsolete by the market. My plan was to use all these valuable people, materials, and spaces to organize a pop-up bar. This bar would try to do what squatters had done for decades: create a cheap space for people of all incomes and backgrounds.

White Housing Plan, Provo, 1966. Text: Auke Boersma.


Amsterdam has a history of putting abandoned real estate to good use. In 1964 there was a massive housing shortage while at the same time entire city blocks were abandoned. Students saw the opportunity and started squatting empty buildings. In 1966 the art and activist movement Provo started the ‘White housing plan’. The doors of empty building were painted white, encouraging people to squat them.

Since the 1960s squatting has been central to the cultural scene in Amsterdam. Today many of the most popular bars, music venues, galleries, and debate centres started as squats. Unfortunately since 2010 squatting is illegal in Holland and many collectively run cinema's, bars and other venues were forced to close. In that light, the notion of ‘designing liveability’ stands in stark contrast to a city that forcefully closes down spaces for social and public gathering.


Someone who thought hard about the voids in the capitalist system was Karl Marx. Central to his critique of the capitalist economy is the surplus value created by workers. Ideally the product is sold for a price that is the value of the labor plus its needed materials. In the capitalist economy it is more profitable to pay workers a minimum wage and sell the product for a higher price. Therefore the worker creates more value than he/she receives in wages, which is the surplus value. This difference between material value and market value is similar to the housing bubble that led to the economic crisis of 2008. Value is created through speculation without any relation to the material value. When the market drops, value is lost and people lose their jobs, office spaces become vacant, etc. That is why the bar is named ‘Surplus’. It is a way to use this lost value and bring it back to the Zuidas in a physical form.

To find the materials for the Surplus bar, I went by the offices in the Zuidas. It was easier than I expected to find materials for the inventory. Offices are not focused on using as little material as possible. Rather than repairing something, they just order new supplies. The first company I went to had a large storage with four good as new office chairs that had been replaced by new ones. After visiting three offices I had collected seven office chairs, one desk, one drawer, two kitchen carts, a golfclub, a broken fridge and twelve letter trays. More than enough to set up my office-inspired squat bar.

Surplus trash cycle.

Trash Flow

Going around the Zuidas and visiting garbage disposal areas gave me some insights into how this ‘trash flow’ is handled. For instance, have you ever seen trash at a corporate headquarters? Of course not. Trash remains hidden, kept out of sight in garbage disposal spaces within buildings to keep a clean image. Only the weekly garbage truck that picks up the containers is a sign of waste disposal. I found tons of cables, computers and screens which would all be incinerated, but which I was not allowed to use for legal reasons. The danger of sensitive company information falling into the hands of others was more important than reusing perfectly good computers and screens. Wasting resources for the sake of corporate accountability.

Finding surplus foods turned out to be more challenging. Supermarkets throw away loads of perfectly edible food, but do not give it away by policy. They do not want lines of hungry people outside, so they rather throw it away. Restaurants I visited said they rarely had leftovers. Then I found a sushi restaurant, who said they had to throw out a lot of sushi each day which was still perfectly edible. On the day of the opening they had two trays full of Surplus sushi for us.

Surplus bar

Surplus Opening

On March 1, 2011 the Surplus bar was opened as part of the exhibition in the Kunstkapel on the Zuidas. Every item I had collected was used in some way. Advertising material became tables, letter trays were used to serve cookies and snacks, the food warmer trolley as dj table. Each item had a sticker saying which Zuidas business it was from. A former Zuidas worker was hired as bartender, and drinks and glassware were supplied by the Kunstkapel. After the bar closed, the items were not thrown away but auctioned off for prices starting at €1. Proceeds were used to cover the project costs.

This pilot of the Surplus bar was an experiment to show how value is created and lost in our current economic system. I set up a recycle loop to use all the materials and food that is being thrown away every day, and bring those together with laid-off workers and empty office spaces. Businesses on the Zuidas were invited, especially those who supplied materials, but none showed up. It would have been a great way to start a dialogue about what value means in the most expensive area of the Netherlands.

Surplus bar opening

Materials supplied by ABN AMRO, AKZO Nobel, WTC. Sushi supplied by Sushi Time WTC.


Fisher, Mark. Capitalism Realism, 2009.
Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 1887.

Driving the News in
East Africa

Dar-es-Salaam, February 2011

Dala Dala in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania. Photo: Ruben Pater.

Minibus taxis are the main public transportation in many countries around the world. For many it is the only way to get around the city. Their names are different per country: Bush Taxi, Collectivo, Dolmuş, Marshrutka, Jeepney, Dala Dala, Matatu, and many more. In Tanzania, a Dutch entrepeneur had the idea to make a talkshow inside a minibus, and I was involved in the identity design.

Minibus Taxi Park, Kampala, Uganda. Image:

Shared taxis are a form of regulated informal transport, fulfilling the needs in countries that lack a state funded public transport system. In East Africa the routes are often based on commuter demand, and even without central planning it is highly efficient. There are set routes, but it stops whenever people need to be picked up or dropped off. Taking minibuses can be frustrating since they leave only when the bus is full, which can take a long time if you’re unlucky.

Minibuzz identity. Ruben Pater, Lava design.

Dala Dala

In June 2010 the talkshow ‘Dala Dala’ was launched on TV in Tanzania. Every weekday the show is recorded inside a minibus during the morning rush hour traffic in Dar-Es-Salaam. Passengers get on the minibus and are invited on camera to discuss topics like local politics, corruption, elections, AIDS, gender equality, etc. Minibuses (called Dala Dala in Tanzania) are primarily used by the middle- and lower classes which gives them a unique chance to share their opinions on TV, a medium which is in Tanzania is usually dominated by wealthy male politicians. The program is viewed by 3.5 million viewers each evening in Tanzania and 2 million in Uganda.

Vinyl sticker application for Kenya design. Photo: Made in Africa.

Bright Lights, Big City

In 2011 I arrived in the capital of Tanzania, Dar-Es-Salaam, the fastest growing city in Africa. I went to work in the office of Dala Dala on the new identity for the programme. In my trips around this huge city of 4 million people I saw many Dala Dala driving around, all painted in bright colors, often with depictions of religion or rockstars. Many Dala Dala operators try to attract customers by playing loud music, adding fluorescent lights, and paint elaborate artworks on the sides. Since our minibus also had to stand out in a bustling rush hour traffic with thousands of brightly colored others, we decided to go for a very simple and minimal design.

Dazzle Branding

In each country in East Africa, the minibus has a different name. Matatu in Kenya, Dala Dala in Tanzania, and Taxi in Uganda. We decided to use these names in combination with each nation’s flag colors to create a dizzying pattern on the bus, much like television lines. A graphic ‘modernist’ form designed to stand out in the usual minibus traffic on the streets of Nairobi or Dar-Es-Salaam. Also the design could be easily and cheaply adapted for any country and any name, and still keep a sense of recognizability in each country.

Minibuzz in Uganda. Photo: Minibuzz Facebook.

Modernist Hubris

Almost a year after the design was implemented, we received news that the design was extremely unpopular with viewers both in Tanzania and Uganda. The modernist typographic design was seen as strange, ugly and uninviting. The design was never tested with the audience before implementing it. The bus was painted over a year later by another designer, featuring a more naturalistic design of people sitting in the bus. The name was changed from different local names to a global brand called ‘Minibuzz’.

Looking back I was more focused on creating an original design that ‘stood out’ in a street environment, than making something that was socially and practically useful. In retrospect a classic case of modernist design hubris, stemming from a Dutch design tradition, allowing us to put designs in the world that are beautiful and conceptually strong, but sometimes with complete neglect for local social and economic environments.

Minibuzz in Uganda. Photo: Minibuzz Facebook.

Made at Lava design.
More information on Made in Africa TV here.


Neuwirth, Robert. ‘Stealth of Nations: The Global Rise of the Informal Economy’, October 2012.
Packer, George. ‘The Megacity Decoding the chaos of Lagos’, The New Yorker, November 13, 2006.
Kassa, Ferdaku. ‘Informal transport and its effects in the developing world - a case study of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’ Journal of Transport Literature, April 2014.

Patterns of Power

Amsterdam, February 2011

The world knows many fortified borders, many of which are heavily guarded. Some divide nations at war, like North and South Korea. Some divide the rich and the poor like the borders between Spain and Morocco. When we look closer at these walls of the world, the fences create distinctive patterns, designed and constructed to withstand forces of migration. Each fence has its own unique metal signature. I used these patterns to create a series of journals called ‘Borders of the World Notebooks’.

Fence at New Mexico Santa Teresa port of Entry. Photo courtesy of US Customs and Borders Protection.

Many of today’s borders were drawn by 19th and 20th century colonial powers. The location of these borders was often decided far away in Europe. In 1916 the Englishman Mark Sykes and the Frenchman François Georges-Picot held a secret meeting to divide the Ottoman empire into what is now the Middle East. Famously Sykes said ”I should like to draw a line from the e in Acre to the last k in Kirkuk.’ This straight line still marks the border between Syria, Jordan, and Iraq today.

Borders of the World Notebooks. Design: Ruben Pater, 2011.

The New Frontiers

While our digital and financial traffic today is less and less bound by borders, the physical borders between countries are becoming more and more fortified. 75% of all border fortifications between countries have been built in the last 13 years and 20-35 new border fences have been built since 2000. Since September 11 countries have used the threat of terrorism to construct border walls that are meant to stop immigration. In 2001 India started to built a 4,100 km fence on its border with Bangladesh, in 2006 the border between Mexico and the United States was heavily fortified in name of terrorism, and between 2000 and 2003 a wall was erected on the West Bank between Israel and Palestine. Six of these borders are used for the Borders of the World Notebooks.

South Korean soldiers patrol the barbed-wire fence at the demilitarized zone. Photo: AP Photo/Korea Pool.

Korean Wildlife

The border between North and South Korea is one of the most heavily guarded in the world. Skirmishes on the border between both sides still occur regularly. The border is a 4 kilometer wide demilitarized zone (DMZ) which has divided the two countries since 1953. Uninhabited for over 50 years, the DMZ has become an unintentional wildlife reserve where black bears, leopards, and some say Siberian tigers can roam freely. The fence depicted on the notebook is the South Korean side. Little is known about the fence on the North Korean side, but it claims there are six layers of border fortifications, of which two are electric fences.

Storming of the Spanish enclave Melilla by thousands of immigrants in 2005. Photo: Melilla Hoy.

At the Gates of Europe

Spanish enclaves Melilla and Ceuta are the only land borders between Africa and the European Union. In 1999 the Spanish government rebuilt the barrier at Melilla into a 6 meter high double tier fence to stop immigrants trying to enter Europe. Guarded with cameras, motion- and noise detectors, and helicopters the fence at Melilla is the most fortified border in Europe. Thousands of immigrants still try to cross the fence every year, and in 2005 a large group of immigrants climbed the fences in several waves. A razor wire layer was removed in 2007 after the many deep cuts it inflicted led to mass protests.

On the other side of the Mediterranean, the Greek government built a fence to stop immigrants from entering the EU via Turkey. The Evros fence was completed in 2012 and is 4 meters high with watch towers, foot patrols and thermal cameras. The EU did not support the erection of the fence, because it would not be effective enough, so the Greeks ended up paying for it themselves. Since the erection of the fence, immigration through the Greek-Turkish border has declined drastically.

Notebook for the Melilla fence. Design: Ruben Pater, 2011.

Wall of Death

Borders take casualties. At least one migrant dies every day at the U.S. - Mexico border. On the Mediterranean over 3,000 migrants died between 1997 and 2000, most of them while attempting to cross the Straits of Gibraltar. One of the deadliest border fences in the world is between India and Bangladesh, which locals call the ‘Wall of Death’. Between 2001 and 2011 nearly 1,000 Bangladeshis were killed by the India Border Security Forces (BSF). The BSF has a ‘shoot on sight’ policy even when unarmed civilians cross the border illegally. In Bangladesh smuggling is the second largest industry, so crossing the border is for many the only way to make a living. Although still under construction more than 3,326 of the planned 4,100 kilometer of fence is finished, making it currently the longest border fence in the world.

An India Border Security Force soldier near a killed Bangladeshi in 2009. Photo: unknown.

Digital Borders

The future of border security is biometric technology. Many border crossings already use face detection and recognition software, and since 2006 most countries have biometric passports. The European Union is working on a digital border system called OPARUS that combines satellites, drone surveillance, biometric information and sensors to spot every immigrant before they enter Europe. This digital border will be enforced well outside Europe's actual borders in countries like Morocco, Turkey, Mauretania, and Tunisia.

Border patrol will happen more and more in command centres far away from the borderlines, and border police will be replaced by autonomous weapons systems. The U.S. currently deploys the same Predator drones on the border with Mexico as are used in warzones to find and kill terrorists. Autonomous machine guns are already used on the border walls of Israel and South Korea with long range electro-optical sensors that can locate and destroy targets by themselves, so-called ‘robo-snipers’.

Notebook of the Greece-Turkey fence. Design: Ruben Pater, 2011.

While borders are increasingly digitized, the construction of new border fences is still on the rise. Global inequality and the dangers of climate change have widened the gap between the global South and the global North, and we should question if building higher fences is really a solution to problems that are socio-economic at heart.

Automated Machinegun at the West Bank border wall, Israel. Photo: Sentry Tech

For more information and to buy one of the six notebooks you can visit the project website.

Mimeographed by the Stencilzolder, Amsterdam.


Dunn, Timothy and Joseph Nevins. ‘Barricading the Border’ Counterpunch, November 14-16, 2008.
Humphrey, Michael. ‘Migrants, Workers and Refugees’. Middle East Report. March-April 1993.
Naik, Vipul. ‘How Did We Get Here? Chinese Exclusion Act — Implementation (1882-1910)’ Open Borders, January 29, 2015.
Osman, Tarek. ‘Why border lines drawn with a ruler in WW1 still rock the Middle East’, BBC News, December 14, 2013.
Pécoud, Antoine and Paul de Guchteneire. ‘International Migration, Border Controls and Human Rights: Assessing the Relevance of a Right to Mobility’, Journal of Borderlands Studies. Spring 2006.
Wittenberg, Dick. ‘De terugkeer van de Muur’. De Correspondent, September 30, 2013.

Corporate Nationality

Amsterdam, September 2010

The role of government is changing. The economic crisis and an aging population have forced European social democracies to trade in the welfare state for a more neoliberalist agenda. To validate the farewell of the welfare state and the implementation of austerity measures, governments have turned to marketing to sell their new policies. In the Netherlands this culminated in a new visual identity of the state in 2008. This project investigates the rebranding and its implications.

Design: Fictional identity manual. Ruben Pater, 2010.

In the beginning of the 2000s the arrival of right-wing politician Pim Fortuyn led to a shift in the political landscape. As a spokesperson against the alleged failed multiculturalism by previous socialist cabinets, his popularity gave rise to a populist constituency and right-wing parties like the PVV (Party for Freedom) with its leader Geert Wilders. This changed constituency has incited parties left and right of the political center to embrace a more populist sentiment into their political programmes.

Top: Old logo’s of the Ministry of Culture, and the Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment. Bottom: The same logo’s in the new state identity.

One Nation, One Logo

In this changed political environment the government ordered development of a new identity in 2007. Since the 1970s each ministry had commissioned its own identity design, leading to a fragmentation that was lacking a branding strategy, but highly stimulating for the Dutch graphic design industry. It allowed individual ministry officials to commission playful identity designs that would not have been possible in the context of nation branding. The purpose of the new identity was not just to create a homogeneous state image, but also to save expenses by centralizing visual communication.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte in the rebranded press backdrop.

Between Rules and Freedom

The design competition was won by Studio Dumbar, who proposed the national coat of arms in a slightly modern aesthetic. The national coat of arms from 1815 was reminiscent of a time when state symbols had to show force and convey military superiority. Some countries still use the national coat of arms symbol as a state logo, but in the Netherlands this visual language is only used for traditional authoritarian institutions like the military, the police, and the royal family. By introducing this symbol for all state activities including ‘soft’ institutions like healthcare, education, and art, it transformed the representation of the state into a stronger and stricter agent. The ‘shield’ logo can be viewed as a representation of the 2010 cabinet policies which focussed heavily on security, and led to stricter immigration laws, and more privacy-invading surveillance measures.

Type specimen of the new state typeface, with slogans from the last cabinets. Design: Ruben Pater.

Corporate Patriotism

The blue color of business and the neutral typography gave the new state logo a flair of corporate culture. This resonates with a growing tendency of governments treating citizens like clients, and describing their services as ‘products’. Branding guru Wally Olins calls this phenomenon ‘corporate patriotism’. This changing role of government is also illustrated by the new Dutch Prime Minister. Historically Dutch Prime Pinisters began their careers in public roles like scientists, law professors, union leaders, or government officials. In 2010, Mark Rutte was the first to go from a manager at Dutch multinational Unilever to becoming Prime Minister.

Publication with AKZO Nobel logo and slogan. Design: Ruben Pater.

The Fluid State

In the Netherlands relations between multinationals and government are becoming more and more intertwined. Politicians are drafted from the ranks of Dutch multinationals like Shell and Unilever, or end up joining their ranks after their time in office is up. Former Minister of Transport Camiel Eurlings became CEO of KLM, former Minister of Finance Wouter Bos worked at Shell, and now works at KPMG, and former Minister of Finance Gerrit Zalm is now CEO of ABN AMRO bank. As switching jobs between the government and multinationals has become more and more accepted, we should ask ourselves if politicians are able to make policy to curb corporate interests if their future career could depend on it.

Progressive branding

In this project I expanded the government identity to be a more inclusive system. Multinationals and the state already form partnerships on trade missions where foreign politics and trade agreements go together like milk and cookies. Dutch brands like KLM, Unilever, Shell, Heineken, and Philips deliver the soft power that enforce the Dutch national brand at home and abroad. Even the slogans of multinationals and the state are crafted from the same marketing language, and becoming interchangeable. With this expansion the identity allows for a more flexible and transparant communication for the future government.


Ham, Peter van. ‘Place Branding: the State of the Art’, The Netherlands Institute of International Relations “Clingendael”, 2008.
Olins, Wally. ‘Branding the Nation - the Historical context’. The Journal of Brand Management, April 2002.