Water is both a curse and a blessing. We are dependent on it: we must drink it, it is essential for farming, but it also causes floods. Maas Paradox is an exhibition in which designers, artists, and residents consider the impact of climate change on the lives of people in the Meuse region.
The Meuse (Maas in Dutch) flows through five countries, along the residential areas of nine million people, where three different languages and twenty-two dialects are spoken. The river brings great prosperity but also causes floods and droughts. Large portions of the Meuse valley are particularly at risk. For centuries, people in the Meuse region have lived with the threat of flooding, developing all kinds of self-sufficiency. Maas Paradox surveys these experiences and seeks possible answers to the question of whether and how climate change will alter life on the banks of the Meuse. Together with Han Dijk, urban planner at Posad spatial strategies, I was invited by Saskia van Stein, director of Bureau Europa in Maastricht, to be the curator and designer of Maas Paradox.
Floating villas in drowning cities
Many exhibitions discuss climate change in a global context, but scrutinizing its local effects are far more difficult. The city of Maastricht lies in the utmost southern part of the Netherlands, bordering on Germany and Belgium. Its hilly landscape is very different from the flat western part, where the majority of the Dutch live and the national government is housed. To ensure that the message of the exhibition would resonate with local inhabitants, the exhibition was based on research of the local effects of climate change.
As curators we wanted to use the exhibition about the Meuse region to expand the knowledge for design and architecture about climate change to informal solutions by regular citizens. Often enough, plans by designers and architects for climate change mitigation or adaptation are luxury solutions such as floating villas or high-tech devices that cater to the survival needs of the richest 1%. This exhibition acknowledges that the effects of climate change will be felt by citizens, and we should approach this as collective rather than individual forms of adaptation. This is why we invited artist Klaas Burger to conduct interviews with people living in flood-prone areas about their experiences.
During three months, Untold Stories and the urban planners and architects from Posad, with help of the University of Maastricht premium programme conducted research. The region’s climate, history, and hydrography was explored through three paradoxes: scarcity and abundance, border and connection, and source and drain. During the process, the research was shared with artists who were commissioned to create new works for the exhibition.
The research resulted in a detailed 16 meter long map of the Meuse basin on the wall of the museum, with marked flood-prone areas, industrial areas and nuclear power plants, drinking water intake areas, and sewage plants. The map, made by Posad, also functioned as an exhibition guide, and was distributed for free in a foldable version.
The local impact of each paradox was further explained in wall texts and in the museum guide. We looked into the local effects of pollution, flood, drought, biodiversity, water quality, water temperature, and drinking water. To distill all this information for a larger audience, the main conclusions of the research were summarized into one large infographic with facts about the impact of climate change on the region.
Source and drain
The Meuse rises on the Langres Plateau in France, subsequently dropping four hundred meters over a distance of 935 km. This natural flow makes the Meuse and its connecting rivers prone to pollution. Only 2.5% of the water in the world is fresh water, making humans very dependent on the fresh water supplies of rivers like the Meuse. The region relies on the river for drinking water and agricultural irrigation. Industries need river water for cooling power plants and transporting materials. A lot of heavy industry operated along the Meuse during the twentieth century. Today, two nuclear power stations are on the river’s banks, and everything released into the river follows its flow downstream.
We invited artists that work with river ecology and its pollution. Koos Buist is a Dutch artist who made a film of the life inside a ditch using a camera on a stick. His movie Sloot (2006) gives the viewer a peek through a muddy clouded water and reveals the abundancy of life on a micro biological level. Foekje Fleur van Duin is a designer who collects trash along the banks of the Meuse. She uses these empty plastic bottles take make molds for porcelain vases, transforming people’s trash into design objects. Bottle Vases emphasises the pollution of plastic packaging material along the Meuse.
Unknown Fields Division from the U.K. takes pollution and water in a global perspective, and by taking polluted soil from a Chinese Rare Earth Minerals mine and transporting it back to the U.K. through international shipping. The film takes the viewer through the networks of global logistics of the polluted industries that make our everyday products. Rare Earthenware (2014) uses the amount of toxic waste used to make a smartphone, a battery, and a laptop, and makes ceramics out of the toxic soil.
The history of water management as design is explored by LOLA lanscape architects. They used their extensive knowledge on Dutch water design from their book Dutch Dikes (2014) to create a narrative on the history of dikes as a method of design. From the earliest dikes built by monks using simple hand tools, to the massive high-tech flood fortifications that are currently in use.
Scarcity and abundance
Our dependence on water gives rise to scarcity and abundance. Examples of scarcity are drought and the lack of freshwater occurring in the world’s warmer regions. Examples of abundance are increasing rainfall, cumulative flood risks, and rising sea levels. Global inequality highlights the paradox of scarcity and abundance. Poorer countries will be less capable of protecting themselves against climate change, and its effects will hit the poorest half of the world’s population hardest, leading to rising tensions resulting from immigration. The Western world’s present-day abundance allows us to buy and own more goods than we can ecologically handle.
Henriëtte Waal is a designer who researched the history of an Belgian mining town with Mien Blééch (2015). While there is an abundance of high-quality drinking in this Belgian part of the Meuse region, the local residents drink bottled water. Bottled water is not only 1000 times more expensive than tap water, its production also produces 500 times more CO2 emissions. To promote the drinking of tap water in the area she designed new water bottles. Its design is based on the canteens the miners used, and are produced using hydroforming technology.
Ursula Biemann exposes the unequal relation between fossil fuel use in the Global North and its effects in the Global South. Her film Deep weather (2013) is set in the Canadian tar sands where Shell oil has transformed boreal forests into a massive open strip mine, and juxtaposes the images to scenes on the coast of Bangladesh where flood threats are countered with thousands of sandbags manually carried to stop the water. Designer and artist Jorge Bakker approaches the speculative social aspects of cohabitation in his work In Search of Habitat (2012). A series of works on buoyancy and living environments as scale models in times of flooding.
Border and connection
The Meuse became a national boundary after the 1839 Belgian Revolution. Historically, many rivers are also borders, and river crossings are strategically important. Rivers, therefore, had fortifications along them, and some still exist on the Meuse such as the Eben-Emael Fort south of Maastricht. Since the 1995 Schengen agreement, the EU allows free mobility of persons and goods, and national borders are no longer actively patrolled. The recent reintroduction of guarding some EU borders is due to the influx of refugees. Some even want border fences within the EU. What effects could this have if the Meuse becomes a guarded border?
In The Meuse region many different nationalities and languages live side by side. Its transnational identity supercedes the link with the capitals in Amsterdam and Brussels, which are literally and culturally far removed. How do these differences create new forms of cohabitation and culture?
Roderik Rotting was commissioned to film the life along one of the Meuse’s branches. He found the population of this former mining country had been slowly shrinking, and was now trying to revive itself as a tourist attraction. In Tributary 28 (2016) he follows residents and tourists along the beautiful landscapes around the river, while cars and motorbikes pass at loud volume. The paradox of this artificial landscape is not lost on the viewer. Polder Cup is a film from 2010 by artist Maider López in which she organized a football championship in a Dutch polder landscape. The football field was intersected by waterways, as polders are, so players and audience had to find ways to adapt to the landscape.
The main space featured a pavilion especially designed by architecture studio Monadnock. The pavilion showed four video works, but also functioned as a centerpiece of the show. The structure reminds the visitor of the traditional timber framing architecture of the Meuse region. It is built slightly slanted as if afloat or frozen at the point of submerging. The angles make the seating for the video works slanted, creating a sense of vertigo for the viewers. This psychological state of confusion is mirrored in the exhibition colours, a low-contrast of bright blue and red, as in psychedelic or optical art. In this case the water is not represented in blue but in red. All references to water on the map and posters are made red.
The walls are covered with a map of the Meuse region on one side, and a large infographic with research done on the local effects of climate change on the other side. All information was both in Dutch and English. Scattered in the space are six seating objects where interviews can be heard with residents of the region conducted by artist Klaas Burger. The three smaller rooms in the museum each represent one paradox by one or more works. All the works in the exhibition relate to specific local effects and contexts of the Meuse region, except the works in the pavilion. To extrapolate the local circumstances to the global contexts of climate change, the four video works deal with the pollution of global capitalist production, risk of flooding in the Netherlands compared to the conditions in the Global South, the life in water at a microbiological level, and new forms of collectivity in a changing landscape.
Maas Paradox was on view at Bureau Europa from November 5, 2016 to January 22, 2017.
Curated and designed by Han Dijk and Ruben Pater at the invitation of Saskia van Stein, director of Bureau Europa.
Research by Posad spatial strategies, Untold Stories, and students of the University of Maastricht Premium programme.
Featuring work by Jorge Bakker, Ursula Biemann, Koost Buist, Klaas Burger, Foekje Fleur van Duin, Monadnock LOLA landscape architects, Maider López, Posad spatial strategies, Roderik Rotting, Unknown Fields Division, Untold Stories, Henriëtte Waal with Jenny Stieglitz.
Thanks to Saskia van Stein, Stefan Meuleman, Ilona van Brekel, Joyce Larue, Jason Coburn, Agnes Cornelissen, and all the Bureau Europa staff.
More photos and information on the Bureau Europa website.