Introduction to the SFG (July 9th, 2019)
A few meters from Het Hem lies a forest. Like all of Hembrug, the ex-military terrain Het Hem is standing on, it was built by immigrants in the latter part of the 19th century. The forest is built on top of clay, which is why it has been called Claybos in the past. It has also been called ‘Schokbos’ (Shock Forest), or ‘Plofjesbos’ (‘plof’ like the sound of a bomb), which refers to the multiple explosions and military tests it has endured. Digging into the history of this forest, and this terrain, we learn that the forest was specifically designed in order to withstand blasts and ammunition tests. For half a century, it both insulated the sound of explosive tests and hid the military activity from view.
For a few years, this forest housed Europe’s largest heron population. In 1967, there were up to 453 pairs of herons. A decade later, the number of herons had massively decreased.
How do you plant a forest specifically in order for it to withstand military intervention?
Why were herons particularly attracted to this forest in the late 60’s?
Why did they leave?
In June 2019 Het HEM opened as a cultural center. In about 2,5 years it will close for an extensive renovation including the construction of a hotel on top of the old building that will continue to function as a cultural institution. Until a decade or so, the building was an active ammunitions factory. Art is often placed in this role, as the interim between war and commerce. Het Hem is no exception. Is the aim of culture here to simply add value to the real estate property and to help gentrify the area? The cultural institution is, like the land it stands on, built on a militaristic foundation, and readying itself for the explosions of late-stage capitalism. Shock Forest Group hopes to emulate the heron population that briefly saw fit to make this land its home. By studying the terrain, excavating the man- made myths and clay histories that make up its foundation, we hope to understand what the herons saw that made them leave.
Shock Forest Group (2019) is a research team consisting of architects, cartographers, linguists, coders, urban planners, sound makers, biologists, geneticists, graphic designers and engineers. It is an experiment in open research, where the research categories surface as the research develops. It is also an experiment in alternative education, a classroom without a teacher, where the learning emerges as the product of polyphony. One end goal of the Group is to create an “instrument of resonance” which, when placed in a specific context, analyses and orders (or disorders) the local data (and non-data). The Shock Forest Group instrument of resonance might let out a scream (a sound) which could unveil the multiple layers of local violences and communicate these via sound, light and/or movement.
Shock Forest Group is also an experiment in presence. If traditional research works in a matter akin to a traditional classical music concert, with categories defined a priori, scores set with pre-ordered patterns and a clear end goal, SFG works more along the lines of a free jazz improvisation, excavating from the terrain a polyphony of truths, and letting them ring out, resonate within and through each other, without a stress on harmonic coherence. SFG postulates that with this framework, the voices might emerge organically and naturally grow towards their emancipation, both collectively and individually.
SFG’s “instrument of resonance” is the sound (scream) of this collective emancipation. It is data as both dada and index of injustice. The absurdity of our communal drowning in data is both a backdrop and a condition of data’s potential for elucidation. SFG sees sound as both an abstract, emotive but also number-driven code that can act as an emancipatory agent of communication of both statistical presence and emotive presence. This friction is echoed by the Group’s fascination with the herons’ presence in the Shock Forest in the late 60’s. When does the herons’ decrease in population turn from a number to a feeling?
What is the sound of that transition?
(Russia, 1989) is a graphic designer, artist and researcher. Her practice and skills are a direct outcome of her interests and research of the digital image, the politics of virtual geography and the hidden mechanisms of digital technologies. “In my practice I often explore the migration of technologies and ideas from one domain to another and the images and objects they produce. For example, from civil and cultural domains to the fields of warfare and surveillance, and vice versa, and translate it into narratives.” In 2015-16 she was a researcher at the Jan van Eyck Academy in Maastricht and in 2014 she graduated from the Werkplaats Typografie in Arnhem. “I am interested in exploring the position of art as an interim between war and commerce, between nature and culture. In exploring the notion of local vs. global, inside vs. outside, by excavating myths and histories of the location— the forest as an island and sound proof chamber and the terrain as a secret isolated zone. I like to make juxtapositions, putting things together that don’t necessarily fit together. When you dig deeper you see that it is not so isolated.”
Katya Abazajian (USA, 1993) is an open data policy specialist with experience working at the Sunlight Foundation in Washington D.C., a non-profit organisation advocating for open government. After finishing her studies in economics and mathematics, she began advocating policies for open data and transparent government practices, particularly on a local scale. She has monitored local elections, studied local tax, housing and social issues, and analysed open data about neighbourhoods. “While working, I was surprised to find out that many local governments were not using or sharing data to tackle social issues, which could help understand and get to the root of communities' problems. This is something that I wanted to change and that’s how I ended up working together with local governments and communities, teaching them how to use local data to understand social issues. The future will certainly contain a lot of data and technology, so governments and communities understand how they can affect individuals, communities, and culture.”
Erica Moukarzel (USA, Lebanon 1993) is a cultural analyst with a special interest in cultural memory and narratives of displacement. She grew up in Beirut, where she worked various jobs in politics and the cultural field before she started a masters in Cultural Analysis in Amsterdam. Currently, she is applying for a PhD position at the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis, whilst also working part- time as the curatorial assistant at De Oude Kerk. In her work, Erica investigates the relationship between history and memory, in particular cultural memory and how events are remembered. On a more personal level the Shock Forest Group provides a context to rethink and relearn the meaning of certain things. “In my native Lebanon, bullets are used to target at people, but here at the Hembrug site they were tested. For what? The space does not seem to be traumatised, which is a surprise to me as bullets in Lebanon irrevocably mean war. As an expat, things you think you know often get new meanings. These small things sometimes reveal very big cultural differences.”
Susanna Gonzo (Italy, 1990) is a linguist, recently graduated from the University of Potsdam, Germany. She is primarily concerned with writing and translation. She was involved in educational projects in Italy and in Jerusalem and worked for different art institutions in Berlin, Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Her master dissertation focused on the concept of animacy and more specifically on the question of what is considered alive and capable of action and what is, instead, regarded as inert, lifeless and passive. She is interested in how these linguistic categorizations affect the way in which we think the world and interact with it. She is now developing her own research further, extending her analysis to the way in which such categorizations affect politics, race, sexuality, nutrition and more. Her aim is to conceive language as a material companion to ally with in order to create alternative narratives. “Such narratives should include the voice and the liveliness of objects, plants, air, technologies and spaces as both storytellers and protagonists, providing greater possibilities of understanding and engaging with the world.”
Pamela Jordan (USA, 1981) is a registered architect with a specialty in heritage conservation and sustainability. She is currently working on a PhD in the archaeology department of the University of Amsterdam. In her work, she uses sound and acoustic relationships to understand the history and meanings of places. She is curious to discover how the current sounds and silences of spaces reveal the unseen historic relationships, designs, and tensions within the terrains. “I am particularly interested in the ecologies of the place: the biological, the historical, and the ecology of how we will all work together.” About the Shock Forest Group, she says : “This kind of study is more than the physics; it will be about how sound can continue to communicate the meanings and interpretations of the space for various groups of people, both in the past and the present.”
Bert Spaan (The Netherlands, 1982) is a cartographer, programmer and designer, at the Municipality of Amsterdam where he is working on an open source data portal that makes data available from and about Amsterdam. In his work, he constantly switches between historical archive research and the design and programming of applications that can make maps and geographic data more accessible. Besides geography, maps, history, and coding, his other passion is cycling. “I have made a lot of long bike rides. I should actually make a map of it…. For the moment, I trust my cartographic memory! "
Axel Coumans (The Netherlands, 1993) is an artist and designer. He is particularly interested in the “inseparable connection between water and landscape”. He researched this connection by working with communities within the Dutch landscape, specifically the Rhine River. For him, this "knowing" is not so much factual knowledge, but rather tangible knowledge. “In the method I use, I will first listen to the voice of the landscape, which often manifests itself in materials, stories, communities and the unexpected relationships that they enter into with each other (or not!). I eventually try to turn this voice into something that the public can experience. This can be in the form of a map, image, instrument, story or expedition on the site. "
Paula Dooren (The Netherlands, 1992) studied Geography and Spatial Planning at the University of Amsterdam. Today she splits her time between freelancing as a furniture maker and working at the De Oude Bibliotheek Academie training company in Delft, where she develops and teaches educational games. Coincidentally, she already knows something about the Hembrug site due to a school assignment during her studies in Spatial Planning at the UvA, for which she wrote a redevelopment plan that focused on art and music.
Pantxo Bertin (France, 1991) is a musician, sound engineer, ex-organ player, and synthesizer and modular technician. He has a background in architecture studies (which he dropped out of to pursue music) and studied classical music for 17 years. “These two fields combined led to a big interest in sound and acoustics in different types of buildings. I’m very interested in the way we hear sounds in different kind of spaces.” He has been working with Nicolás for a plethora of acoustic and technical work for the past 2 years, and shares with him the desire to create parallels between architecture, sound, people and music. He sees these as not ‘one thing that leads to another’ but as many horizontal layers occupying a contiguous time.
Sheryn Akiki (Lebanon, 1993) is an artist and fashion designer originally from Beirut. She moved to London in 2010, where she completed a BA and MA in Fashion at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London. There, her work quickly transgressed the fashion category, working across various mediums and disciplines to create collections that reflect on feminism, war and her youth spent in Beirut. In 2019, she received the L’Oréal Professionnel Creative Award for her collection in which “skirt suits seemingly shape-shifted down the catwalk, handbags threatened to spill contents and dresses threatened to split.” (I-D) Sheryn says her clothes are for “women on the run”, for “a lady gone wrong, improperly going about her daily doings”. “As a maker, I’m able to follow my intuition and work within contexts that have no particular end goal or borders. I like to think of the act of making as a holistic and impulsive approach, where everything is possible and no stone will be left unturned in the process.”
Sjoerd Smit (The Netherlands, 1991) is a biology teacher at Joke Smit College, a secondary school for adults in Amsterdam. At the University of Amsterdam (UvA) he did a master in molecular biology in plants, and became a first-degree biology teacher. His area of expertise is molecular biology and biotechnology, focusing on plants and how they deal with their changing environment through pollution or other threats. About the Shock Forest Group, he says: “I am curious to know what will come out if we bring all the ideas of everyone together and how Nicolás gives a new dimension to that with his musical knowledge and experience.”