Sunday, 23 March 2014


We are in Petra’s home, an old primary school here in Leeuwarden which was squatted 25 years ago. It is now a mixture of apartments and workshops and is populated by printers, artists and theatre makers. We are having lunch with a number of people and we are talking about Mienskip. It is what will define the work that is done here in 2018 when Leeuwarden takes its place as the European city of culture. Everyone was surprised it was went to Leeuwarden. It’s the main city in Friesland. There was a lot of excitement when the one hundred thousandth person moved into the city. It’s a rural area, where the black and white cows that filled the fields of my youth come from. Agriculture and tourism are what happens mainly. And a lot of community art work, a lot of it theatre.

Petra tells me, as we are later cycling along a path by various dykes and the lambs, that … well gambol, that theatre is very important here because the language is very important. Friesland is only one of two languages here; the minor one, the threatened one. Mienskip is a Frisian word. The names of the two other women who are with us – Metsje and Jildou – are Frisian names. And Friesland, I am told, has a strong sense of its own identity. And the language, the pride in it and the love of it, ‘is in the veins of the people here’.

Back at Petra’s we are being told more about the task in hand for the city by Metsje and Jildou; two members of the Frisian arts development organisation (Keunstwurk Frysian) who are excited and slightly anxious. They have recently finished a three year project called The Trip or DeReis 2018 which is a ‘cultural venture that wishes to visualise the merits of Leeuwarden and other Frisian towns and villages, aiming to reinforce the sense of community among them’. They have gone into communities with no set ideas, have talked to people and have designed projects that respond to the desires of the people who they talk to. They have helped a village make a new footpath through the woods so that they don't have to walk along a main road with the traffic any more. They are passionate about this ‘method’.

This is what will define their year of European Capital of Culture. It’s a bid built on community art. It’s defining word is Mienskip. It means sense of community. And although it is a Frisian word now, Metsje explains, the ‘people in the Hague know it too’. The local square, a new one, only two years old, was packed when the result was read out and broadcast live. They had a one in three chance. The people who announced the decision opened an envelope; like the Oscars, like the Olympics. And now the work begins. Forty one projects will be run in 2018. But this is no ordinary Mienskip. This is Open (not the right spelling, it’s a word that means Open, it sounds like Eepen) Mienskip; a desire to share this community feeling with others; and not to internalise it, to look inwards.

We go off to a new art gallery sitting at the head of this new square. Petra is a conceptual artist, working as CP Berbee. She ran a series of projects with different groups around the development of the square. The last one involved one thousand ‘shooters’ firing six thousand pellets of different coloured paint at a large portrait of a previous Queen. (I walk there again on Sunday morning and see that it is The Ministry of Justice). Permission had to be asked for such an act. There was, she tells me, ‘an interesting tension’ for many people as they stood in their new square with a gun firing at this previous Queen (imagine a large British stamp).

It’s not free to get into the museum; it costs 10 euros, but in the NL you can buy a pass for around 40 – 50 E which will get you into any museum for a year. We meet two more artists there, Tilly and Gerard. They are building a collection of one litre jars of water; from Friesland, from the Netherlands, from Europe and further afar. People can gather it wherever they find it and let them have it. They want to get, I think, around 1500 jars. The jars are many colours but there is a lot of green. These are the dummy jars that they have filled to complete the piece; jars that they still need people to fill for them. Some is rainwater found from puddles in a local street; some from the many dykes; there is a little bit from the Ganges. It will end up in a university of water which is soon to open. There is a lot of water here. We had to drive across a lot of it on our way.

(We went wrong once or twice as roads were closed off around Schipol airport. Obama and Putin and all of the others are in Amsterdam for a Nuclear Industry summit. Apparently people nearby were told that they couldn’t got out on their balconies. There was a rush on groceries).

Then back to Petra’s for bikes and off to see a community garden. Theo, who runs it, is retired now and spends all his time here. It has 60 volunteers; a mix of the retired, the unemployed, and ‘idealists’. He is fiercely proud of it, of the fact that it hosts music and theatre events, and that out here, between a city of one hundred thousand and a village of two hundred, it is thriving and an example for other garden projects like this. ‘We teach young people to grow plans and make theatre and music’ he says. But they’ve had no luck with melons. Or aubergines. They have ‘open sky theatre’ every year. This is one of fifteen or so villages with an open air theatre. It’s part of the culture.

Kees is with us now, from a theatre company called Buog. They are more like Hanby and Barrett / Excavate (my company, we’re changing our name) than any other company I have ever met. ‘How long do you rehearse for?’ I ask him, wondering if, given all the similarities between us so far he will say ‘three months’. ‘Three months’, says Kees. His latest project, in May, is for an opening of a new lock. The King is going to be in it. The actual real King. It’s not a big part, and he can’t say any lines, and basically they were told that he was going to come up or down the river or canal or whatever it is. But still. It’s the King. In a community play.

We’re having this conversation as we continue to cycle past the dykes and the lambs who are still, well … gambolling. Paul has a bottle of water in his panier. It is from the dyke next to the café where we stopped for apple strudel. I asked Metsje and Jildou, who have a connection with the water project, if they have contributed a bottle. I chide them when they say they haven’t and suggest we ask the owner of the café for a bottle now and that we all fill it up together. Which we do. It’s a light brown colour.

That night, after Petra’s partner has cooked us a delicious meal, we go to a bar and talk again about the excitement of this city and this region being chosen as the European City of Culture. I ask Petra if there is a hope, an expectation, of local artists producing much of the work. After all it’s about Mienskip. She says that she hopes there is; but that a project as large as this in a place as small as this also has the potential to cause division as people ask who is doing what and why aren’t they being involved. I hope they all are. The work they do that we were shown was fascinating. It’s a lovely place. I recommend visiting. And 2018 wouldn’t be a bad time to come.


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