Those who might pass by Arcam on the regular, might have noticed a small change in the surroundings of the building. After persisting for almost a year, the artistic intervention by Maurik Stomps that was inaugurated on the Day of Architecture 2021 has been removed. What is more likely is that you have not noticed it at all or forgot that it was even there in the first place.
This is because with his artistic interventions in public space, Maurik Stomps (1989) likes to subvert expectations. He does this by appropriating the very anonymous and normative visual language of top-down design of public space. He uses generic and formal elements such as mailboxes, bicycle racks and – in this case— transformer boxes to reclaim parts of the city.
For Arcam, Maurik made an intervention in public space based on the model of an iconic electrical box. As a ‘swap closet’ for food, clothing, sleeping bags, books, notes, or other items that can be used to survive in the urban climate, this closet rebels against its expected function. It is a clandestine and secret appropriation of public space, which offers city dwellers the opportunity to give it a function as they please.
Looking back at the project
In a way, this was Maurik’s most indirect work so far. It was the artist’s first work in Amsterdam and unlike with his other artistic interventions in Rotterdam, he purposely did not interact with the installation after it was put up. This approach left plenty of space for him to reflect on the project in an interview with Arcam one year after the artist intervention.
As with many of his other projects, the conspicuous nature of the artwork is what allows the work to function as an appropriation of public space. Yet, Maurik suggest that the box has a built-in error “that invites people to play with public space.”. Why is that?
For me it is interesting that the moment you sort of create a little error in somebody else’s habitat, you will change the behaviour of people and you will lure them into a game with the city
Maurik Stomps: “Yes, because for me the objects themselves are not that interesting. It’s an electricity box, it’s not beautiful, it’s not super well crafted. It’s just a box. But for me it is interesting that the moment you sort of create a little error in somebody else’s habitat, you will change the behaviour of people and you will lure them into a game with the city. Or to look at their environment in a different way. That happens if you make something that is a bit ‘off’.”
After its inauguration, the pretend electricity box was left to the urban conditions with the idea that people would start using it as a public wardrobe, an exchange unit and by extension, an appropriation of public space. The unit deteriorated and aged, worn out by the harsh conditions of the city. By the time the wood began to rot, it had been demasked as a closet. Eventually, the box wasn’t inconspicuous anymore. It became apparent that this was in fact not an electric box but an intruder to what we think belongs in public space. The line between public and private were finally and undoubtedly blurred.
Maurik: “In this case, you have this box that was fine for the first couple of months because it looked legit in a sense, but then the weather started to wear it out and then you see that it has a limit.”
Time not only demasked the intruder but also introduced a different function to the artwork. Whereas in summer the closet was stocked with sunscreen and unwanted clothes, the colder seasons brought a different use to the closet. By winter, the closet was filled with thick blankets, thus revealing the need of those who are often forgotten and left-behind.
Within a wider context
Maurik’s work for Arcam made explicit that the ‘smooth city’ doesn’t cater to the needs of all the people that inhabit the city. Maurik directly criticizes top-down city making and the assumptions that are made during this process. This project shows that these assumptions are often not true and that there’s a need for informality.
Maurik: “I think a smooth city is killing every phantasy or opportunity to be creative with public space because you see something you expect so how can you relate to something like that.”
The ‘smooth city’ refers to the neoliberal process by which cities are becoming increasingly sterile, formal, and scripted. This urban development has generally led to cleaner, well-functioning and safer cities, but also to urban landscapes devout of any imperfections, friction, or abnormality. Renée Boer in “Smooth City is the New Urban” (2018) writes that the smooth city has created spaces that are scripted in accordance with the dominant norms and the needs of the status quo. These spaces are inhabited by an increasingly socially, aesthetically, and culturally homogenous population. To him, this is the death of any informality and aesthetic diversity. Does the ‘smooth city’ threaten the livelihood of the public space, and perhaps even the intellectual and bodily autonomy of urban dwellers?
Maurik: “I think that’s what the city does nowadays, they assume people are stupid or something. They create a space where you can sit, where you can park your bike, everything is determined. It would be super nice if as a city you would trust your people to be able to use the city in their own way…”
Maurik gave the example of a children’s playground as a micro ‘smooth city’. These playgrounds are designed as beautiful ships or castles, but don’t leave space for kids to explore the limits of their creativity. Play is a fundamental part of Maurik’s work today. To him, creating errors and playing with expectations in the urban landscape is what stimulates creativity and joy in the city. Just like Maurik toys with our expectations of how public space should perform, he advises city planners embrace people’s creativity.