What is the difference between ‘to appropriate’ and ‘to be appropriate’? This was the provocative question posed by urban researcher Adeola Enigbokan upon introducing Blueprint’s #KEEPINGITREAL symposium: Whose urban appropriation is this? shown at TENT Rotterdam. The exhibition explores the relationship between architecture and urban design, and the street culture that emerges from it. Now that bottom-up street culture is under threat from the neoliberal forces of gentrification, the emphasis is on Rotterdam, the so-called capital of hip-hop in the Netherlands and the site of a particular architectural and cultural melange that emerged following World War II. The exhibition launches a two-year programme on cultural appropriation staged by Metro54, an urban arts and culture platform founded by Amal Alhaag and Damiana de Windt in 2010. Metro54 went into hibernation in recent years while re-strategising its evolution from being mostly based at Bijlmer ArenA in Amsterdam to becoming a truly mobile initiative that works across Europe. If this exhibition sets the bar for what is to come, it promises to be a radical rethink of institutional programming and design culture.

“When we began talking to TENT, it became apparent that they were willing to give us the space to do a complete takeover, which was very important”, says Alhaag, artistic director at Metro54, as well as a radio show host and independent curator, who has worked with Framer Framed and the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam and at the Node Center for Curatorial Studies in Berlin. “In my experience, I find that if you really want to bring in a different set of knowledge, ways of thinking, and codes, you also need to consider what it means to make a project that refuses the context in which it will be happening.” For Alhaag, this really meant sidestepping away from the white walls of the gallery space and trying to rethink the rules of exhibiting. Working with architect Afaina de Jong and designer Egbert Thomas, the pervasive white cube of institutionalised contemporary art has been shattered, remodelled, and re-coloured. “It’s almost performing colour to refuse the whiteness of the institution”, she laughs. The spatial design of alcoves and tableaux creates periscopes into other worlds, invit- ing visitors to step into and climb around the physical interfaces. Graphic art, videos, and photography allow for a visceral urban street culture to surface, one that is otherwise not seen in the designer’s representation of Rotterdam. A pink basketball court takes up an entire gallery and visitors shed their rucksacks and play.

The Tower, 2017 Michael Schoner
“I really think you need to take a risk and refuse this canon, not only in theory but also in practice.” Alhaag goes on to point out that there are hardly any exhibition texts, and even the hand-out – a witty alphabet of urban appropriation – “was a compromise”. For Alhaag and Metro54, it was important that people didn’t feel that they had to look through another’s gaze. This framing of multiple possible interpretations and the ethics of collaboration are what, for Alhaag, distinguishes Wendelien van Oldenborgh’s Cinema Olanda: Platform exhibition at Witte De With and the Blueprint exhibition at TENT; she is one of the co-writers (along with Egbert Alejandro Martina, Ramona Sno, Hodan Warsame, Patricia Schor, and Maria Guggenbichler) of the open letter. Having being invited to participate in the public programme of this exhibition, Martina raised the issue of working under a colonialist’s name – rejecting the context, to use Alhaag’s phrase. His questions were dismissed, making it obvious that his presence and that of the other invitees was only paying lip service to feminist, queer, black, intersectional, and decolonial perspectives.

Herein lies Enigbokan’s distinction between ‘to appropriate’, or to takeover the space and change the rules; and ‘to be appropriate’, or proper to the space, as the letter-writers were expected to be. But it does not just apply to galleries and institutions; it applies to every street and every city in Europe. Do you decide who you are or do the spaces, architecture, and urban design decide?

City of the Sun, 2017 (detail) Afaina de Jong & Innavisions
BLUEPRINT: Whose urban appropriation is this? is at TENT Rotterdam, until 27 August 2017.

Cinema Olanda: Platform is at Witte de With in Rotterdam until 20 August 2017.

City of the Sun, 2017, Afaina de Jong & Innavisions
City of the Sun, 2017 Afaina de Jong & Innavisions
Photos: Aad Hoogendoorn

This article appeared in DAM63. Order your personal copy.
BLUEPRINT: Whose urban appropriation is this? Exhibition poster / Team Thursday
Light at the End of the Tunnel, 2017 Charlie Koolhaas
Cruisekade a.k.a. Black to the Future, 2002 Afaina de Jong
City of the Sun, 2017 Afaina de Jong & Innavisions
Matongo, 2017 / Neals Niat // An Elastic Tension of force from Part to Part, 2017 / Nicole Martens