In the neighbourhood portrait that was commissioned from Saskia Janssen by the Municipality of Almere and Museum De Paviljoens, we come face to face with residents of the Staatslieden district, right behind Almere Centrum train station. Following a call for volunteers on posters and a casting session in the neighbourhood, these people – who were mostly strangers to each other and who come from very different backgrounds – had their portraits made, some in groups, and others individually.
The flats of the Staatslieden district are the setting, Saskia Janssen is the director, and the locals are the actors. In this extraordinary piece of street theatre, they play themselves, in every sense of the word, but in the process they are prompted to give away more of themselves than they would normally do. The result are these photographs that show everyday scenes, but in a wholly new light. In the neighbourhood portrait, perfect strangers from the same neighbourhood come together to have their picture taken. Precisely by making her subjects show a personal side of themselves, Janssen avoids the cliché image. This way of focusing attention on a particular spot, space and group of people – in this case the Staatslieden district – is partly the result of the working method followed by Janssen: she creates the conditions for unexpected encounters and unpredictable reactions, observes the people, and meanwhile records this form of ‘social research’ with her camera. The process of interaction between the artist and the local residents plays a major role.
In addition to these film recordings on the DVD, the work includes fortune-tellers predicting the future of the residents in the different languages spoken in the district. In contrast to the urban developers and policy-makers who determine the future of this district by means of well-structured plans, these fortune-tellers are interested in the intangible and magical aspects of what is yet to come. What position do the residents themselves take? To what extent are people capable of shaping and influencing their future? These are some of the questions raised by this neighbourhood portrait. Although they are about this specific neighbourhood in particular, they refer more broadly to the extent to which reality can be created and manipulated. In other projects of hers, such as Grass-plot Shoot, Purmerend (2001), Janssen also plays on this theme of reality as a construction. At first, the staged groups of people in impossible arrangements seem to be PhotoShop paste-ups, but the scaffolding in the background soon reveals that the scenes have actually been staged for the camera. In Janssen’s work, ‘not the photograph, but reality, is manipulated and staged’.1
One of Janssen’s sources of inspiration for her work is Stage Illusions & Special Effects, a handbook for conjurers and theatrical performers from 1897. She also draws on anthropological studies in which reality is extensively manipulated, rearranged and directed. The use of this technique and the camera-related media make that Janssen consistently plays with this staging. Whereas her photographs present static theatrical constructions, this filmed neighbourhood portrait of the Staatslieden district is a cross between staged fiction and documentary. There is a suggestion that the foreground and background have been detached and that the ‘wings’ of the street theatre slide past each other. The use of 8-mm film, which can still be heard on the DVD, gives this neighbourhood portrait the character of a historical document of the Staatslieden district.
Janssen’s neighbourhood portrait of the Staatslieden district is not an isolated artwork, but fits in with a tradition of Museum De Paviljoens. As in earlier art projects by artists such as Joke Robaard and Annaleen Louwes, the core of this work is the collaboration with the residents . On the DVD, the concrete result of this project, Janssen manages to capture the individuals in such a way that the viewer gets to see a living neighbourhood portrait: a historical document that looks to the future.
Text: Nicoline Wijnja
1. Jury report of the Incentive Prize for Photography of the Amsterdams Fonds voor de Kunst, 1999
Saskia Janssen, Casting Fortune
b. 1968, 's Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands
SITUATIES / Staatsliedenwijk / Casting Fortune, 2004
commissioned in 2003, Municipality of Almere / Museum De Paviljoens