At least they’ve done the math. According to Atelier Van Lieshout (AVL), one human being can do seven hours of office work and seven hours of menial work, sleep for seven hours and have three hours left in which to relax, eat, or visit a prostitute. Exactly 72 human beings are accommodated in a steel and timber construction containing bunk beds and a table for computer screens behind which, wearing headsets, they work in a call centre in three shifts: office work, sleep, menial work. With 72 of these subdivisions on each floor of a nine-floor building, the total comes to 28,512 people living and working in one building, or unit. Each unit is allotted a certain amount of land on which to grow foodstuffs. Eight units create a total working populace of about 200,000 human beings. On average, one in five of them is fit to be trained and put to work. The rest can be ‘recycled’. On average, a human being is a productive member of the unit for three years before having to be recycled. One human body yields six litres of blood, an average of 2.6 organs for transplants and 35 kilos of meat for consumption by other ‘participants’.
Located next to the ‘camp’ – where participants work and are recycled – is the public sector, a compound consisting of a museum, brothels, a hospital (for transfusions and transplants), a sports centre and an airport. A working staff of 5437 is required to guard, care for, kill, harvest and manage the participants. Staff members need their own living quarters. Such housing consists of a range of dwellings, from 350-m2 villas to 70-m2 ‘type D’ dwellings, amassed in a meticulously planned settlement outside the camp where participants work and are recycled.
In its entirety, the city is wholly self-sufficient in terms of food, energy and water. Food is either grown and harvested on site or provided for by eating the flesh of recycled participants. Energy is supplied by biogas obtained from human excrement (0.4 kg of gas per participant per day) and other sustainable sources. Water is supplied by natural sources and a closed circuit.
This setup needs 49.37 km2 to function. Because it is independent of existing infrastructure the land can be purchased cheaply, for only € 331.301.070. The entire initial investment – buildings, infrastructure, security – is € 1.540.000.000 (PM), but with the income from call centres, transplants, transfusions and brothels, the annual yield would be € 7,500,000,000 (PM).
The immense financial gain is accompanied by other, more sociopolitical effects. Recycling human beings is one solution to the global problem of overpopulation; the minimal ecological footprint of such call centres helps relieve the stress on the environment; and the call centres’ public sectors introduce culture, entertainment, sex and medical solutions to far-flung regions.
That’s the concept. Atelier Van Lieshout believes it will take ten years – the time needed to get the necessary permits and to influence political opinion – before the first call centre can be built. Like the financial investment, the political decision to go forward will also yield enormous profits. Thanks to huge financial gains, call centres are expected to have a direct impact on the geopolitical and political situation.
SlaveCity is an ever-growing series of pieces by Atelier Van Lieshout that together describe a fictional city ‘inspired’ by Second World War extermination camps in Eastern Europe. It has been exhibited in galleries as two giant ‘paintings’ on the wall: one with a plan, the other with a spreadsheet showing all kcals, km2s, kgs and €s, as well as a collection of architectural models of brothels, education centres, call centres and museums featured in the complex. Van Lieshout has even created an entire dinner service for the call-centre board of directors; highlighting the individual sets of beautifully glazed porcelain plates and glasses are the various activities that take place in the complex.
Is SlaveCity a searing attack on a society that commodifies people for pure profit, split into ‘users’ and ‘the used’? Is it a Cassandra-like warning against the megalomaniacal ambitions of modernist town planners, radical ecologists and other social utopians? Or should we be more critical and expose Joep van Lieshout as an artist who plays on the hypes and erogenous zones of the art industry, a man even capable of using the Holocaust to create the shock value needed to sell his work? The answer, which could be ‘all of the above’, offers both writer and reader a much-desired escape from this truly frightening project. It explains away van Lieshout’s operational interest in the precise mechanics of extermination camps. It glosses over the artist’s ambiguous view of the project. (On television, he has stated, in all seriousness, that it’s a mirror to be held up to society and that it should not be built at all, of course; in other contexts, he enthuses about the possibilities of its realization.) Analyzing SlaveCity from various perspectives is a way to mitigate the real threat of the piece. Focusing the analysis on the position of its author before contextualizing or rationalizing the project allows us to accept the work as a slightly edgy piece of art, floating on a bed of critical and theoretical analogies, and in a sea of art fairs, magazines and galleries. Maybe that’s all it is anyway. Nonetheless, I would like to try something a little bit different, something a little closer to my profession: history.
Sade, Fourier, Loyola, van Lieshout
De Sade à Fourier, ce qui tombe, c’est le sadisme; de Loyola à Sade, c’est l’interlocution divine. Pour le reste, même écriture : même volupté de classification, même rage de découper (le corps christique, le corps victimal, l’âme humaine), même obsession numérative (compter les péchés, les supplices, les passions et les fautes mêmes du compte), même pratique de l’image (de l’imitation, du tableau, de la séance), même couture du système social, érotique, fantasmatique. This is the first sentence of a small book by French philosopher Roland Barthes, published in 1971: Sade, Fourier, Loyola.
In Sade, Fourier, Loyola, Barthes focuses not on the distinguishing qualities of the three authors but on what they have in common, identifying this communality as what it’s all about: instead of sex, happiness, God, and a compulsion to count, categorize, classify, systematize, organize and present. Barthes describes the crazy sequences of perverse acts recounted before a committee of libertines in a theatrically staged room in de Sade’s Justine; Fourier’s limitless listing of categories of love, food, money, work and so on – and their reordering in his phalanstères; and Ignatius of Loyola’s minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour, day-to-day, week-to-week manual: his attempt to get closer to God by mentioning His name, praying to Him and thinking about Him during every single act in his Exercises. By discussing the authors’ works side by side in a slim volume, Barthes removes the focus otherwise placed on a single author, his historical context, his philosophical position, his professional discipline and his personal obsession. What seemed to be the main subjects of their books becomes nothing more than an attribute, a vehicle for the true obsession: taxonomy, order and organization.
It would be tempting to see Joep van Lieshout’s recent work as the perfect combination of de Sade’s perverse microcosm and Fourier’s social utopia, but concentrating on what they share in subject matter would be missing Barthes’ point. I would like to follow Barthes in separating the subject matter of van Lieshout’s project, including possible references and meanings, from the methods, the instruments and the structures of the work. Such an analysis reveals what van Lieshout really shares with Sade, Foruier and Loyola: the crazy cybernetics of their approach, the spreadsheet attitude, the savant-like focus on the minutiae of their constructions. With these similarities in mind, we can imagine that Barthes, had he lived, might have written an extended version of his original book, this time with the title Sade, Fourier, Loyola & van Lieshout.
There is one major difference separating the cosmologies of Joep van Lieshout and those of Sade, Fourier and Loyola, however: that difference is the twentieth century. Sade’s, Fourier’s and Loyola’s systems were unique for their time, islands of order in a realm of contingency. Their ‘worlds’ were cerebral and radically different from the world they lived in; we could describe them as ‘parallel worlds’, introverted alternatives to the reality that dissatisfied them. They were also truly new: no one before had ever thought or dreamt of such places.
SlaveCity could not be more different. Joep van Lieshout was able to crib from an entire century in which the rage for classification and categorization – as identified by Barthes in Sade, Fourier, Loyola – had become incarnate in thousands of built villages, towns, cities and entire landscapes. Seen from this perspective, van Lieshout’s work, distilled from a century of ubiquitous reality, is old. From the very beginning of the century, radical alternatives for laissez-faire industrial cities were being put together by a worldwide cabal of anarchists, communists, Christian socialists, enlightened capitalists, nationalists and fascists. These groups had several common objectives: to create brand-new, stable communities outside existing cities; to divide, classify, order, count, measure, list and present these alternatives as universally applicable models; and to apply them. Before we return to van Lieshout’s SlaveCity, it seems appropriate to quickly revisit the twentieth century: the age of the communitarian spreadsheet that actually existed.
Howard, Duany, van Lieshout
The first and most famous model of this type of city appeared in Garden Cities of Tomorrow (London 1898), a book written by Ebenezer Howard, an impoverished shorthand writer from London. Howard believed the solution to the world’s urban problems was to retain all that is good about cities (employment, culture, shops, public life), to discard all that is bad (poverty, anonymity, debauchery), to combine the former with the good qualities of rural living (health, intimate relations, quietude) and to eliminate the bad (lack of work, lack of public life, isolation). The result would be the perfect garden city. Howard’s garden cities were made up of houses that formed neighbourhoods called ‘wards’. Each ward had 5000 inhabitants, an abundance of greenery, and its own schools, shops, churches and other communal facilities. Six wards formed a city of 30,000 inhabitants: the maximum size of a town with a good balance between births and deaths, the correct number of communal facilities, the right climate of social intimacy, an adequate amount of greenery, the desired social profile and the ideal scale. The result was Howard’s garden city, a unit requiring 4,05 Km2 . Six of these units – plus a centrally located city twice as large, with twice the building density – combined to form a ‘social city’ of 250,000 people. This was presented as a cartwheel of towns and infrastructure in a huge green area, with asylums for alcoholics, factories, hospitals, farms and cemeteries hidden away in the greenery. Other charts explained the principle of the ‘vanishing point of the landlords’ rent’. Howard counted on using depressed land prices far away from the cities to buy the land cheaply, and on eventually turning the cost of the land from a small cost factor into a profit factor for the benefit of the inhabitants.
Howard’s scheme was quickly picked up by an ever-growing movement of architects, social reformers, politicians and the like. His concept led to the creation of entire and partly built cities and towns from Letchworth, England, to Radburn, New Jersey; from new towns in fascist Italy to Communist settlements in Siberia. It launched a worldwide consensus on how to build a town. The largest wave came after the First World War, when modernist and socialist-realist towns across the globe exhibited completely different underlying ideologies and an even greater diversity of architectural forms, while all relying faithfully on Howard’s basic scheme. Interestingly, the scheme was not simplified to meet the requirements of varying political views, regions or economies, but became denser and more precise, as if the molecular structure of Howard’s atomic diagram had been augmented by super-controlled, urban-social components. Socialist or capitalist, neoclassicist or highly modern, these urban models were all based on the same type of hierarchical diagram of house, neighbourhood, town, city; and all based on a neighbourhood of 50 to 100 dwellings, a town of 15,000 to 30,000 people, a city of 200,000 to 250,000 inhabitants. They all offered a green alternative to the city, converted depressed rural land prices into cheap rents, and compressed the entire complexity of urban life into hermetic diagrams and schemes. Their highly schematic layout makes them direct descendants of the manic ordering of Sade, Fourier and Loyola. Howard’s sense of order, however, not only led to living environments for hundreds of millions of people, but also had an underlying super-logic which has become so ubiquitous that it has disappeared behind the different forms of the cities and behind the divergent political ideologies from which they emerged.
One very strong example of this camouflaged technocratic urbanism is the New Urbanism Movement. From the 1980s on, the Florida-based office of Duany Plater Zyberk has been building towns that seem to offer the only alternative for suburban sprawl. These small-scale towns have communal facilities and public transport within walking distance of residents and a traditional, coherent architecture with mixed-income neighbourhoods and safe, simply designed public space. In an effort to help cities at home and abroad create New Urbanist cities, Duany Plater Zyberk distributes Smart Code, a kind of urbanist shareware. This nearly 100-page PDF file consists of hundreds of detailed models that show how to build a town, starting at the centre and moving out to the rural surroundings. The file includes strict rules covering relationships between densities and distances. Smart Code discusses communal facilities, public transport, the number of inhabitants per neighbourhood, the time it takes to walk from home to school, and so on. It describes a comprehensive financial system that touches on everything from fiscal incentives and land prices to property taxes and tax-relief benefits for first-time buyers. Here, too, is the hierarchical logic of house, neighbourhood, town and city. We recognize the same land-price economics we have seen before, as well as the familiar spreadsheet attitude with which the architect has made a complete and hermetic microcosm of urban rules and regulations, numbers and distances, buildings and people. The idea that beyond its existence as an artificial construct, the city touches on each minute detail of urban life and urban form is still very much alive.
Indeed, Howard, Duany, van Lieshout, could be the working title for the sequel to Sade, Fourier, Loyola. In it would be revealed that behind all the seemingly contrasting world-views and architectural styles that have determined the living environments of the twentieth-century urbanite lies one, and only one, hidden code – or should we call it an ‘obsessional ordering mechanism’ – which is so deeply ingrained in human society that we are hardly aware of it. It is as if the cerebral constructs described by Barthes have managed to escape the brains and books of their authors, have become real, and have taken over the world.
Himmler, Christaller, van Lieshout
Still, it would be interesting to identify more closely where and how Joep van Lieshout gained access to the hidden code he follows so faithfully in SlaveCity. As he has stated repeatedly, his first inspiration for the work came from a careful study of Eastern European extermination camps used in the Second World War. In the meticulously managed economy of bodies (dead and alive), barracks, railway lines and gatehouses; and in endless lists kept by the Shoah managers, van Lieshout found a way to unite his previous themes and to raise them to a new level. Earlier projects include The Technocrat, The Disciplinator and Total Faecal Solution. In these installations, human beings are used as raw materials, or as cogs in machines for the production of biological gas, and remixed in installations that are virtually autarchic. Food gets pumped in and faeces pumped out; to keep the people content, alcohol is pumped in, too. The Disciplinator features humans inside a wood-and-steel cage, where they toil for hours a day, doing useless but heavy work – making sawdust from logs – before being fed and put into bunk beds to sleep. The polar opposite of this treatment of human beings is exemplified by autarchic communities like AVL-Ville or the Almere project. Volunteer participants in AVL-settlements produce art, food, drugs and weapons and are not subject to national legislation. One such community actually existed for a few months in a Rotterdam harbour area. It was shut down after an endless barrage of inspections from Dutch governmental institutions.
The influence of Holocaust literature and visits to camps was already visible in these earlier installations, especially Total Faecal Solution. At a certain point, however, van Lieshout seems to have shifted his attention to the bureaucracy involved in planning camps and to the way in which these camps can be seen as comprehensively planned communities. We see his interest in creating new communities merge into ideas on using human bodies as raw physical produce. This is where spreadsheets that had listed amounts of faeces, ammonia, alcohol, food, water and the like expanded to contain the entire inventory of a community of 250,000 people. And with no evidence of Joep van Lieshout having immersed himself in the history of garden cities or twentieth-century urbanism, somehow the resulting project is eerily close to the ideal cities of Ebenezer Howard and his successors.
There is a simple but uncomfortable reason for this similarity. The concentration camps whose workings Joep van Lieshout has been studying were designed with the same logic and the same depth of organizational structure as twentieth-century new towns, garden cities and New Urbanist communities. Fritz Ertl, an architect educated at the Bauhaus and the designer of Auschwitz, constructed the camp from the bunk upwards. One brick ledge held four cots, three of which were stacked above the lowest level to make bunk beds. There were 62 bunk beds in one barracks building, and 174 barracks buildings formed one sector of a camp for Soviet prisoners of war. The extermination camp could house 200,000 people, a population distributed over four bauabschnitten, each of which comprised six camp units. One unit held 10,000 people, or participants, as AVL would insist. Dutch architecture historian and Holocaust scholar Robert Jan van Pelt remarked that the interior logic of Auschwitz was a crucial part of the regional plan for the annexed areas of western Poland and, ultimately, for the Lebensraum stretching out beyond the Ural: the Generalplan Ost. This area was to be cleansed of the last human and topographic traces of Polish and Slavic inhabitation and transformed into an ideal cultural landscape of National Socialism. Himmler, who oversaw the planning of this entire region, mobilized Germany’s best minds and planning engineers. Walter Christaller, a famous geographer who is widely quoted as the father of the central place theory, projected his methods on the region. According to Christaller, an ideal region has six small villages, which require one market village; six market villages, which require one town; six towns, which require one city; and so forth. The result is a pattern of overlapping hexagons that divide the central spaces at each level of scale. Part of the concept utilized Gottfried Feder’s theories on the ideal spatial-economic structure of towns. While serving as a professor of urban planning at the Technical University of Berlin, Feder, who was a major economic ideologist within the Nazi Party, wrote Die Neue Stadt (1939). Presented as the perfect combination of countryside and town, his new city was to be built on cheap rural land, to accommodate 20,000 people, and to cover an area of 2.78 Km2, of which 1.13 Km2 were to be forest. The total cost was estimated at 50,000,000 Reichsmarks, or an investment of 2,500 Reichsmarks per person. The smallest unit of the city was the family dwelling. Such dwellings were to be combined in blocks, which were to be combined in urban cells, which would form groups, which would form districts, which together would form a region. At every level of scale, an entire inventory of facilities, infrastructure and party leadership was described.
Feder’s ideas were further developed by architect and planner Carl Culemann, who used multiplication (to the decimal) to create three to four jumps in scale. Neighbourhood units were to contain three to four houses; ten houses would form cells of 30 to 40 houses; ten cells would create a district of from 300 to 400 houses; and each town would have ten districts with 3000 to 4000 houses. The average population of a town, however, was still projected at 20,000 people. According to Himmler, the Generalplan Ost would permit German colonists to build perfect National Socialist communities – step by step and scale by scale – even in times of intense ethnic strife. The interesting aspect of the Generalplan Ost was that it not only provided for the gradual colonizing of the region, but also integrated in its logic the means to evacuate the area. More than simply a regional plan, it showed an understanding of the process of violent, transformation. The town of Auschwitz (Oswiecim), for example, was one of the first ideal towns built according to the system; its parallel extermination camp, which created space for German settlement structures, operated on the same logic and featured the same basic diagram.
Do we see Joep van Lieshout’s SlaveCity, then, as a work of art about extermination, exploitation and totalitarianism? No, no and no; or maybe, maybe and maybe. But that is not the point. We can read it as an ode (though perhaps not meant as one) to the twentieth century, to a century whose passion for classification, obsession for numbers, fury of dissection, love of diagrams and exact tailoring of the social system escaped the utopian fantasies of the few and became the living (and dying) environment of the many. Looking back at Barthes’ trio of protagonists, we recognize the intense semiotic plaisir that the three authors invested in their world-replacement systems; looking at Ebenezer Howard, we see the fervently optimistic and ideological fervour with which he imagined leading the masses to the Promised Land.
Nazi planners were filled with an equally ideological fervour, which led to an atavistic, genocidal desire for expansion. And making a 50-year leap in history to the New Urbanists, we find an organizational logic that is still very much intact but that has become completely invisible and essentially meaningless. In the case of Barthes’ examples, as well as of Howard and the Nazis, the aesthetics of each system expressed the ideas of its author, whereas Duany Plater Zyberk covers the system with a different aesthetic, that of traditional dwellings and public spaces: the comforting and beautiful environment of the small town. At this point, thinking in terms of systems loses all meaning; it becomes a tool, a form of bureaucracy, a way to get things done. It has no particular flavour or emotion of its own. Roland Barthes would never have written his book about the model-makers of our times. Drawing up a huge spreadsheet of numbers, spaces, functions and rules has become just as banal as the use of a computer, or a pencil. Such banality does make this type of thinking or ordering an innocent pastime. The danger of this thinking lies in its pseudo-rationality, its depersonalized and depoliticized omnipresence, with which it clouds our judgment and distracts us from thinking in a truly free manner. Relegating the spreadsheet method to the back burner allows us to assume that it is an inevitable way of working and a guarantee for order. It provides the bureaucrat with the reassurance that everything is in its place.
Andres Duany conceals his spreadsheets with the aesthetics of the small town, and Joep van Lieshout seems to do the opposite. The beautifully strange and sexual elements of SlaveCity/Call Centre – spermatozoal and ovarian brothels for women and men, respectively; wonderfully ramshackle class-B brothels made of wood; a half-excavated university building; busts; drawings of labouring participants; a dinner table set – all seethe with the same joyous caveman aesthetic of van Lieshout’s earlier work. Here, however, we are constantly forced to view them in a certain order, as elements of a bureaucracy consisting of eating, shitting, transplanting, slaughtering, fucking, working, living and dying. We are prevented from simply fantasizing about these elements as activities we might or might not consider doing, as we once contemplated the Bais-ô-Drome and the sensory-deprivation helmets. Even worse: in retrospect, Atelier Van Lieshout’s earlier work now seems to have a meta-order and to be part of a systematic way of thinking and ordering. It becomes simultaneously technocratic and anecdotal.
But what does the system add to the individual elements? What does SlaveCity add to the objects and designs other than a reference to the Holocaust? Where is the joy, the fervour or the ideology in this example of thinking based on a system? I think these factors were lost somewhere in the second half of the twentieth century. There is no longer any added value in the creation of a super-order such as this one; on the contrary, the individual elements are reduced. By allowing the spreadsheet attitude to take centre stage, Joep van Lieshout seems to have stripped his own work of the freedom to induce in his viewers the intimate and endlessly unpredictable effects of fear, lust, wonderment, disgust and intellectual interpretation. It should not come as a shock that the controversial artist Joep van Lieshout has chosen to be inspired by concentration camps and the holocaust; it is much more surprising that this this self-proclaimed harbinger of total personal freedom sees the need to embed his work in the bureaucracy of interpretation that is Slave City.