Bart van den Boom (1969) of Viewmaster Projects is the curator of No Access, an exhibition on view in the Cannerberg tunnel system in Maastricht until 13 November. Twenty-one different works can be seen in dark, separate spaces: video art, short documentaries, animations and interactive media installations. They take you into the current reality of migration and border controls. Van den Boom: ‘I wanted to make an exhibition that is empathetic and awakens a different consciousness than the media does, so that the almost inescapable saturation of news images of refugees is pulled open and you think, “it is all so much and so intense”.’
Where you usually only think about a short news report for a moment, the stories by and about refugees in this exhibition truly stay with you. The location contributes to this. The narrow corridor system of marlstone and concrete was home to a NATO headquarters during the Cold War. Thick steel doors recall the fear of atomic bombs at the time. ‘Content-wise and visually, this was the best place for this exhibition as far as I was concerned. From Cannerberg, the borders of Europe were watched and data was collected on what the Russians were doing. For example, their flight movements over Germany were monitored. Luckily, Het Limburgs Landschap, the manager of the Cannerberg, was immediately open to cooperation’, Van den Boom says.
‘Normally you can only enter with a guide, but I wanted people to be able to walk around freely. The feeling of disorientation in such a strange environment is an essential part of the exhibition. The cold, the acoustics, the dark and the fact that you have no phone service also contribute to a much more sensory and direct experience than if you were to see these works in a museum, for example. I devised a scenography to create a good build-up and mix between the different types of video works and perspectives on borders. Moreover, I wanted to connect the European story of the bunker and the global migration issue step by step.’
To prevent people from getting lost in the corridor system, several passages were cordoned off. Technically too, it was not an easy exhibition to make. ‘We had to install electricity, the wooden panels rot quickly and it’s also intense for the projectors. But when I see what the exhibition evokes, it is more than worth it’, Van den Boom said.
Because of the migration theme, Studio Europa Maastricht was an important content partner for Van den Boom from the start. Together, they also involved students in the exhibition. ‘Recently, they have chosen a number of works from the exhibition and studied them. On 3 November, we will organise a special tour during which the students will explain their favourite videos. Following this, there will be a discussion session.’
“Moreover, I wanted to connect the European story of the bunker and the global migration issue step by step.”
Since last year, a collaboration with Viewmaster Projects and the minor ‘The Narrative’ of Zuyd University of Applied Sciences’ Communication and Multimedia Design course has also been running. In it, one of the animated films from No Access was developed. In a gripping animated film, student Osman Taheri tells the story of his own flight from Afghanistan and the fate of a neighbouring girl left behind. ‘When I first saw this work last year, I immediately knew it had to have a place in the exhibition.’
Van den Boom walked around with the idea for the exhibition for several years, but he could not have imagined how much he would be overtaken by reality while writing the grant applications. ‘The bizarre thing is that I constantly had to adapt the paragraphs in which I outlined the current context to the situation in Ukraine. More and more Ukrainian refugees were suddenly at the Polish border, where just the winter before thousands of refugees from Syria, Iraq and Iran were pushed back to Belarus. I had already selected the artworks for the exhibition, but Anita Groener added images of Ukrainian refugees to her work Blink.’
Partly by organising the exhibition at Cannerberg, Van den Boom hopes to reach people other than the typical art audience. ‘I don’t need to convince most art lovers of the urgency of the refugee issue. Precisely to reach other audiences, we are working with RTV Maastricht, for example. They make portraits of Syrian boat refugees who came to the Netherlands via Ter Apel and received residence permits. Many secondary school pupils also come to see the exhibition. We developed a special educational programme around the documentary Shadow Game by Eefje Blankevoort and Els van Driel. The documentary is about young people who fled to Europe on their own. Two portraits from it can be seen in No Access.’
Combining autobiographical works, data visualisations and more symbolic videos, the exhibition makes you feel how refugees’ humanity is affected. This is also what Van den Boom wants the exhibition to give politicians and policymakers. ‘That the migration issue is ultimately always about people, about people who are looking for safety, for a safe life. That it is intense when you go across the sea in a rubber boat in the dark and you have no idea whether you will make it. That you take such a risk means you really had to leave. It really isn’t just about wanting to make more money. In my opinion, money is hardly an issue; above all, there have to be very good reasons for wanting to flee.’
“Borders are of course only a construct.”
‘Borders are of course only a construct. For example, I myself feel much more European than Dutch, partly because Maastricht is such a European city. The Cannerberg also runs under the borders of the Netherlands and Belgium. When NATO was still here, Belgians, Dutch, Germans, British and Americans worked together towards one goal. With No Access, I hope to make people look at the refugee issue from multiple perspectives.’
Van den Boom continues: ‘For me, people are the most important thing in the whole exhibition. Even the data visualisations are about people. Policymakers and politicians should be aware of that: that it’s not about numbers and percentages, but about people.’
You can still visit the No Access exhibition until 13 November 2022 at the former NATO high quarters of Cannerberg in Maastricht. More information and tickets here.