The New Coastline by Rubén Dario Kleimeer and Gundega Strauberga
Rotterdam-based photographer Rubén Dario Kleimeer (43) captures the landscape, the edges of the city and the buildings within it. His tranquil observations question the world we live in. In the work of Latvian designer Gundega Strauberga (26), who graduated last year from the Design Academy Eindhoven, the dialogue between people and their surroundings plays a central role. The Creative Industries Fund NL’s Building for Talent programme has brought a senior and start-up talent together in their drive to focus attention on a topical theme: the threat of flooding from climate change. In De Nieuwe Kustlijn (The New Coastline), the duo examines how the Netherlands is prepared for this.
When, in line with predictions, sea level rises by one metre in the next century, a ‘new coastline’ at 0 Normal Amsterdam Level (NAP) will be created. NAP is a horizontal plane (corresponding approximately with average sea level) in relation to which the height of land and water is indicated in the Netherlands. Every three weeks, Rubén Dario Kleimeer and Gundega Strauberga visit a place that lies on the dividing line between the low land threatened by water in North Holland, the Randstad, Zeeland, North Brabant and Utrecht and the safe, higher-lying areas in the hinterland. Field research and photography at these sites is the common thread of their project, which began in mid-January 2022. After a visit to the Bergen op Zoom region and a field trip in and around the town of Tiel, Rubén and Gundega will this time be out and about in Harderwijk and its surroundings. As always, the means of transport is the bicycle. Journalist Iris Stam and photographer Renate Beense tagged along on this Thursday in March to report on the reconnaissance expedition in words and pictures.
wind turbines on the horizon
Departure point is Harderwijk station, where Gundega, Renate and Iris rent an OV-bike. Rubén is already all set to go with his white Bullitt Transporter, on which he can transport his photographic equipment properly. After a round of introductions, the foursome hit the pedals at 9.30 a.m. Rubén whizzes down Stationsstraat towards the historic centre. After cycling for almost 10 minutes through the Gelderland town on the Veluwemeer, he says: ‘Look, there’s the water, that’s where we have to go.’
The bikes are hastily parked on the promenade in front of the city wall. There is a strong breeze and occasional drizzle, but it doesn’t bother the artists. Gundega and Rubén walk to the waterfront, where they assess whether the panorama with wind turbines on the horizon is suitable to take a picture. Rubén: ‘The place is really cool, and I think the sky is also very beautiful. But what I want to capture is so far away and so small, it’s just not worth it.’
Rubén turns to Renate and Iris: ‘What we see on the other side is the Noordoostpolder. It was once the Zuiderzee, and now it’s a new province.’
Gundega adds: ‘And perhaps the first area the sea will take back.’
Rubén: ‘This place interests us. Because here we can clearly see the Dutch way of doing things: building a dam like the Afsluitdijk, creating artificial pieces of land. The famous landscape architect Adriaan Geuze once said: “God created the world, but the Dutch made the Netherlands.” An apt statement.’
Turning to Gundega: ‘We should visit him for our project.’ Gundega responds enthusiastically: ‘Yes, I’d love to interview the person behind this legendary quote.’
She continues: ‘A few weeks ago, we had the honour of meeting urban designer and landscape architect Freek van Riet. He has carried out extensive research into how the Netherlands protects itself from the water.’
Rubén suggests going somewhere for a drink so that Gundega and he can talk more about The New Coastline and working with each other and with others. With bikes in hand, the group walks to the centre. On the other side of the city wall, Rubén spontaneously strikes up a conversation with a woman from Harderwijk, who tells him how high the water once stood against the wall. When he asks where he can buy a city map, she points him towards the tourist information office and the nearby Stadsmuseum. Purchasing a map of the area to be explored is a regular feature of every field trip. In the research, collecting and studying maps plays a major role. Gundega is the one who is particularly focused on this.
On the large table of a central café, Gundega lays out a stack of maps. She explains: ‘Every week we collect maps that might be of interest to our project.’ She shows a number of them, including of areas in the Netherlands that flooded in the past, of dikes through the centuries, of water boards and high and low-lying areas in the Netherlands. She likes Holland above sea level, a map showing the high-lying areas in relief, created by Ruben Pater, a graphic designer and visual reporter whose work has included the topic of flooding.
Rubén: ‘We’ve arranged to meet him in two weeks’ time.’
Gundega finds the map that predicts where the water will go during a flood fascinating. ‘The land below sea level, such as the Noordoostpolder, is indicated with the colour green. Nearby, to the east, you can see in dark red the safe areas.’
Rubén: ‘We chose Harderwijk as the third destination for our field research, because this city is situated right in between. It overlooks the water and the landscaped polders and has at its back the high- lying land of the Veluwe.’
Images become more valuable when they have layers of content. More context. Handling the camera requires all my attention. Now I have the opportunity to work with characters from neighbouring disciplines who, through their skills, are able to give the photos an extra dimension – Rubén Dario Kleimeer
Rubén shows photos he took earlier. ‘This is a holiday park near Bergen op Zoom, right on the water. Holiday homes that people buy for the next five or ten years. For themselves and perhaps to pass on to their children later.’
Gundega: ‘Completely in denial about the situation.’
Rubén: ‘I think it's more a question of trust.’
He explains: ‘The issue we raise in The New Coastline is incredibly relevant. The threat of flooding concerns us all, but is on the minds of only a few. We imagine ourselves safe because of the dikes, the Delta Works, the Afsluitdijk, you name it. Because we’ve always been able to rely on that.
Gundega adds: ‘The Netherlands is an example for other countries in the field of water management. Always managed to stay in control. The question is for how long.’
Rubén continues: ‘Gundega and I know very well that by taking our pictures we cannot solve the problem. But it is interesting to try to combine images with maps. Or images and a timeline. Or images and infographics. In such a way that the viewer and reader can be stirred or warned. Can take on board what is happening to our country now. The place where we live, and have built a life. That is the big challenge. Our ambition.’
mini think tank
According to Rubén, The New Coastline will at any rate be a collection of images and maps. The form is not yet known. ‘A book, an exhibition or a presentation? We’re still figuring it all out.
The division of roles in the project is established, however. Gundega: ‘Roughly divided up, Rubén is the photographer and I am the researcher and art director. I am not a map-maker, photographer, philosopher or urban planner by profession. But I like to venture into these unfamiliar areas. I add the input I gather from the research in my own artistic way.’
Rubén: ‘It’s a great opportunity, the Fund making it possible to start a project. And to take it to the next level. Images become more valuable when they have layers of content. More context. It is difficult to collect this background on my own, to focus both on the image and on the information. Handling the camera requires all my attention. Now I have the opportunity to work with characters from neighbouring disciplines who, through their skills, are able to give the photos an extra dimension: Gundega and the experts we meet and interview as part of this project. It allows me to start building my own mini think tank. That’s fantastic.’
digital and analogue
After coffee, Gundega and Rubén continue their exploration of Harderwijk. They end up in a new housing development just outside the centre, built in historic style. To put it mildly, Rubén does not like it: ‘This makes my eyes water. It’s totally fake.’
At the edge of the neighbourhood, there is an undeveloped site where construction will be taking place. Piles are being driven for the foundtions. Rubén climbs a fence and takes pictures of it. Only to find the perfect spot a little further, on a high mountain of sand. Rubén gets settled, and involves Gundega in determining the composition. He is waiting for the right light. Rubén: ‘I press the button when the sun is behind the clouds. It is already beautifully even. But it would be nice if it was even a little flatter. This foreground, that orange band, the water, the little bridge. A little less of the depth of the water. That should be about it.’
Rubén has a Cambo Wide, with digital back panel. Gundega places her tripod on another part of the sand hill. She photographs with Rubén's old analogue Mamiya RB 67, which he once used to shoot the series Chongming Island in Shanghai for his graduation project at the Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam.
Gundega studied at the Design Academy Eindhoven. In her native Latvia, she previously specialized in sculpture and design at the Riga School of Art and Design. About the medium-format camera, she says: ‘My teacher, a sculptor whose assistant I was, had one just like it. I never learned to use it properly at the time. It’s great that Rubén can explain it exactly to me now.’
Rubén helps Gundega put a roll in the camera. When asked what it’s like to be the senior member of the duo, he answers modestly. ‘It feels weird, to be honest. But it’s also cool and really enjoyable.’
Gundega and Rubén continue to take photos. Because of the sun, Rubén photographs under a sheet. The wind doesn’t make it any easier. After a while, we hear: ‘This is the moment, with these clouds.’
The next day, the single-minded duo will head to the Veluwe. In the coming months, Amersfoort is on the programme as well. And probably Groningen and the Waddenzee.
The hunt for images, that’s what I enjoy. I’m happy to be experimenting alongside an experienced landscape photographer like Rubén. What he has taught me most of all is to be patient – Gundega Strauberga
Gundega did not have any definite expectations of the project beforehand. She says: ‘I was just looking forward to making this trip, getting on the bike and seeing how it all goes. The hunt for images, that’s what I enjoy. I’m happy to be experimenting alongside an experienced landscape photographer like Rubén. That’s very valuable. What he has taught me most of all is to see the picture with your eyes first. And to be patient.’
She continues: ‘I've never tackled a project in this way before: focusing entirely on something for one or two days during a field study. Enjoyable, but also quite difficult. You have to stay curious and sharp. If you slack off, if your eyes are tired, then you don’t see interesting things anymore.’
Gundega concludes: ‘It is a challenge for me to dive all the way into one subject and calmly go deeper, deeper and deeper. That’s what Rubén has been doing for more than a decade. I want to use the experience I am gaining now for my own practice. I also hope to take courage with me. Being brave enough to approach someone that I think would be perfect to work with. At the moment I still do everything on my own. To achieve the best results, it’s good to invite people who have already done something similar. So that I don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Joining forces. The same is true for The New Coastline. Rubén and I complement each other. The project has benefited greatly from us both.
Text: Iris Stam
Photography: Renate Beense