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Voorland Groningen: Symbol for a global problem

2 February 2022

An earthquake caused by gas extraction, that was the trigger for Voorland Groningen, a multimedia journalistic research project by photographer Dirk-Jan Visser and researcher Christian Ernsten. One day, at Atelier aan de Middendijk in the middle of the agrarian-industrial Groningen landscape, the earth shook beneath them. They both realized that a local quake like this points to a much larger theme: the landscape in the Anthropocene.

The term ‘Anthropocene’ was introduced in 2000 by atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and designates the geological epoch in which we have lived since roughly the first industrial revolution. (Both the name and the start of the epoch are incidentally under discussion.) Humans (Greek: anthropos) became a geological force in this epoch. Because of the actions of humans, the earth is warming, biodiversity is decreasing, and sea levels are rising. And where philosopher René ten Bos once argued that in this age we can do little more or better than roam, Ernsten and Visser suggest walking along four routes they have mapped out. Radio producer Martin Minkema guides the walker (in audio) through the Groningen landscape, our ‘future’. Because what is happening in Groningen – the salinization of the soil, the loss of biodiversity, the land shaking, the arrival of giant data centres and the digitalization of our food production – is in fact a symbol for a global problem.

Gaswinlocatie langs de Middendijk boven Warffum. Foto Dirk-Jan Visser

total project
‘We went into it quite naively,’ says Ernsten. ‘Actually, we only wanted to make an app with audio walks, but one thing led to another.’ In collaboration with nai010, a book was also published, containing stories by Martin Minkema, thematic essays by Ernsten, a visual essay by Visser, and illustrations by Senne Trip. Minkema also made a four-part radio documentary for the VPRO broadcasting company. Ernsten: ‘It has become a total project about the landscape then and now, but also about the changes that await us.’

support
When they launched the triptych (book, walking app and documentary), the pandemic had just begun. ‘Everyone was out walking and rediscovering their own country. Maybe that’s partly why we got so much media attention,’ says Ernsten. The first print of the book sold out within two months. Voorland Groningen reached a wide audience, from local residents to policymakers and residents of the Randstad with a radio or newspaper. Ernsten: ‘I was surprised at how widely it was picked up. I thought it was actually a bit of a niche topic.’ The response from every quarter was mainly positive. Even though there are many sensitivities associated with the Groningen landscape. ‘It’s easy to push the intensive chicken farmer into a corner,’ says Visser. ‘But from his perspective, he doesn’t have that much choice. He, too, gives substance to certain ideas about the landscape. We’ve done a pretty good job of highlighting all those local stories without passing judgement. Visser, who conducted the bulk of the interviews with locals, greatly values stakeholder management. ‘We actively maintain contact with everyone who was involved in this project in one way or another. We also thanked all those people, however briefly we spoke to them, in our book. That generates support.’

collective discomfort
Because of the pandemic, there were limited opportunities for public events, but what did take place was valuable. During a public debate organized by Platform Gras, ‘architecture centre for and from Groningen,’ Visser and Ernsten got into conversation with policymakers, landscape architects – none other than the Government Architect was in the audience – and environmentalists. ‘From that discussion, a kind of collective discomfort emerged with what is happening around us,’ says Ernsten. ‘Do we still have a grasp on it? Can we continue to live like this in the Dutch landscape?’ In collaboration with the Groningen theatre company PEERD, an exhibition of Visser’s work about the Eemshaven was created in parallel to their performance at the same location. ‘You can’t manage these kinds of projects alone,’ says Visser. 'You always have to commit to a partner and strengthen each other’s network in the process.’ And there has to be money. For Voorland, Visser and Ernsten – who both also work in higher education – worked with a patchwork of grants. ‘This was all produced in the evenings,’ Ernsten says. ‘It's impossible to make a living from this.’

consolidating
'The complicated aspect of projects like this is consolidating them,’ Visser adds. ‘You create something, you launch it, you generate media attention and then what? It takes an enormous amount of time and energy to keep pushing.’ The two earmarked funds so that both website and app could remain up and running for five years. What happens to Voorland Groningen afterwards is uncertain. Visser: ‘There should be an ongoing conversation involving makers themselves, and between makers and funds about consolidating their projects.’

This project was supported in 2018 by the Architecture Grant Scheme under the title Nieuw Groningen Peil.

Text: Merel Kamp