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How an Occupied City Turned into a Contaminated One
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How an Occupied City Turned into a Contaminated One

On 8 June 2020, Brussels-based Flemish-Dutch cultural institution deBuren launched Besmette Stad (Contaminated City), their artistic answer to the current public health crisis. This large-scale multimedia project continues into the summer of this remarkable year.

Besmette Stad (Contaminated City) was inspired by Paul van Ostaijen’s (1896-1928) Bezette Stad (Occupied City), a collection of poems, which the author started writing in Berlin on 27 July 1920.

Influenced by artistic movements Futurism and Dadaism, Besmette Stad is an impressive literary experiment, which combines disruptive, rhythmic – or ‘ritmiese’ – typography, disintegrating syntax and Oskar Jespers’ captivating woodcuts.

This illusionless, bitter, almost nihilistic book of poetry also has a reckoning with the rather naïve idealism of the ‘humanitarian-expressionist’ poetics, which characterised Paul van Ostaijen’s earlier work.

When the world is being shot to pieces, language can – no: must! –explode as well.

In the summer of 1914, Antwerp was caught off guard by a Zeppelin bombardment. After just a short battle, the city fell into the Germans’ clutches. Incorporating snippets of songs, advertisements, signs, film stills and newspaper articles, the poet evokes the images and sounds of the occupied city, exuding alienation and full of chaos.

In 1921, Van Ostaijen self-published Bezette Stad in Antwerp.

‘It is the very first, large work of modernist multimedia art,’ Willem Bongers-Dek, deBuren’s director explains. ‘In his poems, the poet reacts to World War I, and to how severely cities, including Antwerp and Berlin, – and, in fact, all European cities – were affected by it.’

As currently, a substantial part of the world is gradually leaving lockdown, this avant-garde masterpiece rings very true. Our city is not occupied, yet it is contaminated. Our streets were empty, and we still experience first-hand just how vulnerable our existence is.

deBuren asked sixty-something Flemish and Dutch artists – authors, artists, musicians – to take Bezette Stad as a source of inspiration and to come up with a response to the current public health crisis. How will we bounce back from this? What can we do differently in the future?

Find all the answers (in Dutch) HERE.

The coming weeks we will present to you in English the artistic responses of Anke Verschueren and Lieke Marsman.

These artists take part in Besmette Stad (more names will follow):

Aafke Romeijn, Annelies Verbeke, Alfred Schaffer, Anke Verschueren, Aya Sabi, Babs Gons, Bauke van der Laan, Benno Barnard, Özdemir, Charlotte Peys, Dean Bowen, Dieter De Schutter, Dirk van Bastelaere, Eleni Debo, Erik Spinoy, Frank Keizer, Fulco Ottervanger, Gaea Schoeters, Gustaaf Peek, Hélène Gelèns, Iduna Paalman, Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer, Iris Penning, Jeroen Olyslaegers, Koen Broucke, Leo van Maaren, Lieke Marsman, Lies Van Gasse, Lisette Ma Neza, Louis van der Waal, Lucky Fonz III, Maarten van der Graaff, Malika Soudani, Marlene van Niekerk, Mauro Pawlowski, Maxime Garcia Diaz, Neil Akenzua, Nele Eeckhout, Pete Wu, Peter Holvoet-Hanssen, Pjeroo Roobjee, Saartje Van Camp, Sanneke van Hassel, Shamisa Debroey, Simon(e) van Saarloos, Spinvis, Tom Van Bauwel, Ward Zwart, Wide Vercnocke, Willy Darktrousers, Willy Organ en Younes van den Broeck.

Partners: deBuren, Paul van Ostaijengenootschap, De Brakke Grond, de zomercursus van de Nederlandse Taalunie, de lage landen, Pakhuis de Zwijger, Eye Filmmuseum (Amsterdam) en Letterenhuis.


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