By Sofi Thanhauser
Diego Fernandez went to Amsterdam to roast a goat with a bicycle. The act as he first conceived was to be a bloody one. The killing, quartering, spitting, and slow cooking of the animal would take place in the center of a public square. Blood would trickle through cobblestones, and the spectacle would form the center of a “multi-sided pilgrimage” that would both invoke Amsterdam’s pre-industrial role as a center of trade, and act as an elegy to a long-lost sort of directness: its barbarism would be open, unmitigated, and honest. The bicycle would act as an invitation to members of the public, who would be able to take turns pedaling the contraption which turned the spit.
Things got in the way. First, a maze of Dutch legislation ensured that the initial sanguine slosh would be relegated to a slaughterhouse outside the city limits and imported to the scene of the barbeque via video. The location of the show itself- a multi-artist extravanza put on by De Appel’s Curatorial Training Programme as the finale to their international tour, was set for the Bijlmermeer, Amsterdam Zuidoost (southwest) ---an exclave invisible from the central city.
To these two major displacements was added a third when, at noon on the day of the roast, as the handmade double-goat bicycle powered spit roast had jut been erected and the wood kindling prepared, a Dutch policeman arrived on the public green space that had been selected for the barbeque and informed the assembled that their gathering was illegal because they had not filed for the proper permit. Left with no other alternative, the barbeque was moved to the outdoor patio of a private apartment on the ground floor of a high rise, rented out by the curators. Technically open to the public, who were redirected to the new location by one of the coordinators, the balcony space was nonetheless circumscribed in its capacity as public space by all the ineffable behavioral restrictions that private property tends to pile round itself.
Thus Fernandez’ primordial ritual was boldly attempted, and summarily shunted to the sidelines. It is precisely here, however- in the movement that changed a fantasy celebration of the center into a reality that was hidden in the closed off corner of a closed off corner-where the interest and genius of the piece really lay.
When the Bilgemeer was designed in the early 1960’s by a team headed by Siegfried Nassuth it was intended as a utopian community for middle class citizens, who would return from work in the central city to apartments in light filled sky rises, surrounded by green spaces. tubes connecting flats to parking garages, elevated roadways segregating pedestrians and bicyclists from auto traffic. But the middle classes never took the bait, and the post-colonial backflow following Surinamian independence in 1975 lead to the neighborhood’s being filled with low income, immigrant residents. The grand design produced a social cipher in which the human was dwarfed and possibility of community was all but foreclosed.
Designed as an appendage to a living organism of which central Amterdam was to have formed the workaday and cultural heart, Bligemeer ultimately became an isolated low income zone with little connection to the central city. Speaking in terms of design, it could be compared to a severed arm which, naturally, has no heart of its own. This kind of anatomical analogizing loses its crudeness when we recognize Nassuth’s indebtedness to the intellectual legacy of the Congress of Modern Architecture and Le Corbusier himself, who placed himself in a pantheon including Vitruvius, DeVinci, and Alberti when he insisted upon the intrinsic connection between architectural and human proportion.
To create a human gathering, a point of conflux, in a place which lacks a natural heart would necessarily be both difficult act and one that became a sort of automatic critique.
It is here that the bicycle expanded into its full symbolic potential. The bicycle, which enriches urban existence in the downtown Amsterdam but is powerless to link it with the Bijlmermeer, became a symbol of disconnect. At the same time, as the mechanism interposed between the human subjects and the primary purpose of their gathering-the meat-it was well poised to level an oblique attack on the overdeveloped regulations of the modern welfare state. The bicycle spit roast was rigged out in such a way that when pedaled, it turned the spit far too quickly. As it demonstrated the absurdity of the intervention of modern mechanism in ancient ritual, it parodied the broader absurdity of the situation: a situation in which highly educated and well intentioned civil engineers and bureaucrats have created, through their best efforts, a world in which it is virtually impossible to engage in the most fundamental act of community- to share meat with ones fellowman.
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Sofi Thanhauser is a freelance writer in New York City.