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Context: June 2009. At this stage, the new land rising from the sea between the Rotterdam harbour and the North Sea can only be approached by boat. No foot has been set on this land. If one would try, one would simply sink into quicksand. In a way, there is no land yet; the territory has not acquired firm contours. But its unformed potential appears to provide enough of a solid ground to attract investors. The reclaimed land should enable Rotterdam harbour to re-claim a leading global position: becoming one of the two only ports that can handle the giant ‘Chinamax’ ships, which will carry massive bulk to the world’s fastest-growing economy as from 2013. Though no longer an economic superpower itself, the Netherlands are eager to ensure they have a stake in those economies expected to be the superpowers of coming centuries.

The entrepreneurial spirit of the Dutch that is eagerly manifested here, harks back to the seventeenth century, when the Dutch Empire became one of the major seafaring powers and the first capitalist economy. Dutch explorers travelled as far as North America, the Caribbean, Brazil, the African West Coast, South Africa, Ceylon, the East Indies, Australia, New Zealand, and Tasmania, establishing trading posts and colonies. By 1650, the Dutch owned 16,000 merchant ships.

The expeditions went hand in hand with the mapping of ‘undiscovered’ land and the navigational routes on the way. These maps not only described a world that had not been charted in an encyclopaedic sense before. The topologic of mapping also implied a rewriting, which denied the heterogeneity of societies, cultures and ecologies already present. Maps made place into an abstraction, giving it a uniform surface and calculable contours, enabling the imagination of empty space available for occupation. The re-naming of land and its representation on a map were first acts of claiming power over it.

Commissioned by: Portscapes (Port of Rotterdam Authority & SKOR, Amsterdam)
Curated by: Latitudes, Barcelona

Surviving New Land

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I did not know in what land I had been cast, in what country, among what nation, nor whether I would endure a single night here, let alone a week, or a month ...

Surviving New Land is a film, shot from a vessel that slowly circumnavigated the Maasvlakte 2 island, thus adopting the point of view of an explorer about to set foot on undiscovered territory. The image – reminiscent of the watercolour impressions Dutch explorers made of the coastlines they encountered – shows the sea washing up on virgin land. But the accompanying soundtrack suggests that the very idea of undiscovered land, or a blank zone on a map waiting to be filled in, is a particular cultural fiction. The soundtrack is composed of clips from various feature films, which all tell tales of Westerners arriving in new land. Underscored by gripping orchestral music, the clips dramatize the excitement of imminent discovery, as well as the despair of marooned expeditions. ‘New land’ is imagined either as a place of opportunity or of fiasco.

That fantasies of new territory and ever-expanding opportunities for financial exploitation may strand, is ironically confirmed by the fact that the contractors for the Maasvlakte are also responsible for the extravagant ‘countries of the world’ islands project near Dubai, which the recent credit crisis has left largely empty and unsustainable.

Surviving New Land (low resolution view, 20:26 minutes, format 19:6)