photo credit : Sébastien Robert
Unlike its neighbouring cities, Rotterdam is not known for its iconic traditional buildings and its landscapes did not inspire the painters of the Dutch Golden Age. Yet its port is the largest in Europe, known for its architectural monuments, industrial complexes, modern infrastructure, but also for a rich cultural diversity that has earned it the title of “gateway to the world”. The “pier pressure” project comes to life in the waters of the port of Rotterdam. Starting from an interest in marine worms, Mark IJzerman confronts the natural ecosystem with the one built by man. The project explores the notion of invasion in an installation steeped in ecology, marine biology and the city’s cultural heritage.
Mark’s journey begins with the discovery of Australian tubeworms in the canals of Amsterdam, where he is based. During the pandemic, he wanders around the city with local ecologists who tell him that one of the major impacts of the climate crisis is the appearance of these worms, never seen here before. Indeed, with the flourishing international maritime traffic, species from elsewhere are landing in Dutch waters, and the rise in water temperature encourages them to settle. Intrigued by these mysterious creatures – Ficopotamus Enigmaticus – which most people don’t know what they look like, Mark decides to meet them. These worms are considered an invasive species; living in colonies, they secrete a calcareous tube around themselves, and develop networks of tubes that can sometimes be several metres long. They act as filters, feeding on plankton or detritus particles in the water.
Determined to work with them in some way, Mark takes these objects and places them in an aquarium in his studio to better observe and understand them. At the same time, he responds to a S+T+ARTS4water call for proposals focusing on biodiversity in the port of Rotterdam, whose issues are the sustainable interaction between humans and marine life; how to address the entanglement between economic growth and biodiversity? And how does this influence the culture of the port? The artist wins the call and knows that he will have to be ambitious. This is the beginning of a year-long residency that will be punctuated by 3 events showing the work in progress the aim of which is to get into a conversation with the audience, and allow them to observe the experiments as well as gather their feedback.
photo credit : Adriaan van de Polder
Except that he doesn’t know if he’ll find this species in the waters of Rotterdam, and the first time he looks, he doesn’t find it. In fact, he doesn’t know where to look. So he writes to a number of specialists in the field for help. But he soon realises that most of them are publishing research without even leaving their offices or seeing the animals with their own eyes. Wanting to work with someone who knows the field, he approaches the port authority who puts him in touch with Peter Paalvast, an independent ecological consultant. Passionate and open-minded, his work involves taking a critical look at the impact of port activities on the ecosystem, which makes him the ideal partner for this project. With him, Mark learns about the different methods of regenerating the marine environment and the consequences that go with it. One of them is to put boards, wires or concrete structures in the water to monitor the proliferation of different species, but also to allow fish to grow and ensure the health of the waters.
Peter takes the artist to the same places he visited two weeks earlier, but shows him the right way to find the coveted worms. Mark does not study the worm itself, but rather relies on the scientific research already carried out. Together with Han Meyer from Deltastad, he also looks at the town planning and future of the port of Rotterdam; originally the area was an estuary with wide banks and shallow rivers, but the building of the city and the needs of trade led to the construction of an artificial peninsula on which most of the port rests. Expanded over time, it now presents a high risk of flooding, and the municipality plans to recreate a landscape similar to the original, while adapting to contemporary issues, since the port infrastructure is still needed. So, it’s about finding the fine balance between what we create and what was already there.
photo credit : Fenna de Jong
Mark calls his project pier pressure, a pun based on the double meaning of the word “pier” which means both “pier” and “peer”. He alludes to the friction between the pressure to limit fossil fuels by reducing maritime trade and the social pressure to be a modern human being (e.g. owning an iPhone), which has a direct impact on the environment.
Considering the fact that there’s a growing amount of artworks about ecology which are mainly digital in nature (films, VR-experiences, 3D worlds), Mark decides early on that the ‘encounter’ with this species should be a real one. This however brings a multitude of ethical issues, the hermetic nature and colonial history of aquariums being the most pressing. After discussions with a professor of animal ethics from the University of Utrecht, he carefully decides to go ahead with it, as in this case he considers the ability to create proximity to this other-than-human being to outweigh the downsides. His first exhibition takes place in the premises of V2_, the project’s cultural partner, where he shows timelapses of the harbour, tube worms in a small aquarium and plays songs on audio. In his second exhibition, he displays the documents that explain his approach and research into the state of the harbour and marine species, and displays a clean barrel adorned with wires which will be immersed, allowing marine creatures to colonise it. He realises that his speculative vision is mainly based on scientific data, that ecology is very important, but that the human element is missing.
Mark imagines creating a ritual for the moment when the barrel emerges from its immersion. He remembers the sea shanties and invites local choirs to collaborate. When he gets a positive response, he goes to meet the men; they all worked in the harbour in the 1960s-1970s and remember the water covered in oil slicks and other filth, the harbour before the ecological discourses. Not all members of the choir are open to Mark’s project, so those who are passionate about art and ecology decide to participate. The song selected for the final installation is about how the port of Rotterdam is and will always be the same, which is in direct contradiction to the barrel. The artist films and records them and projects them onto three screens during the exhibitions, the sound of which is activated as the viewer approaches. However, the third exhibition takes the form of a performance as Mark invites the 40 members of the choir to come and sing live for 2.5 hours.
photo credit : David Danos
Finally, to celebrate the end of the residency in a final event, the work is exhibited at V2_; the choir is present only on the screens and a Shell oil drum is now invaded by marine life. His aim is to open up a conversation about the future of the port of Rotterdam and the colonised barrel is his artistic act, meant to give a glimpse of what marine life in the port might look like in 30 years’ time. He also gives a talk about his work at the Guggenheim in October 2022, and plans an event at the Maritime Museum in Rotterdam in 2023 where the installation and the choir will possibly return. But a project with social and ecological utility should not end after a few exhibitions; after taking the subject into the academic and research field, it is clear that these regeneration methods could be applied to many other species and environments. The artist has the idea of soliciting, in the near future, companies that deal with underwater datacenters, to make them development structures for marine animals.
In the end, Mark will have worked with an environmentalist, collaborated with local businesses to collect the material and design the immersion mechanism, convinced a choir, and brought the people of Rotterdam together on a subject that concerns them, all in partnership with cultural institutions. He will have positioned the public between different domains linked to the same context, and confronted the frictions between human and marine life. Above all, the artist will have created a unique framework that will have allowed people who, at first sight, have only their city in common, to meet and exchange. This new aspect of his work, which he discovered through the development of pier pressure, he wishes to continue exploring in the future.
credit : Sébastien Robert
pier pressure proved to be a bridge between the past, present and future of the port of Rotterdam and its human and non-human inhabitants.
More than just an art project, Mark IJzerman’s work has opened up a social dialogue necessary to build a better common future.
Peter Paalvast – Ecoconsult
Han Meijer – Deltastad
Harry ten Hove – Naturalis
Shantykoor Barend Fox
Adriaan van de Polder
Rob Emeis – Zorona and Nathan Marcus
Franck Meijboom – Universiteit Utrecht
Maurice de Bruijne
Sjef van Gaalen – Structure & Narrative
Just van der Endt – Witteveen + Bos
Pauline Kamermans & Annemiek Hermans – Wageningen University & Research
Etienne Abadie – Ecocean
Gijs Bosman – The Weathermakers
Michael Laterveer – BlueLinked
Hans Heupink – Gemeente Rotterdam
“I’ve learned that positioning the audience between different elements in the same context works. […] It’s about showing different angles about a certain situation.” One of the interests of interdisciplinary projects is precisely to put different facets of the same subject into perspective. They allow for a meeting between different people with different visions, who at first glance would have no reason to be in the same place. This is one of the aspects that Mark IJzerman wanted to explore through “pier pressure” and which, according to him, gives this type of artistic project its unique character. After starting out in music and sound, he has gradually strengthened the useful, even political character of his projects by integrating human and ecological values.
Mark’s family comes from the coastal province of Zeeland in the Netherlands, a region marked by the large-scale construction of dams, locks and dikes in the second half of the 20th century. As a child he is impressed by the stories told to him by his great-grandmother, who herself still wore the traditional clothes of the region. He grows up in Eindhoven, where he connects with music. At the time, his parents urge him to choose an instrument, and he settles on the electronic keyboard, only to realise that the keyboard is not very popular with music bands. In his teenage years, he still plays in a few bands, but more importantly, he starts to compose music on his computer.
His first frustrations appear in high school when his music teacher expresses his disdain for electronic music. He makes it the subject of his higher education at the Utrecht School of the Arts, which offers a double major in music and technology, a little too much focused on the latter for his taste. He finds himself in a better position, but feels bored with the established rules of Western music and wants to learn more in a more open way. In the early 2010s, Mark graduates and starts his professional career. He takes a series of small jobs doing sound for commercials, and turns down his first big contract; he feels that the work on offer does not match his values, a difficult decision for any young arts graduate, but one that sets the tone for the artist’s future choices.
During his internship at Sound and Music in London, he gets to work on a project called “minute of listening”. It’s about developing an educational method for primary school children which consists of having them listen to a sound for one minute, and letting them imagine what it could be. Then they are given the right answer, and they listen again. The experience can stop there, or continue with a discussion on culture, geography, etc. This offers a different perspective on music education, an essential element that appeals to Mark. Back in the Netherlands, he tries to spread the method in schools, but the work of dissemination proves to be tiring. Nevertheless, he manages to get it into a few organisations and then becomes a teacher at the school where he studied.
At the same time, he joins a sound art collective called Soundlings. It brings together young sound artists and musicians, freshly graduated, all facing the same dilemma: how to live as an artist? Together, they set up various projects and organise a weekly think tank on themes that were not addressed during their studies. The discussions are partly philosophical, such as sound in everyday life, partly oriented towards other fields, such as video games or design, but also pragmatic, such as the financing of artistic projects. Thanks to Soundlings, Mark is gaining confidence to assert himself as an artist.
He keeps on collaborating with other organisations and artists, designing the sound for works. In particular, he does R&D for a start-up that creates “crdl“, a device that facilitates communication with people suffering from dementia, through touch and sound. As well as being a technological medical device, it is a useful and poetic object. As Mark is mainly drawn to the development element, his interventions are short-lived.Then in 2016, things change; he produces the audiovisual performance “Presque Vu” at the request of the FIBER Festival organisers who give him little direction. This last collaboration marks the beginning of Mark’s artistic career.
photo credit : Lisanne Lentink
He then meets Sébastien Robert who helps him with “Time Shift”, an important encounter as it is the beginning of a personal and professional friendship. But despite his achievements, Mark is still searching for what he wants to express with his work, and it is precisely thanks to a residency in Chile with Sébastien in 2019 that he finds some answers. His trip inspires him to focus his research on ecology, and to talk about it through the technology that Mark masters. More than that, the artist discovers a love of the field; he enjoys working with experts and open data, but understands that you have to be in the field to feel and connect all this data. And because art should be able to raise difficult questions, their performance “As Above, So Below” explores how to address the friction between ecology and technology. Thus, this project becomes a major turning point for his artistic approach, and the resolution of this friction a driving force for his practice.
In 2020, Mark begins teaching in the Ecology Futures master’s program at the Master Institute of Visual Cultures; in line with his approach, he takes students to old mines or closed sites to examine the different strata, whether geological or social, and artworks are created from them. The artist feels fulfilled, he learns a lot from his students, while continuing his work of research and experimentation with technologies. With “Humans, Talk To Me”, AI makes its appearance; this installation invites the audience to lie down in fishing nets and talk to the North Sea itself (in a speculative way). After researching texts about the North Sea, most of which are actually technical, the creators trained an AI to focus on poetic literature and converse in order to “create a voice” of the sea. Similarly, Mark uses AI to develop conversations between humans and other species and create proximity, such as with barnacles in “Conversation with crustaceans”.
As time goes by, the sea becomes more and more important in Mark’s projects, a crucial element in the history of the Netherlands and a concern for the future. The work on crustaceans also allows him to reconnect with his childhood; the curators of the Flood Museum, located in the province of Zeeland, seduced by his work, solicit him to make certain objects from their collection speak, a rather technical project that is currently underway. “Pier Pressure” is certainly a first for Mark as the technical aspect is less pronounced and sound less central. Also, the kind of research that went into the work was an element that he missed, and the grants that an organisation like S+T+ARTS offers, is a boon to artists who want to pursue a subject further.
Among the next steps, the project is to be presented at the Maritime Museum in Rotterdam, the artist continues to transmit the values of engagement through teaching, and to organise meetings and research laboratories with other artists. Mark and Sébastien will also meet again for a residency in June 2023, this time in Svalbard in the Arctic. They are interested in underwater mining and its impact on indigenous cultures. Finally, in terms of future aspirations, Mark would like to continue his research on the non-perceptible to the naked eye, and make this friction with our needs visible to the public.
For Mark IJzerman, it is clear that art is much more than a means of expression, it is a vehicle for change, and the artistic act is above all a political act.
His works invite us to step back, take a different look at our surroundings and question our choices. In a way, they already embody change.