A brief report of the event The Artist as Public Servant. Discarded Food as Commons on 9 June 2022

How art and social initiatives can get along

A brief report of the event The Artist as Public Servant. Discarded Food as Commons on 9 June 2022

As Common In, artists and participants travel across Amsterdam, we document and report on the art works and events. This time: The Artist as Public Servant. Discarded Food as Commons.

‘If we as artists can be of service to society, why don’t we?’ It’s the opening line of Alina Lupu’s publication entitled ‘Subtle schemes to derail funds but by no means structural solutions‘ (designed by Toni Brell) which she will hand out later that evening. We are in the cozy sunlit ‘private room’ of De Verbroederij in North Amsterdam, just by the ferry berth Oostveer.

Alina opens the event by introducing the speakers. Helen van der Bilt, founder of Helen’s Free Food Market, an anti-waste initiative that’s saving food while supporting less affluent families in the neighbourhood; Carla Kolner, a senior scientist and a researcher at Utrecht University and RIVM with a long experience in the Public Health and prevention in the Social Domain; and Elke Uitentuis, visual artists, mother and human rights activist at We Sell Reality, a collective of undocumented artists, among other initiatives.

Helen’s Free Food Market
Helen kicks off with a presentation explaining the HFFM basics. A summary:

• was founded in 2020, pre-corona pandemic, and celebrates its third anniversary!
• initially was more succesful than Helen thought it would be, with long lines every Tuesday, local media coverage and municipality support
• safeguards their values:
◦ bringing together food waste and poverty
◦ empower clients
◦ feelgood atmosphere
◦ almost zero-waste
• saved 41.200 kilograms of food in 2021 alone
• prevented the emission of 104,160 kilograms of CO2
• picks up food from supermarkets, local stores and sometimes wholesalers
• is officially registered as a foundation (‘stichting’) as of May this year, which will make it easier for HFFM to get additional funding
• numbers a rotating pool of 40 volunters, with 15 volunteers working every week
• supports around 80 households with free food

The presentations triggers a spontaneous q&a. Does HFFM collaborate with other initiatives? (‘yes, there are currently collabs with no less than five initiatives from the area, sharing a van, monthly meetings, etc.’). Do big supermarkets sometimes use HFFM for greenwashing (‘sometimes we do a thank-you-post for Jumbo but it is really just a donation of food that would otherwise go to waste’).

Subtle schemes to derail funds
Alina says the spontaneous q&a is ‘really the point’ because with her practice and the event she wants to redirect attention to the social initiative. ‘In the meantime the small publication .’ Alina reads aloud several pages of her publication, which is a reflection on her involvement with and work at HFFM, and on the role of the artist as public servant. Can what Alina has been doing be considered social practice? In the end it doesn’t really matter, she says, ‘because I have really enjoyed working there and contributing to the initiative’

Instead of elaborating on Alina’s talk and synthesize some deeper meaning in her work, hereunder you find a few pages for you too read which reflect specifically on the role or artists working in the contested spaces of Amsterdam North.

If you want to read more, follow this link to the full publication.


Bridging the gap

Carla Kolner starts off by stating that the Dutch RIVM, the State Institution for Public Health and Environment, where Carla works,  does a lot more than statistics and graphs regarding Covid-19 pandemic. To a lot of people, that’s certainly what the RIVM became known for the past two years.

Carla’s presentation is called ‘Bridging the gap between institutional regulations and everyday life in pandemic times’ and talks about a research that she did commissioned by the RIVM.  It concerns a ‘narrative research’, a qualitative undertaking collecting stories of people in different ‘sectors’ coping with the Covid-19 pandemic and the impact it had (and still has) on their daily lives. Carla and her team conducted 65 in-depth interviews with 95 people working in home care services, schools, sport clubs, hospitals, art communities, social initiatives; Helen van der Bilt was one of them.

Carla found that civil society and communities such as the one surrounding HFFM, played a big role in ‘bridging the gap’. They found that what worked, was:

– Learning by doing and accepting dynamics and uncertainty as a default mindset
– Thinking out of the box/co-creation/cooperation
– Using the arts as one of the helping factors to stimulate dialogue, creativity, add meaning

More generally, they also learned that:

– The C-crisis was also social, emotional and mental
– Protecting health also means protecting human rights
– The importance of the role of the (informal) stakeholder should be acknowledged
– Applying social indicators in policy responses to the pandemic could strengthen social quality and therefore our quality of life!

‘It did not look like art, it looked like a bakhlava shop’
Alina invited Elke Uitentuis – among others – because of her experience with running the workshop Social Practice at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam. The question was, and is: can her practice be framed as social practice? For Elke there is no doubt: yes. For, as an artist, Alina is not ‘using’ the initiative to make art.

The definition of social practice used at the Rijksacademie is quite broad and includes ‘art with a social component’. A social component, in turn, could mean that it’s:

– instigating processes for change,
– making visible unjust systems or practices,
– giving a platform to vulnerable people that do not have a ‘voice’ (‘well they have a voice, meant as a figure of speech’).

Elke raises another important questions: How to share ownership with the ‘subjects’ of the art, without claiming that artist should not be able to make a living. ‘Art as such should not be stretched to be described as a transformative force’, Elke says. ‘But i do think that they should shed light on unjust systems and practices.’ Through art people criticize capitalism, colonialism, racism and so on, but, according to Elke, they don’t think through ways to undermine these, and sometimes – involuntarily – even help ensure their continuation. HFFM, on the other hand, is trying to come up with alternatives, and contributing to this is what Alina is doing.

Could art provide space for exploring different economic and social structures? Elke sketches an example to get across her answer to this question. The example concerns Donghwan Kam, a former artist in residence at the Rijksacademie who, a few years ago and with a group of people, built a communal kitchen. It was used and enjoyed by many but when the residency ended, the academy did no longer want to keep the kitchen. It ignited a heated internal debate, which was eventually solved by transferring the kitchen to social initiative BOOST in East Amsterdam, which was in dire need of a good communal kitchen.


Another example, Elke concludes, was when, in the context of an art project, a entrepreneur called Mohammed was invited to make and sell bakhlava at the academie. He sold 1267 pieces and was able to invest in his business. Was this art? ‘It did not look like art, it looked like a bakhlava shop. It was a way to address social inequalities’.