Matthijs de Bruijne is an artist living and working in Amsterdam. His practice is a result of being in political collaboration with trade unions and labor organizations.
What drives you to wake up in the morning & what keeps you up at night?
Most of my activities take place during the evening or the afternoon, not really in the morning. Only if we talk about a strike or something in particular, that’s a reason to get up quite early.
You could say that I have one foot inside the art world, and the other foot inside trade unions, specially inside the cleaners trade union at the moment. So, for example, today I have a meeting at 6pm with the domestic workers of the union. This kind of meetings always takes place around 6 or 7pm, after everybody stop working, thus quite often I have to continue my work throughout the evening.
Why choosing art?
I always had the desire to become an artist, I have to say that. But on the other side, I have always been politically active. From the beginning, I tried to connect these two things although it was quite difficult, specially in the period of the 90’s when I studied. These two worlds were completely separated from each other in the Netherlands. I know that in France or Latin America, it was a different thing. But here, these two things, politics and art, were disconnected in quite an extreme way. I believed I could connect them somehow.
What were your motivations to start working along with trade unions? Was there something that made you feel related to workers in particular?
I started working along with workers when i was living in Argentina. Before that, you could say I was more an ‘ordinary socially engaged artist’. But during this period (around 2001-2006) I changed my way of thinking. Specially in 2001, when all institutions were closed in Argentina, and everybody was working and dealing with issues literally on the streets. This marked a big change in me.
Then, another bold moment for me was around 2008-2009. I was collecting night dreams of Chinese migrant workers. The work 1000dreams.org was exhibited at the Museum Reina Sofia, part of the radical show ‘Principio Potosí’, and everything appeared to result more or less perfect.
But during this exhibition, the most important question came to me: “For whom am I working? -- If I continue dealing with labor issues inside an art institution, it is a kind of dead end for me”. So I decided to change the context where I was working on. That’s when I started to look around to trade unions but at the end, they ended up contacting me. In 2010, I was invited by the union of cleaners to make an artwork for them, for the first anniversary of their first strike, and that was the beginning of this collaboration.
What does terms like ‘community’, ‘common’, and ‘collective’ mean to you? Do they affect your creative output?
Absolutely. Before the trade union, you could call me an individual artist. After that, I became a collective artist in a way.
If you come from an art school, they teach you how to be a product, how your name is a brand, how to function as a company. In the 90s, those were things you were not questioning just assimilating. But if you look at my work nowadays, there’s not only me. I work for and with the workers, and that also means that their contribution it’s quite important. So in the end you should see me as the initiator of the artwork and not as the author. And also, the goal is different now, it stopped being an individual goal to become a collective goal.
Do you consider your practice close to activism? Is there a line in between art and activism?
On the one hand, there is a kind of activism now, specially since I’m inside the trade union. On the other hand, it is not pure activism. As an artist I am dealing more with questions of images. I am creating something with which the worker can define who he is.
I did an interview a couple of months ago with one of the workers, and she said to me “you create the face of the worker”. It sounded a bit rough in a way, some of the people thought it was a little paternalistic, but I understood it. She later explained: “if we go out on the street, we can scream and the people listen to us but they forget us. But if we go out on the street with props, artworks, and videos, the people don’t forget about us.”
Thus, I create the image of the workers to express who they are at this moment. Because the worker, specially in Netherlands, does not have anymore a united identity. If you talk about the working class here, it’s a combination of groups of people who has a broad cultural identity. Their ethnic background has become even more relevant rather than their working class identity. So I am creating images and stories that all the workers as a group can feel related to, in order to get united together besides their own background.
For every pain, there is a pill. For both personal and social “pains”, what is your medicine?
I have to say I feel more comfortable working in the trade union than in the art world. In the trade union I get a lot of respect. I think that’s the best pill. The workers pay you respect as an artist. You feel warm and welcome. And then in the art world, it can get a bit vague sometimes, specially if you are talking about political and social issues. Quite often I worked with institutions with labor issues. How many people are working without being paid in the art world? It’s unbelievable. Wages are low, conditions are low, over hours are extreme. In the trade union, they pay me. They don’t want to have unpaid workers. And it’s not about the money itself, it’s more about they taking what you are doing very seriously, because they consider it an important job.
Can you give us a quick list of influences?
There’s one group ‘Tucuman Arde’ that made quite impact on me. However, every time you learn new things. For example, in the show I have in BAK, ‘Compromiso Político’, there’s Piero Gilardi, and I didn’t know him at all. For me, to get in touch with a person like Gilardi and to get to know his work, it’s very influential. It’s often difficult to get information about people who work in the borderline or that have stepped outside the art world. This is the pleasure of doing exhibitions, that you get in touch with their work.
Then from the Netherlands, I absolutely admire Constant Nieuwenhuys, he was part of the Situationist International, and also worked in this huge project ‘New Babylon’. He was dealing with the question of how art can intensify our daily life, and was one of the first people that started working in a different way in the Netherlands.
What are your plans for the future?
I will continue working in the trade union in a way. It is not clear how, since there are some changes going on. The more conservative part of the federation are regaining control. And this affects me because one of the things that the conservative part doesn't want, is to have artists involved in labor organizations. In the midst of these changes, I've started to work more and more with my direct political surroundings. One of the problems that we have now in the Netherlands, it's the growing racism. So anyways, I will continue to work with labor issues but more connected to the issue of racism, and with the goal to create a better society.
All pictures taken by Matthijs de Bruijne. Courtesy of the artist.