The essay below is the original English-language version of our piece Drieeënvijftig Bedden, which appeared in the March issue of the magazine BK-informatie. Enjoy!
by Kel O’Neill & Eline Jongsma
Empire: The Unintended Consequences of Dutch Colonialism is a transmedia project that uses nonfiction filmmaking, journalism and video art to tell the human-scaled stories of people and communities whose lives are still in some way affected by the Dutch colonial endeavor. The project started with a single video installation we made during a residency in Sri Lanka, and has since grown into a sprawling monster that is eating our lives. In 2010, we gave up our house and our job to make Empire happen. We have since travelled over 140,000 kilometers across Asia, Africa and the Americas in pursuit of the stories at the project’s core. And yet, we’re somehow still not finished.
In a rare moment of downtime last New Years Eve, we calculated that we have slept in fifty-three different beds since we first started working on Empire. This means that, on average, we change sleeping spots every twenty-one days. Some of these beds were more notable than others. Here are the ones we remember best:
Bed One: Colombo, Sri Lanka
Bed One stood in a stark yellow room in the Theertha International Artists Collective’s second floor residency space. Countless itinerant artists—from Pakistan, from South Africa, from various parts of Europe—had slept in the bed before us, and it showed. We tried our best not to dwell on this on the hotter nights, when our sweat would seep into the mattress and mingle with the sweat of performers and installation artists from every corner of the globe.
When we applied to Theertha’s month-long residency, a disclaimer on the collective’s website made us keenly aware that not all of our predecessors had enjoyed their time in Sri Lanka:
“Please note that Sri Lanka is a tropical country and food and weather are both equally hot and spicy. A whole range of animal, insect and plant varieties as well as diseases that usually come with hot and humid weather conditions prevails in Sri Lanka. These may be annoying to the visitors sometimes.”
We viewed the disclaimer as a gag order against whining, and, in public at least, we kept our mouths shut about our various rashes and swollen extremities. We didn’t say a word when, one morning, we awoke to find a trio of dead 10 cm-long roaches floating in the deep-bottom pan that served as our teapot, and stayed silent again when Eline discovered one of their live counterparts wriggling around in her sundress. “Nothing annoying about that,” we’d say to anyone who’d listen. “That’s life in the tropics!”
The uneasy balance of Western mentality and the South Asian circumstance became the focus of our work in Sri Lanka. We spent two days filming in the rainforests around Badalgama, a town on the island’s northeast coast, where in the early ‘90s a wealthy Dutch fisherman had built a charity village in what he described as “the Dutch style.” The little enclave housed a community of formerly “roofless” elders—forgotten old folks without family support who now lived in quaint houses designed to evoke the storybook “Dutchness” of Monnickendam. The tropical heat and humidity waged an unending battle with the village. Wood rotted in no time. Paint peeled instantly. Red-tiled roofs swarmed with ants. The village seemed to fight valiantly against the decay, and everywhere we looked holes were being spackled, wood and bricks replaced. The village existed in a state of constant renewal.
We returned to the art space alive with inspiration, and spent the following evening sitting on Bed One with a notebook and two pens, sketching out our plans for a new video installation that would incorporate our footage of the village. We were completely unaware that this installation would be the first step in a journey that is still in progress today.
Bed Five: Brooklyn, New York
Bed Five currently lays secured behind two industrial padlocks in a 2x3 meter storage unit on the 4th floor of a self-storage facility overlooking Brooklyn’s Plumb Beach Channel. It shares space with winter coats and half-broken cameras, as well as cardboard boxes filled with books and records, and an imitation Noguchi coffee table that at one time served as the centerpiece of our Greenpoint apartment. We slept on Bed Five while assembling the first round of funding for Empire, and put the bed into storage in November of 2010, shortly after we stopped working as the US correspondents for VPRO’s Metropolis TV, and shortly before we flew to Indonesia to continue the work on Empire.
Putting all of our belongings into storage was a difficult decision motivated by harsh economic reality. Storage is cheap, especially when compared to the price of rent in New York or Amsterdam, and cheap is what we needed in order to stretch our production budget while we worked Empire. To make the project a reality, sacrifices had to be made, and thus our new life as Hermit Crabs began.
Bed Twenty-four: New Delhi, India
Kel spent the better part of a week coughing his lungs out in Bed Twenty-four. It was May 2011, and we were stranded in New Delhi’s searing 40°C heat, watching Bollywood DVDs and trying our best to stay away from cigarettes.
We moved to Bed Twenty-four after spending a month in Bed Twenty-three, which lay inside a dusty, badly ventilated guesthouse in one of New Delhi’s rapidly developing suburbs. Bed Twenty-three kicked our asses like no bed before or since. It’s in this bed that Kel developed a rattling, hacking cough. We spent the days of Bed Twenty-three in foggy silence behind our laptops, editing like zombies while we sucked in mouthfuls of dirt and pollution. We’d use the daylight hours to cut and re-cut sequences over and over, and then retreat to the bed, where around 2 AM every night Kel’s cough would return. When we woke up one day on a pillow flecked with blood, we decided to move.
Bed Twenty-four had soft sheets and was surrounded by air conditioning that served to filter Delhi’s granular air. The bed cost more than we could afford, but we got it at a discount because the couple that owned the hotel felt pity for us. What kind of idiot foreigners come to Delhi in May?
The bed changed our luck. Editing became easier. Video sequences that we had struggled with for a month fell together in a couple of hours. Journalists from national papers visited us in our room to talk to us about Empire. They took our picture and misquoted us. They offered us cigarettes and we declined. Neither of us have smoked since we found Bed Twenty-four, and Kel’s cough has disappeared.
Bed Thirty-two: Orania, South Africa
“Orania’s 800 or so residents often refer to their village as ‘the inside’, or, in the interest of brevity, ‘inside’.’ Outside’ refers to the rest of South Africa, or perhaps the rest of the world. For the people of Orania, life inside makes sense. It is safe, crime free and governed by the rules of Protestant decency. The outside, by contrast, is violent and godless.
To drive the point home, inside and outside are separated by kilometer upon kilometer of chainlink fence and barbed wire. Beyond the wire is a seemingly endless expanse of dry Northern Cape desert. The inside isn’t dry at all; it is well watered by a network of sprinklers.”
-from ”Life on the inside,” sinisterhumanist.tumblr.com, October 9th, 2011
Orania, South Africa is a whites-only community established by the descendents of the architects of Apartheid. The community is home to the Oewerhotel and Spa, which is in turn home to Bed Thirty-two, where we slept for 7 nights in October of 2011.
Our style of filmmaking hinges on the reservation of judgment. We do our best to like—or at least accept—everyone we film, no matter how much we may disagree with them. No one can reserve judgment forever, of course, so our strategy is to stay neutral during working hours. Then, at night, the judgment flows.
Nowhere has this working method proved more challenging than in Orania. Because the community is in the middle of the desert, and the Oewerhotel is the only option for lodging, there was really no escape from the work. The judgment could not flow freely, which after a few days led to a sort of mental and spiritual constipation. To combat this, we spent our nights in Bed Thirty-two whispering judgments into each others ears.
“These people are crazy, aren’t they?”
“Can you believe that that kid said he wasn’t a racist right after he said he would never want to live next to a black person?”
A month later, when we showed the South African Empire installation at Cape Town’s Stevenson Gallery, a young (white) woman raised her hand during the Q&A to tell us how uncomfortable the Orania footage made her. She said that a part of her wanted to see us use our film to condemn the Oranians’ racist beliefs. We responded that we never worked that way, and told her that we believed that audiences are smart enough to tell right from wrong without our prompting. She said that was what made the installation so hard to watch: it was up to her, and the other people in the audience, to draw their own conclusions. We offered no safety.
Bed Forty-two: Nieuw Koffiekamp, Suriname
Bed Forty-two was a stained twin-sized mattress that lived in an outdoor closet behind an abandoned schoolhouse in the village of Nieuw Koffiekamp. After a long day of filming in the artisanal gold mines around the village, we dragged Bed Forty-two into a concrete room in the schoolhouse where we bunked down for the night.
We woke up the next day with a bad case of headlice. As in: an army of creatures marched all over our pillows, confidently claiming territory on our heads. Despite never having seen the species of lice in question, a doctor in Paramaribo prescribed a potent crème that is illegal in the US and most of Europe due to the risk of seizures. We threw it into our hair anyway, in a desperate attempt to get rid of the parasites. This may explain why we both still suffer from dandruff nearly 10 months after treatment.
* * *
Since Suriname, we’ve found places to lay our heads in Europe, Africa and the US. We saw 5 Empire pieces premiere at IDFA in November 2012, and won a prize for a sixth piece in January 2013. We now find ourselves sleeping in a short term sublet in Brooklyn, preparing for the final stage of Empire’s production in the US, Australia and Japan. Someday in the future, we hope to take Bed Five out of storage and ship it to a place we can call home. But for now, we remain Hermit Crabs, carrying our little house on our backs.
Brooklyn, February 2013