Manhattan aan de Maas Residency Interview

Like many other cities, Rotterdam has seen rapid changes in the last 30 years. Flows of funding, housing requirements, and regulations on what materials needed to be used all play a role in determining what gets built, where, and ultimately, for whom. Redevelopment policy targets specific areas of the city, eliminating high-density social housing in favor of private market rentals. More pointedly, the Rotterdamwet restricted entire groups of passport-holders from living in swathes of the cities. The cocktail of political motivation and policies, pushed by other socioeconomic development have shaped Rotterdam as we know and experience it today. Yet, these housing policies still fail to address and remediate the Dutch housing crisis, which is the largest one since the interwar period of the previous century.


Driven by their housing history in Rotterdam, from private rentals, to Facebook sublets, to finally settling in bewonersvereniging W1555 – a community social housing project in Oud-Charlois, owned by Woonstad Rotterdam, residents Honey Jones-Hughes and Antonio de la Hera are developing a board game prototype to address the history of gentrification and its current state in the city of Rotterdam. Throughout their collective research residency Honey and Antonio will assemble squatters, people setting up wooncooperaties, people living in “communities”, off-grid enthusiasts, generation rent, well-intentioned landlords, social justice activists, or anyone who can inform the design of their board game. This game will become a collective pedagogical tool to discuss the nuances underlying gentrification with the city of Rotterdam. 


Honey: “I know people that move rooms every 6 months to a year, you move from one space to the next, to the next, and just so that the landlord doesn’t need to give you any rights. It’s already a game!”


What is Manhattan aan de Maas about?

Antonio: Some years ago Honey made a role-playing game about a future Rotterdam that had been demolished by a catastrophic event. The game allowed you to role-play as different individuals in the city. People like city planners, cleaners and citizens, children… It allowed you to rebuild the city how you’d like it to be, with your imagination. Manhattan aan de Maas is inspired by this. We’ll be feeding in the history of “urban renewal” and thinking about new ways of making our city.

Honey: It came from this idea of how you talk about your issues, and how to bring them somewhere where you can talk about them. We attended an event at The Anti-Gentrification School, and they were talking about gentrification in relation to mental health. We thought it’s also important to think and talk about people’s concerns, and board games are a good way to meet, talk, connect and share history.

What motivates you to take an art-making approach in your research?

Honey: Artworks are things that people usually have a lot of opinions on because there isn’t a right or a wrong way of looking at them. They allow people to think in different ways, which means that you can talk to people from different sides, not just those with the same left-wing politics as you. People like to have strong opinions on artworks, so it’s a place where people can agree and disagree – and both of those things are allowed!

Antonio: I guess in a way we’re artists from offset. We’re curious and have researched many things before, and we are always approaching these things as artists. Previously we haven’t known where we were going when we started learning about something. This time we know we’re going to make a game, but a lot of the research about Rotterdam, its history of gentrification and the people that live here, already happened prior to this.

How is Manhattan aan de Maas inspired by your previous project: “METROPOLIS MASTERS!”, and what was your experience with the problem solving that happened during the game?

Honey: That game relied quite heavily on role-play and so the problem solving happened quite naturally. People really got quite into it! Part of it was also about how you set up these problems, you know, like a nuclear disaster. People are normally on board when it comes to solving these problems together. That’s also something that we’re interested in this board game for Rotterdam, how to harness this togetherness which is unusual in board games. Normally there is a winner and everyone else loses. 

Antonio: We’ve recently found a game called Commonspoly which is like an anti-capitalist version of Monopoly, and it’s also open source so you can download it from their website and print it at home. Instead of playing against each other you have to work together to make sure all the assets on the board become part of the commons – and this can only happen if you do it together. So, we’re interested in this alternative way of playing.

Do you already have any inspirations of how the game is going to look?

Antonio: I think it’s fair to say we have no idea! We’ll be hosting live gaming sessions throughout the residency where we hope to learn how the sequence of the game will be. We want to meet different people, and let their stories and experiences inform and inspire the final game.

Honey: We like the idea of getting inspiration from what’s already here, and collaging different games together to make something new. But we do already have a few ideas of what elements we want to feature in the game.

What are some challenges you came across when game-making in your prior experiences?

Honey: METROPOLIS MASTERS! was different every single time because it depended on who you were playing with.There was always a lot of improvising. But this time we want to minimize the improvisation, because that really requires us to guide the game. It would be really nice to make something that can be played without us being there. 

Antonio: We kind of want to teach history via reenactment but without actually having to reenact it. 

Role-playing and improvisation must have made it quite apparent what it means for the people of Rotterdam to “live together” & “work together”. What did you learn about “the community”?

Honey: That’s something I’m constantly learning about. It’s something I’m very interested in, in my work, and we’ve been thinking about it a lot in the past few years. We also live in a bewonersvereniging, W1555, in Charlois. It’s kind of a communal housing project, where you learn to live with your neighbors and kind-of self-manage a collection of houses and communal spaces. And that was definitely the influence for the first game, this living with other people and working out how to do that. But that’s constantly changing, I don’t think it will ever be finished, I don’t think I will ever truly understand that. We hope the new game can reflect how you listen to other people, make space for other people’s thoughts and interests, rather than just looking out for yourself… like you do in a game like Monopoly. We’re very much taught to look out for yourself… “You need to pay your rent”, and “you need to have a job”, and “your job should be good, so you can afford to do this, this and this”. But actually maybe we should think more collectively.

Antonio: And a game can be a nice way to role-play that collective decision making and make space to think about what it means to “work together” and “think together” and “build together”.

Honey: The Netherlands is really interesting already for this kind of thing. The fact that these communal housing projects can exist for me is amazing, because in the UK it’s really really rare. And here it is a little more supported – it’s not easy but it’s definitely an option that’s available. I’m also a member of a broodfonds, and the system of the broodfonds is that everyone pays in a little bit of money and then you’re allowed to be sick as a freelancer! Everyone supports you in that sickness. It’s a system of mutual support, and I’m interested in learning more about these systems of mutual support. So, it would be cool if we met people who know more about that.

Who are some key individuals and groups in Rotterdam that you´d like to talk to that support discussions regarding gentrification?

Antonio: We’re interested in people with particular perspectives, if someone’s worked in the council, or has experience of how policy for housing is shaped, that would be interesting to try to share with other people. That’s experience we don’t have. I mean, I think it’s interesting the rate that people move around and change houses, so definitely people in this bracket. Also people like Arie Lengkeek who’s been involved in researching how to make  cooperative living more possible, he’s delineated the entire history of social housing in The Netherlands so it would be great to talk to him. People with less normative needs, like how difficult it can be to find accessible housing if you have different disabilities, so people with those kinds of first hand experiences too. 

Honey: We are open to anyone – and a bar is a great place to meet them! 

How can people play the game after the residency?

Antonio: If all goes to plan, and we manage to make a way for the game to exist without us helicopter parenting every session, the game will be open source so you can print it at home, and, we will be leaving a physical copy here at WORM too.

About the residents: Honey Jones-Hughes and Antonio de la Hera are artists based in Rotterdam (NL). Their research-based art-making practice is embedded in societal issues such as climate change, gentrification, food sovereignty, and waste management. Currently, they are working on addressing questions related to local resources, housing policies, and sustainable food systems. Throughout their collective research residency, “Manhattan aan de Maas”, Honey and Antonio will work with board games in the WORM Pirate Bay archive, with the aim of developing a prototype game that responds to the history of urban renewal and its current state right here in Rotterdam.

This interview was summarised for readability purposes

Interviewer: Ife Carter