Looking back and forward – WORM in 2020-21
“Journal of a Plague Year” – by Richard Foster
An essay from out PR Head, Richard, that comes as a “freebie extra” to WORM’s new publication, WORM in Beweging.
Little did we know when we celebrated our Chaos Birthday Party in December 2019 how tight a grip chaos, as an uncontrollable and deadly aspect of reality, would have on the year that followed. It felt like everything that made WORM tick as a cultural institution – methods, interactions, assumptions, resources – was being stripped away wholesale.
How did WORM’s extended family of workers and creatives cope? Many have emigrated to Rotterdam from all over the world, directly reflecting the cosmopolitan nature of the city and WORM itself. Some take on precarious part-time working roles alongside other commitments, or are here only for a short time before resuming studies or returning home.
In this time of strictly reduced movement and contact, WORM’s broader cultural community took time to reflect and to reexamine their present situations against those in their birth countries. Bernardo Zanotta is a young filmmaker and theatre producer who originally developed his artistic practice between Amsterdam, Paris and Porto Alegre. Recently Zanotta has been working with WORM’s Filmwerkplaats community. During the spring, in between “keeping up with Jane Fonda workouts”, Zanotta took on self-isolation by the horns, “writing three screenplays, and working on a project with VHDG in Leeuwarden”, building on his “interest in the closet drama genre by placing it in discussion with other plays and texts, [Equus, by Peter Shaffer and Nick Salvato’s Uncloseting Drama].” Zanotta also noted that he was “privileged to have a home where I can safely shelter and work from. Other than that, it’s been very important to reconnect with my family and friends from Brazil, where many don’t experience the same privilege, and the corona crisis accentuated a political and economical crisis which was already there.”
Some used WORM as a way of talking about their life and loved ones, maybe in ways that would otherwise be difficult to express. WORM intern Joyce Lapworth used our website to talk of how she used her therapy sessions to “visualize my fragmented identity and nationality and make my own art.” These goals found their form through a costume design project, working on a range of earrings from recycled plastic and a filmed performance using body paint and that traced Lapworth’s Anglo-Senegalese and Dutch heritage. In an extraordinary open letter to her parents in Hungary, WORM bar worker and sound artist Henrietta Müller explained how lockdown had got her dancing, practising yoga and looking to make more art, to follow up her collaboration with Slovenian artist Ana Brumat. Their last show, the ‘av’ project ‘babeurs/044’, was installed in Groningen, at WORM’s 23rd birthday party and at Art Week Rotterdam, as part of The New Current’s week-long expo. Like many budding projects Brumat and Müller’s went on hold until further notice.
Others took stock and looked back at events that had just happened, maybe as a way of capturing what was so special about the Open City, and whether “avantgardistic recreation” would ever flourish in the same way again. Long-time WORM worker and the force behind WORM’s “Underbelly” shop, Mariette Groot wrote a review about WORM’s last major festival before everything collapsed…the celebration of International Women’s Day on March 8th alongside the largest women’s fund in the Netherlands, Mama Cash. “How long will it be before we can even do a festival again?” Fittingly this year’s edition was called, “Infinite Resistance, Infinite Joy”.
Some, like barber and playwright Ivan Winter, a well-known face in inner city Rotterdam’s daily life, gave a frank assessment of the situation that the city’s creatives faced, stating that “the Rotterdam cultural scene died in one week flat”. Winter warned that the way creatives previously earned their crust would need a drastic overhaul in the future.
It’s not the case that “nothing suddenly happened” at WORM. Some activities simply went on without people, sometimes these activities had little choice but to carry on; such as Sonaural.02. This audio-visual festival was “built up” (as we say in the trade) and literally about to open its doors at WORM’s UBIK on March 13th, when the notice came through to cancel all gigs immediately. The decision was quickly made for the artists to perform to each other, a situation which led fledgling organiser (and old WORM intern) Jacques Kayser to express his admiration to all, especially WORM’s production crew Ziggy Gerdios, Vincent Denieul and Sebastian Pappalardo. And for “everyone to be proud” of what they’d achieved, despite playing for no public… What a strange situation to be in. Luckily Robin Minas, (©MINÀS) documented proceedings.
Other creatives, far from home, carried on working under lockdown conditions; living out a suddenly lonely existence in what was previously a busy building. Some found that extra focus they needed to complete their projects. Even if the situation was eerie. Chilean filmmaker Francisco Irribarra found his world dramatically changing as the March lockdown hit, noting that working in Filmwerkplaats’s subterranean lab added an extra feeling of remove. Imagine: locked down in a basement with nothing more to do than make a film: “A friend from Chile asked me “How are you doing?”. I explained my whole life in these three sentences. I am living between my flat and the lab. I am riding my bike. And I am making a film in Rotterdam. That’s it.” Yet Irribarra became “really thankful” as corona “blotted out” time and all its attendant distractions.
Some artists in residence had to completely rethink their plans. Hungarian electronic musician Mári Mákó had planned to use her studio time at WORM as preparation for a performance “with” Rothko’s painting, ‘Grey Orange and Maroon No 8’ at the Stedelijk Museum in Schiedam. Abruptly shelving that plan, and noting the surreal experience of seeing a once “festive melting pot of Rotterdam” suddenly abandoned, Mákó used the imposed distance in her new working conditions to communicate with the Rothko painting through a laptop screen. Even though creating a new piece in these conditions sometimes felt “a ridiculous thing to do”, the art “still exists out there, and there is a hope to connect after all.”
Others looked to use spaces that would otherwise be standing empty, such as The Performance Bar’s Florian Borstlap, who used S/ash Gallery to show his work privately to individual guests. Or think about what physical realities we would encounter, post-virus. Even though the internet became a godsend for many creatives, Italian saxophonist Laura Agnusdei (who created a pre- and post-lockdown piece at WORM Sound Studios and back at home in Bologna) saw dangers in just using online communication as a “way forward”, especially for musicians, in a future that seemed “really out of hand.”
Birthing Online Babies
WIX and WORMWorld (Hotglue)
Communicating with WORM’s public and our extended family had to carry on, somehow. Following the spirit of the times – WORM looked to keep going in whatever manner it could, especially through its online manifestation, and new formats of digital technology. Some early attempts using old and new digital platforms were tried. A number of “early” shows were hosted by WORM partners The Performance Bar, using Zoom. Even if it was a new environment, it meant that some of the old communal, freewheeling spirit could be maintained. The ‘Bar’s Daniel van den Broeke found himself “amazed how much connection was possible… To see people in Berlin or Paraguay or Rotterdam get creative with (for example) pickled gherkins at the same moment in a virtual space blew my mind in a way.”
The Performance Bar also built a temporary home on WIX, a platform that hosted other early streams from WORM: such as #Wunderbar crew deejay sets and WORM’s regular show-and-tell animation talk show, Manifest. WORM also rolled out WORMworld, a hybrid of makeshift agenda and online magazine where all current activities were corralled together, hopefully giving those who missed the “real” WORM a one-stop-shop to browse through.
The task of making WORMworld, hosted on an old WORM project, Hotglue, fell to WORM’s intern in PR, Rodrigo Cardoso, who found himself locked down in Rotterdam, far from his home in Porto. Cardoso is a self-proclaimed child of the internet, but saw that the building on the Boomgaardsstraat is the real social glue that binds people together. Rather than make an anaemic appraisal of what was needed, Cardoso concentrated on his gut feelings and experiences, focussing on why WORM’s building was special to so many people, noting that “a lot of work was put into making it”, especially “the way all the spaces connect to each other is one of, if not the most defining characteristic of the Open City.” The idea was to keep things as “real” as possible. Cardoso: “It would be a shame if this monument got lost in some lines of code on a web browser. This is why I put a lot of effort in structuring and designing the website in such a way that the familiarity and iconography of the WORM building are translated into the page.”
These physical, “peoples” aspects of WORM have always been vital to its programme and wider activities, especially in its guise as The Open City. WORM sees human contacts and the “risky encounters” that often come through that as a key to artistic creation and socio-cultural development. How could WORM reuse its spaces in this new time and find a way to reshape ongoing activities and projects that would add to its ongoing creative legacy? These questions developed into a two-part process, a remapping and reexamination of what had gone before (to make future plans), and then a reinvention of events.
Resilience and Recuperation
Working at WORM can be a hectic experience, in the middle of a dizzying cavalcade of events that sometimes pass by without much time for reflection. This new time of imposed stasis allowed other ways of using the material the Open City had created in the last year or so. Many creatives forged new spaces and durable artistic roadmaps. Others found time to reuse ideas that had first found their form at WORM. One was a collective online reinvestigation of ‘Who Am I Becoming’, a dialogical artistic research in the S/ash Gallery that had originally taken place in September 2019. This was led by WORM designer and Buryat native, Natalia Papaeva and Japanese artist Yasunori Kawamatsu and five other creatives: Nia Konstantinova, Larissa Monteiro, Nash Caldera, Hugo Lopez, Marichèl Boyé and Johana Molina, who all identify as immigrants living in Rotterdam.
Using past works to reinform the present was also the focus for theatre collective Trickster, a female collective that “plays around with the cultural and visual codes of opera”. Trickster added a new chapter to a story that began at WORM back in 2016, with a piece named La Donna E Mobile. This research project became HERO/PERA (“Untold Tales of Gynoid Heroines”), which was eventually performed in WORM in 2018. With corona forcing open new ways of looking at the world, Tickster revisited the concepts around HERO/PERA through a “private” summer residency in WORM’s “playground for performance artists and physical visionaries”, UBIK. The results of this residency earned a premiere on the 8th July in Paradiso Amsterdam and a Rotterdam-based version in WORM two days later, replete with “a playful, corona-proof conversation”.
Elsewhere, new futures were explored in the Collectivity Project; a gathering initiated by WORM Pirate Bay and architect and city planner, Lidija Poth. The project used an online space to “think and draw, write and sing about constructing buildings and environments, ones which we want to experience with others. Together, we will build our own Open City.” WORM Pirate Bay also launched the Self Destructive Book Club, whose first edition explored the subject of Rest, how the ideas around rest often mask other forms of social or economic control, and rest’s prim “role” as an appendage of a growing “Wellness Industry”. Pirate Bay intern Kendal Benyon asked, could rest be reclaimed as a more creative, humane and unrestricted force for change?
Communal, collective action is a key feature of the Open City. #RESISTER, WORM’s music community “for women, trans and non-binary people of all age” planned physical and online activities together, including a printed zine (the RE#ZINE-STER) and a collective composition where each participant contributed a “chapter”, with the completed work slated for a live-stream at some point. #RESISTER’s Mariëtte Groot: “I like the idea of RE#SISTER being manifest in many formats, that pop up spontaneously from the group. […] In this way there is not only peer support but also economic support for musicians trying to realise a project.”
As the year progressed, new opportunities to use WORM’s spaces appeared. Some more overtly physical, if socially distanced actions took place in UBIK. The IMACO series was a relay race of objects between artists that involved a film of each artist saying goodbye to an artwork, or prop. WORM was treated to films of performances involving a seagull sculpture, a red bra, a rope, a sweater, a bird cage, a suitcase and a musical composition. Elsewhere, Ivan Winter and Donn Stone’s Peoples barbershop began a series of moves that somehow mirrored WORM’s creative year; working and inventing where space allowed. Peoples’ second home in WORM (after temporary residence in the old Smoking Room and before moving to a fully furbished shop in the Foyer) was in S/ash Gallery. When the partial easing of restrictions in summer allowed a cautious return to some live events, Ivan and Donn reinvented their barbershop as a walk-in art centre, inviting artists such as Iloy Drisdale to exhibit whilst customers got a cut.
WORM has a long history of radio broadcasting, a legacy which sadly lost its way a little over the last decade or so. Over the spring, the idea of WORM as a broadcaster was given new life and a radio schedule took shape. Initially based in the general office space and then in the WORM Pirate Bay deejay booth, and under the direction of WORM Sound Studios’ Lukas Simonis and legendary underground radio maker, Lieuwe Zelle, Radio WORM (broadcasting a wild mix of underground sounds and interviews) started to take shape. Lieuwe’s shows were soon followed every Wednesday afternoon by a new “live” talk show, The Animal Reader, run by journalist and activist Prya Bisambhar, which focuses on all aspects of animal welfare. WORM has often been involved in projects around sustainability and the environment but this animal-centric show was yet another new departure; demonstrating that as it stands, the Open City’s revamped broadcasting folio includes a wider range of subject matter than previously imagined.
There were elements of WORM’s programme that proved more problematic in restarting. What to do with clubbing, for instance? WORM has always looked to create a forward-thinking club experience but with severe restrictions throughout the year on nighttime activities – especially those which traditionally encourage communal participation – a new approach was desperately needed. Worse, clubbing would likely be the last element of the arts and events industry to reconvene in any “new normal”. Two longtime WORM partners, Pantropical and PRSPCT, tried radically different approaches to what had gone before. Pantropical hosted an informal talk show with interviews, video screenings, and an additional music programme. PRSPCT came up with the idea of reinventing their uncompromising club nights as a speakeasy every Saturday evening during the summer, inviting artists such as Manu Le Malin and Dolphin to play for up to 4 hours to the accompaniment of live veejay sets by Dirty Brown Visuals. As Gareth from PRSPCT proclaimed, “Try to imagine the intimate setting of a jazz club from the 1930’s blasting out the music of the future. History in the making here!” And every summer Saturday night, 30 seated but wildly enthusiastic guests lapped up the chance to hear amplified dance music blast out through WORM’s PA, even if any dancing was strictly confined to socially distanced jigging about in their chairs…
Reopening and Renovating
In late May the Dutch government gave the green light for a partial reopening of places of entertainment, whether theatres, bars and restaurants or venues like WORM. This meant that once again, WORM could welcome visitors to a show or just to finally meet up with friends and have a drink on our #Wunderbar terrace. It was wonderful to see so many, much-missed faces once more and the summer hiatus from the virus, however fanciful it now appears in retrospect, did lead to a collective uplifting of spirits. It is also important to pause for a moment, to stress just how much behind-the-scenes work was needed to “reopen as normal” and comply with the new regulations. A thorough review of operations included clear directions for visitors to follow (both online and in the forms of posters and other corona-related signs), a fully retrained staff, newly designated “Covid Hosts”, a new set of staff rosters to comply with stricter working shifts and rescheduled shows, and a constant cleaning of WORM spaces after each show or visiting slot for the bar.
Mid-June saw the return of a basic programme based mostly around films and talks, with a maximum of 30 visitors. This development, so welcome, nevertheless added new imperatives around regulating visitor and artist behaviour patterns that could never wholly be solved, or needed constant, imaginative refixing to prevent any potential for disease spread. Rules and regulations were regularly updated throughout the summer and autumn as infection levels began to rise and the alertness of the general populace began to wane. In addition WORM found time – somehow – to install and refine a new PA system and much needed equipment for streaming and hosting, as well as other necessary structural maintenance tasks around the building. All of which created an enormous mental and emotional burden on WORM’s catering, technical and production staff during these times.
Getting Good at It
Even with so much to take on board in terms of rules and regulations, WORM fell into a rhythm, working steadily within the margins of what was possible. After a while producers and programmers were able to adapt existing ideas for shows into new formats. Broadcasts became a regular part of WORM’s agenda, thanks to Lieuwe and Gerson’s weekly shows. Favourites from WORM’s talk and community programmes such as Hack Talk, Rotterdam Late Night and Manifest New created incredibly professional online-only shows, alongside new initiatives such as The Animal Reader, Club Talks, Poeët Club and the Queer Feminist Poetry Awards. Closed and corona-mitigated events took place, from magazine launches, the return of our regular film programme (AWL, Roffa Film Club, Cultfilm), gigs (those from Bhajan Bhoy, Red Brut, Zea and Oscar Jan Hoogland being memorable nights), closed residencies and workshops, and school projects. MINT held their “riotous” annual exhibition of young artists’ work and managed to comply with the corona regulations; a triumph of production expertise and willing attitudes. Even baking and getting your hair cut were on the agenda. Alongside WMO Radar, (a foundation that offers services to help those Rotterdammers in need of social support), meals to the elderly and lonely in the local community were served, thanks to #Wunderbar staff.
WORM always looks to work directly with newly formed, marginal or vulnerable (creative) communities; ones that sometimes need an extra megaphone to shout their cause. Initiating a relationship with new, or radical organisations on the cultural fringe can be a mutual learning process that is messy, frustrating, and time consuming. But it is always worth the effort and opens new horizons for all parties. Before the second lockdown we lent our experience and resources to new initiatives such as Squishiness, a new multidisciplinary night based around LGBTQ+ forms of expression. Squishness made an inspiring, creative mess throughout the building and everyone had fun, in classic WORM style. Our great friends KLAUW, a vibrant BPOC and Queer organisation dedicated to non-binary expressions of all forms, created a magazine that was “(a) tangible representation of the community we love so dearly to remind us of all the amazingness that is still present […] in these hectic times.” Here’s to a new edition.
When the second lockdown hit, WORM found itself able to continue with a broad set of strictly socially-distanced happenings, projects and online events that in some ways reflected what we had always done – even if things were not wholly “the same as it ever was”. Our artistic residencies continue, with creative investigations. Artist Amy Pickles conducted an “action as research” which involved “a workshop | performance | ritual | protest” in UBIK. We staged a private gig/broadcast by great Dutch-language pop musician and longtime WORM friend Niek Hilkmann, ‘Leuk Dat Je Niet Erbij Was’ in UBIK. The resultant show appeared more as a lost 1970s TV cabaret show, (a broadcast that acts as a prequel to 2021’s full multidisciplinary residency, ‘Leuk Dat Je Erbij Was’), all on a palm tree strewn stage in UBIK. Then there was the remarkable fashion shoot residency for fabulous “creatures of the night” run by fashion photographer, Harmen Meinsma in UBIK; with a makeup and hair station run by specialists Ed Tijsen, Minou Meijers and Yvana Muradin. The whole experience was documented in sound by Maryo from DARKROOM.
WORM also gave the floor to organisations that felt hindered, or cramped by lockdown. In fact, to borrow a phrase from our history, WORM became a parallel university in physical fact. Students from Albeda college used WORM to enact and evaluate new creative working practices, ones they maybe couldn’t address elsewhere. Then there was the School of Rest residency, an initiative run by the school’s founder Myriam Meret and WORM Pirate Bay. The School of Rest struck a chord with many who followed it, whether at a distance (courtesy of a “Zen Zoom Room”) or in a corona-mitigated way in UBIK.
Some of WORM’s family got creative in their own home, bringing Boomgaardsstraat vibes to new – altogether more personal – places. The Performance Bar’s Daniel van den Broeke undertook the remarkable job of making a stage in his own house. Back at base camp, WORM’s own stages were used in an increasingly slick manner by the likes of Tess Martin, Manifest supremo, who, in an enlightening interview, gave a clear account of her experiences in this highly unusual year. Like nearly everyone involved in making an events agenda at WORM, Martin found the experience “very changeable” but found that – despite the initial euphoria of going online – “the whole ‘broadcasting from my studio’ thing” the experience could be “stressful” without the aid of technicians. “Now that we’re back at WORM, and WORM has invested in new equipment and everything, I can focus more on the content.”
Enacting WORM’s glocal message.
Despite its reputation throughout Europe, WORM could only ever be a Rotterdam-based institution. During this difficult time, the Open City took – and takes – its duties to the local community seriously and helps out where it can. WORM’s #Wunderbar staff helped distribute (vegan) “freedom soup” to help celebrate Liberation day, and made meals for the elderly in the Cool Zuid district. This latter activity – a regular element in WORM’s Rotterdam-based socio-artistic activities – is an ongoing project with WMO Radar. One of these, a mysterious network known as The Fire Brigade of the Apocalypse, busy themselves in investigating such matters as: “how to find food when everything has collapsed or how to communicate when there is no electricity anymore?” This network initiated various clandestine events including November’s open air corona-mitigated artistic walk, Trumpets of the Apocalypse.
WORM was involved in a wider network through city-based projects such as February’s Non-For-Profit Art Party which morphed, in parts, into late summer’s The Slopera at Pension Almonde, involving many old WORM faces and local young artists such as performance artist Roxette Capriles. Then there was the work WORM did with Cool aan de Gang, a local community support initiative that took form as an open air cinema with the help of local programmers such as Ronald Glasbergen. Cool aan de Gang, with a handpicked team of WORM production staff, showed a series of Alfred Hitchcock films in the city centre Eendrachtstuin throughout the summer, where watching a thriller in a garden on a summer night could be a distraction from the pervasive, pernicious anxiety around the virus. More free open-air arty fun was found on the #Wunderbar terrace and at the door of S/ash Gallery where the Troost aan Cool project – an open air travelling theatre with impromptu performances by Theater Babel – entertained passers by at a safe distance.
Other initiatives to keep up with friends in the ‘hood involved making free colouring books for people to download and use, and a remarkable initiative that has found a great deal of response during the year; a set of seasonal – and free – Care Packages compiled by WORM Pirate Bay. The most recent winter package, for instance, asks potential recipients to ask whether they want to subscribe to a Club Kid Care Package, an Introspective Care Package or an Artistic Chaos Care Package. Another WORM Pirate Bay venture was a collaboration with the proactive Galerie Jaloezie during November and December 2020, where the Bay’s archive was lent out for public consumption. Every weekend individuals could exhibit their audio visual works in the FILMHUISKAMER, or rent out videos from the Cultfilm videotheek, or even bring them to the bunkerbois private cinema; a small private cinema that can be rented out with your household “bubble”.
WORM has always looked to actively support its colleagues who are involved in other ventures; especially during 2020. One fine example was the launch of a shop, called LIFE, by WORM cook, multidisciplinary artist and “committed amateur” Ash Kilmartin. The New Zealander’s shop, on the Keileweg in Rotterdam, is a “huiskamer for portative works: books, jewellery, and small-scale objects by artists; and artworks by people who may not consider themselves artists.” WORM shop Underbelly continues to fight the good fight, too, offering a range of countercultural objects rarely seen. In an interview about her work with the shop, Mariëtte Groot highlighted the need for the alternative in the arts; even during a very turbulent year, with “change as the only constant […] because what has made WORM always the best environment to be in for me, is the love for the outsider”.
Outsiders can be found everywhere. And, during 2020, WORM has reached out to many friends in other lands, to initiate knowledge shares, strengthen socio-cultural bonds and plan potential futures. 2018-19 had seen a great deal of cooperation between a number of important underground Russian artists who are now finding fame in the West, such as Kate NV, Jenya Gorbunov, Shortparis, SADO OPERA and Chikiss. An afterglow could be found in some of the support WORM received, notably from St Petersburg’s SADO OPERA, who made a WORM mixtape, called ‘Delayed not Canceled’, a tape reminding us that despite “challenging times, everything is only just delayed, not canceled.” Moscow’s Jenya Gorbunov, (a studio guest who played at WORM’s le Guess Who residency in 2019) as ever, gave his unique perspective on matters: “All our capital is in our heads. […] I think every crisis […] gives you freedom from some things that are not really important and makes you focus on your art and your position.”
WORM also lent its expertise and experience to the Global Nighttime Recovery Plan, (“a collaborative, practical guide for cities that are trying to determine the best way to design and execute a safe and feasible strategy to reopen and reactivate their creative and night-time economies”). Communications manager Richard Foster wrote a regular series of updates from the Netherlands on London’s legendary Heavenly Social Club website, an organisation “celebrating” 30 years of existence under trying circumstances. WORM reimagined the Supermarket Art Fair with other Dutch participants who were supposed to exhibit in Stockholm, Sweden. And took part in the prestigious Radiophrenia international festival courtesy of a radio broadcast / live show by celebrated Scottish-Finnish electronic musician, Maria Povera.
WORM is viewed in many places of the world as an example of what can be done when attitudes, resources and experience can be harnessed for the greater cultural good. This is seen with Japan’s NeoL magazine, who took the time to talk to WORM Pirate Bay Coordinator Rae Parnell and WORM’s CEO, Janpier Brands in their Self Isolation Issue in the summer. Their pertinent summary invoked a magical appraisal of what actually happened. And yes, that weird party is still going on.
That weird party can hopefully come out of the bedroom at some point. And, echoing Tess Martin’s words, WORM can once again “just focus on the content” with its friends and creative partners during 2021 and beyond. There are still many things to process with coronavirus, the after effects will be felt for some years to come. However, statements and plans are drawn up for a new year and beyond. Communities and people-based projects are central, and a new look at how we use time, creatively and regeneratively, will also be our focus. WORM will continue to nurture future talents and reflect what goes on in this ever-surprising city of Rotterdam. Op de toekomst!