NEW TEXAS AND CHICAGO
I make my way to the Muggenberg with the reluctance of a delinquent about to do his community service. I am innocent, I plead in my defence. Can’t the housing association tell the difference between good and evil? I think of Willem Sandberg, the former director of the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. When a member of staff asked him for an eraser, Sandberg replied tersely: "I never erase anything". If Sandberg meant that you should not erase anything because everything has its value, it could well be that the drawing on the Muggenberg is memorable precisely because it will soon be no more.
Never before have I been compelled to remove a drawing. To refuse to carry out the cleaning ritual would infuriate the housing association and then I could forget my activities in the two districts, where almost all the houses and flats belong to the association. The director justifies her stringency by the fact that the Muggenberg will be demolished within a few years. “With redevelopment in prospect, you have to be even more on your guard against degeneration,” she says. The artist Robert Rauschenberg once bought a drawing from fellow artist Willem de Kooning. Rauschenberg then proceeded to erase the drawing, thereby causing outrage in the art world about the value of the blank sheet of paper.
Having arrived at the scene of the crime, I see that children have enlarged their fantasy world. What surprises me is that their drawings consist of dotted lines, which make the building look like a pinboard. Instead of washing off their drawings, I could liberate them from the stone just as a sculptor hews his work out of marble.
Michelangelo cut out the bad part of the mountain and left the good part. Why do the flats have to be reduced to rubble? What could there possibly be against following the great master’s example and leaving the good and allowing an art gallery to emerge from the Muggenberg? Even now the first attempts to turn the imminent redevelopment into a thing of beauty are there in chalk on the building.
The housing association’s concern is just part and parcel of the district, I tell myself by way of encouragement as I wipe off the chalk with a wet sponge. The marks it leaves make it look as if a very big dog has cocked his leg against the wall.
The former mineworker Jacky from New Texas tells me that a supervisor from the housing cooperation came by a couple of days ago to inspect the garden. “If everyone looked after their garden as well as you do, I would be out of a job,” the supervisor compliments Jacky and casually asks about the sort of person behind the chalk drawings. Jacky says that the draughtsman is nice enough and just gets on with things. The inspector informs him that the housing association is afraid of the effect the drawing will have on children. “The little fellows buy chalk which contains materials you can’t just wipe off a wall”, the supervisor confides.
“Did you know there are different sorts of chalk in circulation?”, I ask Jacky amazed. “Nothing surprises me any more,” he replies. “Nor me,” I reply. “They are very strict about checking things at the housing association, aren’t they,” I say. “Strict but fair. They have their chaps everywhere. It was just like that at the mine - watchmen everywhere.” “Is it really necessary?”, I ask. “It used to be the mine watchmen who ensured everything ran properly. They oversaw the hedge-cutting and the garden maintenance.” “Is gardening also in the blood of the people who live here now?”, I ask. “We’re a garden city, aren’t we?”, he smiles good-naturedly. “So has the housing association taken over the role of the mine watchmen?”, I ponder aloud. “You could say that. I think everyone still likes living here, and that’s the main thing. Whether they’ve got green fingers or not. Times have changed”, he says resignedly.
“What a pity,” says a Moroccan mother, catching me unawares as I am cleaning off the drawing on the Muggenberg. “These drawings have to be removed from the building,” I apologize. She points to the scribbles on the wall: “I don’t know if my kids did that.” “At the housing association they claim that in Morocco children don’t draw with chalk on the street. Is that right?” She shakes her head. “All kids play with chalk. They all play with a ball, don’t they? They just have to stay off the flowerbeds. We look after the little field ourselves. When the grass gets too long, we don’t phone the maintenance department. If they play football there, we chase them off, right?” Her husband comes over and says that Sledderlo is awash with chalk drawings by children of every description. “Your drawing looks like the rails of our balcony. Stripes, but then not in line. So long as it’s chalk, we’ve no regrets, but we don’t want any tattoos,” he concludes.
A couple of days later I receive an email from the director. She writes: "The attached photographs were taken on June 27th 2012. As you can see, the chalk lines are still clearly visible. Are there other means of removing the chalk lines?”
I reply: "This was of course not the intention. I washed away the chalk with water and didn’t wait until the wall was dry. When it was wet it looked clean.”
I do not dare tell her immediately how wonderful it is that the drawing has reappeared. It shows that besides being innocent, chalk can also be stubborn. The material that surrenders so easily to a breeze sometimes penetrates deep into the stone. It shows character and persistence. The drawing on the Muggenberg conceals the hard core of my gentle approach.
I write her a second email: "My method is not intended as a fleeting touch, as something transient. Though it does appear that way and I play with the meaning of temporariness. By increasing the density of drawings in an area, a sort of nest is created. The jumble of stripes on walls, white powdered thistles and hedges and smudged vestiges of chalk on the road surface return endlessly to the same places so that my work takes on a certain permanence. The encounters between the residents and me are stored in the chalk lines and in the stories people pass on to each other. The drawing on the Muggenberg is evidence of this sort of historiography. During the cleaning process, the stones absorbed the water while the drawings retreated deep into the pores. At your office I made myself small by agreeing to your conditions. You acted big. It is inspiring to see that the drawing, which increased its chances of survival by making itself small, has reappeared."
While I was cleaning I had noticed that the drawing returned as the stones dried. I had not expected the director to demean herself by pointing this out to me. I was delighted at her admonition. This would reveal not only the way I work, but also a part of her character. Perhaps we are well matched after all. It seems that De Kooning didn’t think Rauschenberg did a good job with the eraser. As if it had been Rauschenberg’s objective to erase all traces of the artwork? The question is whether the director acts out of authority and interferes with me doing my job, or whether she erases so ardently to give beauty greater visibility in the districts.
Jacky comes and stands next to me and I take a break from my work. “Look, this is about Texas,” he says. “You’re really interested in the district so I’ll lend it to you.” Screwing up his eyes, he hands me a book. “It’s about us, when we fought against the biggest enterprise in Limburg, the Kempische Steenkoolmijnen.” Amazed that there is also something of the rebel in the law-abiding Jacky, I take the book. He says: “I know what you’re thinking: how on earth is that possible? There were three hundred of us Texans. When the mines closed, at the end of the 1980s the government put 100 billion the Kempische Steenkoolmijnen’s way. The Steenkoolmijnen’s miracle men wanted to build the Fenix, a gigantic shopping centre with a bowling alley, restaurants and an amusement park. Though there was enough space available, Texas was to be demolished to make way for the Fenix. We were still living in wooden sheds at the time. Where the sports fields are now,” he says pointing towards the Racing Genk stadium. “The Fenix was never built.” He loosens a patch of sandy soil with his feet. “Fourteen different nationalities lived there peacefully, mineworkers of different religions who had survived the war or some other crisis in their own country. We put up with the sandstorms and quagmires in Texas. The district was dubbed ‘the Sahara’ because there were no asphalted roads. Well, none of the people living here wanted to move, even if we were out in the sticks.” “It still is slightly out in the sticks”, I say. “There was no bus service for a long time. We Texans got around on foot or by bicycle. We lived in the shadow of the slagheap. Not until the early 1980s was there a bus service linking Sledderlo and Texas with Genk city centre. Look…” Leafing through the book he shows me photographs of his family. “See what it says here on the back cover. Read it: “Not the great history of wars and oppression, but the story of a people determined to live the lives of upright citizens. … David against Goliath…" That sums it up pretty well, I think,” he says looking at me. “We may have been upright, honest citizens, but in the end the local community was defeated,” he says. “You should read it if you’re interested.”
I spend the whole day drawing around Jacky’s house. His wife Mieke pours coffee and gives me a bowl of rice pudding. A car with glistening rims drives past. The Moroccan driver wearing a cap opens his window and nods at the drawing: “What’s that?” “Art,” I say. “I drew it as a sort of entrance to the neighbourhood.” The driver laughs. “Will it last?” “It will eventually wear off, it was done with chalk. If you’d like one, please tell me”, I say. “How do you mean, can I have one too?” “Yes, on the garage of your house. It’s free.” “I live over there,” he says pointing to the end of the street. “Number 17. Why don’t you come by?”
NEW CHICAGO and NEW TEXAS
“Round here Sledderlo is also known as ‘New Chicago’”, a city council official informs me as he shows me round Genk. “This neighbourhood is a sort of peninsula, located in woodland out of view of the city of Genk. In the past the greenery served as a screen for all the unsavoury goings-on here. But even now you won’t find it easy to get a foot in the door,” he continues. “I’ve already drawn here, you know,” I reply. The message from the housing association that the drawings should be removed rankles with me. “The reaction of the housing association doesn’t surprise me,” says the official. “Having cleaned up the neighbourhood, they want to keep it that way.” “I still have to answer the director’s last email,” I say. “Deep in my heart I can’t imagine chalk can be so problematic.”
The official continues: “Sledderlo was built in a hurry in the 1970s to provide housing for the influx of foreign industrial workers. When the industry collapsed, building work in the neighbourhood promptly came to a standstill.” Now there is a half a neighbourhood, consisting of flats which rise high above the wood and dwellings whose garages serve as sitting-rooms. “The flats over there are empty because they are going to be demolished. Al Capone lives here,” he jokes cryptically.
Once the guided tour of the garden city and the former coalmines of Genk is over, I cannot get ‘New Chicago’ out of my head. I was already familiar with the streetscape with its garage dwellings and flats built at high speed but I knew nothing of the name ‘New Chicago’. I am even buoyed up by the fact that, according to the official, I can count on considerable resistance from those living in this neighbourhood. “Things get very heated round here in the summer. There are constant problems,” he claims. “So far I have encountered more resistance from the housing association than from the residents,” I reply.
A garage door is opened and inside I see plastic garden chairs standing on a Persian carpet. There is a bicycle in the sitting-room.
The garage dwellings are like open private spaces, an amalgamation of inside and out. The residents don’t live between four walls; their sitting-room consists of three walls and a swing-back wall. The really exciting prospect is being allowed to draw on the wallpaper in the room. For me coming here is coming home.
Due to renovation work I myself lived in a house with no doors for a while. The garage door served as a swing-back aluminium wall to keep out persona non grata at night. Because of the symmetry of two windows our house looked rather like a face whose mouth was half open or wide open during the day. Like the garage dwellings in Sledderlo, I saw the approach to it as a sort of tongue, not unlike one of those chic carpets usually rolled out for expensive people.
In my mind’s eye I plan a drawing on the road surface of ‘New Chicago’, its line of approach leading into the garages. But how will I ever get to set foot inside one of those garage dwellings?
The official claims that you have to be from here to get a foot in the door, but I don’t believe that. Many Chicagoans come from Turkey and Morocco. “It’s a good thing I’m not from here,” I say. “When strangers come together they fraternize. Don’t they?”
The only problem I can foresee is that most of the garages are kept locked until the arrival of spring.
In the bleak winter months of January, February and March I make the odd drawing on trees, on rubbish in the bushes and on wooden slats I come across in a park as a way of initiating contact with the neighbourhood. The message from the obstructive housing association that I am not allowed to draw on their buildings seems less relevant than it did and fades into the background. I cancel the meeting due to take place between the director and me.
I drive through Genk in the car. The neighbourhoods are too spread out to explore the city on foot. The rain makes drawing impossible. On a signpost I see the words: ‘New Texas’. Attracted by the name, I take that turning and disappear into a labyrinth of streets where all the houses and garages look the same. I get out of the car. “Are you looking for something?” asks a man with a Chihuahua. “I’m setting out a trail for a school,” I say to legitimize my presence. “I’m looking for places I can draw on with chalk.” “With chalk?”, asks the man. “Yes, chalk”, I reply.
There is no trail! Why am I claiming there is? I just want to make chalk drawings in the area. The chance of success is slim if I simply ask the man if I can make a few chalk lines on a house. The question sounds too crazy for words and I can guess what the answer would be. No unsuspecting resident is going to agree just like that. That’s the way it always is at the outset. On the first day I approach the locals in a roundabout way, never directly. Then I adjust my story. Regretting all mention of a trail, I take a better look at the man.
The dog has lifted its leg and is urinating against a wall. We watch how an animal marks out its territory. The yellow parabola is automatically washed off the wall when it rains. “Smells are important to him,” I say. His head cocked to one side, the Chihuahua looks up with his beady eyes. “He has been leaving his mark for ten years and has never been outside the neighbourhood,” says the man of his faithful four-footed friend. Let out in the park three times a day for ten years? “He keeps the neighbourhood immaculate with his sprinkler,” I say. “It’s stopped raining. Fortunately for you,” says the man, holding his sandwich bag at the ready - ready for the Chihuahua’s heavier messages.
“That’s nice. Is there really going to be a trail?”
“Yes”, I say. “I’m going to make as many chalk drawings on walls as I possibly can. Some will be in places which are easy to find, some will be more difficult.” “There are loads of good places”, he gesticulates around him. “I have lived here for twenty years. When’s the trail going to open?” The man’s enthusiasm is infectious. “Not until the drawing is completed,” I say.
We walk on together. “Look, that’s my house. You could put a stripe on that, you know. It’s only chalk, isn’t it?” “Yes,” I say with complete honesty. I am pleased he doesn’t ask which children are to be the beneficiaries of my efforts.
The remarkable thing about the neighbourhood is that every house has a free-standing garage which is used for storage, unlike in New Chicago. All the garages have identical blue doors.
At house No.1 I see a Turkish woman hanging out the washing. As nonchalantly as possible I ask if it’s all right if I draw a few chalk lines on the garage as part of a trail. She puts her thumb up in agreement. “OK, go ahead. I know what it’s about.” By now I am over my brief embarrassment about the questionable existence of the trail. After all, the whole of life is a quest…
On the blank side-wall of her garage I immediately set to work drawing a sort of triumphal arch. The Turkish woman lends me a ladder so that I can finish the top of the arch. It is a detailed drawing and it keeps me busy the whole day. Her two young sons come and look and, like the local children in New Chicago, they draw their chalk creations between my lines with the odd stump of chalk which falls to the ground. “What’s your name,” they ask. “Bart,” I say. When I come down from the ladder I see they have written my name on the wall what must be twenty times.
The drawing is clearly visible from the street. “The drawing is too easy to find,” claims a child. “There’s nothing to it.” “Boring.” I say: “It’s not about finding it, you have to guess what the drawing represents.” “A sun,” guesses a six-year-old Turkish boy immediately. “Yes, it’s also a sun,” I say. “What else can you see?” “I just think the drawing is beautiful”, says a girl hesitantly. Another child adds a long chalk line to the wall, which reads: “Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha”.
“It’s the opposite of a trail,” I declare. Then I ask: “There are good places all over this neighbourhood, aren’t there? Can you help me find nice places for new drawings? The trail involves finding as many suitable places as possible in New Texas.”
A retired couple on the other side of the street ask what the idea is. “Oh, it’s far from finished,” I sigh. “It’s part of a large chalk drawing in Genk. I draw on walls with chalk so as to create a sort of portrait of the different neighbourhoods of Genk.” “Chalk washes off,” says the man. “It would be a pity to see a drawing like that washed away by the rain,” adds the woman. “We’ve lived here for twenty years.” “We know everyone. The neighbourhood is one large family.” I say: “I’ve also been given permission to draw on the house of the man who owns the Chihuahua.” “It’s a wonder that beast is still alive. It’s all bone and shivering flesh and its eyes bulge out of its head,” retorts the pensioner.
The woman offers me a bowl of rice pudding and Coca Cola. The sugar gives me such a burst of energy that I ask if it’s all right if I draw on their garage too. “Yes, OK,” they say in agreement. “We’re just off to the chemist’s, but you can start drawing. You’ll find a thermos flask of coffee next to the garden bench.”
I set to work on the garage opposite. The children watch my progress from a distance. “I think the rays of sun are better,” says the girl next door. “Do you ever project drawings onto surfaces? The lines are so straight?” “No, I always draw free-hand,” I say. “Projecting is copying and that’s awful because your hand is in the way, you see? The projection falls on the back of your hand, or on your shoulder or on your arm. You are next to the drawing the whole time. It just becomes a mechanical exercise and eventually you don’t think about what you’re drawing any more. That’s really boring. And unnecessarily complicated.” “It seems to me projecting is easier,” say the girl next door. “I trace everything,” says the Turkish boy proudly.
The couple returns from the chemist’s. “Just call me Jacky. Cup of coffee?” The two of us sit on the garden bench. “When my wife and I married, I was given two weeks’ leave from the mine, Jacky reminisces. “Nice”, I say. “Where did you spend your honeymoon?” He gestures with his hand that they went somewhere a long way away. “When I came back to work two weeks later the mine had collapsed. My work mates had been buried alive. Actually, the marriage saved my life, but that’s not the way I look at it. My pals and my replacement never came to the surface again.”
“I was offered a job with Ford. I enjoyed working there, but after eight years I was called back home. The mine is home.” He looks thoughtfully at his carefully tended garden. “So, just as Ford was about to promote me, I was called back. The director of the mine was waiting for me at the entrance gate. “Jacky,” he said, and he laid his hand on my shoulder. “We can’t find anybody who knows more about the mine than you. The shafts have now been fitted with a new spray system so you don’t inhale coal dust. We want you back with us”. Two men took over my job at Ford. Did you hear what I said? I did the work of two men there. I worked seven days a week. But they wanted me here at home, so I went back down the mine.” He looked at me. “I worked at the mine for six years and then the day came that I had to retire. I went to the director. “Jacky,” said the director. “I don’t like to see you leave. Why don’t you tack on another four years? You are healthy and with another four years you can make up the gap in your pension.” I thanked him and said I wanted to stop. “I do this reluctantly,” he said and produced a piece of paper listing my years of gainful employment. He wrote down thirty years, including the eight years I hadn’t work there. “Jacky, if anyone deserves this, it’s you. Go, spread your wings! You are as free as a bird now.”
“Where’ve you been?” ask the two little brothers anxiously. “Someone from the housing association came by and we’ll get a fine if the drawing is not removed fast. The man from the housing association took photographs.” “Jacky, did you hear that?” I ask. “The housing association is threatening a fine.” Jacky says: “We were once informed that children must not draw on the pavement with chalk, only in the locations specially set aside for it. Perhaps it’s something to do with that?” “How idiotic is that to ban children from drawing on the street,” I say. “Children should be encouraged to play outdoors in the street. Skipping, tag, hopscotch, marbles and drawing with chalk – that’s what gives the street colour. They are the innocent activities of high-spirited children. Anyone who tries to contain or ban children’s games understands nothing about the dynamics of a neighbourhood.
It would be a worthwhile objective to ensure that local children can draw on the pavement with chalk again. You know I am commissioned by the city to make my chalk drawings? If ever a chalk ban is issued, I more or less owe it to my position to get it lifted.
We are joined by the Turkish mother. “I’ve just been doing the shopping,” she apologizes. “Please don’t remove the drawing yet,” I say. “I had the housing association after me before when I drew a number of lines in Sledderlo.” “Stop drawing on the garages for the time being,’ Jacky says law-abidingly. “Perhaps it would be better to contact the housing association first before you continue?”
At home I send an email to the director of the housing association in which I say that I unwittingly drew on their houses. “Deep in my heart I don’t believe chalk is really a problem”, I round off the email.
The director emails back immediately as follows:
“I thought the position was clear: no chalk on the walls of houses in Nieuw Dak. What you believe or don’t believe deep in your heart does not square with the reality. If necessary, I will provide you with a list of our houses. I am still prepared to talk. Monday June 4th or Tuesday 5th would suit me between 9 and 9.30.”
“The project would lose so much if none of your buildings were involved,” I say to the director. It would mean that working-class areas like Sledderlo and New Texas are excluded. Those very neighbourhoods where many residents are joining in spontaneously.”
“I understand what your work is all about, and none of this is intended personally,” she replies. “But I have to put a stop to your activities. In the past there have been so many problems with graffiti and everything related to it. It is regrettable, but we have to be consistent. We had drug-users hanging around in the cellars of flats. Fortunately that is all behind us now.”
“What is my work about then if you understand it so well?”, I ask. “About establishing links between residents by means of chalk drawings,” she says. “But establishing links between residents is one of your objectives, too, isn’t it?”, I ask surprised.
“I have no intention of entering into a discussion about our and your objectives,” she replies. “There are plenty of buildings in Genk which do not belong to us and which you can draw on.” “Perhaps you’ve had complaints from some of the residents?,” I ask. “No”, she says. “The complaints were internal.”
“The residents are the best judge of what is good or bad for their area, otherwise they would have complained,” I say. “Moreover, it remains to be proved that drug-users are attracted by chalk drawings.”
“We strive to keep our houses clean,” she says. “The definition of ‘clean’ is debatable,” I say. “The city gave me this commission and nota bene partly finances the project from its ‘nuisance’ budget. So I am indebted to the city. … and chalk is an innocent material because it is washed away by the rain,” I insist.
She springs to her feet. “No, chalk does not just go away,” she waves a forefinger dangerously. In fact in Sledderlo the Turkish children, and that is the majority, don’t have chalk at home. It is not in their culture. Your story is not applicable to Sledderlo.”
“I found the email you sent me very curt,” I say. “How do you know that what I feel deep in my heart does not square with the reality? It is even more churlish that you allow your employees to threaten two children with a fine for something as innocent as a chalk drawing.”
She looks at me angrily and shrugs her shoulders. “There are fifty of us employed here. I am not the only one who makes the decisions. This was a short meeting,” she concludes.
“I would never speak to a resident as we are speaking now,” I counter.
I don’t need her permission to continue drawing on houses. What concerns me is the residents. The only thing I want to ensure is that she doesn’t do anything to prevent the residents relying on their own judgement. Why doesn’t the power lie with the people who use the place every day?
The French artist Christo spent years negotiating with the city council for permission to wrap the Pont Neuf. He has a real knack for carrying through his ideas. If I wanted to draw on the Pont Neuf with chalk, I would ask the permission of those who use the bridge and not the mayor of Paris, which is precisely why I prefer to work on the street than consult in an office.
She asks: “Why do you choose those very areas where the majority of our houses are located?” “It is mainly the garages and the improvized outbuildings I draw on. The areas are slightly out of way and more vulnerable than the typical Genk suburbs. Nobody goes to Sledderlo or Texas if they don’t have to. That is why I, like you, have made them my headquarters.”
She emits a gentle laugh. “I have worked a lot with young people in deprived areas. It’s nice but difficult work. Once we went shopping in the city centre with a group of young girls. It was the first time they had left their neighbourhood. They had no idea the centre was so close; they had no idea what it looked like.”
Her expression hardens again. “The drawing on the Muggenberg has to go,” she says decisively.
“I wouldn’t know how to explain its removal to the residents without damaging the relationship I have built up with them,” I say thinking out loud. I go on: “In Sledderlo you’ve had blackboards installed for children to draw on. How about considering Sledderlo and New Texas as blackboard areas until the end of the project?” “?” “In general, in my experience it is easier to remove a drawing than to make it. So it would be no problem whatsoever to arrange a clean-up campaign in the neighbourhoods at the end of the project.”
I think to myself: the make-up on her face serves its purpose for about as short a time as my chalk drawings. She probably removes the eye shadow and lipstick at night. I set out to alter the appearance of a neighbourhood for an equally short period. If the chalk drawings bring about even the smallest shift in people’s thinking that is more than enough. I believe I can detect a hint of vulnerability in her face, as if a shift in attitude is taking place. But a miniscule change also comes about in my head.
Further to our discussion this morning, please find below a summary of the points agreed, which I have communicated internally (Nieuw Dak employees).
- Chalk lines may only be applied to walls in Nieuw-Sledderlo and New Texas and only to houses and duplexes; so not flats, not even if tenants request them.
- The project will run until January 2013. The artist has agreed to integrate a clean-up campaign into his project, so that at the end of the project all chalk lines are removed from all walls.
- The artist will find a way of cleaning the wall of the block of flats on the Muggenberg before the end of June.
- The artist will keep us abreast of his plans by email and will also write a report of his experiences.
Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or comments.
A NEST OF CHALK
Since January 2012 I have been making white chalk drawings on the surfaces of streets and walls in Sledderlo, a district in the Belgian city of Genk. They are relatively minor interventions that provoke responses and results that would be impossible to conceive in advance. Below is my first report on everything that acquired relevance, simply because somebody started to draw in random places in the streets.
I end my workday by making a drawing on a piece of haphazardly rolled-out roofing felt that I suppose has ended up in the green area alongside the houses during a roofing job. The drawing represents a square angle that, from the perspective of the green area, serves as a framework for the neighbourhood. In my experience, it would be possible to fit the entire city of Genk in frameworks just by looking from green areas and dense woodlands.
Three children shuffle closer and closer to where I am. ‘What do you think about my creations?’ I ask them, pointing at my drawings. ‘Dirty’, they say, a bit uneasy. ‘Can you do any better?’ I challenge them while I hand each of them a stick of chalk.
Both to my left and right I see little houses and laughing faces in chalk arising on the wall. ‘What is your name?’ they inquire. ‘Bart,’ I say. The children write my name repeatedly around the houses they have drawn.
The oldest of the lot wants to know what I do for a living. ‘I’m an artist’, I tell him. He starts spelling thoughtfully, ‘a-t-...t-y-… What's that?’ ‘That’s my occupation’. ‘Oh,’ he says with relief. ‘The same as my dad’.
In the green area between the primary school and the block of flats there are young trees. There are all sorts of things to be found in the grass, from a broken car seat and a molehill to a tattered serving tray. Scattered around one of the trees I find the remains of what must have been a bookshelf. You wouldn’t be able to arrange them like that yourself if you wanted to. So I leave them where they are, drawing lines across.
The lines exert a kind of grip on what is left of the bookshelf, as if helping to solve a puzzle. I lightly draw a vertical line along the stem of the small tree, with three shoots. Children in the playground of the adjoining school become curious and ask me about the meaning of the chalk lines on the tree and the objects around. ‘You can see what it is only when everything’s finished’, I explain. ‘When is it finished?’ they ask. ‘In a year, there's still lots of drawing and discovering to be done’, I say.
‘Why lines?’ a teacher asks. ‘A straight line is the shortest distance between two points, much like a footstep. You can go almost anywhere on foot. I try to get everywhere by drawing’.
‘But why are the lines so taut and straight?’ the teacher insists. ‘I’ve never managed to draw a perfectly straight line, not even on paper’, I say. ‘I always used to think I was no good at drawing. The lines I produce are neither straight nor curved but anything in between. That’s because no single surface is apt for drawing. Everything man-made is thoroughly uneven. And besides, people around do not readily co-operate. To complete a line, you need to follow tortuous paths and overcome many obstacles along the way’.
‘So you always pick a particular place for your drawing?’ the teacher continues.
‘I made my first drawing on the pavement in front of my childhood house when I was two years old. There have been years I didn’t do any drawing, but right now I’m producing more chalk drawings than the majority of children. It doesn’t matter if my drawings have become better or worse over time. What matters is their presence. Whether a line goes left or right, or whether it runs up or down is irrelevant. The point is making the drawing.
The residents often co-operate, even though this is not what I aim for. Just consider how naturally your children have joined in.
The lines meander through neighbourhoods, get out of sight and go on round the corners of the streets. Sometimes they continue along the ceiling of a kitchen, come down along the wall of the living room, go across the garden fence to re-appear in the next-door garden, stretching towards the adjoining house. At first sight, the lines may appear to be straight but they are actually woolly and frayed, and highly discontinuous. I write short texts about everything that acquires relevance through my drawing, which are published in books. The books are the only things that’s left.
‘Isn’t it a shame that your drawings are blotted out by the rain?’ the teacher wonders. ‘To teach your children language and maths, you use chalk and blackboard. When the day comes to an end, you erase all knowledge. And when you clean the blackboard wipe, the chalk dust takes all the knowledge with it. Quite a waste, don’t you think?’ ‘No, no,’ he interrupts. ‘Cleaning blackboard wipes isn't a waste, but... … nowadays we use digiboards in the classroom’. ‘It’s about what is preserved in the minds of the children. Regardless of whether you use chalk dust or digital particles’.
A young man joins in the conversation. He is a supervisor with Nieuw Dak, a local co-operative building society. Attached to the walls of the flat building are not only dish aerials but also blackboards for local children to have fun and create chalk drawings, so it seems. ‘It’s not that easy to clean chalk off a wall, you know’, the supervisor explains. ‘Besides, you need prior permission from our society. You cannot just start drawing here of course’. ‘The inhabitants of the block of flats have already begun to lend their support’, I protest. ‘The thing is we just can’t get the chalk off the bricks', he sighs. ‘Actually it’s not allowed to fix aerial dishes to the walls but then again, you can’t prohibit everything…’ I claim that my drawing material is harmless and that it has particularly enduring properties at the same time. ‘The assertion that the chalk will quickly disappear when it rains is not always true’, I reveal. ‘I must admit to having used a white lie – what I said is not entirely in line with the facts but there’s no harm done’. The contradictory quality of chalk makes all three of us laugh. ‘A pose of innocence is never harmless’, the teacher responds, in a lecturing tone. I tell them about my encounter with the police officer. When they try to imagine an African bulldog in a lookalike police coat torn to shreds, the teacher and the supervisor burst out laughing. They leave me alone at my drawing.
A passing policeman points at the drawing and then at my blue coat. ‘No, I’m not a policeman but an artist’, I explain, and I tell him about my chalk drawings in the area. ‘There’s no need for cleaning, the rain will see to that’, I reassure him. The policeman scratches the back of his head. ‘Chalk is a harmless material’, I say in my defence. ‘We policemen occasionally use chalk as well. It’s not quite as innocuous as you may think, you know?’ he says.
‘You must know the area like the back of your hand’, I suggest. ‘I live in this area. Why d’you wanna know?’ ‘Well, my aim is to find places where I can do my drawing. Perhaps you can think of a place where I could go or should stay away from?’ ‘If you like you’d be more than welcome to come and draw at my home, you’ll find the door open. The only barrier is this…’ He holds out his mobile with a picture of a ferocious looking dog. ‘Well over thirteen stone’, he nods. ‘Now you try and get beyond him in one piece’. Showing more photographs of his giant pet, he tells me its name is Bimbo. ‘Always good to know a dog’s name’, I admit. I recognise a kind of bulldog, but this one looks much more vigorous. ‘Of South-African stock’, says the officer. It reminds of Coetzee Disgrace, a novel featuring a dog kennel. Some time ago, somebody said to me that apartheid in South-Africa is not quite as bad as you might think. The same holds for migrant issues in Genk, doesn’t it? ‘Do you need a dog like that around here?’ I inquire. ‘A dog’s character depends on its owner’, the officer explains. ‘This one will never let me down. Dogs are more loyal than humans, I’d bet my life on that’. He jumps on his bike, repeating his invitation: ‘Do come by one day. But don’t forget to keep on your coat. That will increase your chances of survival. Bimbo obeys people in blue’.
The drawing on the wall of the high-rise building gradually progresses. It consists of short straight lines at a tangent to an imaginary circle, drawn next to eight aerial dishes attached to the walls like mushrooms. I tell the children that the straight chalk lines serve as an introduction to my project. ‘They are a kind of beams radiating from the aerial dishes,’ concludes one of the children. ‘Just like sound waves’, says another, knowingly. ‘Or of a laser show,’ adds the third, imitating electric shocks. ‘You may draw on the beams or sound waves if you like’, I say.
While I’m at my drawing on one of the side-walls of a block of flats, passers-by address me differently from what I’m used to. Is it my blue coat? It’s similar to a police jacket but without the emblems. When asked, nobody appears to take me for a policeman.
Driven by curiosity about the oversized police dog, I ring the bell at the officer’s home. Nobody answers so I open the gate and walk up the garden path towards the house. Different from what I’d expected, there’s no barking. When I prepare to leave again, the officer’s spouse arrives. She's scared to death by my presence. ‘Where’s the dog?’ she asks. I tell her about my encounter with her husband. ‘He’s not at home and the dog could have mauled you’, she responds. ‘You must have entered our lawn on cat’s feet’. She calls her husband on the phone. ‘Well…?’ I proffer, desiring to know the outcome of the call. ‘My husband told me to unleash the dog to see just how fast you can run. You’d better not drop by unannounced but we’d be happy to invite you over one day to come and draw inside’, she says.
A huge dog appears in the doorway, whipping its tail more energetically than a lasso.*
Back at home I find there’s an email from the Genk co-operative building society Nieuw Dak. The supervisor has raised the alarm after all and the director wants to know what this ‘chalking in the area’ is all about. She doesn’t approve of my drawings appearing on her society’s buildings ‘just like that’ and wants them removed immediately.
I reply by saying that I’m dismayed by her message and that of course I will remove the drawings: “(…) The drawings are intended as a temporary interference with their surroundings. It is in the nature of the project to leave no physical traces in the public or semi-public space. Since the people living in the area responded positively to the drawing activity, I myself saw no reason not to go on. I shared my chalk sticks with children allowing their creations to merge with mine. I think it would be a shame if the drawing project were to involve all kinds of structures in Genk but not the Nieuw Dak buildings. This would mean that a number of Genk areas would be excluded from the project”.