Schipbreukeling – Mathieu Charles
sonsbeek_team_portrait_final_2_photo by Studio Julius Thissen.jpg

force times distance: on labour and its sonic ecologies

A glimpse into the web of reflections and associations that gave way to sonsbeek20→24, by artistic director Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung.

Wherefore this busy labor without rest?
Is it an idle dream to which we cling,
Here where a thousand dusky toilers sing
Unto the world their hope? "Build we our best.
By hand and thought," they cry, "although unblessed."
So the great engines throb, and anvils ring,
And so the thought is wedded to the thing;
But what shall be the end, and what the test?

– Tuskegee, Leslie Pinckney Hill

Another shift of men, some of them my friends, comin'
on Hard to imagine workin' in the mines
Coal dust in your lungs, on your skin and on your mind
I've listened to the speeches
But it occurred to me politicians don't understand
The thoughts of isolation, ain't no sunshine underground
It's like workin' in a graveyard three miles down

– Three Miles Down, Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson

Tape Side A

In discussing the conditions under which Chinese workers toiled on the plantations in America, Maxine Hong Kingston narrates the lore of the queen who gave birth to a son with rabbit ears. Because the king was so ashamed of having a son with such an anomaly, he asked the queen and maids to keep this a secret and to have no one in his kingdom get word of this. The prince grew up in hiding, grew long hair and no one ever saw his ears. But the burden of keeping such a secret to himself weighed on the king for years, and the need to spill his secret grew stronger and stronger. One blessed day the king walked alone into the forest, dug a hole in the ground, and screamed the secret he had kept to himself for years in the hole. Instantly he felt a weight drop off his shoulders due to finally speaking out. But unbeknownst to him, the earth, the living and non-living beings in the ground heard the secret, passed it on to the roots of trees and seeds that further passed it on to the plants and foods that were harvested. And before long, the wind and everyone who ate the foods became aware of what was meant to be a secret. Cognisant of this lore, the Chinese plantation workers – who in most cases were banned from speaking or singing while working – would dig holes in the fields and scream right in messages of love and hope, or just speak or sing of the quotidian and the labour they were bound to. This in the hope that the sonic messages would be carried to their co-workers or loved ones they left at home on the other side of the globe.1

Tape Side B

Having trained in agricultural science in Cairo and working on farms while trying to begin a career as a composer, Halim El-Dabh tried to find alternative ways of keeping insects and preys away from crops. In his own words: “in the late 1930s, I did work with noise, to discourage crickets. (...) I didn't want them to eat the corn (...) I would take pieces of scrap metal, hang them from a pole, and they would have, like, wings to them. When the wind came, they would vibrate and hit the pole and create noise.” This sonic scarecrow was one of many experiments El-Dabh did which involved using sound as an insecticide. It is said that he also did a composition that matched the sonic frequency of some insects and because the sound was unpleasant to the insects, they stayed away from the plants. The idea of a non-chemical based pesticide was one of the many experiments that preceded his seminal composition The Expression of Zār (1944), considered a precursor of Musique Concrète.

The anecdotes on sides A and B of the tape are possible extremes of a spectrum entailing the intercourse between labour and the sonic. Within the cycle that encompasses all of these extremes, we have the traversing of stories and wisdom through the matter of the earth. Sonic and phonic experiences transpose through times and geographies. In the context of Force Times Distance, sound is considered as a testament of and survival device for workers, one that is imbued with necessity, hope, and love, as it exists as the noise of tools and machines, as a vibration of exhausted bodies, as chants of protest, as laments and elegies of loss and pain.

Between these extremes are work songs produced by farmers, hunters, housemaids, gardeners, factory workers, miners, seamen, weavers and sewers, information technicians, and of course labour union and protest songs. The intersection of labour and the sonic fulfils a plethora of purposes. These range from alleviating the pain of working under extreme conditions such as plantations, waste dumps, or 3 miles down the earth in the mines, as Gil Scott Heron points out. Songs help to increase and survive the requests of high productivity by keeping with the rhythm of the work, or reducing the sentiment of boredom like it would be the case while sowing, picking cotton, mowing the lawn or cooking. Songs are handed down in and through these places, as we see them in Jumana Manna’s film A magical substance flows into me (2015) where songs flow through work in the kitchens, or Amar Kanwar A night of Prophecy ( 2002), a series of poems and songs recorded in eleven languages − the work portrays a people caught in struggles revolving caste, poverty, and disenfranchisement.

In the case of the plantation songs, for example, the songs also served as mnemonic tools to keep the histories of where the slaves came from, kept the slaves in communion with each other, or were spaces in which they could plot and pass on information about escaping the plantations. Thus the songs embodied possibilities of resistances, but also possibilities of care for each other; they bear witness to the working conditions of labourers, grant them a space to vent grievances, lament or to celebrate.

On the slave farms, African drums were banned out of fear that they would be used to communicate a revolt − even singing was banned in some cases. It is said that none other than the “Yankee Doodle” takes its cue from a 15th-century Dutch harvest song, singing about how farm labourers received wages such as buttermilk (botermilk) and a tenth (tanther) of the grain. Quite a few popular songs are rooted in the boat songs sung during rowing, the sea shanties sung by sailors especially upon rigging or anchoring, or industrial songs produced from the industrial revolution onwards.

From a technology point of view, we have tons of examples: be it the sounds of the sonic scarecrow, the whistles and yodels of hunters to identify their game and other hunters, the sound of the sewing machines or other automations like trains and ships that informed the compositions of Arseny Avraamov, the car industries in Detroit that inspired what was to become techno, or the sociality of work songs from Donna Summer's “She Works Hard For The Money” (1983) to Rihanna’s “Work” (2016).

“And gimme me all the work, work, work, work, work, work
You see me I be work, work, work, work, work, work
You see me do me dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt
There’s something 'bout that work, work, work, work, work, work
When you a gon’ learn, learn, learn, learn, learn, learn
Me na care if me tired, tired, tired, tired, tired, tired”

—Rihanna, Work



Force times Distance will manifest itself following five core trajectories: exhibition, radio, educational and public programme (or: invocations), publications, and archive. Each strand will focus around an ensemble of mediums to articulate ideas around labour, following the physics formula Work = Force times Distance = Energy, thus the title of the project.

Force times Distance = Exhibition

The surroundings of Sonsbeek Park make up for a historically complex cartography of aircraft hangars, castles, parks, farm structures, bunkers, and more. Besides their intended functionality, these spaces have in common the fact that they are workspaces and thus have triggered a proposal that deliberates on labour. The labour of thousands of people that have been engaged in building and maintaining these structures − as visible and/or invisible labourers, as paid and unpaid workers. Force times Distance looks at how the history of labour and the working class reflects and is framed by issues like race, gender, class structure and politics, i.e. the racial capitalocene as elaborated by Françoise Vergès, as well as how these are manifested in sonorous. It is about the socio-politics and sonicity of labour in relation to an Adam Smithian conception of ‘commercial society’ and a Hegelian conception of ‘civil society’. The Force times Distance exhibition acts as a choreography of sonic frequencies, it engages with an expanded and augmented musicality that invites and encourages different modes of listening, that wish to make visible that which is already there but which remains unseen and unheard, that recovers, restitutes, and repairs the still segregative conditions under which we live, between visible and invisible workers, bodies, and lands. Framed around the practice of artists who work sculpturally, performatively, and sonically, the exhibition investigates the sculpturality of the sonic, labour, and the politics of the sonorous – multi-medially and multidisciplinary.

The route mapped from the Park Sonsbeek extending to Zypendaal, Schaarsbergen, the National Park De Hoge Veluwe to the Kröller-Müller Museum, including ‘Buitenplaats Koningsweg’, serves as point of departure.

Force times Distance = Radio

A founding component of Force times Distance is setting up a radio station where old and young, autochthons and allochthons, workers of all métiers and non-workers, students, artists, writers and people from all walks of life in Arnhem and beyond can share perspectives on labour and sonicity. The program will include readings of stories and anecdotes, narrations of personal and collective experiences, music and short plays on labour. With radio, we intend to stretch both the space of an exhibition/exhibition-making and the notion of the public space. Since sonsbeek was founded to be an art project in public space, radio seems an appropriate public space in the ether.


Force Times Distance = Invocations

The educational and public programme is devised by local and international allies in the fields of artistic and curatorial practices, education, activism and mediation. It includes performance, poetry, dance, lectures, workshops, reading groups on sonicity, labour, and histories or other topics of interest to the communities we are working with.

The aim of the project is to bring art and less art-minded people together. On a regular basis, artists, poets, lecturers, performers, musicians will meet. Several locations and themes will serve as departure points for these encounters such as the church, which will host installations and also accommodates a series of experimental organ sonic interventions, performances, dance sessions or sound and film workshops and so forth. Sound practices, theory and labour will be explored, as well as scholarships in acousto-ecology.

Force Times Distance = Publishing

Framed as a research and exhibition endeavour, Force times Distance will be accompanied by a publishing programme. A series of readers assembling essays by researchers working on labour and sound as well as anecdotes and interventions by artists will be published. A weekly comic zine is conceived to accompany a local newspaper, and a sonic publication will be produced on vinyl at the end of the project.

Force Times Distance = Archive

During the research phase for Force times Distance, it became clear that there is no consistent archive for the Sonsbeek arts festival, which has been active since 1949. Bits of information can be found here and there, as well as lots of very knowledgeable people who tell oral histories about sonsbeek's past editions. This dearth has led to an initiative to set up a sonsbeek archive. By way of open calls, people who attended previous editions of sonsbeek or those who have access to archive materials will be able to contribute to this open archive with private photographs or books, newspaper clippings, flyers, and more. A section of the archive will be collecting the recording of oral histories from the different communities. The idea is to create an archive for the people, by the people.

INSTRUCTION TO THE PEOPLES OF THE EARTH. You must realize that you have the right to love beauty. You must prepare to live life to the fullest extent. Of course it takes imagination, but you don't have to be an educated person to have that. Imagination can teach you the true meaning of pleasure. Listening can be one of the greatest of pleasures. You must learn to listen, because by listening you will learn to see with your mind's eye. You see, music paints pictures that only the mind's eye can see. Open your ears so that you can see with the eye of the mind.

– Sun Ra, Liner notes to Sun Song, 1957



Part II of this introduction to Force times Distance lays bare the conceptual framework of the programme. It looks at forces and implications of powers, complicates our notions of time beyond its linearity and proposes the perception of cyclical time. It is structured around five movements. Each movement relates to a particular event, anecdote, feature, historical occurrence or art practice related to Arnhem, The Netherlands, and to labour and the sonic.

Force times Distance can be apprehended from the vantage point of two sonic/musical concepts, namely: Excavation and Amplification. Excavation we can understand in relation to digging up or exploring something valuable that is not within sight, such as the excavation of histories and lost narratives, or the excavation of forgotten sounds. The act of digging or searching for vinyl in record stores is also colloquially referred to as excavating. Through the act of amplification, that which is excavated will be made audible or visible, as a process of relating the situated realities (local) and fictions found in Arnhem and the region to other narratives found all around the world (global).

1st movement

This first movement revolves around the intersection of the Sint-Jansbeek – along which Arnhem was built – and the Rhine. It reflects on the flow of water and sound, as sound is amplified when it travels over water. With regards to labour exchange and technology, it proves interesting to metaphorically excavate the stories and sounds of the industrial area ‘avant la lettre’ that was located on the spot where Park Sonsbeek is now located. The point of interest with the Jansbeek is less its historical identity, but rather its role as a source of life and catalyst of industry, and the way it connected Arnhem to the Rhine and the rest of the world. This movement is also important in relation to the water museum in sonsbeek.

It is said that in 1530 Duke Charles of Gelre ordered the diversion of the Rhine to bring it closer to the Arnhem City walls. For six years workers used shovels and wheelbarrows to move the Rhine nearer to the city. The Sint-Jansbeek, from the source in Zypendaal through Park Sonsbeek to the city runs partly open and partly underground. This suggests potential in “excavating and amplifying” by connecting the narratives of the St. Jansbeek to the Rhine and all the way to the sea, both historically and in the present. In Sam Auinger’s work Sounding Mexico City he talks about how the Dutch hired soldiers who, together with the Spanish, conquered Tenochtitlan – the main city of the Aztecs (later Mexico City) – which was a city in the middle of a lake. It is said that a lot of the knowledge and technology of the chinampas (a kind of floating islands used for agriculture) informed the Dutch technologies about building on water. The Sprengenbeek, Sint-Jansbeek, which flows from the edge of the Veluwe to the Rhine was very important in terms of early industry and work: from the 13th century on there were more than 10 water mills along the Jansbeek; grinding grain, making paper, and washing clothes (only one water mill in Park Sonsbeek survived). It is said that there were also several beer breweries that used the stream water as raw material.

It is also worth thinking about sonsbeek in relation to the anecdote of the waterfall. In 1826 Baron Van Heeckeren had the waterfall constructed there for the enormous amount of 70,000 guilders, using stones dug out by hand from the Veluwe and the Kootwijkerzand. The sound of the waterfall is the soundscape of a huge part of the park.

2nd movement

Implementing what Trinh T. Minh Ha has called “speaking nearby” as a strategy to treat issues around coloniality non-frontally and drawing from the important work of the curatorial collective ruangrupa around colonial histories during SONSBEEK ’16: TransACTION, the 2nd movement looks at the colony as a space of labour, and the metropole as a space of repose. The flow of peoples/bodies and resources from colonies to metropole and back, and how they informed processes of production and shaped development, as well as the notion of the social state within the metropole. In this regard, Arnhem is set as a ‘cosmopolitan city’ long before the 1944 ‘Battle of Arnhem’ that made the city internationally ‘famous’.

Between 1820 and 1859 Arnhem’s population grew from 9,000 to almost 24,000 inhabitants, as good railway connections (work!) were established in the area around Arnhem and Nijmegen, and as Dutch soldiers, business people and pensioners returned from the Dutch East Indies, i.e traders, former officers and sugar and tobacco planters, who became particularly rich in India, built houses in Arnhem along the Velper-, Utrechtse- and Amsterdamseweg. Also of interest in this perspective is that the city park Arnhem, Park Sonsbeek’s original owner, imported sugar from plantations located on the island of Java, Indonesia.

3rd Movement

The 3rd movement concerns itself with, and draws inspiration from, four moments in the art history of sonsbeek that took shape in the form of, or around, pavilions (etymologically spaces of shelter, host) namely: Indian exhibition 1928, Sonsbeek 1971, Sonsbeek 1986, and Sonsbeek 2016.

Practising architects will collaborate with students in architecture to think along with the curatorial group about pavilions in the context of the sonic, labour, and locality, and engage with works from the Kröller-Müller museum to anchor their productions.

The Indian exhibition Arnhem (Indische Tentoonstelling te Arnhem, ITA) that took place from 11th June to 5th August 1928, and was hosted in Park Zypendaal (also a former Dutch silk factory and hospital for soldiers). The ITA, which included a batak house, a koeli house, a tearoom and a gamalan orchestra performance, was very successful economically and attracted half a million visitors including Prince Henry, ministers Koningsberger, Slotemaker de Bruyne and Lambooy. Around the Zypendaal estate were several pavilions, including an Indian restaurant. The idea of a restaurant pavilion might be explored further while being critical of the reference to an exhibition with a nation-based structure.

Wim Beeren’s 1971 “Sonsbeek buiten de perken” is still considered one of the most important exhibitions/art projects/events of the 20th century, as it redefined radically the concept of sculpture, spatial relations and even defied the locations’ boundaries of sonsbeek. This proposal for sonsbeek 2020 could be inspired by the pavilions as listening stations and publication formats including an on-site offset printing press. Though highly celebrated, Sonsbeek '71 was almost exclusively a male show, with just two female artists on the artist list. This will serve as a warning of how sonsbeek 2020 shouldn’t be in terms of gender ratio.

Sonsbeek 1986 curated by Saskia Bos is another highlight of pavilions that came together after an open architect competition. This ranged from glass houses by architect Bethem Crouwel or the floating pavilion by Wiek Röling.

Ruangrupa’s Sonsbeek 2016 saw important pavilions by Alphons ter Avest and Eko Prawoto.

Three works from Kröller-Müller Museum prove to be relevant in this context:

Katarzyna Kobro’s Space composition 4, 1929 is an important example of Polish constructivism. It points at “art as composition of space” and at 'spatio-temporal rhythm calculations”. Kobro and Strzeminski’s progressive social agenda is also important within the context of sound and labour, though the rhythm may manifest itself not just sonically. Accent on Structure and space.

Stanley Brouwn’s Project for the Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller has as measurement units the meter and the step. Like most of his works, it is about interaction, bridging distances, performativity, the immateriality and the corporeal in relation to space. The standard measurement system such as the meter, the foot or the el, versus his personal measurement system related to his body (the sb-foot, the sb-el, the sb-step). So it is always and interplay between distance, size, space and time, i.e rhythm. Accent on Rhythm and performance.

Bart van der Leck was commissioned by Helene Kröller-Müller (after meeting in 1914) to create a stained-glass window for her family’s business in The Hague. For inspiration she sent the artist to Spain and Algeria for four months to see the company’s mines, where he produces many drawings and sketches of workers in mines. Accent on artist labour and production.

4th Movement

The 4th movement is about sonic mapping and technologies, taking Wim Bereen’s Sonsbeek '71 technology pavilion as a reference. Beeren was interested in sculpture as something “by which we can conceive of space”, so television too is a “means by which space is experienced” and one of the “elements which make us aware of the scale that is being employed, which determine how involved we are with one another, or how detached, and which influence our behaviour.” Because of modern technology, the distance between the two points had become fundamentally indeterminate. According to Beeren “a considerable proportion of world events are conveyed to us by these communication media alone. Information is becoming an almost independent phenomenon. The most solitary events become fodder for the masses. These communication media have intrigued artists, too, and they are using them in their own very personal ways.”

In collaboration with local historians, students, and citizens wanting to contribute, Force times Distance will implement a radio and the use of QR (Quick Response Code) mapping. The idea being that all through the parks, museums, along the river and other spaces in indirect proximity to the art, short stories, anecdotes, tales, historical facts about Arnhem, its connection to the world or about workers and music will be encoded in the QR barcodes in the form of short podcasts.

A possible point of departure is the work and technology of the Blitzmädchen (Blitzmädel) who worked in the Diogenes bunker supporting the Luftwaffe (Nachrichtentruppe von Wehrmacht und Waffen-SS). They operated complex radio equipment giving aircraft notifications through telephone and radio links, and intercepted communication from behind enemy lines.

We can think of radio technology as what Brecht called the Kommunikationsapparat and more recent technologies such as the matrix QR code (Quick Response Code), first designed in 1994 for the car industry. Using the cell phone, information in the QR barcode can be read. Data is encoded in the QR codes using four standardized encoding modes (numeric, alphanumeric, byte/binary, and kanji).

5th Movement

The 5th and final movement centres on the relation between sound and ecology (also known as ecoacoustics) and deals with the sonic relationship between humans and other beings in their environment. Even a space like Arnhem, sonsbeek, Zypendaal or the National Park are faced with the by-products of increased urbanization and the growth of the city: Noise. As some have extended the Anthropocene to the Capitalocene or Industrialocene, maybe we can extend this to the Phono- or Acoustocene — which will denote the way sound and noise, in particular, have influenced our current geological and social age − especially in terms of our relation to other existences in our environment. Lets not forget though, that the lack of natural sounds e.g the stream in sonsbeek, the lack of bird singing or crickets or toad sounds also deterritorializes human beings.

We can draw links between concepts of ecology, nature, labour, and the sonic. Sint-Jansbeek is important as the guarantor of biodiversity and of water in the parks, as the stream enables plants to grow or creates spaces for rare birds to flock. To count within the site’s richness are medicinal plants reared by the nuns in Park Sonsbeek during the last couple of centuries, or the wild mints that cooks come to pick at the source of the Jansbeek.

Noise has an effect on the acoustic environment of aquatic and terrestrial habitats: scientists have shown that bird diversity has declined due to increased noise levels in cities, especially along the highways, airports and long durational construction sites, while other animals (including birds) have increased the frequency of their calls to adapt. Thus noise affects our behaviours, physiologies and communities f.e. the noise of ships on sea and ocean animals (ocean noise).

Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung

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