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The Real Faces of Immigration

DAE graduate Dick Bakker’s work on the Dutch residency identity card is a fascinating way to bring a sensitive issue into the mainstream conversation without any of the usual inflammatory political positioning.

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 17-01-2013

Like in most developed countries across the globe, immigration has evolved into a sensitive and complex issue in the Netherlands – a conflux of emotions, insecurity and concerns.  Some parts of the political world – both here and abroad – have capitalized on that mental uncertainty to do little more than aggravate what must now be called a problem.

DAE graduate Dick Bakker (Izaak Imagery) delved into this issue creating a series of films titled “Under Construction: the Netherlands.”  In it the infamous Dutch residency identity card – compulsory for all legal foreigners to carry on their person – was portrayed, but in the bottom left hand square where a still photograph usually sits, he beamed video footage of the person living life.

The result was to give these normally anonymous foreigners an identity – moving them beyond the mere statistic they are only ever known as.

Bakker’s larger point is that the ongoing debate does not represent the true face of immigration.  

For this project he consulted with immigration lawyer Jeremy Bierbach, a naturalized Dutchman whose legal practice specializes in this very issue.

“Basically these sorts of cards represent the extreme abstraction of a human being,” Bierbach says.  “It is always about selecting details and leaving the rest out; reducing a person to certain aspects.  Of course this is also what the law does, and the way the law deals with people.  It doesn’t look at a whole individual, but in how it can extract facts so as to compare people … in my opinion this as a design represents flawed thinking.”

Flawed but inevitable – Bierbach, who is currently working on his Ph.D, calls the system perverse, but until countries have similarly working systems of welfare, tax and public services, open borders are an impossibility.  

“My inspiration for critical thinking comes from ‘The History of the Passport’ by John Torpey,” Bierbach says.  “These sorts of identity documents are quite recent.  Before WWI there was relative freedom of movement because back then even the next town over was deemed foreign.  Nobody cared if people moved around.”

But with the unrest and turmoil of the 20th century came the rise of the nation state - massive territorial entities that were centrally controlled.  

“These facilitated the idea that people had to be embraceable,” says Bierbach.    “Torpey calls it compilable.  In order to maintain the surveillance necessary to define people in terms of nationality they needed to start controlling movement.

Residency cards are just another branch of this attempt to control movement.

Bakker himself talks a lot about designing solutions as the point of his project.  “It is design and not, for example, art,” he says, “because it is meant for public spaces and it is designed to encourage people to look at reality in a different way.

“In the past, there were advertisements with feel-good slogans, like be nice to everybody, and don’t throw your rubbish on the ground.  I see my project as something like that – it is about communicating a good cause.”

Like a pubic service announcement, with the onus put on the individual to observe, think and act.  “I have put the responsibility with the person observing,” Bakker says.  “There is no judgment.  People see it, they don’t even know if it is design or art, they just see it and think about it and perhaps wonder how the situation reflects on them.  That is all that maters.”

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