In Conversation with Harmen de Hoop

For almost three decades, Harmen de Hoop has anonymously but consistently been intervening in public space. Whether critical or joking, he has made his ideas felt in cities around the world. This is a brief conversation with the artist—perhaps the original urban interventionist—and will be part of a mini-series of posts on various aspects of his work. But first, in case you are unaware, check out a sampling of his urban interventions—they are pretty influential on the projects we do.


Imacon Color Scanner  
A bicycle path through a man made forest (1993) and free water cup.
Repainting crosswalks

For Free! A 2005 commentary on the notion of ownership of building materials in public space.


Entrance Fee: 7.50 euros for silence.

Do you consider yourself a pioneer in street art and urban interventions?

When I started in the mid-eighties there was no 'street art' movement. I knew the work of Keith Haring—'subway drawings', using unused advertisement spaces in the subway—and the work of Charles Simonds, who made miniature clay dwellings in cracked walls of condemned buildings in New York in the seventies. They both made temporary, fragile outdoor pieces, on their own initiative. I liked that. You also had 'graffiti', but that was more 'graphic design' than 'art'. And I could mention Daniel Buren, but his work was more related to the discourse within the gallery-museum-art-system, even when it was placed outdoors.

For me, the important thing was that making another installation in a 'white cube' seemed boring, so I was looking for a new adventure. And after deciding that making things in public space and addressing the casual passer-by instead of an informed art audience was more exciting, I had to make up new rules.

If you want to 'include' everybody, that means communicate with everybody in the streets, you cannot use the language of art, because they don't know it and feel threatened by it. Therefore I chose to use only signs, language, objects, actions etc. that already exists in our cities, but 'contextualize' them by placing them 'wrongly' in a new location to create meaning that way. And at the same time formulate a new view of what art could be. From the end of the 80s I left a trail of anonymous and illegal interventions behind in cities all over the world.


What do you think of the trajectory of street art or urban interventions being incorporated into galleries?

I’m interested in ‘public space’, so I judge ‘street art’ on how it relates to the passer-by: where is it placed and what does it try to achieve? I prefer 'street art' that tries to communicate certain social and philosophical ideas to the general public, but also when it is just meant to be decorative (for example Krystian Czaplicki), you can still judge whether it works well on that location, or not.

There are also a lot of artists (for example Filippo Minelli) who make things outdoors just to take a photograph of their interventions to show in a gallery (or on the internet or in books). I'm not really interested in that kind of work. I really want the work to function out there in the streets!

Showing documentation in a gallery of the things you did outdoors is OK. It's just an extra platform for communication. There is a difference in how a single work outdoors can be an authentic moment of interaction with a passer-by, and how images of all your interventions together can enable the cultural community to reflect on what you are doing. But the 'white cube' can easily suck out all the energy that was in the work when it was still anonymous and illegal.

Do you think street art has the potential to transform public spaces and cities?

I do not think that the aim should be to ‘transform’ public spaces. I think that the role of street art is to ‘comment’ on issues in public space from the viewpoint of ‘the individual’— the citizen without power, you & me—so it should act as a parasite or a virus. I am not a big fan of community projects, where the goal is ‘to bring people together and make the neighborhood more beautiful’. I am more interested in a critical position.

Do you see contemporary street art and urban interventions as tools of gentrification or homogenization?

Most of it is still just unsolicited 'vandalism', but there are artists who—on their own initiative —use it to that effect. For example, Haas & Hahn; and local politicians love to jump on the bandwagon. These politicians don’t care about the ‘artistic’ side of it and they certainly want to avoid any critical message. They will provide the money if the art is ‘useful’ to their political objective. And a lot of artists will be seduced by the money. It will, in my opinion, make art ‘harmless’ and uninteresting.

How can street artists and interventionists avoid being commodified or being made "useful"?

Everybody has to find his/her own method. For me, the most important thing is that I am not commissioned to do a work. This is my way to keep it authentic. Afterwards I can show (and sell) the documentation in the form of inkjet prints. That is a commodity, but it is not the real work. So, rule number one to keep it authentic is: do not accept commissions, do not work for somebody else, do not make it in the context of an art show or a sculpture tour etc.

What do you think of socially-oriented street art—do you see yourself as a part of this?

I assume that you refer to artists who choose to involve themselves in social processes, instead of ‘standing on the outside’ and reflect on what happens in the world. So they decided to ‘act’ instead of ‘reflect’. Beside the fact that ignoring the political and financial structure behind it is in my opinion problematic (often artists are ‘used’ by politicians to cover up unpleasant realities etc.), I can understand their motivation. But I cannot share their motivation, because I am too much an ‘individual’, and not suited for endless discussions, meetings etc. and I do not share their ‘believe in a better world’—maybe I am too cynical?

Any upcoming projects or new areas of interest?

I started working on a new series using the format of the A4-flyer. A bit like the work I made before, but this time an 'actor' will hand them out to passers-by, instead of putting them unasked in peoples mail boxes. It will be about our use of places in the city, the conflicts that occur when a lot of people live so close to each other and about how everybody wants to express their opinions all the time.

I like the fact that there is no physical art object, that a piece of A4 paper is the right material when the work is about the attempt to communicate, but that the process as a whole—including what happens in the mind of the passer-by or in the media—is the work.


For more, read a great interview with Harmen, in which he comments on working with people and the universality of his projects; and, a post from "Footnotes to public space" in which he talks about participation.
Featured image of the Protest (useless action 3#). To participate, you can download the flyer and send documentation to the artist. First image is of Sandbox (1996), an intervention in Amsterdam.
All images from the artist's website: