This art course teaches students to solve social problems

This is one of the intentions of this government, which you don’t hear much about: ‘We involve the creative industry in major social tasks’, it says on page 32 of the coalition agreement, in the chapter ‘Velstandsland’ under the heading ‘Culture and creative industry’.

It is not clear from the agreement how the government intends to tackle this, but it may become clear on budget day. State Secretary for Culture Gunay Uslu (D66) recently visited the Utrecht School of the Arts (HKU), where for years they have been working with 4,000 students to use art and design in society – just like at various other applied universities. It is important for the whole of HKU, but certainly also for the Crossover Creativity (MCC) Master’s programme, which is part of the department Creative Transformation, with approximately 160 students.

card game schizophrenia

Twan de Vaal studied industrial design but wanted to do more meaningful work. This is how he ended up on the master’s program at HKU, which requires you to have a personal design challenge. “One of my close friends was dealing with schizophrenia which was very severe.” He explored what the disease meant to everyone around it. “The information that was available about schizophrenia comes mostly from the field of psychiatry, from highly educated people. I missed the step: what can you do as an environment?”

De Vaal spoke to GPs, patients and family. “The need for connection and communication turned out to be great, because you just don’t understand each other when someone is delusional.” Discussion techniques have been developed, but they are the kind of big pills that not every family has time for. While these techniques are very valuable to people around the patient. Contact means a safety net, and therefore a smaller chance of someone ending up in a crisis.

“I started making prototypes to test with family members. First a game board, then pawns were added, then cards. At first I was close to the conversational techniques; If A says it, B must say it. But this does not include the feelings and impotence of the family members. So I started adding emotion cards as they explain; what does this do to us. That’s how people make connections about feelings, those books don’t teach that.”

In the end, I had something with the product, ‘Insane Conversation’, which was valuable to the majority of the people I worked with. Is it art? The whole process is art, the product is a practical result.”

‘The process lasts longer than the result.’

Nirav Christophe, lecturer at HKU

Woven solar cells

Yosser Dekker studied civil engineering and then went to work in a municipality. Not for him, because he felt he was ‘selling’ something to the public. “There is a big difference between selling something that is already established and seeking the truth through research.” He then developed social initiatives in Arnhem, such as the construction of roof gardens. At HKU, he wanted to investigate his own process. “I did something right, but I couldn’t explain it.”

Then covers energy transition and energy poverty, specifically on a few of the neighborhoods in Arnhem that have been designated for sustainability; socially weaker neighbourhoods, with at first glance less social cohesion, people with many different backgrounds and a great distrust of the government. “We investigated those neighborhoods by diving into the area with anthropological methods. Artistic research and anthropology are closely linked; you look at people, communities and connections. But as an artistic researcher you get further. You look at what is missing, the anthropologist looks at what is there.”

In these Arnhem neighborhoods, it appears that many residents have informally united around the production of textiles. There are sewing workshops and clubs meet in the community center to weave and embroider. Dekker developed a workshop together with fashion designer Pauline van Dongen, who designs textiles with solar cells woven into them. People were able to weave solar cells by hand into a new piece of textile that they can use to charge their phones. The idea proved to be very popular and the workshop was given throughout the neighbourhood.

Yosser Dekker developed a workshop where participants weaving solar cells into a new piece of textile.
Photo Valerie Spanjers / Bureau Ruimtekoers

Dekker: “The work they do is actually a tangible picture of the future. People suddenly had a piece of textile that you can use everywhere, and it turned out to be very stimulating. “Oh, it could be a curtain too!” for example.” It has resulted in true neighborhood ambassadors who encourage their neighbors to make their lives and households more sustainable.

“Is it art? I think so. Just the work that those people do is a form of art. They weave their own patterns, it’s craft and design. I see the project itself more as a participatory design project. I think it is art.”


“The question is what that art can deliver to society,” says Nirav Christophe, lecturer in performative production processes at HKU. “And it’s not about art products or very little. It’s about the process, it lasts longer than the result.” Students work ‘interdisciplinary’ together, with people from the healthcare system, from other universities or with potential users – whoever, according to the artist, is relevant to what he is doing.

HKU focuses on three areas: ‘care and well-being’, ‘ecology, circularity and sustainability’ and ‘identity and inclusion’. Christophe: “Our students have more and more work in healthcare and other areas. There they are asked about their way of working, not because they can make a beautiful painting.”

Yosser Dekker: “The traditional art education is about; who are you as a creator. Then you are first dragged through the carousel for three and a half years with all the associated problems, and in the last six months you are allowed to show what you have learned. All of this brings people into the workforce who think it’s about them, which of course it isn’t. What I’ve learned here is: it’s not about me.”

But Dekker is also an artist, he says. “The artist has abilities, and one of them is the use of uncertainty as a means to achieve something great. The artist’s eye also sees connections that others do not. An artist can use the power of imagination on all sorts of different levels.” He also sees it as a problem with how art is defined. “Art is process and product. But in a museum or on stage it is a product. And that’s where all the money goes.”

Lecturer Christophe: “You design something that for me is the core of art; meaningful meetings and experiences.” At the same time, it is also an additional responsibility for HKU, he acknowledges. “If you have broken down the walls between disciplines; how do you train people You can say no more; you are a musician and have to play your violin ten hours a day and you are done.”

For the time being, it appears from Dekker’s and De Vaal’s careers that there is, in any case, a demand for the concrete form of art they practise. Dekker manages his Bureau Ruimtekoers in Arnhem with twelve employees. “We try to involve people themselves in social issues, and not to have them solved by clever people from outside, but together. Solutions therefore become more sustainable because they are linked to the target groups you work for.”

De Vaal works at Ink, a social design agency in Amsterdam that focuses on tackling social and societal issues through design and art. For example, De Vaal is now working together with UMC on a project on intake processes for people with mental vulnerability. He has also started a project for elderly people who have been diagnosed with autism at a later age. “Science is focused on: is it measurable and reproducible. Other aspects such as emotions and imagination are not taken into account. Artists are much better at that. And the researchers now see in these projects that the symbiosis between the two methods leads to innovation.”

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