A lot of the times when I go on a residency, wherever I am becomes my home for a little while. I fall in love with the place and there’s a tiny bit in the back of my mind that says I want to stay. Eventually I always move on again to the next place, but I do know many other artists who come back over and over again to the same place or the same residency, it’s like they’ve found a second home or a place they feel they belong. A place that inspires them again and again.
When I visited Lino from the guest studio of Plantagedok, she told me many of the foreign artists who stay at Plantagedok as guest artists end up falling in love with Amsterdam and want to stay, and many of them do end up staying in the city. As an example, she mentioned Zsolt and Eszter, a young couple from Hungary who came to Amsterdam a few years ago as guest artists and didn’t want to leave. She explained they couldn’t find a permanent place so they just travelled from residency to residency, like nomads within their own city. As Lino showed me around the building, we ran into them as they were building an installation! Of course, by now I was really curious about them, their work and how they ended up here.
A week later we met again in Amsterdam and had a great chat about all those topics. I hope you enjoy it. The pictures in this interview were provided by Zsolt, and if you want to see more of their work, check out Zsolt’s website!
To start with, can you tell a bit about yourselves, your background and how you ended up in Amsterdam?
Eszter: I can start?
Zsolt: Yes, you are better at storytelling.
Eszter: Haha, yes..I can say I’m a storyteller because I’m a screenwriter. My background is mostly in film and whenever we’re not collaborating, with ourselves or other artists, my own field is film. As you might imagine, writing a film is a really long process so you sometimes just feel the urge to create something with more imminent results, something where you just put it there and you see the reaction of the audience right away. So we decided to go more the direction of video art or installation art, which is also just easier in this country. It’s more of a practical approach, but also comes from an urge to just have something that doesn’t take four years!
So, I studied film and before that I studied media studies, which is more of a theoretical approach as well as the practical approach of journalism. What I find most helpful for my artistic practice is this theoretical approach, I would’ve never guessed that would be what I would use most to grow from, but yeah, it all kind of interlinks in my art practice. Now, it’s your turn!
Zsolt: Yes, my turn..my background is also media studies, so we met in university when we studied media. This is basically journalism, but also for television, not just printed journalism but many kinds. I also studied film theory, so I have more of a theoretical background. What I really like is editing films, I learned a little bit about this in school and I really enjoy it, so..a little bit like a self made editor. I also really like to create concepts, so even if I can not create it myself I like to create a concept and find other people to help to put it together. When we decided to have a residency in the Netherlands, it was..from my point of view, it was really like getting some fresh air from the Hungarian social and political scene which is getting a bit constricting, a bit provincial..I don’t know, backwards I suppose.
I just started to search for residencies online, I had the plan to stay a bit longer after the residency so I had to consider that when choosing which country to go to. For me, I would be necessary to be able to communicate in English, and I had already studied in the Netherlands before and worked in Amsterdam for a half year, I had some friends and connections here already. So, I checked the Dutch opportunities and we just applied to the Plantagedok and OT301. We went to Plantagedok, and it was amazing. Just as we were about to finish there, the other residency called us and asked if we would like to come so we were able to go to this place as a continuation. I think we were very lucky about this.
Eszter: I think about it like..there’s one push and one pull. It’s one thing if you don’t really feel at ease in your current setting and you have this urge to go somewhere, but then where to go? Just to go somewhere and leave everything behind in an intellectual sense and just work abroad, I don’t know..it wouldn’t have been enough. An artist residency was the perfect middle ground because you’re already in some setting but it’s also new.
So was the residency at Plantagedok the first one you’ve done?
Eszter: Yes, OT301 was the second and the one in Weesp is our third. The place we got most attached to, that’s no secret, it’s really Plantagedok. We really felt at home there. The OT301 , there it’s specifically the gallery and a couple of people there we really loved but at Plantagedok we felt like we belonged.
Zsolt: You really need to be openminded when you go to a place like this because you don’t really know what you’re going to get. You just apply, there are some photo’s online but you don’t really know, everything is a surprise. So you have to be really openminded, but if you do this step forward, people will help you out if you are open to it. I say that also to myself because for me it was a little bit difficult to be more open, it can be a challenge but also a big plus.
Eszter: It’s also a personal journey, you feel a bit like the new kid in the class, it’s always going to be a little weird, no matter how open or extraverted you are.
You’re doing it together though, I think this is the first time I’ve met an artist couple going on residencies. What’s that like?
Zsolt: Yes..this is another thing.
Eszter: Another challenge, haha! Truth be told, he was the more anxious to leave Budapest behind but we decided to come together.
Zsolt: Yes..artistically, but also socially I really needed to come out from that place. So, I started to think about what to do, and sure you can go somewhere else and just get a job, work at a cafe or something, but then you’d be in a vacuum, without any kind of community. So that is why we were like, okay, what we can do is either go to a residency or to a university to study. It’s harder to go to university just like that.
Eszter: Also, I already have two MA degrees, how many degrees do I need? It worked out for us to try to integrate in a micro community, like the art scene. If you try to soak up an entire new culture it’s always going to be a very superficial experience, but if you have a community you can go a bit deeper, have more meaningful connections and experiences.
What is it about Amsterdam that makes you want to stay?
Eszter: We really fell in love with the city. I think what we really like is this openness of society, the level of tolerance..I know there’s a lot of criticism about that from our Dutch friends, that it’s not like it used to be, but coming from a different setting like we do it’s really refreshing. Things that people take for granted here are things that would be very strange to talk about in our country. This is one thing, and then also Amsterdam is the capital. Sometimes already this feels a bit small so I don’t think we can go to a smaller place in the Netherlands, I think this is the ideal middle ground. It’s a big city and an international city, but it also feels a bit like a village sometimes in the way that people seem to know each other, and in the culture scene as well. It’s just right! Also, the climate is just right! I would love to go to Sweden but I don’t know, maybe in the summer..
Zsolt: It’s strange to say we’re here because of the weather but it’s partly true! Not too hot, not too cold.
Now you’re staying in Weesp. I think Dutch people would call this the countryside.
Zslot: It is.
Is it very different from the experience in the city? Do you miss the city?
Both: *laughing* Yes, yes!
Zsolt: It’s something absolutely else, it’s another world, even though it’s very close to Amsterdam. A few minutes by train, but still if you are there..of course it’s a personal thing also, a personality thing. If you are super outgoing, hiking, biking, then it’s okay. If you’re more like..you like to close yourself inside and you really need to push yourself to be involved, then it’s more difficult.
Eszter: I think the setting is a bit different. In the city there is a lack of space, it’s already a luxury if you can afford a couple of square meters, and in Weesp there is a huuuge space, everyone has their own little house basically. People there are really professionals who just have their studios there, it’s more a professional workspace. It’s also the winter experience, everyone is a bit in their own workspace and doing what they do and it takes more effort to go out of that bubble and interact. I think if someone’s really interested in the retreat experience, away from the city and maybe in the summer, then it would be a really good space.
Also I think it’s the type of art you’re doing, the people working there are really..they work with metal, wood, textile, they’re very hands on, they make tangible work. Maybe it comes with a more grounded personality. I think what we do, we don’t really require a workspace, it’s nice and practical to have the space when you’re shooting but the most of the work we do is on our laptops, it’s very much digital. We don’t really need the space. When we had a presentation there about our plans, they were really open but there wasn’t really a connection to someone working in the same field and that’s probably easier to find in the city.
Do you feel like your time here has influenced the work you make?
Both: Yes, definitely.
Zsolt: What we are making here together, those things are almost connected to Amsterdam and almost always site specific. We could make it somewhere else but it would be different, we could make it in Barcelona but then it would be about Barcelona.
Eszter: Or maybe then that would be about Barcelona filtered through us, not just the content but also the form and everything would be different because it’s a dialogue between us and the place where we are.
Zsolt: Also the society and the culture here is much more open for conceptual art from someone who is not a fine artist. I’m not a fine artist, I don’t have fine art degree, but if I go..for example we went to the AFK for some support for a project and they never even asked if I had a degree in fine art or told me why am I thinking about these fine art things. I just have an idea and if they think it’s good, then there is much more openness here than in Hungary. There, if you are not from the fine art background then I think it’s very difficult.
Eszter: It’s more like, you have to stay in your own box.
Do you feel this kind of lifestyle you’re doing now, going from place to place, is that something you like or is inspiring your work or do you feel like you’d like something stable at some point?
Eszter: *laughs* ah yes you’ve hit a nerve there..
Zsolt: It can be very stressful, especially as a couple because you need to deal with the relationship and with all of this, together. It can be stressful, but you have to be very focused on what you want and what is the goal, and you have to be very lucky *laughs*
Eszter: I’m the kind of person who really needs deadlines. I hate deadlines, I’m always ready on the last minute, but I’m always ready. So in that way, this kind of framework is good for the mind. On the other hand if you want to stay, as we do, it’s really hard and you have to find a balance between settling a little bit but not having a settled lifestyle. A year here, a year there, that would be perfect-a year is a very long time for us. The only tie we have is the one to each other, that keeps us in balance too.
You always have someone to tell you when you’re being crazy!
Eszter: Yes, like a reality check. It’s important that it doesn’t become too overwhelming, but not too underwhelming either. When you’re somewhere for two months or so, you don’t really venture out that much, so what we’re looking for is some sort of grounding..The idea of settling to us is more like having a foothold and from there we could go out and explore.
Did you find it easy here to find places to show your work and connect to the art world?
Zsolt: As I realised, there are two kinds of art scene here. There’s the alternative scene, which is very openminded and you can find your way more easy, and there is like..an official art scene, which is not easy to break in. Of course, it’s everywhere like this. I think we’re lucky that there is this very, very rich alternative scene here, so if you are doing the Plantagedok residency you can easily show your work there, and this is a very good start to try get into the art scene, but if you would like to be very professional that is much harder. But we’ve been here only for three years so I think we need more time to do that, especially because we’re using lots of energy to move from place to place.
Eszter: I think what’s very interesting here, and it’s connected to this idea of collaboration, is how artists perceive each others work. Where we come from is, I think, the German approach, you know ‘art is the work of a genius’, it’s all this high culture;low culture kind of differentiation, which is kind of outdated, but yeah. Here everything is really levelled, I really feel like that, for example, this was really surprising to me, there’s really no difference between arts and crafts, it’s really even. I think that’s really liberating, there’s no snobbish attitude.
I think that’s interesting and I feel it’s fairly recent because I graduated about 7 years ago and back then people were still a bit unsure about the kind of textile and embroidery work I do, and now they’re really excited about it-but I still use the same materials. It’s interesting to see how different the perception of craft based art is now.
Zsolt: For us, it was almost shocking to see that, almost like you travel in time.
Eszter: The first time that is almost disorientating, because you don’t know what the setting is, how what you make is going to be perceived. I think it’s a kind of democratic approach to art, and after being here for a while I can see it and understand it better.
I noticed you speak a bit of Dutch, have you been trying to learn a bit of the language?
Zsolt: Yes, yes, we were here a bit longer so we decided okay we need to learn. Eszter is pretty good at it, I’m not so good with languages so it’s harder for me.
I think it’s cool, especially in Amsterdam where English is so common it would be very easy to just not learn it but I do feel knowing a bit of the local language helps you to connect to a place in a deeper way.
Eszter: I think that is the hardest part actually, that because..I understand many things but..(in Dutch)spreken is het moeilijkst(speaking is the hardest), and you don’t get to practice a lot because everyone switches to English! It would be nice to practice a bit more! If you really want to go in depth conversation it’s harder, it’s easier to talk about the weather haha. This is part of the experience of being a bit out of your element, you don’t want to feel like a six year old When you come to a new country you kind of are a kid again, you have to learn everything again, not just the language but also in the grocery shop and all of those things!
Do you have any tips for artists who are coming to Amsterdam, maybe things you didn’t expect that you feel; this would be good to know?
Eszter: Hmm..it also depends on what kind of art you’re in because I do think something physical has an easier entry to the Amsterdam art scene. We’ve been really connected to these former squat places and there especially it’s very welcomed if you do something with your hands. It’s not that what we do isn’t welcomed, it’s just that then you get an even bigger boost, people give you tools, it’s easier to make connections. It’s really a very good city for artists who create something physical.
Zsolt: also, if you’re not a handy man…you need to be prepared that these places are kind of do it yourself spaces.
Eszter: The whole country is a bit like that!
Zsolt: Yes! If there is a problem, of course you can ask for help, but the best is if you just try to fix it yourself, it you are able to do it, or ask your neighbour and be open. It’s nice if you can help a bit when you’re there, if you show ownership a bit, the other people will be more open if they feel you make yourself a part of the community even if you’re only there for a little while.
Eszter: Some experts say about the Netherlands as a whole, and I think that’s a good phrase about Amsterdam residents as well, it’s that here it’s not about who you are but what you contribute. I think that’s a good approach, and it goes both ways. Just because you have the best degrees from the best school in your country and you produced work there it doesn’t mean anything here, and I think that’s a good thing. You should not be expecting to be treated differently, you’re treated from your merit. It’s a practical approach from practical people. It’s about the moment and about what you can do now.
I think that’s a good insight of this place that can help people who are new to the city and to the Netherlands. So, what is the next thing for you? Back to Plantagedok?
Eszter: We’ve just been offered a bit longer stay there and we’re inclined to take it as the place is really close to our hearts, but then..we kind of have to think about longer term options as well, so we’re not sure.
Zsolt: We’re already connected to the house so much already, we’re there all the time, so we’d also like to give the opportunity to someone else.
Eszter: Plantagedok is a bit like a home to us now and we feel a kind of urge to go back to that comfortable space, so we told ourselves..okay, maybe just going back just because we feel at home might not be the right thing.
I think it’s cool that you think so much about every next step, that you stop and consider to think, is this what we want and is this going to help us go forward?
Eszter: Yeah, but we’re no saints either so if we wouldn’t have any other options we’d do it, there’s always new work to create and new experiences to be had, we don’t feel like we’ve experienced everything there is to experience at Plantagedok either. It’s more about not really reverting back, falling back on a safe option, it takes more energy to stay connected. It sounds a bit cheesy but it’s also a bit out of the respect for the place, it might be better to give someone else the opportunity to stay there and create new work now.
Thank you for the interview, Zsolt and Eszter, it very interesting to talk to you both and to hear about your journeys so far! I’m very curious where you’ll end up next, but I’m pretty sure it’s going to be in Amsterdam!
If you want to see more of their work, check out the website.
If you want to read more about the Plantagedok guest studio, check out the interview with Lino and the interview with Maria de Brea, who is the current guest artist there. The residencies mentioned in this interview are Kanaal 10 at Plantagedok, OT301 and Het Domijn.