Boezelaars’ Compass is a collection of short films and images that represent various moments of the Potato Riots. The images have been collected in a digital map. This application functions as a topographical archive between fact and fiction, in which movements and events that happened during the Potato Riots have been literally mapped. The compass gets its name from the ‘boezelaar’, a long, white apron that was commonly worn by women in the Netherlands in the past to protect their clothing. The boezelaar had a central role in the origin of the riots, when famished women discovered a load of potatoes in a ship’s cargo hold, and emptied the ship in no time by carrying the potatoes in their aprons.
Film and Photography
On the map, photos and film clips can be watched; some are archive footage, others are re-enacted situations from the Potato Riots. The films can be watched by navigating to the location on the map where a specific event took place. The images are esthetical interpretations of witness testimonies or symbolic visual translations of how things may have happened in 1917.
The scenes have been matched with video and audio fragments from various archives.
The Boezelaars’ Compass bridged the modern-day city and its past, offering a tangible experience of history. The map offers a new (filmic) way of storytelling, that improves personal connection through orientation. It provides an answer to the question: how do I relate to these events in time and space? The Boezelaars’ Compass allows its users to look at existing places in the city, that they might bike past on a daily basis, or where perhaps they live, or work, in a different way.
The experience can be enhanced further by adding a small installation at physical locations, by placing a QR-code on site, which leads passers-by to the digital compass, or invites them to watch a film clip or historical photo at the place where it was taken, in augmented reality. A prototype of this QR-code is currently under construction.
Fact and fiction
During my research into the Potato Riots, I found some contradicting information. This is partially because a large part of the historical information comes from official documents from the police and the mayor, whereas witness testimonials form another source. Moreover, it is not always possible to tell fiction from fact. The story about Griet Manshande is an example. Griet supposedly was one of the nine people that died on 5 July 1917. Novelist Jan Mens penned down her last words in the final volume of the book series he wrote about her life, but it is difficult to uncover whether her involvement in the Potato Riots is fictional or fact (the novel is also quoted in scientific works). The same goes, to a lesser extent, for the biography of a former policeman, De Commisaris Vertelt (‘The Commissioner Narrates’), in which the former cop explains why he gave the order to fire at the crowd that particular 5th of July.
We live in a time where fiction is sometimes preferred over reality as a (moral) truth. A time, also, with a lot of performative speech acts: speech acts whose objective it is to achieve change in the world, by presenting that same world as if it has already changed.
In order for a performative speech act to be effective, the person performing the speech act formerly needed to be acknowledged as representative of a legitimate institution (a civil registrar or reverend, for example, using the sentence, “I hereby declare you husband and wife.”). This prerequisite no longer seems set in stone; in any case, a grey area seems to have formed around the question who is allowed to shape reality (and which reality). The omnipresence of fake news - and the debate surrounding it - is a prime example of this.
Apart from the negative effects, like the circulation of fake news, this grey area also has a positive result: it has created space in the public debate for minorities to express their views on reality (“The right to vote is worthless when our bellies are empty.”)
Because many of the women’s actions lack documentation from direct sources, parts of the story are missing. In these cases, fiction can act as the missing link. When information is provided in a lively, approachable manner, it spurs the imagination, just as mythifying a hero does.
The women that protested during the Potato Riots, stood up for themselves, their families, and their communities. They fought from the bottom for concrete objectives. While they were starving, the Dutch government continued its potato exports. Dutch diplomatic actions have always received a lot of attention, whereas the influence of the war on the common Dutch civilians has remained underexposed. The Boezelaars’ Compass maintains its focus on common people.