Would you ever have imagined that a land surveyor’s tool could be linked to the emotion of powerlessness? That an undocumented – some say illegal – resident of Amsterdam felt that way upon seeing the piece of equipment on the street, was only one of the surprises of a digital mapping project designed by Naomi Bueno de Mesquita. The gauging rod reminded the man of his desire to work and his need for money.
To see the city through the eyes of undocumented citizens was the intention of the mapping project by Israeli-born designer Bueno de Mesquita. Designers and refugees were coupled to walk the city together. They were equipped with a tracking device to follow their route on a map. They were also asked to take pictures of places or objects that could be linked to certain emotions.

Last Tuesday Bueno de Mesquita presented the outcome of the project during an evening in Amsterdam called State of Shelter and presented by Platform-Scenography and What Design Can Do. Reactions from some designers who participated were crystal clear: the walks had helped them to really feel what it means to be an unwanted person. More on this project can be found on performativemapping.net.


The question at hand this evening was what designers of different disciplines can do to answer the immense issues raised by the ever-increasing numbers of refugees spreading all over the world. Graphic designer Herman van Bostelen illustrated the absurdity of borders by telling the story of the Lenné-Dreieck in Berlin. This East German enclave in West Berlin was squatted for a while until the squatters, West Berliners, were forced to flee over the Berlin Wall, for once, from West to East.

Theatre-maker Sigrid Merx (Platform-Scenography) noted that we need to take time to see and experience things, referring to Bueno de Mesquita’s project as an example. And when we see things more clearly, it might be that we would not want to oppose shelter seekers, but would decide to start designing shelter with Dutch Design quality.

Refugee Republic

Artist Jan Rothuizen, inventor of his soft atlases, presented the Refugee Republic project, for which he travelled to a refugee camp together with a photographer and a radio maker. The interactive result leads the website visitor through the artist’s reflections on the camp. Rothuizen was especially moved by a remark from one teacher in the camp, who told him that he could never have imagined himself in the situation he was in now. ‘That’s our feeling too,’ he said.

When Rothuizen finally questioned whether artists could actually make a difference on this issue, artist Michiel Voet (The Invisible Man) in the audience reacted quite determinedly. ‘It is not a matter of what you can do as an artist, but as a person. Give shelter to a refugee, or help him in another way. Any artistic project, like my own, mainly benefits the artist.’

This remark prompted political science student Kiza Magendan to put forward his idea, which he recently suggested in de Volkskrant newspaper, that people should be able to adopt an asylum seeker.


Following this, product designer Willem van der Sluis showed that designers can indeed make a difference, if not in solving the refugee problem itself, then at least in slightly improving the miserable lives of imprisoned refugees. His Sportdomes brought at least some quality to the recreation courts of the refugee-prisons.

Finally writer Simone van Saarloos read some of her columns for NRC Next, stressing the importance of physical contact in really understanding each other.