Petra Laaper, Photo: Marwan Magroun

Behind the scenes: I like to think with my hands

In conversation with Petra Laaper

Many artists with good research plans know where to find her, because Petra Laaper monitors the R&D funding scheme of Art Office, in which development and research are central. She is also one of the driving forces behind the website, the platform for visual artists in Rotterdam. It also shows her own work, because Laaper is not only a coordinator, but also an artist. A conversation with an inspired, versatile woman. 'The creative process is at least as important as the result.'

Text: Annemiek van Grondel

From a typographic point of view, you could visualize R&D as a pair of eyes with a concentration round in between that surveys organizational and administrative tasks. Okay, with a little imagination. But also as a calmly seated figure, brooding between two deep sources full of inventive ideas. Voilà, Petra Laaper (1968) in a nutshell.

Within the Art Office of CBK Rotterdam, Laaper is mainly concerned with the coordination of the R&D (development and research) financing scheme. She provides information, supervises application rounds and maintains contact with artists about their application and its completion. You can also ask her anything about the website, the platform for visual artists in Rotterdam. The site lists numerous works in the Art Office database and provides a good overview of the diversity of artist practices in the city. In addition, the site contains information about all kinds of existing schemes for artists, who also have and maintain their own portfolio pages. 'Rotterdam was once one of the first CBKs with such a database', Petra Laaper says proudly. "Besides, it was recently restyled."

The website is divided into two parts: one for and one by artists, which includes information about funding, registration forms, calls from artists and agencies and an agenda with exhibitions and manifestations, plus all other activities of the artistic community in Rotterdam. . Since 2013, Laaper has worked twenty hours a week at the 'art office'. The rest of the time is devoted to her practice as a visual artist.

Young dog in the city

In the early XNUMXs she moved with her parents from Utrecht to the port city as a toddler. Her father worked as a manager of the university's sports building. For a long time the family lived in Oud-Mathenesse, between Schiedam and the White Village. 'I was able to play wonderfully,' says Laaper, who has seen the city gradually change over the decades. 'Rotterdam used to be a rugged port city with many “non-places”: forgotten, open spaces where you could shoot a cannon. I liked the urban atmosphere. There was an immediate no-bullshit mentality. I only realized this when I visited other cities, such as Den Bosch. There it was all a bit more relaxed. Rotterdam was very lively due to the mixed composition of residents. Later I noticed that I was also shielding myself from the harsh street life. '

She attended City College, a relatively small school, and as a young dog she regularly visited the center to get a taste of the nightlife in and around the Kruiskade and Middellandstraat. Dizzy was her second living room and she went out to the Tudorbar, Parkzicht and Full Moon. Beatcorner was at the bottom of the league when really nothing was open anymore. 'A lot has changed in the city', says Laaper. 'The city has been cleaned up and it has become busier and more touristy. It is no longer a port or workers' city. Many places that are important to me no longer exist. '

After high school, art school beckoned. "I was tired of just using my head and learning things," says Laaper. 'I lacked creativity and imagination. Becoming a visual artist never crossed my mind. Interior architecture appealed to me: designing spaces within a given context, determining the atmosphere in which people can feel at home. '

Because Laaper has been a maker from an early age. 'At home there was plenty of room for creativity,' she says. 'As a child I was always drawing or building. Already at dawn you could find me behind a sheet of drawing paper. My dad was always busy with his super 8 camera. He constantly filmed me and my younger sister, who has also become a visual artist. Those recordings were of good quality, with experimental and long shots. ' She received the attention to look, to observe, from him, but certainly also from her mother, who in the XNUMXs quickly broke free from the Dutch petty bourgeois climate of the decades before.

Don't delay, do it

Laaper was also stimulated in her creative and personal development at the Montessori school. After secondary school, she followed the broad-based basic year of interior architecture at the Utrecht School of the Arts, a practical training that introduced her to the first Photoshop programs and taught that she, as an artist, is capable of shaping everything. She then switched to the audiovisual direction, but after six months, doubts arose. Laaper: 'What am I doing here? I suddenly thought. I want to experiment! I missed the diversity and liveliness, but especially the space. And instinctively I knew: Rotterdam is about to change as a cultural city. You could feel it in everything: there were various movements in art, architecture, urban design and film. There was plenty of construction around the CS, the NAi and museum park, galleries in the Witte de Withstraat, the film festival, the Unie and Boulevard of Broken Dreams… In short: the city was bustling. '

So she returned to her beloved city, just too late to enroll in the Willem de Kooning Academy. She devoted herself to studying philosophy at Erasmus and was eventually admitted to the art academy after following the evening course. Initially, Laaper opted for monumental and sculpting, only to switch definitively a little later to sculpting and drawing, which was the most liberal direction at the time. In 1993 she graduated and thirteen years later she was able to go to the academy for the first time as a guest lecturer, something with which she continued for almost a year in 2013.

Don't always be so aware of yourself and what others might think of it

As a teacher, she finds it especially important that you discover by doing and not think too much in advance. 'When I last gave an introductory course there, I was shocked that the current artists-to-be can spend a whole evening inventing what they want to make, because they are endlessly concerned about the many choices that there are. I urged them to do something, no matter what. You can also think with your hands. Don't always be so aware of yourself and what others might think of it. '

She does not dare to say whether artists previously had a more socially critical attitude. 'That goes in waves. I remember how I thought about the generation of artists before me: I thought they were gray, not very lively and very private. Lots of men too. That didn't make me happy. At that time, the adage applied at the academy: you are an artist, and he must be autonomous. In the eighties individualism, independence, the DIY attitude prevailed. Meanwhile, the tide has turned. There is openness and dynamism; the younger generation seeks more connection with society. Artists have to keep up their own pants in a makeable society. In the past, applying for a subsidy was not a dirty word, now I notice that the younger generation often needs to be made aware of the possibilities of financial support. '

Wave movements

A friend worked at the predecessor of Art Office, DocInfo (Documentation and Information), who hired her as a part-time employee. Laaper was then about thirty years old and the mother of a son. Five years later she also had a daughter. "I became a mother quite young," she says. 'At first I declined the offer, afraid that my artistic practice would be jeopardized. I got a residency offered at the European Ceramic Work Center in Den Bosch. That was a monastery and clay paradise in one, very well equipped, with various disciplines and a lot of expertise, where I could experiment in clay as a professional layman and develop my own visual language. I knew nothing about ceramics, but was welcomed with open arms. In a few months I learned everything about materials and techniques. '

Once back in Rotterdam, she showed her work at the Room and Galerie Ron Mandos exhibition space, but also came across reality. The full attention and concentration that she could have given to her work in Den Bosch was more difficult to combine with her young family. Small children and full-time art making are difficult to mix. Laaper: 'My concentration was very low. Besides, my husband and I split up in 2004. '

Two years later she still started at DocInfo. She worked there with three colleagues and also raised the children. In 2013 CBK Rotterdam moved to another location. After the reorganization, two people retired and a third did not return. Laaper got an extra four hours, but had to work twice as hard to make up for the loss of the two colleagues. However, she does not complain: her work is far too interesting. And her knowledge of the artist world is extensive. Laaper: 'In the eighties, artists started to organize, as in Duende, and squatted a school building to live and work in. The squatters' movement also resulted in Kunst & Complex, in the port area, and Het Wilde Weten. In the Havenstraat there was an anonymous artist group and there was even a nomadic artistic movement, united in the Kaus Australis foundation, which unfortunately had to give up their joint accommodation in 2020 after 35 years. '

There is now less room for experimentation, because artists often cannot afford to take the time to try things out

Not much is left of the squatters scene. But new autonomous initiatives have emerged that enable artists, whether or not in anti-squats, to make their work. Laaper finds it interesting that young people nowadays want to tackle more assignments without thinking twice, but also wonders to what extent they dare to claim their place and take the space to be non-productive. "It's a devil's dilemma," she admits. 'Are you purely autonomous or do you enter into partnerships with clients, with the risk of losing your critical eye? There is now less room for experimentation, because artists often cannot afford to take the time to try things out. You can also see this trend in education: sitting twice is the end of the exercise. '

Original research concepts

Because artists can qualify for a subsidy thanks to the R&D funding scheme, space is created for experimentation in artistic research. Laaper is happy to give examples of the diverse original concepts on the basis of which artists approach Art Office. 'Lucie Havel researched the Japanese Knotweed, an invasively exotic plant that is a nightmare for Rijkswaterstaat due to its aggressive proliferation,' she says. Why fight this plant and not embrace it, Lucie wondered. Under the motto How I fell in love with the enemy she transformed the Knotweed into a colorant, as a basic material for dyeing. Instead of researching how to eradicate the plant, she came up with an alternative that could make it useful. '

Also a financing application for the project Who am I becoming? from Natalia Papaeva from Siberia was honored. Together with five other Rotterdam, non-Dutch artists, she investigates the themes of immigration and identity, linked to the old Japanese Kintsugi philosophy, in performances, among other things. Laaper also mentions research projects by Johannes Langkamp, ​​who originally hails from Germany, who literally makes research processes visible in his videos by means of self-built machines and kinetic models as optical instruments and who studies the role of chance.

She says that about 1600 artists are registered with CBK Rotterdam. With diverse professional practices: from drawing, painting, sculpture, videos, performances and land art to artistic archive research. Laaper: 'Or think of a social practice: people who develop something for their city district. We even see communication within art as a theme and method. '

Within the Art Office she compiled two publications about the R&D scheme. The first was published as a result of the awards between 2010 and 2013. 'If you compare the applications over those years, you see lines emerge and certain interests and themes recur,' says Laaper. She sums up: 'Landscape, biology, internet, politics, economics, cultural identity, stereotypes, individuality, communication, visual culture, systems, storytelling techniques and the city itself. The various R&D projects have been included in the book on the basis of these focus areas. '

artists seek to connect with the world around them, want to understand it and provide it with different perspectives

The second publication, covering the years 2014 to 2017, focuses more on the role the artist plays. Laaper: 'In this, he is more in the foreground as a person and professional practice, in the form of campaigner, historian, technologist, translator, newsreader, image generator or connector. It shows a multitude of different artistic practices: artists seek to connect with the world around them, want to understand it and provide it with different perspectives. '


The R&D scheme in Rotterdam is unparalleled in the Netherlands. Artists can apply for a maximum of ten thousand euros for projects ranging from three months to a year. Laaper: 'It is a kind of playground to give the artist an impulse: he or she is given leeway to experiment, to research. Failure is allowed. Every year we receive between 150 and 170 applications, of which about XNUMX to XNUMX are awarded funding. A separate committee of five people from different fields, including visual artists, curators, professionals, assesses the applications. As a guideline: is there an impulse for that artist? The application must be realistic and relevant. The artist formulates this from the urgency of his or her autonomous professional practice. '

Art Office is an artist's hub: a source of information, service hatch and source of inspiration in one

For example, as a 'running artist', Jeroen Jongeleen wanted to make 'temporary tracks' for a month during last year's lockdown, as a metaphor for the mental attrition caused by the corona crisis. He walked in lines and circles, including on the beach and in deserted places in the city, and had this recorded by a drone. The result, entitled Running Circles / Movement And Politics In The Streets Of My City, was exhibited in a film installation at AVL Mundo by Joep van Lieshout.

'An artist once gave her money back partly because she got stuck and couldn't work out the concept at the time,' says Laaper. 'Because afterwards we will ask for a report. Then it turned out that her concept reappeared years later, this time in a glass sculpture. Afterwards she was therefore happy to have applied for that support. '

Art Office is an artist's hub: a source of information, service hatch and source of inspiration in one. Laaper nods. 'Artists formulate their own question, with a deadline for the report in sight. We help them when they are in danger of getting stuck. Certainly because of corona, many people have requested a postponement. But sometimes that research also gives an unexpected impulse in practice. '

Layered clarity

From 2008, Laaper returned to making artistic work. She mentions the commission for a memorial monument at the Roman Catholic St. Laurentius cemetery in Crooswijk, for the children's yard that was redesigned in collaboration with landscape architect Ada Wille. 'The monument was intended for children who never received a tombstone,' she says. In the past they were buried in “unconsecrated earth”. That touched me. I am the oldest child of my parents on paper, but in reality the fourth. Before me, three more were stillborn. I think it is great that in this courtyard, the gathering place for children who were never commemorated with a tombstone after their life, I have now been able to pay them the last respect. She made an object measuring three by four meters in the shape of a heart, made up of various ceramic surfaces, bearing bronze letters with the names of all the children. Her artwork is surrounded on both sides by a hedge. The courtyard had to become a nice place where you can let your thoughts run free. That is why Laaper also provided a round, circling 'carousel bench', inspired by a revolving playground equipment from the XNUMXs and XNUMXs.

Compare it with Rotterdam: hard and direct, but a lot of open space, in which various stories take place

In her studio in a former school building in Rotterdam-Noord, associative textile sculptures and installations are created in a clear visual language, with attention to traditional making, modeling and cutting techniques. From time to time she focuses on stop motion film and photography. Her designs arise from a shape or a color, often organically. "I like when images have a direct relationship with someone who looks at them," she says. 'That they touch, stand on their own and refer to themselves. Movable work without a fixed form that refers to the human body. ' Like the textile sculpture Double: two pillows that are connected by a kind of 'umbilical cord'. It is one shape contained in two shapes that touch and repel each other - soft and hard. Laaper: 'Is it object or subject? The result is abstract and concrete in one. I find that exchange interesting. I like clarity, but the work still needs to breathe. Compare it with Rotterdam: hard and direct, but a lot of open space, in which various stories take place. You can view it from a distance. The wonder, the viewing, is central. '

The busy activities at CBK Rotterdam took their toll when Laaper was in danger of becoming overworked in 2019. An unexpected invitation for a residency of a month, in Hungary, of course, offered a solution. 'I started working with previously made patterns and local fabrics in the tiny village of Pécsbagota,' she says. 'For example, you could see a golden fleece there fluttering on a clothesline.' The 'creative charging' in Hungary resulted in the solo exhibition Golden Light Green at Contour Gallery in Rotterdam.

Laaper also generously accommodates others. For example, she offered a student at TU Delft an internship. "I enjoy interacting with the younger generation," she explains. 'And I also learn from them. They seem to be able to argue everything well, but it is also important for them to develop skills. And I would like to teach them those skills. '


Publication date: 06 / 05 / 2021