POWER OF WHO! at MaMA, Rotterdam

From the window of MaMA at Witte de Withstraat is visible what seems to be a hand-crafted house construction with a roof made of banners by real estate agencies and big black letters painted all over the gallery’s white walls. These elements predispose the viewer to what they are about to experience during the exhibition ‘POWER OF WHO!’ curated by Sebastiaan Hoogstraten.

I find out later on that the walls are painted by Guido de Boer to enhance the feeling of protest that dominates the gallery and that the house construction, created by the people of MaMA under the guidance of Hoogstraten, was inspired by the Protest House that was at the Woonopstand demonstration. It is also interesting that black markers can be found attached to the house which the viewers can use to express themselves by writing on its walls.

You notice a few screens located around the space when entering the gallery, starting from the entrance hall. In front of each screen, you find a keyboard, a mouse, and a pair of headphones. A video game is on the screen and you immediately realize that you are expected to play!

You have two defined groups, the demonstrators and the police on your screen. After reading the instructions, as I am not very familiar with video games, and after playing for a few minutes I find myself obsessed with trying to protect my protestors or move them to attack positions to win as if I was actually in the demonstration myself.

When I gave up playing, I decided to ask for more information and I was lucky enough to meet the curator of the exhibition, Sebastiaan Hoogstraten.

Hoogstraten explained to me that this strategy game, named RIOT, was initially developed by Leonard Menchiari based on his experience in a demonstration in Italy. Hoogstraten, joined by Anna Sandri created a new ‘Residential Revolt’ level in RIOT that simulates the Woonopstand demonstration that took place in Rotterdam on 17 October 2021. The demonstration was about the right to affordable housing and the state policies on the matter. To develop this level, Hoogstraten did extensive research and tried to contact both parties who took part in the demonstration to add a more nuanced aspect to the game. Sandri, who is a pixel artist, created the content, and finally, Hoogstraten brought it all together.

As Hoogstraten mentioned, they modded textures into the game to make it more identifiable with the Dutch reality.  For this level, they had to decide which assets were going to be available to the player based on the items used during the actual demonstration to make it as realistic as possible.

Hoogstraten, who has an arthouse game background, wants people to see that video games can be an art form through which people are becoming more socially engaged. His main goal with this current game is to open a conversation about the two sides, the demonstrators and the police, and what is going on, while giving the chance to the viewers to explore the different points of view and actively participate.

In my view, Hoogstraten has largely succeeded in his goal with his current exhibition. It is refreshing seeing video games in another context. A medium not highly appreciated by the art world and very much misunderstood. For me, video games involve a lot of artistry as it is, infused with underlying meanings and messages they rightfully receive a place within the contemporary gallery.

Before exiting the gallery do not miss the newspaper that Hoogstraten created with original content from articles and statements during and after the demonstrations. It definitely adds to the experience.   Gresa Mechili     2rd April 2022


The exhibition continues until 26th June

Curated by Sebastiaan Hoogstraten

Participating artists: Anna Sandri, Guido de Boer

With contributions from: Actiecoalitie Woonopstand, Leonard Menchiari

Poster image: Anna Sandri