The Generational Thinkers: Marjolijn van Heemstra

Every month, design agency Verveeld � Verward interviews a leading, future ancestor from the design field about generational thinking. Dorine Baars and Jonas Martens jump into the depths of their inspirations about substantive work, legacy and cross-generational design. This time they get to visit Marjolijn van Heemstra, theatre maker, writer, poet, journalist and podcast creator.

Type Update
Published on 19 February 2024
The Generational Thinkers: Marjolijn van Heemstra
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The conversation starts with ‘How much time do you have?’ She has an hour and a half. She will then cycle back to her workplace around the corner from the café where we meet, in Amsterdam-Noord. Marjolijn van Heemstra’s life is busy. And yet modern times – and by that I mean the ticking in the background of all our activities – is exactly what’s such a frustration for her. “In the past, everyone had their own time, a watch that was behind schedule, the rooster in the yard… Capitalism has claimed time, set the clock the same everywhere and organised our society.”

Despite these strict times, what Marjolijn commits to seems of endless importance. And actually endless because it is a lot, a lot. Where does she find the time? She is a theatre maker, writer, poet, journalist and podcast maker. But also the initiator of the new Amsterdam Dark Festival, intended to improve our image of darkness. And, nowadays, also – hot off the press – lead in the TV series Border Cases (Grensgevallen), an investigation into our culturally determined borders. In her work, she investigates, in an accessible but also nuanced activist way, how we can think differently about ourselves and the world.

Generational thinking is different for everyone

Generational thinking, or long-term thinking, means something different for everyone. Marjolijn: “All kinds of things trickle down to subsequent generations, whether they are my ideas or right-wing ideology and fascism. In addition, not everyone wants to deal with the realisation that poverty has existed and will continue to exist in their family for many generations. Exclusion. Trauma.” There must be some kind of sensitivity to this side of the story if this conversation about long-term thinking is to be had on a grand scale, says Marjolijn. It could therefore well be seen as a privilege that we are even talking about the distant future with each other. We are here without generation-transcending trauma or prominent worries. On the contrary, a Dutch family, especially one with an established name, has been able to skip steps that they often do not even take note of. “It is a privilege if you can keep yourself out of the equation. If the world’s problems are less upsetting to you” says Van Heemstra. Therein lies the responsibility to include a different perspective in your worldview and learn from it, and perhaps also contribute to the fate of someone else from your position. Marjolijn realises this better than anyone and sees the research into her role as an important part of her life and work. For example, she has committed herself to Zohre, an Afghan refugee who is not sure of her place in the Netherlands and whose brother is still not allowed to enter the country. Together, they investigated how refugees can find a place in our society. They developed a theatre show and a report with learnings and recommendations that were presented to the councillor in The Hague. “This has changed my entire perspective, my assumptions and the idea I had about boundaries. And yes, this is how that also provides a new perspective on the long term. To achieve sustainable solutions, we must commit to other people and places for a longer period of time, it is not a matter of in-and-out.”

‘The difficult thing about long-term thinking is that it does not easily feel rooted.’

In-and-out vs. interweaving

We see this in-and-out happening in many areas. Just as well-intentioned efforts are often made to increase connections in problem neighbourhoods, but no lasting results remain after the implementation of an event or project. Marjolijn argues that projects need a consistent commitment in order to lead to well-intentioned transitions. “The difficult thing about long-term thinking is that it does not easily feel rooted. That connected neighbourhood in the long term can only mean something if it is anchored in the here and now.” She cites the example of a theatre group that is already growing the set material for their very last performance on a purchased piece of land. The strength of this is that it also becomes visible and physical, that it is not just thoughts or a quick intervention.

The lost zoom

What Marjolijn mainly focuses on today and in the coming years is the darkness and all the values hidden within it. This started with a fascination with space and the perspective from space on our fragile planet. To then focus on the perspective from here to space, which is nowadays largely hampered by increasing light pollution. And so she started looking for more darkness. She takes people with her on specially developed night walks. Over the years, there has been less and less talking during these walks, she also encourages it to be a group of strangers. Surrounded by the loud clinking of glasses and flaring conversations in the café, Van Heemstra explains what exactly the darkness, silence and discomfort can unleash. And that is not only a sharpening of the senses, where your vision has to adapt, your hearing discovers new depths and your feeling for the next step is tested, but also a reminder of a collective memory. Or rather, a collective amnesia. Darkness was not always this far away from us. Before we felt that lights had to be installed everywhere ‘for safety’, darkness was a place where we learned to deal with our fears, where we came to dream, struggle, contemplate and reflect. There is a lot to discover in the darkness. The deep universe is many times more visible from a dark field than from our densely populated cities of light. And if you look down you will discover that fireflies still exist, if you look closely. If we were to see ourselves more often as part of the bigger picture, it would offer a perspective that our current generation has often forgotten. Zoom in and zoom out. The ultimate here and now. “I think future thinking is only complete when it is combined with that ultimate here and now,” says Marjolijn.

This is underlined by her vision on developments in space travel. In other words, the completely zoomed-out perspective. And a perspective in which long-term thinking becomes very tangible. Not only because this is light years away, but also because it is a development in which – in addition to an undeniable financial drive – there is the conviction that the distant future of humanity is at stake and must be saved. “That seems noble, but that focus on the extremely long term betrays, deep down, an unwillingness to make things better in the here and now,” Marjolijn previously wrote as a Space correspondent for De Correspondent. “We are irrevocably outgrowing ourselves here on earth, because people always want more. And so concrete problems here and now must give way to the problems of humanity in an insanely distant future.” And so long-termism can also stretch way too far, and ignore the necessary attitude today…

“Long-termism can also stretch way too far, and ignore the necessary attitude today…”

Because what is that? That necessary attitude? We ask Van Heemstra. “Isn’t it just about balance? Never consume more than you need and so that things can recover. Shouldn’t we be moving towards such a regenerative mechanism? Finding that balance also brings long-term thinking to the here and now. Then we can find ways to practice it too.”

Stories as connective tissue

Whether the question is how we can learn to be in the here and now, or how we can learn to imagine the distant future and prepare for it… As far as Marjolijn is concerned, it always comes down to stories. People live by stories. The lack of it, the search for it, the struggle between them… The story forms the basis for our way of living together. A story that supports this idea is, probably not coincidentally, also the story that she says deeply touched and shaped her. It is an ancient Jewish Genesis story in which a vessel full of divine light comes into the world and bursts apart. The shards of light end up higgledy-piggledy in the creation of earth. These shards are us, people, animals and even words and letters. The story goes that every shard is homesick for that divine vessel of light, where everything was together. And so letters form words and so people come together and so systems and connections are created, all from the desire of light for more light. Because of the brokenness, our world is a longing world. Being a shard makes us human.

Three shards on a table in Amsterdam-Noord.

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