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Dries Verhoeven's Phobiarama is a pointless machine #HF17

I went to Amsterdam to face my social anxieties on the once infamous Mercatorplein. I saw a sunny square with a trendy bar and bakfiets mothers around a play fountain for white children (brrrr! gentrification), old veiled and un veiled women chatting on a bench (help! multiculture) and a performance in a converted bumper car tent (Waaaah! Holland Festival).

What I did not see was a terror-torn world full of frightened, adrift people. Nor did I feel a threat from unexpected things hidden beneath the sweet, interesting and funny exterior. I did not see what alt-right sites like GeenStijl claim about Mercatorplein. I did not experience what Geert Wilders and Thierry Baudet say about old coiffured females on a bench. Here, what horror boys from IS shout on their propaganda videos fell dead in a dog turd.


Yet these are things that artist Dries Verhoeven considers our deepest fears. That's why his thing is called Phobiarama, and why we travel through a bumper car park in chained bumper cars accompanied by terror-related texts and beautiful to curiously trained bodybuilders. And we go through a fairly transparent gag with surveillance footage.

Dries Verhoeven has now built up quite a track record with artworks that can be seen as 'interventions in reality' rather than completely new creations. It all once started with a tour of the city in upside-down mirror image. It reached an early peak in a hotel with a mirrored ceiling and produced the first real riot when, a few years back, he projected live conversations with on-site cruising gays from a glass truck in Berlin onto a big screen.


In a book dedicated to his work, on sale at the box office of his latest attraction, Verhoeven says he started working differently about six years ago. He now wants to reach citizens with his art. He was so shocked by the social disinterest surrounding the draconian cultural cuts of the time that he no longer wanted to work 'closed'. Hence this square, hence the bumper car tent.

Whether his mission will succeed with this set-up is doubtful. It is certainly to be applauded that someone from the 'high' arts associates himself with resources from popular culture (fairground), that foremost. Verhoeven only forgets that around this supposedly low culture, of course, there is also a whole story.


The bumper car tent now stands as a alien body, a hermetically sealed 'black box' in the square. Twenty people enter it every so often. After about an hour, they come out again to silently go their separate ways. Does that make you curious? Not really. The average fairground, and certainly the average amusement park, does a better job of that. Not that loud screams have to rise from this tent all the time, not that spectators have to come out staggering, which usually works perfectly well at the fairground to attract visitors. It's something else.

The closed tent in that square is a closed terrarium for people who do not belong to that square, who come there briefly after a longer-than-average bike ride or tram ride, and who are gone again just as quickly afterwards. That doesn't enhance the 'buzz', and that actually makes this intervention something that bites itself hard in the tail.


Nor is it really a confrontation with an unfamiliar jungle in a dangerous neighbourhood. To do something with such a confrontation, the tent should have been erected a few kilometres away, beyond the A10. Then again. Then you have a trip into relative obscurity for a few festival-goers. To really confront social anxiety, you need something other than this.

What it says now is a 'pointless machine', a device that you turn on only for it to turn itself off again. Especially funny, then.

Good to know
Phobiorama is still involve

Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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