Joost Mellink: Weapons of Narration: Reshaping History for the Present

Advisor/tutor: Rachel O'Reilly

Arnhem, June 2016


In 2014, I started my research for a series of photographs and a short film addressing nostalgia surrounding the milk production industry in the Netherlands. I distrusted the idealised image in my mind that was shaped by television commercials, milk cartons and other dairy packages. In a rather scattered research approach, I made a trip to automated dairy farms, visited a company that develops agricultural technology, held an interview with the Research and Development department of a leading milk company and conducted interviews with my aunt, uncle and mother who had all grown up on a Dutch dairy farm. Aside from these visits, I studied the portrayal of the Dutch countryside from the Second World War to the present. I noticed that for consumers–despite technological breakthroughs and a total transformation of the industry–the romantic image of perfectly clean cows on a bright green meadow was still perfectly intact. There were no milking robots in their imagined sight; life on a farm could still be seen as an isolated “life with nature,” devoid of financial or political entanglements. I learned that the vice grip of the free market, the fragile position of farmers, the environmental impossibility of producing on such a scale was not enough to break the nostalgic image. The Dutch narrative of a country of farmers and of a milk and cheese consuming nation is apparently strong enough to keep all the structural changes of the past 70 years out of the national image of the industry. I started wondering if an alternative, politicised narrative of industrial modernisation would be able to produce the same affect of belonging.

It is through this research that I became interested in the political potential of “myths” or narratives. In this thesis, I will take off from my own practice to research what empowering and critical narratives are effective for thinking and feeling politically in the present. How can historical events can be seen as a source for new imaginative narratives? And what artistic strategies can be used by artists to achieve new forces of, and uses for, imagination? 

The aim of this research is to find new strategies of narration in an artistic practice that tries to diversify and complicate stories that we have learned from corporations and from congealed politics. This thesis researches how a newly-created but deeply-rooted connection to history can help us in becoming aware of our historical present. Ultimately, the aim is to realise how our current position in the present and our understanding of the present condition is not one that has been created out of (bad) luck or by natural force, but is a carefully crafted present that can be reshaped and recreated by imagination.