HefHouse: Discovering a New Community in Alternative Classrooms

ErasmusX
5 min readNov 9, 2022
This article was written by Costanza Tagliaferri, PhD Researcher AiPact at Erasmus University Rotterdam

Costanza Tagliaferri visited our HefHouse space in the South of Rotterdam. Inspired by her visit, she wrote the following blog.

The HefHouse is in the heart of Feijenoord neighborhood in Rotterdam Zuid, between the historical Hef bridge and the HefPark. Walking from the bridge, you can immediately spot the location among residential houses and the park. Unlike the skyscrapers and cutting-edge architecture characterizing the opposite side of the river, the HefHouse doesn’t stand out from other buildings. It almost remains hidden in the environment, and you need to go in front of the main door to see that something is going on.

The HefHouse used to be a rehab centre, deeply connected with the social context of the local community. As the neighborhood transformed over the years, the space was left empty. Now, the Erasmus University Rotterdam initiative ErasmusX, in collaboration with EMI op Zuid (Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences) and Rotterdam Municipality, took over the space to write a new story. The idea is to make the HefHouse a home for new initiatives and ideas to create a connection between the local community, university, and the municipality.

In line with the aim of creating social impact from academic research, the HefHouse becomes a centre to experiment new strategies to engage with the local community and start a conversation between different groups to find new solutions to current problems. What is special about the HefHouse project, however, is the intention behind the approach. One of the first projects was organised by AICON, an AiPact initiative focusing on art practices as a medium to engage in a wider conversation about society and artificial intelligence.

Art and NFTs: A Different Language to Talk About Artificial Intelligence and Society

The project ‘Portraits of the City’ was about NFTs, proposing a series of workshops with artists to create physical artworks or self-portraits and turn them into NFTs. The digital drawings made with participants are on OpenSea, the NFT marketplace. There’s also an virtual gallery to see the participants’ work. The goal of this project wasn’t the art itself. Rather, the focus was on the process and the conversation with citizens. Creating a ‘piece of art’ became a shared language to talk about NFTs and society, bridging between citizens, artists and researchers. Instead of educating participants, the workshop series in the HefHouse creates the ground for a participatory conversation. The project spread in other locations in Rotterdam Zuid, at EUR facilities, and will be part of the VRDays program at De Doelen. Moving around different locations, the exchange between artist and participants becomes a strategy to find new tools to understand how society is transforming with technology.

The ‘Stadsgezichten’ Virtual Gallery

Focusing on topics like AI or NFTs, the idea is to use art practices to make the discussion accessible to everyone and invite the community to participate in the conversation. The project fully represents the intention behind the HefHouse. The location opens the opportunity to make everyone involved in a wider conversation about society even when the topic is complex. In this sense, the future collective artwork represents the intention of empowering the community.

The HefHouse is the heart of a residential neighborhood where different stories and cultural backgrounds characterise the local environment. Unlike more institutional settings, the space allows creating channels to connect with different groups, bridging between diverse cultural backgrounds and exploring tools to communicate complex topics outside academic walls.

Alternative Classroom to Build a New Community

How society is changing impacts any group in society. Art was one of the first experiments to connect with groups usually left out the conversation, inviting people of different ages to think about how artificial intelligence is transforming daily life. AICON’s ‘Portraits of the City’ fully represents the intention of the core theme of the HefHouse ‘Redefining the Classroom.’ Bringing academic and scientific knowledge outside academic walls, the idea it to encourage students and researchers to reflect on society by interacting hands-on with different communities and understanding local needs. Giving space to real-life experiences, the project aims to connect scientific research with real issues arising from an on-going conversation with different groups and individuals.

Following this mission, ErasmusX is teaming up with local organisations, like SOL (Samen Ondernemend Leren), to better understand the needs of the people who live there. Especially for young people, the scope is to create a youth hub to promote alternative classrooms and collaborative activities to find new ways of learning and understanding society.

Another example of the intention of connecting with young people was the Pop-Up City Lab project ‘Politics and the City.’ In collaboration with UNIC, diverse groups of 45 participants discussed the reasons why young people are more reluctant to vote. Instead of pushing an answer, the workshop invited participants to reflect on why young people feel disconnected from political decisions and find together ways to make visible the impact of collective decisions, like voting, on society and city administration.

UNIC’s Politics and the City in HefHouse on June 22, 2022

People Come First

The variety of projects in the HefHouse represent the two main goals of ErasmusX and their partners. First, the intention of connecting with different groups in society. From art, to courses, to university initiatives; the Rotterdam-Zuid location becomes a site to test new connections and include different groups in a wider conversation about society. Second, these projects show the intention of giving space to the local needs first. The idea is to create an open space where everyone feels involved and part of a wider community working together. Despite different backgrounds and expertise, the experience of different groups can bring new insights and lead to different solutions to create a more inclusive society.

As philosopher Walter Benjamin said in “The Task of the Translator,” a good translator looks for differences instead of equivalences — that’s how you can ‘capture’ the essence of the artwork in different languages. The variety of initiatives and projects respond to this intention, finding ways to make people communicate through their differences and create a new community where everyone can feel proud of individual diversities.

While the initiatives are creating their identity in an on-going process with the community, new input and ideas contribute to building a new space. The unique thing about this project is indeed the attention to the process instead of the result. In other words, the outcome will depend on the interaction with the community rather than a prediction made beforehand. Working with local communities perhaps requires more time and flexibility to understand the right approach. This on-going process, however, can create new channels to test out new interdisciplinary approaches to find a common language to grow together as a community.

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