Concrete Evidence: 1m (2013) is the realization of one meter of highway by the Belgian artist Lodewijk Heylen (b. 1989 in Hulshout, Belgium). This monumental sculpture was built during his residency at the Verbeke Foundation in Kemzeke in Belgium. In this interview Heylen talks about the social infrastructure, the urge for connecting and the imperishability of the road.
F.W.: To start from the beginning, how did „Concrete Evidence“: 1m come about?
L.H.: For a long time, I have had a fixation for connections and junctions, the tendency to plan roads myself and imagining places where streets, railways, canals or bridges could be built. This permanently present fantasy resulted in the idea of working with highway. I wanted to actually change something or intervene somewhere on the highway, but it is practically impossible because of safety regulations. One of my professors from Espace Urbain at La Cambre in Brussels where I study said: “Fait ton proper autoroute”, with the intention of having me imagine a highway. But I took that very literally.
F.W.: How did this develop further?
L.H.: I’ve been working on it since November 2011. It started out as a pure conceptual work driven by the urge to build one meter of highway. The first idea was to build the highway on a place where a highway was planned in the past but was never constructed for political or economical reasons. I wanted, as an individual, to continue the construction of a greater plan. To create a moment for the road that doesn’t exist, a sort of tragedy for the highway. But in doing so I exceeded my actual goal, I wanted to build a highway with all the correct elements allowing its theoretical use. A real highway.
F.W.: A large-scale project for a single person!
L.H.: That’s right. It took me three years to actually realize the project. It became a point of fascination, frustration and fixation. In this period other works were influenced by the highway as well. I moved to Berlin, met new people and through these impulses and collaborations with others, I ended up at the Verbeke Foundation. The location of the Foundation convinced me to build it there. The highway (E34) is located next to it, not visible but tangible. Finally in December 2013 I could realize „Concrete Evidence: 1m“. It was an anchor point, the crown of my fascination. Closure too, but most of all a point from which I can continue future projects.
F.W.: The „Concrete Evidence“ in the title is a returning term in your works, can you elaborate on that?
L.H.: „Concrete Evidence“ started out as an interest for the material. Concrete is used in many ways as a supporting structure, but is rarely exposed. The entire world is supported by concrete! Generally it is covered and hidden behind different materials, because it is not the most appealing building material. It is gray, monotone and turns green and dirty with time. But by concealing it this ubiquity is forgotten. With „Concrete Evidence“ it try to expose this fundamental structure.
F.W.: What do highways embody given this context?
L.H.: The highways are the cathedrals of the twentieth century. They are made for eternity. If we can speculate what will still exist of our current society in 400 years, it will probably be highways. As long as cities exist, roads will too. It is something that is in constant use, it is impossible to shut it down.
F.W.: Being an inherent part of our urban structures, what does that say about us?
L.H.: It defines our current society. Not only in its material form, but as a basis of social connections. Direct connections, that’s what it is. It doesn’t have an esthetic function. Highways are pure practical in it purest form: you have to be able to drive 120 km/h (in Germany even faster), you have to be able to constantly drive straight ahead (a bend can turn this hard, a slope can be this steep), you’re not allowed to feel inconveniences. It is all calculated and calibrated to drive as efficiently as possible. How it looks is not relevant. It has to function.
F.W.: And what happens when the system fails?
L.H.: Traffic jams! There are just so many cars nowadays. I have driven on the highway a lot lately and traffic jams are a real problem. Highways imply an easy connection and make it possible to commute between living and work, going out and shopping. It makes a country into a whole, into one zone or one big city. Once it is overused, the system collapses. Standing in a traffic jam turns the highway into a very stressful environment.
F.W.: That’s true. Stressful and frustrating, because of the interruption of your journey.
L.H.: Exactly, because the highway changes from transit to (intermediate) destination. You expect to move on quickly. And even when you’re standing still you aren’t really doing nothing. You have to pay attention, your feet start to hurt from breaking-accelarating-shifting gear-breaking-stop and go. Someone blinks, someone else gets out of his car. After an hour the jam is gone, and you wait to see something lying in the middle of the street, a collision or construction works. You expect a cause, but most traffic jams happen out of the blue. There are just to many cars. I mean, isn’t it bizar that you can stand still in a traffic jam, lose an hour of your life, just because someone hit his breaks a little bit harder that the next.
F.W.: Nevertheless cars remains the most used means of transportation.
L.H.: There are faster, more efficient ways of getting around, but none so individual. The principle of the car is its individual use. It is proportionately very cheap for every one with a personal vehicle to get to their desired destination. At this point it’s not about speed anymore, it’s about the comfort and the luxury of being on the road alone.
F.W.: In the sixties and seventies, the Belgian highway network expanded rapidly. Today Belgium has the highest amount of kilometers highway per 1000 km2 in the European Union. Can you explain this development?
L.H.: In Belgium the highway has been a means of progress. Not all of it is useful, but it is a feature of prosperity and an acknowledgement of the welfare state and a first world country. It think a lot of developing countries now still see it as a status symbol. The construction of the highway is more than only a connection. For instance the ring road around Brussels serves as some kind of modern city wall, a new physical border. An other example, in villages the highway was used as a junction to the rest of the country. Entrances and exits to the highway were built, that would never exist if it was up to the engineer. Most of them are to close to each other or connected to a small street unfit to process lots of traffic. There are many absurdities in the Belgian road system.
F.W.: And why did you contribute one meter to this road network?
L.H.: It is a random measurement, but nevertheless very standard. My idea was to build a real highway that meets the Belgian norms. I could give it an A or an E number. But because it’s only one meter, it implies that it is an exception. You can walk on it, look at it from up close. Something that isn’t possible on a highway in use.
F.W.: A monument for the highway?
L.H.: It wasn’t my intention to create a monument for the highway, but I would be ignorant to deny it. This is a recognition the highway deserves. Railways for example are part of our society since the nineteenth century and are considered an important connection between cities. If they lose their functions, they are converted into parks or cycling routes. Highways don’t lose their function, they aren’t closed down or transformed into a park or a monument. Highways stay in use permanently.
F.W.: What is your favorite highway in Belgium?
L.H.: I have a few. Highways are fundamentally standard, constructed from the same principle. But every highway has characteristics. A different landscape, a different material. A few weeks ago I was driving from Hasselt to Leuven (E314). The road was dark when I entered an illuminated part of the highway. The lights were soft but dark red. That highway was suddenly very surrealistic. The sky was dark blue and in front of me the curving road was red. Behind the hills there were windmills blinking their red lights. That was very uncanny, like driving through a dream.
F.W.: What do we tend to overlook while driving 120 km/h?
L.H.: The highway itself. Being everywhere and nowhere whenever we’re on the highway. When driving from Antwerp to Brussels, I’m actually not in a certain location. The movement towards it doesn’t exists as such. I was in Antwerp, I was in Brussels, but I wasn’t in Berchem, in Kontich, in Zemst, in Mechelen or in Rumst. I wasn’t there, I drove past it. On the highway we are at all the places at the same time, and at the same time we’re nowhere at all.
At this moment Heylen plans to continue his work with the construction of „Concrete Evidence: 1m“ in Berlin.
L.H.: It’s about a much larger concept than Belgium.
Frederiek Weda (b. in 1988 in Rhenen, the Netherlands) lives and works in Berlin as independent curator working together with Lodewijk Heylen on the construction of Concrete Evidence: 1m in Berlin.