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An Amsterdam Artist Is Digging Tunnels to Escape the Modern World

Following her instincts, artist and designer Leanne Wijnsma digs tunnels in the middle of European cities.

Wijnsma at the Biennale Interieur in Kortrijk, Belgium. Photo by Delfino Sisto Legnani

Leanne Wijnsma is digging. A trained designer living in Amsterdam, Wijnsma has been digging tunnels with her bare hands for two years, in the city center and all around Europe. After a day of digging, Wijnsma refills her tunnels with dirt and goes home. Her ongoing project, Escape, stems from the familiar desire to get away from our computer screens and the human instinct to go into the earth. This year, Wijnsma will invite others to go tunneling with her in Amsterdam, as a form of modern therapy. VICE spoke with Wijnsma to learn more about her artistic practice, her decision to move to the woods (and then move back), and her affinity for digging holes in the ground.

VICE: Have you always been an artist?
Leanne Wijnsma: I'm a graphic designer. I was doing a lot of editorial jobs but something was really missing in my practice. I really like responding to other people's problems, and the world was a bit too big to not come up with my own content. The work I make now is really autonomous, so you could see me as an artist but it still feels like I am a designer, designing a structure in a way. For me, it's quite clear: a story that I'm telling, an expression or experience that I'm trying to translate into a visual performance.

When did you begin this project?
The project that [Escape] came out of was called Refresh. In 2011 or 2012, I moved from Amsterdam to a cabin in the woods, because I was totally fed up with the city. There are so many expectations and art openings every evening. I couldn't walk on the street not seeing my friends; I wasn't anonymous anymore. I needed some focus, so I moved far away alone, to find focus in my work. There, I started digitizing my garden. I found a lot of focus in the woods, and I wanted to share this focus somehow. Because I still had internet down there, I thought I'd start some sort of blog where I'd post the garden, scanned. So I made a whole grid out of the garden and scanned it. You can compare it [to Escape] quite well because the scanning is also about action. When you think about it, it's stupid, it's so much work, you're sitting there on your knees. But I had to find something. Of course, what you realize is that I had to move back to the city. As an artist it's also quite boring and inspirationless to be so far away. I really missed the impulses and the chaos.

How much time did you spend in the woods?
Only six months. After six months, I moved into Amsterdam and out of that came Escape. It's a temporary escape. Moving to the cabin is quite poetical, but the tunnels only take a day and instead of going to the woods to find nature I just find nature straight underneath my feet in the city by digging. There's no nature in the city.

During my time in Amsterdam, I remember there being lots of beautiful parks.
Parks? Maybe, but in the Netherlands there are hardly any—or let's say not any—nature. Everything is planned. If there's a tiny bit of nature it's because we said, "Oh, hey, we should have some nature here." So it's all design.

A 3D scan of one of Wijnsma's tunnels. Scan courtesy of Plan 3D Berlin

How did you get the idea to dig these tunnels?
It wasn't really an idea. It was more of an instinct, a mood. I was researching a lot and writing about liquid times in a liquid society. I held a lot of interviews with friends and people around the world, people who somehow couldn't connect to their own location or people that were really experiencing FOMO, fear of missing out. I was really into that kind of content, that kind of stress, that feeling that you always want more and you cannot have it really. People between 20 and 35 always expect more, because we were raised with so much freedom. I was able to choose myself what I wanted to do; I was able to choose my own studies. I could choose to live in Amsterdam or New York or Japan or whatever, so it's really about these kinds of choices that we have to make ourselves and that sounds really great and it is great but it's quite a responsibility.

I really tried to make work about that feeling, with visuals and film, but I got really stuck. I was just laying in bed thinking, I just want to escape this and do something with my hands. I'm just in front of the computer all the time, searching for more info, Skyping with people for more info. I just want to dive into the ground. I just want to be an animal, really autonomous like an animal. Sure, we are free, but we are free behind our computers. I just wanted to dig. So it is really simple; it wasn't really an idea, it was an instinct.

When did you start?
I started digging in 2013. I did some tunnels and recorded them, and then last summer it started to get running a bit, so I dug tunnels in Berlin and Brussels. Some festivals and exhibitions invited me to dig but that was really difficult because of safety restrictions. That's why I just really do it for myself. I never ask for permission.

Have you ever gotten in trouble, then?
No, luckily not. In Brussels once, a police officer came to me and asked "What are you doing?" I said, "I'm escaping and trying to find freedom." He was more worried about the hole, and as long as I promised that I would close the tunnel after I finished it, he was happy. He said, "I'll come back again today and see if everything is all right." At the end of the day, I was just done, so I was filling up the tunnel.

How do you decide where to make the tunnels and how big to make them?
I start by making one hole. Then I inspect the soil, and it really depends on how dry it is, how stony it is, how safe it is. If it's really, really hard, the tunnel can be shorter. If the soil is firm, I can go for it and make it longer. I get really excited about it. Now they're all about the same length, between 2-4 meters.

A tunnel in Berlin. Photo courtesy of Leanne Wijnsma

You're doing a tunneling workshop in April. Why did you decide to invite others to dig with you?
I just launched it because I hear from so many people who talk about the same kind of problems, these issues of trying to find something stable. So I just made it a therapy or a workshop. I'm really curious what kind of people will end up doing this, also children, because it's already in their nature to get dirty and dig.

You mentioned the "fluid city." What is that?
The fluid city is the opposite of something really fixed. Fluid just means that it's not stable, that it can dissolve, that it can run away, that you can't really grasp it. There are so many opportunities and possibilities that everything is unclear.

So tunneling is the opposite.
Yes, it's such an almost stupid goal. It's so simple. You go into it and the only thing you want is the only thing you need: to reach the other side.

I think we all have the same goal in life, which is to become good at what you do. To work hard. I think a lot of our jobs nowadays are funnelled in front of the computer. It's important to also go out and basically do sports. Digging a tunnel is way more animalistic and basic; it's really important to listen to your intuition and take a break. As soon as you do, it's way easier to focus again. After a day of digging, I'm really dying to open my laptop again and start working. It's easy to forget about what our instincts really mean because if you're only online or in the city, it's so easy to end up in a structure. Every now and then it's good to think: Do I want this? What things are really important to me? I would not move to the woods again. But really, a good dig once a month will do a lot.

Do you have plans for the future of Escape?
I'm planning a lot of new tunnels for the upcoming year. I'll also go back to Berlin to work with 3D scanners. Some guys there scanned one of my tunnels, so that the tunnel became a 3D image that you can see online. You can crawl through the tunnel from behind the screen, so I'm researching that a bit to see if there's some meaning there. Can you really just stay online and dig online? I'm trying to print the 3D structures, so that the tunnels become an object again, printed objects that you can crawl through. That way it becomes more of a user product.

My aim is that other people will be able to experience this, that this behavior can be communicated within an experience. I'm also researching caves and making plans for digging a bigger structure underground, where connections are lost. For example, if you're in the subway, you cannot call. There's no email; you're underground. So the connections are lost. In the past we had bunkers underneath our houses to hide from danger. I think it would be really great if we had some kind of cave underneath our house as a luxury place to hide, where you could escape the impulses. Where nothing could enter.

Follow Jennifer Schaffer on Twitter. For more on Wijnsma's practice, check out her Escape website and her Twitter.