Camping Kafka

Research and Identity, 2017

What is going on with campings in the Netherlands? According to the media, vacation parks that were once full of families on holiday have now deteriorated into ‘slums’ for the criminal and the wretched. When you actually visit a camping and talk to residents it becomes clear that it is bureaucracy and a shortage of affordable housing - not antisocial behaviour - that pushes people to the fringes of society.

Inspection of a trailer at Fort Oranje. Photo: Marcel van den Bergh, Hollandse Hoogte, 2014.

No country in the world has so many vacation parks per capita as the Netherlands. Campings - or vacation parks - were originally built for family holidays in the 1950s.1 When international flights became cheaper in the late 1990s the parks emptied out, attracting people who were in need of cheap housing. Since then many campings have permanent residents with nowhere else to go.

Postcard from Fort Oranje between 1970 and 1980. Source: BN De Stem.

Fort Oranje

The best known example is Fort Oranje, a camping in the south of the Netherlands. Once a popular holiday destination for families, it became the subject for the docutainment series ‘Fort Oranje: camping or slum’ broadcasted on SBS6 in 2017. It showed burned down trailers, people in extreme poverty, living in a place ridden with crime.

Fort Oranje is no exception, many of the ±1,500 campings in The Netherlands have similar problems. Artist Klaas Burger invited me to research the underlying causes why people end up on campings. During four months we visited over seven campings and spoke to residents, owners, politicians on the municipal and state level, social workers, and migrant worker organisations.

<i>Gedoogambtenaar</i>; a Dutch policeman who tolerates illegal activity.

Permitted Illegality

The first thing that we found is that permanent residency on campings is illegal, unless the municipality issues a special exception. In reality an estimated 10,000 people live on campings permanently. Camping owners allow permanent residency because they need the money, and local politicians tolerate it because they cannot provide affordable housing in urgent cases, like divorce or eviction. Most of the Netherlands has housing shortages and waiting times for social housing can be between five and twenty years. After Fort Oranje was closed many local governments stopped tolerating illegal residency and have evicted and fined those who live on campings illegally.

Since 2014 the national budget for homeless shelters has been cut. Even at shelters there is usually not enough space for people in urgent need. Social workers have actively sent people to campings who otherwise would end up sleeping on the streets. On campings we encountered people from all walks of life, an architect who lost clients, had to sell their house with debt, and ended up homeless; a psychologist whose husband passed away leaving the next of kin with bankruptcy. People with a small debt that becomes a big debt, end up being evicted from social housing. Strict rules of Dutch bureaucracy in combination with a housing shortage pushes people in precarious situations to places like campings. Which why the project is called Camping Kafka, after the writer Franz Kafka (1883-1924).

Top: Share of assets held by the top 1% of US population dramatically increased after Reagan came into power in 1980, bottom: wages flatlined after 1980 while productivity rose. Graphs from <i>A Brief History of Neoliberalism</i>, David Harvey, 2007.<sup>2</sup>

It’s Neoliberalism, Stupid!

Why are people in one of the richest countries in the world living in slum-like conditions? Why did the amount of people that are homeless or in debt increase while the economy has been growing? These are the results of Neoliberal policies which have been in place in the Netherlands since the 1990s.

Neoliberalism believes that less government interference and more free market will realize a better society. Spearheaded in the 1980s by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, they lowered taxes for the rich, froze wages, broke unions, and privatized public services like public transport, utilities, social housing, and healthcare. They believed more money for the rich would ‘trickle down’ and create jobs and better economic conditions for all, which is why neoliberals prefer to tax wages higher than dividends and profits. This has made investing in the stock market or real estate more profitable than earning a wage by working. This has created a wealthy class (the 1%) that is becoming richer and richer just because it already owns property or stock (assets), while a working class is struggling to make ends meet.2

The economic crisis of 2008 has accelerated neoliberal policies by the austerity measures that have further gutted the welfare state. Since 2008, we are faced with a growing inequality and many people who are living in precarious conditions, such as the camping. This is no Dutch phenomenon, in the United States about 10% of the population lives in trailer parks.3

Some of the emoji for Camping Kafka. From left to right: being broke, freelance worker, government official, homeless, migrant worker, single mother with kids. Design Ruben Pater.

Representation not Victimization

During our research the stories we heard from camping residents were incredibly valuable. We knew they could inform people and help create better policies. However I struggled finding a visual language to depict their situation. Usually visual communication for NGOs or left-wing politics uses photography to provoke compassion from the viewer. However the people we spoke to refused to be seen as victims, which would render their position as passive. Rather than using traditional ‘poverty porn’ imagery we decided on using emoji instead. Images that were accessible, empowering, and easy to use for various kinds of communication.

There was a practical problem. In the world of emoji, no one is broke, unemployed, in poverty, debt, or homeless. The most common emoji emphasize a neoliberal wordview of consumption and white collar jobs.4 This led me to create new emoji that depicted poverty, precariousness, debt, homelessness and migrant workers. The people we interviewed were all invited to give feedback on the designs during the process, to make sure representations did not include wrong assumptions or led to offensive imagery.

Drafts of the Dutch bureaucracy related to campings.

The Maze of State

During the research I started mapping the Dutch bureaucracy, especially the rules on receiving benefits, registration, housing, and homelessness. The Dutch state is neatly organized in comparison to other countries, which also means there is little room for error or exception.

The Dutch have a mandatory national registration system. Being registered at an address is necessary for receiving benefits, taxes, businesses, but also for getting a job, a mobile phone, or bank account. Since living on camping is illegal, you cannot register there. People stay unregistered — which is illegal and will be fined — and thus receive no benefits. Or they can register at a friend or family without actually living there — which is also illegal — which means their host will receive lower benefits for cohabitation. It is a very difficult position to escape from.

There is a growing group of people in precarious situations who struggle under the strict Dutch bureaucracy, which is intended to sustain a regular 9-5 workforce with steady contracts and good benefits. People in debt, flex workers, and migrant workers, have little to fall back on, and in combination with the lack of social housing, these groups are only a few steps away from ending up on the streets. We hope giving insight in the inner workings of the bureaucracy shows its bias towards certain groups.

Discussion at the Camping Kafka pavillion with the maze in the background, Graphic Matters, Breda, 2017. Photo: Mike Harris.

Sharing Perspectives

What is a designer’s role in such complex social issues? Before designing, the first step was simply organizing a series of talks between the different parties involved. During our research we realized the different groups (migrant workers, government officials, people in debt) never, or hardly ever, meet in real life, and mostly talk about the other instead of with the other. At Graphic Matters festival in Breda we set up a Camping Kafka pavillion where the people involved could meet.

These ‘test-cases’ took place around four topics; the tiny house movement, vulnerable groups, year-long recreation, and migrant work. Each topic invited different speakers with the idea that every person has unique knowledge from their personal experience. Putting people with contrasting opinions in the same space created a common understanding towards each person as an individual, not just as representative of a group. The goal was to come up with alternatives and share knowledge.

The Camping Kafka pavillion, Graphic Matters, Breda, 2017. Photo: Mike Harris.

Long Term Effects

Camping Kafka has been running for 1,5 years and is still a research in progress. We conciously did not create a massive PR campaign to attract attention to the issue, because campaigns are expensive and focused on short term attention. What happens to the people living on campings after the attention fades away? Instead the activities of Camping Kafka focus on a long term legacy that shares the knowledge of people living on campings to government officials of all different municipalities, by going around the country and talking to politicians we hope to influence local politics one step at a time.

The research into the maze of bureaucracy is currently being transformed in a web-based game designed by Yacinth Pos, which allows the user to experience the violence of strict bureaucracy in precarious situations. By using meticulously researched bureaucratic rules and personal stories from our interviews, which recreate the actual experience of reaching deadlock within society.

Klaas Burger (left) in discussion at the Camping Kafka pavillion, Graphic Matters, Breda, 2017. Photo: Mike Harris.

Learning Curve

A design process such as Camping Kafka that deals with complex social issues cannot assume to bring solutions or even yield immediate positive effects. This is sometimes claimed in social design or so-called ‘design thinking’, but underestimates the complexity of these social issues for which there are no shortcuts. Actual transformation takes time and energy, and designers can take responsibility by trying to understand and engage in long-term personal commitments with the people involved. As for Camping Kafka that means we are still searching and learning for ways to share knowledge about the causes of, and alternatives to, precarious living conditions. Kid playing on the Camping Kafka pavillion, Graphic Matters, Breda, 2017. Photo: Mike Harris.


1. Mieke Dings, Tussen Tent en Villa, NAi010 publishers, 2015.
2. David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Oxford University Press, 2007.
3. Paul Lewis, ‘Tiny Houses: salvation for the homeless or a dead end?’, The Guardian, 2017.
4. Keith A. Spencer, ‘The Neoliberal Politics of Emoji’,, 2017.

Further Reading

- Peter Ullenbroeck, ‘Fort Oranje is maar topje van de ijsberg’, AD, 2018.
- Jesse Frederik, ‘In Nederland kan een verkeersboete je leven ruïneren’, De Correspondent, 2017.
- Jesse Frederik, ‘Het absurde Nederlandse boetebeleid: 18.733 celstraffen voor onverzekerde auto’s (die in de garage staan)’, De Correspondent, 2017.
- Anne-Martijn van der Kaaden and Eppo König, ‘Pechmannen zijn de nieuwe daklozen’, NRC Handelsblad, 2017.
- De Monitor, ‘Handhaving op vakantieparken’, KRO-NRCV, 2018.
- Jeroen van Raalte, ‘Hoe woningnood de Poolse arbeidsmigrant veroordeelt tot het bungalowpark’, De Volkskrant, 2018.


Artistic lead and research: Klaas Burger, Academie voor beeldvorming
Design and research: Ruben Pater
Game design: Yacinth Pos
Installation Design: Ivo van den Thillart
Photography: Mike Harris
Communication: Monique van de Wijdeven
Web developer: Jaap-Joris Vens
Video registration: Aram Voermans
Supported by: Gemeente Breda, The Art of Impact, Graphic Matters, GGD West-Brabant, Provincie Noord-Brabant