In the Red Light District

I'm in the middle of a six week trip in Europe; currently I'm attending the Amsterdam String Workshop.

I'm reminded of something that happened to me a year-and-a-half ago December when I visited the String Theory group in Amsterdam.  I didn't realize until I starting doing touring on Sunday that my hotel was close to the main "red light" district, where the alleyways are full of semi-naked women in booths selling their bodies to the tourists.  The main red light district is right in the middle of the oldest part of town, well worth seeing for the architecture, if you can ignore the vice peddling (which is easier during the daytime).

I was absolutely shocked in the red light district—but not by the prostitutes or the drug use, which I had expected.  (Although these things are bad and degrading, don't do them.)  There is a beautiful old Dutch Reformed church there, dating from the 1300's, which I wanted to see.  I went in to see the church, but whoever was in charge had allowed an artist to set up a crass avant garde multi-media work of art in the interior, with disturbing images of unwholesome faces projected on the blank walls speaking nonsense phrases, and even representations of bright neon casino scratch pads, glowing on the floor!  I felt it was an extremely disrespectful, if not diabolical, use of a space dedicated to our Father in heaven, and in which faithful Christians were buried.

There were a small number of middle aged couples roaming around looking a bit perplexed.  I was outraged.  I said to myself "How DARE they do this to my Father's house!" and I couldn't stay there any longer because I could not contain my rage.  (I said something about it to the poor lady handing out tickets at the entrance.  I tried to make it clear to her that my anger was not directed at her, but I had to say it to somebody.)

As I was wandering around in a daze, I noticed that there was another church in the district, a Roman Catholic church, which was free for anyone to enter.  (The first church had had a 10 euro entrance fee, which is also wrong—what if one of the prostitutes felt a sudden urge to go into a church and pray?—but one quickly becomes desensitized to fees for entering famous churches in Europe).  It was full of tourists but pious ones, and I felt such relief to know that, despite the theological differences, there was some place in the area dedicated to God which was still held sacred, and where the people had natural feelings.  I sat down in an empty pew and wept.

About Aron Wall

I am a Lecturer in Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my postdocs at UC Santa Barbara, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Stanford. The views expressed on this blog are my own, and should not be attributed to any of these fine institutions.
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9 Responses to In the Red Light District

  1. Miloš says:

    Dear Aron,

    You should come to Eastern Europe where churches are still places of worship.

  2. Scott Church says:

    Aron, I'm so sorry you had to go through that! But I'm grateful to God that He led you to a place of worship where His name is honored. You're in my thoughts and prayers today!

  3. David N says:

    Unfortunately this sort of thing has started happening a lot, especially in places where there are a lot of old church buildings but a diminishing congregation. In my hometown of York (England) there is even a nightclub called 'Salvation' in an old church building.

  4. stingy says:

    Can you give a recap about the Amsterdam String Workshop?

    I'm interested in the type of new developments in string theory.

  5. Aron Wall says:

    Thanks everyone.

    Scott, you did see the part where it said it happened 1 & 1/2 years ago, right? I'm pretty much over it now; just thought it would make a good story.

    Hmm, a lot of the talks were on completely different subjects from each other, so I'm having difficulty thinking of any overarching theme. If you just want a sense of where string theory is headed recently, my impression is that there's more and more AdS/CFT holography stuff, although it wasn't as highly represented at this workshop as I expected.

    [By the way, is that your real email address? Please use a real email address, only I can see it and I promise not to share it with spammers.]

  6. Scott Church says:

    Hi Aron. Actually, I did miss the part about it being a while back. But you're still in my thoughts & prayers anyway. :-)

  7. Aron Wall says:

    Thanks, Scott!

  8. g says:

    I've just read this; my apologies for coming to it rather late. Aron, do you know what the purpose of the art installation was? I mean, sometimes art installations in churches are (1) intended to shock the sensibilities but (2) for reasons that on reflection you would strongly approve of. For all I can tell from what you've written -- and I appreciate that there may in fact be ample evidence to the contrary that I just don't have -- it's possible e.g. that this was an installation by a Christian artist, put there with the active approval of the people in charge of the church, intended to, I dunno, draw attention to the plight of poor and marginalized people in Amsterdam or something.

    What are "unwholesome faces"? Can you tell by looking at someone's face that they're bad?

  9. Aron Wall says:

    By "unwholesome faces" I mean that they were subtly distorted by special effects in order to make them look creepy and slightly inhuman, something of an uncanny valley effect, augmented by the incoherence of the things said by the faces. If this was intended to make me feel more sympathetic to the people displayed, then it didn't work.

    (Obviously, in the real world, somebody having a gross face doesn't imply anything about the person's moral character, although it may imply they have some sort of disease or other unhealthiness, which is why we have an evolved sense of revulsion in this context. But, if an artist deliberately stimulates this effect through artificial means, producing a face that no real person could possibly have, then they are obviously responsible for whatever message they are conveying. Responsible, I mean, in the way that a fiction artist is normally responsible. There is nothing morally wrong with making a horror movie, but a beautiful old church is an incongruous and disrespectful place to display such a thing.)

    Here is a description of the artist's work:

    A pioneer of new-media art since the mid-1970s, Tony Oursler is best known for his video projections and installation works that explore technology's effects on the human mind. Honing in on much of humanity's compulsive relationship with computers and virtual networks, Oursler orchestrates microcosmic scenes, tableaus, and interventions that convey the obsession, escapism, isolation, and sexual fetish that cause or grow out of technological dependence. His works include talking streetlights, an eight-foot-long five-dollar bill with an eerily animated Abe Lincoln, an enormous cell phone spewing disjointed snippets of conversations, and ghoulish heads muttering phrases like “You treat me like garbage. I told you I love you but I don’t. Thanks for nothing.” Oursler invites viewers into disorienting psychological mini-dramas, at once engaging in their humor and disturbing for their uncanny juxtapositions and keen, biting commentaries.

    You can judge for yourself whether that sounds appropriate for church display. (This is a description of the artist's overall work, so some of the things described above might not have been in this particular exhibit, but some of them, or things very similar, were! I think it gives a better idea of the contents of what I saw then the somewhat more sanitized descriptions of the specific exhibit here and here.

    It is perhaps worth pointing out that this particular church was decorated in a sparse, Reformed style, with the main beauty lying in the lines and empty spaces, and that the art exhibit completely clashed with it and made it hard to appreciate the space.

    I am quite sure that this exhibit did have the "active approval of the people in charge of the church". To my mind, that just makes it sadder, that the people in charge cannot distinguish between a respectful, and disrespectful use of the space. I felt like the exhibit was deliberately using the sense of desecration of the sacred, in order to make its point, and I don't believe the desire to provoke a strong emotional response in the viewers justifies blasphemy. (Although if that was his goal, he succeeded in my case!)

    Obviously, it would be simplistic to say that the macabre is always out of place in a Christian sacred context. (For example, a crucifix, or photos of diseased people in the 3rd world with a placard suggesting prayer or donations.) But as your comment suggests, I would expect some articulable reason for doing so, and to me a feeling of quesiness over how technological society dehumanizes us (or whatever) does not seem to me to justify vomiting your rage all over a space dedicated to prayer and worship. Ideally one goes to church to be re-humanized, not dehumanized some more.

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