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21/9/2017 / Issue #014 / Text: Rob Talin

Jeffrey and Cecilia Babcock: ‘Séances’ – Re-wiring images in the Amsterdam underground

Jeffrey and Cecilia Babcock recently released their book ‘Séances’ – Re-wiring Images in the Amsterdam Underground, in which they describe the history of Jeffrey’s ten years’ adventure of Underground Cinemas. This program consists of weekly screenings of movies that were forgotten, censured or otherwise maltreated for years, in a constantly changing list of underground cinema venues in Amsterdam. The book does not only depict a historical archive of the cinema adventure but also of the transformation or disappearance of cultural free spaces in the city due to gentrification processes (at present, one of the venues hosting Underground Cinema, the Spinhuis, is threatened to be closed down). The motivation for Underground Cinema is the ritual quality that watching films together engenders. As the authors write, “Underground is primitive imagination in the caves of deeper dreams (1)”. With the program they aim for people to gather together, quietly and in the dark, and to examine their own way of life in an encounter with something that may be new for them, even if it is only for two hours.

I had a talk with Cecilia and Jeffrey about their book and their vision about the future of Amsterdam.

R: Could you tell me a bit more about  your book? What does ‘Séances’ mean, for example?
J: In French, a séance is a film screening, while in English the word refers to the dark rooms where people come together to conjure up spirits from the past. That’s pretty much the metaphor of cinema for me: we’ve just watched a movie, and though most of the people in it are dead now, we are watching them as if they were alive. It’s about bringing history back to life.
C: There’s an element of collective magic: it’s not at all like watching the movie on your laptop screen. There’s a strong element of ritual.
J: When I started screening movies, I was thinking about a form of nomadic cinema, which travels around the city, instead of doing screenings in a fixed location. This strengthens the connections within the alternative circuit. So for example when someone comes to De Nieuwe Anita, they can find out about the Vondelbunker, Joe’s Garage, Cavia and all the other underground venues. The book charts the history of this project, from the beginning ten years ago, through the student movement three years ago, up until the present. The book reinforces this nomadic idea, it scatters in many different directions. What we wanted to do, was to open many different possibilities to access underground culture, so the readers can decide what inspires them and what does not inspire them while they go through the book. It’s a series of sparks that can take you in many directions. It was also important for me to document today’s underground scene so that the memories and images stay around at least for a while. 

R: Speaking of that, how do you see the future of Amsterdam, in terms of free spaces and cultural gatherings?
J: I don’t see a real wave of new things happening, to tell you the truth. But I’m from the ‘80s, which was a very specific time. Some things are happening, a new sort of bottom-up culture is growing in the north of Amsterdam, but much of that is driven by young entrepreneur types. These new initiatives are mostly fashionable and are used to gentrify areas of the city. This is not what my cinemas are about. They’re not just about going to see a movie but about the whole experience and situation involved in watching a neglected or deleted movie, a film with a message. They can be political movies, films about disturbing or unusual topics that are treated with an innovative, different approach. This can provoke a reaction, a debate or reflection. Doing these screenings proves that there is another way of doing things. These ‘alternative-ish’ spaces so in fashion now are not really disrupting anything. Instead, I would like to see a true alternative, in terms of people’s lives. And I think this will arise, because the spirit of Amsterdam as I knew it in the ‘80’s is still here, lingering below the surface. In fact that’s why I can still have the Underground Cinemas in five or six places now (Cinemanita, Butcher’s Tears, Budapest, Film Cavia and Spinhuis). It’s still possible in Amsterdam.
C: The main problem is that people don’t see the difference between a pop-up and a squat. This is a shame because right now there aren’t enough people doing stuff with a long-term perspective, without this ‘pop-up frame of mind’, so things cannot survive and persist. I hope that people realize that they can start projects, not for just two months, but for an indefinite time, even if they as individuals can only be involved in them on and off. And I hope that the people who join the alternative scene will really be engaged with it, and not just seeking to fill up their CVs with interesting projects. Sometimes it seems as if people organize pop-up projects so that they can meet like-minded people and build a career for themselves. It would be nicer if they could dream of building a culture for the future instead. 

R: So why do you keep on living and working in Amsterdam? Why not relocate somewhere less capitalistic and with more new impulses, like Berlin for instance?
J: I’ve seen wild old Berlin cave in to the same blueprint of gentrification as all the other cities across Europe. My cinemas wouldn’t be possible there. For what I’m doing, there’s still more freedom, or more autonomy, in Amsterdam.

When I was in London, the squats were totally different from the ones here. Squatters in London didn’t have any legal rights; they could only stay in a space for a couple months, so they never took care of the places at all, and just trashed them. After all, they were constantly pushed around from one place to another. It was chaos. Then I came to Amsterdam and found that people were totally organized. On the Herengracht, where I was living, there was a phone-tree, with which you could call ten numbers, and then those ten numbers would call another ten numbers, and so on. If a squat was in trouble, within minutes you could have a huge amount of people on the street in almost no time. I think that’s the reason why people are still fighting here, because they were always so organized and committed to what they were doing.

Séances is available at Fort van Sjakoo, San Serriffe, Boekie Woekie.

(1) Jeffrey and Cecilia Babcock, Séances’ – Re-wiring Images in the Amsterdam Underground, Amsterdam 2017, p.17.