First Aid in Case of Art: 20 Years of OT301 in Context
Rupturing the Urban Fabric
It’s been twenty years since a group of activists squatted the old Amsterdam film school on the Overtoom 301. It was 14 November 1999 and the occupation was led by a collective of artists who called themselves EHBK (Eerste Hulp Bij Kunst – First Aid in Case of Art). The name was a pun on the abbreviation for the Dutch emergency services. Nonetheless, it also communicated the ethos of the group: here is a collective that refuses to shy away from organised action should the city’s (sub)cultural infrastructure be threatened. The concrete threat at hand was the eviction of the squat at Onze Lieve Vrouwen Gasthuis, one of the city’s subcultural hotspots at the time, which had left a number of cooperative initiatives homeless. Like many of their comrades in the alternative movements, EHBK was driven by the belief that taking care of Amsterdam’s cultural anti-establishment was a matter of caring for the city as such. Their belief was that a metropolis such as Amsterdam needs rupture along the seams of its regular fabric to produce the colours of a different, more rousing and emancipative urban texture. In their view, where otherwise would novelty, creativity or cultural innovation come from if not from those gript by being singular and uncommon, living otherwise and creating an alternative world of their own? Let’s produce the ruptures in the urban fabric, they said, so that the city can be more colourful.
Up until the turn of the millennium, Amsterdam’s cultural scene was largely built on a strong and lively underground scene. Anyone with a shard of interest in the city’s cultural development knows what it owes to the networked infrastructure of squats that hosted a vivacious scene of diverse subcultures. Today’s nightlife sanctuaries such as Melkweg or Paradiso are only a couple of prominent monuments to the significance of the underground for mainstream culture. Perhaps more crucially it was embodied in the speculative delirium that captivated visitors of the Robodock festivals or the sublime weirdness that drew the crowds to each and every spectacle at ADM wharf. These were moments when the ruptures along the seams of the city’s fabric cleft into veritable rabbit holes, inviting Alice and all her friends to tumble down into the wonderland of collective cultural imagination. However, in order to produce these supreme moments of urban bliss, an infrastructure needed to be in place where imagination and weirdness could thrive. Such an infrastructure was provided by Amsterdam’s squats and the culturally rich and diverse projects they hosted.
OT301 consciously situated itself within this convention. However, by 1999 when the old film academy on the Overtoom 301 was squatted, the extraordinary period in which underground subculture was the driver and trendsetter for urban popular culture and the arts, was already dimming to a close. While it took another eleven years for the Dutch government’s imprudent ban on squatting to take effect, in 1999 the Internet boom was in full swing and capital was spilling over onto the real estate market. The nineties were the decade in which the development frenzy started, turning our city into the paradise of real estate speculation and unaffordable housing it is today. Prior to that, squatters had played a very positive role in preventing extreme forms of anti-social real estate practices. The gedoogbeleid that effectively decriminalized squatting (in the case when squatters could prove that the building in question had been unoccupied for a year) was a good motivation for owners to keep their property occupied and away from speculation.
Amsterdam’s Neoliberal Reconstruction
In the nineties, Amsterdam’s city government laid the groundwork for the current neoliberal reconstruction of the city. It soon became clear that squatting and visions of a more inclusive and colourful city were in conflict with the ideological turn that city planning was taking. The wave of evictions, particularly around the Southern shore of the IJ, brought an entire era of cultural dynamism to an abrupt end. Perhaps symptomatic for the nature of the transformation was the conversion of Pakhuis Afrika, then a thriving centre of subculture, into a temple of neoliberal ideology. Where Amsterdam had been famous for a wildly progressive cultural scene within an economically run-down urban environment, it was now time to invest in an infrastructure that could attract creative businesses and technological innovation. This, of course, was the famous credo of the so-called creative class, popularised in the early noughties by the US-American geographer Richard Florida. Florida’s legendary $50.000 a day visit to Amsterdam in 2003 gave the city’s administration the star-sanctioned pseudo-legitimization to lift creativity onto the political agenda.
Now, what could be wrong with a policy that makes your city more creative? Indeed, one of the strengths of the creative city argument was that nobody in their right mind could seriously object to something as positive as creativity. To policy makers it was even more attractive as it promised an exciting detour around the complex and often lacklustre issues that city planning generally involves. The problem of course was that the creativity they had in mind was a very specific variety, one that had much more to do with business models and technological innovation than it had with cultural transgression, aesthetic experimentation and collective emancipation. What was lost in Amsterdam’s creative transformation was precisely the measure of autonomy that had made the city Europe’s beacon of cultural creativity. It is a particularly mean historical irony that the culturally rich and dynamic Amsterdam of the nineties that served as a model for Florida’s theory; was all but destroyed by the application of this very theory.
The city’s well-intended cultural incubator policy could do relatively little to change the course of things. It was initially intended as a way of containing the catastrophic effects of the evictions of the late nineties and early noughties on the city’s (sub)culture. With the founding of Bureau Broedplaatsen in 2000, the slogan “No Culture without Subculture” became synonymous with official city policy. The early history of OT301 is closely connected to the formation of this policy. Without the support of those edified members of the city administration, civil servants who later shaped and were members of Bureau Broedplaatsen, OT301 would have been promptly evicted. Funding from Bureau Broedplaatsen also supported the renovation of the building and underwrote the loan that allowed EHBK to become collective owners of the place. Yet, while EHBK was clearly a great beneficiary of cultural incubator policy, it is difficult to say whether the policy’s positive effects – such as affordable studio and workspaces for creative professionals – aren’t in fact more than offset by its obvious complicity in the city’s uncompromising gentrification.
What Happened to Autonomy?
Where then does the trajectory of these last twenty years leave OT301 today? How do we deal with the fact that the two decades of our existence have been a time in which the city has lost much of its autonomous cultural infrastructure, in which the ruptures have been smeared up with a precarious mixture of neoliberal ideology, witless creativity and mammoth amounts of capital? What does it mean to be one of the few remaining spaces in Amsterdam that stays committed to a notion of autonomy even though we understand that our autonomy today is a far cry from the squatters’ ambition to be resolutely independent from the state and market economics? Indeed, what kind of responsibility does it put on our collective shoulders to have been fortunate enough to carve out this sustainable little crevice in the neoliberal city?
These are some of the crucial points of issue that OT301’s future practice will need to find effective answers to. One of the things that continue to keep the collective on its toes is its radically democratic form of organisation. In our homonymous 2014 publication we called this “autonomy by dissent”: a cacophony of internal voices that so far have made an integration of the project into the cultural mainstream utterly impossible. This does not mean that OT301 hasn’t contributed at all to the gentrification of our neighbourhood Oud-West. Neither does it preclude the occasional member from joining the ranks of foolish creatives whose work is functionalized by smart city planners. While we are not always fully aware of the ambivalences of all the aspects of our existence, we try to do our best to put the struggle for autonomy back on the agenda.
OT301 Today: Taking Responsibility Together
An example of our practical attempts to do this is the creation of Amsterdam Alternative by OT301, OCCII, Cinetol and a number of other parties. This is a platform that attempts to create a conversation between the city’s remaining vrijplaasten and the new generation of activist projects that strive for timely practices of autonomy. It started in 2015 as a free, bimonthly newspaper combining subculture listings and journalistic content concerning the city’s (sub)cultural and political developments. Today Amsterdam Alternative has developed into a platform that also organises the AA-talk series as a podium for more direct engagement with current issues. It also includes an initiative on collective ownership with the ambition to fund alternative vrijplaatsen for a new generation of activists who care for the city by creating a thriving underground.
While OT301 is an important partner within the Amsterdam Alternative ecosystem, efforts are also made with regard to our internal projects and programmes, to reach out to millennials and post-millennials. EHBK understands its responsibility towards the younger generations. Unfortunately, there are too many former squats in Amsterdam that missed their moment to involve a new generation of activists in their spaces. This is quite a tragedy as these ossified projects have basically been turned into exclusive retirement homes that retrospectively delegitimize Amsterdam’s squatter subculture. Fortunately, OT301 has a multitude of public facing projects that help prevent any signs of cultural sclerosis. On our twentieth birthday, OT301’s activities range from club nights of any imaginable shape or form, to the excellent vegan cuisine at De Peper, from exhibitions, workshops and performances at 4Bid Gallery to the underground and alternative film programme at Cinema of the Damn’d. On offer too is an eclectic mix of aerial gymnastics, dance, martial arts, yoga, therapeutic message and ping-pong nights, a prestigious artist residency, plus ad hoc and regular programming in the individual and collective studio spaces. All of which is done in the spirit of providing the community of guests and members the opportunity to experience an alternative to the vacuous commercial culture that is suffocating our city.
Space for Radical Imagination
Let’s make no mistake, the timeworn subculture and underground scene are unable to provide the younger generations a template for their struggle for an alternative to the aesthetic poverty of our time. The youth should navigate their own alternative way. What they are up against today are forms of power and control that are more oppressive and opaque than what they were some twenty years ago. Particularly the Internet and social media have turned into instruments of what the British cultural theorist Mark Fisher (aka k-punk) called “consciousness deflation”. This is the opposite of the collective consciousness raising with which the feminist movement enabled women to recognise and then fight against the well-hidden social forms of oppression. Consciousness deflation keeps people in their place by hyper-individualising their existence and teaching them that they are in constant competition with one another. This debilitating brainwash has led to an atmosphere in which it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of neoliberal capitalism. Fisher spoke of this in terms of “capitalist realism”: an ideology that has convinced us that there is no alternative to seeing every interaction in society as a business transaction. You are, in essence, an entrepreneur of your self; so invest your life in such a way as to make the most profit from it!
Those of us who had the great fortune of growing up with the experience of collective action, of imaginative deliria, of being able to create our own underground and subculture have the responsibility of sharing the space we were able to save from the steamroller of capitalist realism. We don’t have all the answers that the youth are looking for but we’ve got spaces from which the struggle against neoliberal consciousness deflation can be waged. What we are able to offer the younger generation is an experience that lies outside the breathless boredom of the creative city. Such an experience of having a safe space outside the commercial mainstream is what shaped us. By opening our spaces to the young we can help them to kill their inner entrepreneur that capitalist realism relentlessly implants. For the big challenges of our time – from the climate crisis to mass migration and the rise of fascism – we need a young generation that understands; and, by the way, understands better than most of us; that we need cultural experimentation combined with radical political imagination.
Let’s use our spaces to facilitate a new generation of activists that can rupture the ideology of capitalist realism, smash the great swindle of the creative city, and help build a future that is desirable for all, instead of one for the rich and powerful.
This article is part of the book ‘OT301 - 20 Years of Art and Autonomy’.
The book can be ordered from Friday 14th of November at www.abnormaldataprocessing.com