On 23/02/2019 Amsterdam Alternative held a discussion panel on radicalism and counterculture. Olga van den Berg took part in the panel, Laura Schuster was in the audience. Many confronting questions came up in the group conversation and afterwards we found ourselves going over and over them in our heads. Is a radical counterculture still possible in an Amsterdam so dominated by commercialization and gentrification? Why is it so difficult for existing initiatives to join forces and together claim more room for open, nonconformist and noncommercial culture? Has the city really changed so much or is the gap between ‘old school’ radicalism and new activist networks more a generational issue? So we want to recap some of this.
Olga: How radical am I? Even though I myself didn’t feel like I had much to say about the subject in the panel, I do feel I have something to say about it in general. Being active in, or part of, a radical movement – or rather, we decided on a better phrase for it, counterculture – is not something you “do”, but more something you “are”. Back in 2001 I happened to stumble upon the location that is now known as the Nieuwe Anita, sort of by chance because I was part of a group of artists and theatre makers that were looking for a workspace.
I know how lucky I am, but then again, I did work my ass off to keep that space, to keep that open attitude, safe and warm and fair. In the years that we have been running the Nieuwe Anita we gradually became one of the most important alternative venues in the city. The radical part is, I think, where we are doing things different than the mainstream, i.e., offering an alternative to bigger and more commercially driven venues and theaters, providing a space where low-profile productions can still find a place to perform without having to worry about money too much.
Laura: Perhaps a distinction can be made between ‘radical’ (against mainstream politics) and ‘alternative’ (against mainstream culture)? The – let’s say – 1980s squatting generation is disappointed with the loss of anarchist ideals, some are tired of fighting to stay open or feel that today’s counterculture isn’t radical enough. But counterculture is not one thing that should always look the same. Why shouldn’t there be varying degrees of radicalism?
There is a great variety of spaces. Some are working more ‘with the system’ because they feel responsible for offering a stage to underground music, cinema, art and theater - to compensate for the loss of truly autonomous spaces like ADM. Some of the old squatting groups are using their experience more strategically to make a change in housing and social issues. OCCII still makes independent radio. Vrankrijk is a strong platform for queer culture. And all these spaces/groups have ties with other networks that have their own goals – festivals, art organizations, neighborhood activities, migrant support, climate activism. Some organizations don’t have a space anymore but still continue to exist. Focusing on different aspects, all of them spend huge amounts of time and energy on keeping open culture in this city alive.
Olga: Stable and silent protest is also a strategy. If you get the opportunity to buy your building, how can that be a bad thing? By securing the space to do what it is you feel important and sincere about, in a space you created for the city, isn’t that what it is all about? How leftwing would you like it? The fact that there are costs to cover, maintain the space and reimburse artists for their efforts and skills, how can that ever be a bad thing? I’m thinking about the criticism of small entrance fees, prices of food and drinks. That’s not a commercial plot, it’s just to cover the costs and keep spaces fun and open to everyone.
Laura: It came up that commercial and semi-alternative venues are also closing at an alarming rate – due to neighbor complaints, rising rental costs and other things – while legalized ex-squats feel suffocated by rules and regulations. Some temporary venues are ashamed of their forced role in planned gentrification. Squatting still exists but it’s so difficult - new cultural squats barely manage to stay open for a few months. So if the alternative is disappearing, you can choose to go down in protest or try to stay afloat somehow. Both are valid choices, if not ideal.
Olga: On gentrification, it’s true the city of Amsterdam is changing, but it always has been. Throughout the city’s history, Amsterdammers were exposed to new and faraway cultures. This is not, of course, to celebrate our colonial history, just think of slavery, but just to say that the Dutch are familiar with dealing with cultural difference and change. Claiming commercial spaces back from the powers that be (even if it is for a limited time) is a natural thing to do. It is very important to keep the city diverse and creative. And to not let all the good spaces get taken over by big multinationals. But this means hard work, for years on end. Change can only be made by being very persistent. And by working together wherever possible.
Laura: There was a lot of talk about connecting to ‘the younger generation’. Someone asked where the new student protests are and someone in the audience gave the answer: the kids are on climate (and on democratizing the university, and on inclusive culture). They have a lot on their plate and they don’t care as much about presenting an anarchist identity. They also can’t afford to spend as much time on activism as the pre-millennials could. And the old school can’t have it both ways: you can’t expect young kids to happily jump aboard and continue your work if it can’t be their version of your work.
Maybe we don’t need more agreement, just more awareness of what other groups are doing. It was important to see that ‘the underground’ is not run by a small group of people in charge, who all agree on everything. Everyone has to pick their own battles.
Olga: And if that means going along with the rules for a bit, so be it. It is not bad to adjust to the laws in a way, if that means you get to stay somewhere for a longer time. Also I think that gives you a stronger position in making the city see your way. If you keep kicking the laws and rules, which I have to admit are getting pretty tight, you will never get the chance to be taken seriously by the government. And don’t forget, rules are meant to be broken and bent sometimes, but there are limits. My feelings after the discussion were somewhere between disappointment and sadness, I do agree with squatting, of course, but how can people not realize that that is always of a temporarily nature?
Laura: I think we should look at solidarity in a different way: many alternative networks still see themselves as a subculture that so strongly defines itself against the mainstream, it ends up being pretty homogenous. I was never comfortable with that, so in that sense I don’t mind things changing. If we let go of the identity myth that the underground is a kind of brotherhood, maybe more people will fit in there.
Let’s face it, the underground needs all the support it can get. And we are united in what we’re up against: Amsterdam turning into London. These places and their squatting history really are at risk - either of disappearing or of becoming cool anecdotes, ‘authentic decors’ for bland commercialism with a smear of anarchist lipstick.