Monday, June 13, 2011

Slammin' at Joe's Garage

Joe's Garage is a storefront social center in Amsterdam, and the site of the recent “mini-SQEK” meeting of squat researchers in early June. The center is amongst a web of streets named after the Dutch founders of South Africa (Afrikaaners). For years this nabe was the home of immigrants living in social housing, and now the relentless pressure of the city's housing market has led to a cycle of speculation, evictions, and redevelopment as luxury condos. Amsterdam's squatting group east has conducted a campaign of occupation and tenant organizing against this gentrification. The center is named for Joe McCarthy – not the U.S. rightwing senator from Wisconsin, really, but another, Joe Cyrus McCarthy, an Iranian who backed the Shah and fled to Amsterdam after Khomeini came to power. This Joe bought a house, Momo our host told us, with black money and intimidated the rental tenants into moving out. Amsterdam real estate, we were told, is a perfect setup for black money and the creeps who handle it. It's a laundry circle – a house is worth 150K full of tenants, and a million empty. But Joe was found out by the authorities, Momo said. He fled the country to avoid prosecution, and the squatters grabbed his house. This was the first Joe's Garage, which they held for seven years. (Relatives of the owner took them to court, but could not prove they owned the building.) Because of the irony of his name, the squatters used Charlie Chaplin as a symbol. (Chaplin was expelled from the U.S. as a communist during McCarthy's blacklist crusade.) In 2008 the water cannons of the police appeared at the door of Joe's Garage at 6:30 in the morning. It was time to move... across the street!
Nazima, a U.S. anthropology student, has been studying the squatters of Amsterdam for several years, immersing herself in their anti-gentrification campaigns. She shared her work, which is basically concerned with the internal dynamics of the squatter movement itself. She traces the dyamics and trajectory of activists' “careers in the movement as a scripted path to self-realization and autonomy.” She spent a while discussing conflict – the kind of thing artist Seth Tobocman limns so well in his graphic novel about NYC squats, “War in the Neighborhood” (1999). Through her work one can see how a squatted house can fail internally before it is evicted.
Cesar presented his work on the Italian social center movement in Milan in the mid-1970s, the high tide of the radical left. In only two years, between 1975 and '77, 35 illegal social centers opened in Milan – (among them were today's survivors Leon Cavallo and Cox 18). The city became a point of diffusion of the movement to other cities in Italy and abroad, especially Spain. Tino Buchholz, who just finished a film about Amsterdam called “Creativity and the Capitalist City,” reported on the big Hamburg meeting of Right to the City, which was nearly simultaneous with our conclave.
Miguel told us more about Spain, especially the encampment in the Puerta del Sol (which is packing up even as I write this – the first phase is over, but this movement is by no means finished). On the 15th of of May, Miguel went to the plaza with 500 people in the autonomist and libertarian bloc. There they found themselves in a crowd of 15,000, and their objections melted away. The group which had called the demonstration decided to occupy the plaza, and Miguel's bloc joined them under conditions they had not previously agreed to – i.e., no violence, reformist claims on the democratic system, talking to the mass media, etc. “But we liked that this demonstration was forbidden, management was absolutely horizontal, and no flags – even the anarchist flags were forbidden. Finally, taking the public space – we wanted always to mobilize people in the street.... Finally it was a very autonomous movement, even for people who never listened to the word 'autonomy' – it was absolutely new.” There were many problems, with homeless people, sexist attitudes by men, excessive drinking (a condition of this touristical square at any time), and a lack of political memory. “But the truth is that something changed. Now even squat social centers which didn't work together in the past are working together in this occupation.” (That is, the huge permitted social center in a government building called Tabacalera, and some illegal centers are working together. Recently, excellent analytic texts in English on this movement have appeared on the Transversal website and
Hans Pruijt took on what he called an emerging argument among intellectuals that squatting is a precursor of neoliberalism. He outlined the reasons -- among them, that squatters and social centers are plugging holes left by the retreating state with their giveaway shops, language classes, free food, etc. This led to a lively discussion, particularly about the ways in which the squatting movement across Europe has become a sort of training ground for future managers and politicians.
While the “mini-SQEK” was fascinating as ever, I had also other fish to fry in Amsterdam. (The herring are running, and I ate some raw with chopped onions and pickles at a stand parked on a canal bridge.) I had an assignment in Amsterdam., to make a talk at the W139 art space. They were hosting a show by British artist Jonathan Monk – (Glasgow trained) – which was a kind of spectacular gloss on a 1989 show of “East Village” artists called “Horn of Plenty,” a show at the Stedelijk Museum which had influenced Monk as a student. He had W139 drop the ceiling on the spectacular interior space to exactly his own height while wearing high heels. The drop concealed about 10 meters of light-filled gallery, creating a bizarrely institutional environment to look at installation photographs of the 1990 exhibition. I had been recommended to the lanky director of W139, Tim Voss, to talk about the East Village district, aka the Lower East Side, “back in the day” – 1980s and '90s... but, typically, perversely, I talked about the Lower East Side in the 1960s. (If you're interested, a script of that talk will soon be posted on the “House Magic” website with the related Rote Flora show materials.) I'm afraid it was something of a mismatch. Monk is a very interesting artist, but political he is not. He seemed a little bewildered as I blathered on about Ben Morea, Valerie Solanas, Tuli Kupferberg, Bullet Space, Fly, ABC No Rio and the Rivington School – the standard roster of crusty heroes and heroines of the rebel LES. They are all really remote from the artists of the 1989 “Horn” show (at the time my gang called them the “neo-geos”). We did all agree that when there's no opportunities, artists really have to do it for themselves. (Jonathan did it in Glasgow, with his schoolmates.)
W139 is a prime example. It was squatted in 1979. I met Ad de Jong at Monk's opening party, a graphic designer and one of the original bunch who “cracked” the building. He told how a fellow wandered in then, a “financial guy,” who said his gang could secure the building for a long time if they did something for the community. So they made it a real art space. Now the W139 group owns the building, which has been beautifully renovated as one of the biggest cultural spaces in the center. It has a huge downstairs – which the artists' collective Jochen Schmith has asphalted(!), a bizarre floor treatment which made the opening party edgy with the tinkle of beer bottles just aching to be smashed... A friend of the crew later drove his custom made open road motorcycle around the place, making a hell of a lot of noise and a nice tire mark on the wall – it seemed superbly elegant and appropriate to the installation.
W139 is in the center, very close to the central station. They are surrounded now by “coffee shops” which sell marijuana and other intoxicants, and a stone's throw from the red light district where goggle-eyed young men oogle the ladies in their glass-fronted cages on the street.
What with the mini-SQEK and the talk for W139, I didn't have much of a chance to check out other squat scenes. Amsterdam abounds in them, past and present, despite the recent anti-squatting law. I made it to Schijnheilig (Shine-High-lig), a squatted cultural center in an old school which was hosting a music and concrete poetry night. (“It was in Dutch,” Renée Ridgway told me, to console me since I missed the performance.) Vincent Boschma, my host at W139, told me this place is due to be evicted in a wave of police actions against squatters next week. (Vincent was also busy with his installation in a deserted shopping center – but the artists did not squat, instead they have been allowed to use it) Although they will soon lose the place, the Schijnheilig was squatted by a group which reckons with being kicked out, just like the Really Free School in London. They will go on to another place after this. Renée and I went up to her place with Alan Smart. (She has a studio in the Kinkestraat, a famous old squat gone legal.) There we looked at Alan's collection of Provo and Kabouter documents, lovingly gathered from various antiquarian book shops. The vitality, creativity, and pure Dutch cheek of these movements is still palpable from these well-made (albeit cheaply produced) old pamphlets and books.
On my last day I biked around to look at Binnenpret and OCCI, two relatively recent squatted spaces out along the Overtoom, a busy street that runs near one side of the Vondel Park. Binnenpret is a complex of low buildings. One, an important venue for new music and punk bands in the city, has been renovated in some bizarre traditional manner. It is all tarted up with bright colors on bare wood, and looks like a postcard Swiss chalet. In the courtyard of Binnenpret, a complex of projects in small buildings, it's hippie-land. A bare-breasted Dutch couple darted out of the collective sauna to check the weather in the courtyard: “Oh, it's raining!,” and went back in. The lovely cafe, a glass-fronted jewel-box with a charming garden outside it was closed. Another joint, Ot301, is a giant dark 1955 office or school building fronting on a courtyard. Downstairs a finely tricked-out space is important for new music. The guy working there couldn't tell me about anything else going on in the building... but somewhere in there is the graphic design group Experimental Jetset. They are working on the legalization and contract for Ot301, visiting other places that began as squats to get ideas. Their last pit stop was ABC No Rio in New York. It's a small world after all....

Joe's Garage, een autonoom sociaal centrum in een kraakpand in oost amsterdam

Hamburg Right to the City conference in early June, 2011, an invitation to invites to collective confusions, encounters and diversions.

Creativity and the capitalist city, the struggle for affordable space in Amsterdam, a film by Tino Buchholz.
(see also a trailer on YouTube)

i don't yet do this Twitter thing, but if you do, the hashtag for the 15th of May movement is #spanishrevolution

the contemporary art space W139

I will soon post the W139 texts to the House Magic website part which has related content, "Rote Flora solidarity show Spring 2011"

Schijnheilig, a nomadic collective in Amsterdam doing a queer venture of creative activism and critical yadda yadda

OCCII | Onafhankelijk Cultureel Centrum In It


OT301 home/news, studios/parties, cinema, de peper, gallery, agenda, archive ...