Monday, May 13, 2013

Travels in the North Country II: Tales of Squattings Past

My days at the Quartair art space in The Hague, the seat of government in Holland, were something of a blur. Between the demands of making the House Magic display, and the active social life of my artist hosts, I let go of my research agenda and fell into art life. Being in Den Haag then continued on from the pubby whirl of Dublin in a kind of social hangover – and not so metaphorical! I have always loved artists. They sacrifice what most other people value for the enormous privilege of leading an interesting life. This life is mainly organized outside normal channels of regimented capitalist society, and can be a very pleasant place to be...
The Dutch sociologist Hans Abbing, who wrote “Why Are Artists Poor?: The Exceptional Economy of the Arts,” works with the Warsaw-based group Fast Slow University, members of whom I met at the workers' inquiry conference at Essex (I will discuss in a later post on this blog). While I don't know Abbing's work, I assume he cannot be unaware of the pleasures of poverty as artists know it. They are the same as drove monks and hermits in earlier ages to seek communion with the divine through communal life. (I picked up a copy of Thomas Cahill's “How the Irish Saved Civilization” in Dublin, and chewed on it throughout my Hague days; so call me a neo-medieval romantic!)
I only once discussed my research project on artists' squatting with our hosts at Quartair, in an informal chat during my first evening there. Pieterje van Splunter and Marlies Adriaanse both lapsed into a deep melancholic silence punctuated by sighs as they reflected upon the early days of the Quartair project, when it had been a squat, open and free. All the stories and rich depth of the experience of full creative autonomy was contained in that silence. But I did nothing to open it up.
The building which houses Quartair was only one part of a large baking factory complex which was squatted. It was located quite near the royal palace stables, and in its day, the bakery was large enough to need a narrow-gauge railroad track to convey raw materials from the street to the mixing rooms. So the artists had quite a playground! The squatters were moved out of the main buildings of the bakery, which have since been converted into housing for students, and they have only one left, although it is very large.
They formed an alliance with Stroom, an art service and public art exhibiting agency in Den Haag. In the years before they had their own space, Stroom took over the exhibition rooms during the winter months, when they were expensive to heat, and the artists of Quartair had them during the warmer days. The artists have studios and rooms upstairs, and I stayed in one of these with the Artcodex group which had invited me into their “Ghost Modernism” project.
Quartair then was hooked up early on with the mainstream instituions of the artworld in their town. So it seems to be for the artist-squatters in other Dutch towns. They have a lot of room to maneuver, and a subsidy from the government to run a studio program for visiting artists. Despite the recent draconian cutbacks in Dutch cultural funding, I and the other artists of the U.S. group were actually reimbursed for the cost of materials incurred in making our work, in addition to some food expenses and free lodging during the weeks of residency. If this strikes some readers as paltry, be aware that many art residencies now charge their “guests” like hotels (although the rates are usually very low), and artists are almost never reimbursed for any expenses they incur in making exhbitions.
Even as she helped out us artists from New York, Marlies was preparing for her own residency, a visit to Toronto called “Dutch Settlement,” in which she and other Quartairians planned to produce various creative social events (opens May 31).*
The cry of the NYC artists' group WAGE – “We demand payment for making the world more interesting!” – goes largely unheard. The result, of course, is that art is almost always a gift to the world, more and more often proferred by a person who can afford to give it, that is, someone from a privileged class background. Artists try to be oblivious to these kinds of facts, that is, they don't generally pay much attention to the systemic problems of their economy or the social distortions that it may introduce. They don't inquire where the wine comes from. They are basically too busy trying to get by, to manage the strange arrangements they almost invariably live by, strategems that rely on social solidarity in order to succeed. Squatting is one of these strategies – but for most artists, it is a passage, not a way of living.
The product of artists' social solidarity is continuous provision for their living and working, but it is also art itself. During our stay at Quartair, we were invited to an event remembering Henk Peeters (Henk Pay-terz), a venerable artist and teacher who had died little more than a week earlier. Henk Peeters organized the Dutch section of the Zero group, an international radical avant-garde of the early 1960s which advanced abstraction to the point of non-object status. They had anti-market, anti-commodity values, philosophies, really, and semi-collective practices. (Their understanding of the market system of art, and observance of its norms, seems not to have enabled them to cohere in the face of its pressures – but this is the story of many artists' collectives, and continues to be an issue as long as the money flag waves.) Peeters had a distinguished career as a teacher in Den Haag. His work as what the French call an animateur, however, while it is a “service to the field,” does not earn an artist respect from galleries or museums, and Peeters had long since given up showing his work.
The artist duo Topp & Dubbio quickly organized a kind of object and performance art promenade along the long pier of Den Haag as a tribute to Henk Peeters. The artist had decades earlier unsuccessfully proposed a grand avant-garde exhibition on the pier. Today it is semi-derelict, since the city ran out of resources to maintain it. Tenants there don't pay rent, I was told, and a futuristic disc-like building is used as a bizarre kind of casino, apparently without customers. There was then no one around to complain about the art posters which had been pasted up on various pier structures, nor the sculptural interventions into its decaying boardwalk.
During this kind of latter-day Fluxtour, Marlies and Jessy Rahman, our most constant hosts at Quartair, performed along with the other artists at different spots along the pier. Marlies made a pot of coffee using a gas burner on the windy pier then pitched it into the sea. Jessy performed an honoring ritual from his native Surinam, sprinkling rice on the wooden deck. He asked us to toss some paper rings – “Zeros” – into the waves lapping the shore.
The event was utterly devoid of piety or conventional memorializing. It was however full of nonsense of a highly serious order. The final perforamnce featured three of Henk's friends entirely covering the head of one with shaving cream, until it resembled a large white cloud. (“Is it warm in there?” someone inquired, since the wind was fierce. “Yes, very.”)
To explain this kind of memorial, I can only offer an anecdote I heard about the service for the Fluxus artist Nam June Paik in New York. He was lying in his coffin, when an old friend arrived and cut off the end of his necktie. Nearly everyone in attendance then began to cut off the ends of every tie on every neck they could find. (Where'd they get the scissors? Ah!)
While Paik made his peace with the markets and institutions of art and thereby achieved fame, many of his cohort did not. Honoring the spirit of their work is more important to artists than honoring their mortal existence.
On my last day I took part in a talk, “Squatting – What Next?” a discussion about “squatting & creative anarchy.” Mike Estabrook and Vandana Jain of Artcodex invited Rutger van Ree from Amsterdam to talk. They had met him the year before in Amsterdam. He had invited them to the “Winter Games” at the giant ADM squat in an industrial area of the city. They showed me the photos of wild outdoor events in which fire was liberally combined with the ice covering Holland during that season. In his talk, Rutger outlined the options for artists to live in the cities today: They may rent, but that has drawbacks; they may accept an “anti-squatting” spot – it's a job, actually, where the “renter” works as a security guard in an empty property, but has no rights as a tenant, and is severely restricted in activities permitted. Or they can squat, which is now illegal in Holland, or finally buy, which few can afford.
Sutapa Chatterji, my colleague from SqEK, came up from Maastricht for the talk together with her little daughter. She's a charming girl, and a dead ringer for Dora the Explorer! As Rutger talked, Hans Pruijt appeared on his fold-up bicycle. Sutapa spoke about the situation of immigrants in Europe in relation to squatting. They were the demons the right wing had invoked to get the law passed against squatting. Hans offered deep perspectives from his activist days in the 1970s. Both SqEKers greatly enriched the conversation among the small group in attendance, and I was glad they were able to come. I gave a brief tour through the “fence” display, pointing to the pictures which illustrate the extremely rich 40+ year history of political and cultural squatting in Europe and the USA.
The next morning I was in Amsterdam, booked into a hostel next door to the principal object of my trip, W139, the art space on Warmoesstraat which began in 1979 as a squat. W139 is now a well-regarded state-supported venue for contemporary art. The last time I was there at the invitation of the director, Tim Voss. He had invited me to talk about the Lower East Side art scene of the 1980s as part of a show by Jonathan Monk. Monk's installation was a highly metaphorical consideration of that same NYC LES, or, rather, “East Village art scene,” which he had known as a student. Monk had a dropped ceiling built over the entire extent of the space, just the height of himself in high heels. A catalogue of a show of East Village appropriation artists – Jeff Koons is the best known – recalled the “winners” of that phase of DIY artworld frenzy, artists who emerged from it with solid international careers.
At the same time, another group had paved the entire floor of the gallery with asphalt. After the opening, one of the friends of W139 drove a custom-built motorcycle around the room, making an incredible racket and delighting the daylights out of me and the cleanup crew.
Tim's projects somehow proved too much for the W139 directors, and his contract was terminated. Still, when I arrived, I was warmly received by the business manager Jowon. The gallery was closed for renovation, since they had decided to remove the asphalt floor which I first saw installed the year before. (The stink of it had long since dissipated.) With the dropped ceiling gone, I could see for the first time the enormous height of the W139 gallery. It is a space you could, indeed, hang an airplane in. At that moment I understood an aspect of Monk's piece. By dropping the ceiling, like the triumphal museum exhibition of 1980s art he was recollecting, he closed off all sense of possibility and expansion at W139. It must have struck the artists of Amsterdam as profoundly depressing. To me, it was perfectly consonant with the historical outcome of the moment Monk was recalling, the “triumph” of the approriation artists in the East Village gallery scene. All other modes of working, like the famously demonized neo-expressionist painting, graffiti, and political practice – were suddenly erased from consideration as “important art.” The high heels? Well, you know, you gotta walk the walk if you want to get over in the artworld.
Jowon invited me to stay in the unoccupied guest room behind W139, and again I was struck by the extraordinary generosity and hospitality of this place and its people. As a longtime artist organizer and late historian of DIY and counterculture in NYC, I could get the time of day and a free drink at an opening there, but not a great deal more. (I admit that has been changing a bit lately. As Tom Otterness told me, “How can we miss you if you won't go away?” So I did!)
I happily moved out of the rock 'n' roll hostel with the urinals shaped like giant lips – (red light district, yeah?) – and into the back room at W139. There in the yard behind the buildings that face out on the crowded touristic street, I could hear birds in the morning. The entire block of these buildings was squatted in the 1970s. The city government had planned to pull them all down and build an enormous parking garage. I had no idea how this could ever have made sense to anybody. Certainly it didn't to the citizens of Amsterdam. That's why they supported the mass squattings of many lovely vacant buildings marked for demolition.
The W139 was the abandoned warehouse of a nearby department store. In the depressed Amsterdam economy of the 1970s and early '80s, they didn't really know what to do with it, besides use it as a warehouse for construction. The squatters on the block – called the Blaulokkenblok, for the laundry often seen hanging there – used it as a kind of bank of materials, poaching from the store with the indulgence of the foreman of construction. Finally, the department store let go of the building, nudged by some veiled threats to their plate glass windows.
Then began nearly a decade of free experiment as the place became also a production center for art. Shows were announced by posters plastered on the facade of the building. These reached sometimes enormous dimensions, as the bedsheet-sized examples hanging in the guest room reveal. Many of the casual tourists may have been scared to come into this very punk-identified venue, and the rough neighborhood of junkies, hookers and crooks suppressed commercial development. Artists, however, relished the freedom to experiment, the possibilities of the enormous space itself, and the jolly community to be found there, nearly all of whom lived in the squatted houses nearby.
Over the years, along with the houses of the Blaulokkenblok, W139 legalized and formalized, receiving subsidies to renovate and continue as a center for contemporary art. They set up a system of temporary directors, whereby one person would have control of the directi of the space for a limited number of years. Ths system combined the best of artistic direction (a wise autocracy beats committee work in aesthetics nearly every time), while avoiding the ossification which can follow with a permanent director. Most of this I have from my conversation with Ad de Jong, one of the original artist founders of the place, and for some time its director.
Ad is one of those generous and committed individuals who make cultural life exciting. (The artworld alas, is more full of those who channel, direct and extract value from it.) He has taken the lessons of W139 and its early wild days into teaching, consistently urging art students to organize their own affairs rather than waiting to be allowed to do something. This is really not as easy and self-evident as it may sound. Artists basically just want to do their work, and let someone else take care of any necessary arrangements, although in most cases that really doesn't work out very well.
Oddly, it was in Amsterdam that I learned more about the art squatting scene in Den Haag, from an artist who lived there while working at W139. Sara told me of the artists squatting the long-abandoned Congolese embassy in the ritzy part of Den Haag where the foreign missions to the Dtuch crown are housed. She also told me of another party house, a squatted art gallery and the notorious Pirate Bar. (Hans and I had bicycled out there, but it was, like many squat venues, closed when we got there.)
The artists at Quartair, absorbed in their own lives and careers, had not kept track of the younger artists' ventures. Their historic institutional partner, Stroom, advertises artists' studios on their website which are managed by the anti-squatting companies. Now that squatting is officially against the law – (although that law was by no means uncontested in its passage, and its application can also be half-hearted in practice) – the official art agencies seem to have let it go as anything that might possibly concern them.
In Amsterdam, however, the practice rolls on. As Hans Pruijt pointed out in his talks at our SqEK meetings, the people of Amsterdam appreciated the improvements in civic life that the squatting movements have brought to their civic life – and there have been many of them, along more or less generational divides. I met Rutger van Ree there for a kind of informal tour of some of these, although it turned out to be more of an elegaiac look at places of contest and eviction. Chief among these were the immense buildings on a canal which had been evicted and converted to luxury housing. These had once housed hundreds of artists and studios, and were crowned by a pirate radio station reached only by a precarious metal ladder along the outside of the building which wobbled in the wind.
Rutger described himself as principally into parties and politics – but not as one might think! The connection with festivity and occupation would remain somewhat obscure to me until I visited Brighton (in the next episode).
We finished up at a bar at Overtoom, a large former film academy squatted some years back and legalized as art spaces, recording studio, etc. I had visited it two years before, and recall the interesting graffiti and charmingly informal air. Now the halls are all painted with a nice, but unmistakably institutional decorative scheme. After meeting Deanna Dadusc, we cycled off to the Vondelbunker. This place was described to me as a squat, although later I was told it was also legalized. It was built as a fallout shelter, and it is still full of the air filtration systems and bicycle pump power setups of those long-ago paranoid times. Talk turned to the impending coronation of a new Dutch king, and nostalgia for the days of riots which marked the last great royal event when the squatters' movement was large.
The next morning I was off to England on the ferry boat, the stately Stena line. It's not the cheapest way to go, but it offers the luxury of a private cabin at very little cost, and a chance to digest my experiences and prepare for the rest of the trip. I needed to recalibrate, from artist to researcher. Upon landing, I resumed my journey, taking a very long train ride to Brighton, a one-time hotbed of squatting in Britain...

* I must mention this coincidence – Artists from Quartair are doing a show this May in Ottawa called “Dutch Settlement.” It's part of an exchange with artists there. The PR: “From an empty building with squatters to an officially recognized non-profit cultural breeding ground, Quartair was founded in 1992 by a group of young artists after graduating from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in The Hague. Quartair is located at The Hague Bread Factory, built in 1902, on the Toussaintkade. Serendipitously, in 1992, when recent art graduates from Ottawa University were looking for studio spaces, they set up shop in the abandoned Standard Bread Factory in Ottawa. They became the Enriched Bread Artists (EBA).” EBA was not squatted, but rented. Today it is an artist studio co-op. “During the opening, Quartair artists will evoke the unique ‘do it yourself’ atmosphere that compelled them to squat... over twenty years ago.” The story of the setting up of EBA is also quite charming.


Transparent Studio: Interview with Artcodex, the NYC art group I worked with in Den Haag

A discussion of Dutch economist Hans Abbing's work in the context of economic research by artists at:

art manifestation on the Pier in Scheveningen in honour of the Dutch avant-garde artist Henk Peeters

A brief history of W139

Photo: A view through the green colored tube at the Scheveningen pier event for Henk Peeters

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