Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Deep Past in "Kraaken"


My week in Amsterdam is ending, and it has been a doozy. A grand city, gilded with the architectural dust of antique empire, but a village for all that. There are many squats here, both legal and illegal, new and old. The movement -- “kraaken” – began in the 1960s, during the time of the Kabouters, the band of radical political provocateurs who were the successors to the infamous Provos of white bicycle fame. To get some handle on this past, I trotted to the International Institute for Social History, a grand imposing building, which houses a squatting archive. Actually it’s part of the state archive… but it’s all in Dutch. Thank goodness I’m into art! The archive was assembled by Eric Duivenvoorden, who also put together the magnificent book of posters, Met emmer en kwast. Veertig jaar Nederlandse actieaffiches 1965-2005. (That’s roughly “with bucket and paste, 40 years of Dutch action posters”—thanks to Google translate.) The book is packed with lovely posters, many of which are on the IISH website.
I also watched “It Was Our City,” a film about the Amsterdam squatters movement 1975-1988, made in 1996 by Joost Seelen. (Duivenvoorden co-wrote the scenario.) The story told in the film (subtitled in English) is both inspiring and cautionary. The squatting movement began in earnest in Amsterdam in the 1970s. It was about housing – too many of the few vacant buildings were being held off the market for speculation, and young people needed places to stay. The government’s housing bureaucracy was swamped and ineffective. One the “kraaken” of empty houses got underway, it was full speed ahead. The police finally reacted, the mutual violence escalated, and in the end the squatters were fighting amongst themselves.
Afficionadoes of “demo porn” would love this film. Once the police first attacked to clear a squatted house, the squatters got real about their defenses. The first defense of a house from eviction was entirely passive. The defenders were beaten. Next came the first real defense – doors and windows were barricaded, and as cops started climbing the ladder, the squatters poured oil on them. When they ran out of oil, one shouted, “It’s all gone, come and get us!” The event turned into a kind of slapstick. Old people were not so amused by the police tactics. “This is like the war,” they said, like the Nazis had come back.
The squatters trained, dressed with helmets and leather jackets, defensive sticks and gloves for the next confrontations. A kind of apogee was reached with the defense of the Big Keyzer Squat in 1978, a massive building owned by a big corporation, OGEM, with ministers and ex-ministers financially involved.
The “squatting surgery” barricaded the building with medieval ingenuity. First wooden sheets went up on the windows, then steel plates and pipes behind (these were welded), then scaffolding and sandbags. There’s much more… but that brief description is enough to clue you to the unique combative and entitled nature of Dutch squatting. As was explained to me later, Holland is a consensus society, where they try to appease everyone. It is far easier to give in to the legitimate demands of a militant band of organized squatters than it is to enforce the absolute property rights of big capital.
Today many squats exist, new and old. I visited one not too old, a small building called Joe’s Garage. The place is surprisingly neat and tidy, with tile-lined walls like a butcher’s shop or charcuterie, and well appointed with blond wooden tables and chairs. By no means my idea of a rough and tumble squat! There’s a bunch of folks around the bar, and at a table seated a bald-headed 30ish gent in leather pants. I smile and nod. He is not smiling. The soup is very good, with cress maybe and mushrooms, butter and flour. I pop a fiver into the “donatie” box, and the barkeep smiles and asks me if I want a beer. Yes, an ale. He’s never heard of it. I get a Jever. Everyone ignores me. Unlike Ramparts, I am not giving a talk, and I know no friend of the space. Two French girls enter. They order beers in English. Their entry is attended by much interest by some young men, but they sit by themselves and do not take soup. They are ignored. More folks arrive. I am pleased to see that it is multi-generational. One elderly lady arrives bearing a fat package.
Soon the dinner is ready. It’s a kind of bean fry up with pineapple! (“an experiment”) says one of the cooks. More folks enter; three English gals talking of their gay affairs. They are there to eat. But I must go, having played only the fly on the wall… Outside a raffish looking gent is smoking a cig. “Lovely meal,” I say. “The best café I’ve been to in Amsterdam.” He replies, “It’s not a café. It’s a social center for squatters.” This remark I thought was revealing. I think by “social center” he meant “social club.” Many squatters have their own idea of what they are about.
Nazima, a student writing an ethnography of Amsterdam squatters, had tipped me to Joe’s Garage. She asked me if I’d consulted Squat.net? Well, no. I’m really winging it here. Nazima was generous, but a little mystified by my project. My principle contact here is Renee Ridgway. She is an artist and long-time Amsterdammer, fluent in both Dutch and English. But during the first days of my visit she was laid up in bed. It took a while for us to meet…

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