Interview: Artists in Occupy Amsterdam
The Occupy Amsterdam encampment at the Beursplein
NICK AIKENS: I want to speak about Artists in Occupy Amsterdam. When did you go to the Beursplein and what did you do?
A PARTICIPANT IN ARTISTS IN OCCUPY AMSTERDAM: At the end of last year, for two months, 25 artists ran a collective five-by-five-metre army tent, as an artists’ studio in the Occupy Amsterdam camp. In the tent we ran a daily reading group on the relationship between art and politics, we gave seminars to art and university students, developed campaigns and ran a lecture programme. It started with five of us, but it quickly became clear that the issues addressed by the international Occupy movement were of great interest to a wider community of politically engaged artists and academics.
NA: How would you define the ‘issues addressed by the Occupy movement’ and what role do you see for artists in tackling them?
A: For me the issues are clear: to demand the democratization of our politics, the democratization of our economic system, the democratization of our natural resources and the democratization of the public domain. Despite my many criticisms of the Occupy movement, there is an attempt to articulate a new progressive movement. This in itself is important. This is something that many of us, as politically engaged artists, have been dealing with for a long time. But we want to make these demands outside the art space, in a broader context. So for us, being at the camp was a necessity.
A seminar at the Artists in Occupy Amsterdam tent
NA: What was the programme in the tent then?
A: It developed quite naturally. A reading group quickly gathered pace as people were eager to discuss certain texts – every day there were new suggestions that came out of our discussions. This common intellectual exercise proved important, especially for people sleeping there at night – entering a new day with no water, but with a shower of theory to continually articulate the role of art within the political event.
NA: How were you received as artists in the camp?
A: At first we were welcomed as one of the many ‘work groups’. In each Occupy camp you have ‘departments’ that work on certain issues essential to the movement – cleaning, vision and demonstration work-groups – that report every night to the general assembly: the public open forum where anyone, in and outside the camp, can come and discuss the state of Occupy. We were labeled the ‘artist’s tent’ from the first day on, which generated the name that we use today: Artists in Occupy Amsterdam. At first most people expected us to make banners or some form of protest decoration. I quickly learned that the camp had a very limited understanding of contemporary art – it was confusing for visitors that there were no brushes or pots of paint in our tent.
A general assembly at Occupy Amsterdam
NA: Could anyone come and attend your meetings? When I visited the door was fastened shut.
A: From my perspective, being open to anyone from the camp became a form of suicide: opening the doors and public debates led to a plundering of its potential as a protest. The place was a magnet for junkies and alcoholics and could easily turn violent and dangerous. At moments it became a square led by 99% marginal people, not a differentiated critical mass. In that sense it absolutely represented the ‘unrepresentable’, a core element of democratization. On the contrary, I would define our tent as the ‘engaged minority’, the ‘0.99%’. It was non-exclusive in the sense that everyone was welcome, though only when engaged in an articulated way.
From the beginning many of us were unwilling to become a social workplace, like much of the camp. We wanted to stay focused on the agenda of the international Occupy movement. A number of work-groups started to use our tent. It was the only relatively calm place where one wasn’t afraid of having possessions stolen or a fork stuck in your nose (this happened to someone working in the public kitchen).
NA: When you talk of working with the engaged minority, notions of hospitality and non-exclusivity, these are issues that public art institutions constantly grapple with. In a sense the artist tent was an ad hoc institution with no funding, which is timely considering the financial threat to cultural institutions in the Netherlands.
A: I have often discussed the similarities between our tent and art institutions, especially, as you say, as we are at a crucial moment concerning budget cuts in culture. Many institutions we consider our allies will disappear. So this was also an experiment in redefining the institution in a grass roots sense – with no financial support whatsoever. The most important difference being that we define the institution within the political event, where most museums and project spaces have tried to deny their tie to the political institution. We define an institution within the democratic experiment, where the questions of openness, of non-exclusivity are particularly pertinent.
I make a distinction between democracy in an administrative sense, and democracy as a form of action. It is the latter that I think we strive for within the Occupy movement. Democracy as action is brought into being by the engaged minority, with which I do not mean to speak of an aristocracy or elite. The homeless or schizophrenic in our camp were as welcome as the artist or academic, in that sense our space was non-exclusive (an early Deleuzian slogan from our tent was ‘More schizophrenia!’). But this non-exclusivity had to do with a collective longing for democratic action, not one of collective drug use.
NA: When I visited the artists’ tent it was the only place with heating and certainly the only one with Macbooks and iPhones charging! It felt like an elitist space. This is another accusation made against the institution, especially in the Netherlands.
A: The charge of elitism came a few times, but once it became clear that all 0.99% could use our tent to work it quickly vanished. In that sense our presence within the camp became clear. This is something many institutions lack. As open as they wish to be, they are closed: their presence is not clearly defined within the community and the ideological framework in which they reside.
NA: They are politically detached?
A: Yes, most of them. In the months preceding the Occupy movement many of us took part in the protests against the budget cuts to the cultural sector. I never felt good in these protests because they defended art and its institutions as a sovereign field, one outside the realm of politics. What I want – and what many in artists in Occupy Amsterdam want – is to defend a worldview in which art and its institutions have a place amongst other social fields, instead of simply serving itself. Redefining the institution into a new form of public platforms is an important step: I imagine a hybrid space, in between parliament and the street.
NA: You embedded yourself within the political agenda of the Occupy Movement, striving to bring something to that context. Now you have left the camp and the international Occupy Movement is waning. Have you failed?
A: For me the occupation is not limited to a couple of tents on a square. The current form of the Occupy Movement runs the risk of limiting itself to the few square meters that are ‘occupied’. At a certain point I had the feeling of living in a sort of Christiania, which I’m not interested in. Neither should the Occupy movement be a ’60s hippy camp. I think we should move on to try to find a form of the occupation that takes on not only the squares, but the parliaments as well, and that allows for the involvement of people that cannot reside in tents all day.
The collective responsibility over the tent showed the outlines of a disciplined and committed group of artists and intellectuals, willing to define their practices through democratic action. We are now back around the table discussing the next steps. The articulation of a truly modern protest movement needs to start now.
NA: And how can institutions, who are bound by geographical or bureaucratic constraints and need money from the governments whose politics they might oppose, take part in this action?
A: The arts face an enemy that they have for a long time started to embody themselves. The liberal agenda has been internalized by many art institutions, especially in the ’90s, when government support focused solely on increasing the market value of Dutch art. Therefore it has been unable to articulate a vision about the kind of society it wishes to operate in – it was simply mirroring the one situated at the ‘end of history’. The project of emancipation was abandoned, and the corporate dream of an art ‘funded’ by its real users – the 1% – became the new target. This agenda was never disputed, as long as money kept coming in. Just as now, even though there are only crumbs left, institutions will do everything to stay part of the system and fit their agenda to it. And how could they not? In The Netherlands our museums are even part of the municipality, officially they are regarded as mere departments! Politics has the last word, and as politics is more and more transforming into a safe haven for corporate interest, art is reduced to decoration for a new generation of aristocrats. In the words of Hito Steyerl: ‘If contemporary art is the answer, the question is: How can capitalism be made more beautiful?’ This crisis does not need negotiation, but a new definition of the art institution and the role of the artist. A definition in which art serves a role in a larger view of society, as the co-creator of our society – the ones giving shape to a democracy to come.
NA: So what is next for Artists in Occupy Amsterdam?
A: Well, a possible name-change to start. Further we are exploring grass-roots campaign strategies as they have been developed in US elections – so as to understand the contemporary tactics of social engineering as well as experimenting with forms of collectivity that are articulated through clearly aimed action. The contrast between the American campaign model – the ultimate excess of a degenerated political model – and the Occupy movement, which accepts no leaders or fixed programmes, is fascinating terrain to explore. There is also a book coming out with collected texts produced by the group. And there is work on an archive of so-called hearings, collected through interviews will people in the camp, making insightful the power structures and dilemma’s that Occupy Amsterdam has had to deal with.