The day Hotel Mokum was announced, photo by Sammy Iason

The Real (E)State: On the Fate of Artistic and Cultural Spaces in the City

Issue no5
Oct - Nov 2022
Neo-90s

It is not just difficult to find a space to live in the bigger cities these days, also exhibition space is hard to find. Manuela Zammit reaches out to two Amsterdam-based exhibition and incubation spaces that are soon to be expelled from their current spaces: De Appel, and P/////AKT, and one that stood up to protest against the situation: Pak Mokum Terug. Does the city understand what it will lose if these art spaces would be forced to leave town?

Last November, I visited the pop-up exhibition House Peace organised by activist collective Pak Mokum Terug in the squatted building formerly known as Marnix Hotel in the centre of Amsterdam. At that point the building had been taken over for just a month, but a couple of weeks later, the squatters were evicted by the police. Their activism is spurred by a severe housing crisis, an out-of-control housing market and lack of appropriate action taken by the government that is driving residents as well as artistic and cultural spaces out of the city.

Pak Mokum Terug are not the only ones facing the loss of a hospitable space where art and culture can flourish in the city of Amsterdam. Well-known exhibition and incubation spaces such as P/////AKT and De Appel, which have formed an integral part of Amsterdam’s art ecosystem for decades, are also currently under threat. Now that we have stepped into the new year, I reach out to Pak Mokum Terug, De Appel and P/////AKT for further insight about what the city stands to lose if spaces such as theirs are to disappear, their ongoing struggles, but also what keeps them working and excited for 2022.

—Manuela Zammit A lot has happened since you organised the pop-up exhibition House Peace on the Marnixstraat in November 2021. Just a couple of weeks later, you were forcibly evicted by the police, you received an overwhelming amount of support from a large community of sympathisers to your cause, started looking for alternative venues (outside of Amsterdam as well) and set up a discord channel - the fight continues. Tell me more about what happened.

—Hotel Mokum 'I think after the eviction we all kind of crashed a bit. We were angry, disappointed and incredibly exhausted, but also thankful to everyone that showed us solidarity. As you mentioned, we are still active - for example we set up an empty housing hotline, but for us this is also a moment to reflect on a really turbulent time, and to define for ourselves how to move forward. For example, we are working on a decentralised archive of Hotel Mokum for all the (visual) material we produced, all the press articles, videos etc. It has a meditative quality because it forces us to relive everything that happened at Hotel Mokum and to place things in a timeline of sorts. At the same time we are discussing how to continue as a collective, where we will go next, and most importantly how we can use what we have built to support the movement at large.'

—Manuela Zammit Looking back at what you've achieved so far, the movement you generated and the amount of support you gathered in just a couple of months is quite impressive. Could we consider this as a 'breakthrough' moment for a new movement to make a change in the housing policies of the city? What do you hope will ultimately come out of your cause?

—Hotel Mokum 'During the eviction we were joking that this was the best thing that could have happened to us in terms of Instagram followers. To be clear, it was never about that - social media was always just a tool for us, but the support we received from people during that weekend was mind-blowing. People we barely knew were protecting Hotel Mokum with their literal bodies in the pouring rain, and were willingly submitting themselves to the violence exercised by the police. We could have and never would have asked for that from anyone, but to see it happen was a humbling experience and we are incredibly thankful for that. Hotel Mokum was never about doing anything new or different, rather the thing that made it interesting, and why I think all these people showed up, is that we managed to bring the discussion about squatting back to the public consciousness. Forcing the municipality to talk about this again is important, exactly because it is such an uncomfortable discussion for the current so called green-left municipal government to have. By now the scope of the problem if clear to everyone, and while we clearly never would receive support from parties like the VVD, the parties on the left are now being put into a position where they either have to support or oppose projects like ours, and they have to publicly justify that position.'

—Manuela Zammit It's clear that current issues being faced by the art and culture sector have a lot to do with the housing crisis, the housing market and the political climate in the Netherlands. How do you think that the art community, but also members of the wider community who find themselves in precarious living conditions due to these larger external forces, can support each other's cause?

—Hotel Mokum 'Obviously these issues intersect, but are separate in other ways. I don't think there’s a blanket solution. But, especially coming from there myself, I think the art world can and has to learn from activists. Solidarity is a term that is so overused that it can easily appear meaningless, but when actually practiced it's incredibly powerful, and maybe the only way to achieve real change. The way that the squats and squatters support each other without hesitation, the way that people show up no-questions-asked is maybe hard to translate to the art world, which is always also defined by commercial interest and competition. But I think that if we can form more (also intersecting) communities like this, we could achieve incredible things. Of course, sometimes it means standing in the cold for several hours for something that already seems lost, it takes work. But I think it's just important to stay angry at the injustices, and to mobilise people to fight back. The anarcha-fem collective in Amsterdam has this great banner: “Fuck the law, squat the world.” I think we need a bit more of that spirit in the art world.'

Screenshot from the empty housing hotline a (secure) website where people can report empty buildings that they have spotted in Amsterdam and beyond, published by Hotel Mokum

Snippet from the exhibition 'House Peace' at Hotel Mokum, November 2021

Snippet from the exhibition 'House Peace' at Hotel Mokum, November 2021.jpg

LEAVING THE NEW GOLD COAST OF AMSTERDAM - P/////AKT

—Manuela Zammit Could you explain me the situtation you are in, and how did you get there?

—Nienke & Rob of P/////AKT 'When we moved into the building where we are now (a "broedplaats"), the city had just started this project where they set aside quite a large amount of money because they realised that a lot of artists were leaving the city. Already at that time (around 20 years ago) they couldn't find any studio spaces and were leaving for Berlin and elsewhere. So the city came up with the idea to help buy and allocate buildings as studios and exhibition spaces and see how this would work out. We were part of this. In our case, the building was bought by a real estate corporation with a subsidy from the city so that we could get a reduced rent for a period of 20 years. This is our specific situation, but there are many more different ways how it was done. At that time, our building was in an unattractive part of the city. The residential area nearby had a bad reputation, but of course, this has changed a lot and over the years we saw the change happening around us. Now the part of the city we're in is considered the new "gold coast of Amsterdam. So at this point, we are approaching the end of our contract and the corporation who owns the building wants to turn it into social housing. This is also something that has changed recently within the law - that they have to focus on their "core business". So in any case, we started out by being placed on the city limits and now that the city "centre" has expanded, we are being pushed out of the city completely. At the time that the city started this ‘broedplaats’ project, there was a department in charge of it, but now that department is made of one person with limited budget who is supposed to be in charge of helping you find an alternative space but also competing with other departments of the municipality who need to find spaces for their own projects… There was a newsletter published by an umbrella organisation stating that if the situation for spaces such as ours doesn't improve soon, half of these kinds of "broedplaatsen" will disappear within the next two or three years. From an initial investment point of view, it also doesn’t make sense that everything that was built over these past 20 years will disappear. And another thing, the cultural spaces that are being opened up are more community and education-oriented, which is not a bad thing in itself but with less focus on professionalisation, the professional aspect of art-making is being eradicated.'

—Manuela Zammit So from what I understand, there is a risk that by the time that your contract is over and you need to move out, there won't have been enough help or help in time for you to already have found a new place unless you manage to find it yourself. Is it a real possibility that you will even have to move to a different city? Or is that something you would rather really not think about just yet?

—Nienke & Rob of P/////AKT 'Exactly. And this is the whole problem because the city has been selling off their real estate rather than maintaining it or buying back what had been sold. So basically, compared to twenty years ago, or even compared to ten years ago, there's simply no more available space and the space that there is is mostly being redeveloped into housing because that's another big issue of course. There's also a relation between the housing of residents the housing of art, so to speak, not to mention that artists themselves are unable to find housing. It’s not just us, there are a lot of other spaces, especially younger initiatives that have had a space for a short time and already have to move out because the building is being turned into apartments or something, and they’re also not being offered an alternative. It’s also completely unaffordable for a space like us to pay market price rent, it’s just not possible. We have to move out soon and we’re still working on finding another space. The city might also ask you to work with a real estate agent (makelaar) but the market-set prices for specific categories like food businesses, shops etc. is so much more expensive than we can afford, or than we can afford for the amount of space we need anyway. Right now we have more than 200 square metres. It would help if we could find something that is still owned by the city, but even then, the city’s interest right now is in building houses. Culture is not a priority anywhere, no one is planning for cultural spaces when thinking about “Here needs to be a dentist, or a supermarket.” People also need cultural experiences. We also have a history here in Amsterdam. Not just us, but also De Appel, they have this archive that by this point has heritage status. It would be terrible if the city lost that. And, in our case specifically, the function that we have - if you think about the art academies located in Amsterdam attracting artists from all over the world. There should be spaces like ours where these upcoming artists can test out and get the opportunity to show their work and develop their talent here rather than coming for a couple of years and then have to leave because they cannot afford a studio space and housing. It’s sad that the relationship that these artists are building with Amsterdam, they're not going to be able to nurture it further and stay to develop their talent here, so they just go elsewhere. It’s maybe not even that there isn’t space. It’s that it’s bought up and sitting empty waiting to be turned into something. That’s why I’m really in favour of squatting coming back. By entering an empty building, you're really making a statement that this space is currently being left empty, maybe even on purpose, and it's there and it could be used. But at the end of the day, it's still a space that is only temporarily empty and there's still no long term planning around it. I don't think we can do what we do properly if we would do it in squatted buildings.'

—Manuela Zammit How do the housing problems relate to funding?

—P/////AKT 'The past years we have been fortunate to receive funds from the city of Amsterdam, the Mondriaan Fund and Ammodo, each of which have their own application cycle. The first problem is that your perspective on surviving is always quite short and therefore also somewhat limiting. Over time we managed to grow financially speaking to approx. €200.000 per year, which is just about sufficient for what we want to accomplish and meeting fair practice standards at a bare minimum. The poverty trap is always there, and as we speak we are down 40% of the mentioned budget since Mondriaan Fund turned down our application for the next two years. Valeria, our colleague who took care of PR and communication (and much more) luckily found another job shortly before we received the verdict. Unfortunately we’re not in a position to replace her. At the same time the requirements that come with government funding are increasingly demanding and, we feel, unnecessarily rigid. We had the budget to realise our core function, but not for much more. We are always willing to take steps – up to a point. Right now it feels as though we’re not given the time and trust to rise to the occasion. This lack of confidence in our capability as well as our necessity is extremely painful.'

—Manuela Zammit How would you describe the ecosystem P/////AKT is working in and what is the city in danger of loosing?

—P/////AKT 'Let’s say we are specialised operators; we are a platform for artists’ development that gives opportunities to artists to produce new work and present it on a large scale. They get trust and freedom and we stimulate the opportunity to develop new ideas. It is actually a very important type of space that a city like Amsterdam and the arts ecosystem at large need to stay alive, to not turn into a place or a structure that merely confirms or repeats what is already known, accepted and established. That would make the city dull and interchangeable with other cities going through similar developments. It would also make people dull; people need challenges and there’s a quite significant audience that is interested in something to chew on and in being confronted with intriguing questions rather than answers. Spaces like P/////AKT and its younger and older siblings (and cousins in other disciplines) are vital channels of reflection and thought in/on/for our society. We need deeper levels and to get to a deeper level as well as a healthy and diverse system one needs to specialise. And of course this includes a diversity of ‘stages’: both in the sense of platforms and stages in artistic development. There should be layers between the academies and residencies and showing at galleries and museums, for both makers and thinkers and their audiences. This is something we provide with our output and outlook. Lastly: we always feel that visiting art spaces is a very good way of seeing and connecting with a city, to get a feel of its energy. The history of experimental platforms is also a history of conquering space and that takes you places.'

—Manuela Zammit What do you plan to do about it?

—P/////AKT 'Well, yes. We are in a bit of a fragile situation right now, facing a considerable loss of budget at a time when we have to focus on finding a new space and moving there. It’s difficult to see into the future because of that. Besides the loss of our colleague, The P/////AKTPOOL (a 6-month trajectory for recent graduates) is the most significant victim. Honestly (and luckily) COVID-19 is the least of our worries right now. We just had to cancel an event that was planned as a finissage of this year’s final exhibition. In that sense we’ve been extremely lucky compared to many of our colleagues. Since the first lockdown, we never had to close down or cancel anything. We are grateful to all the participants for being flexible in dealing with delays and not having their festive openings. There were also some advantages to working with time slots: people were just very happy to be able to go out and see things, taking more time and buying more publications! Of course it goes without saying that the cultural sector at large has suffered badly, and the constant insecurity is taking its toll on everybody. Right now we’re looking at a quite long winter break, which is a bit of a grey perspective because there isn’t so much to do in the outside world. And like many others we are still waiting for the outcome of our appeal with the Mondriaan Fund, which is taking longer than usual due to the pandemic. On the other hand, we are very much looking forward to the things that will come and working closely with artists is what always keeps us going! Suchan Kinoshita will conclude our current exhibition series Am I an Object (19 February – 26 March 2022). Afterwards, Anders Dickson will kick-off Turning to Dust and Bones in April. The new series will also feature Koen Kloosterhuis, Kristina Sedlerova-Villanen, Aslan Goisum, Giulia Cenci and Rodrigo Hernandez. This will be the last series in our current location, happening towards the summer of 2023. It’s a horizon of sorts; difficult to see beyond, but we’re also very curious about what this might bring. Change in itself isn’t bad, we believe.'

Benjamin Francis, 'The removal of the eye' (P/////AKTPOOL), May-June 2021

Augustas Serapinas, '20 Apartments' (The Space Conductors Are Among Us part 2), June-July 2020

Anu Vahtra, 'Goodbye air pollution, the future is here' (The Space Conductors Are Among Us part 5), March-April 2021

UNSTABLE GROUNDS - DE APPEL

—Manuela Zammit How do you consider the housing situation from De Appel's point of view?

—De Appel 'It is nearly impossible to find an adequate space in Amsterdam that fits with the financial-economic reality of art spaces. There is a big gap between the market and what art spaces can afford and at this point this gap is simply unbridgeable.'

—Manuela Zammit How are you dealing with the situation?

—De Appel 'We are currently in a ‘Broedplaats’, which is a temporary arrangements until the developers take over. In the meantime we are looking at spaces we find on funda, we get tips that we then look into further, and sometimes the municipality has an option too. We spend a lot of time and energy on this.'

—Manueal Zammit What kind of contact is there with the city about this?

—De Appel There is good contact with the city but they admit that they cannot do a lot. Gemeentelijk Vastgoed is partly commercial. And when a building has a "maatschappelijke bestemming", priority is often given to healthcare or schools or day care centers, which is understandable, but art and culture should not be put into competition with healthcare, schools or day care centers. At this point there is not enough real estate for everyone and the city is honest about how hard this is. With each building that becomes available, all different departments of the municipality jump on it and try to get it for their portfolios.'

—Manuela Zammit And what do you think should be or can be done about it?

—De Appel 'Culture should not be put into competition with healthcare, schools or day care centers. There should be real estate with rental prices that are adjusted and not according to market standards but to funding levels that are made available for art and culture institutions. If real estate is to be sold to art spaces, then this should be for a symbolic amount.'

—Manuela Zammit Is the housing issue the biggest chalenge you are facing? Is it effecting the activities?

—De Appel 'Obtaining and keeping an adequate physical space is a challenge - having a good and solid house where to welcome artists and audiences that doesn’t drain your finances or all other resources. We are working on it continuously. Furthermore, there are increasing governmental demands in terms of accountability, governance, adhering to codes, justifying what you do etc. You need someone employed on a full-time basis to deal with all these new demands. Not saying it’s not a good thing that such standards are set, but they require a lot of time, care and attention. At the same time, the restricted amount of funding makes it difficult to be able to hire staff. Rather, the number of staff we are able to hire keeps decreasing. It is true that those working in this field do it out of passion, love and belief in the need for and power of art rather for financial benefit.'

—Manuela Zammit How is housing of effect to way you work with artists?

—De Appel'"Presentatie-instellingen" (Presentation settings) such as De Appel have at least three unique ways of working within the art ecosystem. Firstly, we produce artworks with artists over a longer period of time. To put it bluntly, we don’t order artworks that fit a concept, but work for a year or more with an artist or collective. Outcomes are not fixed from the start. Both artists and their works and institutions grow through such an intense dialogue and collaboration that is truly reciprocal. Secondly, we have room to show art in its incubation phase, before it is ready for the big publics out there. We have room to show experiments that are not yet ready, to show work at a certain stage of its conception without assuming this is the final final stage. This allows for “testing” you could say, and seeing what works with the audience. Artists need this and some audiences love being part of the incubation phase - this asks of the viewer a different engagement. Within a wider ecosystem, we are one of the stairs leading to the second floor. If we disappear, artists, curators, writers, producers and audiences will miss that staircase. How to jump from the academy to the museum? This jump is too high for all of those involved in the creation and making public of art. Amsterdam has a good share of museums, both public and private as well as well-reputed art academies and universities. The city also needs presentatie-instellingen as the virtual staircase between those two parts of the ecosystem.'

—Manuela Zammit It has not been a difficult year for all of us because of the COVID-19 situation. How has it effected De Appel?

—De Appel 'COVID-19 has obviously increased the pressure on institutions and on our capacity for flexibility. We are already stressed out almost to our limit working under normal circumstances, and the current situation has stretched this limit even further. The art and culture sector needs to be given some reassurance, which is what the whole society needs at the moment. Furthermore, we need policies that enable us to work with some peace of mind and gather our strength again.'

Manuela Zammit
is a writer and researcher

Share this Article:
|Back to Top
Related | Most read
Magazine
Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 5 — 2022