#01 - Jeff Stark
Jeff Stark was the first resident at the OT301.
After spending 3 months at the OT301 in 2013 he wrote the following article.
You Can’t Make It Anywhere
The first thing worth noticing about OT301 is that the door is open. This is important.
You’ll find the door on a busy street, the namesake Overtoom. You walk through the door, any time of day, and the second thing you find is some pretty bad graffiti. This is important too, and I’’ll come back to it later.
What is happening is that you are under a small, three-story building at the front of the lot, near the street. You pass under it and you are in a courtyard. There’s more graffiti here. But the main thing you see is a large building at the back of the lot. The building is not handsome. This is not important.
Inside you will find people or you will not. This depends on the time of day. On weekends there is almost always something going on. Maybe it’s a concert, or a trapeze class. Maybe it’s a child’s birthday party or a gallery opening. If you’re lucky, it’s a pair of Italian musicians playing for a room full of stomping folk dancers.
There are vegan dinners on Tuesdays and Thursdays and Fridays and Sundays. The food is usually the best on Thursdays, but the crowd is often the most diverse on Fridays. You choose which one is more important to you.
There are flyers and posters everywhere. Some of these flyers are for shows at OT301. Some of them are handwritten and copied. Some of them are designed and printed. There are posters for other squats and community centers in Amsterdam. All together these comprise a network of venues with shared pasts and similar values. You can live in this world, going from one place to the next and looping back around. This would not be a bad way to live.
There are some of us who think that culture is inseparable from life. I am one of these people. What I mean by culture is the manifestation of arts, politics, and ideas of a particular group of people. And when I say this manifestation is inseparable from life, what I am really saying is that I don’t want to live in a world without other people. Culture is what connects us.
I am a resident at OT301. Or, rather, by the time you read this, I should say that I was an artist in residence at OT301. For one dreary, productive month, I lived in a little two-room studio on the top floor of the main building. I spent most of my time working on the script for a site-specific theater piece that I will produce near my home in Brooklyn, New York. I can’t say that I couldn’t have done the work anywhere else, but OT301 granted me precious time and space to focus my efforts and begin rallying the network I need to realize the kind of projects I make.
What I have seen in my month is that OT301 is a place for culture. More importantly, it is a place that is open to and actively creates subculture. What I mean by subculture is also a manifestation of arts, politics, and ideas, but that of a self-identified, self-selected group of people, a group that is almost by definition emergent and in opposition to the dominant culture. Subcultures can be commodified and subsumed by their dominant cultures, but this is not inevitable.
What happens at OT301 is subculture created by and for the subculture itself. This is not a bad thing, as it could be understood, or a limited thing. It is instead a feat of generosity that is reciprocal and passionate. It is a feat that can not be accomplished by bureaucrats; it requires the understanding of the same artists and activists who use the space all the time. It requires participation to work.
Some of the best culture is spontaneous. This includes dancing and the purest forms of play. But most culture is hard fought. It takes work. And time. And real resources, like studios and rehearsal rooms, makeshift galleries and classrooms. And sometimes money.
But the most important thing is space.
Space is so precious to artists that they often lose themselves in it. They disappear into their studios. That’s one of the reasons why what the artists at OT301 have done with their building is so special: they took an abandoned film school and made it into a squat. And they made a squat into a center. Eventually they organized themselves to pay the rent. And then they managed to buy the building itself.
This is not easy. It is difficult, distracting work, especially for artists. So it’s even more impressive that they never lost track of what this kind of space represents to the artists who share it, and the people who use it. It is still open. It is worth saying this very clearly: The organizers – and now owners – have used their position, their luck, and their own sweat to create a space that is open to others. I only wish that wasn’t so unusual.
A field trip through Brooklyn
I met Ivo Schmetz and Nienke Jansen in 2011. They are two members of OT301 who were in New York City on a sort of fact-finding mission. Ivo emailed me and said they wanted to talk about the underground scene. In particular, they wanted to look at some spaces in New York and meet the people behind them.
The reason they wanted to talk to me is that I publish an email list called Nonsense NYC. When I am feeling modest, I call it an email list about underground events, and remind everyone that I feel really self-conscious about using words like ‘underground.’ When I want to impress someone, I say that Nonsense a vital resource for the most creative communities in New York, and that it can change your life. I’ve been publishing it every week for 10 years.
I’m not sure exactly how they found me. But I recognized Ivo and Nienke immediately. Not by face or job description, but because they said in an email that they were squatters in Amsterdam. I expected they would be self-sufficient polymaths. I expected they would be radical. I expected they would be connected to a larger community of creative people who are passionate enough to fight with the police, sweet talk the neighbors, and build community; squatting in Europe is a social act. I’ve been supported and hugely influenced by autonomous communities in Berlin, Amsterdam, Barcelona, and Venice for the last 10 years, mostly at festivals connected to various squats. I told Ivo and Nienke that I’d do anything I could for them.
That turned into a field trip across Brooklyn and into Queens. I took them to see Adam Katzman’s Jerko, a sort of environmental lab experiment in the form of a houseboat on the deeply polluted Gowanus Canal. I took them to the House of Yes, an aerial studio and performance venue. Then we stopped by a decommissioned ferry boat anchored in the Newtown Creek where a dozen artists live like art pirates. And we finished at Flux Factory, an art collective and living space in Queens, still going strong after 20 years. I wanted to show Ivo and Nienke what I consider forms of resistance, alternate ways to live and be creative in New York.
Later, they returned the favor 30 times over by opening OT301 for me to spend a month on my own work in Amsterdam. All of this happened over email and pizza, without applications, promises, or paperwork.
Urban space in New York
I am proud of my subcultures in New York. They are full of creative, hard-working people who care deeply about craft, community, and fun. But it’s worth pointing out that all of the underground places I showed Ivo and Nienke are rented or temporary. In New York, it’s nearly impossible to own your own cultural space, much less one devoted to subculture.
It’s hard for me to say why from a position of real authority: I’m not an expert in real estate or urban planning. However, I can repeat a few accepted truths. One is that our real estate is crazy expensive, and that speculation on empty spaces forces prices always higher, out of the reach of any DIY cultural venue. To compound this, tight insurance policies and -- although it’s hard to admit -- a highly litigious culture make it difficult to use empty spaces, even on a temporary basis.
On our field trip in New York, Ivo asked me why people wouldn’t move into a big empty building he saw in Brooklyn. I told him that they’d be arrested -- or sued. Who knows which one is worse.
Another problem is that squatting has been illegal in New York for almost 20 years. A few former squats are in the process of buying their buildings – a deal the most shrewd squatters made with the city long ago -- however most of the buildings exist only as housing for the original squatters. Two notable exceptions are ABC No Rio, which still hosts punk shows and a zine library, and C-Squat, which opened the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space on the ground floor of their building; both organizations – like OT301 – have used their compromises with the city as a way to maintain a commitment to their original ideals.
But the overall result of these obstacles is a city where artists have to work without space, or with the support of bureaucratic arts groups, like the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, which doles out studios for nine months in temporarily empty office buildings, after you’ve filled out piles of paperwork months in advance, and only if they determine you’re making the right kind of art and can appeal to them in right language with the right kind of application.
In response, artists in New York rent small lofts. Or we join together and rent small buildings. Or we move around. A few rich or lucky ones can buy a building or a space, and a few of those choose to open those spaces to others. It’s a generous gesture made in the face of a bleak situation, but not ideal for so many reasons.
There are good things about this situation, this itinerant movement of artists, and insufficient resources in general. There’s often a maniacal drive to New York art. You often see ingenious solutions created in temporary and public spaces. And I think there’s less waiting around for grants and go-aheads than I’ve seen in, say, London. Our do-it-yourself impulse can be breathtaking.
But all this renting and making do means that many of us spend a tremendous amount of time of working whatever jobs we can just to pay the landlord. It’s harder for us to give back. And the moving around also opens us up to being used by the complex forces of gentrification and development. Given the choice, I’d love to own a dumpy storefront rather than rent a vast warehouse. But after almost 15 years of living in New York, neither option is really available to me. Instead, I do most of my projects legally at temporary festivals and illegally in abandoned buildings and in public space. And I give back by sending out one email a week. We all do what we can.
There is nothing like OT301 in New York. And as an artist, and a New Yorker, I can say that New York is poorer because of it.
You get the feeling at OT301 that there’s a way to be a part of the building. You can walk right in -- the door is always open. It’s not an entirely transparent space, and this might create some problems. For the last 30 years in radical communities around the world there’s been an emphasis on horizontal organizational structures and the identification if not eradication of both oblique and charismatic power.
But this lack of complete transparency is not a huge issue. At the end of the day, if you keep coming around you can figure out how to place yourself, where you fit in. If you stay late, you’ll find volunteers hanging out in the hallways, smoking cigarettes and picking up beer bottles. You can talk to the bartenders. You can have a conversation with the guy who programs the cinema on Tuesday nights. You can take a yoga class.
You get the feeling that OT301 is not a place being run by trained experts. You can tell that it’s being run by artists. The people who work at the De Peper vegan restaurant are laid back and casual. Sometimes they forget you ordered a coffee. The soup is not perfect. You think: I could work with them.
You see a band open up on a Wednesday night. They are not original or particularly talented. What you think is: I bet my band could play here. You see the opening. You place yourself in the building.
This is always important, but it’s especially significant in Holland, where you need three years of training to get a job in a bike shop. This is a specialized culture. In contrast, OT301 feels like a place where you can become something. Where you don’t have to be an expert to get in the door. It’s a lab. It’s an experiment.
And so this is where I come back to the bad graffiti murals out in the courtyard. The world needs bad graffiti because it needs good graffiti, because bad graffiti is one of the things that comes before good graffiti. Because good graffiti leads to good art and good design. Because graffiti is fun.
Experimental art in all its forms are often at the center of subculture. Experimental art is usually new, and usually in opposition to mainstream art and culture. It moves fast – too fast for broad support and appreciation. Of course the problem with experiments is that they often fail.
Commercial venues can not sustain this kind of failure. The stakes are too high; the capital investment and the overhead too much. And so it falls on subculture and underground culture to create the space needed for these kinds of experiments. The graffiti murals in the courtyard might suck now, but they might be better in the future. Or maybe someone else will just paint over them. You just have to open the door. •••