Squat a Rocket Ship

May 2014

And do enjoy the trip!
Students & teachers in front of their squatted building.
While squatting has always tended to be an act rooted in necessity, there are some situations that are purportedly more necessary than others, or at least more worthy. In the case of the students and teachers of the Dirty Art Department in Amsterdam’s Sandberg Institute, the latter would seem to apply. A sincere bunch whose facilities are way too inadequate to meet their artistic needs, they claim only to be rectifying a lousy circumstance. It remains to be seen, however, whether the authorities will decide to turn a blind eye or to convict the aberrant tenants for occupying an empty building. DAMN° dropped in and listened to their story.
Being a member of the Dirty Art Department based in Amsterdam's Sandberg Instituut - a Master’s programme within the Rietveld Academy (and with designer Jurgen Bey in the director's seat) happens to involve just that little bit extra. Artist, designer, and department director Jerszy Seymour experienced this when, on a fine Friday morning at around sunrise, he found himself assisting his students in breaking the lock on a vacant industrial warehouse, their lawyer’s telephone number written on their arms, just in case the police arrested them. “We don’t squat for fun; it is out of pure necessity. The Dirty Art Department doesn’t have enough space to realise its educational ideals.” Seventeen Master’s students and their teachers have been squatting in the warehouse since the end of March. The big question now is whether they’ll be able to continue their idealistic yet ambitious project. 
Student Reinier Kranendonk: “In our school we have very little space, which doesn’t enable us to work together. It’s on the 7th floor and there is no communication with the outer world. All this makes it impossible to realise the ideals of the Dirty Art Department, which is supposed to be an open platform where students of different disciplines can meet, exchange ideas and information, share initiatives, present projects, and communicate with society.” They tried to find a better space in the city the official way, but “you can’t imagine the bureaucracy we met with – it was just not happening.” So, Reinier Kranendonk, Aaron McLaughlin, Nina Janssen, Théo Demans, Leïla Arenou (-the students DAMn° spoke with), and their colleagues, decided to find another solution. They created a student space in this vacant warehouse, where they can do all the organising they want to do and bring to life an autonomous reality. The day after they moved in, they had an exhibition and invited all the locals to come; in future, they’ll organise more exhibitions, workshops, and concerts. “Having this space becomes a necessity in order to actually be able to open-up to society and, very practically, have a less restricted place to work – allowing for a larger variety of projects. Within the conditions of this off-site space, there is an involvement, on different levels, of both students and tutors – and hopefully others. Whereas the Dirty Art Department has difficulty as an open platform inside the institution, this off-site building is where it actually functions as one”, says Nina Janssen, who also refers to Michelangelo Pistoletto as an inspiration – back in 1967, the artist opened his studio to artists and non-artists alike, and aimed at “collaboration as a non-competitive human relationship based on the shared values of sense and perception”. Reinier Kranendonk: "Please copy and (re)produce, no rights are restricting you to make the world a bit more like you want it to be!" 
It may come as a surprise that the teachers in Applied Arts and Design Master support the squat, but it’s actually entirely in line with the ideals of the Dirty Art Department, which emerged in 2009 from a joint initiative by Catherine Geel, Clemence Seilles, Stephane Barbier Bouvet, and Jerszy Seymour, who see their school as “a rocket ship blasting through the galaxies”, and who find inspiration in radical school projects, from Steiner to Bauhaus, Black Mountain College to Global Tools, and in the contemporaries of the United Nations Plaza, Bruce High Quality Foundation, and Mountain School of Art. “The department is a trip, and wherever it goes, the new space becomes a fertile place for projects to happen. Anywhere you land, you can apply your way of working. Students have to be mentally prepared to work in any space.” The students are supposed to bring their own singularity to a context without being medium-specific – exactly what they’re doing in the squat. The attitude of the Department is very much DIY and ‘just do it’. 
But there is another aspect. The harsh reality is that many students cannot afford a workshop in Amsterdam – many of them do not even have a room in which to live, thus commute daily from elsewhere – since Amsterdam has become overly expensive. Four students who didn’t have a place to live in Amsterdam are currently living in the squat. Worldwide, the more appealing cities are no longer affordable for young people – unless they belong to the happy few. In squatting, students dispute the huge property prices. They also emphasise that, increasingly, the Broedplaatsen (breeding grounds) in Amsterdam – legal squats for artists set up by the government – are part of a gentrification project that serves an anti-social, cold-hearted, capitalistic agenda and pleases real estate developers. “The government creates those workshops in neighbourhoods they want to gentrify, thus abusing the artists’ need for space. As soon the artists arrive, prices go up.” Much has indeed changed in the once free and jolly Amsterdam – so much so, that for the past four years squatting is no longer legal: it is now considered a criminal act. The action of these students is broader than it appears to be at first glance. And it must be said that this lot have found themselves a great spot on Amsterdam's waterfront, with a splendid view over the IJ lake, a great terrace – ideal for long and lazy summer barbeques. Even the police seemed to be impressed, as they have suggested that the newly born art squatters might as well have a boat. One has to combine the pleasant with the necessary… ‹
The telephone number of the lawyer written on their arms in case of arrest.
Illustration: Samuel Nyholm and Nazareno Crea.
weeknight, 2013, Dirty Art Department
Any Space is The Place. Illustration: Samuel Nyholm and Nazareno Crea.
This article appeared in DAM44. Order your personal copy.