| Reflections on the Groene Voltage, Rotterdam [eng] |
gv - 22.03.2008 10:09
In this short article, one member of the nonhierarchical collective which ran the centre would like to address some issues raised by the project. As such it can only be read as one person's viewpoint. It is likely that other people from the collective would see things differently. In some ways we achieved a lot, in others we got caught in the traps common to all projects.
just squatted oct06
getting going nov06
the end, my friend
The Groene Voltage was a squatted social centre in Rotterdam. It was situated five minutes from Central Station in a residential area, beside a busy road which leads to the ring and the motorway. It stood on the corner of a block and the four floors above it were also squatted separately as residential space for six people.
It lasted for almost exactly one year, from October 2006 to October 2007. The eviction was not contested, but rather the keys were handed back to the owners (a housing corporation called PWS - Patrimoniums Woningstichting) because they had announced their intention to renovate the entire building. We had on the whole a good relationship with PWS and thus when they showed us the building plans we left. It is currently being stripped before being converted into flats.
WHAT WE DID
The space was an old shop. We had at our disposal a front room with plate glass windows looking onto a small paved area beside the busy road, a back room, a storage room and a kitchen. There was also a cellar the size of the whole ground floor, but unfortunately it was flooded by ground water and thus not really functional. We had to pump it out twice.
What we planned to do was to use the front room for events which other people were welcome to organise and from within our collective to organise a cafe, a film night, an infoshop, a free shop and a free internet space.
All of these activities were planned as political, nonprofit activities. Our stance was anticapitalist and our intention was to politicise the people of Rotterdam and make links to the local community. We also wanted to provide a space for our small scene to meet and socialise. I think our unspoken intentions were to see if we could build something we needed in Rotterdam ourselves and to see if we could work together as a group. All of us must have seen the potential of the project and have been interested to see where it would go.
After trying a few variations, we ended up with the free shop (weggeefwinkel) in the backroom and in the front room we had a bar, a computer corner with free internet, the infoshop and zinelibrary and some sofas and tables. On a typical week we were open two or three nights a week and one afternoon.
WHAT WE ACHIEVED
Not counting a summer pause when we stopped activities for a while, every week we had a cafe on Thursdays serving cheap vegan food. It was called Braaksmaak and for six months before had been running nomadically, cooking at a different squat every two weeks. Most times the food was at 7 and at 9 there was a political theme. This took many forms including a talk on sustainability, a G8 Dissent Network infoavond and presentations from various activist groups.
Any profit from the cafe normally went to support the theme of that night, so we gave (some) money to a group campaign for better treatment of immigrants, a countryside squat, an Indymedia film and many other projects. The cafe did not always make money. I'm still not really sure how that happened. Probably there was money stolen once or twice and also (too many) drinks were given away for free - which was pretty stupid when we sold them so cheap anyways.
The film night showed some great films like Darwin's Nightmare and End of Suburbia but it never really took off. The night was moved from Tuesday to Sunday and then back again, but it did not really help. Only when the night was tied to other meetings did it get more people.
The infoshop came quite fast and had about fifty books on various themes such as anarchism, animal rights, peace movements and environmental action. We had lots of magazines and a zine library with over a hundred titles. Every Wednesday we were open from one until six. Someone always came but it was never busy.
The free shop ended up being our main link to the local community, even if in that meant we were the place where they could dump their unwanted stuff (although that is what the free shop is supposed to be for i guess!). Some people stayed for a chat and a drink and that was nice. The nature of a free shop means that it is always a battle to keep tidy, and as it got bigger this became more of a task. In my view we didn't throw enough crap away. Then the good stuff gets lost in between the broken toys and dresses for old ladies.
We hosted meetings from various groups and oneoff events such as the zine evening. There were also the music appreciation nights - when all the music played came from one particular artist, such as Venetian Snares or Bodycount.
But did we achieve our aims of activating the people of Rotterdam and making links to the local community? Well, in a small way, yes we did. As regarding a space for the local scene, we certainly did that and I still miss it. Further, you can never really judge the full effects of a project, it's like a stone dropped in water - the ripples radiate outwards, whether you want them to or not.
More on this below.
Read more about: kunst, cultuur en muziek vrijheid, repressie & mensenrechten wonen/kraken
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| gv - 22.03.2008 10:16 |
WHAT WE COULD HAVE DONE BETTER
There were some people who wanted to use our space. We hosted a few birthday parties and one guy taught capoeira on Sundays. But in truth the people from the collective had to do most things themselves. The local community was not really interested in our project, but the main reason for that is that there is no local community to speak of ... the housing corporations have already broken that down a long time ago with the policy of selling off social housing for profit.
The thing is, if we had been there for a longer time, five or ten years, of course more people would have used the space and of course more local people would have taken a look. It takes a long period for people to get involved. This is the problem of many activist projects, they just don't last long enough to make the links. Even within the Dutch activist scene, it took months before we started communicating with other social centres and projects such as OCCII in Amsterdam and the Piraten Bar in Den Haag.
One group wanted to use the space at the beginning and we wasted a lot of time listening to their needs and requirements whilst they did nothing to help us build and organise the space. In the end, nothing came of it. Certainly actions speak louder than words.
There were many alternative anticapitalist squatter types living in Rotterdam who never came to the Groene Volatge. Friends of mine never came. This punk guy living a few doors away used to walk past once or twice a week and not even look at the flyers in the window. I'm still a bit baffled why that happened, because I would certainly visit a project like this if I could. I would love to have an infoshop in Rotterdam. But people are into different things. You can only make the project and do it nice and hope people come. In trying to activate the people of Rotterdam we were battling the mentality of a city in which everyone is busy with their own thing. Thats why a man can die on the prisonboat in Rotterdam habour and only twenty people go to the noise demo. Despite there having been previous social centres such as Hang and Storm, and eetcafes such as De Paardenvaal and Hexxen, it seems that there is no real culture or awareness of alternative projects and that people are in fact not that interested.
This was also true for the infoshop - although it was used, it could definitely have been used more! But then it was good to visit the infoshop Bollox at the Binnenpret in Amsterdam and hear that in their first year not many people came either. Perhaps Wednesdays was not a good day to be open, maybe a weekend day would have been better. In any case, having a regular time is important.
The internet cafe took a lot longer to set up than expected, both because KPN took months to set up the internet connection and the recycled computers kept on breaking despite getting lots of free source love. And whilst having internet was nice for us and for some kids, most people have internet at home so having free web access is not really as radical as it was ten years ago.
We should probably have done a simple bar night with no activities so as to raise more money for the project. It would have been comparatively easy to run and hopefully profitable. Perhaps we underestimated how important it is to have simply a social space where people can gather and meet. Perhaps we wanted to organise too much for the people, rather than concentrating on providing a hospitable relaxed space where they could organise stuff themselves.
Certainly we had real problems keeping the place clean and tidy. This seems simple but somehow it was not. Plans were drawn up, agreements made but still the place stayed a mess. And of course if one person cleaned up for a few hours only to be faced again with a mess the next day, then that person lost energy to clean again. In the last months of the project, the constant mess in the kitchen led to a problem with mice, which then (left unchecked) became a problem with rats.
We had monthly clean up days but these never really seemed to ensure that the place stayed clean, which is of course necessary in a communal space. I guess people didnt care enough to make it so and were not really aware of their own messiness.
People living above the project really helped in my view, since they were close by to deal with daily matters like post or things left outside the door. It really helps to have someone maintaining the place and I would recommend it for any project. Although we did not catch the people breaking our windows, perhaps more would have happened if there had not been people nearby.
Quite soon after the place had been squatted, the owners (PWS) received a letter threatening them that unless they evicted the squatters, action would be taken. On Stormfront, a Nazi website, people discussed burning the squat down. Then one plate glass window had a brick thrown at it. Who can say if these things are connected? There are a lot of drunken idiots out there. We fixed the window and asked a local grafitti crew to paint something. They did not do what we asked, but it did look nice at least. We had three big plate glass windows in the front, all something like three metres by two metres. Then another one got smashed, which meant more boards. Having less light in the front room made it probably less welcoming to newcomers which was a shame. But whilst dealing with the problems took effort, it also made us stronger in that we realised we were not going to let things like that stop the centre organising events.
Propaganda is important when organising a project. Not everyone reads indymedia or checks radar.squat.net. We made monthly events listings and lots of flyers, but we probably should have tried more to get flyers into the universities, art schools, music venues, places where people might pick up a flyer and be interested. Sometimes the flyer just sat on the bar in the social centre until the date of the event had gone past. They are certainly not going to come if they don't know the project exists!
We were debating the merits of making a nice colour poster for too long, the printing costs were a problem but we should have just done it. Having said that, it's good we did not make a 3,000 copy run and then get evicted the next month!
Money was a problem. There were too many stupid discussions over the electricity bills, the bank account and foundation we set up. I guess its always like this.
Last but not least, alcohol. Sometimes a friend, sometimes an enemy. We never really had problems with drunk patrons luckily, but we certainly did have problems within the collective. Sadly this is a problem which plagues the activist scene everywhere and for this Rotterdam has no easy answers.
The collective was composed of roughly seven people. Some people joined and were welcomed, others left. Some popped up every so often and there were a few regulars. Around the collective there were a few more people, perhaps ten, who were extremely supportive and helped out in various ways, often unseen and unthanked. Without their help, a lot less would have happened. These extra people in the background are pretty essential to any grassroots project.
The people involved were linked by interest rather than strong friendship, although some were friends. The beast of hierarchy did raise its head often, and I can't say we dealt with the hidden forms very well. There was never a "leader" but some people had louder voices and could have listened more. Certainly there was towards the end of the project a clique developing which probably made newcomers feel a bit like they were walking into someone's lounge rather than a social centre.
As with pretty much every grassroots volunteer project I have been involved with, money was scarce and people's time commitment fluctuated. This is to be expected, but I think we could have dealt with things better. One person left the collective in a less than positive way, which was a shame.
We had weekly meetings in which the format we developed was to have an emotional round first to see how everyone was doing, then the agenda points, then a space for any extra short points, then an evaluation round. Depending on how many people were there, we held up hands to speak and had a facilitator to guide the meeting and someone else took notes.
This system worked fairly well with tight facilitation but the problem as I see it now was that we spent much too long debating broken commitments. Simply put, people did not do what they said they were going to do. They might well have had good reasons (excuses) for not doing these things, the fact remains that a project built on trust and goodwill can either spiral ever upwards in a glorious happy triumphant explosion of energy or enter the vicious downward spiral into bitter recriminations when the washing up is not done or bills are not paid. If the project had lasted a few years, things I'm sure would have settled down in some way - the collective would have hardened if it was to survive (although I doubt the people involved would have stayed exactly the same) and in many ways things would have got simpler - everything would have had a space in the kitchen, people would have got used to following the rules we made for cleaning after an event and maybe we would have bitten the bullet and bought a dishwasher! There is a sense then that the problems would have sorted themselves out but also we were kind of reinventing the wheel since for most people it was the first social project they had been involved with and thus they were (quite naturally) unaware of just how much work it takes.
THE NEXT STEPS
It was nice to have some time to prepare to leave, which does not by any means always happen with squatted projects. Thus we put a post on indymedia.nl announcing the eviction and had a final party. We squatted a new place which would have been perfect for our needs - it was an old neighbourhood centre with a gym hall, lots of rooms and loads of potential. Unfortunately it was marked for demolition and the plans were indeed going ahead. We were evicted fast and very soon afterwards it was knocked down (for more yuppy flats). Then some people from the collective squatted a place in the centre and started to do public events. We were in negotiations as to what that meant as regards the Braaksmaak cafe and other projects when this new place was evicted. By now the old Groene Voltage was evicted and naturally energies were at quite a low ebb. Other evictions also meant people were busy finding a new place to live. Six months later, the collective has died, people have moved on to other projects in Rotterdam and beyond.
A squatted social centre can be many things and when I look on how much we did in one year, I am quite amazed. It is a shame that the eviction came, but hopefully everyone in the collective learnt some lessons and can bring that knowledge to future projects. Right now there is a gap in Rotterdam for a social centre and a public debate is forming over the need for a society to nurture its young artists, particularly since in 2009 Rotterdam has some bullshit 'Creativity' thing going on. The Groene Voltage is/was on the fringe of this debate since artists are more welcome to society than anarchist squatters but it is certainly a part of it. We got a lot of nice feedback from people who visited our events and hopefully we inspired a few people. Perhaps some brave souls want to take on the task of organising a legalised space for music and cultural activities in Rotterdam along the lines of centres like Vrankrijk or OCCII in Amsterdam or the Autonomes Zentra in many German cities. To be legalised and thus have some long term security would be nice but for sure such a space is only likely to come out of the squat scene. We have to create these things ourselves because no-one else will do it for us. And actually, who would want it any other way?
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| gv - 22.03.2008 10:50 |
gekraakt nrc next
the housing corporation's view
some press cuttings...
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