My favorite squat

The End of Breeding Season at OT301?

The formative squat and cultural centre faces an uncertain future.

By Sunny Bleckinger

‘I don’t see any real danger of us getting kicked out the 1st of October,’ said musician Colin McLean as steam rose from his coffee.

He was drinking his cup in the sun drenched Cinema Café. His smiling eyes and calm demeanour belied the rumour that OT301, one of the most creative multimedia centres in the city, may be forced to move. Along with Alex Fischer, the Scotsman McLean and several other people known collectively as Eerste Hulp Bij Kunst [‘First Aid For Art’] squatted the former film academy in 1999. Then, after a year of negotiations with the owners, Stadsdeel Oud West, they became legal tenants in 2000.  But the contract was set to run out at the end of this month and there was a hint of uncertainty in the air.

‘I’m confident enough that we’ll be staying here in much the same way as we are,’ said McLean. ‘Just because of the amount of stuff that goes on here and the amount of people that are connected to it, we do have some power.’

It was the summer recess, so the place located at Overtoom 301 was officially closed. But there was plenty going on. Off in a dark corner, a guy with blondish dreads was taking a break from his work to fix a broken door lock. Laughter billowed into the courtyard from the vegan café where jolly resident Richard Williams was crunching numbers at a table inside to make sure the OT stays out of the red. A young woman who works at the print shop was catching some rays in a patch of sunlight that had made its way through the trees. ‘Hello,’ she smiled as I walked past and rolled onto her stomach.

Artists were bustling about in the main building, which overlooks the courtyard. On the first floor, Martijn Rood was overseeing a bookbinding class in his printing workshop. Down the hall, Bob Schoo squinted at his computer screen as he reached the midway point of another 16-hour session of writing code for a local artist’s new website.

Down on the ground floor, Tamuna Chabashuili and Adi Hollander were holding a murmured conversation under a cloud of cigarette smoke with an artist who was pitching his work for their Public Space with a Roof exhibition space. Outside on the balcony OT resident Peter Rutten, who is also half of the terror-beat duo Rotten + Bogoman, took a break to soak up the sun. If the people whose creative lives were focused on this busy centre were worried that things may suddenly come to an end, they were not showing it.

‘Well,’ McLean conceded, ‘the situation at the moment is still a bit unclear.’

When Eerste Hulp Bij Kunst (EHBK) first squatted the place, a former film academy building, it was in bad shape. The local council, Stadsdeel Oud West, was planning to knock it down to build a bicycle path.

‘Yeah, it was a really crazy idea,’ said McLean. ‘They budgeted it at something like €8 million and everybody in the neighbourhood was against it. Particularly because there’s a good bicycle path 50 metres down the road.’ He glanced out the window. ‘You can see it from here.’

It wasn’t hard for EHBK to come up with a better plan for the building. After they had been, presenting non-commercial art and music for one year, the city’s Project Management Bureau named OT301 a broedplaats (‘artistic breeding ground’). Broedplaats Amsterdam, a new project started by the city to fund subcultural initiatives, granted them €770,000 for fire safety repairs and wind and water-resistant renovations.

This support from the city turned the artists and squatters of EHBK into legal tenants. The Stadsdeel gave them a five-year rental contract at the low price of €15 per square metre per year.  These minimal costs were important in freeing art from commercial interference, and they also enabled the centre to keep ticket prices down, as well as provide low-cost in-house services—such as printing, web design, video production and audio mastering—to artists and non-profit groups.

But those times may be changing. The Stadsdeel’s new contracts include rental fees that at almost double the previous rate. Negotiations between the local council and the OT are still ongoing.

‘They made an evaluation of their costs for maintaining the building,’ said Eric Wuthrich, who has been heading up much of the OT’s negotiation team. ‘That’s where the new rental price comes from. But we’re not convinced that the costs are that high, and we’ve been disappointed with how they handled our money in the past.’

This disappointment began in 2000, after Broedplaats Amsterdam handed over the €770,000 for renovations. Because the council had legal responsibility over the building, the Stadsdeel had full control over the way the money was spent. After the first two years the building was still not up to fire safety standards and the OT was forced to shut down all public facilities in November 2002. The centre remained closed until the spring of 2004 when the renovations were completed.

Jaap Schoufour, project manager of Broedplaats Amsterdam, who approved the funding, doesn’t blame the Stadsdeel for the lengthy renovations. ‘Getting shut down for two years was [certainly] hard for the EHBK,’ he said. ‘But you must understand, it wasn’t just a matter of drawing up the plans, making calculations, and then just doing it. It was agreed from the beginning that EHBK would have a role in the process as well. That was a fantastic ambition, but a highly unusual way of working, especially for the Stadsdeel.’

Schoufour said that there were good people at the Stadsdeel, but they did their work ‘in a certain way—always in a certain way.’ For them, working with the very different culture of the EHBK was a ‘kind of culture shock’.

‘Seeing the results afterwards, I don’t think it was that bad,’ he said.

The artists of the OT are now considering buying the building and managing it themselves, says Wuthrich. ‘We’ll obviously need to get a new rental contract with rates as low as possible’, he said. ‘And it should include a clause that says we have exclusive first option to buy. We haven’t seen that yet. And some people believe it’s because the Stadsdeel is looking to sell to a third-party investor.’

These suspicions began in early August, when a man showed up at the OT asking to have a look around. They asked him what his business was and he said he was sent by Stadsdeel Oud West, but he wasn’t prepared to explain the purpose of his visit. He was asked to leave and they haven’t seen him since.

‘We really don’t know what that was all about,’ McLean said. ‘But given our somewhat precarious situation at the moment, it’s not surprising that there’s speculation that the Stadsdeel may be dealing with others behind our back.’

But Stadsdeel spokesperson Patricia Weijer said during a telephone interview that the local council did not currently intend to sell the building to anyone. Weijer added that the law obliges government institutions not to release any information until sales negotiations around a government property are complete. And she felt that the council’s relationship with the party at the former film academy was good.

Schoufour has worked as hard as anyone to ensure the continuity of the centre, and he seemed confident that things would work out in the end. But if they didn’t?

He laughed. ‘I’ll start shooting people.’

Even if things are unresolved, the crew at the OT plan to keep on as they always have. This week the centre will be back in full force, with between 20 and 25 nights booked monthly for live music, film screenings, modern dance and art installations. Basically, any creative idea that seems interesting and fits the space—as long as it’s non-profit—will be considered. And any extra money that comes in is always put back into the building.

‘We’re always trying to get better sound equipment, better video equipment,’ McLean said. ‘And there’s always repairs that need to be made. You probably saw Alex downstairs replacing one of the door locks. He’s really good about doing general repairs. He’s like the glue that holds this building together.’

For many people, Alex, a sculptor/video artist, embodies the kind of spirit that keeps the building going. ‘He seems to artistically transform whatever he touches, be it a video screen, a tree trunk or a whole building.’ said one colleague. The OT’s warm and spacious Cinema Café is mostly Alex’s work—an impressive feat, considering that the room was once full of ventilation equipment.

And McLean, at 48, is the elder member of the group. He takes on most of the bigger responsibilities, like concert programming, financial administration and web publicity. The reason for it all is his drive as a musician: he regularly improvises electronic music for dance productions, masters records for local labels, and now and again picks up his bass guitar to play with The Ex.