For years, Arno Bouma has been on a quest to create space for non-commercial events on vast urban ground; a quest he started in Amsterdam and continued in Berlin. Being an eclectic DJ and attendee of experimental events himself, he has turned his affinity for the experimental underground scene into the mission of bridging the gap between potential experimental events and the politics problematizing these initiatives. It is a heavily loaded task in times where cities gentrify and megalomane buildings prevail over urban space for creatives that seek cultural manifestations. Living in a city that was on the verge of diminishing one of Amsterdam’s last cultural free spaces (ADM) for commercial reasons, Arno’s mission is a very important one to the people enjoying and developing cultural freedom in urban landscapes.
I first met Arno from when he curated the opening night in the cultural free space Lighthouse, a warehouse that warmly welcomed new musicians to take the stage and experiment, launched by Arno and his companion Bart van Overbeek. It was a night with a close circle of people that engaged with electronic music, including Arno himself. Eventually participating in the organisation, I closely observed the rise and demise of an innovating space that Amsterdam was gasping for. One of the main reasons of Lighthouse’s demise was policymaking in Amsterdam, where cultural manifestations involving electronic music are quickly subject to the strict rules of ‘dance events’ or even festivals. Nowadays, Arno lives in Berlin engaging with projects that mediate between politics and cultural initiatives, in order to enable the rise of cultural free spaces in an age of constraint.
Hi Arno, in what kind of projects are you involved and what issues do these projects tackle?
I mostly work for the Clubcommission in Berlin, where we fight for the interests of clubs. For instance, ‘Club Sterben’ is a widely heard term in Berlin now, as club space has become too expensive due to gentrification. A key example of this problem was exposed when cultural free space Johnny Knuppel had a small fire, resulting in expensive demands from the government. They had already existed for two years, but this one incident in which they crossed paths with the municipality has led to the death of the club. We’re trying to tackle these kind of issues with the Clubcommission. Other projects that I take part in are conferences about night life – we organised one ourselves last year in Salon zur Wilden Renate.
A big project I’m working on now is named Model Space Project, in which we want to create spaces in the city where youngsters can organize non-commercial cultural events with a low threshold. After all, there is a distinction between a commercial event for 10000 or a non-commercial for 100 people; this distinction is overlooked by municipalities. We want to develop a map with parameters that indicate a suitable spot for small-scale events and offer an advisory report for guiding the administration with the implementation. We will fulfill these goals by working together with a law university, a technical university and the government. We are now in the first year of the project and have received funding from the cultural senate as well. Hopefully, this project will run on a long term.
Another project we’re setting up is Rave Diplomacy: an open-source platform for international collectives that face suppressing political conditions in organizing events. Here, dancing is a political statement – something we tend to forget in Amsterdam and Berlin. Through the Rave Diplomacy platform, we connect these collectives by setting up a network, organizing conferences and events and strengthening each other by developing strategies. The kick-off was at our conference last year, featuring collectives from Sao Paulo (Mamba Negra), Tbilisi (Bassiani), Belgrado (Drugstore) and Palestina (Jazar Crew). This month, I am flying to Haifa, where we will present Rave Diplomacy – including a party – in the first Palestine club on Israëli territory since 1948.
I am also involved an transnational project named Enter The Void: a project that tries to bridge the gap between youth culture and the government in Riga, Amsterdam, Budapest and Berlin. The project is coming to an end, but the results are fruitful. We have developed a common language between the subcultures and politics and involved political figures that have the ability to influence local policies. All in all, you could say that I’m working on facilitating events by engaging with the politics that define the conditions under which events can be held, rather than organizing events myself.
You do have a history organizing events yourself in Amsterdam?
I always engaged with open-airs and small parties in venues like Cruquius. Once, I was also involved in repurposing a non-active train wagon near Station Lelylaan. However, this turned out to be more commercial than it seemed due to the project developer renting the space in collaboration with the NS (National Railways). The rent kept rising, so there was no way to do anything other than the commercial stuff. I think the high cost of urban space is a general problem that prospers the launch of commercial projects at the cost of experiment. I also hosted a cultural free space in Amsterdam-Noord, named Lighthouse, which eventually had to go because of the municipality’s plans to build more housing and because of their ‘dance event’ regulations.
How would you compare Amsterdam with Berlin when it comes to organizing small-scaled experimental events?
Amsterdam is definitely worse off than Berlin with regard to curating non-commercial events. First of all, it is way smaller, so there is less space to deploy these activities, whereas Berlin is bigger and offers more opportunities to cultivate urban space for non-commercial purposes. Second, in Amsterdam, people are used to a club culture where you pay to utilize the club’s space, which results in less responsibility. This is what I also noticed when curating events in Lighthouse: people are not used to clean after themselves and keep the space tidy. Of course, you can’t expect this from people who are new to this. The point is that it is difficult to change this type of behaviour. Third, less people are active in establishing idealistic, non-commercial events in Amsterdam. Berlin attracts people – like me – who want to participate in cultural freezones. Berlin may be more political, dogmatic and bureaucratic, but there is a large group willing to engage, which is why I moved here. The culture is also very different from the one in Amsterdam; especially after the fall of the wall, a lot of subcultures were attracted to Berlin. Up until today, people from all over the world feel this attraction, which is what keeps the subcultural character of Berlin alive and active. This cultural component is rather missing in Amsterdam, resulting in less people wanting to actively engage in subcultures and their events.
It seems like less people want to engage in Amsterdam’s cultural free zones, compared to Amsterdam in the 80s. Do you think it’s the people that changed, or the politics that changed?
Well, on the streets, you don’t see a lot of diversity in Amsterdam, which is due to political choices. If people see it less, they engage less. It has to be around you to arouse you. For instance, ADM is an eye opener for a lot of people; it is a whole different way of starting a society. Converting this visit into personal experience may evoke people to start engaging in cultural experiments themselves. At Lighthouse, some people got inspired and wanted to do it as well. Kondo is another example of an initiative that organized illegal events professionally. But as long as such initiatives are not experienced or seen by the public, it is difficult to change something in the urban landscape of Amsterdam.
I hope more initiatives will come. What kind of initiatives do you see for the future?
It’s not easy, but you have to be naive and just do it. However, there have to be conditions that make it possible to curate such initiatives in the first place. This is why I think the best way is to collaborate with authorities in creating such conditions when they are not there. For instance, In Bremen there was a protest for the access of open-airs. The pressure from the scene got them two spots designated by the government, but those we unattractive and not apt. At the same time, other spots were subject to a large amount of control and regulations, which is why they started to demonstrate. This resulted in a law, granting people the right to organize open-airs. One has to apply through a form 24 hours before the event and note phone number, personal information and location. If there is no negative reply or no reply at all, you are allowed to host the event. Last year was a test year and they even mitigated the law because of its success. Now, more people are excited to curate an event in Bremen. So, the community has to influence politics to allow for community building. But of course, first, you need the community in order to start this movement.
What advice would you give to the people of Amsterdam? Should we demonstrate?
If governments would grant subcultures the space to prosper and develop, there would be no need to go ‘overground’ and approach governmental institutions. Unfortunately, in Amsterdam there is conflict due to the lack of this type of space. So, the logic step is to collaborate with the municipality. After all, the urge to maintain subcultures is real, just like in Berlin. Collaborating with administrative politics could result in more space, which could engage people in projects. And yes, you should demonstrate: demonstrating reaches the authorities and the press. However, before demonstrating, you first have to decide your identity as a community: who are you and what do you want to achieve? Alternative culture problematizes this because it involves a lot of people with their own ideals and tactics. A good example is the occupation of Berlin’s theatre Volksbuhne, which took place last year. After the occupation, the movement did not succeed in agreeing on what they wanted to achieve and how they would repurpose the theatre, which eventually led to eviction.
In Sexyland, we organized and Enter The Void meeting in which we mentioned the Model Space Project – the project in which a map is created to locate conflict-avoiding public spaces for events. A member of the municipality was present and offered the idea in the local council. There is a big chance that the project will be deployed in Amsterdam as well! This would mean that we could experiment with the space offered by Amsterdam for organizing non-commercial events. All in all, future alternatives will need to speak the language of policy makers and have to be in dialogue with each other, in order to alter the conditions under which experimental events may arise.