The art student Reinier Kranendonk founded a squat in Amsterdam called PostNorma for “living and artistic engagement”. His school, the Sandberg Instituut, liked it so much they are looking to create a sanctioned version of the project. Jeannette Petrik looks at the pros and cons of institutionalising anti-authoritarian activism.
Until its criminalisation in 2010, squatting was legally and socially accepted as a socio-political practice in the Netherlands. Today, less than five years after its criminalisation, squatting is still possible through means of appropriation and negotiation and allows for individuals to create environments of abundance – a relative concept – with given means.
PostNorma was an “art squat” founded in Amsterdam in 2014 in the context of an artistic project which set out to become a breeding ground for personal and communal cultural development. The project was initiated by post-grad student Reinier Kranendonk as part of his graduation from the Dirty Arts Department at the Sandberg Instituut. With it he set out to consciously embrace “taking the right to act into your own hands to work for your and each others independence”. It grew from the idea of a self-organised DIY space into becoming an institutional part of the educational environment it was embedded in – whereby, at its roots, the project embodied the conflict between self-organisation and institutionalisation.
In 2001 the Dutch artist Joep van Lieshout founded a free state, which maintained its “self-sufficiency” for nine months, describing his attitude at the time as one of “just making it”. Kranendonk saw this precedent as an ideological and liberating practice of directly applying ones ideas and he adopted this attitude to form the basis of PostNorma. This potential for the development of free thoughts and actions seems to be integral to self-organised initiatives such as this – with freedom of action being a prerequisite. Van Lieshout speaks of squatting as a necessary rebellious act for the creation of an autonomous space. With the act of breaking and entering into building, one goes beyond legal and social standards. Radically questioning conditions of modern life, such as notions of ownership and its legitimacy, concepts of work and inequality, and the notion of social hierarchy and authority is the basis of any squatting action.
PostNorma emerged as a student-run space for living and artistic engagement that was inhabited by art students and travellers over the course of thirteen months. The practice of self-organisation at PostNorma sidestepped the complexities of bureaucracy. As Kranendonk appeals in his thesis: “Begin to think, begin to talk, begin to write, begin to act, begin to do, begin!” Freely beginning to question one's prevalent condition in a given social and cultural context together with others of similar attitudes, would allow for the development of change by discovering the roots of needs and possible re-definitions.
Self-organised spaces sometimes lack structure and tend to give way to chaos, while participants looking to develop their own and a space’s potential often initially experience a lack of the common luxury of modern commodities. This was the case for PostNorma too. And while commonly groups of squatters are comprised of individuals with complementary skill sets which often extend to building and making, setting up electricity, heating and water and the creation of public visibility, the participants of PostNorma mostly started out having only little experience in building maintenance. Still, the group’s members evolved to learn from and support each other. “While working on a building and on organising events, one simultaneously works on social structures,” describes Kranendonk.
The artist and squatter Kranendonk speaks of his experience with PostNorma with both scepticism and excitement. Initially, he says, it was difficult to motivate peers to engage with the space. Common expectations as to what a liveable space actually is initially got in the way of seeing the space’s potential, he says. Only as the space evolved to become a place for creative activity did the Sandberg Institute recognise the place’s potential and started organising events such as lectures and exhibitions there, while supporting the project-space with material donations such as gasoline.
PostNorma ended with the demolition of its building in July 2015. Nevertheless, the Sandberg Institute has since understood the value of a student-run, semi-public initiative and its director Jurgen Bey and Jerzy Seymour from the Dirty Art Department are working with Kranendonk on adapting the concept for the future in form of an institutionalised version of the project. Understanding empty buildings as open spatial frames would allow for art students to experience their limits under the conditions of a reality that goes beyond the safety net of an art school. Still, the development of such a project is highly dependent on its participants, says Kranendonk. The curiosity to explore possible models of change on a small scale requires a large amount of commitment, which cannot be imposed. Whether an institutionalised “squat”, bound to the logics of economic viability and regulations, would therefore be as successful in developing a criticality towards societal norms and standards as a “naturally” grown squat could, remains questionable. As Kranendonk says: “PostNorma began from the bottom up, this new project would work from the top down”.
An institutionalised “art squat” of this kind could allow for participants to develop their practices in a spatially generous environment with the support of experienced educators. But on the other hand, it would also mean restrictive running costs and regulations – just like any other space. More informal squats tend to operate in legal grey zones and often manage to exclude themselves from common standards such as health and safety regulations. This could not be the case with an institutionalised squat – where there are liability issues at stake.
Clearly, the sanctioned art squat depicted above represents a rather idealised point of view towards squatting culture that values its emancipatory potential above the negative stigmata attached to it. The enforcement of regulations and organisational structures from the outside might prevent destructive developments and help participants to feel “safe” under the organisational guidance of an institution but, at the same time, a project’s potential for radical change would certainly be compromised. Institutional roots are simply deeper than those of self-organised initiatives and are therefore more resistant to experimentation, spontaneity and improvisation. This needs to be weighed against the common characteristics of self-organised environments where ad hoc solutions tend to provide the first steps towards more sustainable new socio-cultural developments.
While squatting practices can serve as valuable references for experimentation on a variety of social levels and institutions do certainly need to rethink their roles as facilitative educational platforms, the simple adaptation of a model that grew outside of an institutional framework will most probably not be sustainable as such. Squatting tends to give individuals a level of freedom that allows for them to escape, or rather, act in parallel to the systemic reality they are embedded in – the formalisation of such “freedom” would tie it right back to the system self-organised projects often try to counter in the first place.
– Jeannette Petrik is a writer, researcher and maker concerned with the in-depth analysis of socio-cultural contexts.
For more on radical education experiments and the spaces they occur in, see uncube issue no. 26: School’s Out