Culture Shocks In The Docks
Dutch squatters present underground extravaganza
The annual Robodock Festival in Holland is an explosive maelstrom of underground culture with a growing reputation for raw excitement. Escaping the clutches of robots and dodging fountains of flame, Shimrit Elisar managed to talk to the event's chief organiser.
Somewhere on the outskirts of Amsterdam lies a windswept industrial wasteland. Overlooked by several wind powered generators, it stretches way back to the docks where rows of gigantic warehouses meet the boats at the water's edge.
Economic recession means some of these concrete monsters have been abandoned but it's difficult to tell which are in use and which aren't on the Friday afternoon as I arrive. The whole place seems deserted but, unusually, the area is spotlessly clean.
And yet situated at the end of a long stretch of tree-lined road is the ADM, a squatted warehouse complex inhabited by a formidable collection of radical underground artists, performers and activists. On the eve of one of Europe's most unusual festivals, the area is far from derelict. The radical squatters moved down to the docks four years ago after their previous home - a legendary alternative cultural centre called the Silo situated within Amsterdam - was evicted.
"We were in the Silo for ten years. It was a beautiful building," recalls one of collective's chief organisers, Maik. "We had thousands of shows there, millions of people came. There were parties every week. We had a theatre, recording studios, cafe. It was like a whole village in there.
"If it hadn't been for us, the place would not be there now. The council wanted to demolish it. Now that we have been evicted, they've converted it into expensive apartments. " Undaunted by their eviction from the Silo, the collective were actually tipped off by the council and the police about an empty warehouse at the docks. There was, of course, an ulterior motive to the tip off.
THE ANNUAL ROBODOCK IS AS SURREAL AS ITS SURROUNDINGS, BOTH ARE UNASHAMEDLY URBAN, PRODUCTS OF A HIGHLY INDUSTRIALISED SOCIETY BUT, UNLIKE THE DESOLATE, SILENT TESTIMONY OF THE WASTELAND, THE FESTIVAL IS TEEMING WITH COLOUR, SOUND AND ENERGY.
"The ADM is owned by a known mafia guy," says Maik. "The Amsterdam council sent us here to cause him problems. To them we are pawns in their political games. That is why they tell everyone who gets evicted, that they should come here. There is a lot profit to be made from selling this place and everyone wants a cut. The law here states that the council has first rights on this guy's land and they are very interested in buying and won't let him sell to anyone else. But there is also a government law that says the council cannot do business with known criminals. So at the moment every thing is stuck and we are right in the middle of it. With nobody to protect us from either."
This lack of protection became apparent a few years back, when the owner decided to take the law into his own hands and force the squatters out. At first his attempts were unsuccessful but early one Tuesday morning, the squatters were violently woken up by a big crane demolishing their building.
"We called the police and they came and stopped him, because he didn't have a court order" recalls Maik, "They told us they don't do evictions for this man, because he is a criminal".
This frightening event sparked the Robodock festival, an underground art music and performance festival which has been held every September since 1998, and which Maik views as a form of cultural self defence. An exhibition of pictures from the eviction attempt is shown before each festival and every year, a different theme is chosen and promoted throughout the event. This year's theme - Alternation, symbolises changing from a small organisation, into an alternative nation.
The ADM is a huge place. Previously used as a shipyard but long since abandoned, the warehouse alone is big enough to hold over 15.000 people. Throughout the year it is now used as a performance space for various artistic, theatrical and technical projects. It's complemented by another smaller building which operates as the living quarters and a permanent restaurant. The buildings are set in a large green area. A sort of small forest with a small pier and numerous boats.
OTHER HIGHLIGHTS INCLUDE A MACHINE WHICH SEEMS TO EXIST FOR THE PURPOSE OF TARRING AND FEATHERING FROZEN CHICKENS.
The annual Robodock is as surreal as its surroundings, Both are unashamedly urban, products of a highly industrialised society but, unlike the desolate, silent testimony of the wasteland, the festival is teeming with colour, sound and energy.
It is an hour's walk from the nearest station to the complex, but, thankfully, there is a cheap regular bus service, run by the squatters themselves. The permanent structures on the site are joined by a host of tents, marquees, vans and buses. There are large sculptures and installations everywhere. We set up camp at the far end of the enclosure, behind the artists' camping ground. Surrounded by trees and blackberry bushes, it's like being out in the wild.
A minute's walk back into the centre and we could be at any number of outdoors festivals, with bonfires, a village-like vibe and some inevitable mud. A few more steps and we're inside the warehouse, a scene straight out of some futuristic post-apocalyptic movie. The main stage takes up one side of the building, a loosely enclosed space suitable for all kinds of large scale performances. Most of them seem to involve fire and explosions of some kind. Over from the UK, Paka the Uncredable's show opens with such a loud succession of explosions, most people literally jump off their seats.
There are several other performance areas scattered throughout the building and a few aerial rigs. Giant robotic creatures, space ships and odd-shaped vehicles dominate the area around the entrance and beyond. Quietly on display throughout the day, they come to life at night, breathing fire and flashing lights.
There is a large-scale interactive installation involving cogs, a circle of tiltable wooden beds and chilled music pumped through individual headphones. There is also a bizarre techno-maze, a few fire/water based installations and several cafes. One of them also functions as an Amsterdam-style coffee-shop, complete with ganja in this land of plenty.
These and the bar are mostly run with a token system. You exchange your money for locally printed tokens, which in turn are exchanged for food and drink. The prices are very cheap and there is a surprisingly large selection.
Everywhere you look, there seems to be something happening, seemingly at random without a visible framework or rules. In reality, though, there is a set programme and every act, sculpture and show are exactly where and when they are supposed to be. The result could only be described as controlled chaos.
You could be watching a breathtaking aerial show one minute and a nerve-wrecking fire show in the next. Then drummers burst onto the floor out of nowhere, and there's a pickup carrying what I could only describe as a mad punk orchestra. There's a man dressed in a gold chainmail robe, wheeling a strange robot with a voicebox emitting regular bursts of rants, all beginning with cries of "SOS".
Another act is just a barrel rolling around seemingly on its own, causing great confusion and amusement as people try to figure out if there's anyone in there. Other highlights include a machine which seems to exist for the purpose of tarring and feathering frozen chickens, an art car made out of a fully functional bath tub and a superb audio-visual show in which a scene is mimed to music, filmed and projected onto giant screens. Then the footage is quickly cut and reused to form a whole new scene set to different music. Confused? you ought to be!
To add even more creative confusion and excitement, there are a couple of music marquees outside and a cinema tent, provided by UK-based Groovy Movie. Veterans of festivals and demonstrations alike, this lot are powered entirely by means of solar energy and cycle-power provided by those other UK fezzie perennials, Rinky Dink.
On the bill tonight are various short films about Reclaim the Streets' parties, solstice parties and other underground events around Europe.
"IT WAS THE SQUAT THEATRE GROUPS WHICH INSPIRED THE WHOLE LOCAL TREND OF USING RECYCLED ART IN SHOWS, GIVING AMSTERDAM THE ALTERNATIVE CULTURAL REPUTATION IT NOW HAS."
There is a strong sense of community spirit here. The performers are all dedicated to the cause and perform for cost price only. The audience too are here to show support as much as to be entertained. The local authorities did make an attempt to incorporate Amsterdam's flourishing underground scene into their scheme of things, particularly after the Silo proved such a popular and thriving cultural venue.
"They started a new programme in Amsterdam dubbed 'Breeding Grounds'," Maik told SQUALL. "An allocation of space and grants for artists and performers in Amsterdam. Supposedly this is there to help people like us live and work. In reality it's nothing like what we do here. It all has to be done under their rules. You have to show them a business plan, you can't live where you work and it's also been mentioned several times that you have to have gone to art school in order to qualify. It defeats the whole point of what we do here and in the other unregulated spaces in Amsterdam we call 'Freegrounds'. I've heard they are offering spaces to individual artists now. Here at the ADM, we are very social, there is a community here. We usually all do our own thing, but we co-operate on projects, and on the festival and other events throughout the year, we're all in this together."
Unsurprisingly the squatters emphasis on cultural innovation doesn't mix well with the authorities' preoccupation with capital realisation on land and property.
"Amsterdam is viewed around the world as a very liberal place because of people like us, making creative use of available space," says Maik. "It was the squat theatre groups which inspired the whole local trend of using recycled art in shows, giving Amsterdam the alternative cultural reputation it now has.
"Because of this, many multinational companies want to have their head offices here, which means big money for the council. The irony is, it's all these companies which are moved into the buildings that were originally squatted.
"So we are here to give the impression of freedom, but then we are kicked out to make room for business once that impression was made. They are turning Amsterdam into Disneyland, a place for tourists only. You can go to the red light district, sit in a coffee shop and it's all clean-swept and spotless. But without the squats and the underground movement, all that's left is cultural poverty."
This love-hate relationship between the squatters and the council caused severe problems to the ADM during the early days. The first ever Robodock Festival was hit by tragedy when one man was killed and several, including a small child, hurt in an incident which, according to Maik, could have been easily prevented if it hasn't been for the unrealistic security measures enforced by the council, despite repeated warnings voiced by himself and his security team.
Ever since then, the festival organisers have been employing their own security and medics and following their own security plans with the approval of both the police and the council and a licence is granted each year for the festival to operate. There have been no adverse incidents since.
Maik's plans for the future are to expand Robodock's activities and hopefully take them around the world. He is strongly considering moving away from Amsterdam and the local political climate: "After 12 years of dealing with the politics here, I think it's about enough. Maybe it's time to take Robodock on the road, We now have a fully autonomous festival, with lights, sound, everything. It's a very professional thing. We could travel around Europe or Africa. Some say South Africa is a good place now, which we are considering for 2003. There are plenty of cities we can go to. We are also very interested in going to Burning Man. (see It's Burning Man on the SQUALL features page) For this we will need some big trucks or a couple of boats. "I would also like to be able to pay the artists and performers, who have been working for nothing for all these years. Not in a commercial way, but just to give them what they deserve. We will need some grants for this, I realise that. And I am perfectly willing to co-operate with the authorities in cities other than Amsterdam, where there is less politics going on. There is some interest in Rotterdam, for example, which we may act on in the future. We could stay here and do nothing and just wait for the eviction, but then, if we lose this place, we'll be right back where we started, with nothing.
Instead, we could be working on ways to make Robodock better and take it further. We are always promoting our culture, letting people know what's happening. It would be good to show people what we're about abroad as well."
Robodock is another living proof that an achievable alternative to what we regard as 'normal' society can and does exist. The art and acts on display here are deeply immersed in the cross-fertilised values of punk and hippy. They are not standalone but reactive, interactive; inspiring, thought-provoking and........highly subversive.
Like the people who created them and the value systems they represent, the Robodock Festival presents a formidable demonstration of creative diversity and cultural power. Face to face with the spoon fed commercial world of ordinary entertainment, there is no doubt which of the two will be blown out of the water.
There are regular events held at the ADM, which are advertised on their website. And who knows, they may be showing up in a town near you soon!