OT301 is a cultural hotspot in Amsterdam. Questioning its narrative as an autonomous space; we tried to engage with OT301’s history and the current state of affairs.
Back in the ’80s, the lack of affordable housing helped the squatting movement to emerge in the Netherlands. ‘Squatting’ is what most would describe as occupying, living, in an abandoned building; not just out of necessity, but as an conscious political act.
In the Vondelpark neighborhood, longside the busy Overtoom street, tourists and locals alike walk right past one of the most famous (former) squatted space in Amsterdam: the OT301. Talking about OT301 is not that easy: it used to be a squat, but it is not anymore. It’s not just a restaurant, not just a club or a cultural center. It is not just an art space. According to Ivo, one of OT301 founder, the building on the Overtoom is a “non-profit project where public functions, work spaces and housing are combined to promote art, politics and subcultures”.
OT301 is a combination of instinct, creativity and other DIY forms of expression; non-for-profit and self run, OT301 provides space for living, working and public functions. Some might have heard of De Peper, its ground floor vegan restaurant or maybe Cinema of the Dam’d, the alternative cinema on the second floor. The more you crawl along its stairs or you hang out during the events, the better chance you have to discover some of its hidden gems: the Progress Bar, a monthly club night dedicated to communal desire and collective joy, yoga courses, dance workshops or vernissage in the 4bid gallery.
Squatting is part of city’s identity (or at least it has been for a long while): the OT301 is also a “physical reminder”, a presence in public life, of the political movement. The space was first squatted back in 1999 by a group of artists, who were part of a collective founded on a former squat: where now stays OLVG hospital in Amsterdam East, between 1997 and 1999 there was a “kraak” building.
On the day when the eviction took place, that building housed about one hundred people. The physical space was gone but the political idea of art and community was still there. A smaller group, then, kickstarted the foundation EHBK (First Aid In Case of Art). “That same group decided to look for a new space to continue what was started in the OLVG; that same building became the OT301″, Ivo says. The Film Academy of Amsterdam had just moved to a different location in the centre and that building, for us was the perfect choice because it had the kind of infrastructure that we were looking for.”
Since 1999, Overtoom 301, lived more lives: a squat first, a rented building later, then from 2003 it was purchased by the collective. The last move while ensured the long term openness and presence of an alternative project combining art, politics, and subculture in Amsterdam, caused frictions in the collective: eventually, some of the founders chose to leave: “they wanted to be squatters, no owners”. How to keep the project radical while engaging on a settled structure it is still the leitmotif of OT301 internal discussion: how to stay true to the original ideals, despite being owners and no longer squatters. As decision making is ownership is collective, those discussions turned more difficult and time consuming. “there is no boss, “the group is the boss.” OT301 proclaims itself as a communal space, and that seems not to just apply to its programming, but also to the way of running the place. No one can make changes before collective agreement. This horizontal organisation structure also results in a highly adaptive atmosphere. According to Ivo, “we change every year, we adapt to things, to the world around us while not losing track of what we believe in.”
OT301, is a tourist attraction? Or a part of the city’s cultural mainstream? The project gained the Amsterdam prize for the Arts in 2007. Given its evolution from a squatted building to a non-profit, subcultural space, the question of how to stay true to the ideals of the original squatting collective remains unanswered. In the first few years, as OT301 was just emerging, the collective was often in conflict with the government, only to later receive this prize. And it seemed to be rather fleeting. According to Ivo, “Amsterdam has become more conservative over the years. All the things that Amsterdam is/was famous for and that made most people of Amsterdam (still) proud have almost disappeared. Very slowly, Amsterdam transitioned from being an adventurous, open-minded, (sub)cultural, inclusive and diverse city into a boring monoculture.”
OT301 is under the guardianship of Amsterdam Alternative (AA). Amsterdam Alternative connects OCCII, Plantage Dok, Ruigoord, and many more non-profit and self-run places, believing in an alternative cultural programme for the city. For the founders of AA, “Amsterdam needs alternative places, Amsterdam needs to have autonomous zones, places to experiment, and to try new things.” But being non-commercial is difficult, and the venue still has to adjust to stricter rules
“Sometimes it is very difficult to keep your head above water, sometimes things are going very well. It is part of the process. A building/organisation like this is a process anyway. There is no end goal. It is a living organism that changes because it is made out of different people.”
On the website of this living organism, in the about section, you will stumble across a section titled Autonomy – The Right to Self Determination. What does it then mean to OT301 to be autonomous? “Autonomy is a difficult term. Its meaning has changed over the past 40 years. For us it means that we try to be as independent as possible. We try to be small scale, self sufficient, open minded, democratic, collective and open to everybody. Our building is owned by the collective. So nobody has individual ownership of the building. When you leave the collective you can not sell anything. The group will decide who will take your place. That collective ownership is something valuable and helps us to remember what we are doing, and that we are responsible for our building and organization ourselves. So the autonomy is many different little aspects of what we do, how we do it and who we are,” says Ivo.
“What I like the most about the OT301 is that we combine lots of things. First, and most important we combine living, working spaces for artists and public functions. There are very little places that combine those 3. And I think this combination works great,” explains Ivo.
Basically everything we do is political”. In offering an alternative to the commercial mainstream such as the expensive clubs of Amsterdam’s nightlife scene, the project prioritizes passion over money. There is not a dichotomy between being a part of a dynamic political movement and existing as a ‘real’, physical, permanent place, at least not for OT301.
A living organism, variation, subculture, alternative. OT301 seems to fit the stereotype of ‘the outsider’. Some people have never heard of it, and others see it as a part of the infrastructure of Amsterdam. Asked about the future, the collective just hopes that it will still exist in 100 years.
Like most public spaces, OT301 has been closed temporarily due to the coronavirus lockdown in the Netherlands. But Ivo says that there are always problems, and each problem comes with new solutions and opportunities. He hopes that the current crisis will somehow help in changing our mentality and the way we look at the world. For him, and for OT301, the crisis can definitely be an opportunity. But it also needs solidarity and creativity, and awareness for the meaning of community, especially for an autonomous space.
Right now, a lot of cultural spaces and community centers are in financial troubles due to the coronavirus outbreak. “ We will also be affected by this crisis: our public spaces will most likely not reopen any time sooner than the 1st of September, and if unlucky even longer. That will have a big effect on us. We had a lot of discussions already, and many more coming on how to deal with this. Now is the time for solidarity but also to be creative and think of new possibilities and things to do.”
Special thanks to Ivo, one of the co-founders of Amsterdam Alternative and part of OT301’s collective, for answering all of our questions and providing photographs.