Postcard from Amsterdam: The Emerging Amsterdam Zuid-Oost Art Scene

This piece was originally published on the now defunct Frieze blog in April 2013.

The Kleiburg housing block and the abandoned Kraaiennest shopping centre

The Vinger office, where I met producer Sara Mattens and artist Daniela Bershan, is wedged in a low edifice that hosts several other ateliers, just opposite the Kraaiennest metro station in the peripheral Bijlmermeer neighbourhood of Amsterdam Zuid-Oost. The spot tells it all: dwarfed by a freshly-built housing block just a few feet away and buried under the sturdy metro infrastructure that zips right by, the modest structure stands out as a small yet visible intruder among the architectural giants surrounding it. One of the biggest mosques in Amsterdam is about a minute away, its minarets tower over the elevated railway and the intersection below, which is otherwise blighted by the deserted Kraaiennest Shopping Centre. A couple years ago, when I came here to interview a few shopkeepers about the Bijlmer Euro — an RFID-powered local currency and community mapping experiment by artist Christian Nold — the mall was still thriving. Now that the building has been cleared out, the retailers that could afford it have moved to more expensive facilities in a new complex nearby.

In the meantime, Mattens, Bershan, and their team have turned the location’s vacancy into an opportunity. Encouraged by Thomas Hirschhorn’s Spinoza Festival, which took place in this area in 2009, they put together an heterogeneous programme of visual arts, music and performances under the banner ‘FATFORM’ , bringing people from otherwise separate walks of life — from Taekwondo students to noise DJs — on the roof of the ramshackle behemoth of the shopping mall. An incense-burning candonblé ritual performed by a Brazilian artist on a bike helped guide visitors via olfaction.

The FATFORM location, in a former garage

In 2012, in view of the former mall’s demolition (which is still on hiatus, apparently) the action had to quickly migrate to a smaller venue on the opposite side of the street, the vacant Klieverink garage, where a small headquarters-cum-roof-garden was established for a few months. The group rolled up their sleeves and put up ‘Present Forever’ , their biggest project to date: an exhibition populating the awkwardly vacant parking space with art works by no less than 55 artists. More than 1,200 people attended the opening, a third of which were from the Bijlmer itself.

A performance at ‘Present Forever’, 2012

But change doesn’t only come from the bottom up: ‘When we started, people told us we were mad,’ says Bershan, a German-born artist fascinated with physical, material forms of aggregation. ‘Eight years ago taxis wouldn’t drive into the neighbourhood; now it’s more like a suburbia. It has even become hip, somehow.’

Built as a modernist residential paradise for the white middle class in the 1960s, and originally marked by its characteristic semi-hexagonal housing blocks, the Bijlmer failed to attract its intended audience and, once Suriname became independent in 1975, many immigrants from the former Dutch colony moved in. The relatively high crime rate made the neighbourhood long infamous as a ghetto, but — as often happens in cities bigger and more dangerous than Amsterdam — in the last decade the low rent and spacious facilities made the Bijlmer popular with artists. For reasons probably pertaining more to the typically-tight Dutch planning than to the above-mentioned creative colonization, no permanent hipster hangouts like cool cafés have yet appeared in the area. But the Bijlmer is now undergoing major redevelopments and gentrification. With such a rich and layered history and population, it’s easy to expect locally-produced and locally-shown art to embody some kind of social commitment, at the risk of coming across as superficial or patronising. For FATFORM, though, the area’s controversial reputation is a contingent backdrop rather than the main focus.

The Vinger studio

Mattens, who grew up in the neighbourhood and returned years ago to join Jeffrey Croese’s Vinger production studio, explains how the welfare industry has contributed to a bureaucracy-heavy culture that doesn’t really promote creative enterprise. ‘There is a lot of money going into that. You always have to pay attention not to be sucked into these more problematic branches.’ For Bershan, the issue is very simple: it’s about the quality of the art. ‘We are artists, we’re not social workers.’ The confusion can sometimes lead to less-than-spontaneous collaborations, imposed by local politicians as a condition for funding. For the most part though, it seems the Bijlmer art scene that has emerged in the last decade has been shaped by natural affinities and practical necessities.

While FATFORM is a more episodic, volatile initiative, other organizations have established themselves and built different relationships with the territory, also in terms of their collaboration with artists. ImagineIC , which in 2011 invited Christian Nold to create a local currency in order to map the Bijlmer’s multicultural identity — an art project accepted by the Dutch Bank exactly because of its artistic and temporary nature — has since shifted back to its core focus on heritage. The foundation works with artists as collectors of individual stories about urban youth, with projects like Kostana Banovic’s Mijn God (My God, 2012) — a video-installation exploring the relationship between youth and religion — or exhibitions and workshops about subcultures and history.

Still from Kostana Banovic’s ‘My God’, at the invitation of Imagine IC

The main institution in the neighbourhood that focuses solely on contemporary art is CBK Zuidoost . There, on a rare sunny afternoon, I met curator Renske de Jong and Maria Guggenbichler, the latest guest of the BijlmAIR residency programme. Just outside a street market was in full swing, showcasing the Bijlmer at its liveliest. ‘We had our 25th anniversary in 2012,’ De Jong tells me. ‘We started as an art library. People paid a small amount per month to keep the art works at home.’ The centre then evolved and started organizing educational projects for schools, hosting exhibitions and assigning small commissions to artists. When more space opened up in one of their facilities, the centre took the opportunity to use the extra room to invite artists for residencies — and theBijlmAIR programme was born. CBK started collaborating with SMBA (the Stedelijk Museum’s project space) and, since moving to the nearby apartment block at Florijn 42 a few years ago, it also partnered with Stichting Flat (the collective emerged from the housing block that now hosts the residency and from which FATFORM also originated).

As the board got richer, the activities intensified. Now residencies are shorter and more international, and the quality has also improved. When I asked De Jong about her favourite projects, she mentioned recent interventions by Moroccan artist Yassine Balbzioui, who worked in a variety of formats collecting objects in the area, and Leo Asemota, who also sourced unconventional materials to reflect on post-colonialism. The theme was also explored by artist duo Kel O’Neill and Eline Jongsma, in their Empire documentary project in 2012. But reflecting on such complex social issues is not mandatory. ‘I like the diversity of it,’ De Jong told me. ‘Lots of artists want to do something with the residents of the Bijlmer, but it’s nice to see something different, too.’

Which brings us to Guggenbichler. With a background in theatre, the Munich-born artist has big plans for the flat she’s been provided. The former FATFORM volunteer intends to turn the space into a temporary venue for music, screenings, lectures, parties and a meeting point for Situationist group walks into the night (you can check out her programme here ). As often happens with BijlmAIR, the neighbourhood’s architecture has been inspiring to her. ‘I’m interested in utopias coming to life. Even when they fail over a long time.’

Failure or not, the Bijlmer’s architecture is changing fast, and so is the housing market. The iconic Kleiburg building — the only standing memento of the hexagonal, CIAM-inspired beehive vision of architect Siegfried Nassuth — was deemed too expensive to demolish. De Flat, a consortium of independent real-estate developers, has transformed it into a matrix of rugged yet appealing apartments. As for Stichting Flat, it seems the future is unclear. ‘It’s very hard at the moment,’ curator and fellow frieze writer Irene de Craen told me via Skype. She’s on the board of Stichting Flat and, at the time of our interview, she is on a residency in Berlin herself. ‘There are people leaving and it’s hard to replace them. The situation has changed, rent has become more expensive.’ But, overall, she’s optimistic. ‘We’ll have to negotiate what to do. Everything can be negotiated.’

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