A Jungle of Monkeys

With Kunststad, the country’s largest broedplaats for the arts, officially opened at NDSM-werf, the participants can finally get on with some serious creating and interacting. But there’s other interactions brewing: for the wharf can be seen as an even larger ‘breeding ground’ where art and commerce are supposed to get together and cuddle. But will it ever evolve into something more than just a torrid affair?

By Steve Korver, 11-10-2007, cover feature, Amsterdam Weekly.


It’s a vibrant Saturday afternoon at Kunststad—think of it as an arty village that has crash-landed in the wonderfully apocalyptic setting of a former ship warehouse—as people put the finishing touches to their studio spaces before this weekend’s grand unveiling. A set-builder is banging in a window frame to let light into his workshop. A man in orange overalls is expressing glee at his new power sander. Many are frantically painting walls. A car is being sawn to bits. The anarchic theatre platform, PickUp Club, is busy with a sound check for a benefit they are throwing that night for an incarcerated colleague in Finland. A pleasant vibe reigns. Even as the uninsulated Skatepark, suspended above, provides a more rolling than rocking soundtrack.

And in a clearing—an evolving town square of sorts—between the two floors of 100 studios for 240 artists, designers, musicians, animators, architects and graffiti artists, two men and a woman are banging together some makeshift plant pots while five-metre-long bamboo plants lay prone, awaiting their new home. When asked what they were up to, Paul Dams, a ship’s carpenter who now shares a studio with a photographer he’ll be developing silk-screened furniture with, answers with a twinkle in his eye: ‘We’re building a jungle. Then maybe we’ll let some monkeys loose and see what happens.’ An urge to strip down to my loincloth and volunteer for the experiment is suppressed. Wow, interaction sure happens fast here.

Indeed, Kunststad comes across as a higher primate paradise for the arts, where the interaction should prove to be spicy. The PickUp Club, whose activities do a very efficient job of sprawling into the halls, began squatting Kloveniersburgwal 131, the ABN-AMRO building on Rembrandtsplein and the iT nightclub, but ended up here ‘because we had no where else to go.’ Their artistic director Marc Koolen now finds himself feeling sorry for his new neighbours: ‘There they are focused and concentrated on designing tiny bits of jewellery and then they have us as neighbours. And we’re a pretty loud bunch.’ He smiles with understatement. Maybe iPod sponsorship could solve the problem for the sound-sensitive. Hey, maybe art and commerce can work together!

Kunststad, as a whole, also has to deal with all the rest of the activities occurring around the wharf, such as the alternative ship Stubnitz, temporarily moored nearby, the lovely cafe-restaurant Noorderlicht, and the various festivals like Robodock and Over het IJ, which regularly take place here. Meanwhile, the new MTV Europe headquarters and the developers Media Wharf are on hand for commercial contrast and as potential work-givers. It should prove to be quite a party. With a lot of talk, talk, talk.

Building up a village
Kunststad is really an only-in-Amsterdam construct. It grew out of the Kinetisch Noord foundation, which began in 1999 as an initiative of squatters, artists, theatre makers, skaters and architects who sought to make NDSM-werf the biggest broedplaats in the country, offering affordable studios with the interiors built by the artists themselves. It was meant to help fill the void left a decade ago when Amsterdam was marketing itself as the ‘Gateway to Europe’ and creating a milieu where such culturally happening squats as Silo and Vrieshuis Amerika were emptied and much office space was built for all those happy hordes of corporations that would, with a bit of luck, set up their European headquarters here. Sadly not enough came—but we do have an explanation why there’s so much empty expensive office space nowadays. And, these days, we are also in midst of a new branding programme, Amsterdam as ‘Creative City’, and a mission to create affordable studio spaces through the new broedplaats policy. Happily we live a city rich enough to at least try to fix its past mistakes. Albeit with a lot of rules on top.

And with money from the Broedplaats fund, the city of Amsterdam, the Ministerie van VROM (the Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment) and Stadsdeel Amsterdam-Noord (also the owners of the buildings), it all came together. A city-appointed official took over as head of Kinetisch Noord. Roel de Jong, the current managing director is quick to defend his position: ‘I don’t see it as a way for the city to keep control over the foundation. OK, I work for the gemeente and they rent me out, but I’m here on behalf of the foundation and not of the city. The big advantage is that I know a lot of people in the city and, from my previous jobs, know how real estate developers work and think.’

We are talking a whole new frontier here. Just as on a smaller scale, creative types usually have to find a balance between their personal work and the work that puts bread on the table, NDSM on a larger scale has to find a balance between commerce that makes money, and culture that costs money. It can be said that NDSM is Amsterdam—even the world—in microcosm.

And while the Kunststadders—can we think of a better name please?—all seem very happy to be here, jungle-builder Dams expresses an often heard sentiment: ‘Het klopt helemaal niet. There are too many things that remain unclear.’

It sounds  as if  one could get all journalistic over here. Or, then again, one could just take a stroll around the surrounding landscapes and stare out to the water. Lovely—especially on a beautiful day. And to risk sounding like a travel brochure: all this a mere 15-minute free ferry ride from Centraal Station!

Then, an SUV passes with a guy in a suit and a digital camera clicking away. Just like in the movies. Is this a project developer out to pop a snow dome over the Kunststad and start building condos all over them?

Balancing act
But the suit monkeys don’t worry De Jong, who has developed a more nuanced view, since it’s his main job to juggle all the different parties—from ex-squatters that go ‘grr grr’ to Jeep-driving developers. ‘Oh, you see them a couple of times a day, but come on, everyone is free to come around and take pictures and—who knows?—maybe some of them will actually come up with an interesting plan. Let them see what’s going on over here. Not only with the Kunststad, but also in the Oostvleugel and with the people down by the water who are similarly busy.’

With Kunststad finished—or at least, onto the next phase—De Jong sees his job throughout 2008 to ‘ensure that the broedplaats policy remains a fundamental part of the area and also to get more festivals to the wharf. With MTV opening their doors, more similar companies will be attracted here—all with their own ideas and plans. Meanwhile, the commercial developer for the area, Media Wharf, is making plans. And most of our ideas are similar: to make a space dedicated to arts, media and the creative sector. But you also have to take into account that they are a commercial developer. Developers, besides the basic creative concept, also count their money. And our job at Kinetic Noord is to make sure the balance remains right. To make money. But also to promote culture—and that costs money.’

‘With the rest of Amsterdam tightly developed, this is one of the last places where commerce doesn’t have to completely taken over. It’s a perfect location, close to the centre but isolated enough that you can organise events for up to fifty thousand people without too many people complaining about the noise. And I think it’s very important that such a place exists not only for the people that use it, but also for Amsterdam, even the Netherlands. And the city—both Centrum and here in Noord—are very well aware of its importance and that’s why they want to keep this one here at least until 2027. They have invested a lot of money here, after all.’

They are also looking for a way of getting some of it back—and this pressure will only grow. And while MTV—renowned for using up-and-coming young graphics and video people for its idents and branding—will likely provide bottom up work for the creatives working in the area, they will also attract more companies which in turn will continue to elevate the real estate prices. Hence there will be more and more pressure from the commerce side in the form of offers that Stadsdeel Noord may not be able to resist.

De Jong seeks to reassure: ‘Any new owner would have to respect the existing contracts between the artists and Kinetic Noord. Of course, there’s more security if the city owns it, but if it does get sold you will just have to write down clearly that this broedplaats has to stay here. If they want to develop some parts that’s fine, but then within the profile of it staying a creative place. And if you make the right deal then it’s no problem, but you have to be really aware and look out for your own position.’

But this uncertainty does fuel much speculation on how exactly things will play out here. Can De Jong offer any more optimism that balance will truly be achieved? ‘We must create a definitive new urban plan for this area. And to keep talking, talking, talking. Open yourself to the outside. Let yourself be heard. Make sure you have a cultural programme. And keep the “wow what a place” buzz going. We need more Robodocks and Over het IJ festivals. The more you put yourself on the map, the more indispensable you become.’ So will it be an ongoing battle in the coming years? ‘Absolutely,’ answers De Jong.

Meanwhile, the speculation is not hard to tap into at Kunststad, already a breeding ground for healthy gossip. But here the tom-tom doesn’t happen around the office water-cooler or village pump but around, for example (there are a lot of colourful options here), a psychedelic shack that says ‘C’est ne pas un bittorbal’ [sic]. Here you can hear the doomsday scenario where the  city says ‘sorry, you’ve wasted all the money and it’s time to pull the plug,’ and the Kunststad is dismantled in a week… About the wastes of money like the elevator that is built to hold 250,000 kilos, but which goes to a floor that begins buckling at 250 kilos… What it means that talks with Joop van den Ende Productions about taking over one of the halls have stalled… How the bottom-up plan of Kunststad is already clashing with the top-down ways of city government… Oh and has anyone seen my hammer?

In short: there are enough stories here to change this paper’s name into the NDSM Weekly. So stay tuned. This could become bigger than Big Brother—we could even call it the De Gouden Kunstkooi. And maybe those guys in jeeps are not developers but casting agents. Anything’s possible.

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