Interview Siebe Thissen

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Transcript Interview with Siebe Thissen

Date 05/10/2017 Location CBK, Rotterdam Speakers

  • Siebe Thissen (CBK, writer, former squatter)
  • Tash Berting (student PZI)
  • Angeliki Diakrousi (student PZI)
  • Alice Strete (student PZI)


Tash: Can you tell us about your experience, your connection with the PG?

Siebe: When I came to live in Rotterdam in the early 80s, 1982, it was one of the few cool venues to hang out. So I first went there for the concerts. If you wanted to go out, you went to the PG. There were only a few places in the city where you could see really cool bands, and one of them was PG. It was always cool to go upstairs, to the attic. It was really a cool place to hang out there. And, later on, I started meeting people who lived there, and they had all these wonderful groups of people involved in all kinds of shit. For instance, they had this group of left-wing Feyenoord supporters, who were all very much fans of St. Pauli, which is also a kind of Hamburg squatter community, and they always hung out at the stadium of St. Pauli. You also had these groups of people living there who were very much opposed to racism amongst the hooligans, and they were trying to promote a different attitude amongst them, which was really cool too. You had people there producing magazines of all sorts… and, of course, it was a completely different time. I mean, the city was completely different too – everything was old, sheds and squats… I used to squat myself in the city as well, in Crooswijk.

T: Were there a lot of squats then?

S: Oh yeah, at that time.

Alice: Was this in the early 80s, when Poortgebouw was still a squat?

S: Yeah, yeah, of course, there were a lot of squats. I think there was a squatters movement if you were really involved in the Rotterdam squatters thing. But for me, before I moved to Rotterdam, I used to live for several years in Amsterdam, which had a completely different squatters community, with a very [puts on air of bravado] strong identity and unity, and publications and stuff like that…

Angeliki: And here it was more local?

S: Well, for instance, when I lived in a squat in Crooswijk, I was one of the few Dutch folks squatting there. Most of them were Moroccan and Turkish young people, young families. So I got the impression that, especially in Crooswijk, most of the squats were much more intercultural affairs. And most squatters did not live in a squat because they were ideologically committed to the squatting movement – but because they needed a house to live. So I think, at least in Crooswijk, it was completely different [to Amsterdam]. So, we had a lot of contact but not as ‘squatters’. Just as people, living somewhere. You had to live somewhere. And I think the coolest place to be was the Oude Noorden, you had a lot of squats there, and cool folks hanging out there, all young people playing in bands.

T: So you didn’t call yourselves ‘squatters’?

S: No, I’ve never called myself a ‘squatter’, or being part of the ‘squatters movement’. Maybe I even hated the idea of the ‘squatters movement’. I’d seen it in Amsterdam as well and I didn’t like it very much because it was very charismatic, [with] people who thought they were very heroic, and people [who] looked up to them. They always pretended to be anarchists, but they had their own kind of authoritarianism, and sexism. And for me, in Rotterdam, it was very different. They did have a squatter’s movement here, but the way I used to live in the Crooswijk squats, it was very proletarian, intercultural. A lot of poor people, with no time to be an activist, just trying to stay alive. But of course, I liked music a lot, and I used to play in bands too. 

T: And that was a big part of the squatter culture.

A: Did you also play in the PG?

S: No, no, I never played in a Rotterdam band.

A: But you’re also a writer. You wrote a lot about Rotterdam.

S: I did a few pieces [on squats], which were pretty cool to read again after all these years. That was in 2001, there was this huge Witte de With exhibition called Squat. And I did read and write a lot, and of course I studied history and philosophy, so I was always interested [in these kinds of things]. I did a lot of text writing for graffiti artists, for culture jammers, for dub and reggae producers. So that’s how I got involved in the ‘official’ art community. But before that, I was more involved in local groups, writing texts for them, or I did lectures. I even performed with noise bands and DJs, which was pretty cool in the 90s, because you had all these crossovers starting to emerge. The official art world, and music scenes and squatter scenes… everything mingled. So sometimes I had to go out there, and I was asked to do a text, but there was also DJ playing. So there were always a lot of noise, you had to shout into your microphone. So I started calling it ‘stand-up philosophy’ – to deliver kind of theoretical texts in a kind of night-time whatever. Which was fun as well, but I don’t do that anymore.

T: That’s another thing we also want to research, is how do we collect stories about something like the Poortgebouw? With such a long history, lots of different people coming in and out of the picture. How would you do it?

S: For me, [how I got closer to the] Poortgebouw, I started to get to know a lot of people there because of one of my friends. She had a lot of friends living there, they were involved in the anarchist community there, and they wrote articles and stuff. And I have also written a lot for anarchist magazines in the Netherlands.

T: When you’re writing a story, do you usually contact people and then go interview them?

S: No, they usually ask me. At least, they used to do that.

T: [laughter] Ok, because we’re definitely going to have to contact a lot of people.

S: Well I think [in my case] there was always a lack of theory, people always liked to have a kind of theoretical justification for stuff like that. For example, I was working at the Erasmus University on my PHD at the time, and a few friends of mine started this centre for philosophy and arts. They wrote articles and they did research and lectures. But in the 90s all these boundaries started to fall apart. And, one day, you had this guy Guy Debord, of Situationist International, who committed suicide, and they did a night on Situationism. But they didn’t know anyone else who knew anything about Situationism, so they said “hey, you can do that!” And I said “OK!”. Then I started to become a sort of ‘excuse’ philosopher for the official communities, and that’s how I got to know a lot of artists and started working with them. And then artists who were doing pop culture started inviting me as well. Like Ronald Cornelis, who is pretty famous now as a drawing artist.

An: They wanted to be inspired?

S: They needed texts. They also wanted someone who understood their way of making art. For instance, Ronald Cornelis also did performance art with noise bands from Detroit. Which was pretty cool at the time, but it was new within the artist community. So each time folks like them asked me to deliver a text or to write something about them, I became more involved in artists’ practices. Like Jeanne van Heeswijk, I collaborated a lot with her, she did this piece for the Squat exhibition, and asked me to write something about it. And, of course, I also had to do other stuff, because the artists wanted help getting in touch with archives of places like PG, and Villa Kakelbont, the Nieuwe Blauwe. And I knew all those folks. So I usually went to those places and vouched for the artists. Because they had this ‘bad outside world’ [way of thinking].

A: It’s an issue of trust.

S: Yeah. So I got a lot of archival material from them, and Jeanne reused it in this squat that she built for the exhibition. And I wrote two pieces for her. One was this illegal contribution, because it was not accepted by Witte de With. I got paid for it, but they didn’t like it at all. They said I took squatting too literally. I said, “Well, your exhibition is called Squat isn’t it?”. I think it has a certain meaning, ‘squat’. I don’t know, I probably had to treat it as an art thing, a political thing. And especially in those years, I was spending a lot of time in England and in the United States. And I noticed a completely different art community there; a lot of comic artists and crossovers. So I was using a lot of popular culture in my articles; but people here didn’t like it then. They still don’t like it. It’s still hard to mingle popular culture and the ‘official arts’. 

T: Do you also use archives, like the Stadsarchief, to write your articles?

S: Yeah, yeah! I always do, it’s my favorite spot. Because I don’t do so many small articles anymore. And for the official art projects, like the book Beelden, published last year, I do plain research in the archives. [brings out two hardcover books] And I also did this one a couple of year ago, about murals in Rotterdam, 100 years of murals, because we are the only mural city in the Netherlands. See this is all 60’s, 70’s stuff.

A: So you got all of these images from the city archive?

S: A lot of them, yeah.

T: That’s another thing about our project, when we went to the Nieuwe Instituut with it, they were interested in bringing more of the squatter’s movement into their own architectural archive. For instance [to document] more examples of when buildings were not demolished because of the existence of a squat.

An: Yes, they’re researching squatting as an architectural practice in the city.

''T: And it seems that there isn’t much about it in their archive yet.

S: No, not at all. I don’t think so. I don’t think there has ever been a book on squatting in Rotterdam, or stories about squatting. I don’t know of anything like that. It’s probably because, if you talk about squatting, everybody thinks about Amsterdam. But in most cities there were squats, and people were squatting here as well. But I had a very different opinion about all of this. I once went to a big squatters’ meeting in the Oude Noorden – it was the only time I went to such a huge meeting for squatters – and I think in those days, already 60% of the people were not Dutch. So we had to speak English, which was very new then. And I didn’t like the whole atmosphere either. A lot of it was about guns and violence, and police… I didn’t like the whole idea. And I immediately saw that it did not give a good impression of the squatters that I knew from Crooswijk, who were completely different people. So the whole social issue of squatting was never talked about; it was always about heroics and politics.

An: So the image of squatting in society had this character?

S: I think it’s normal that the people who made the squatters’ magazines are politically involved, I mean that’s their motivation. But it did not reach the people in my streets, where we were squatting. It was completely something else. And I’m always more interested in ‘normal’ people than [the heroes].

T: So do you think that the average Rotterdammer knows anything about the Poortgebouw?

S: I think they all know it. They probably know it’s a squat or used to be a squat. I mean, it’s a beautiful building, and it used to be the office of Lodewijk Pincoffs.

A: We've seen that you studied this man for your master's’ thesis.

S: Well, not exactly on Pincoffs, on his opponent (a.n. catholic priest Ludo Gompertz). He was my hero on the South bank, he was the first activist. He really got frustrated with this huge grand-scale, Manchester-style capitalism on the South bank. People were completely exploited. It's was like the Wild West, and he was a simple priest from Amsterdam. He wanted to work there, and started talking to people and collecting all these stories about the way they live and make a living there. He also went to the Hague all the time to try to get people from the government to talk about these circumstances.

A: Is there a publication where he put all these stories?

S: No, nobody knows this guy. He has been completely forgotten. Pinkoffs has a statue, because he was a bad guy for years, but now he is celebrated again as a big developer. He fits well in the contemporary era. But I'm very double about it, because he was a cool guy, one of the few Jewish entrepreneurs in the area, and the other business people didn't like him, probably because he was Jewish. He had to do everything on his own, and he was very successful. He took a loan on his company to build the port. So , in a way, he really wanted to do something good for the city. But he must have freaked out when he got bankrupt, he panicked and took a boat and left. Afterwards, everyone spat him out, before they were trying to be his best friends because he had money. He was also a freethinker, a huge fan of Spinoza, I did a lot of research on the philosopher as well. He also co-financed the Spinoza statue in The Hague. I think the reality is always more complex. But, anyway, PG. I used to go there a lot, a lot of people I knew lived there, I did not have ideologically committed ties to the PG, but I liked it as a place, and I liked all these houses of people running around shit. We had a community in Kralingen, called De nieuwe blauwe, which was a little different, because we bought the whole building, it’s still there, and we bought it for one guilder. In those days, everything was completely demolished and poor, so we bought it, and went to a bank and borrowed half a million or a million, we started renovating it ourselves, so we were owners. We had a self-organizing movement, which was closely tied to the squatters movement, but it was a bit different, more for people like me, I think. It was not only us against the world in a squat, refusing to pay, but we also wanted to invest and buy stuff, try to make it our own.

We were a kind of community like that, we met each other at anarchist meetings. I also had a [...] anarchist campsite, and the guy living next to me on the campsite was Mike, he used to be in the events of the PG. African guy.

An: How old is he?

S: He's probably 50 as well. He's still living in Rotterdam, but he has a girlfriend and a child, so maybe he left PG. But for years he organized all the concerts downstairs and used to run the kitchen. He had a small restaurant there, I went to eat there a lot with my friends. He was a really cool guy, you should talk to him, find out where he lives.

A: Mike, what?

T: Mike, the kitchen and concert guy.

S: Everybody knows him, ask people from PG. For 10-15 years he ran the whole show there. He was really active, really nice guy. I don’t see him that often anymore.

A: Why did you stop going to PG? The events stopped?

S: They stopped. At a certain time, there was no venue anymore.

A: It turned into a living community?

S: I think so. The whole attic is probably houses now.

T: They still do some circus performances in the attic now.

An: Events, concerts, if students want to suggest an event…

T: I think, for a few years, they were really busy with the legal issues, lawsuits…

S: It was an important cultural place in the city. Every city had these kind of houses. It was a different time, nobody had any money. People are richer now, all these students like you drink these expensive coffees in coffee shops. In those days, nobody had money. There was more creativity and willingness to cooperate, to start a squat or buy a house and do something together in it.

T: In 10-15 years, where do you think a place like PG would be? Does it have a place in the city?

S: No, it's out of place now. I don't think I would like to live there if I were a kind of post-squatter type [of person], living in a completely gentrified area, with the jewish memorial on one side and all the middle class folks on the other side. I would negotiate for a good price and buy myself out, see if I can find another squat, or a place somewhere else.

An: Maybe if would be more beneficial for these communities to move around.

S: Yes, why not? Why stick to one [building]? They had the possibility to buy it as well, I think all groups had the possibility to buy it.  A lot of people were too lazy, didn’t want to take responsibility.

A: They had the possibility at some stage, but then it was sold without their knowledge.

S: PG had a very defensive reputation. There was this small anarchist group, Why Rotterdam, it was a really cool name. Not sure where they came from, one was English [n.a. Canadian] and one was Austrian, they did a lot of articles and magazines, you must find some in the archives. They tried to turn PG in an anti-gentrification war machine, and they wrote really good articles, you can probably still find them on the internet. I liked them a lot, did a few art projects with them. I was working here already, a lot of folks knew me, they came up for a coffee, asking me to be part of art projects. Maybe 2002-3-4. Not sure if I could tell you much about it, but it was the most radical, political, defensive, conspiracy-type group of squatters in Rotterdam. There were others  as well, but I can’t tell you much about them because I was new and the movement evaporated in the second half of the 80s. There are probably still squats. But I was fed up with the movement in Amsterdam, I liked it a lot here because it was fragmented and normal, just plain people.

A: Was it easy to get involved from the outside?

S: Yes, everybody could squat.

A: But I mean, at the Poortgebouw, if anyone wanted to participate, they could?

S: I think so.

An: How was it working with the neighbourhood?

S: What neighbourhood? There was none. Nothing was built. It was empty. You can see [that now] everything is new. All past the millennium. Before, it was a run down port. There was hotel NY, that was squatted as well by artists, and there was the Utopia, the water tower, which was a squat as well. There were a lot of artists and communities along the river, but there were no neighbours, you had to cycle through the dark to get there. It was just a polluted port, [used for] storage, and bankrupt companies, because the port moved further out. The last remnants of the port were there. Where you crossed Willemsbrug, there is this parking area, where used to be the church of this pastor. It was broken down as well. You can't imagine what it looked like, completely different. There was a huge discussion to turn PG into a prostitution centrum. Eros centrum.

An: We found it in the city archives, people fighting each other in a discussion.

S: They wanted the Eros Centrum there because nobody went there, only old guys who pay for sex in a rundown building. It was a cool place, nobody had money, you could go see a band, you probably had to pay voluntarily as much as you wanted.

T: Saturday is their 37's birthday.

S: Amazing. I don't think I'll know anyone there. But I hang out with those Feyenoord guys, people who played in bands, also Mike. He was from Angola, or Mozambique. He took over my caravan at the camp site and never paid for it.

T: You're the first person we met. We're going go to interview a lot of people, that's why we wanted to talk to you, you write stories about the city.

S: But I never wrote about squatting.

T: Do you have any tips for us? How to write about this?

S: Do you have the magazine Papieren Huis [Paper House]. I think the whole magazine is about squatting. Her name is Jeanne van Heeswijk, she is pretty important and busy, does social projects in England and Philadelphia, but she lives in Rotterdam. You know Red Rat? The comic? It was the most famous small mouse, it had all these adventure stories. He was the overall hero of the squatters movement. If you went to a squat, you’d see a rat painted. And they were made by this one guy who was involved in the squatters movement as well. He was part of a collective called "Rakett". It was the most international squatters', activists', anarchists' group and they had a punk band, The Rondos. They made magazines, fanzines, art work, comics, records. They had a record label. Even a few years ago, there was this huge exhibition in Rome about punk rock culture in Europe. And they had selected five cities Rome, Bologna, Paris, London and Rotterdam. And there was lot about "Rakett" and "Red Rat". It’s not about PG, but if you have to start with real heros… Red Rat, Rakett, and they had also a kind of squat in the Tweede Ijzerstraat in Delfshaven. I know, of course, this guy, Frans Vermeer. He knew everything about all squats, squatters, and I used him as well for the squatters exhibition. I knew Frans very well from all kind anarchists groups and I invited him over, and he went to all these squats to get the archives. He is from my generation, maybe you should go to the other people and see what stories they have about the building.

An: You could help us with some writing issues. How do you write? If people come to you, you discuss with them, and then you write? How do you do it?

S: I never do interviews and that stuff. I am not interested in asking ‘how do you squat’? I don’t care. I always try to do meta-articles. I like to do something that is fun for me as well. I am not a journalist. So, I would like to contribute something which I think is missing and might be interesting for the community of artists reading it. That's how I wrote this article about Peter Cooper and all these comic magazines, especially Batman. I did a lot of Batman lectures and Marvel super hero stuff. Not that I am a real superhero fan, but it is an interesting vehicle to use for all kind of stories.

An: It says a lot about the social aspect of the city and I think because this hero may be immigrant or not.

S: Yeah, and is he white, is he black? Is he good, is he frustrated? It’s a mix of personalities, and a lot of people identify with fuckups, to be honest. And because they don’t think they are mainstream. Everybody knows about it, so you can use it very well to develop a story or to talk about the city. I used it in this story in particular because, in a way, it says something about the whole conspiracy thinking in the squatters movement, but it is also interesting because you see it’s not only a squatters thing, in a lot of popular culture movies you see this kind of conspiracies. It’s a kind of popular way of people to express their criticism on capitalist consumer society.

Now, about the Poortgebouw. I'm not sure if I can tell you much about it. I know the building. I like it. Of course, it was pretty tough in a way, with punks, all this graffiti on the doors. 

T: That’s one thing we were fascinated about; is people’s perception of squatting. I mean even the terminology used to describe squatting… Sometimes people don’t like to go to be called squatters, and if you tell somebody that you are going to a squat and they don’t know anything about it, it can sound scary.

S: Again, it was a completely different time. So many people had to live in squats.

T: Does the word in Dutch have the same kind of connotation as it does in English? Squat and Kraak? Or is it a bit more neutral?

S: It’s different, because Kraak is also another word for burglary. You ‘kraak’ a safe. In English, squat is squatting. It’s completely different. My parents didn’t like it. It never had good reputation. But it was so enormously big. The economy was so bad in the early 80s. People really don’t see how bad the economy was. A lot of people were unemployed and poor. Especially in the city of Rotterdam.

An: So it was a necessity back then. 

S: Yeah.

An: Do you think it’s still a necessity today?

S: I don’t know. I don’t even know if there are squats today.

An: Not officially. 

T: Often, for very short amount of time.

S: But the whole market has been taken over by companies like Ad Hoc, because everyone knows [they] have to deliver these empty spaces to project developers so they can rent it out again. And they were already there in the days of squatting, but with a very bad reputation. And usually squatters had these fights with people renting their places that were empty. But now…

T: Do you think there is any stopping gentrification? Rotterdam has changed so much the last 6 years.

S: It's not over yet. There are still a lot of poor people that need to be kicked out. That is the attitude. You can even see it in the property prices rising in Charlois and everywhere.

An: You talked about derive, psychogeography. It’s interesting, the issue of vocabulary as practices. Words as practices involve processes, time. I don’t know if you had the semantics in mind.

S: Those are all Situationist slogans. I did a few lectures last month at the opening season of the WDKA about situationism, because there's a kind of neo-revival. Exactly 50 years ago, the movement was founded. I am not sure if I knew anything about it in those days, only later. In all these anarchists groups, I was frustrated with all their 19th century bullshit arguments, and I know there were much more interesting movements in 20th century not that long ago. Even the punk movement, with their own vocabulary, and situationists. I read this book by Greil Marcus "Lipstick traces; a secret history of the 20th century", and that was a huge eye-opener for me, because it was a book with Johnny Roland of the Sex Pistols on the front, and he wanted to write a book about the last concert of the Sex Pistols. He loses himself completely in all these movements, Dada, Situationism, Lettrism and it’s such a completely new world of vocabulary. I mean, this is us, we're not 19th century bearded guys talking about the system, about revolution and stuff. So I liked it a lot, to be honest.

An: And how has this influenced your writing?

S: I didn’t only write, but I also produced a few magazines in the 90s and had my own audio magazine, cassette magazine. I was producing cassettes all the time. 

T: Podcasts.

S: Yeah, pre-podcast. I made these 90 minutes cassette with interviews, music and pieces I found. It was called ‘Not Fast’. And of course I had to make doubles... Copying the thing on a double speed and producing 50 of them. I handed out this stuff to people.

T: Our task is to do publication about it, but it could be more adventurous and fun. 

S: If you would like, I can show you some. Nostalgia. Later on, on the internet, I had my own blog, started making web radio as well. Every month, I was making this music radio programme and mix, thematic mix with a story. I can’t say I was involved [in the scene], but I did my own thing. Special_issue_4 Poortgebouw Siebe Thissen Angeliki Alice Tash Transcript 2017 pzi_xpubBed Chair Table

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