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Installation overview House Peace at Hotel Mokum

A visit to Hotel Mokum, the recently squatted former Marnix Hotel in Amsterdam, where an exhibition with 70 artists stresses the need for alternative living. Manuela Zammit went there in the hope of getting a better sense of the significance of squatting at this particular moment in time.

On a Thursday evening I hear through the grapevine that there’s a pop-up exhibition happening at Hotel Mokum over the weekend. The building, located just off Leidseplein in the centre of Amsterdam and formerly known as Hotel Marnix, had been vacant for over two years before being squatted last October by action group Pak Mokum Terug (Take Amsterdam Back). Historically, squatting has been a process of imagining and challenging how a city could be lived and ordered differently in moments of economic and political crises. Throughout Amsterdam’s eventful squatting history, radical artist collectives have played an important role in actualising alternative ways of living and being in the city. On Friday afternoon, quite curious and rather excited, I go to take a look in the hope of getting a better sense of the significance of squatting at this particular moment in time.

Hotel Mokum

The exhibition House Peace, running between November 11-13 and marking the first month’s anniversary since the building was taken over and reopened as a cultural and community space, takes its name after a concept that is central to squatting.

Before squatting in the Netherlands was criminalised in 2010, it was possible to stay if they were able to prove to the police that they were living in the place – house peace was established if they were in possession of at least a table, a chair and a bed. Around 70 artists swiftly self-organised and took over the building’s 4 floors with beds, tables and chairs of their own making. In reconceptualising what these everyday objects could be and mean, some artists made a statement about alternative modes of living in the city that are currently under threat and need to be defended. For instance, I recall seeing a concrete chair that could be used as a seat, but also as a barricade, if the need arose.

While the Netherlands faces a severe housing shortage, rich investors speculate and close deals on prime real estate, waiting until market conditions are optimal to convert their properties into profit-making ventures such as hotels

House Peace at Hotel Mokum

Saskia Burggraaf, 'Well, not yet, or somewhere in between, or is that what we want when we think of activism? / Sitting on a folding chair as symbol of a temporal home' in the exhibition House Peace at Hotel Mokum

At this point I was reminded that although the place was buzzing with other enthusiastic visitors and friend groups gathering socially, the situation was marked by a tense undercurrent; all of us present were technically participating in an illegal political action necessitated by current unfavourable conditions. House-renting and buying prices are skyrocketing, pushing low and middle-income earners further outside of the city and into precarious living situations or a lifetime of debt. While the Netherlands faces a severe housing shortage, rich investors speculate and close deals on prime real estate, waiting until market conditions are optimal to convert their properties into profit-making ventures such as hotels. Time and time again, politicians have failed to adequately address the issue, often favouring the market over people’s quality of life. What is to be done?

Against this context, and heeding the call to action of the massively well-attended Woonprotest (Housing Protest) on September 12, the takeover of the former Marnix Hotel by Pak Mokum Terug addresses long-ongoing questions of who the city is for, who is benefitting from the current situation and how to reclaim the city’s spaces for the benefit of the whole community. With a member of the organising collective, I talked about how Hotel Mokum, including its location in a tourist hotspot, stands at the intersection of Amsterdam’s housing crisis, overtourism and gentrification, which have all irrevocably altered the city’s social fabric over the years.

"Does Amsterdam really need another budget hotel?"

House Peace at Hotel Mokum

“Does Amsterdam really need another budget hotel? That’s what the owners of the building are planning to do with it eventually. Until then, they’ve left it for almost two years in a dilapidated state while waiting for steel prices to stabilise. When we entered the building, everything was falling apart and it was really dirty. We cleaned it and restored it. There are water and electricity flowing. Instead of leaving the space empty and slowly falling apart, why not use it as a space where people can get together in the city? Such spaces are vanishing quickly from Amsterdam.” There are plans to use Hotel Mokum as a space where workshops, cultural events and informal gatherings can take place. In this sense, Hotel Mokum is an apt name for the endeavour; it re-embeds hospitality within generous reception and meaningful encounters in the city as ‘safe haven’, rather than a capitalist endeavour tied to the tourism industry.

The squatting of Hotel Mokum picks up on the practices of previous squatting movements in Amsterdam. “None of us had squatted anywhere before, we’ve been improvising, but we’ve been engaging with neighbours, Amsterdammers, and other supporters, including former squatters who’ve been giving us tips on how to do squatting,” I’m told. The self-organisation and horizontality that typically characterise squatting practices and infrastructures are visible and palpable here, for instance in the spontaneous organisation of space and how a self-made, fully-functioning internet network has been set up. Alexander Vasudevan in his book The Autonomous City, traces the beginning of Amsterdam’s history of squatting to the mid-1960’s, when anarcho-Situationist youth movement The Provos (short for ‘to provoke’) emerged to challenge with their artistic happenings and performances, the consumerism and authoritarianism that they believed to characterise Dutch society at the time. In the mid-1970s, another movement emerged as part of a series of protests against the destruction of the Nieuwmarktbuurt, followed by a widely mythologised movement in the late 1970s/early 1980s.

However, as written by Geert Lovink and Jojo van Der Spek in 1986 for the squatter magazine Bluf!, it is important to distinguish between the (historical) movement and a sense of movement. As Vasudevan points out, since the 80s squatting has continued for a wide range of cultural, social and political reasons – from squatting out of necessity, to sustaining alternative forms of living in the city, to simply doing it for fun – rather than as the claim-making action of specific groups of militant activists. Such a diversity of motivations is recognisable in what Pak Mokum Terug are doing at Hotel Mokum. “There’s now one person living here,” I’m told, “but I’m aware that most of us are taking part in this initiative from a privileged position, because most of us do have a place to go home to at the end of the day. We’re here because we want to do something about the present situation.”

The urgency and timeliness of their action cannot be downplayed. Hotel Mokum’s Instagram account gathered more than 6,000 followers in just a few weeks, attesting to a widespread relatability to the cause that will endure beyond the moment when the owners show up to evict the current occupants. Informed by historical events, the collective is well aware of the temporariness of their tenancy, but the enactment of occupation, repair and liveability they are carrying out on location, transcends the specific site on the Marnixstraat. Squatting has evolved into a wider collective endeavour – no longer just a series of clearly-demarcated historical movements or a specific set of actions undertaken by a known group of individuals, but a sense of movement, a more distributed, fragmented and diverse strive for the possibility of creating a more just and sustainable city that is, hopefully, here to stay.

The activities of action group Pak Mokum Terug can be followed on the collective’s website, Twitter and Instagram.

Manuela Zammit

is a writer and researcher from Malta

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