Tag Archives: Amsterdam

A holy grail

For the first time in my life, I’m walking to my grandparents’ grave without either of them being buried today. My grandma was the second one, and she died six years ago. Haven’t given myself time to go there since. Did I become a martyr of my domineering mind?

I’ve received a fulltime job as copywriter, and am starting in a few weeks. I’m letting my thousands of little (and bigger) projects go for now, and take some time off. Walk. Visit friends. Let the losses slide of my back. Early this morning I decided to go for a walk to the north. Out of the city, into the land of my ancestors. Flatlands. A deeply manmade structure which scared me when we drove here during my childhood. Flat grass, straight, arranged ditches and many little houses packed in villages as far as the eye can see. We’re in one of the most populated countries of the world. Windmills.

I think it’s the first time that I so thoroughly enjoy it here. It may be the freedom of simply walking out of my door, into the fields. Or the cacophony of the birds, whose names I still don’t know. Their volume overrules the sounds of the roaring highway just behind us. Or perhaps it’s the red sun that is now at about 10° above the horizon, shining in my face as if to tell me to take off my new hat for it. Or maybe it’s the fact that I am sure that one day, when my grandpa felt like taking a detour, he crossed this little bridge here, in the middle of what was nowhere at the time, just for his enjoyment. Or the reflecting shadows of the water’s wrinkles on the moving straw, which combined mesmerize me into dreams. I’m amidst serene tumult.

That’s not to say that while I walk along the little path here, away from the deafening noise, my soul transcends along with the millions of glimmering dewdrops, slowly releasing themselves from the young blades of grass around. Or actually it is, now that I imagine it to. I’m liberated, even from myself. Especially from myself. Even if just for a little bit of time.

My grandpa was a kind, calm man when I knew him. His white hair surrounding his bald crown was long enough to be combed back. That looked pretty cool. So did the loose skin of his big thin hands, with thick blue veins meandering over them. I remember him sitting back on his couch, circling his thumbs around each other. He must have been furling his inner disagreements there. His lost memories. His missed chances. His incapacities. But I did not see that then. I was fascinated and he smiled gently. He always served us with chocolate, slices of sausage and other snacks. He limped a bit, when walking to the kitchen. His hip had been replaced.

Neither he nor I spoke much in company. What we would do, is hold each other’s gaze for a while. It told me I was his grandson, and that words aren’t always necessary to know you have a connection with someone. Still, I am not under the impression that I knew my grandpa that well. We lived about 400 km away from each other. Visiting them meant travelling hours and hours in the car. We slept there occasionally as kids, me and my sister, but most of what I remember from him were grownup visits where we did grownup things such as sitting at a table and eating and drinking. Though he did teach me how to play chess.

Once, he took me on a bikeride through these lands. I was a kid. Eight maybe? It was flat. And long. Kids from Luxembourg aren’t used to long bikerides. I think this one took several hours. I do remember enjoying following him on the bike, and stopping to have a chat once in a while, but there’s one memory that stands out. Somewhere near the end of the trip, he told me something about a bird around. My response? “I’m not very interested in that”. I possibly had to pee, or was tired, or was saturated with information. Maybe I was looking forward to a chocolate milk he promised me somewhere at the end of the road. I don’t remember his reaction, but today, a part of me feels guilty about it. Anyhow, years later, my grandparents were surprised to learn that I was going to study biology. And when it comes to bird species, they were right: I still don’t know that much about them.

“Grutto!” yells one of them from quite close. Hey. I can tell it’s panicking because of me. It probably has a nest. More interesting: I suddenly understand why it’s called Grutto in Dutch. I never knew, nor have I ever heard it that clearly. Was it trying to teach me his name?

When I visited my grandma after his death, I felt drawn by my grandpa’s encyclopedia. I walked there, took one of the 20 books of the shelve, opened it, and picked a random word. It was ‘dode hand’ (‘dead hand’). I had never heard of that word. It read something like this: “The dead hand is the property of the Church that is not inheritable by non-church members”. I was certain this was a message, related to him.

Moving to the Netherlands, and particularly Amsterdam was a personal declaration to look for my roots. My ancestor’s history. Figure out my family’s lives. In the meanwhile I have learned a bit about life in the city, before the war, during and afterwards. Things have changed quite radically. The past is gone, yet with a little bit of conversation and imagination, you can summon a vivid reconstruction of how life used to be. Walking in these wetlands is a similar attempt to reconstruct a forgotten past. Untangle a life of people who mattered little, yet stream forward in history through the very blood that rushes by my pen. Even if just for this moment, they are my entire world.

My grandpa grew up as a farmer, but through hard work became a manager in a company. He was the last one in my family lines to make that choice. Independence from the land. There were stories around him. Dreams. Meetings with deceased spirits. Predictions. At some point he developed automatic writing. He explained he would just lay down his hand with a pen in it, and then letters would shape themselves. Words, sentences, and new meaning would arrive without his conscious interference. He thought it was the input of a spirit, or a higher power. He once wrote something like: “Hendrik”, that was his name, “watch out what you do with your life”. He had a moterbike accident the next day.

Much has changed. Biodiversity dropped over here, electricity poles were built, the land is slowly being invaded by the ever growing civilization. Landprizes here have skyrocketed, and the farmers are slowly being replaced by rich people with big cars who spend the final decades of their life in retreat. Most I meet jog. They catch up with the sweat they failed to let to the land. I picture ghosts, hovering ahead of them, drawing them forward towards… what? What is it I am looking for? Which ghost precedes my steps? The tiny asphalt road bounces up and down when joggers come by. It is laid out over what used to be swamp. Utterly unreachable to man. But the Dutch built dykes. We showed them.

People would visit him to receive messages, until it suddenly stopped for ever. His explanation for the loss of his gift was that his ego started interfering. But by then he had already written what has always interested me most: a few pages in Latin. He did not know Latin. In an attempt to translate it, he discovered the text was about the evolution of the soul. That we all make steps forward, and then go back, and that we are all part of a slowly evolving collective consiousness, floating among us in the aether. That what we think of as our own awareness is merely a part of that bigger whole. A befriended priest offered to translate the manuscript for him. My grandpa gave him the papers, but never got them back.

After the incident with the encyclopedia, I’ve enjoyed imagining that those handwritings of my grandpa are still hidden in an occult library of some church in these lands. That they were in fact breathed into this world by some divinity or local spirit. That there is a holy grail somewhere, linking me back to something bigger and more meaningful. A unique message that would consolidate my spiritual quest and reveal the limits of the mechanistic paradigm. A proof. That the church was always aware that there’s more going on there, but that they shield us from it, because they want to remain in power.

The truth is that this fantasy inside me is slowly being overgrown by a sense that spirits in the west are dead, the document has disappeared and I’m perfectly fine without both. The transmission of lore is now all around us with the internet, and the format of film and imagery has made it more effective than ever. Oculus rift and hololenses are already catching up with our dreams. We are slowly immersing ourselves in representations that seem so real that it will be harder and harder to tell the difference. As opposed to believing in ghosts of the ancestors, which people all over the world have done for as long as they existed.

But what of reality? What is reality? Was the text of the manuscript really written in meaningful Latin? Or was my grandpa’s mind playing creative tricks on him? Did he, without knowing, gather some of his little knowledge on the language to create a sloppy text, imagining it was given to him? Did the priest simply forget it, given its insignificance? If so, what of the striking double, even triple meaning of the word ‘dead hand’? Was it a remnant spirit of the past, guiding me there, or was it just a lucky hit, short circuiting my sense of what is real? If it was true, am I making his same mistake by publically writing about it?

The grave has no answers. It is static, grey and silent. Both names are on it. There are freshly cut tulips here as well. White with red ones. Who put them here? A distant cousin? My uncle or aunt? Great unlce? I haven’t been in touch. And these grape hyacinths in the pot? How long have they been around? Did my grandma choose them? I vaguely remember them having these in the garden. I wipe some of the dead blossom of the smooth stone and have another look. A drawing of a hawk. Our name.

They are dead and I’m alive. There’s a world of difference between us. A world the nature of which I have never been certain of. Perhaps I’m here to remind myself that even if I do not know, I can still surrender to the stories. Accept them, like I would accept a film. I can dream a new truth. Revive the dead by recounting them. Let them live through me. How could I forget? How did I forget? Did I forget?

Am I here to accept that my own spiritual connection with nature was harmed with my grandpa’s choice to abandon the land? That in reality, I was always more interested in comfort, computer games and films, and that this was already written in the stars when I was born? That I am here to let go of these roots, and set the next step forward, into a virtual world of engineered redemption? Am I here to accept that humans will keep conquering these lands until even the tiniest patch is rid of its diversity, then recreate it in a different, imaginary world? Will there be life in that world?

No. This is not an end. There is no conclusion here. We can always go back. We can still go back. Nature can teach us. Nature will teach us. This is merely a meeting of life with death. Mysterious.

I don’t stay long, why would I? To find peace? I have more to do today. I’m a city boy now, living a civilized life in the great metropole that watched over us for generations. They are dead now, their memories gone. There is no reconciliation. The bird has flown.

There’s only one bus here per hour. Turns out I don’t have to wait long. No chance to go back. What would I expect to see anyway? In the shimmer of death, it’s still life that matters most. I’ll be back one day.

A rich man´s pastime

‘Crack!’ The sound of the breaking tooth resounds in my skull. It doesn’t hurt because of the anaesthesia, but I do feel exactly what she’s doing. The sensation of the wisdom tooth removal reminds me of a dream I once had, in which all my teeth scattered in my mouth.

As I recently earned a bit of money and thought it would be wise to invest it in something useful, I got myself a dentist. My previous visit was over 5 years ago. My new dentist is a very attractive blonde woman in her thirties with big bright blue eyes. I have the luck to stare into those while she is digging into my mouth. It’s unfortunate that visiting her costs about a hundred euros per half hour.

I do not particularly like dentists. Next to the fact that they perform the best earning profession in the Netherlands, it is their job to judge your mouth without knowing you, and to present you a highly expensive improvement plan, which you basically have to agree with, because they are the experts, and what do you know about the teeth you have lived with your entire life? Besides, they confront you with the fact that you’re getting older and start falling apart. And if you haven’t really been able to afford a dentist for a while, your teeth are not your strongest pride. I only had a small bleeding under my wisdom tooth and some plaque, but that lady who was otherwise quite sympathtic managed to make me feel bad about myself within the twenty minutes I had (even if I had no cavities, or serious issues). Then she expeced me to pay two months’ rent for a cleaning progam she prescribed. Very confusing.

Are dentists a vital human need, or a luxury? Nowadays, if we see a person who lacks teeth, we consider this person dirty. Judging people by their teeth has become normal. The truth probably is that this person cannot afford going to the dentist. Perhaps it’s not always the case, but without a regular cleanup by a professional, it seems that our teeth would fall out when we are a few decades old. Old people in third world countries seldom have all of their teeth, just like elderly people who live on the streets in cities. A natural part of life, it seems. Then again, animals who lose their teeth usually simply die. End of story. That’s not what we want.

Okay, so let’s assume teeth are not a luxury issue, but a basic human need. Then why are dentists so incredibly well paid? Why is it so hard for some people to afford it? And why do we frown upon those who didn’t manage to keep up? We are taking this one for granted. Is that also what is going to happen with plastic chirurgy? Nowadays, you are allowed to have wrinkles, hanging boobs or a bold head. Will those slowly turn into signs of self-neglect? Will they represent the poor, uncivilized layers of society? I suppose it will probably take a number of decades before the masses truly tip on this one, but high society is well on its way with rebuilding their bodies in to those of adolescents. After all, being young sells better than being old, does it not?

It appears that dreaming of losing your teeth, your fangs, has something to do with the fear of losing power. Vitality. The fear of getting old. The dream was long ago, but the memory is right here. Indeed, I’m bolding, indeed my skin is not as supple as it was, and yes, my teeth are not as white as they used to be. I guess physical growth is over, it’ll be maintenance from now on. And apparently I’m not the only one who cultivates such lingering anxieties.

After half an hour, when I’m allowed to remove the cloth from my mouth, I taste something familiar. Walking through the Jordaan, it takes a while before I realise what I know it from. It’s the same taste I got after losing my baby teeth as a kid. This was perhaps the last time I savoured it.

Laurierstraat

Murmuring. The sounds, the loud laughter. It probably is nonsense escaping the mouths of these people, but it fills what otherwise would be a silent space with a mass of noise that conducts my inner turbulence into scale that matches it better.

I sat down in the bar closest to our new house. It’s brown because of the wooden furniture, and the colouring of the wallpaper, bearing witness of the time when a cloud of smoke was one of its defining characteristics. People here play chess, probably far better than me. I didn’t follow their moves yet, but I counted seven boards. There’s Go as well. It appears that even if only for a little bit, I’m settling my trials and tribulations in my favourite neighbourhood in Amsterdam, de Jordaan. We moved here a week ago.

A lot has happened since I last wrote for this blog. In random order: been homeless, organized a street festival, started two jobs at two universities, lost my last grandma, ended another job, moved three times, dropped an amount of baggage I cannot quite define and bought my most expensive coat yet. Oh and fall has entered. Yes.

I don’t think that’s all, but to me it seems like quite a lot to handle in a period of two months. The handling seems to be going fine, I’m just wondering when the days come in which I’ll digest it all. Could it be that if so much happens to you at once, the experience of it disappears into the void? Or will it catch up one day, when I’ve stopped running and forgot watching my emotional back?

They say that if you don’t chew your food well, it just passes through, meaninglessly and ends up in the sewage with half of its energy still inside. Because you didn’t mingle with it. Could it be that way with life as well? Is that how people sometimes discover who they’ve been all along?

It’s messy here. In the way a classic Dutch bar is messy. The ceiling bladders here and there. Pringles cyclinders behind the bar. Brown books on the shelves; piled up games. A baby shoe is hanging from the bar, next to it to ice skates you can bind under your shoe. Old and new are blent. My lower back hurts. It’s not my position. It’s my structural lack of self-support.

Six globe-shaped lamps are pending in a half circle held by iron bars. On the seventh position, a double spotlight from IKEA, stuck to the ceiling as two big frogs, looking in opposite directions. The murmuring goes on. So does the turbulence. Guess this is home for now.

Dark Light

A little hole in the clouds opens up. I see the sun and the moon. I yell: ‘wohoo!’. The eclipse is not complete, and the hole is there for just five seconds, but it’s enough to propel me back to a field in Luxembourg on August 11th, 1999. It’s the vivid darkness of the moon’s shade.

As kid I was very much drawn to the stars. I used to look up at night. Walking, in the car… Still do, in fact. Especially during the end of my teenage years, I knew a lot about the stars and the planets, and how they all align. The universe. Whatever explanation you wield for their existence, there’s something magical about the way they flicker in that eternal, deep darkness. There’s something mesmerizing about the fact that they float in a space that seems so infinitely big. Those bright lights in that vast darkness are just beautiful.

It must have been March that year when I picked up the phone and heard the voice of my uncle. He didn’t ask for my mom, but presented the news to me. Something spectacular was going to happen, and he and his friends would like to come over to our little farmers’ village in Luxembourg to check it out. I was instantly convinced. In the months that followed, I looked for all the information I could find about eclipses. How they occur, how they look and how exceptional they are. In books and papers, we didn’t have internet back then. I looked so much forward to seeing the sun’s corona.

When the day finally came, we drove out to some fields slightly further south, to have a longer view on the dark totality. Cars were parked alongside all farmers’ roads. For the only time history, it was hard to find a spot. But we did, and got out. My uncle yelled ‘follow the leader’ and up we went, a group of ten, fifteen, in the middle of crowded Luxembourgish nowhere.

Though I wouldn’t be able to find it back, the spot is still here in my memory. There were quite some trees on the north side, growing around a long fence, reaching over the fields. We had a good view over some meadow hills to the south.  It wasn’t that special, really, but it would be fun to return there once. The sun was already quite blinded when we arrived, but we had some time to go, in which we looked at each other in expectancy. After some twenty minutes, gloom approached us over the hills. Birds stopped singing, as we saw the moon silently move in front of the sun.

That deep darkness, surrounded by bright light. The quiet. It seemed so tangibly close. Not the surrounding light, but the darkness itself spoke up that day. Spoke out. Speaks out. It was with me when I ‘wohood’ last week.

In the early 19th century, Johan Wolfgang Goethe experimented with light and dark. He is known as a poet, but Goethe himself was of the opinion that his poetry was average. What really counted to him, were his studies of colours, where he disagreed with the already deceased Isaac Newton on some points. In his view, black light and white light were the two basic forces. All colours were a result of the interplay between the two. Yellow, he saw as white light weakened by dark light. He learned this from staring into a flame in a dark room. Blue, on the opposite end, was black light weakened by white, as occurs in the sunlit blue sky, reducing the vast darkness of the universe. His approach largely reflected the dualistic christian worldview of the opposites ‘good’ as light and ‘bad’ as darkness.

The dominating scientific belief of today teaches that Goethe was wrong. Based on earlier ideas by Newton, darkness is the absence of light, and the colours with their wavelengths together compose white light. Goethe’s response to this idea was that perception is an essential aspect of colour which can not be excluded from the equation. Adding a prism to the experiment means interacting with light, and can thus not be seen as an objective experiment. Goethe’s work still has influence in art. His intention was not to provide explanations, in fact he was against them, his intention was to describe his observations. For him, the psychological impact of light, the question how it moves us, how it triggers our imagination, was an important part of the study.

The room where I grew up could be blinded to total darkness. Most of my friends had night lights, I didn’t. I couldn’t sleep with them. I liked it dark. But I do remember feeling presences. Sometimes I turned the lights back on to check if something was lingering under the bed. That act changed the atmosphere entirely. The feeling of a presence was gone as soon as I turned on the light. As I grew older, I learned that it was my imagination playing tricks on me. Since the eclipse of March 20th, I’m suspecting the darkness itself.

Doesn’t the darkness feel closer than light? More intimate? Or inward focussed at least. For me it has always been a presence, not an absence. Closer than my carotid. It compelled me in 1999, and I saw that again last week. The memory of a beam of black light.

I wonder what the world would have looked like, had Goethe´s ideas been followed in the same way as Newton´s. Would children still fear the dark?

Psychoindustry

On february 13th, a group of students decided to occupy the Bungehuis. That building was just sold by the University of Amsterdam, who no longer wished to use it for education of arts and languages. Students did not agree with a debate night, they wanted commitments by the board. At the time the building was still being used by the UvA, and many people, including the press thought the occupation went too far. But the Faculty of Humanities supported them.

After several attempts to talk to the occupants, the municipality of Amsterdam ordered the riot police to evict the occupants at dawn of the 24th. They were taken to jail, where they were held for some days.

That afternoon, a different group of students hit the streets for a protest march against the eviction. 300 of them went towards the Maagdenhuis, the board office, and occupied that instead. They were visited by the Mayor, but did not leave. They presented their demands the nex morning: resignation of the board and democratization of the decision-making.

In the years after the crisis, there have been enormous government cuts on university subsidies. Students are no longer funded, research budgets have reduced and teachers no longer have time to attend the enormous amounts of students, a problem that has worsened throughout the years. Instead of being places for dialogue and reciprocal teaching, Universities are turning into psychoindustries where minds are bred and force-fed information without being able to digest it in a social or ethical context. This is what the students protest, and they are finding support.

The students are still there. Over 400 teachers and employees have already signed their loss of confidence in the board. There have been protests on similar topics all over the country. More are scheduled. Nationwide newspapers acknowledge the issue. Just now, as I write this the UvA has offered a plan to increase democratization, and pressurize the government.

It is no isolated movement, but it’s part of a global trend. It’s not just the universities that are being industrialized, it’s all of us, and all nature that surrounds us. We are letting it happen, and it’s going too far. It is for that reason that this simple impulse has triggered something so much bigger. The movement has not stopped, and will not until we liberate our psyches. Let this be a motivation for all of us.

The mental chains are cracking and with our effort they will break.

Appearances

Walking through the Flevopark I saw this scene and took a picture of it. It shows a tree that has fallen down, lifting its roots in the process. The roots have ripped along a mat of soil from the ground, revealing disturbingly well arranged bricks. The tree, no longer standing, is now growing branches from its trunk. Out of the view jump an awfull lot of questions and speculations into my mind.

One might ask why the tree fell over, since it doesn’t seem too heavy, but you’d immediately answer: because as you can see, it barely has roots. True, but why is that? It seems obvious at first: it could not grow roots because of those bricks. Then again, why did it not simply reach through, disorganize them, and find its stability deeper down? Those little seedlings below sure didn’t have a problem with that. Well, one could answer, it did not root deeply because it was positioned at the height of the water and it did not need to look any further. In which case the bricks may have nothing to do with the downfall whatsoever.

What are those bricks doing there, anyway? They can’t be there for long yet, because they’d have had too much time to sink away or lose their structure. But someone arranged them there deliberately. Why? Surely not to support the establishment of the vegetation? Are those bricks under the entire park? And what are they lying on? Sand? Concrete?

Will the tree survive, now that it has claimed a bigger land? Will the branches form new stems, and will the stem grow new roots? Was this all part of its plan? I doubt it. Even though I admire the trees courage to keep growing after this disaster, I suspect the water will quickly suck its way through. It is probably rotting already, on its way to be pulp in a few years.

So what are we looking at here? Is this humans millionth failed attempt to do something constructive with nature? Is this a painful proof of how we don’t even manage to keep our city parks in one piece? Is it a millionth tragically failed attempt of nature to make something out of our ridiculous inventions?

Or is this a success story and am I missing out on something essential? If you have a clue, please let me know.

Dark Memories

How often have I heard the stories about the second world war in the Netherlands? I have told people that I’ve seen enough films and read enough books on the theme. How many two-minute silences for the victims have passed? Plenty. Yet once in a while throughout the years, the topic kept triggering my interest . As I grow older, the impacts of the stories get more intense.

I’m visiting my grandma, Jacoba, at her dusk. She is a little lady with short white hair and clear blue eyes with tiny pupils, through which she looks with fiery calm. She sits on her own spot, in the middle of a yellow leather three people couch. She smokes a cigarette that has not run out for as long as I’ve known her.We had a coffee, walked a round and now we talk. She unexpectedly brings up the war.
“How was it for you?” I ask loudly. Her hearing is not that good anymore.
“They were just people…”

In the first years after the Nazis had conquered the Netherlands, they had been quite likeable. With their trustworthy attitudes, they had managed to convince Dutch Jews to register their family trees and wear the infamous yellow star of David. After two years of occupation, they began to systematically rob the Jewish of their rights and freedoms. They then  moved the families out of the city. Many seemed to believe that they’d simply been sent off to work somewhere else.  Jacoba, sixteen at the time, lived very close to the Dutch Theater, where Jews were gathered and most deportations were done.

“Half of my class were Jewish” she says, in a tone that does not seem emotional at all. “The thought of Jews being different from the others had never occurred to me before. But one by one, they came to my door to announce that they received the letter. They came to say goodbye and some left precious belongings for me to keep for the day when they’d come back. One boy gave me a guitar. I still have it upstairs.”

“One day I biked by the Weteringschans and I saw how people were being executed by gunfire. I stopped, but a soldier commanded me to move forward. Of course I did that, I was afraid of what would happen otherwise.”

The winter of ’45 was deadly to many. My grandma still feels guilty about selling a box of one of her Jewish friends because she needed the money for food. When the liberation came and people could eat again, some people died of burst stomachs. Jacoba and her sister reminded each other of that when her new Canadian boyfriend took them to a party where little breads were all around. She laughs about that adventure.

“One day during the deportings,” she concludes “I was walking home, and suddenly saw a man look at me, out of the truck. I will never forget the expression on his face. We both knew that he’d never come back.” Under the disgust in her expression, I can taste their shared despair.

Spring Offering

We’re out on the street near the Metro Station of the Burgemeester de Vlugtlaan in Amsterdam. In a four-day session, artists Pau and Skount are working on a joint mural showing the Goddess of Spring and the Tree of Knowledge. Anna and Dianne, local residents and the facilitators of the Street Art Museum Amsterdam, come and go with nourishment, tools and information. Anna’s dog Pinky Bandita runs around, constantly on the lookout for fun, nourishment and her boss. Protective transparent foil donated by the Brandeis shop around the corner covers the pavement and blows in waves, releasing a light plastic sound. It’s a sunny day, but there’s a slight misty ambience among the trees behind us. “A little bit of dark on the top?” asks Skount. “Yes”, answers Pau. They pick up their three meter rollers and add a new tone to the turquoise that now covers most of the bricks.

A black golf drives out of the neighbourhood around the corner. In it sit two North African looking young men. The driver halts and opens the window. “So beautiful!” He calls out with a big smile. “Will there be birdies on it?” I translate it for Pau. “Yes, there will be birds. It’s my theme.” she answers. She seems a bit surprised. “Great!” he answers with delight. “I love birdies!”. He raises his thumb out of the window and hits the gas.

Not much later, a lady with an enormous shopping bag stops for a chat. She’s enthusiastic “I used to live here”, she says, “and I now observe a lot of changes in this neighbourhood. This is an enrichment! It used to be a bad place to live, but you can really see the improvements with initiatives such as these!”

“We now have a scaffolding!” announces Anna. We go pick it up at a shop a block away. We don’t need to pay rent, just a deposit. “Everything for the art” says the owner. With Anna’s input, the setting takes shape in an organic way.  The residents participate, exactly how she wants it. By doing this, she attracts the specific type of artistic talent she thinks is important to have around in the city.

Creating space
Anna passionately puts this work in a historical perspective. “Street art is a burp of Baroque” she says. Because artists such as Caravaggio, Velasquez and Rubens painted murals, Baroque can be seen as the first Western art style intended to invoke the “Wow” effect . It was overdone at the time, but society consumed it. Now, after four hundred years of digestion, it comes back up. But modern street art is also influenced by Art Nouveau, particularly in philosophy and by Art Deco in the execution. “If Baroque is an Indian takeaway dish, extremely strong, rich and heavy, then Art Deco is a goat cheese salad.”

Graffiti art as we know it, Anna explains, started in the fifties when three elements came together. First, with the upcoming of Rock ‘n Roll, there was the aspirational figure representing new ideals. Second, there was graphic design, that gained force with advertising. The third, very important element was the invention of aerosol spray in mass car production. The owner of a garage told a young boy to learn how to work with a spray can. He did, and got skilled in it. In the seventies, he got bored with that and started climbing trains to draw tags of his name on them. You can imagine the impact of seeing a train pass by with a creative representation of somebody’s name on it. In the eighties it became public, and graffiti artists from all over the world picked it up. Some claim that those who had the letter “S” in their name were appreciated more, because that was the hardest letter to write. It’s not straight. Artists refined their skill, then the industry picked up, and adapted the choice of materials. Todays Prada, for example, have invited seven street artists to help them design the 2014 line-up. One of them, Stinkfish has murals in our museum collection.

Keith Harring, J-M Basquet and Blek le Rat were pioneers in the movement. Punks used graffiti to protest against the emerging Disney culture. The sign of an eye in a circle was very popular. In those years, Amsterdam turned into an important centre for street art. Hugo Kaagman had an atelier specialized in stencil graffiti. Boris Tellegen, now also known as Delta, had studied industrial design engineering, but was attracted by art and his friends were graffiti writers at the Mr. Visserplein. He added 3D structures and layers to the flat letters that others drew. Today, he makes high-end art and wall installations out of recycled material. “He stayed true to his architecture” says Anna, “but changed the format. He keeps evolving, which is why he stays exiting”. She calls him the king of graffiti. “And he’s just a nice, modest person.”

Banksy came much later. He was smart. Banksy added anonymity and used it for publicity. He placed himself out of space. It was an unusual new way of presenting yourself, which intrigued the audience. “But he is driven by political messages, by narratives, not by art.” Anna is quite sure that Banksy is not an individual, but a media schooled collective. Nonetheless, this identity inspired others to move on.

“If we’d now go to the Spui, I could show you 36 different methods of expressing yourself.” says Anna. Progressive artists have moved to more sustainable materials for tagging such as chalk, crayons and tiles, which they use on places where nobody cleans. “The eloquence of the execution now plays a role in the art as well. Bastardilla, for example, paints a picture on the wall with glue, then throws up a cloud of glitter, and what remains is a beautiful sparkly painting. The exciting thing in this case is that cleaning companies, even those specialized in removing graffiti, don’t clean Basta’s sparkles.”

Anna has critique on some modern street art movements, that she calls “Piss and run”. “Our neighbourhood doesn’t need another smart writer who draws something on a mural, then leaves. It needs love and care”. That’s why she is setting up a public museum with the purpose to teach visitors about the background of street art, freedom in public space and the messages of the artists. “Our project gives the opportunity to make something bruised and damaged into something lively and colourful”. The ambition is to create a space that is available, interesting and engaging.

Therapy
This way, Anna and Dianne have attracted Pau and Skount, who are each painting their new work on a side of the wall. I climb on the scaffolding and sit next to Pau. It’s no problem if I join her, she says, because she draws lines slowly. During our conversation, we have to climb down and up several times, either to reposition the scaffolding, or because Pau wants to have a chat with the passers-by. She takes a picture of those who allow it and writes down their e-mail addresses. She’ll place the pictures on her site and will send them the link, making the inhabitants part it.

Therapy
Thanks, Dianne, for the picture!

For Pau, this is a beginning of a long-term art project called “PROJECT WALLFLOWERS”, which, starting this year, she’ll perform in some countries in Europe and in Tunisia. “The people are wallflowers” she says. “They are coloured dots on a big grey wall”. Her paintings are the bridge by which she connects with the people, her chance to communicate with the world she travels in. “As a kickoff, this wall is very important to me because I’m trying to figure out how to merge different things”.

“Painting is my therapy.” She explains “I enjoy being outside and painting these huge walls. It’s soul food, meditation. I’m really excited that people like it.” The painting she is working on depicts Freya, the Nordic Goddess of spring, fertility, love and nature. She sometimes leads the Walküren (Valkyries), who join wars to take the most brave warriors back to heaven. “I’m intrigued by myths, and find that a lot of things start with the feminine” says Pau. She emphasizes that on a wall, she doesn’t want to limit herself to a specific idea or the idealization of a gender. “I’m not a female, I’m just Pau. The funny thing is that Pau is a guy’s name in Spain, where Skount is from.”

Pau was born in Chile but as a young child she had to flee abruptly with her family. She now regularly visits it for longer periods of time. “The culture of Latin America is very connected to the earth and nature.” Pau likes the fact that on that continent there is not one dominant theory on how life as we know it originated. Stories differ according to people’s location and tradition. “My life is a patchwork”, she says. “I am looking for who I really am. Not in a scientific way, but more in a spiritual way. I’m looking for my way to get in peace with it. When I started this work, I tried to find out which was my patch. But every time I travel, I discover that this new place also is an aspect of me. We are not just a passport, we are everything.” Myths and traditions help her to get in touch with herself. “Old mythologies are our base, we should try to keep them alive”.

Pau tries to be a good professional and a good artist, but perhaps more than anything, she tries to find beauty in every day things. “I hope to inspire people to be conscious of the life around.” She describes a difference between when she is working in her atelier on her own and when she is out on the streets. “The atelier is more intimate, more personal. I open myself in a deeper way. But walls are more interactive, more open, I want people to be part of them. It’s the moment to learn from others.” For Pau, one way of working can not exist without the other.

I ask why birds are such an important theme for her. She answers that the bird is the free spirit. On her paintings, birds come out of the head of the figures . She uses the hair, with which the birds are entangled, as a sign of transcendence. It enables the perceiver to see the whole picture. You are free to go wherever you want, if only through your imagination. “Birds are the companions of my characters. They live in symbiosis with them. I grew up with birds; there always were artisanal bird statues in my house. I collect them now. My atelier is filled with them. Some people see me as ‘the crazy lady with the birds’. It has to do with a yearning to see things from a different perspective, where there are no borders.”

Dropping the mask
Skount is drawing the Tree of Knowledge, named Yggdrasil, also originating from Nordic mythology. He has previously made many murals with references to Greek mythology, the fascination of which he got during his time in Greece. “I like to take myths from the past, and compare them to what is happening now.” he says. “Those old stories are usually about us.” When Pau was invited and she said she was going to do Freya, Skount studied some Nordic tales to match his piece with her part of the mural. He read about Yggdrasil and instantly appreciated the character.

Skount at work

Yggdrasil, according to Skount, represents the astral tree. It has three roots: one into the well of knowledge, one into the world of death, and one into spring water. That last one attracts Skount particularly now that the new season is making its entrance. He thinks it’s the time when all old things end and new things start simultaneously. “It is the season where death starts to grow up again.” It is totally different from for example the winter. For him, spring is the most powerful season of the year. “This mural is a spring offer for the Street Art Museum Amsterdam. It is the start of a new, larger project with neighbours, and it also preludes the start of a new project between Anna and me, with more murals coming up in the neighbourhood.”

Yggdrasils branches are reaching into the air, which represents contact with something more spiritual. Some branches also reach out to Pau’s work, to symbolize the collaboration. “According to Nordic mythology, Yggdrasil is a tree, but I made him into a human. I think he is us. We are part of the story.” Skount explains that in spring not just flowers grow anew, our emotions do as well. Everything does, in fact. “Most painters have depicted Yggdrasil straight up. I deliberately painted him falling down to his back. Later he will rise again. Those are parts of the circle of life, often referred to in the stories about him.”

Skount has done several murals together with the Street Art Museum Amsterdam. “Anna is our chief, I’m just a helper. Neighbour involvement is important to us both. When you are outside and the neighbours talk to you, the mural starts changing.” He grins widely and holds his hands in the air, moving them as if to show how lines change direction, crawling out of his control. “They bring tea, some express they love it, others that they hate it, some even bring old paint and start painting along! I include some of the stories they tell me in the paintings. They become part of the mural that way.”

One of the symbols that return in Skounts murals is the starlike shape on the hand of Yggdrasil. When I ask, he explains it’s part of his Projections project about the psychological meaning of the word projection. “It is an alchemist symbol. It represents the thing I want to say in this project, but I don’t have it defined yet. I’m still working on it. It represents our inner colour.”

Skount grew up in the town of Almagro. Almagro is characterized by the yearly theatre festival. From early age he found it fascinating how people’s behaviour can change when all they do is to put up a mask. For a long time, masks have taken a central place on the faces of his mural characters. “Everyone wears a mask in the metaphysical sense.” He explains. “You never see people’s true faces immediately. Masks help you to be accepted in society. I am moving away from that theme and look for what is real in people.” So far, he has painted two murals with people without masks on. His first one, Inner Colour, represents the moment where a mask is dropped and the true colours come out. Now, with the death and rebirth represented by Yggdrasil the time starts in which he investigates that which is inside people. Our own myths.

Things keep moving on the street. People come and go, Anna and Dianne keep us up to date the latest announcements regarding journalists and politicians involved, painted cars drive by. Anna serves cookies. Together with the artists, she will keep colouring the walls of Nieuw-West. She gives tours for visitors to enjoy the paintings, accompanied by her animated and informative talks. Pau will soon go back to Germany, where she will continue making beautiful paintings indoors and outside. Skount will stay in Amsterdam for another while. He likes it here. This street adventure has been a beautiful experience to me. There is no better way to meet great people than witnessing them turn something abandoned into a piece of art.

Small world

As I walk home from my expedition to the grocery store, I wonder what I’ll write about today: it’s friday after all. It will not be superfoods. Even if I have been wanting to tear down the growing Dutch collective health obsession for a while now, and the timing would be perfect given the massive social media reaction to the government advise not to blindly trust such products, I won’t do it today. The whole thought of it exhausts me. Another time, perhaps.

I might write about this little walk on a sunny day instead, and about how much I don’t mind that the climate is losing it. It’s beautiful. I love this broad, square-like street leading to my front door. Our building isn’t mother’s finest, and the construction sites around mess it up quite a lot, but it’s home for me. Besides, the sky will always be here to give me the space I need. No, let’s not write about that.

Shouldn’t I once write about the arrogance of world leaders, fighting over little pieces of land with the so-called excuse that the inhabitants of that little piece would benefit from lawfulness? Or perhaps about the troubles in the desert, where ancient cities are torn apart by groups I understand so little of?

As I walk here, I wonder what it is I like to write about. Internet ethics, psychotic murderers, mass hysteria, internal conflicts, adventures in the streets of this town. Love? Minorities? The enormous problems we face without being aware of it? Am I not just writing about my own little world under the pretension of making others’ a better place? Well of course I am.

I put the key in the hole and open the door. I see the old familiar green hall that suffocates me in the same way all my homes once did. Compare it to the open air. I quickly adapt to this place, eat an egg, forget about the contemplation and take on the quest of puzzling with those tiny little scientific words of my second academic paper, in front of a screen that slowly, yet steadily takes my vision away from me.

No breakthrough, no message, just my own little world.

Million Masks

I should perhaps start this post by admitting that I was not present on the streets last Wednesday, the 5th of November. Were you? Did you know about it? There was a global demonstration.

The March against Monsanto on May 25th was the first global protest in history that aimed against a single global company. Even though the Amsterdam Dam Square was filled, the protest barely reached the Dutch news. The Monsanto Stock market did drop temporarily. This week, the European Commission nevertheless recommended the Council to grant permission to breed the genetically modified maize 1507 which, by the way, was not produced by Monsanto but by a Dutch company. Where are Greenpeace when you need them? I suppose they are too busy saving Faiza from the Russians.

Back to the Million Mask March. They have called themselves an alliance between Occupy, Anonymous and Wikileaks. From the online information sources the magnitude of the actual events are hard to grasp. Mass media have smaller head counts than some twitterers and smaller media do. We know for a fact that Russel Brand was there. And the Vendetta masks, imitating the face of Guy Fawkes,  involved in attempt to assassinate the king of England on, guess what, November 5th 1605. Not so long ago, people wore scream masks. What happened there?

V. Vendetta. A rebel with a cause. A legend, who decides for himself what is good and what is not. He suffered. His goal justifies his means. He is an example now. His mask enables others to express their pain. It helps them say that the big ones have messed up. Once again, a movie character stepped off the screen.

The call for peace is loud and clear. It’s message is not so much rational as it is ethical. You guys are cheating! You’re ignoring the rule of respect! You’re not cleaning up after you played the game!

Even if few people have heard of this one, such movements have impact. Occupy encouraged a first indigenous rise to politics. It inspired the guy who makes clean phones to start his business. It opened the dialogue about the banking system. Has it been enough? No. Yet the ball is rolling, and symbols of change keep joining the field.