Why is this interesting? - The Breeding Grounds Edition

On Amsterdam, polluted islands, and ticking clocks

Robin Sloan (RS) is an author, olive oil maker, and internet tinkerer. I could point to any number of amazing pieces he’s written around the internet, but there are two that stick out most for their effect on me personally: Stock and flow from his Snarkmarket days laid out a simple framework for thinking about the different types of content on the web and Writing with the machine encouraged me to spend some time playing with neural networks. He wrote up his Monday Media Diet in May. - Noah (NRB) 

Robin here. In Anita Schillhorn van Veen’s terrific dispatch on autonomous zones and Amsterdam’s tradition of squatting, she wrote:

Perhaps the temporary part is intrinsic.

This reminded me of a project I saw in Amsterdam a couple of years ago—one that has never left my mind.

While I was visiting, Ben Cerveny invited my friends and I on a boat ride. (Ben has long served as a vital bridge between Amsterdam and the Bay Area.) We went zipping through the canals in his little boat, out of the city’s scenic inner rings and into the funkier reaches of Amsterdam North, to arrive finally at a place that felt like Neverland.

This was De Ceuvel, a ramshackle creative hub built on a small polluted island. The deal was this: the island was destined for development—condos, probably—but before that could happen, the soil had to be cleaned, a process that would be undertaken by phyto-remediating grass and last about a decade. For that period, the island would be handed over to a creative organization and supported with a substantial subsidy. The group behind De Ceuvel won the opportunity and was granted a ten-year lease. This was in 2012.

Today, a beautiful boardwalk winds through the tall grass, linking a collection of studios and offices built from the shells of old houseboats.

Tell me this doesn't sound dreamy:

The houseboats were acquired for (almost) nothing as it was cheaper for former houseboat residents to give us their boat than it was to pay for their removal. We were even offered more boats than we needed! After choosing the most unique boats, the future tenants renovated them themselves on the NDSM-wharf. Here, the existing features were strengthened and expanded. Many tenants chose to raise their roofs or lower their floors. Many of the walls were stripped. After the coarse renovations, the boats were lifted onto De Ceuvel one-by-one with an enormous crane.

The centerpiece is Cafe De Ceuvel, a beautiful bar and restaurant with sprawling outdoor seating. In classic Amsterdam style, it is most easily reached by boat and by bicycle.

I reached De Ceuvel by boat, of course, and, as I was leaping to the dock, my bicycle key slipped out of my pocket. So, it was there, in the (only partially?) polluted water, that I took my first dip in the canals of Amsterdam, holding my breath and feeling around on the bottom. I found my lost key, then dried out in Neverland.

Why is this interesting?

The policy supporting De Ceuvel is a direct evolution of—almost homage to—the rich culture of squatting described by Anita Schillhorn van Veen in last week’s WITI.

The City of Amsterdam’s Bureau Broedplaatsen (“breeding grounds”) was formed in 2000 to invest in (this is a delicious phrase) “subcultural infrastructure.” The bureau now offers a step-by-step plan to help people organize a group like the one that built De Ceuvel. There are about 60 of them in Amsterdam today.

It would be easy to criticize the Bureau Broedplaatsen as a kind of neoliberal co-option of the energy behind squatting—a way of lacquering properties with the sheen of art and innovation before offering them up to the machine of development. And there’s probably something to that criticism!

But subsidized, time-limited creative "occupations" like these do not preclude the possibility of "real" squatting. Here’s the Bureau Broedplaatsen’s directory of unsubsidized, long-term vrijplaatsen: “free places.”

The ticking clock feels, to me, not restrictive but generative. Ten years is a long time! Maybe it’s even the RIGHT amount of time. There’s something liberating about projects with an expiration date. When 2022 rolls around, the minds that built De Ceuvel won't expire along with it. No, they’ll still be circulating in Amsterdam. Maybe they’ll find a new island and start again, putting to work everything they've learned.

It’s a bit boring to enthuse endlessly about how Amsterdam is doing it right, but… damn! Amsterdam is doing it right! Here in the Bay Area, creative possibility feels deeply attenuated by the raw cost of space; I think that’s true in many big cities around the U.S. A network of subsidized “breeding grounds” set up in San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose, with studios and offices available for just a couple hundred dollars a month… it would be transformative.

You can still build your gleaming condos, your luxe biotech office; just wait ten years. Give the artists some time to dream, some room to breathe. (RS)

River of the Day:

Speaking of responses to WITI’s, Allison Keiley was kind enough to point us to the amazing Meander project from Robert Hodgin. As Robert explains on his site, “My all-time favorite map-based data visualization was created in 1944. Harold Fisk, working with the US Army Corp. of Engineers, mapped the length of the Mississippi River. What sets his visualization apart from others is that he maps the river through time, and manages to do so in a way that is both beautiful and surprisingly effective. I want to pay homage to his series of maps by creating my own system for procedurally generating maps of meandering rivers.” (NRB)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Robin (RS)

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