Provos in New Babylon


centerfold image in magazine Provo #4

The first thing to do when you want to make something modern is to paint it white. Josep Lluis Sert was fond of saying that architecture was not art but a frame and that the lives of its inhabitants were the art framed by it.  The “gallery effect” works by transforming any ordinary object into art by removing it from its usual context and placing it on a white pedestal in a white room.  What then, happens when you instead paint an ordinary object, a bicycle for example, white and return it to its usual context, the city of Amsterdam perhaps?  In July of 1965 a young Dutch Nozem (as the bored and shiftless youth of the day were called) named Luud Schimmelpenninck and his friends did exactly this, with fifty bicycles, and discovered that the result was their being attacked by the police and the bicycles being confiscated, all of which rendered the project, in their estimation, a resounding success.

Shimmelpenninck’s “White Bicycle Plan” was one of the more successful of a series of “White Plans” put proposed and, when possible, enacted by the Provos, of which Shimmelpennick was a member.   The White plans shared a similar structure in that they included a plan for the city or a set of demands asked of the municipal authorities and an action carried out by the Provos, usually involving painting something white.  The “White Bicycle Plan” consisted of a proposal to close the streets of Amsterdam’s city center to automobile traffic and make a fleet of white bicycles available for public use, unlocked and free for the taking.  While the Provos could not close the streets they could provide the bicycles and, there by, pose a pointed question of “why not?”  While the actions included in the “White Plans” generally served some practical purpose in themselves, they were also calculated to provoke a response from the authorities.  The Provos had begun their activities by staging performances or “happenings” inspired by the Fluxus Group.  By the time the White Plans were undertaken, Fluxus had moved on from performance to the production of “Flux Kits” which, like games, contained instructions and “props” allowing the user to enact a performance themselves.  The White Plans also worked as a game, with a plan put forward and the necessary objects provided, but in this case the name of the game, as was the name of the players was Provo; short for provocation.


crowds at the “White Bicycle” happening

The Provo movement emerged from a series of performances or games staged by Robert Jasper Grootveld, an eccentric artist and activist for the legalization of marijuana and against the use of tobacco.  Grootveld, himself a heavy smoker, begin his anti-tobacco campaign by defacing cigarette billboards with the word “cancer” written in tar and by caring a chloroform soaked rag into tobacco stores to fill them with the smell of hospitals.  The intent of the actions was to shock or wake up the culture of “addicted consumers”, of which he considered himself a part. Grootveld eventually secured the patronage of a wealthy restaurateur, Klasse Kroese, who set him up with a studio space in a store front.  Grootveld converted the storefront into the “Anti-Smoking Temple” and began staging performances of pseudo-shamanistic “magic” rituals to counter the power of the wizards of advertising who kept the members of the “cigarette-cult” hypnotized in the thrall of the “NicoLord”.  While Grootveld is, with out a doubt, an eccentric, clownish figure his performances engaged very astutely with the magical quality that commodity fetishism had assumed with the emergence of late capitalism.  The rituals also activated the political potential of the developing genre performance art by turning its interest in pulling the viewer or audience into the work into an effort to in stead push the work outward and insinuate it into the structures of signification and control that organize urban space.  Grootveld’s performances attracted a small following among the emerging youth counterculture, which increased when he organized as series of happenings (part performance, part game or prank, and part political) called the “Marihuettegame” or marijuana game aimed at mocking the newly instated anti-marijuana laws and complicating their enforcement.  Grootveld would pose as a police informer and feed the police, who were largely ignorant of marijuana, inaccurate information and,  eventually, trick them in to making large-scale, high profile raids against prepared targets where the would seize various, innocuous substances packaged and presented as marijuana and arrest Grootveld’s collaborators.  The papers, who would cover the raids avidly as perfect foder for their readerships anxiety about and fascination with the degeneracy of the youth, whold the be notified that the police had actually confiscated tea or hay or cat food and thus given another amusing story about police incompetence.


Grootveld writes “cancer” on a tobacco advertisement

The Anti-Smoking temple came to end in 1964 when Grootveld accidentally set fire to the space during a ritual and, in another instance of the police being pulled in involuntary collaboration, had to be rescued by police officers sent to monitor the event.  Fed up, Kroes with drew his support and Grootveld moved his activates out doors into Spui Square where they would develop from the private project of and eccentric to a social movement with implications beyond Amsterdam.  In Spui Square stands a statue of a boy entitled ” Het Lieverdje” (“little rascal” or “little darling”).  The statue, commissioned by a tobacco firm, was dedicated to the street urchins on Amsterdam.  Grootvelt declared it the statue a “nicotinistic demon” and began to perform rituals around it intended to transform it in to a magical object.  A much less mystical shift in meaning was also set in motion as the square became a gathering place for nosemes, students and other counter-cultural elements who came to watch the performances and participate in a “happening”.  This initiated a shift in the significance of the square, making a node of significance and point of intersection between the city’s subcultures.  The Provo movement itself was, in fact the product of one such intersection of Grootveld himself with a student at Amsterdam University named Roel Van Duyn.  In May of 1965 Van Duyn begin distributing pamphlets among the crowd at Grootveld’s performances.

Van Duyn added a discursive component to Grootveld’s performances; identifying and articulated the tactics they employed and connecting them to larger political movements. Recognizing the value of this, Grootveld sought out Van Duyn and the two began collaborating. It was in Van Duyn’s pamphlet’s that the term Provo first appeared in relation to the movement and an explicit manifesto was stated.  A central element of Van Duyn’s statement of Provo’s position was the invocation of the idea of anarchism.  Provo pamphlets contained short of histories of Mikail Bakunin, Paul Lafargue, and the Dutch socialist leader Domela Nieuwenhuis, however, Provo bore little resemblance, in both its aims and its membership, to the anarchist groups of the nineteenth century and pre-war period. Anarchism, for Van Duyn seems to have been a way to, in the eyes of the authorities and the un-hip public, to assume the persona of the wild-eyed bomb thrower or the lurking subversive given to anarchism by the more yellow elements of the press, and in intellectual and countercultural circles, identify a leftism distinct from the that of party communism that had become increasingly bureaucratic and identified with the industrial unions and other large-scale organized labor groups.  Van Duyn recognized that, in post-industrial Europe, those still engaged in industrial production, with protected union jobs, social services and housing had become part of the comfortable middle class. Instead he named, in his manifesto, a new class; the provotariat.


Grootveld performs in Spui square as “nozemes” look on

The Provo Manifesto describes the provotariat as follows:

“What is the Provotariat? Provos, beatnicks, pleiners, nozemes, teddyboys, rockers, bluson noirs, hooligans, mengupi, students, artists, misfits, ban-the-bombers…. Those who don’t want a career and who lead irregular lives: those who come from the asphalt jungles of London, Paris, Amsterdam, New York, Moscow, Tokyo, Berlin, Milan, Warsaw and who feel ill-adapted to this society…. The Provotariat is the last element of rebellion in our ‘developed’ countries. The Proletariat is the slave of the politicians. Watching TV. It has joined its old enemy, the bourgeoisie, and now constitutes with the bourgeois a huge, grey mass.  The new class opposition in our countries is the Provotariat against this mass.  But the Provotariat is not a class – its make-up is too heterogeneous for that.”

While the stakes appear to be lower here, and the moral imperative less acute than in the “old left” project of proletarian revolution the Provo’s avoid many of the dangers of false consciousness by being up-front about who they are (students, bohemians, youth sub culture, ect.) and in speaking in their own voice and in relation to issues that effect them rather than seeking to radicalize raise the consciousness of some great mass of abject others. Also of interest is the listing of London first on the list of Provo-infested “asphalt jungles”. Situationist Paris is second and, demonstrating something of a provincial inferiority complex, their native Amsterdam gets only third billing and Rotterdam no mention at all.  This is further reflected in the listing of specifically British subcultures such as the working class proto-punk teddy boys as fellow travelers and the mention of “ban-the-bombers” which seems to be a reference to the youth auxiliary to the British anti-nuclear group “the Committee of one Hundred” that had organized the “Spies for Peace” project exposing secret British government nuclear sites to the public.  The Provos were instrumental in the establishment a London-Amsterdam axis in countercultural discourse and urban activism that would become increasingly important after the events of May 1968 would cement the decline of Paris as a center of such activity and of the French left as an agency of activism outside of the academy.


White Bycicle Plan

Provo took up the standard leftist causes of the day: opposition to the American presence in Vietnam and to the build-up of nuclear weapons, especially in Western Europe.  As political positions these were relatively easy stances to take given the little the Dutch had to say about either issue and wide spread popular opposition the Vietnam War and anxiety about nuclear weapons in Europe.  The Provos, however, were careful to point out that these issues concerned them primarily as symptoms of the local conditions of their own lives with which they sough to engage. Solidarity with the Vietnamese communists was never claimed and the threat of Nuclear war was seen as the catastrophic conclusion of the out-of control cycle of over production and mass consumption. Robert Stolk, a member of the core group of the rapidly growing Provo movement, explained that “Our protests against the Vietnam war were from a humanistic point of view. We criticized the cruel massacres, but didn’t identify with the Vietcong like Jane Fonda. That’s why later on we didn’t wind up on aerobics videos.”

What the Provo’s did concern themselves with directly was social and economic power structure of Dutch society, especially as it related to urban space. It was this that would bring them into contact with groups outside of Amsterdam, the Situationist International being one of the most important of these, with elements of avant-garde art and architecture and into increasingly violent conflict with the authorities.  The White Plans were the first strategy employed by the Provos as a contestation of the norms of the culture of work and consumption and the urban condition they found themselves immersed in.  They employed the public performance aspects of Grootveld’s magic rituals and the provocation tactics of the Marihuettegame but enlarged them into an open frame work under which any number of would-be Provos could propose plans and the public, both sympathetic observers and the police, could be engaged as participants with their own role to play.   Along with the white plans appeared a series of pamphlets entitled Provokatise and numbered one through three which were then followed by a magazine, Provo 1, with a, presumably situationist inspired, shiny metallic cover printed with a brick pattern in celebration of the Provo’s urban habitat.  While the white plans tended to involve direct action focused on specific issues and the pamphlets and magazines address broader political issues, the distribution of and generation of publicity for the publications involved its own level of carefully scripted theater of provocation.  Pamphlets appeared folded into copies of De Telegraaf, Amsterdam’s principal news paper, or, in the case of Provokaatsie #3 which attacked the Dutch royal house and accused members of the nobility of having collaborated with the Nazis, were thrown from bridges in to the royal barge as it toured Amsterdam.  Reprisals against the Provos in the form of lawsuits claiming the use of unlicensed images only provided further opportunities for the movement to promote its self and acquire and outlaw mystique.  Provo #1 included antiquated, ninetieth century instruction for the construction of bombs and booby-traps and was distributed with small packets of fireworks, giving the police a perfect opportunity to over-react by seizing the magazines and arresting Van Duyn and its three other editors on charges of inciting violence.   While the absurdity of the charges became unbearable, even to the police, after a few days and the men were released the incident allowed the Provos to appear in the mainstream media in a way that inflated the perception of both their numbers and the threat that they posed to civil order.


White Children Plan

The growing notoriety of Provo helped attract crowds to a series of anti-automobile “happenings” staged in Spui Square early in the summer of 1965 of which the White Bicycle plan was the first. These events would mark a shift in Provo’s focus away from tobacco and onto automobiles as the symbolic “bad object” of consumer society.  Automobiles, of course, have much greater significance to modernist urbanism (especially in the mid 1960’s) than does tobacco and it is through their organizing of a resistance to their proliferation that the Provo’s came to have an important role in architectural discourse and the struggles for the control of urban space that would begin in the 1960’s and, following the events of 1968 in Paris, represent  a major rift between much of the architectural avant-garde and progressive social movements.   The White Bicycle plan offered a material critique of automobiles as consumer commodities and an expression of the assertion of private property rights over those of the community.  As urban planners attempted to make Amsterdam’s dense urban fabric accessible to automobiles, driven at this point still mostly driven by the wealthy, the White bicycle plan proposes that a communally owned fleet of the space efficient and economical vehicles of the city’s less affluent inhabitants be employed to retain public use of the street space and parking space needed to make Amsterdam function as an automobile city.  Further white plans, such as the “White Victims” plan which would have required drivers who killed pedestrians in automobile accidents to paint their silhouettes on the pavement as punishment for their recklessness and a warning to other, sought to make visible the hidden or tacitly accepted violence of automobile culture and, thus, of consumer culture in general.  White plans of this period also intersected with other urban social issues.  In another challenge to modernist city planning that focused heavily on the new construction of mass housing, the White Housing plan called for the preservation of existing housing stock and allowing anyone in need of a place to live to be able to move into one of the many vacant apartments that were, at that point, being held empty by real estate speculators or land lords who couldn’t afford their maintenance. The plan also contained a jab at the monarchy by prosing that the royal palace be turned into Amsterdam’s city hall.  As improbable as this scheme may have sounded it found traction with a nascent group called the committee against housing shortage and with a growing number of neighborhood groups that were forming to resist displacement of housing to the suburbs to make room for freeways and high-rise commercial projects.   These groups would grow into the squatters movement in Amsterdam that, by the 1970’s, would be a major force in the city and would continue to have a significant impact on urban development in Amsterdam through the end of 1980’s.


White Housing Plan

Other plans such as the White Wife plan that demanded free women’s health care, White Children plan that proposed a system of collective child care, and the White Chicken that called for augmenting or replacing the police, dubbed “blue chickens” in popular slang, with unarmed social services agents who would dispense medical care, contraceptives and fried chicken. These plans sought to propose ways to provide social services and address social problems while countering the homogenizing, stultifying effects and institutional violence of the welfare state. The Provo position on architecture and urbanism did not fit neatly into the architectural discourse of the time.  The Provos loved the density and congestion of Amsterdam’s old center and advocated the preservation of its historical fabric.  However, they were ideologically in total opposition to most of the forces for preservation and traditionalism. Their opposition to automobiles, suburbanization and to functionalist planning brought them into opposition to both state planners seeking to make the city accessible to cars and to the institutional left who was calling for a car for every working class family and the construction of modern, socialized housing.  While possibly arising form a certain romanticism, this opposition was anything but nostalgic or reactionary.  Instead the Provos called for an opening of the city to change, both material and semiotic, and agency for its inhabitants effect this change continuously and collectively.  Their vision was utopian but the Provo utopia was a provisional one, a set of conditions, rater than a specific, material city to be built.

The happenings associated with the launching of each white plan attracted increasingly larger crowds as the summer of 1965 wore on, a situation that was only enhanced by police repression, as in the seizure of the bicycles, and media sensationalism as the papers sought to cast the Provos as a major social crisis.  In the weeks after the white bicycle incident skirmishes between the police and   spectators in Spui Square began to erupt when attempts were made to disperse the crowds.  These quickly escalated to serious fighting resulting in arrests and significant violence, mostly by the police.  Even as de Telegraaf ran breathless headlines delairing that “The Provo’s Are Attacking!”, Van Duyn and a group of the others arranged a meeting with the commander of the police in hopes of diffusing the situation.   The talks, however, seem to have foundered in the face of an insurmountable cultural divide between the young radicals and the police.  Instead the police stationed guards around the statue in Spui square, “like it was made out of diamonds and Dr. No or James Bond wanted to steal it”, in the words of Robert Stolk, and arrested anyone who attempted to stage performances around it.

At the summer’s end the Provo’s shifted much of their activity to another site, the statue of Dutch national hero J.B. (Joanes Benedictus) Van Heutsz the “Pacificator of Aceh” who had solidified the Dutch hold on the East Indies by butting down the Aceh rebellion. Provo resignification here was directed at attempting to recast the colonial hero as a brutal oppressor and tie his image, and Dutch colonialism in general, to the American involvement in Vietnam.   Spui square continued to be the site of more abstract performance art and happenings for the city’s bohemian street culture but the demonstrations at the Van Hetsz monument would pull in much wider range of participants, especially as European opposition to the war increased, enlarge the ranks of the Provo movement and bring them in to contact with other forces.  This would have a dual effect of, on one hand, creating a large mass, relatively non-intellectual, restless youth who called them selves Provos but were mostly out of the control of Provo leadership and, on the other, pushing the movement’s original organizers, especially Van Duyn, to become more responsible political leaders. Provo activity spread from Amsterdam to other cities in Holland and large anti-war demonstrations lead to hundreds of arrests a week through the end of 1965 and beginning of 1966.  Later, in early 1966 the Provo’s, always opposed to the monarchy, gained international a media attention by staging a fake bomb attack on the wedding procession of Princess Bietrix and German count Claus von Amsberg, who carried the taint of having been a Nazi in his youth.  Smoke bomb was set off under the carriage wheels as the couple paraded through Amsterdam after the police had been set on edge by weeks of a “White Rumor” plan in which wild suggestion of possible acts of Provo sabotage were circulated, ranging from the administering of LSD to the police horses, or even the public water supply, to more serious threats of a real bombing.  The police responded very badly, attacking crowd members at random and failing to apprehend any of the actual Provo perpetrators of the attack. Later, the opening of photographs depicting police brutality towards anti-war demonstrators was raided by the police and several people severally beaten.  These events, taking place as they did so prominently in the public eye, served to make the police appear both brutal and inept and actually encouraged public sympathy for the Provos.


Provos deface the Van Heutsz monument

It is during this time that the Provos also seemed to have become involved with the Constant Nieuwenhuijs and, through him, into the awareness of the Situationiat International, from which Constant had resigned at this point.  The Provo rejection of work and of the banality of bourgeoisie consumerism brought them more-or-less in line with Situationsit thinking and their concern with the city, and specificly the possibility of a leudic city without work, made them an ally in Constant.  Issues of Provo had been rolling steadily off the presses and in October of 1965 Provo #4 was entirely given over to Constant and his New Babylon project.  Then in early 1966 Provo #9 focused on the urbanism of Amsterdam and  includes both articles about Constant and Unitary Urbanism and an eleven point manifesto on “New Urbanism” written by Constant himself I which he picks up the Provo’s anti-automobile, anti-displacement position and creates a synthesis with his own ideas about the city.  This operation must not have required too much of a reach on either parties part as Constant was at this point fairly well published and had been connected for some time with Aldo Van Eyck who was becoming something of a pillar of the Amsterdam architectural establishment and the Provo’s, for their part had begun to assume the function of being the voice of a certain new-left, progressive tendency in urban activism that was gaining currency in the city.  The convergence is interesting, however, in the roles assumed by each participant. Constant writes of the Provos as the youth but posits them as the youth of a new society of leisure and a source of energy and creativity. “As soon as there is a surplus of energy available for activities other than work,” he states “recreation becomes pointless and makes way for the possibility of true creativity – the creation of a new way of life, a new environment.  That is the reason that the youth of today no longer turn to hobbies and clubs for relaxation but seek excitement in communal initiatives.”  Constant goes on to identify the urban environment as being a necessary facilitator of these “communal initiatives” or acculturation.  Given the radical newness of the New Babylon project and its emphasis on continual movement and change it might be tempting to imagine that Constant would, as many architects have since, hold up freeways and modernist automobile urbanism as a symbol of freedom and effortless movement.  Instead Constant argues that the automobile has a greater effect on urban space as a large, expensive consumer commodity than as a means of conveyance.

Point four of “New Urbanism” states:

“The social environment of the city is being threatened by a chaotic traffic explosion, which is the result of carrying proprietary right s to ridiculous extremes. The number of parked cars at any given moment far exceeds the number on the move. Use of a car therefore loses its major advantage: rapid transport from one place to another. The storage of private property on public ground – which is what parking is – gobbles up not only space required for the flow of traffic but increasingly larger chunks of living space as well. Efficient use of the automobile can be achieved only by collective utilization of the total number of cars, and this total must be limited to the number actually needed.”


Constant in magazine Provo #4

Constant makes his critique more than a simple efficiency argument by tying it to, and declaring the real stakes of the argument to be, the issue of public space.  With the turning over of the street to automobile traffic “so much of public space is forbidden ground to the pedestrian that he is forced to seek his social contacts either in private areas (houses) or in commercially exploited ones (cafes or rented halls), where he is more or less imprisoned.  In this way the city is loosing its most important function, that of a meeting place.”  He then acknowledges the Provo’s actions by asserting that”It is highly significant that the police try to justify their measures against ‘happenings’ in public thoroughfares by arguing that such manifestations impede traffic.”  Constant assigns the all important task of “culture making” to the supposedly “anti-social” elements that gather in uncontrolled urban space in the absence of repressive planning efforts and supports the Provos in their self-conscious claim to be, or at lest to speak for, these elements.   A full two-page spread in Provo #4 is devoted to a image of two young men and a woman dressed in the style of British “Mods” as was favored by the Provos and climbing around on construction scaffolding.  The image is titled “Provos in New Babylon” as if the Provo’s were part of another one of Constant’s model photographs, standing in for the homo ludens of the future while the scaffolding stands in for the adaptable, reconfigurable structures of the New Babylon project. It’s unclear whether the images is meant to merely suggest that the Provos share Constant’s vision for a new, global city or if they are actually being proposed as being themselves homo ludens; the new people necessary for the building of a new world.  Whichever is the case, it remains clear the Provo’s took upon themselves, and Constant charged them with, the task of making Amsterdam, if not into the New Babylon, then at least more like it.

The opportunity to undertake this project would present itself in the summer of 1966.  In June of that year a man was killed when police moved to break a wild-cat strike by dock workers.  The police tried to claim that he had been killed not by a fellow worker and not by their action.  This only served to incite more strikes and extensive rioting by both workers and elements of the youth counterculture who joined in either out of solidarity or a desire to get in on the action. The bifurcation of the “Provo” brand had suddenly become even more pronounced. Van Duyn assumed a clear leadership role in a political pressure group with its own headquarters and press facilites in which Grootveld became relegated to a role as a symbolic figure to engage the public and more responsible, politically savvy Provos, especially Benard de Vries rose in importance relative to radical, troublemakers like Stolk. Meanwhile, “Provo” had become a blanket term for the burgeoning countercultural street scene in Amsterdam driven as much by a passion for fast-becoming staples of youth, sex, drugs and rock and roll, as by politics and for the most part able to articulate a political concisnouss as any more that a longing for a better life that they had known in the suburbs.   It was these Provos who would fill the streets and swell the ranks of striking workers into running street battles with the police that have come to be called the “Provo Riots”. Unlike the previous scuffles and sporadic violence at demonstrations, the riots of 1966 involved a large scale civil unrest with barricade fighting, hundreds of arrests and massive use of force by the police.  The striking workers attacked the headquarters of their own union which had come to be perceived as bureaucratic and no longer representing their interests, and the youth mobs took over the offices of De Telegraaf.  A mechanized battalion was placed on the ready, marking the first time that the Dutch state would threaten to, or actually use armor to put down the rebellious citizenry of Amsterdam.  The “official” Provos, however, sought to dissociate them selves from the riots. Even as the “street Provos” as they are referred to in Heatwave fought the police to a stand still employing a mixture of Provo trickery and game playing along with the less nuanced use of paving stones and gasoline bombs. The “official Provos” were faced with a serious dilemma. If they encouraged the riots and tried to push them to the towards a revolutionary situation they would have to govern the city, and face the problem of controlling the forces they had set into motion.  Most importantly, if the authorities were to capitulate, the Provo would loose if their all important adversary to push against. They would be forced to answer seriously the question the papers had been asking in alarm since the riots begain “What do the Provos want.”  Instead to call for an end of the violence and owned up to the reformist nature of their project. After order was restored the Provos with the city counsel to discuss the situation and de Vris actually ran and won a seat on the counsel, becoming the Provos representative to the government.  The national government, alarmed by the violence, appointed a commission to investigate the situation that eventually led to the resignation of the Mayor of Amsterdam and the replacement of the chief of police in 1967.  Two years before the situations would face the same dilemma in Paris the Provos had gone from being and anarchist performance art project to being an accepted opposition party and social movement studied, in the self absorbed manner of the Dutch, by social scientists and scholars. This, of course, had to be the end of the movement.


Police officer beating a demonstrator

When Van Duyn and de Vris, having become fairly professional politicians, were bother out of the city on a speaking tour, Stolk and Grootveld staged a fake “palace coup” and declared that the “Revolutionary Terrorist Council” had taken control of Provo. The statue of Van Hetsz was blown up, this time with real explosives instead of the sugar/ nitrate smoke bombs used at the royal wedding procession. Van Duyn fell for the trick and issued a concerned statement on behalf of the Provo leadership, saying that “although they felt sympathy for the cause, they deeply deplored the use of violence.”  Uppon returning to Amsterdam and discovering that the “revolutionary Terrorist[s]” were in fact his old firends Van Duyn seems to have seen the necisity of dissolving the group as well.  What is interesting though is that the forces set into motion by Provo did not stop with the movement’s dissolution. Van Duyn went on to found help found a group, more explicitly a political party this time called the Kabouters or “Hobgoblins”, so named because they sought to represent the denizens of the urban labyrinth. This, in tern, became the basis for the “Orange Free State” which represented an experiment in communal social housing undertaken in vacant buildings in the Newmarket area that had been emptied in anticipation of their demolition to make way for a transit corridor into the center of Amsterdam. This would grow into the beginning’s of the squatters movement that would again call tanks in to the streets of the city when it rose to resist the demolition of the neighborhood.  This resistance would involve another turning back upon itself of the urbianist discourse in that Aldo Van Eyck, and his partner Theo Bos had been selected to over see the master planning of the project and were faced with the having their work fought against by the very people they had, to a certain degree, appealed to for moral authority earlier in their careers.  This conflict however was resolved.  A collection of carefully thought out, progressively minded housing projects was constructed in the areas razed to construct the subway, and demolition was kept to a minimum and the project was finished.  The squatters movement grew and conflicts continued but Amsterdam continued, even thought the lean years of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, to be a vibrant if hotly contested city.


Benard de Vries and his girlfriend meet the Mayor and his wife at an official reception

The Situationsit critique of the Provos was harsh but could bring itself to be entirely dismissive or ignore the movement all together. In fact the Situationsfelt the need to  devote a significant section of “The Poverty of Student Life”  entitled “It is Not Enough For Theory to Seek It’s Realization in Practice: Practice Must Seek Its Theory”, as well as a specifically focused article and a number of, often derisive, references in their writings after 1966.  Aside from the situationist, tendency to degrade anything relating to their own project which they could not control or claim to control and the double portion of this sort of attack that the Provos attracted for their association with Constant, the situationist critique of the Provos seem to be accuse them of being both too intellectual and not intellectual enough and too radical and not radical enough.  The situationists were forced to hold up the mass actions of the Provos as the kind of “spontaneous” expression of the disaffected youth that they sought. “As a spontaneous expression of the revolt appearing in European youth, the Provos usually positioned themselves on the terrain defined by situationist critique (against capitalist abundance, in favour of a fusion of art and everyday life, etc.).” However since they did have leaders, or at leaders other than the situationists, “they fell under the influence of a directorship composed of “philosophers” and suspect artists, they encountered people who were also somewhat acquainted with the SI’s theses. But this dissimulated knowledge was at the same time the simple recuperated falsification of various fragments.”  The writer for the SI appeals to the faceless masses behind the provo leadership writing that “the SI has only ever had contact with the elements of the radical base, which should be distinguished from the official movement; and we have always advocated an urgent split from the latter”.  This claim seems dubious. Unless one considers a one day trip to Amsterdam by Charles Radcliffe immediately after the riots in which he seems to have interviewed anyone he met on the street or at the airport and, self-confessedly besotted with the romance of bohemian Amsterdam, wrote a laudatory article on the provos for Heatwave #1 before toeing a more caustic, official party line in Heatwave #2 there all references to the provos in the SI’s writings seems to come after their dissolution.   More importantly, this accusation of vanguardism, rings a bit hollow coming from a group that seems quite comfortable speaking for the masses, or the workers, or the youth pretty much anywhere in the world while directing most of their activity towards the academy and the intellectual milieu of their own country.  In the light of the situationsits own failure to make good on the situation in 1968 this problem of vanguardism seems especially important and, in fact, a point where the provos did a much better job than the situationists.

The critique of being too radical and, or at least not systematic enough, is levied in “The Poverty of Student Life”.  Khayati writes that:

“To give themselves a base, the leaders have concocted the paltry ideology of the provotariat (a politico-artistic salad knocked up from the leftovers of a feast they had never known). The new provotariat is supposed to oppose the passive and “bourgeois” proletariat, still worshipped in obscure Leftist shrines. Because they despair of the fight for a total change in society, they despair of the only forces which can bring about that change. The proletariat is the motor of capitalist society, and thus its mortal enemy: everything is designed for its suppression (parties; trade union bureaucracies; the police; the colonization of all aspects of everyday life) because it is the only really menacing force. The Proves hardly try to understand any of this; and without a critique of the system of production, they remain its servants. In the end an’ anti-union workers demonstration sparked off the real conflict. The Prove base went back to direct violence, leaving their bewildered leaders to denounce “excesses” and appeal to pacifist sentiments.”

Here, again is the vexing problem of the intellectual left: the “real” proletariat that doesn’t show up or, when it does doesn’t behave as it should or take direction properly.  The provos are criticized for taking upon themselves the role of the “motor” of society and demanding the right to dictate the conditions under which they live rather than working towards a revolution for an oppressed other.  At the time of its writing, and as a totally critique this argument seems like it misses the point of the provo movement and, instead clings to dogmatic Marxism.  However, it works well as an excuse for why the provos had an easier time with their revolution than the situationists did with there’s and a warning to the provo’s descendants today.   As the youth of a relatively homogeneous and, in fact, quite permissive society the value of the provo’s “creativity” could be understood by a public who, on a fundamental level, could identify with them and invest in them their own hope for a better life.  This was also true of the squatters movement through the 1980’s who, however violent and aggressive they may have been, were addressing the problems of housing and urban change.  Today, when the marginal sub-culture’s in a gentrified Amsterdam are, for the most part, foreign the problem of alteriority becomes more acute and the question of who will speak for the “real” underclass reasserts itself.

This leads to the final critique of the provos not being radical enough. The real, practical measures proposed by the white plans, are blatantly reformist and, in fact, often quite simple and many have actually been adopted in one form or another (though without the anti-capitalist aspects) in Amsterdam and else where.   Rather than being important as initiatives for smoking control, or traffic management or more humane law enforcement the provo actions are more valuable in their development of tactics that engage structures of meaning, and the structures of power that depend on them in ways that break them open and allow them to be reconfigured.  It is this that makes the provos more that simply a product of Dutch liberalism that has helped create a beautiful, pleasant, and well run city and makes them an important model for the possibilities of post-structurilalist, and in-fact, post situationist, radical practice.


Provo magazine

Editor responsável por esta publicação graziela kunsch - revista urbânia
Postado no dia .
Postado em Amsterdam, Atlas, Cities, Crítica cultural radical, Modelo de cidade e sociedade, New Babylon com as tags , , , , , , , , , , , .

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