An Interview with Ivo Schmetz of Vrij Beton

Photography by Léon Hendrickx
Interview by Sydney van Nieuwaal

Buying together = owning together. That’s the fundamental of Vrij Beton – a project that aims to liberate real estate from the market and turn it into collective property. How? Well, by buying it. Vrij Beton wants to purchase real estate, to offer permanent spaces for “experiments and projects that do not fit the commercial world as they aren’t profit driven.” Combing living, working, education and public functions under a single roof. Spaces where “art and culture are not necessarily the main focus, but social, political and social activities have a place too. Amsterdam must offer unexpected opportunities to everyone, not just to cultural entrepreneurs on their way to success.” We spoke with Ivo Schmetz, who initiated the project. 

You can read more about Vrij Beton here and make a donation here.

Hi Ivo, thanks a lot for chatting with us. If you have any questions, remarks or critiques – please let us know! First of all, how are you?

I’m good, thanks. It has been a strange year and a half, but luckily it hasn’t stopped Amsterdam Alternative from making and publishing our newspaper and starting new projects. It is great and very motivating to see how an organisation like Amsterdam Alternative, that’s running entirely on volunteers, keeps growing and growing. Even in times when people struggle with various problems.

How’s Vrij Beton doing right now? How was its initial rollout?

At the moment we’re in the middle of the first promo campaign for Vrij Beton. The idea to connect a project of collective ownership to Amsterdam Alternative was born a couple of years ago, but it has taken time to put all our thoughts on paper and discuss them with our members, other experienced people and our readers. With the financial help of Stichting DOEN we have been able to push the idea to the next level: from an idea, to a real project. But, we couldn’t just launch this project without adjusting some legal stuff and our website. We had to make sure that we’re safe to start an ambitious project like this. Most of those things are done, so at this moment we are promoting the project through posters, articles, an online campaign, a themed issue of our newspaper and other media. Hopefully we’ll be able to transmit our enthusiasm to others and get as many people as possible motivated to help out – financially or with their experience and knowledge.

What inspired, led, pushed or pulled you into starting Vrij Beton?

My journey started in 1997 when being part of the group that squatted two empty wings of the OLVG hospital in Amsterdam East. It was a massive squat where we have lived, worked and partied in for almost a year and a half. A fantastic time. After we were evicted from the OLVG the old film academy on the Overtoom was squatted in 1999. This building was named the OT301 and I have been involved from the start. The great thing about the OT301 is that it combines living, working and public functions: a concert space, a cinema, a vegan kitchen and a gallery. We have been able to buy this building, as a collective, in 2006. From that moment I slowly got more and more interested in the concept of collective ownership. To explain quickly: the OT301 is owned by Vereniging EHBK – which is our association. Everybody that has a space in the OT301 is a member of that association. Together we own the building. Together we are responsible for maintaining it, but also for the programming and everything else that happens inside. A collective project without a boss. Sometimes a struggle, but often very inspiring to see what happens when working together. If you as an individual choose to leave the collective you have nothing to sell, nothing is yours and the collective will decide who will take your place. So, the rules of the market don’t apply. Being part of the collective gives much joy, adventures and other value, but it doesn’t create individual financial wealth.

In the last years many initiatives and places like the OT301 have disappeared out of Amsterdam. Pushed out by the ruthless gentrification machine. Squatting is illegal since 2010 and politicians have chosen to be led by the market. The city is losing its edge, its diversity and is transforming into a boring monoculture exclusively for the ones with money. In order to make sure that future generations will get the possibility to experience something that’s a little bit similar to the great adventures that I have experienced in Amsterdam in the last 20 years, I dedicate part of my time to make this Vrij Beton project happen. I know buying buildings as a collective is not exactly the same as squatting them, but it’s an attempt to create free space for activities that do not fit the commercial mainstream.

Vrij Beton aims to liberate real estate from the market and turn it into collective property. What will the usages of these ‘freed’ spaces look like? Who can use it and for what intention?

We aim for places where working, living and public functions can be combined, although this combination isn’t always easy to realise because of all the bureaucratic rules in Amsterdam. Everything depends on wha’s allowed and what we’ll be able to get permits for. Affordable living space is very important, but for Vrij Beton buildings it’s also essential to have public spaces for arts, music, dance, debates and social projects. Through these spaces you can connect to the neighbourhood, to the city, and to others that didn’t get the chance to live or work in the building. Amsterdam has always communicated proudly that it’s a creative city and that it has a rich history of counterculture and different underground scenes. However, if we continue the way we’re doing now, this will all be gone in a couple of years. If you want to keep a city attractive and liveable for young artists, for people that dare to experiment with housing, living and working, and for people that stretch their creativity beyond the borders of safe entrepreneurship, you have to make sure there is space to experiment, and that there are stages for talented, upcoming (inter)national artists to perform. So, hopefully we will succeed to create those spaces.

We don’t know exactly who will be the people that will use the spaces yet. I guess it’s too early to say, as we first have to create some capital to actually buy something. One thing is for sure, I am not doing it for myself. Personally, I don’t need space. But I can’t wait to enter new free spaces with new initiatives. New chances for exciting nightlife and exciting combinations of living and working.

On the website there’s stated that “buying together is owning together”. Vrij Beton emphasises collective ownership. What does that entail to you? Could you tell us some more about that?

At the moment everything and everybody is focussed on individual ownership. Owning a lot, or being rich, is often confused with freedom. We work, work, and work to generate money in order to buy that so-called freedom. Nowadays success is measured by finances. So, a concert, for example, is only called successful when profits were made. Personally I think that’s ridiculous! Not everything is a business. Not everything needs to be financialised. There is so much more than consuming. Places like the OT301, OCCII, Plantage dok and new places like Bajesdorp are non-profit. They’re not focussed on generating money but are busy doing what they love doing and organising affordable events (for everyone), in order to make other people experience great arts, performances, films, food or other things. 

With Vrij Beton we want to buy square meters. We want to free them from the market and turn them into these so-called vrijplaatsen. To make sure that nobody can profit individually, we will use the system of collective ownership. Which is – by the way – possible in a lot of different structures, but most important is to make sure that nobody can sell individually. By working together with a lot of people, we hope to create a collective force that makes it possible to create a system that allows us to buy a new building every couple of years. Independent and permanent, so artists are not used to gentrify areas for rich real estate motherfuckers and multinationals. 

Could you tell us a bit about how you’re gathering means to purchase the real estate? What does the funding process look like?

We are at the beginning now. We have just updated our website and made it possible to make donations for the Vrij Beton project. The first euros have been donated, but there’s a long way to go. Hopefully our campaign is going to help motivate people to donate, but we’re also going to have to talk to the city government and other people with big money or power. The city government is busy developing their ‘vrijplaatsen beleid’. I have no idea if this is going to be something that’ll work, as they will most likely set too many rules and only give out some space on temporary basis. If they really believe in their own promises, they should put some money where their mouth is. But, I’m afraid it’s not going to happen. This is also one of the reasons why we started Vrij Beton; because we don’t believe in waiting for politicians to do something for us. Better take control yourself, organise and get people on board. Together we can do this, I’m sure of it. So, call or text all your friends and family and ask them to help out. Any amount helps, small or big. 

You state that “Vrij Beton is in many ways similar to the ideas of the buildings that emerged from the squatters scene.” In what ways is this?

I hope it will be similar, but it’ll also be different. It can’t be the same, as squatting a building is not the same as buying a building. When you’re squatting, you form a group and just try your luck. You know it’s temporary, but you’ll make the best of it anyway. It’s an adventure with an open end. Vrij Beton would like to create spaces with the same vibe, the same opportunities and make sure the people in the building are responsible for what they’re doing there. Forming a collective, talk about how to do things, create your own organisation structure, work together, laugh together, decide together. These things are important and similar to squatting. On the other hand, we know that ownership also comes with other responsibilities and possibilities. 

In what ways does it differ?

There is many differences, and not every squat is the same. But when you own something, you have to be organised well in order to cope with a wide variety of problems. You have obligations towards each other and most likely a mortgage to pay. Let’s say that a squat is more free, as you don’t have as much responsibilities, but collective ownership has more future as buying the building will make sure that you can stay permanently. So, besides yourself, many others after you will be able to enjoy the building and the possibilities it offers.

I’ve seen you pleading for a ‘squatters obligation’, rather than a prohibition of it. Could you tell our readers a bit more about your motives with regards to that? 

Haha, yes. I wrote that in an article for Amsterdam Alternative. It sounds weird to a lot of people, but I really do believe that living in a squat in your early twenties is good for you. Living in a collective makes you learn to listen to each other. It makes you decide together and organise yourself as a group. Living in a squat makes you creative, as there is often a lack of luxury and money. It also makes you do things yourself as you want to save money. So, you learn to build stuff, to cook, to do some bookkeeping, to organise events or to take care of the communication to neighbours or institutes. Besides all these things, being in a squat gives you time to think, talk and work on things you really love doing. Or. to even start creative processes with your fellow squatters. I’m not sure if this will work the same for everyone. It definitely did for me and somehow I believe that it would be a great time for everyone.

You state that Vrij Beton is not an anti-movement, but a pro-movement. “Pro diversity, pro inclusivity, pro freedom, pro solidarity, pro climate and so on.” How do you practice and protect those values?

I don’t know exactly how you practice and protect. Somehow they seem to come natural with organisations like Amsterdam Alternative or the OT301. I’m not saying that all vrijplaatsen are inclusive and diverse, but I do think that most people in those places are open minded enough to think about new things and to try new things. In our newspaper we often write about these topics, we explore and discuss, because we stand for collective action and radical political debate for the sake of a desirable future for the many, not the few. 

What long-term goals are there on Vrij Betons’ horizon?

The first goal would be to buy, or build, the first building. After that, I think we should continue and try to buy more. I don’t think everything in Amsterdam needs to be a vrijplaats – I like diversity – but it would be great to make sure that at least every part of town has a few great free spaces. 

How can we help Vrij Beton?

You’re already helping by doing this interview. The main aim at this moment is to reach as many people as possible. Tell the story, share the idea. The more people that know about it, the more that help, the more that donate, the better. Sure, it would be cool to find a couple of people who are willing to donate a million or more, but I believe that it’s also possible to create a movement with a lot of people and to reach our goals with a lot of small donations. It’s a matter of perseverance and believing in your ideas. For everyone interested in this project, please go to www.amsterdamalternative.nl and read more about it.

Thanks a lot Ivo!

You can read more about Vrij Beton here and make a donation here.