Interview / Graphic
July 2012
Interview Graphic issue 24
Two or Three Things I Know About Provo / Brno Edition

Graphic (not to be confused with now-defunct UK magazines Graphic and Grafik) is a Korean magazine, published bilingually (EN/KR) from Seoul, edited and designed by Na Kim. Issue 24 of Graphic was titled ‘A Subjective Tour Guide to Amsterdam’, was guest-edited by Nina Stottrup Larsen and Anu Vahtra, and revolved (as the title already indicates) around the theme of Amsterdam. 

For this particular issue, we were interviewed on the topic of ‘Two or Three Things I Know About Provo / Brno Edition’, the exhibition that took place from June 22 to October 28, 2012, at the Moravian Gallery (Brno, Czech Republic), as part of the 25th International Biennial of Graphic Design. More about that exhibition can be read here.  

Below you can find the full text of the interview, in its rough and unedited form. Questions by Na Kim and Nina Stottrup Larsen, answers by us. (The accompanying picture is a ‘flat’ image of a spread from the magazine, designed by Na Kim, taken from the website of Graphic).

graphic24

1a. We get to know about Provo through the exhibition, ‘Two or Three Things I Know About Provo’, in Amsterdam and Brno. And realized that it is such an important movement (even it lasted in short) but it’s not known so well outside of the Netherlands. For those who are not used about Provo movement, can you give us short description of this?

In short, Provo was an Amsterdam anarchist movement that existed for just two years (1965–1967), although its existence resonated for years to come, in the Netherlands and abroad. Through printed matter, conceptual activism and speculative political proposals (the ‘White Plans’), the Provo movement captured the imagination of a generation, and forever shaped the Dutch political and cultural landscape. Part art movement and part political party, Provo was a loose collective, consisting of individuals with very different ambitions: subversive agendas, artistic motives, utopian ideas, concrete plans. Between 1965 and 1967, these motives and agendas briefly overlapped, and created a unique movement. A movement that liquidated itself in 1967, in a self-declared act of ‘auto-provocation’. 

In the exhibitions we staged in Amsterdam (2011) and in Brno (2012), we specifically follow the figure of Rob Stolk (1946–2001), one of the main founders of Provo. Coming from a socialist working class background, Stolk was involved in activism from a very young age. His involvement in Provo forced him to become a printer; since mainstream printing offices refused to handle the subversive and sometimes illegal Provo material, he had no other option than to print these publications himself. Reflecting on this situation, Stolk often quoted American journalist A. J. Liebling: “Freedom of the press is for those who own one”.
After the liquidation of Provo, Rob Stolk remained an important figure in various post-Provo movements, most notably in the early squatters’ scene, and in Aktiegroep Nieuwmarkt (the action committee that successfully protested against the complete demolition of the Amsterdam Nieuwmarkt district and surrounding areas). In 1969, he was involved in the occupation of Het Maagdenhuis (the main building of the University of Amsterdam), operating a printing press from within the occupied building. Throughout the 1970s, he published the historical magazine ‘De Tand des Tijds’ (‘The Ravages of Time’). In the 1980s and 1990s, he became one of the most prolific cultural printers in Amsterdam, until his untimely death in 2001, when he was only 55 years of age.
Our exhibition should be regarded as an incomplete archive, one that is intentionally subjective and biased. Moreover, it represents a view that’s very personal – after all, Marieke Stolk [one of the three members of Experimental Jetset] is Rob Stolk’s oldest daughter. By sketching of portrait of Rob Stolk (as printer, as designer, as activist, as organizer, as publisher), we tried to explore the notion of ‘the printer as auteur’, the relationship between activism and archivism, and the connection between the city and the printing press.

People who want to learn more about the history of Provo should definitely check out Richard Kempton’s ‘Provo: Amsterdam’s Anarchist Revolt’ (published in 2007 by Autonomedia), and ‘Imaazje: De Verbeelding van Provo, 1965–1967’ by Niek Pas (published in 2003 by Wereldbibliotheek).
That latter book (‘Imaazje’) is a fantastic source of information, and very well-written; but unfortunately, it’s out-of-print, and only available in Dutch. It’s a shame really – it really deserves to be translated in English, and reprinted. Foreign publishers, take note!

By the way, the largest archive of Provo-related material can be found at the International Institute of Social History (IISG) in Amsterdam. They have a collection of 6 meters of boxes and files, filled with documents and printed matter, free to consult by the public. For us, it’s good to know that this archive exists, so we don’t feel obligated to represent some sort of ‘objective truth’ in our own exhibition. If people dislike our interpretation of Provo, they can always check the original sources (at the IISG), and reconstruct their own view on Provo.


1b. Can you describe some of the strategies used for protest by the Provo movement? 

In some of the texts surrounding the exhibition, we quoted Baudrillard, from ‘Utopia Deferred’ (Semiotexte, 2006):

“Walls and words, silk-screen posters and hand-printed flyers, were the true revolutionary media in May 1968. The streets where speech started and was exchanged: everything that is an immediate inscription, given and exchanged. Speech and response, moving in the same time and in the same place, reciprocal and antagonistic”.

Obviously, Baudrillard is talking here about the Parisian insurrection of 1968 – while Provo took place much earlier. But still, we think this particular quote could be used perfectly to describe the working methods of Provo as well.
At the heart of Provo is exactly that notion of the streets as a place of immediate “speech and response”. Magazines were sold in the streets, posters were pasted to the walls, performances (‘happenings’) took place on public squares (and around specific statues and monuments), surreal slogans were being chanted (such as a repeated mantra of “ugh, ugh, ugh”), and pamphlets were handed out to unsuspecting bystanders. In the meantime, the (illegal) printing press of Provo had to be moved constantly, from one location to another, because there was always the danger of confiscation. So the printing press itself was on a constant ‘dérive’ through the city, echoing the way the Provos themselves were drifting through the streets of Amsterdam.
So in that sense, we do believe that the story of Provo is mainly one about the symbiotic relationship between the city and the printing press. In fact, we even think that, in the case of Provo, the city itself became a printing press. Through the distribution of magazines and pamphlets, and through the use of site-specific performances (‘happenings’ and ‘situations’), Provo turned the city into a place where ideas were enlarged, multiplied and reproduced. In other words, through Provo, the city revealed itself as a device for reproducing ideas – a metaphorical printing press.

If we had to mention just one illustration of this idea (of ‘the city as a printing press’), we could for example look at the symbolic value of the use of smoke. As a protest against the marriage of Queen Beatrix and Prince Claus, the Provo movement prepared “smoke bombs” (technically speaking, these weren’t not really ‘bombs’, but non-explosive devices to create smoke screens) that were used during the royal wedding procession on March 10, 1966. As the Dutch writer Jan Wolkers already pointed out – these smoke bombs should really be seen as ‘smoke signals’, one of the oldest languages in the world. So in our view, the way in which the Provo movement used the city as a platform to showcase these smoke signals, to stage this archetypical form of communication – to us, this clearly illustrates the idea of the city as a transmitter of language, as a metaphorical printing press.

There exists a well-known photograph made by Cor Jaring in 1966, a picture that shows Rob Stolk preparing smoke bombs, together with Peter Bronkhorst (who was another prominent member of Provo). The image can still be found online.

smokebomb

We think it’s no coincidence that both persons in this photo were actual printers (Rob, on the right, learned himself to print through Provo, while Peter Bronkhorst, on the left, was a trained printer and typographer). We believe that the activity they are engaged in, in this particular photograph, can still be seen as a form of printing – they are preparing smoke signals, constructing devices to reproduce ideas. This is printing it its most urgent, most immediate form.

2. What was the background that you come up with ideas to organize this exhibition in W139 in Amsterdam, and later in Brno? 

The first edition of ‘Two or Three Things I Know About Provo’ took place in Amsterdam, between February 18 and March 13, 2011. But the story actually started much earlier, in December of that previous year, when Tim Voss approached us with some questions about Provo. Around that time, Tim was just appointed as director of Amsterdam exhibition space W139, and being German, he felt obliged to delve a bit into Dutch culture in general, and the history of Amsterdam in particular. As it happens, W139 is an art space with deep roots in the Amsterdam squatters’ scene – and as Tim quickly found out, this squat scene originated for a large part in the Provo movement.

Apparently, one of the staff told Tim about the fact that Marieke is the oldest daughter of Rob Stolk, one of the main founders of the Provo movement. So in the winter of 2010, Tim mailed us if he could drop by at our studio, just to ask us some questions about Provo and related matters. Before we knew it, we agreed to curate and design an exhibition on the subject of Provo, the opening scheduled to take place in February, 2011.

Tim’s agenda, for asking us to stage such an exhibition in W139, cannot be seen apart from the recent political climate in the Netherlands around that time. In a nutshell, between October 2010 and April 2012, the Dutch were governed by a right-wing coalition who seemed determined to dismantle the country’s cultural sector by all means necessary – part of a larger national backlash against everything that was seen as too ‘left-wing’ or ‘elitist’. While disproportionate budget cuts were used as an instrument to tear down the infrastructure of established cultural institutes, repressive laws were introduced as a way to demolish the underlying structure of more subcultural, ‘grass-roots’ initiatives. One of these repressive laws was the ban on squatting, a clear attempt to restrict the fertile role that squatting traditionally has always played within the Dutch cultural landscape.
In our view, Tim’s decision to accommodate, within the walls of W139, a presentation on the history of Provo, should certainly be seen as a clear statement against this current right-wing climate.
Our own motivation (to accept Tim’s invitation) was somewhat more complicated. We were actually quite reluctant to do something on the subject of Provo. Since the father of Marieke plays such an important role in the story of Provo, we always thought of the subject as being somehow too emotional, and certainly too personal. Added to that, Rob Stolk was actually one of the driving forces behind the liquidation of Provo – and after the shutdown, he never looked back. So why should we be the ones looking back?

One of the reasons why we decided to accept Tim’s invitation was simply the fact that we thought Tim’s agenda, to re-invoke the spirit of resistance in Amsterdam, was a very important one. The other reason was of a much more sentimental nature: in the period that the exhibition would take place, Rob would have celebrated his 65th birthday – while the same period also marked the 10th anniversary of Rob’s untimely death in 2001. And thus, we decided to turn this exhibition in a homage to Rob – and to transform our personal and emotional attachment to the subject into a positive rather than a negative factor.

So these were, in short, some of the the reasons why we decided to accept Tim’s invitation, to curate and design an exhibition on Provo in Amsterdam. But why did we decide to bring this exhibition to Brno, one year later? Good question.
In fact, when Radim Pesko and Tomas Celizna approached us (and asked us whether we wanted to curate an exhibition as part of the 25th International Biennial of Graphic Design in Brno), a reprise of the Provo project certainly wasn’t the first thing on our mind. After all, would a subject such as Provo actually work outside the context of Amsterdam, and within the context of a graphic design biennial?

After some thinking, we came to the conclusion that it could work, potentially. A big inspiration was the large Tropicalia exhibition that took place six years ago, at the Barbican in London. We visited that show in April of 2006, and the subject immediately grabbed us, resulting in a lasting ‘Tropicalist’ influence on our work.
So we were thinking: if an exhibition on Tropicalia, a Brazilian movement from the ’60s, could have had such an enormous impact on Europeans like us – then why couldn’t Provo have a similar impact on people outside of Amsterdam? Obviously, our Provo project is of a completely different scale than that Tropicalia exhibition was – but the point we are trying to make is that we certainly think that it could be worthwhile and valuable to take these movements out of their original contexts, and exhibit them in unexpected situations. An exhibition on the subject of an Amsterdam anarchist movement from the ’60s, taking place in 2012, during a graphic design biennial in Brno – we think it are exactly these unforeseen connections in time and space that can lead to really interesting results.

It were considerations like these that made us decide to revisit the exhibition we originally created for W139, and to present a new edition during the 25th International Biennial of Graphic Design in Brno. However, this new Brno edition is an ‘extended’ version, including loads of extra texts and translations, an additional presentation of original material, and a small catalogue. And as a sort of ‘appendix’ to the project, freelance curator/editor Femke Dekker (working under the moniker My Little Underground) undertook a short research project on Provo activity in Czechoslovakia during the ’60s, the results of which have been included in the exhibition as well.

3. We had impression that W139 exhibition was more connected with the core atmosphere of Provo – small version, low-fi printed & limited edition of catalogue, free vive of installation- maybe since it happened in local? And Brno exhibition is excellent guideline version for outsiders – well-made installations, specified descriptions and total connection with previous show. And what is the main focus to make differences in those two exhibitions? 

Well, your observation is correct. As we already explained, W139 (the art space in which the first edition of ‘Two or Three Things’ took place, in 2011) started out as a squat, in the ’80s. Also, W139 is actually situated very near the Nieuwmarkt, the area that played such an important role in much of Rob Stolk’s post-Provo activities.
For reasons like these, the Provo- and post-Provo material immediately ‘fitted’ in the space, the moment we installed it in W139. You could immediately feel that the material was firmly ‘rooted’ in its historical and material surroundings.

Obviously, the Provo material is much less rooted in the historical and material surroundings of the Moravian Gallery in Brno. So in order to create some sense of history and materiality, we decided to add, to the exhibition, a large collection of original artifacts (in W139, we didn’t show original artifacts, only prints of photographed artifacts). Since these original artifacts are quite valuable (both historically and and emotionally), the use of this material automatically means that you have to work with frames and vitrines (glass showcases); devices that immediately transform the exhibition into a much more institutionalized, ‘white cube’-like environment.
But we were actually quite happy with that transformation. From the start, it has been our intention to present the Provo- and post-Provo material in a new context, and to look at it with fresh eyes. To exhibit this material in an institutionalized, ‘white box’ context means that it now becomes part of a completely new discourse – in this specific case, the discourse of contemporary graphic design. And this was exactly our goal.
Sure, you could show the Provo material in a squat, or in a political center, and it would fit there perfectly – almost too perfectly. But the story of Provo is already quite well-known in circles of activists and anarchists. We thought it would be much more of a challenge to show this material to graphic designers and art students – people who might have never heard of Provo, and who would judge the material not only for its historical value, but also for its aesthetic and conceptual merits.

But other than that, the ‘core’ of both exhibitions (the Amsterdam edition from 2011, and the Brno edition from 2012) is very much the same. The main part of both exhibitions is a series of 26 groups of prints, showing photographed Provo- and post-Provo material, organized according to 26 themes. These 26 groups are mounted to the walls like ‘clusters’, categorized in alphabetical order (A to Z). In Amsterdam, as well as in Brno, we used duct tape to attach the prints to the walls – the colour of the tape referring to specific periods in time (black tape for the period between 1965 and 1967, red tape for the period between 1967 and 1976, blue tape for the period between 1976 and 1983, and yellow tape for the editorial layer). This was the case in Amsterdam as well as in Brno.

So the exhibition in Brno consisted of the same 26 groups as we showed in Amsterdam. The only difference is that, for the Brno context, we added a large selection of original material (which we exhibited in the first hall, almost as a separate exhibition, but also in vitrines spread throughout the other spaces). We also included a completely new part (an ‘appendix’ on the relationship between Prague and Provo, curated by Femke Dekker), and we treated the text in a slightly different manner (in Amsterdam, we added the captions as separate leaflets, while for the Brno edition, we integrated the captions into the 26 groups, as ‘dazibao’-like posters). Also, the video program which we compiled for the Amsterdam edition, and which we showed in W139 during a one-night film festival, was for Brno included in the exhibition, as a permanent feature.
But other than that, both exhibitions were actually quite similar. So if your impression is indeed that both exhibitions were completely different from each other (as you suggest in your question), then it must be the difference in context that created this difference. Which is quite an interesting outcome in itself.

4. As we know, Marieke is personally very connected with the Provo roots and in one of the text said, that might have made it difficult to talk about Provo. But in the other way around, personal engagement brings more detail and authenticity. What was your position about it? And how was your personal feeling during this process?

Well, it’s actually quite funny, when you think about it. As teachers (at the Rietveld Academy), we have always taught our students that personal engagement is not necessarily something that would automatically lead to better design. As an example, we often mentioned Reid Miles, who designed some very iconic jazz record covers, while he actually disliked jazz. Or we mentioned Heinz Edelman, who designed the characters in the Yellow Submarine movie, while he actually hated The Beatles. So our message was always that it was critical distance, rather than personal engagement, that would lead to interesting design.
So there is certainly something ironic about the fact that we are now involved in a project that is almost completely driven by personal engagement – a project about Marieke’s father, a close family member, somebody who has been very close to us, and who still means a lot to us – not only to Marieke, but also to Erwin and Danny.
So how did that happen? How did we suddenly get involved in something so deeply emotional? We don’t fully understand it ourselves, actually. 

The truth is, obviously, that things aren’t always so black and white. A good project is often the result of both forces: personal engagement and critical distance. You have to be simultaneously pushed and pulled, towards and away from the subject. Only when you feel really torn, between distancing yourself and getting closer to the subject – only then things are starting to get interesting. In that sense, it’s not so different from a love/hate relationship. You just have to operate between forces that are pushing you away, and forces that are pulling you back. It’s emotionally completely draining, but there is no other way, we guess.

5. From some other interviews in this issue, we are trying to materialize the recent changes in economical and political situation in Amsterdam (and the Netherlands). We can imagine something that you know about Provo and past movement in this city can give us some clue on this. What do you think about this? 

We assume you are talking about the recent ‘budget cuts’ (the way in which the Dutch government has currently been ‘cutting’ the national budgets of art and culture, as part of a new right-wing, neo-liberal backlash against anything that is seen as being too ‘left-wing’ and ‘elitist’). But before we can even attempt to formulate a possible ‘Provotarian’ perspective on these recent budget cuts, we would first like to present our own views on the current situation.

We have the feeling that many foreigners believe that the ‘Dutch design mentality’ (the specific role that design plays, and has always played, within Dutch society) is somehow a result of a wealthy Dutch infrastructure of subsidies and grants, spent generously on art and design. This is actually NOT the case at all. Apart from the fact that only a very tiny amount of Dutch subsidies are being spent on art and culture (in comparison to the amount of subsidies spent on agriculture or the military, for example), one should also take into account that the Dutch design tradition is much older than the tradition of subsidies.
When you think of the long history of Dutch printing (as symbolized in the mythical figure of Laurens Janszoon Coster), Deltware ceramics, civic engineering, shipbuilding, cartography, Dutch landscape- and portrait-painting, etc. etc. – then it becomes very clear that the Dutch design mentality predates the Dutch subsidy system by centuries. So the key to understanding Dutch culture is to realize that is wasn’t the subsidy system that created the Dutch design mentality, but that it was the Dutch design mentality that created the subsidy system.

So, if the Dutch design mentality didn’t evolve from the Dutch subsidy system, then where did it evolve from instead?
We know that the following explanation might sound like a very big cliché, but we actually think there’s some truth in it. As various writers have suggested (such as Aaron Betsky in ‘False Flat’, published by Phaidon in 2004), it is safe to say that the Dutch mentality towards design has everything to do with water, or better said, the struggle against water. The fact that the Dutch created a large part of the Netherlands themselves (by emptying the land from water) is something that made the Dutch extremely aware of this whole notion of the "human-made environment” – which explains this whole Dutch attitude towards design. In the Dutch cultural psyche, there exists the constant awareness of the fact that our surroundings are not shaped by natural forces, but by cultural forces – and this realization continues to play an important role, not only in design, but also in politics.
It was actually this whole process of emptying the land from water ("poldering”) that created the first Dutch democratic bodies (regional water authorities, known as "waterschappen”), which directly led to the Netherlands being one of the oldest republics in the world (before we surrendered to the kitsch of royalty, and imported a monarchy to govern us – which is a real shame, obviously). 

This whole notion of emptying things from water, and making them dry  (“droog”), continues to play an important role in Dutch design (just think of the name 'Droog Design’). It might even explain the Dutch tolerance towards soft drugs (the word “drugs” coming from “drogen”, “to dry”, the drying of weeds and spices) – but that’s a different story altogether.
This idea, of design (and politics) being born out of a resistance against water, also plays a fascinating role within Provo. It is interesting to note that one of the first public manifestations of Robert Jasper Grootveld (the artist who would later play such an important role within Provo) was a ‘happening’ that took place in 1955, when he floated on a raft in the Amsterdam canals, as if he was shipwrecked. And this whole idea of floating, as a resistance against water, continued to play a key role in Grootveld’s work, up until the ’80s and ’90s.
Elsewhere in Provo, the theme of floating can be found as well. At a certain moment in time, the headquarters of Provo were situated on a houseboat in the canals, and there were even plans to put the printing press on this boat, in order to create an actual floating printing press. And as we will see later in this interview, the Amsterdam canals also show up in the sign that the Provos used as their ‘logo’ – the so-called ‘Gnot Apple’.

However, to return to our own view on the situation – we are aggressively opposed against ‘budget cuts’, as we do believe that it is the duty of a government to support ‘unpopular’ art and design. Dutch society, with its subsidies and grants, is the direct result of the Dutch design mentality – and that is exactly why we feel it is important to defend this whole system of grants and subsidies.
So while we don’t believe that the recent budget cuts will signal the end of the Dutch design tradition (politicians did not create the Dutch design mentality, so they also won’t destroy it), we do believe that this system of grants and subsidies should be defended, mainly because it is such a clear manifestation of the idea of a society governed by design (by which we mean, a society governed by conceptual, artistic and aesthetic principles). In a global landscape dominated by the rules of the free market, the Dutch system of grants and subsidies at least hints at the possibility of an ‘other’ form of organizing a society. However small, it has the potential of offering some sort of ‘alternative’. To us, that is reason enough to defend these subsidies and grants, and to be militantly opposed against the recent budget cuts.

By the way – when we talk about the “Dutch design mentality”, we are certainly NOT talking about some sort of biological function. Obviously, we don't think there is some sort of Dutch design ‘gene’ or something like that. We see this ‘design mentality’ purely as a cultural phenomenon – a set of convictions and beliefs that is being transmitted through education and through the built environment, in other words, through design itself.

Don’t get us wrong, we’re not betraying our Marxist foundations here. By saying that the Dutch design attitude came before the Dutch subsidy system, we are NOT saying that ‘spirit’ is more important than ‘matter’ or something like that. We’re just saying that the subsidy system isn’t the real material base here – but that there is another, more material base underneath: the concrete, physical environment of the Netherlands. 
To speak with Engels (in ‘Socialism: Utopian and Scientific’, 1880): “The economic structure of society always furnishes the real basis” – and in our view, the real material basis of the Netherlands can be found in its historical (and geographical) struggle against water.     

(It’s funny that, in the above paragraphs, we mention the word ‘Dutch design’ so often, as it is actually a phrase that we really dislike. This whole notion of “Dutch Design”, as some sort of national brand, totally disgusts us.
But right now, we think it’s really important to explain exactly why we don’t believe that this whole Dutch design mentality has been created by subsidies and grants – and to explain that, we had no other choice than to use this terrible phrase, ‘Dutch design’. But we usually really avoid that combination of words – we hate the sound of it).

As for the Provo perspective on all of this – to be honest, it is impossible for us to ‘second-guess’ the opinions that Provo would have had on current issues. First of all, Provo itself consisted of a group of people with very different (and sometimes opposing) views. Secondly, it is hard to predict the way in which Provo would formulate their ideas on contemporary issues, such as budget cuts. Their ways of thinking were quite ‘contrarian’ – they would often look at a certain issue from a completely unexpected angle (and you shouldn’t forget that the name ‘Provo’ comes from the word ‘provoking’ – their opinions were often intended to provoke).
Added to that, they would sometimes wrap their opinions in words that would mean the complete opposite of their actual opinions. So in general, it’s impossible to turn Provo into some sort of formula or model. If Provo learns us anything, it’s to think for ourselves – we know, this sounds like another horrible cliché, but it’s true.

It seems very logical to assume that Provo, because they were anarchists, would reject the concept of government involvement (including subsidies and grants), but it’s not as simple as that. We all know that the Provo group actually decided to be elected into the city council – and the reason for that is simply because they believed that, through the city council, they could realize their “White Plans”. So even though they were classical anarchists, they still believed that the city council (and thus the government) could be a helpful, practical tool, an instrument to inject some creativity and subversion into everyday life. So personally, we don’t necessarily think that the Provo movement would be automatically opposed to the idea of subsidies and grants for art and culture. But as we already wrote, it’s simply impossible to predict what Provo would have thought of today’s issues – so maybe we just shouldn’t be guessing.

6. From one of your texts, you empathized the strong connection with city and printing press in Provo movement. Can you talk some more about this? We specially underline this part and believe that there must be specified underlying fact on it. How and why does it possible in Amsterdam? 

The connection between the printing press and the city, as it manifested itself within the Provo movement (and the various post-Provo movements), is one of the main themes of our exhibition. In our view, the printing press coloured the city, and the city coloured the printing press. When you walk through the exhibition, and look at all the printed matter, you can really follow the path of Provo through the city. You can also follow the development in printing techniques: from mimeography (‘stencilling’), to screenprinting, to offset-printing. Every area in Amsterdam marks a different period in the lifetime of Provo, and every location marks a different technique as well. 
So we think it’s quite fitting that the ‘Gnot Apple’, the sign that has become the symbol of Provo, actually refers to the city of Amsterdam. This symbol was actually conceived around 1962 by pre-Provo pioneers Bart Hughes and Robert Jasper Grootveld, when they were looking for a sign to symbolize the concept of Amsterdam as “Magies Sentrum” (“Magikal Centre”). From the moment the Provo movement started to use the symbol, it more and more became the ‘graphic identity’ of Provo.
The ‘apple’ is actually designed as a very concise map of Amsterdam: the circle symbolizes the system of canals, the ‘stem’ symbolizes the Amstel river, and the dot symbolizes Het Spui (the square where most of the happenings took place). We think it’s the perfect analogy of the relationship between Provo and Amsterdam: in the same way Provo became part of the identity of the city, the city became part of the (graphic) identity of Provo.

Now, to answer the second part of the question – the physical lay-out of Amsterdam, with its narrow roads and spiraling canals, made it a perfect platform for the specific actions of Provo. The spiderweb-like infrastructure of streets and public squares made it possible to create highly visible happenings and situations, while the hidden alleyways made it possible to escape from the police whenever needed. It also enabled Provo to keep their printing press moving, from location to location, always on the run from the authorities who wanted to confiscate the press. 

And then there are the canals. As we already explained in a previous answer, we personally believe that the Dutch have a specific relationship with water – in short, water has to be resisted (this resistance against water also played an important role in the work of Robert Jasper Grootveld). And canals are actually human-made vessels of water – they perfectly symbolize the Dutch urge to manipulate nature, to change reality. So the fact that the sign of Provo, the ‘apple’, actually refers to this system of canals – it makes perfect sense.

This whole idea, of Amsterdam as “Magies Sentrum”, is quite interesting as well. The specific, gramatically-incorrect way of writing “Magies” (while “Magisch” would have been the correct Dutch word) brings to mind the way in which the English occultist Aleister Crowley (1875–1947) would write the word “Magick” (instead of “Magic”). According to Crowley, ‘Magick’ is the “the Science and Art of causing change to occur in conformity with will”, which is a really good way to define both the practices of design and activism, when you think of it. And a canal perfectly symbolizes this whole concept, of “changing reality according to will”. So our own personal hypothesis is that the Amsterdam system of canals functions as a continuous reminder of the fact that it is possible to manipulate reality, and to change the status quo, according to your own will. A perfect symbolical (and ‘magickal’) engine for art, design and activism. But again, this is just a personal hypothesis (and a very crazy one as well, we do realize that).

Come to think of it, it’s no coincidence that populist right-wing parties, when they are trying to conjure up this image of a “left-wing elite”, are often talking about “de grachtengordel” (which can be roughly translated as “the Amsterdam canal clique”). It shows that the system of canals still has a critical potential; that it can still upset people. The canals have always been, and will always be, vessels of creativity and subversion.

7. Can we think of the Provo movement in relation to the current Occupy Movement or even Anonymous? What do you think a contemporary Provo movement could be? 

It’s interesting – when we prepared the first Provo exhibition, the whole Occupy movement hadn’t kicked off yet (Occupy Wall Street started on September 17, 2011, while the Provo exhibition took place much earlier that year), but there were certainly already a lot of things in the air that could easily be connected with Provo: Wikileaks, the so-called “Arab Spring”, the Ukrainian ‘Femen’ group, etc. 
However, we made a conscious decision not to mention these contemporary events and movements in the exhibition. We didn’t want to offer any clear-cut solutions to the visitors. We wanted to keep the exhibition as ‘anachronistic’ and unresolved as possible, in order to force the visitors to build their own bridges between Provo and the present. We felt that, if we would have pointed out possible relations and similarities between Provo and current movements, we would have already solved it for the visitors, and we didn’t want to do that. In order to keep the visitors active, we tried to present just a big, raw chunk of history; and let the visitors work with that, for themselves. 
And in fact, we still believe that. That’s why we are still reluctant to give our thoughts about the possibility of contemporary successors to Provo. Because we really feel that, the very moment we would give some concrete examples (even if we did so in this interview), we would diminish the anachronistic, unresolved power of the exhibition. We hope you understand that.   

However, we guess we could quickly talk about some of the similarities between the movement that you mentioned, and Provo. Just to show that we do have thoughts about it.

To start with the Occupy movement – in our view, the most obvious similarity between Occupy and Provo is the symbolic use of space. The Provos organized their happenings around public statues (Het Lieverdje, De Dokwerker, the Domela Nieuwenhuis statue, the Van Heutsz monument, etc.), and these statues had very specific symbolic meanings to Provo. Each statue stood for a certain archetype within the bigger narrative of Provo.
With the Occupy movement, you can see a similar symbolic use of space. Most locations that were occupied (Wall Street in NYC, the Beursplein in Amsterdam, etc.) have a specific metaphorical meaning – these places are connected to capitalism in allegorical, rather than in an actual, way.
We certainly think this symbolic use of space is quite interesting. As Walter Benjamin already noted (in ‘The Arcades Project’), “through its street names, the city is a linguistic cosmos” – and we like the idea that both Provo and Occupy hinted at the possibility of the city as such a linguistic, symbolic cosmos. By using the city in a symbolic manner, these movements demonstrated something that is actually very concrete: the idea of the city as a system to transmit ideas, the city as an actual language in itself (or, as we proposed earlier, the city as a sort of metaphorical printing press).

As for possible similarities between Provo and Anonymous:
What is interesting about the Provos is the way in which they ‘politicized’ youth culture. “Provo” was actually a word that was coined in the early ’60s by a Dutch psychologist named Wouter Buikhuisen, who used it to describe apolitical, ‘unruly’ youth: vandals, nihilist youngsters, rockers, ‘nozems’, ‘teddy boys’, juvenile delinquents, etc. It was Roel van Duijn, one of the main founders of Provo, who ‘hijacked’ this word, and built a left-wing ideology around it: the notion of the ‘Provotariat’, a new proletariat of unsatisfied teenagers and potential revolutionaries. This would become the way in which the Provo movement used the word.
In the whole Anonymous subculture, you can see something quite similar. Members of Anonymous really did manage to politicize the notion of the ‘hacker’. Whereas, in the beginning, hackers were mostly seen as criminal teenagers, apolitical nihilists, vandals, cyber-gangsters, etc., it were groups such as Anonymous who politicized the notion of the hacker, and turned the figure of the hacker into a potential revolutionary activist.   
So in that sense, we do see a similarity between Provo and Anonymous – both have successfully politicized subcultures that were initially regarded as apolitical.

8. As designers, what do you take with you from this research into the Provo movement? Does it change your own practice?

Our intense (and ongoing) involvement with the subject of Provo (and post-Provo) has certainly deepened our awareness of the relationship between the printing press and the built environment. More and more, we realize that the actual tradition of printing is in itself a very political tradition. And since the practice of graphic design is intrinsically connected to the practice of printing, we feel very humbled (and proud at the same time) to be part of such an important tradition.
We also learned a lot about the symbiotic relationship between archivism and activism. Through our research, we came across numerous examples of archives inspired by activism, and activism inspired by archives. This whole notion (of activism as a form of archiving, and archiving as a form of activism) is certainly something that will influence our future interpretation of the practice of graphic design.
In other words, Provo did change our practice, and we have the feeling it will continue to do so.


Experimental Jetset, July 30, 2012.

 

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