Reporter Elitsa Kaleva engages in a conversation with Ivo Schmetz, one of the founders of OT301, a particular cultural collective reality.
OT301 – the non-profit organization within which public functions, workspaces, and housing are combined all in the name of art, politics and subculture. Back in 1999, a small society of activists and artists was organized, named “First Aid for Art Society” (EHBK), and decided to break into an abandoned city-center property and transform it into a cultural stage. Throughout the years, OT301 encountered many obstacles before the purchase of the building in 2006 (and after). Ivo Schmetz – a person who has closely followed the development of the organization throughout the years from the very beginning, shared his observations and thoughts about it in an interview with The Amsterdammer.
OT301 welcomes art in any of its forms and hosts events and performances supporting various visions and values. The organization has well-outlined house rules which should be followed, however, following these rules to a high extent requires an understanding of what the organization stands for. Do most users and visitors understand and adopt the vision behind OT301?
– “Sure, most people understand and follow the rules by nature.” explains Shmetz, “ I don’t think everyone knows and understands the history and vision of our organization but I guess most people realize as soon as they walk into the building that it isn’t a regular club or restaurant. And just to be clear, our house rules are not very strange. There are things on the list like no weapons, no aggression, no drinks outside, no sexual harassment, and the like. I actually never met anyone that had comments or disagreements about those rules. Of course, some visitors sometimes misbehave after having a couple of too many beers but in general, we don’t have many problems at the OT301. To make sure people understand where they are and where we come from, we painted our vision on the wall in the hallway. It’s kind of big so hopefully, people see it when they come in.”
As I already outlined, OT301 hosts different events and within a short period of time, the place can be perfectly adapted to the type of art it will host in the evening. Which events have been the most remarkable ones? What events have left a permanent trace in your memory and why?
-“That is a very hard question as I am involved in the OT301 since we squatted the building in 1999. So I am around for a little more than 23 years. We had many great parties, concerts, exhibitions, dance performances, etc. Too much and too varied to pick from. What I like best about the OT301 is that we combine housing, working and public spaces. That function dynamic is great and kind of rare in town. Besides that, I really love the fact that we host so many different events. From drawing classes to techno nights, from children’s circus classes to post-punk live bands, from theater classes to vegan food, from modern dance to art exhibitions and so on. There is always something new happening in the building. The fact that we are non-commercial makes it possible to experiment. It’s about passion and internal drive instead of measuring success by our bookkeeping. There is always the possibility to make mistakes or to organize things that aren’t popular with big crowds. Giving a stage to young (or old) talent is so much more inspiring than hosting people that are working with financial motives. Eventwise I really love events that combine various styles, disciplines and arts. I think it’s great to be surprised or blown away by something you didn’t expect. I like it when a night begins with a docu screening or a discussion and then rolls into a night with performances and music.”
The issues you have faced throughout the years in your attempts to keep and maintain the property have been numerous. The diverse and at the same time collective character of the organization leads to the question: On which matters have disagreements and conflicts been provoked
-“Hard to say. We had many disagreements! In the beginning, we sort of had a common enemy: the city government or police, who most often are trying to get squatters out. So the first couple of years we were busy keeping the place and fighting for staying long-term. The first real discussions started when we had to make a choice between getting kicked out or starting to pay a bit of rent. We chose the last option because we really wanted to stay longer but it took quite some discussions to get to that decision, and some people left in that process. The second big thing was buying the building in 2006. That also took many hours of meetings. Going from squatter to renter to owning a building as a collective is quite a change that needs serious discussing. But we managed and I am happy we did because otherwise the OT301 would have been long gone. Besides some of these major discussions, there are always things going on. Most often they start from personal conflicts or money-related things but I guess living in a place like the OT301 is in that way similar to life on the outside. The big difference is that we keep talking to each other, keep working and keep deciding as a collective. It’s an effort and it can be very annoying sometimes but we have to. This is the way the OT301 works and despite the conflicts, it is still a beautiful place that could never have been like this if it wasn’t for the horizontal democratic system we use.”
You have seen some of the changes through which EHBK and OT301 have gone throughout the years. What do you think the future holds for the organization and in what changes are you expecting?
-“In a way, we are pretty safe and stable but there are always things that can go wrong. At the moment we are facing inflation and the energy crisis. They are difficult for most people in the world but also for us. One of our goals is to keep spaces and events in the OT301 affordable. So it can be used and visited by everyone and not just by the happy few that have a lot of money. So the financial part is always an important thing. Besides finances, it is important to keep the public spaces going. I love that the OT301 is open many days of the week with various programs but I also see that sometimes it’s difficult for groups that are running a public space to keep it going. It takes time and a lot of effort to keep programs going and to keep programs interesting and relevant. The thing is that an organization like the OT301 is completely dependent on people. Without people, the place is nothing more than bricks and windows. The people are bringing the programs, the arts and the other activities. The people are the ones holding it all together, the people are maintaining the building. So it’s vital to keep having people that are willing to give it time and do things. Not because it is going to make them lots of money but because they love doing it.”
From 1999 until now, OT301 has hosted innumerable events, performances and exhibitions, transforming its space within a day and adapting to the kind of audience it will attract. Yet its character has not changed – OT301 is created by inspiration and dedication which is what keeps it alive and authentic to this day.
“I really love the fact that we host so many different events. From drawing classes to techno nights, from children’s circus classes to post-punk live bands, from theater classes to vegan food, from modern dance to art exhibitions and so on. There is always something new happening in the building.” – Ivo Schmetz, one of the founders of OT301