Interview with Tjebbe van Tijen (English version)

archivist, activist, media artist

We no longer collect the Carrier but the Information

Interview with Tjebbe van Tijen

In Amsterdam, the archives of whoever ventures into the field of politics and culture will sooner or later end up with Tjebbe van Tijen. For many people he is the embodiment of storage mania. How the movements of the sixties stored their data and the consequences thereof for the current image generation are the central questions in this interview. Tjebbe van Tijen was trained as a sculptor and took part in the happenings of the mid-sixties in Milan, Paris and London. Later he was active in squatter and local community groups in Amsterdam, particularly in the Nieuwmarkt area, during the actions against the building of the metro. His cooperation with Jeffrey Shaw, in the field of environments, happenings and expanded cinema, dates back to 1964. They resumed this cooperation in the late eighties, with the project The Imaginary Museum of the Revolution (see Mediamatic 3#4). In 1991, they set up a business under the name Imaginary Museum Projects, specialising in interactive multi-media installations. At the moment they are working together with Milos Vojtechovsky on an installation entitled Orbis Pictus Revised for the ZKM Medienmuseum in Karlsruhe, which will be opened in 1997.

From 1973, Van Tijen worked for the Amsterdam university library, at the Documentation Centre Social Movements which, in 1990, went over to the International Institute for Social History (IISG). It comprises around a hundred archives and collections from persons and organisations, together with a collection of, among other things, 20,000 posters, 4,000 gramophone records, 19,000 pamphlets from Amsterdam, books, magazines and audiovisual material. All this material, varying from underground magazines to punk fanzines, covers the borderland between politics, art and spirituality. Here you will find the archives of Provo, WISE, The Next Five Minutes Tactical Television Conference, Kosmos Meditation Centre and the Paradiso pop temple.

What sort of storage media did movements use in and around the sixties, and what is left of this in the archives?

In the more traditional club life, the secretary took care of the correspondence, the members’ card index, the financial administration and kept notebooks for checking the distribution; many of these have been preserved. Magazines have also survived, but other action-group publications will not be found properly filed in the archives from the moment they were delivered in banana boxes. And there are hardly any posters at all. Any surviving sound tapes were used for taking minutes, not for the radio. Photographic documentation is very rare. Printing of photos was expensive, the possibilities of reproduction were rather limited. From the graphics point of view, a magazine like Provo was not quite what people led you to believe later. People attribute all kinds of qualities to Provo, such as fantastic design. It sounds like a sort of childhood memory, `this enormous tree in the garden at home’. What was really experimental in those days, for instance Ontbijt op bed (Breakfast in bed) from Maastricht, is given less attention. The work of photographers involved in these movements could not be published by their own press facilities. Most of that work gathered dust on the shelves. Well known was a Provo photo exhibition, with a riot breaking out and more photos being taken. Not until the arrival of offset printing did the quality of reproduction improve. Before that there was only lead type or stencil. A primitive intermediate form was the liquid duplicator on an alcohol base, with those blue letters.[1] The aesthetic style was largely determined by the budget. Photos were printed ultra-hard, purely for reasons of economy, because then there was no need for an expensive screen. Later came the photocopy, which originally was a real photographic process. Of course everybody kept newspaper clippings; that was regarded as documentation. Not the action itself, but the report of it made by others is preserved – and that still happens today. People do not seem to be aware of the nature of the source. The reflection of things in the bourgeois press is regarded as documentation on their own movement. But where is the primary source? The registration of the events themselves, that is hard to come by. Someone can write things down – journalists do that. Sometimes there are minutes of meetings, there might be literary impressions, photos and sound recordings, and sometimes a drawing. Film was too expensive. Cineclub showed films, but only later did they produce films themselves. There were hand-wound cameras, from the time of the American army. These films were almost always silent, because the sound had to be recorded separately. It was difficult and expensive to synchronise sound and image. The later advance of the tape recorder meant a breakthrough, but it was mainly used to record the proceedings of meetings. This kind of sound quality was not good enough for radio broadcast.

When did you start your collection?

In 1967 I started a project together with Robert Hartsma, for a `Documentation centre for art, technology and society’. That was when I first began to record my own actions and those of others. We began with an investigation into what people were involved in that kind of thing in The Netherlands. With the arrival of the action groups, the idea of exchanging networks, addresses and magazines, a federative alliance without organisation from above, was also conceived. I called myself `cultural coordinator’ in those days. During that period, when I was collecting material for the Stedelijk Museum, a movement sprung up in the US, England and Germany, for a critical university which distributed educational texts, reprints from magazine articles, on stencil. Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse were not available in book form. Around that same time the first press analyses also appeared, the first individual attempts to do something with the clippings on, for example, Vietnam and the Olympics in Mexico. The Nieuwmarkt (Stop-the-Metro) actions brought about an organised form of information distribution. There was a stencil system so that pamphlets could be redistributed. The more people became involved in this action, the more need there was to fall back on one of the hundreds of pamphlets, something which is now done on the photocopier. Other media were also used, such as pirate radio stations like Sirene and Radio Mokum, a Cineclub film or an answering machine which gave the latest news every day. We developed a love-hate relationship with the established media. Should we steer clear of them altogether and build our own structures, or join them?[2] The time that the sixties were linked with political disillusion is over. Now it’s the flower-power image which comes to the fore. Was it typical of that time, that intermingling of politics and culture? The movements of those days, such as Ban the Bomb, Provo, the Vietnam movement, cannot simply be pigeonholed. The same people were often involved in various groups at the same time. The initial angle of approach could be different, take for instance the anti-nuclear-energy movement, which sprang up in anthroposophic circles and spread through the Kabouter movement. The Diggers, radical anti-capital groups, set up Fantasio, which ended up a quarter of a century later in courses in `spiritual management’ at the Kosmos building. In the summer of 1967, flower power was a short-lived melting pot in which politics and culture seemed to blend together. Provo, the political movement, was disbanded, there were speakers’ corners, love-ins and demonstrations against the war. You saw flowers drawn on Vietnam-movement pamphlets, which was something new and which never returned, and the Young Socialists also replaced their clenched fist with flowers. Then came all those young tourists visiting Amsterdam, sleeping on the Dam and in the Vondelpark, all looking for a paradise that no longer existed. For the media it is now too complex to visualise. People organised alternative kinds of concerts, with films being mixed up together, slide projections and acts, multi-media avant la lettre. Throughout The Netherlands there were Provadya clubs. There were liquid projections, an 8 mm film was running and people were fiddling about on instruments, all at the same time. There were no rules for happenings, everybody could join in, truly interactive events, totally different from the neat performance art at art galleries and museums later. The arrival of the first Sony portapacs meant a breakthrough, because you could immediately play back what you had recorded. Film was a slow process, and moreover, copies were expensive. Before the portapacs, around 1968, this problem was solved by showing rushes. An example of this is the French Film La reprise du travail chez Wonder, a discussion at the entrance of a battery plant at the moment when the workers went back to work after the great strike. Just one take, recorded on one reel of film, unedited. To us, this was a revelation. There had already been experiments with the medium itself, for example, at the Amsterdam Kriterion cinema during the Cinestud festival. In 1966 they showed a film made without a lens and scratched into the soundtrack. We knew about this from the Canadian artist McLaren, who painted directly onto film and went much further than action painting. This developed into expanded cinema. Towards the end of Provo, the happening left the street and moved into what was to be the forerunner of Paradiso, a derelict theatre made available by the city authorities, the Apollo Cinema in the Haarlemmerstraat. There, Remko Scha stretched pieces of string across, while I ironed law books and made a continuous drawing. Not much later, art and politics drew apart again, and ideology took over in the various camps. Maoism had great appeal for many radical Catholics, because of its anti-cultural attitude. This controversy revealed itself in disturbances at established cultural manifestations. At the same time, criticism arose of the fast developing commercialisation of alternative culture, from High in RAI, Flight to Lowland Paradise to the definitive end, the Kralingen pop festival in Rotterdam. From that time on, the discussion became mainly focused on the question of the price of tickets for the great festivals still to come. There were always groups trying to get in for free, and then the fighting starts, which is still happening today.

Who holds the copyrights from the sixties?

For the photos, it’s the photographers, photo archives and press agencies. There is still a lot of material with the makers themselves, and also partly in archives, notably the totally inaccessible broadcasting archives of the NOB (Dutch Broadcasting Facilities Company). I am now working on an inventory of photos from the sixties in The Netherlands. Not as a book, because that would only hold 200 photos, but on videodisc, which can contain tens of thousands of stills. What is important to me is variety. But it is hard to get started. The copyright has become obsolete, which is why they are fighting so hard to hold on to it. They are selling photos of people who have no say in it at all. While thanks to the 1-hour services, the volume of private photography has smoothly increased, the public photo is made impossible by copyrights. Photo agencies often charge as much as Dfl.150 a piece for a photo for documentary use. So it’s just not feasible. It’s a hopelessly schizophrenic situation. You cannot obtain video copies from institutions, but you can tape them free from the TV. It’s a mystery to me why the broadcasting companies do not bring out their programmes on video, at a reasonable price. There are all kinds of property restrictions and falsehoods about the money that programmes could make, so that things stay on the shelves. We are cut off from a large part of our own culture, and we were already used to that from the museums, which show only about five percent of their collections. Curators, and that includes me, are prison guards who occasionally give some of their inmates an airing. We are still living in the 18th century: others are still making choices for us. The makers must be just as schizophrenic; to make a living, they have to defend their own copyright, while they have to undermine the copyright of others to make compilations. In this polity, the economy cannot admit that it is unimportant that one specific person is the maker. After all, throughout the ages, a large part of the products of culture have been compilations and refigurations of earlier expressions. Admittedly, slowly you see a kind of proliferation taking place, a demassification of the media. From a sowing culture (broadcasting) we are moving towards an individual planting culture (narrow casting).

Do you think you can detect growing scepticism among the present movements about the overwhelming storage possibilities?

As it becomes easier and technically better, the number of people who register events is growing so fast that the moment itself evaporates into it, nothing remains of the thing itself. The staging serves the registration. It has to do with the ritualistic motions you have to go through to get into the media. You have to do something strange, come up with a 20-yard loaf of bread, hang from a tower on a lifeline, to get your message on some social evil into the press. Later generations will die of laughter thinking of the way this worked. The information itself is not important, we have to come up with a deviant performance. This ceremony is so deeply rooted that it is also being used when media coverage is not the direct goal. You can compare it to other cultures, where they have special dances to drive out evil. The difference is that we do not see the way we demonstrate, the places where we hang up our signs, our smearing things with paint, as part of our folklore. There were not so many photographers in the sixties. Now everyone carries a camera. I find some activists’ fear of registration irrational and vain, look how important I am. It is practically never a Berufsverbot they are afraid of. Of course, sometimes it’s fear of the registration of unlawful activities. Attacking the people who register you is part of the expression of aggression. Many people unconsciously associate registration with being robbed of their soul, although this varies from culture to culture. So the funny thing is that while the volume of equipment has increased, so have the restrictions. The cheaper the possibilities of registration, the more reason there is for it to disappear. As with other archives, the IISG was rather reluctant to collect material from the sixties and later.

Why do archives still concentrate on the period before World War II?

Cultural storage institutions, such as museums, archives and libraries, are always based on existing categorisations, both thematic and geographical. What they do is to condense historical material according to conventional criteria. When society changes, these categorisations are no longer valid and new phenomena develop which do not fit into the policies, and are therefore not collected. At the university library, I wanted a department which was not tied to disciplines but concentrated on the latest phenomena. In the prosperous seventies and the early eighties I had such a department, but because it did not fit into the traditional UL categorisation, it fell victim to the first round of cutbacks. While all manner of historical departments were maintained, the topical and future-oriented was nipped in the bud. After my collection was passed on to the IISG, the problem arose again. Social history is too broad a term for that institute, and `international’ is rather exaggerated too. Under the pressure of retrenchment, they are confining themselves to what I would call socialist history. Being international is a problem for an institute which is financed on a national level only. Why should the Dutch government pay for preserving videos from Argentina?

In the picture we have of the twentieth century, the sixties represent a crucial phase of change. Do you expect that one day there will be an institute which applies itself specifically to that subject?

All those documents of and on an era, made accessible by lists, card-indexes, computer catalogues, together with material facilities such as tins, files, boxes and cupboards and all kinds of reading equipment, constitute a `time machine’. This is where later generations will produce an interpretation of their past, which in turn will be added to the rising flood of information flowing out into an interminable ocean. The primary information sources from the era itself are always the most important. Retrospective reviews often reveal more about the time in which they are written than about the time they deal with. Most of all it takes detachment, distance, to summarise an era, to recount it, which is after all the essence of history. Usually it’s distance in time, sometimes it’s distance because an outsider has a refreshing outlook on things. Most confusing is the period shortly after what is regarded as an era in itself, the obligatory retrospection, ten years, 25 years later… Everyone seems to be able to write effortlessly, with the minimum of consultation with primary sources, about events they have after all witnessed themselves, or about which a friend tells such amusing stories. So a wave of superficial reviews of the sixties should about now be upon us. Institutes involved in collecting material from the sixties are, for example, the American university libraries, with about ten special collection departments, the BDIC in Nanterre (France), the Biblioteka Feltrinelli in Milan, and Libri Prohibiti in Prague. There are other specialised collections in the fields of pop culture, women’s lib and the peace movements. At the moment there are many small archive and documentation centres. We have recently conducted a study on them and we came to an estimated 5,000 archives of some substance and significance.[3] Already in the early seventies, there were ideas about the desirability of the universal accessibility of information which had a direct link with underground media such as The Whole Earth Catalogue and magazines such as Radical Software. People are storing material on computer networks or parts of them, but without well-defined plans for long-term conservation. The fact that some documents are distributed collectively on the Net still doesn’t mean that they will be collectively retrieved later. This is true of the block print bibles from the late Middle Ages to today’s pulp literature. This is the reason for a new project for a Wide Area Archive & Library (WAAL) at the IISG. Its objective is the permanent preservation of part of the information which is available on the Net and is relevant to social history. The first network to be considered is the Association for Progressive Communication (APC), together with its forerunners dating back to its beginning, in 1984. The chosen storage medium is CD-ROM, but that does not automatically mean that a commercial edition will be brought out. Conservation is more than simply downloading gigabytes of information onto a more durable carrier, it also means finding solutions for the uncovering of hundreds of thousands of messages, so that the fisherman in this ocean of information can also catch something edible in his nets. The existing tools, such as archie, gopher and veronica, cannot cope with such quantities. It is a matter of applying the traditional methods of imparting information to these enormous digital information pools, by means of automatic and semi-automatic methods. Moreover, we will set up an archive of electronic documents on the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, with the intention of publishing it on CD-ROM. It is no longer important by which carrier one generation eventually passes on its information to the next. We no longer collect the carriers, clay tablets, books or floppies, just the information.

  1. See: Jongeren en eigen pers (The young and their own press), iisg Research paper 1992.
  2. Tjebbe van Tijen, `A context for collecting new media’. In: Next Five Minutes Catalogue, iisg Working Paper 21, Amsterdam 1993
  3. catoe project, Cataloguing and Archiving the Other Europe, sequel to Europe Against the Current Database, available from the IISG: Cruquiusweg 31, 1019 AT Amsterdam, tel. +31 20 6685866, fax +31 20 6654181. http://www.iisg.nl