Since the beginning in 1999, when a group of people squatted the old film school building at the Overtoom 301 in Amsterdam, autonomy had always been a central issue for the collective. Initially, their practice of autonomy was really squatters’ autonomy: the building had been extracted from the rule of market and state and was in fact an autonomous zone in which only collective, self-made law applied. Obviously, absolute autonomy did not exist for squatters either but there was a very strong feeling of being independent, self-reliant. Autonomy in this sense remains an essential value for OT301.
Today, the central question for OT301 is how to keep this kind of autonomy in terms of collective independence from hierarchy and boss while becoming a more professional or simply ‘better’ organisation. For OT301 this is not at all an easy question. Like may legalised squats in the Netherlands, have felt the ambivalent embrace of creative city policy. They have received a city-sponsored bank loan that allowed the collective to purchase their building. For OT301 this is indeed a mixed blessing. They did not plan on turning into property owners who have to comply with all the tedious rules and regulations that come with it. There is a clearly a feeling of having sold out to the man. However, there is also a strong realism, i.e., a general acceptance of the fact that in order to give OT301 a sustainable future, this was the only valid option. Having built one of the most exciting environments for cultural and artistic production in town also created the responsibility to ensure its survival. Not doing this would have been a crime against the multitude.
The challenge now is to fill the notion of autonomy with new practical meaning. OT301 are doing this by reinventing themselves as an open network revolving around the principle of dissent. This is to say that while searching for a new identity they discovered that they had abolished identity itself. Instead, they accept the existence of dissenting values within the collective. Strictly speaking, OT301 is thus not a collective but a network. Instead of an organisation with an identity based on positive core values, they have constructed a political machine for constructing and connecting new worlds. There are of course negative values such as ‘non-commercial’, ‘non-racist’, or ‘not boring’ but there is no positive core value from which an identity could be constructed.
This is not a problem, it is great (but also exhausting): it forms the basis for the kind of openness that leads OT301 to a timely practice of autonomy. The principle of dissent guards the autonomy – i.e., the autonomy of the different projects. It is in this sense that OT301 belongs to a new form of social composition called the multitude. In political philosophy, the multitude is in fact the non-identitarian figure par excellence. Not only is it different from the people (das Volk) in so far as it does not form ONE governable unit, it is also, strictly speaking, not made up of individual people (from Latin individuum “an indivisible thing”). Rather, the multitude consists of singularities. What this means is very simply that people are not assumed to be fixed in unchangeable entities but that there are more or less open processes as well. What they are (‘identity’) is assumed to be determined not just through their individual ‘essence’ but also through the relationships they entertain with people, situations, objects and so on.
In other words, identity cannot be understood outside its (ever changing) context(s). It is something that is constantly readjusted depending on changing relations. In fact, one might even say that identity is entirely determined by the different modes or instances of relating to the world. At which point identity dissolves in a process of relating. And this is why neither the multitude nor the singularities constituting it can have a proper identity. They are both different dimensions of a process of constant mutual readjustment.
OT301 seems to be a project that tries to really construct a home for the singularities of the multitude to live in. The will to endure struggle where once identity was supposed to be located indeed maximises the degree of everyone’s freedom and autonomy (to change and differ). An important question one might ask in this context then is how such a project can be held together at all if identity, core values and all the rest of it have been replaces by conflict and dissent. The answer to this lies in “a certain atmosphere:” a general willingness among the different groups/members to connect to each other –sometimes despite but more often because of existing differences. Paradoxically, this atmosphere might be one of founding dissent.
OT301 is famous for being a home of subculture. However, it is also a place for political and economic experimentation and invention. This is why we need spaces like OT301. They are essential for the creation of a future society that somebody would actually like to live in.