Sterilizing the City


In explaining people’s apathy in Northern European countries, many make the argument of how the ‘objective conditions’ are not ripe yet for massive protests, how things are simply not bad enough at the moment. This is bullshit. In the past there have been massive uprisings while things were objectively getting better. ’68 happened in a time of annual wage increases of 5-8% with new consumer goods that became affordable for the masses. Looking at the Netherlands, the ‘objective conditions’ are worse than in the ’80s. It has the most flexibilized labour market of continental Europe and unemployment rates are almost as bad as the worst in the ’80s. Besides that, being unemployed nowadays is a lot worse than in the past (getting benefits is a lot harder) and back then young people could decide to study an extra couple of years without being indebted for the rest of their lives.

But people have to know it. The average person doesn’t ‘feel’ the unemployment rate and the most flexibilized labour market. It has to be told. And it has to be told that it is really fucked up and that action has to be taken. Otherwise the average person will blame himself for being un(der)employed or will simply think of their part-time contract as normal. They will deal with their frustration individually rather than collectively. And that is exactly the problem currently. People turn to medication and self-help books rather than setting up action-committees.

There are many reasons for this individualization of collective problems. A major problem is that people simply are not being told. And when trade unions and leftist parties fail in producing a counter-hegemonic discourse of how fucked up things are and how things can be different through action, then it is up to the extra-parliamentary leftists to fulfill that task. And for a marginalized small group of people that is not backed by money or powerful connections, the easiest way to get your message across to a wider audience is by putting up posters and graffiti on the streets. But this is exactly something that is more and more repressed in many modern developed nations.


If you look at nations where social movements are strong, it almost always coincides with a lot of political street art; posters and stickers being put on everything and political slogans spraypainted on walls. The May ’68 uprising was preceded with the situationists painting their surreal and radical slogans on walls in central Paris. Since the uprising of January 2011 against the Mubarak regime, political street art has been flourishing in Egypt (before it visual expression in public space was very much monopolized by the regime). In Athens there is a history of political struggle due to the uprising against the military junta in the 70s. In December 2008, before the effects of the crisis on Greece were clear, the city was hit by some of the most severe student protests in European history. Would there have been such a massive uprising of students if the campuses of the Polytechnic University in the Excharchia neighborhood would have been as clean and sterile, filled with security cameras and security guards at the entrance, as the University of Amsterdam?

Alessio Lunghi writes of how Athens was already filled with political graffiti when he first visited in 2003 and compares it with the situation in London:

“I wouldn’t have been surprised if the same graffiti I saw ten years prior had been left intact; what, after all would have been the purpose of removing it? To cleanse an idea? To sterilise the capacity for such sentiments to be given a platform? It reminded me when some friends in Camden, North London, decided to graffiti a newly opened Gap and Starbucks – both of which were some of the first high street brands to open in what had been a non-homogenous, bohemian and distinct part of the city. After spraying slogans on windows, walls and part of the bridges crossing over the canal, the morning quickly came, ready for the tens of thousands of tourists to descend on the area. I had gone back out, in the hope of taking some pictures of our fine work only to discover that all of it had been washed off: the windows spotlessly clean, the bridge by Camden Lock even repainted with the correct paint colour. What we had hoped to achieve, a disruption of sterility, was swiftly dealt with. What Camden council did in two hours, the Athenian municipality failed to do in ten years. And this form of innocuous policing of space continues: Everyday that I walk through Camden to work, a new semi-political (we are of course post-political aren’t we?) slogan appears in front of the job centre on a small white wall. Every following day, the wall is repainted, every following day a new slogan appears, then repainted, and so on: both parties seem reluctant to concede.”

It is the same in Amsterdam. Some of my friends here told me how quickly political graffiti is removed from the walls. They have several stories of how they spraypainted a political slogan on a wall that is filled with the usual graffiti tags, and then, within days the slogan is white-painted away while the surrounding tags are left intact. Tags are probably deemed an annoying nuisance with which the municipality just has to live, while all signs of serious dissent really have to be removed. Are they merely angry with the vandal that dares to speak his mind in public space or do they quickly remove all signs of dissent in order to prevent them from becoming a threat? You wonder how conscious the municipality and its civil servants are of what they do.

Amsterdam, winter 1944-1945 (verzet! means resist!)

Amsterdam, winter 1944-1945 (verzet! means resist!)

Meaningful forms of collectivity are prevented from emerging as the extra-parliamentary Left is unable to express dissent in public space. When the city is kept sterile and hygienic, with all political dissent quickly covered up, then all anger is kept individualistic.  Perhaps the most extreme example of a sterile city is Singapore. It even has a ban on chewing gum because of the littering it leads to. Graffiti will lead to a jail sentence and possibly caning. The city is also filled with frustrated overworked people, living in a strong conformity-culture. But as there is almost no space for dissent, frustration is bound to remain isolated and individualized. It is no wonder that the population is so famously ‘tolerant’ of their dictatorship. It is made impossible for dissatisfied individuals to actually connect with other individuals, and nonconformity remains rare.

With a city like Amsterdam being kept increasingly clean and sterile, it is no wonder that despite 5 years of crisis it is still hard to break through the post-political condition here. But it’s not just politicizing a wider audience, it’s also about making people feel less hopeless, less alone. Public space becomes increasingly uniform; everywhere it is the same franchises, everywhere there is advertising. For many, perhaps not a majority, it is extremely depressing. A bit of vandalism is then also very much about letting people know they are not alone.

“People are taking the piss out of you everyday. They butt into your life, take a cheap shot at you and then disappear. They leer at you from tall buildings and make you feel small. They make flippant comments from buses that imply you’re not sexy enough and that all the fun is happening somewhere else. They are on TV making your girlfriend feel inadequate. They have access to the most sophisticated technology the world has ever seen and they bully you with it. They are The Advertisers and they are laughing at you. You, however, are forbidden to touch them. Trademarks, intellectual property rights and copyright law mean advertisers can say what they like wherever they like with total impunity. Fuck that. Any advert in a public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours. It’s yours to take, re-arrange and re-use. You can do whatever you like with it. Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head. You owe the companies nothing. Less than nothing, you especially don’t owe them any courtesy. They owe you. They have re-arranged the world to put themselves in front of you. They never asked for your permission, don’t even start asking for theirs.” – Banksy

A short video called KAPITAAL originally shows us the enormous amount of stimuli that we are harassed by every day.


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