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Amsterdam, the Magic Center Art and counterculture 1967-1970

7 Jul 2018 until 6 Jan 2019

Mini story — 3 Jul 2018 — Suzanna Héman

The Insektensekte (cult of insects) was one of the first environmental protection movements in the Netherlands, but one with a Magisch Amsterdam twist: all members were part of the Amsterdam alternative art scene, and it showed in their actions. Their alarm for environmental disasters was hanging a flag with a golden butterfly half-mast, they composed an opera to raise awareness about environmental pollution, and they treated Stedelijk director Edy de Wilde to a ‘waving bicycle’ made from parts found in scrap yards. Meet these astounding pioneers of the environmental movement.

The core of the Insektensekte comprised dentist/artist Max Reneman, musician Hub Mathijsen and artist Theo Kley, with Cor Jaring as ‘house photographer’. They met in Amsterdam, that ‘magic center’, where they dreamt up all kinds of whimsical, outlandish and often unrealizable projects.1 In 1968, Kley, Reneman and Mathijsen formed the phonetically spelled ‘Exoties Kietsj Konservaatoriejum’ (‘Exotick Keetch Conservatrie’): a theatrical music company with an ever-changing lineup (the ensemble welcomed everyone able to build and play their own instrument).

The group

The group was concerned about man’s treatment of the environment. In the late 1960s, the environmental movement received an important boost with the publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, in which the author warned against the use of pesticides, which she described as ‘the rain of death’.2 In response to pollution and the waste of resources, the members recycled everyday objects, including bicycles reclaimed from scrap yards.

Cor Jaring, Vlinderopera/Butterfly Opera. Stadsarchief Amsterdam
Cor Jaring, Vlinderopera/Butterfly Opera. Stadsarchief Amsterdam

“... nothing more than a bit of weed”

— Theo Kley about what influenced the creation of the Wearable Testing Station for Expertologists

In 1968, in the Stedelijk garden, they presented Stedelijk director Edy de Wilde with what they called a ‘Wuiffiets’ (literally: ‘waving bike’). This ‘bicycle’ was actually composed of three different bikes welded together, along with all kinds of handy, brightly-colored items. It was a fantastic plaything for young people. The group also tested the quality of river water, and created an eccentric ‘scientific’ tool, the ‘Draagbaar Deskundologies Proefstation’ (‘Wearable Testing Station for Expertologists). According to Theo Kley, the idea for the ‘testing station’ materialized during a kind of trance, but certainly not under the influence of drugs – “at least, nothing more than a bit of weed”.

“everyone did what they felt like”

— artist Theo Kley

In February 1969, fuel oil was illegally dumped in the Waddenzee, contaminating the plumage of innumerable sea birds. Triggered by this disaster, Kley, Mathijsen and Reneman established the Insektensekte, one of the first environmental activist groups in the Netherlands. From that moment, the Insektensekte sounded the alarm for every environmental disaster by hanging a flag of a golden butterfly half-mast from a window. The group had bought a large number of ‘golden’ butterflies at Amsterdam’s Albert Cuyp street market and from then on, the butterfly was the emblem of the Insektensekte. The group also presented a flag to John Lennon and Yoko Ono during their famous bed-in at the Amsterdam Hilton Hotel in 1969, where they were serenaded by the Exoties Kietsj Konservaatoriejum. Lennon and Ono were thereby declared honorary member of the Insektensekte. The Exoties Kietsj Konservaatoriejum not only played at the Hilton for John and Yoko, but also at the opening of the IJtunnel in 1968 and during the Daniel Spoerri exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in 1971. Hub Mathijsen played the ‘violofoon’ (a violin without a wooden sounding box, that relied on a horn to produce sound).3 Insektensekte also gave regular performances related to environmental pollution. One featured the ‘Vlinderopera’/’Butterfly Opera in 1969, under the musical direction of Hub Mathijsen, including songs such as  ‘Moeder waar zijn de vlinders gebleven’ (‘Mother where have the butterflies gone’. 

Listen to the Insektenlied/ Insecten song

In addition to founding the Exoties Kietsj Konservaatoriejum and the Insektensekte, in 1970, Kley, Reneman and Mathijsen set up the ‘Deskundologisch Laboratorium’, with several others including Robert Jasper Grootveld, which united their activities. 

Cor Jaring, Max Reneman with golden butterfly. Stadsarchief Amsterdam
Cor Jaring, Max Reneman with golden butterfly. Stadsarchief Amsterdam
Cor Jaring, Immune Blue. Stadsarchief Amsterdam
Cor Jaring, Immune Blue. Stadsarchief Amsterdam

The laboratory was dedicated to studying the ordinary: ‘If you only focus on the problems, you miss seeing things that are as plain as the nose on your face. Expertologists talk about simple things in simple language. Expertology is something everyone can feel, even with their clogs [sic] on, and doesn’t go over anyone’s head.’ The Deskundologisch Laboratorium had several departments, including ‘Environmental Boredom’, ‘Sonology’ and ‘Immune Blue’. Expertology was a peripatetic science and, on their travels, the expertologists often painted themselves and the environment with ‘Immune Blue’, a quirky take on the sachet of bluing that was used at the time during laundering to brighten white fabrics.

The group did not follow a set program and didn’t discuss their plans in advance. Or, as Theo Kley said to me, “everyone did what they felt like”. They met up somewhere in town and thought up a plan then and there. Or drove off together in a car loaded with props and stage makeup. They had a very serious purpose, but the means had to be playful and – never, ever – bourgeois. “For us, it was all about wonder”, says Kley.4

1.To get an idea of the kind of things they had planned, read the book Moeder, wat is er mis… met deze planeet? (1969).
2.Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, (Houghton Mifflin, 1962).
3. In 2014 Alma Mathijsen, the daughter of Hub Mathijsen, wrote a novel grote goede dingen; a voyage in search of her father and his violofoon. Although the story is fictitious, it nonetheless gives a glimpse of the history of the Insektensekte.
4. Arjan Reinders, ‘Moeder, waar zijn de vlinders gebleven? De lachende kinderen van Provo’, De Groene Amsterdammer, 10 March 2015 (Cor Jaring issue)