Part of the
exhibition

In the Presence of Absence proposals for the museum collection

5 Sep 2020 until 31 Jan 2021

Artist Page — 2 Sep 2020

In the Presence of Absence, the bi-annual show of proposals for the museum collection, presents 23 artists (collectives). This artist page includes a text on the work and an artist contribution.

facade suspended (2018) and observatie contra observatie (2020) are part of a research project conducted by Pieter Paul Pothoven into the Revolutionary Anti-Racist Action (RARA), in collaboration with several activists who were involved in this anonymous collective, which fought in the 1980s and 90s against racism, oppression, and exploitation—the ongoing legacy of Dutch imperialist history. The targets of RARA’s actions included companies such as Shell and Makro that were profiting financially from apartheid in South Africa. Pothoven is making a series of artworks that document and shed light on RARA. He is also creating a RARA archive for the International Institute of Social History (IISH) in Amsterdam. The IISH offers information and insights on the origins, effects, and consequences of social inequality. In his efforts to mediate new relationships with the past, Pothoven draws on archive material and historical artifacts and events.

facade suspended is a full-size reproduction of the storefront of Overtoom 274 in Amsterdam. Suspects of multiple RARA actions, including the one on the Makro warehouse in Duivendrecht, allegedly lived in this squatted building and prepared actions here. The storefront on display is made from a typical Dutch colonial resource: teak wood—recycled from five large 17th and 18th-century shipping chests used by the Dutch East India Company (VOC). These cases once held the private belongings and illicit trade goods of high-ranking VOC officials. By cutting up these remnants of Dutch colonial history and building something new, Pieter Paul Pothoven has created a political framework that repurposes historical artifacts to commemorate and represent a different narrative on the past: one of anti-imperialist resistance.

Illustration by Haitham Haddad after Pieter Paul Pothoven’s “facade suspended” and “observatie contra observatie,” 2018 and 2020.
Illustration by Haitham Haddad after Pieter Paul Pothoven’s “facade suspended” and “observatie contra observatie,” 2018 and 2020.

Central to observatie contra observatie is a spoken monologue in Dutch: a dramatized account of events surrounding the first RARA attack, which took place on September 17, 1985, on a branch of the Makro in the town of Duivendrecht. This action, and the three others in the period from 1985 and 1987, forced the SHV, Makro’s parent company, to pull out of South Africa. Pothoven wrote the script for the character—who speaks from the perspective of several of the activists involved—and based it on interviews and historical documents. The monologue is broadcast using a radio transmitter built by someone who was involved in RARA. The script is made available on take-away posters that also feature a photo of the wood-burning stove that RARA used not only for heating, but also for burning evidence.

The monologue is the result of a collaboration with activists from RARA, Khadija El Kharraz Alami (voice actor), Simon(e) van Saarloos (notes on script), Liet Lenshoek (dramaturge), Katrien de Klein (editor) and De Slapende Hond (sound studio).

Pieter Paul Pothoven (b. 1981) studied at Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam and at Parsons The New School of Design in New York. In 2014 and 2015 he attended Jan van Eyck Academie in Maastricht. Pothoven’s work has been exhibited at The Kitchen in New York, Nest in The Hague, and TENT Rotterdam.

OBSERVATION COUNTER OBSERVATION

script in Dutch (observatie contra observatie): Pieter Paul Pothoven in collaboration with activists of the Revolutionary Anti-Racist Action – RARA translation: Vincent W.J. van Gerven-Oei

[humming: Ndodemnyama Verwoerd by Miriam Makeba]

Colonial history is not the past.

Every day I see it again.

That sense of white superiority.
Thinking that white is better than Black.
The ongoing justification of the apartheid regime in South Africa.
A blood-red line runs from then to now.
But apartheid is more than just a colonial remnant.
It is a system that's alive and kicking, offering the white minority – the law in hand – every possibility to exploit the Black majority.
They're making a fucking lot of money with it.
That's why I find it dangerous to condemn apartheid solely on moral grounds, such as: apartheid is racism. Racism is bad. So stop doing it.
Do you really think that Black and white can obtain equal rights within a capitalist society?

I don't consider apartheid to be some kind of civilization that's different from the society in which we live here. Nor is it a stain that you can just wipe off. I see apartheid as the raw, uncut version of the West. Raw, but transparent at the same time. Hold it in front of your eyes, like a lens. When you look through it, you'll see the core of that socalled Western civilization: an inhumane system.
And that system, which has huge economic interests in oppression and exploitation and sexism and racism and pollution, causing indescribable suffering around the world, that system I want to change.
Not simply by modifying it a little bit here and there.
No.
Radical change.
And yes, it makes sense to start at biking distance.

I was asked to do something for the armed branch of the ANC in southern Africa.
I said no.
Don't feel like becoming a tool over there.
I have to define my aims and strategies based on my responsibility here, in this country with historical ties to South Africa.
I don't need permission for that.
From no one.

There is an international boycott of South Africa, but which company is actually forced to stop doing business?
What does the state do? Nothing. "We have to keep trade channels open to retain political leverage behind the scenes." What do companies do? They shrug their shoulders and continue to fill their pockets. No matter the social consequences.
And what is the answer of the anti-apartheid committees? Boycotts. Name and shame campaigns. Information evenings.
Would you like a sticker?

It's important. Really. I'm taking part in it, too. But all those actions amount to nothing more than polite requests.

Do you have any idea what's happening in the townships

 I'm sorry, but the time of polite requests has long passed. 

We're going to attack the Steenkolen Handels-Vereeniging. The S-H-V. A truly Dutch company owned by the Fentener van Vlissingen family, with I don't know how many subsidiaries here and in South Africa.
The ties between SHV and South Africa have been made public.
They're already under scrutiny.
How are we going to target SHV?
The Makro. It's an easy pick, actually. Wholesalers are publicly accessible. Located in remote areas. Everyone is engaged in actions against Shell, but Shell has hundreds of gas stations. Say you attack one or two, what's the actual result? How many Makro stores are there? About eight or ten? And those warehouses are huge. So yeah, every time you manage to hit one of them, they lose a substantial part of their revenue.

A travel agency covered in paint. A trashed wine store. I can still recall the sea of red and white wine on the floor.
The burned-down mansion of oil trader Deuss. It is easy to see the continuity from inside the activist scene. But from the outside it's more difficult to discern a line in the mishmash of targets.
Anti-apartheid Action. Amsterdammers against Racism.
Pyromaniacs against Apartheid. It's all too incidental.
Appearing from nothing then disappearing.
That's no way to build up pressure. That's why we choose for a campaign.
One name and one target. Whether it's one, two, or three Makro warehouses. Or all of them.
We will continue until SHV leaves South Africa.

So, the Makro.

Who wants to join the group that will write the claim letter?
Who's going to Waterlooplein to get a typewriter?
Text ready for consumption?
Fingerprints wiped from the keys?
Dump it in the canal.

Meanwhile you're already checking out the place. Observation.
During the day at first. Outside. What's happening around the building?

And then you go inside.
Who is getting the Makro loyalty cards?

You shave your legs.
Put on a suit.
Put on a wig.
Glasses.
High heels.

Hi! I'm looking for this and that.
Really interested, you know. Like, very lovely and cute.
What do the doors look like?
What do the windows look like?
Is there an alarm?
You see the paint aisle. Cans with solvents: flammable.
How many steps from the paint isle to that side door over there?

You want to burn it down.
How're you gonna do that?
Where're you gonna try?

We're biking on a dike next to the Ijsselmeer. In broad daylight.
There are two people on top of the dike. Is someone coming?
Down near the water you can do whatever you want.
Perfect place to rehearse a few things.

What's happening at night?
Are there guards?
Yes.
Do they make their rounds according to the same daily schedule?
No. Weekly? No.
Monthly perhaps?
Too bad.
For weeks you're lying in the bushes with a walkie-talkie
Do you see something. Over.
No. You? Over.
Six nights a week. Only to discover that it there is no pattern at all.

How to get the stuff there?
How to get the stuff from the drop-off point to the right location on the site?
How long does that take you? How many people do you need?
When are you going to practice on site?

How do you set up the counter-surveillance around the object?
Where are the people on the lookout with walkie-talkies?
Who is scanning the police radio?
What do you do when two streets down the road there's a burglary but you already got all your shit there?
Let's just assume.
You don't want any surprises, of course.

Step by step you go through the script. In person. Not by telephone. Never meet at the same place twice.
We're gathering in the canteen of a university.
Coffee finished? Let's go. You can always find a room to share some knowledge.

Where's the point of departure?
Who's taking care of the detonators, gasoline, and time delays?
What's the gathering point?
Which route do you take?

You buy dark, comfortable, season-appropriate clothing that's not too tight. And a pair of sneakers. At the army dump you get a balaclava.

It's 10 pm. I get on my bike.
You have to make sure you get away clean. So without a tail.
That you're not followed.
A car brings the stuff. Or two or three cars. Whatever, I don't need to know everything.
The drop-off point is in a meadow. On the other side of the 5 ditch. It's all there, covered with a tarp.

No moon.

I pull the balaclava over my head and put on my gloves.

Are we finally fucking ready to go? Over.
They're leaving now. Let's get the party started. Over.

Carrying.
Through the meadow.
Along the wall to the first side door.
Watch your step!

Crouching. All clear? Over.
Yes. Over.

Time?
3 a.m.

I kneel down and press the point of the drill into the wood.

[3x sound of a hand drill. grating noise: GRRR–GRRRGRRR]

Turn slowly.
Trust.
You're safe.
Focus.

[2x sound of a hand drill. grating noise: GRRR–GRRR] My god, I feel good here.

Are the stools steady?
Check.
Jerrycans on top of the stools?
Check.
I push a PVC pipe with detonators taped to it and wires through the hole.
Connector Pipe.
Connector.
Hose.
Hose attached to jerrycan?
Check.
Time delay set?
Ten minutes.
No longer.
Check.
Taps open?
Gasoline flowing inside?

Check.

Tonight we have attacked a part of the Dutch business empire in South Africa. You can't effect change by endless sessions in Parliament. You have to fight for change by attacking all those economic, political, and military institutions here – in the heart of imperialism – that facilitate the oppression here and elsewhere. Therein lies the communality of our struggle, our only perspective and our unconditional solidarity with the militants in South Africa.

SUPPORT THE REVOLUTION IN SOUTH AFRICA AND CREATE THE FRONT IN EUROPE

At home I light my wood stove.
I take off my clothes.
Sweater.
T-shirt.
Pants.
Underpants.
Socks.
Everything.
I throw everything in the fire.

Exciting, isn't it?
Summarized in three minutes it is. But it's also just boring.
End-less-ly boring. All those preparations. Night after night after night in those bushes.
Really more than is good for me.
Sleeping during the day.
Another meeting. And every time you need to find a new place to meet.
You know, not all of it is fun. Months of work for a few hours of action.
And here I am. Naked. Staring at the flames.

You get up around noon. Say hi to your roommates as if nothing has happened. Looks are exchanged. But you're not having a nice chat at the stairs. Not about this.

You just get the copy of the Volkskrant you buy every day. Not all other newspapers, because that's suspicious behavior.

Of course you hear the news. And you review it as well. You're not enemy of the state number one yet. But you're certainly top five.

And of course they'll call you a terrorist.

Terrorism is a tactic to sow fear. Splits society into two camps: either for or against. Removes all shades of grey.
We don't spread that kind of fear.
It's about goods. Not about people.
RARA sharpens the debate. Adds an element to the broad extraparliamentary anti-apartheid movement. But stays explicitly in that grey zone. At the far end of that spectrum.
Sure. In the dark grey area, so to say.

Terrorism!
You hear it all the time.
They reject us, without having to deal with our message.
Impossible to talk to!
Whom or what are they serving actually? Why don't they judge our action based on content?

What we do makes sense. The flood of criticism only confirms this. At least, that's how I'm framing it.
I mean, there is really an incredible amount of fuss about SHV and its business in South Africa. And, more importantly: a considerable portion of its revenue has been affected.
You bet SHV is feeling this.

You know, we're not so naive to think: we have dealt capitalism a big blow.
Still I feel some sort of pride. That we did it. That we did it well.

And no one got hurt.

You choose a remote location. You choose an incendiary device that develops slowly. You know what's happening around the building. You know there's no one there. You stay on site until the thing detonates, so that you're able to intervene until the very last moment. But is it enough? 

Wouldn't it be problematic if we didn't doubt ourselves? You're in shock. 48 million in damages. Serious business. But anyway. What is a shitty little fire compared to the blood that is shed in the townships?

What is the state going to do? Will the beast be unleashed? Public opinion has long made up its mind about apartheid. And we really do everything to avoid casualties. And the state is already under mounting pressure from society because of its failing boycott policy. Added together, this should make it 8 difficult for the police and secret services to cut corners.
But you can't be sure.
So for now it's just laying low.
Staying beneath the radar.
Awaiting the response.

Saturday you'll sing along with the anti-apartheid choir. Or you'll join a protest. Isn't there a house meeting this week?
But with every conversation you have with someone you put out your feelers.
You constantly have to watch what you're saying. And how you're saying it. And to whom you're saying it.

You are about to meet someone to prepare the next action.
You walk out of the door.
You feel eyes in your back.
You're almost there.
Did I get rid of them or not?
Probably better to return home.

Where and when?
You don't know.
And if you're not caught red-handed on the spot, then it's by political pressure.
They cannot let this slide.
Sooner or later they'll get you.
You do know that.
But it hasn't gotten that far yet

Bring it on.

RA-RA.
Come and find us.

Pieter Paul Pothoven, “Map 1814, negative no. 20.” (RARA-suspect on Trial, Amsterdam, 1988. Photo: Bert Verhoeff)
Pieter Paul Pothoven, “Map 1814, negative no. 20.” (RARA-suspect on Trial, Amsterdam, 1988. Photo: Bert Verhoeff)

Artist Contribution


I recorded 18+ hours of interviews with several people, who, one way or another, were involved in the activist collective RARA (Revolutionary Anti-Racist Action). I used parts of these interviews for the script of observatie contra observatie.

I have donated all the source materials that I collected to the International Institute of Social History (IISH) in Amsterdam. The RARA archive – ARCH0404547 – will be opened to the public on the morning of September 17, 2035, 50 years after the arson of the Makro in Duivendrecht, the first action that was claimed by activists under the name of RARA.

Interview setting with a person who was suspected of involvement in RARA, Quibdó, Colombia, June 2017.
Interview setting with a person who was suspected of involvement in RARA, Quibdó, Colombia, June 2017.

In addition to interviews, I also used multiple texts from the 1980s that were written either collectively and anonymously by RARA or individually by RARA suspects, as sources for the script. For example, these pleading notes of a RARA suspect, which were read aloud during the court case on August 24, 1988. Katrien de Klein, who was a journalist reporting on the case, made the notes on the document.

Source: Document donated by Katrien de Klein, part of ARCH0404547, International Institute of Social History. Photo: Gert Jan van Rooij.
Source: Document donated by Katrien de Klein, part of ARCH0404547, International Institute of Social History. Photo: Gert Jan van Rooij.

“Kommunikee” (claim of responsibility) delivered to news outlets on the early morning of September 17, 1985, hours after the RARA attack on the Makro in Duivendrecht. The letter was included in the BVD (Dutch Secret Service, currently named AIVD) report.
Source: https://www.inlichtingendiensten.nl/groepen/rara, also part of ARCH0404547, International Institute of Social History.

Makro, Duivendrecht, September 17, 1985. Photo: Bert Verhoeff. Source: digital scans of negatives donated by Bert Verhoeff, part of ARCH0404547, International Institute of Social History.
Makro, Duivendrecht, September 17, 1985. Photo: Bert Verhoeff. Source: digital scans of negatives donated by Bert Verhoeff, part of ARCH0404547, International Institute of Social History.
Overtoom 274 in 1993. Image courtesy of Amsterdam Municipal Building Archives.
Overtoom 274 in 1993. Image courtesy of Amsterdam Municipal Building Archives.

In 1985 the building at Overtoom 274 in Amsterdam, after it served as illegal brothel, was squatted by RARA suspects and named Huize Symptoom. The attack on the Makro in Duivendrecht was presumably prepared in this house, along with attacks on other targets in the ensuring years. In an attempt to stop RARA, the police raided 9 houses and arrested 8 suspects in the early morning of April 11, 1988. While the suspects were arrested elsewhere, the police seized multiple items from the Overtoom building. Partially based on this evidence, one suspect was convicted to five years in prison. Due to the unprecedented scale of the simultaneous raids, there were too few examining judges available for the number of houses. The defense claimed that the evidence taken from the Overtoom was inadmissible because the examining judge was only present for 13 minutes, and not for the full duration of the search – a total of 5 hours and 50 minutes – as required by Dutch law. Based on this procedural error, the judge reduced the sentence and the suspect was released immediately. In 1993, after all residents had left and the house had been boarded up for some time, it was renovated into a bike shop.

facade suspended is a life-size reproduction of Overtoom 274’s building facade. It is made from a typical Dutch colonial resource: teak wood, recycled from five large 17th and 18th-century shipping chests of the Dutch East India Company (VOC). These colonial suitcases once held the private property and illicit trade goods of high-ranking VOC officials. These chests relate to the Dutch economic interest in Indonesia, for example the large-scale deforestation of Java provoked by the demand for teak as building material, as well as to the colonial maritime trade routes they traveled. By cutting up and melting down these luxury remnants of Dutch colonial history, I set up a political framework that repurposes historical artifacts to commemorate and represent a different narrative on the past, that of anti-imperialist resistance.

Technical drawing of the facade of Overtoom 274. Image courtesy of Amsterdam Municipal Building Archives.
Technical drawing of the facade of Overtoom 274. Image courtesy of Amsterdam Municipal Building Archives.

Work in progress for the installation facade suspended, melting brass mountings from five 17th and 18th century Dutch East India Company (VOC) shipping chests.