Kees de Groot and PLANETART, the beginning of a revolution – Part 2

In the last blog, we encountered Kees in his office to talk about his time at the AKI and his first steps as an autonomous artist. And if there was anything to learn from that it was that especially then, the world of art was changing into something that its predecessors hardly understood anymore. Industry and technology were booming. Capitalism confirmed its hegemony as an ideology of global success, and – with the loss of religion as an overarching meta-narrative – the beginning of a postmodern age loomed over Europe. After the Second World War began an era of lightning-fast restoration, and this velocity had an immense influence on the political landscape of Europe at the time. This blog is a report on the last of Kees’ central themes to his career: Europe’s turbulent politics.

Lars: Kees, last time we already talked about two of your main sources inspirations, these being the changing art world, and the fast-paced technological development. What was the third of these sources of inspiration?

Kees: Thé most important source of inspiration for me of that time – one which I regard as an absolute cornerstone  – were the developments that sprang from the ending of the second World War. I’m from 1956, this is 11 years after it stopped, and I have witnessed both the collapse and the restoration of Western society. This restoration came to us at incredible speed. Between 1948 and 1952, the United States sent an immense amount of goods, natural resources, provisions and money to Europe, in fear of communism taking hold from the East. Thanks to this Marshall Help, practically everyone had a car standing in their driveway within 10 years of its beginning. 

”I can still see the wanted posters at the border crossing of Glanerbrug, demanding the capturing of these two criminals.”

However, all the industries enabled by this huge economic influx also had their downsides. There was a lot of unemployment due to automatization, and even worse, the pressure on the Earth’s climate was rapidly increasing. Already in the 70s did The Club of Rome report that the course we were headed for might f*ck up the earth entirely, and it were the young people especially who were very aware of this. 

Alongside the threat of industry and capital, cultural and political unrest was only increasing. There was something going on which one might call the veritable collapse of the church as a dominant institution. Because Christianity lost more and more of its credibility, the West was missing a unifying set of beliefs. This opened up a space for extremism and acts before unimaginable. During the 70s, a left-wing extremism gained ground which fought against capitalism and the rise of Neoliberalism, as propagated for by political figures such as Margaret Thatcher. The Red Army Faction of Germany, led by Andreas Baader and Ulrich Meinhof, was a notorious political movement responsible for many bombings, murders, and kidnappings. I can still see the wanted posters at the border crossing of Glanerbrug, demanding the capturing of these two criminals. On top of that there was the fall of the Shah in Iran and the Islamic Revolution that followed. In spite of the efforts of the liberal left that brought the Shah to its end, it was ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a dictatorial leader, who eventually seized power. An area spanning from Morocco to Indonesia became a site of oppression and political unrest. It was only one of the many blows to the leftist sentiments of Europe. 

Lars: And how did you respond to all of these developments?

Kees: We rallied against them in our performances. For example, against the injustices of the Falklands War in 1982. Thatcher sent warships to Argentina to steal it back from the Argentinians since it ‘should remain part of the Great British Empire after all’. We were incredibly upset about it. I can still remember a performance we did in a big church in Deventer where we showed the video images that had been taken of these warships, to channel our anger in a protest. 

Lars: And what did people think of your work during that period?

Kees: I can still remember that our teachers at the AKI took special interest in the installations we built. These were unprecedented at the time. Mainly due to their use of video and film. Surely, Andy Warhol in his Factory made these kind of absurd experiential films, but we used the medium in a way that Hollywood and arthouse cinema had never done before. These were artworks with all the different disciplines hurled into one piece. This was a new world of technology, depicted through abstract noise and experimental film, and always with political messages packed into them. 

Eventually all of this gathered into  some sort of international network. We were most definitely the local pioneers in this movement.

Lars: And how about your fellow students?

Kees: [laughs] they were pretty excited to see what we were doing, and that’s also why there were so many collective projects going on. I think everyone felt the momentum that was going through our academy, and which was present at all the events. For example, we had a project called the TV Café, which was a mini-club in the middle of a Kasbah in Hengelo (Kasbahs are housing complexes designed by the architect Piet Blom). This mini-club was a former shop where we hosted silent concerts. If it wasn’t for the headphones we’d have been thrown out of that Kasbah in less than a week for noise complaints. There were 45 people packed into this one tiny room in the middle of the night, tightly together with their headphones on. In the other room stood the band, yet another experimental act coming from Rotterdam, Groningen, Leeuwarden, Amsterdam, to perform with drum machines and synthesizers. We had huge light boxes hanging from the wall, showing images of West-German television, interchanged with images of Kraftwerk performances, Die Neue Deutsche Welle, or upcoming artists. They were extremely well visited. 

Eventually, all of this gathered into some sort of international network. We were most definitely the local pioneers in this movement, but fanzines and mail art showed us that it was going on everywhere. We would go to meetings in Belgium, France, and Germany bringing cassette tapes to exchange with the people we met there. Even Americans and Australians came to these meetings. It was then that it became clear to me that our anger, spirit, creativity, but also confusion was shared among an immense amount of different people from all across the world. 

In the next part of this blog, Kees brings Lars to his archive in the attic of his house to talk about the start of his career. Among the hundreds of posters, photos, and newspaper articles that Kees collected during his life as an artist, we will come across stories about an exposition in the Stedelijk Museum of Amsterdam, a very peculiar squatting in the middle of a neighborhood in Amsterdam-Oost, and meet and greets with figures that still shake up the art world today. Stay posted!

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