Aaron Lake Smith and Zane Grant
Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 118 in June, 2009.
If you went anywhere on Valentine’s Day alone, you probably noticed all of the couples who carried their obligation to each other on their faces. Some of the more bookish among us, forgot the holiday completely and joined a small crowd that gathered at the infamous Living Theatre, residing at 21 Clinton Street on the Lower East Side, to watch a short documentary film about the Dutch Provo, that playful New Left anarchist group whose name was an abbreviation of their stated purpose: ‘To provoke.’
The event was organized by the Libertarian Book Club, an anarchist group who have been meeting and discussing radical history in various locations in Manhattan for over sixty years. The LBC’s website looks as if it were created by individuals whose interest in the Internet capped in around 2001 (understandably), and have continued to dwell in that Arcadian period when people still believed in the utopic potential of disseminating information. In the Klieg-lit benches of The Living Theatre, three Autonomedia editors (Jordan Zinovich, Lindsay Caplan and Janna Schoenbergof) of the 2007 book, Provo: Amsterdam’s Anarchist Revolt, did a small roundtable in front of a retractable screen, providing a synopsis of the history and accomplishments of the Provo. They explained that the manuscript for the book, by Richard Kempton, was found in a bathroom somewhere on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. The editors described Kempton’s book as just an introduction to the only recently-analyzed Provo, a foundation for reference and academic research that they hoped would lead to further inquiry into this group’s fascinating history and praxis.
If you haven’t heard of the Provo group, you’re not alone. The Netherlands group acted contemporaneously with other anarchistic movements that sprung up so violently in the sixties. They overlapped and had tangential contact with the COBRA artists’ movement, The Situationists, the Hippies of Haight-Ashbury, and the Living Theatre.
Jordan Zinovich, a Senior Editor at Autonomedia, provided a detailed timeline of the Provo’s development through the 60’s and beyond, explaining that the movement’s real start was in 1961 with Robert Jasper Grootveld, a high school drop-out and son of an anarchist. After spending his adolescence and twenties working at more than 60 jobs, Grootveld decided it was time to do something. This charismatic and magical figure decided, of all things, to go on a crusade against smoking. Unlike the abstemious organizers of so many boycott and identity-based movements, Grootveld was a chainsmoker—but rather than diminish his credibility to wage war on tobacco advertising, this fact just seemed to increase his potency. Grootveld saw himself as just another addict, a byproduct of capitalist consumerism that got people ritually hooked on things they didn’t need. Grootveld would later become the Prophet of Amsterdam, a harbinger of what was to come, as he gathered much of the youthful energy that would later fuel the development of the Provo.
Grootveld’s first action was to mark the cigarette advertisements around Amsterdam with the word kanker (‘Cancer’). This caught on so well that a K on smoking advertisements quickly became publically synonymous with ‘cancer’. The advertising firms brought a lawsuit against Grootveld, which he couldn’t afford to pay, and he spent sixty days in jail. The publicity and press from his short imprisonment only served to earn him greater renown. He and his disciples moved into an abandoned shed, which they christened ‘The Church for Aware Nicotine Addicts’ and used as a temple from which to stage their anti-tobacco campaign until they accidentally burned it down in 1964. After the loss of their temple, Grootveld began to stage “Happenings” every Saturday night in downtown Amsterdam at midnight; he gathered his disciples around a quaint, miniature statue of a young Dutch boy, which was meant to be a symbol of the Dutch people. With a little bit of research, Grootveld learned, to his dismay, that the statue had been paid for by a tobacco company. He angrily denounced the statue for representing the “addicted consumer of the future” and would set the statue on fire or lay down a burnt offering. The fact at the time was that there was no work for Amsterdam’s youth and a cyclonic revolutionary consciousness was whirling in the air. This served to brew up the perfect storm against law and order. Grootveld seemed more and more to be becoming the wild clown prophet of Amsterdam, a perpetual firework going off in the city center. The prophetic predictions of this clown mystic turned out to be surprisingly accurate; He claimed that young American ‘hippies’ would descend by the thousands to Amsterdam’s parks. He claimed that the middle class would move out of the city center, leaving it abandoned. But the most strange and unsettling prediction he made was the one that would light the wick of the Provo. Klaas Kom! He screamed incoherently, the words translating to “Claus is coming!”
Claus did come--in the form of a German ex-Nazi, Claus Von Amsberg, who came to the Netherlands to marry the Dutch princess. The young royalty had foolishly decided to hold their wedding in Amsterdam despite public and Jewish outcry towards the man, who was accomplice to the horrific extermination of the Holocaust. The Provo group and Grootveld’s ragtag lumpen band came together to oppose Claus, throw smoke bombs, and cause chaos during the couples’ wedding march--images that would be broadcast around the world. Following the wedding march riot, the Provo’s notoriety grew widely. Provo magazine sold out of the first run of 3000 copies in 3 days. The Provo instituted a run for City Council, and after several actions that garnered them publicity and public support, they won a seat on the city council. Over 1965 and 1966 a tension between the police and the revolting youth hung like pallor over Amsterdam. Construction workers on strike over a minor disagreement of vacation terms turned out to be the spark that enflamed public rage—when the police closed in to break up the Communist construction workers’ strike, one of the workers had a heart attack. In the melee, the worker’s death was attributed to the police. The next morning, Amsterdam erupted into three days of riots that would turn the city into a warzone. The Battle of Amsterdam ended in stalemate—police cars and one of Amsterdam’s major newspaper offices were destroyed, hundreds of protesters were arrested. Provo, which had grown into a national movement, with small cabals in most Dutch cities and seats on several city councils, declared itself dead in May of 1967 to avoid becoming stale and repetitious. The spontaneous revolt of the Provos would eventually reemerge with their more disciplined, collectivist progeny, the Kabouters, who weren’t striving for insurrection so much as permanent revolution.
At the Libertarian Book Club event, the editors showed a short retrospective documentary that captured the wildest moments of Grootveld’s instigations--statue burnings and the animistic howls of the Provo member, Johnny the Self-Kicker. Following the film, a short discussion on the Provo’s anarchism ensued. The Living Theatre’s European base had been centered in Amsterdam synchronously with the Provo, and one of the Living Theatre’s founders, Judith Malina, 80, was asked to come up and speak on her experiences with the group. Malina displayed passionate and overflowing fervor—she spoke on how the anarchist movement was like a groundhog, which had been squashed at certain points but still persisted to pop back up in different places and eras.
Judith Malina seemed uncomfortable with Zinovich’s attribution of the progression of 1960’s style ‘happenings’ to her work with the Living Theatre and the Provo. ‘Happenings’ are spontaneous public events that could be associated with what passes for happenings today—flash mobs, kiss-ins, public pillow fights, no pants subway afternoons, and other somewhat apolitical events that have little in common with the fierce politics of Provo. Rather than focusing on creating a movement and building steam, the more modern attempts at happenings seem to focus only on momentarily altering a public space. These actions are political, but their goals differ radically from Malina’s vision of building a “non-violent anarchist revolution.”
In Paradise Now, Malina’s 1971 book on the ethics and aesthetics of the Living Theater, she wrote,
“The play is a voyage from the many to the one and from the one to the many. It is a spiritual voyage and a political voyage. It is an interior voyage and an exterior voyage. It is a voyage for the actors and the spectators. It begins into the present and moves into the future and returns to the present. The plot is the Revolution.”
Standing by this statement, Malina argued that what Provo organized was, not merely a happening, but a cohesive mass that culminated in a progression of history through public revolt.
Though Malina and Zinovich were seemingly in agreement about the long-term impact of groups like Provo, Malina did not like the fleeting connotation attached to ‘happening.’ After all, the anarchist Provo’s work with green city planning had introduced ideas into the public discourse which eventually became mainstream. Today Amsterdam is known as a bicycle city, partially because of the initiatives of the Provo. The Provo leveled environmental critiques that ultimately lead to a cleaning up of polluted Dutch canals (something that has yet to be done here in New York). Grootveld’s insurrection against smoking was decades ahead of its time. Provo didn’t directly cause all this social change--they fueled a public discussion, which over time encountered their political ideas.The discussion closed with Judith Malina speaking on the history of radicalism. She explained “We’ve lost some things and we’ve gained some things—but we’ve always been persistent” smiling, offering as an aside that anarchists had always been working for “A life that’s more fun, and less anguished.”