New year, new faces, old faces, same spaces. The usual things that are said in September I suppose. This is certainly the case for me, writing as I am in my third year as a Maastricht Diplomat correspondent. Sometimes I am full of enthusiasm and ideas, sometimes not. As the summer has been drawing to an end, not so much. Upon my return to our much-loved journal, my editor was eager to learn that the desire to revisit a project that never really took off last year – an exploration of Maastricht’s cultural spaces – is still there. However, still suffering a bit from a block, I was not sure how to go about reconstructing something that was never really there to begin with. How do I ask questions about something I effectively know nothing about? I went straight to the source for inspiration.
When thinking of a space in Maastricht where the vague concept of culture is allowed to flourish, my mind is immediately drawn to the Landbouwbelang (LBB). The foodbank is there, the SkateCafé is there, Mark Mahfoud has spun his tunes there, and there is a great big bloody treehouse out front. Even to the casual observer, it would seem a likely place to begin. This week I met with Harold van Ingen, a public representative of the LBB, to get a clearer picture. We met around the back in ‘t Keldertje, where Harold had set himself up. “Welcome to my office!” he declared, with open arms and a smile on his face. While it was clear that this was a genuine greeting, Harold made me feel very comfortable and welcome from the moment I walked in, it was also clear that, as a representative of the LBB, this was his domain and he knew it. Right then I knew that I was going to get all the information I was looking for.
Once we got the basic formalities out of the way, who I was and what I was looking for, we dove right into the story behind the LBB, the people who make it all happen, and where it fits into the Maastricht cultural scene. The LBB has been a squat since 2002, bringing it to the end of its adolescent years today. Formerly owned by South African Pulp and Paper Industries (SAPPI), a powerful commercial entity within the city, the building fell into disuse and squatters moved in. In 2006 the LBB community entered into what is known as a convolent with the local municipality – essentially a non-binding agreement that allowed the community to use the building for events, gatherings, parties etc. but specifically not a permanent agreement. Harold assured me that this is not an uncommon practice and since it suited all parties involved, no harm done. It has most certainly benefited the scene in this city since, as the LBB community has been able to flourish into the entity that it now is.
However, with this flourishing comes challenges. Success brings difficulty, or so they say. As the LBB community is becoming so large, with partners numbering in the tens of thousands over the years, according to Mr. van Ingen, there is obviously a lot of attraction from city officials that comes with it. As the LBB building itself is still technically a squat, and there is the potential for a lot of income through the many endeavours involved, there needs to be some sort of organisation. But how to organise a specifically autonomous community into something that is definitely not commercial? This is the challenge that faces Mr. van Ingen and the LBB team. After all, the pride of the LBB is their autonomy and to take this away would be to take away the essence of what it so special. A certain kind of person is attracted to the LBB. Not just the usual rave-goer on the weekend, and certainly not the 9-5 office worker, but people who do not feel as if ‘the system’ is for them. People who desire a bit more freedom, a little less regulation, and positively no commercialism. Currently a horizontally managed community, the LBB holds their general assembly once a month where issues can be brought up, grievances aired, and concerns addressed. Included in these meetings are residents, working group members, and various organisations, foundations, groups, and associations that operate on the premises. Harold assures me that the group is not of an insignificant size. To bring them all under the umbrella of the LBB is no small task and one that is proving difficult to the core group of decision makers. When a group becomes too large, and too much success happens (especially financial), then it is perhaps only inevitable that a restructuring is required somehow, somewhere.
Sitting in ‘t Keldertje, I could see that while Harold is determined to make this happen – four years of pro bono work for the community says a lot – there is still something else going on. So, I dug a little deeper and changed tack. Instead of telling me the ins and outs of the LBB history and organisation, perhaps he should tell me a little more of what the LBB stands for. After all, what are they all fighting for? This is where his posture relaxed, his voice softened, and the hand gestures began to come out, a la Italia. Clearly I had asked the correct question. The LBB brings people together by giving them an opportunity and a space to be together. On the face of this, it may seem obvious. A party is a clear example of this. So too is a comedy evening, or a skate ramp and some beers. But there is more, Harold tells me. If one is to look past the public events, there is a lot of time and effort put into making these events happen. They are not there for the money, but for the experience. We, the people, only see the end product. But the LBB provides the means to the end. Many hours have been spent working on the treehouse, rebuilding it to something more than its former glory. Tools have been shared and used between groups, fostering relationships and building new skills. Kaleido, one of the fastest growing initiatives in Maastricht, pulls students in from all corners to get their events up and running; coordinating with other groups behind the scenes. Occasionally the treehouse builders pull shifts behind the bar with residents of the building, crossing socio-cultural divides at the same time. For many, this is a place to relax without regulations, but for so many others the LBB offers a purpose in life and with that purpose comes wellbeing. For some, this can only be found in a cultural free zone.
This is the LBB and it would seem that this is what they are fighting for. Much like the informal creatif aanstellen van Amsterdam, there is a strain of thought in our little southern city that there needs to be a united front of cultural and creative spaces in Maastricht, in order for it to stay alive. With André Rieu approaching retirement age, rumours of the Mandril building closing down, and TEFAF being on a non-permanent basis, Maastricht runs the risk of losing its claim for being a culturally significant city. If the LBB were to disappear as well, then we are left with museums, cafés, and the Lumière. While these are enjoyable on a rainy day, they do not allow culture to flourish. Between the University, Hogeschool Zuyd, and Jan van Eyck Academy, there is a massive amount of creative output available – something that cannot be contested. But without a space to create, the brain drain of Maastricht will continue. Take away what limited resources are available, and we will be left with nothing. This is what is being fought for at the LBB, the space for people to be people. I left the interview with Harold van Ingen not only substantially more informed about the graffiti covered squat on the river, but with a sense that there really is something going on down there that is worth our time. Go have a look for yourself, talk to someone, and maybe you will find something that suits you.