26 November 2016

In the mid-1960s the Provos turn Amsterdam upside down, sing the “Smokers Cough Song” every evening, and see the city as a large playground. In the midst of it all: Ulay.

By Julia Schmitz

It is the summer of 1968 and Ulay actually has something totally different in mind: with his rickety old car, typewriter and a camera he sets off towards the Czech Republic in order to study acting in Prague. But that comes to nothing because the aftermath of the Prague Spring mean that even after three days of sitting it out he still is not allowed over the border. By chance, Ulay reads a newspaper article about the so-called “Provos” in Amsterdam, packs up his stuff and dashes off to the Netherlands.

Cover of the 5th issue of the Provo's Magazine

At that point the Provos, a group of playfully anarchistic artists, had already passed their zenith: on 25 May, 1965 Roel van Duijn, Robert Jasper Grootveld, Rob Stolk, Luud Schimmelpennink and Peter Bronkhorst got together in Amsterdam to shake up the city with their performances and actions. Together they wanted to unleash the “creative potential of the whole of humanity” and combine it for a collective gigantic happening – a sentiment influenced by a member of the International Situationists, Dutch artist Constant Anton Nieuwenhuys, who in his essay “homo ludens” (1964), spoke out for “man at play” as a counterpart to what he saw as a utilitarian society defined by morals. 

A touch of the rebellious 

As early as 1961 Jasper Grootveld, founding member of the Provos, had already come up with the idea of playful interventions in the public domain. Describing himself as an “anti-smoke magician” he began painting the word “cancer” over placards advertising cigarettes. He met up with other like-minded people every evening to sing the “anti-smoking coughing song” and hold sermons about consumer society and the cigarette industry. These happenings went off peacefully until Grootveld invited a group of young anarchists connected with Roel van Duijn: from then on the happenings became increasingly provocative and the Provo movement was born.  In its golden age it consisted of around 100 members.

Robert Jasper Grootveld, Image via commons.wikimedia.org

They become known to the public through actions like the “white bicycle plan” (in which they wanted to distribute hundreds of white bicycles throughout Amsterdam to be used free of charge by everyone, and ban cars from the downtown area) interventions with which they not only poured oil into the fire of the conservative society, but also articulated sensible changes for living together in the city. 

Excessive provocation 

Arguably the group landed its greatest coup in 1966 during the wedding of Princess Beatrix to the German Claus von Amsberg, a former Wehrmacht soldier. They proclaimed a “Day of Anarchy” and interrupted the wedding procession by igniting several smoke bombs. The police overreacted and responded with batons. This action is a good example of how the Provos staged excessively provocative actions to make the police respond with violence, allowing them to publicly show up the authorities’ behavior and make their movement known worldwide.

A demonstration in Amsterdam, Image via gahetna.nl

When in 1968 Ulay turned back from the Czech border and drove to Amsterdam, the Provos were no longer such a force to be reckoned with. Officially they disbanded in 1967: with a seat in Amsterdam’s City Council and a real say in the city’s politics guerrilla actions became superfluous; the Provos had themselves become an accepted part of society. But even though the grouping no longer existed in its original form in 1968 there were enough emulators, who shared the provocative spirit: Ulay took part in street battles and confrontations with the police, joined the sit-ins to stop cars from driving any further, and took photos of such actions by the “constructive anarchists”. In documenting these events he simultaneously lay the foundations for his later career as an artist, and even today a rebellious note is evident in his works.

The white bike became a symbol of the Provo movement, Image via vice.com