There’s No Place Like STEIM
Amsterdam’s STEIM (Studio for Electro-Instrumental Music) exists today as a legendary institution of live electronic music and houses some of the most approachable, supportive, and unpretentious artists I have ever met. An excerpt from the STEIM mission statement explains, “The foundation’s artistic and technical departments support an international community of performers and musicians, and a growing group of visual artists, to develop unique instruments for their work.” After nearly three years of living and working in Amsterdam, I am finally making the move back to the U.S. In the midst of packing and everything else associated with a transatlantic move, I was luckily able to attend one last show at STEIM.
On June 18, STEIM hosted its annual summer party, a celebratory evening meant to bring new and familiar faces together for a night of electronic music. The performers that evening— Mike Gao, Lumisokea, and Cactus Truck—hit the audience just right, filling the concert space up with glorious beats, grooves, glitches, and visceral noise. This summer party has recently become a tradition, as three years ago to the day everyone in the STEIM community suffered a huge loss. Their founding father and director Michel Waisvisz had just passed away and the Dutch government was threatening to revoke their funding for being “closed and only appealing to a niche audience.” After sending out an international SOS, which lead to the delivery of over one thousand letters in support of STEIM, the Ministry of Culture decided to reinstate funding for four more years. Unfortunately, those four years are almost up and this time it is worse. The Dutch government is slashing two hundred million euros literally overnight from the country’s arts budget. As a result, STEIM, along with many other arts organizations and music ensembles in the Netherlands, is losing funding in a drastic and devastating blow to the culture sector (read The Dark Age Netherlands). Despite all of STEIM’s activities and generous service and support to the international community, on January 1, 2013, it will lose its entire structural funding, approximately 90% of their yearly budget.
I spoke with STEIM’s current artistic director, Takuro Mizuta Lippit, last week and their attitude is cautiously optimistic. Right away he says, “Running an art institution based on these government policies is really unsustainable. At least to run 100% off of it … It’s really difficult, but it seems like it’s what everyone in Europe is dealing with right now.” He goes on to say that “at least STEIM has a supporting network, but we have to figure out how that can lead into a way of sustaining [our] institution.” STEIM is considering options like teaming up with academic institutions, finding private sponsorship, and forming a network and coalition with other labs, among other things. Regardless of what happens, he says, “There’s always creativity. The public should also look at more non-economic benefits of what culture does and the long term benefits.” He ends our talk with a rather elegant thought suggesting that art and culture should be like “trickles of influence that touch people” while simultaneously noting how difficult and impossible it is to visualize these sorts of influences.
That said, the economic challenges on the horizon make this the time to consider the impact STEIM has and clarify its value to the creative community.
STEIM has ten people on staff, along with two researchers and a few rotating interns. This eclectic mix of full-time and part-time employees keeps STEIM on the cutting edge while working on everything from hardware and software design to managing and assisting artistic projects. STEIM is a huge and ever-present force in Amsterdam, especially when measured against its European counterparts as an independent center for electronic music and the performing arts. It is probably most well known to the rest of the artistic community for the small handheld Crackle Box, first made in the ’70s and hailed as “the first commercially available portable self powered alternative ‘keyboard’ analog audio synthesizer with inbuilt loudspeaker.”
STEIM is located at Achtergracht 19, just a block or so from the intersection of the Prinsengracht Canal and the Amstel River, in a building best described as a mixture of heady open-minded creativeness with a bit of the local squat vibe sprinkled on top. Entering through the front door of the building gives you access to four floors of electronic goodness. The basement houses a fabrication lab and the Soundbunker, a retro-laden analogue instrument lab.
Moving up a floor provides access to the main meeting room and two soundproof studios, almost always in use for the very popular artist-in-residence program. The hallway leading up to these two studios doubles as a photo gallery of sorts, giving visitors a peek at the hugely influential figures who have worked and performed at STEIM in the past. Studio 1, filled with radical industrial-looking panels used to acoustically modify the space, is the larger of the two with plenty of room to spread out and make noise. Directly next door, the cozier Studio 2 seems best suited for solo residencies and smaller recording projects. Countless artists like Joel Ryan, Nicolas Collins, Anne La Berge, and Alex Nowitz, among others, have used these studios to develop their work and conduct research.
Head around the corner and up the stairs and you will arrive at the main level of STEIM. Here you will find all the offices for the current employees, a kitchen, large workspace, and hardware lab. The top floor lands you in their atelier, sometimes used as a workspace for visiting researchers and other long-term guests.
In addition to four full floors of working space, STEIM has its own dedicated concert space and a guesthouse capable of accommodating up to twenty visiting artists. With a new graduate program in Instruments & Interfaces slated to kick off this fall in collaboration with the Sonology Department in The Hague, the facilities should see an exciting surge of new faces in the coming years.
STEIM is constantly organizing concerts, lectures, and other events like the Mobile Touch exhibition throughout Amsterdam and the Netherlands. This September, it will host its own three-day festival at the local Frascati Theater. As noted on the website, “13 years have passed since STEIM’s last Touch Festival in 1998, and we think it’s time again. The event will feature mostly exclusive work and research produced at STEIM over the last 3 years, presented by local and international guests through presentations, symposiums, workshops and of course concerts.” It is widely visible on the international scene, too. I ran into a few STEIM employees at the New Interfaces for Musical Expression Conference in Oslo last month, and it is hosting workshops and performances at the BEAM Festival in London this weekend.
I am a relative newcomer to STEIM, being around them for the last three years or so, but even in that short amount of time I have been able to attend the weeklong orientation workshop, work in the studios as an artist-in-residence, speak at the monthly Hotpot Lab lecture series, and take part in all sorts of wild projects, including a performance on the YouTuba at last summer’s Uitmarkt Festival in Amsterdam.
During this amazing time, I have been able to see how valuable and essential the organization is to artists like myself. It would be a devastating blow to the international community to see STEIM, an organization that has been around for over forty years, dismantled so abruptly. As it is, the best thing we can do right now is share our collective experiences. If you have had any encounters with STEIM over its long and rich history, I urge you to share them in the comments below.