- Scintilla Benevolo
A Soldier's Guide to ACTA
“It all started with Denis, my South African roommate whose grandfather was a soldier in World War II. Like many other young men who had been sent there to fight, he knew little about this continent, its culture and languages. At some point he found himself in Rome, as it had been freshly liberated from fascist and nazi forces. There, the american and british armies handed him a small booklet entitled The Soldier’s Guide,” tells me Marta Pagliuca Pelacani, a 23 years old student of European Studies, living in the anti-kraak building known as ACTA. “This booklet, written in a really paternalistic 1940s tone, was meant to instruct these young soldiers on the wonders of Rome, its history and main attractions. After hearing Denis’ story, I thought to myself ‘how funny would it be to have a Soldier’s Guide for ACTA!’".
For those of you who don’t know, ACTA is a former dentistry center of the Vrije Universiteit, located in the Nieuw-West neighbourhood. Today, it houses the cafè, club and cultural center RADION; the broedplaats (breeding ground) Urban Resort, hosting over 200 creatives and young entrepreneurs; and the notorious ACTA student accommodation. The building, owned by the insurance company Allianz, is currently an anti-kraak: as Allianz decides on the future of this property, it hires an anti-squat agency, which rents the place out to students, collectives and young workers for cheap prices. The agreement is mutually beneficial in that those people who are unable to find an accommodation or a working studio can rent one here for remarkably low prices, while Allianz avoids the building being squatted or deteriorating due to neglect.
For the creatives and inhabitants of ACTA, however, the low prices come at a great cost: the constant threat of eviction. In 2024, ACTA’s anti-kraak contract will expire, and there is no guarantee that it will be renewed. This possibility is exactly what is driving Marta, together with her friend Anna Mercedes, to launch the ACTA Soldier’s Guide: an online booklet documenting the history of this building, its cultural and urban value. A first step towards legitimization.
“Living here, I came to witness the power of ACTA. I live in a hallway with 17 people, 13 different nationalities and a whole world of disciplines- psychologists, sociologists, business people, artists, marketing experts, engineers,” tells me Marta, “ACTA also has an unmatchable artistic character. In the space of one day your hallway goes from being painted green to being painted blue, or decorated with beautiful graffiti. ACTA is a shifting maze. They can’t take this away”.
As Marta explains to me, ACTA also contributes to making the neighbourhood much safer. It houses all sorts of different people, with all sorts of different time schedules. At every hour of the day you will find people sitting at the tables downstairs, making it always safe for the ACTA and nearby residents to come home. “We are very well-knit in the neighbourhood,” tells me Marta, “ACTA is not a weed to eradicate, it’s a tree whose roots run really deep. By taking it away you will cause major problems to the ecosystem around it”.
The affordable rents offered by this anti-kraak also contribute to bringing young, hard-working people into the city, which would otherwise have no chance of studying and working here due to the exploding housing market and staggering prices. “Many outsiders perceive ACTA as this crazy partying place full of drugs, but you have no idea how many companies and initiatives were started here, and how many residents work 2-3 jobs at once”.
ACTA’s Soldier Guide will be accessible online, and through QR codes dispersed around the building. Upon accessing the QR code, you will find a map of the building, and a red spot marking your current location, so you can always find the nearest exit and elevators. As Marta tells me, “many of the corridors are not used, so it happens often for people to get lost”. The page will also provide you with emergency numbers, in case you find yourself in a stressful situation. The Soldier’s Guide will furthermore feature a detailed explanation of ACTA’s history, upcoming events and portraits of its inhabitants. “Anna is a photographer,” says Marta, “so she will be taking pictures of the humans of ACTA, sitting in their rooms. This is also a beautiful way for the community itself to get to know each other better”.
Most importantly, the Soldier’s Guide will be equipped with a cultural archive, documenting all the art that is being produced within these four walls. “A lot of art is produced here every day,” explains Marta, “but unfortunately it often gets quickly vandalized or replaced. Our aim is that of immortalizing the murals and art pieces that appear in our community, so that we can also come to accept the ever-changing nature of this building, which after all is a unique testimony to the most utter freedom it allows”.
While the aim of the Soldier Guide is to archive, prove and legitimize the cultural and urban value of ACTA (in the hope that this might help the community survive once Allianz decides to sell the building to some ‘great’ expensive-housing developer), Marta hopes this project will also help transform the current-day narrative existing around this accommodation. “As a community, we have had many problems before with people coming in for parties, getting totally fucked up and destroying our building. There is this theory in sociology called ‘the broken window effect’, and it shows that people are much more likely to litter a room when it has a broken window. This is exactly what happens at ACTA sometimes: people come over, they see this big building full of graffiti and things laying around, so they think they have the right to do whatever the heck they want. Somebody once punched a whole through a wall, just like that! Our community is incredibly unique because of the freedom it allows, but freedom comes with respect, and this needs to be understood”.