Monthly Archives: February 2012

P.I. - Nico Bick


P.I. stands for Penitentiary Institution Over-Amstel in Amsterdam. The building was designed as a human prison, without bars and opened in 1978. When they found out that glass was an insufficient barrier, bars were put in after all. Then, these were called ‘shutters’. P.I. (Bijlmerbajes in popular speech) is located in an interesting counterculture site, now claimed to be a new urban development area.

How to get there?  You go east from the Amstelstation, under the railway tracks, follow the Spaklerweg. Before you reach a huge asphalt field where shopping malls (Gamma), Waternet and the Energy store of Nuon are located, go left under a small brick tunnel and you enter another world. Right away on your left is a garage and scrap place for cars, with old timers like the Citroen Mehari, all lined up on a ramp along the road. Then continue on the everlasting H.J.E. Wenckebachweg. On your right pass a student housing modular building project. The ‘keetwonencomplex’ contains 1000 one person units stacked on top of each other, a cafe, a restaurant, a supermarket and a laundry. 24 container living units are occupied by people with a disability. A container city.  Continue further. On your left you may find the Herz car rental and a Pizza delivery.


H.J.E. Wenckebachweg circumvents two complexes. On one side industrial halls, where e.g. the datacenter of Telecitygroup is located. And for the past 40 years, until last January, the clubhouse of the Hells Angels. On the other side is Bajesdorp: a squatters community and other ‘housing guerilleros’ on a lush green plot of land. Rows of single family houses along small streets, street lanterns and conifers. Painted junk cars on a large parking lot. A typical 1970s building project. Eight squatting houses, former guardhouses, are since 2005 occupied by freelancers, students, people with a tenure. Four houses are still lived in by guards of the P.I. One house is used for live fire exercises. Jail guards are trained here how to extinguish a fire. Some former offices, with bars in front of the windows, are occupied by the anti-squatting business. Since the 1980s a squatters culture has been part of the city of Amsterdam. A social activists and counterculture movement which initiated such culture temples as De Melkweg and Paradiso. Creating breeding grounds for festivals and art platforms. In spring 2010 the squatters in Bajesdorp organized an unplugged living room festival in 7 living rooms with 22 bands and 400 visitors. Not a stereotypical squatters party, more a private view into the diversity of a squatters world in the twenty-first century, based on empathy and co-existence. Bajesdorp is right across from the P.I., separated from each other by a concrete bridge over a canal surrounding the prison.

P.I. the book

In P.I., the book,  the Penitentiary Institution Over-Amstel is a metaphor for the universal notion of ‘prison’ and prison architecture in general.  Nico Bick (1964) has photographed gasoline stations, hyper markets, institutional archives and air-watch towers built during the Cold War.  A work is progress, is documenting the parliament buildings of all 27 European member states. Open his recent photobook P.I. and you enter another world, just across from that concrete bridge and behind a perimeter wall. Behind that wall, inside the prison Bick photographed 24 single cells. 24 is the amount of prison cells in one pavilion, which is divided over two floors. 5 pavilions are located in each tower. In total P.I. Over-Amstel includes 6 towers, positioned along the main control room. That means 6x5x24= 720 prison cells. 4 folios in P.I. show 12 single cells in color. So, half a pavilion. The folios are being separated from each other by plain white folded pages. The total of 24 single cells are printed in black & white thumbnails on the inside of the perforated loose leaf cover. That’s the way to make a comparative study of the standard interior:  a single bed, 2 chairs (one of which is an ‘Ikea’ chair), a compact TV, a kettle, a coffee machine, a checkered towel and a drying reck. A ventilator is a recurring object. A ghetto blaster emerges in some of the rooms. In the examination room detainees are physically examined regarding carrying any stuff prohibited inside the P.I, primarily drugs. In that central room, behind four numbered doors with small high windows, are the individual examination rooms. Next to each door, a dark blue plastic litter bin is placed. A box with medical gloves, a towel and telephone set on a plain table located opposite the 4 doors. A control panel within reach of the table, a heater, a mirror above a washbasin. An exit door, only to be opened with a key. That’s all we need to know. One thumbnail on the right flap, one color spread on a folio. We don’t need any main actors or protagonists to understand what takes place in the examination room. That also counts for the storage room, the holding cells corridor, the pavilion corridor, the main control room, the visitors room. And the control room. Each tower has a control room. All the pavilions in a tower are being watched by the cameras in the control room. Video control systems in some of the cells are also monitored from here. Yet another bare room, that looks hardly used, is the communal room. It is called ‘the living room’. Each pavilion has one. Detainees can meet each other here when they are not behind doors. Each tower has two communal yards. In the regular edition of P.I. these yards are exclusively shown in the photo index on the cover. Each prisoner goes one hour a day, with other detainees from his pavilion, to air out in the yard. Those sentenced to the isolation cell, go outdoors into the air cell, all by themselves. Each tower contains 3 isolation cells and 6 air cells. All located on the top floor of a tower. Once inside, standing on a damp concrete floor of an air cell, you face curved brick walls, a with braided steel wire covered grid ceiling and a miserably dark grey exit door. Graffiti on the walls reads: ‘Mark was here,’ and ‘KRIM’. Black scuff marks are left knee high against the brick walls. All 6 photographs from air cells are printed full color on 2 folio’s, three per folio. 7 of 10 interior shots from holding cells are printed on 2 folio’s. Bick photographed each cell, each room, each corridor, each yard consistently from the same vantage point. But how is it that in such precision work the photographs aren’t always sharp?

access and restrictions

Getting access to the Bijlmerbajes was not easy, particularly for an individual artist. Letters were written and never answered. Several officers had to be convinced over and over again about the aim of this project. Depending on the relation with the officer in charge pictures could be taken. Then it was strictly forbidden to make photographs that include staff and detainees recognizable. That in itself was not a restriction difficult to deal with, because Nico Bick hardly ever photographs people. He is interested in public space, and how that space is used. In that sense his work is about people, although they actually aren’t shown. Maybe that’s why he was given the benefit of the doubt. First and foremost he had to ask permission from the managing director. Second, from the manager in charge of a tower. Third, he needed to get permission from the individual detainee to photograph his cell. And not every prisoner was interested (“What’s in it for me?”). This whole itinerary was like an obstacle race.

working method and graphic design

In terms of working method — art strategy if you prefer — and ways of presenting the work, in series and sequences, there is affiliation between the photo works by Nico Bick and those by Candida Höfer. Both have been primarily interested in public space as common good, both work in series and analogue. Though Höfer tends to have a more encyclopedic approach to her subjects (libraries, museums, universities) focussing on the architecture in the tradition of New Objectivity. Instead, Bick is fitting in the tradition of new documentaries, focussing on the USE of public space.

As for the punch holes in the cover, those are a straightforward reference to a standard Atlanta Spectrum  house mail folder or ‘passing on folder’. They make the folder a holder, a 3D object. The paper type is a reference to folders and dossiers as well. Book designer Joost Grootens: “More photographs are taken then actually printed on the large format color plates in the book. The photo index on the inside of the folder shows the series as a whole. The index refers to thumbnails on your computer. It shows what raw material is available: a folder with images, no hierarchical ordering, just locations. As for the book itself, the entire series made from the prison interiors have been selected. Two images from a series of the perimeter wall are printed on the outside of the cover. On the inside flap, however,  the entire series of the outer wall is shown. Because the series consist of identically photographed interiors, each series, each interior, is processed as a separate quire. By taken the quire apart, you have an excellent way to compare the interiors with each other. Furthermore, a distinction is made between interiors of communal spaces and those of individual rooms. The group interiors — each time a single photograph in a 4-page quire — are inserted in between the (more extensive) quires with series showing the interiors of individual rooms. This publication concept, as a whole, is to be associated with a dossier, but at the same time, in terms of book typologies, is what I would define as the deconstructed book. These books are coming unbound, half bound, perforated or unfinished. Publications as such emphasize the physical aspect of the book. It is this type of book that suits the methodology of absence as practiced by Nico Bick. The description of a specific type of public space by means of a series. Also,the graphic design of the book does not impose a narrative structure on the reader; by comparing the images, the story unravels. This kind of unfinished book, which even lacks ordering (no page numbers or table of contents) anticipates on an active reader.”

P.I. is self-published by Nico Bick in an edition of 400. With an essay by Frits Gierstberg on Big-Brother-is-watching-you, on social and political power structures, on the public realm and on the attempt to photograph the culture of a closed institution. A special edition (25) contains a signed print from the communal yard.