Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Deep Past in "Kraaken"

My week in Amsterdam is ending, and it has been a doozy. A grand city, gilded with the architectural dust of antique empire, but a village for all that. There are many squats here, both legal and illegal, new and old. The movement -- “kraaken” – began in the 1960s, during the time of the Kabouters, the band of radical political provocateurs who were the successors to the infamous Provos of white bicycle fame. To get some handle on this past, I trotted to the International Institute for Social History, a grand imposing building, which houses a squatting archive. Actually it’s part of the state archive… but it’s all in Dutch. Thank goodness I’m into art! The archive was assembled by Eric Duivenvoorden, who also put together the magnificent book of posters, Met emmer en kwast. Veertig jaar Nederlandse actieaffiches 1965-2005. (That’s roughly “with bucket and paste, 40 years of Dutch action posters”—thanks to Google translate.) The book is packed with lovely posters, many of which are on the IISH website.
I also watched “It Was Our City,” a film about the Amsterdam squatters movement 1975-1988, made in 1996 by Joost Seelen. (Duivenvoorden co-wrote the scenario.) The story told in the film (subtitled in English) is both inspiring and cautionary. The squatting movement began in earnest in Amsterdam in the 1970s. It was about housing – too many of the few vacant buildings were being held off the market for speculation, and young people needed places to stay. The government’s housing bureaucracy was swamped and ineffective. One the “kraaken” of empty houses got underway, it was full speed ahead. The police finally reacted, the mutual violence escalated, and in the end the squatters were fighting amongst themselves.
Afficionadoes of “demo porn” would love this film. Once the police first attacked to clear a squatted house, the squatters got real about their defenses. The first defense of a house from eviction was entirely passive. The defenders were beaten. Next came the first real defense – doors and windows were barricaded, and as cops started climbing the ladder, the squatters poured oil on them. When they ran out of oil, one shouted, “It’s all gone, come and get us!” The event turned into a kind of slapstick. Old people were not so amused by the police tactics. “This is like the war,” they said, like the Nazis had come back.
The squatters trained, dressed with helmets and leather jackets, defensive sticks and gloves for the next confrontations. A kind of apogee was reached with the defense of the Big Keyzer Squat in 1978, a massive building owned by a big corporation, OGEM, with ministers and ex-ministers financially involved.
The “squatting surgery” barricaded the building with medieval ingenuity. First wooden sheets went up on the windows, then steel plates and pipes behind (these were welded), then scaffolding and sandbags. There’s much more… but that brief description is enough to clue you to the unique combative and entitled nature of Dutch squatting. As was explained to me later, Holland is a consensus society, where they try to appease everyone. It is far easier to give in to the legitimate demands of a militant band of organized squatters than it is to enforce the absolute property rights of big capital.
Today many squats exist, new and old. I visited one not too old, a small building called Joe’s Garage. The place is surprisingly neat and tidy, with tile-lined walls like a butcher’s shop or charcuterie, and well appointed with blond wooden tables and chairs. By no means my idea of a rough and tumble squat! There’s a bunch of folks around the bar, and at a table seated a bald-headed 30ish gent in leather pants. I smile and nod. He is not smiling. The soup is very good, with cress maybe and mushrooms, butter and flour. I pop a fiver into the “donatie” box, and the barkeep smiles and asks me if I want a beer. Yes, an ale. He’s never heard of it. I get a Jever. Everyone ignores me. Unlike Ramparts, I am not giving a talk, and I know no friend of the space. Two French girls enter. They order beers in English. Their entry is attended by much interest by some young men, but they sit by themselves and do not take soup. They are ignored. More folks arrive. I am pleased to see that it is multi-generational. One elderly lady arrives bearing a fat package.
Soon the dinner is ready. It’s a kind of bean fry up with pineapple! (“an experiment”) says one of the cooks. More folks enter; three English gals talking of their gay affairs. They are there to eat. But I must go, having played only the fly on the wall… Outside a raffish looking gent is smoking a cig. “Lovely meal,” I say. “The best café I’ve been to in Amsterdam.” He replies, “It’s not a café. It’s a social center for squatters.” This remark I thought was revealing. I think by “social center” he meant “social club.” Many squatters have their own idea of what they are about.
Nazima, a student writing an ethnography of Amsterdam squatters, had tipped me to Joe’s Garage. She asked me if I’d consulted Well, no. I’m really winging it here. Nazima was generous, but a little mystified by my project. My principle contact here is Renee Ridgway. She is an artist and long-time Amsterdammer, fluent in both Dutch and English. But during the first days of my visit she was laid up in bed. It took a while for us to meet…

Thursday, February 19, 2009

NYU Reoccupation in New York City

This is a difficult thing to do... but they have done it, they say. Live, with streaming video, the politicals are back inside New York University. Here is the skinny. Meanwhile, I am in Amsterdam, in the beautiful state archives building housing the International Institute for Social History. I am researching squatting in Amsterdam, hindered perhaps a little by the fact that everything is in Dutch. Saw a great film, though -- "The City Was Ours" (1996), about the movement. I will have much to report when I get a chance to blog up good... Now I shall go in search of SCs. Into the fog and rain!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

“My Dear Edifice”: Roaming London

I was invited to talk at the Ramparts Social Center in East London by Peter Conlin, a Canadian graduate student who is closely involved with the space. Ramparts is a solidly built 3-story warehouse with a café on the ground floor, gallery and offices on the 2nd, and 3rd floor offices. The night I spoke saw a hot night of action for a traveling art show called “The Archetist,” based on a psychological cyberpunk story about a psycho-architect who analyzes nomadic buildings. Despite the wacky costumes and fringe-type theatricale, the content made the work seem very appropriate to present in a social center. The effort was somehow removed from its fan fiction context into a wider zone of social significance by being held in a space that has exhausted its appeals and hangs perilous awaiting eviction. Why the bailiffs haven’t come is a mystery… Their forbearance is attributed to “the crisis; it costs money to stage an eviction, and then some more to seal the building.
I spoke in a rambling way about my work researching artists‘ collectives. I was pleased to see Nils Norman showed up with a friend for the first part. After my talk I had interested albeit brief conversations with Rampart people -- the place was bone-chillingly cold… A fellow also named Alan told me of Area 10, an artists’ project space in Peckham, that is producing a big event Sunday. It is a factory building with artists’ studios. They have stopped paying rent because of lack of services.
Alan introduced me to a friend who had organized a Pirate University project in Barcelona. (I regret his name escaped me.) They staged a talk on Jacques Derrida’s concept of nothingness while seated on chairs in the middle of a street in London. It sounded like the perfect combination of post-structuralism and activism, mixed to the pitch of absurdity. He lamented the fractious nature of squatters ni Barcelona, saying there was no unity -- two years ago it was better, he said. Oddly enough this was precisely what Alan was saying to me earlier abuot London. “Network is coming,” wrote the organizers of the social center conference in January, but it seems it may have to clamber over the fractious tendencies of autonomists worldwide. [Next: A visit to Queen Mary.]

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Madrid: The Traffic in Dreams

So Pablo takes me on a fast tour of Diagonal the newspaper, which has a very clean, bright modern storefront tucked into Lavapiés, an older part of the city of Madrid. The place includes a store selling t-shirts and media items. In the back, a fellow is folding aprons printed with a bright red and black design in Constructivist style -- “keep the kitchen clean!”
Diagonal published Pablo’s review of the Barcelona conference of European social centers in early January.
In the basement a meeting is slowly getting underway of organizers of the “sin papeles” community (without papers), preparing for an upcoming demonstration. It will be a march from Lavapiés to Sol, the historic city center of Madrid.
Many of the sin papeles are Senegalese and other Subsaharan Africans who have been coming into Spain in increasing numbers in the last 10 or so years. We chat outside the Diagonal offices with a Pakistani activist -- about New York. Not so surprisingly, many immigrants to Spain speak English; so many, that handouts in Spanish classes may be written in English.
After our visit to Diagonal, I follow Pablo into the Metro, and we head downtown to the Seco social center. The pink panther is the logo of Seco.
This centro is located in a city-owned building now, a strikingly designed rounded modern structure. The building was sitting empty, and the Seco group, which began working in a squat years ago, was given the use of the site after a negotiation. There is a small rent which they mostly pay. Inside Seco a clutch of kids play on the internet, and a small group of youths is conferring. It is the hacklab, Pablo says. A small room holds bicycles and parts of the Critical Mass group -- Bici Crítica, an uphill struggle in Madrid. Classes in Spanish at three levels are held here for immigrants.
Seco is near a working class district which is now 35% immigrants. Seco strives to relate to these populations. I am introduced to Elia, who is traveling to NYC this summer… August. She is shy with English, and quickly returns to setting up for a party, a music night honoring the “Mods” of UK.
I was impressed by Diagonal. Like Traficante, it is a very together left space, not a squat, not dirty or unimproved at all. Seco also is very clean, a modern building, not brand new but not shabby.
Bernat emerged from the classroom where he had been teaching Spanish. Pablo said he was a writer for Diagonal. Bernat is a very personable Catalan wearing a black and white kefiya. Guillermo was also there, a researcher making “maps” of the social movements in different Spanish cities. He was reserved, and although he spoke English very well, I did not have a chance to speak with him. Bernat sees the predecessors of the social centers of today as very definitely rooted in the “ateneos” (athenaeums) of the Republican era, cultural centers where working class people could educate themselves. I asked Pablo about the questions which had preoccupied me in regards to the social centers, that is the subjectivities that participation in their activities generates and requires, the new mentalities beyond capitalism. In the words of the Universidad Nómada text, it is a matter of “creating new mental prototypes for political action.” For Pablo at this moment, the challenging work of Seco SC klies in the conversations of diverse people, making the “mixtape,” or “building the Esperanto of our movement.”
On Friday afternoon I had a very good talk with J, a hacker from Miami. He was participatng closely in the “Garage Science” workshop at Media Lab Prado, and asked that we meet there. There I found him huddling over his project. In the middle of a swirling crowd of techno hackers stood the great Steve Kurtz directing the actionj, or as he put it, trying to help out the folks working on various techno projects. (Just what these did consist of I had not the time to learn.) Also on hand by purest chance was the architect and urban theorist Kyong Park, in town to give a talk at Casa Encendidas. Kyong now teaches in San Diego, and works mainly in Asia. He was in the lab because he was having problems with his computer. After suffering through an intricate technical presentation on the electrical properties of various fruits, J and I repaired to a Turkish café nearby. He has been working with a group called SinAntena, also based in the Traficante space. This is , a media outfit that has been covering political events in Madrid, including squatting. Jay sees the social center squatting in Madrid as having come out of the shantytowns on the city’s periphery. These arose in the 1970s and ‘80s. Most were destroyed. Some were replaced by permanent housing (That’s the solution recommended by the UN, according to Mike Davis in his book “Planet of Slums.”) Gradually squatting moved into the city center. The task of building a social center is arduous, and many folks cannot sustain it. Many people J knows now squat only for housing, not to make a social center. This kind of energy is rare!

Friday, February 6, 2009

Una visita a Patio

El Patio de Maravilla is the largest squatted social center in Madrid. Just after I arrived in Madrid, strolling about, we ran into a demonstration for the place, which isunder threat of eviction. In the nearby square, before a statue of a revolutionary heroine, many hundreds of people gathered to support El Patio in the face of an eviction threat. It was an excited crowd, listening to speakers on megaphones, whipped up by the big drums of a samba school band -- a festive event. Today I meet some folks at Traficante de Sueños, a leading political bookstore and publishing company that carries many items on the social center movement. I was there in November to pick up some of these books and DVDs, the colorful independent media products that explain the movement. All of it in Spanish, of course. I can dance to it, but most of it regrettably I cannot understand… I return to Traficante, but the meeting is pushed back. I will return, and we will visit Seco Social Center. Traficante is buzzing, with customers and people working at computers in office suites just visible from the second floor of the bookstore. It is an architecturally curious place, built around and over a meeting hall. I profer a copy of the old book describing ABC No Rio (1985), and receive in return a lovely portfolio of silkscreen works by Taller Popular de Serigrafia of Argentina. These are not specific to social centers, but they are lovely things, militant images printed onto various kinds of fabric, and I will hang them around the room for “House Magic.”