Sunday, July 25, 2010

Lost in Repression

I went with my Hamburg guide to a demonstration against police repression. The rallying point was a tourist center, near the famous immigrant embarkation point – ah, yes, here it is on the cover of the Eyewitness English guidebook, the Landungsbruecken. It's made from thick, rusticated masonry and features nicely expressionistic glowering statues. As a fine art sculptor Ernst Barlach does not thrill me, but this style in architectural ornament is a gas – like a Hollywood monster movie. A couple of dour looking statues near the top of one building looked exactly like the intimidating policemen who were marshalling beneath...
The march was part of a series of events considering state repression around the 9th anniversary of the police murder of Carlo Giuliani. He was killed in Genoa, during protests against the G8 meeting. The symbol of this campaign was the surveillance camera. The discussions, organized at a place in Hamburg called Centro Sociale, considered a repression which is “versatile, comprehensive and subtle.” But the repression in evidence at the event on Saturday certainly wasn't subtle.
The demo marshalled slowly – at first a speaker with some 20 or 30 around a truck, and then the crowd appeared. There were many – the paper estimated 1,000 – and they marched along the Hafenstrasser, waterfront road near the harbor. There were, said a speaker, just as many police present. It was pretty frightening, i must say -- to see all the German police with their body armor and helmets, also tanks and armored vehicles parked above the parade route. Mostly it was young people in black clothes, and many punks, but also mixed in older people marching, marching along the street with the police following in a line...
From the overpasses, tourists were watching – they had been blocked from coming down into the assembly point, where tickets to attractions are sold. People also watched from the balconies of hotels and luxury apartments. The punks were chanting -- all in German, I didn't understand any of that.
Also along the so way some of the formerly squatted houses – now they are all legal, low-rent apartment houses – had put out banners in support. One house, with the motto “Out of Control” painted on it, put on a display of loud fireworks from their roof. Sometimes these marches, which end at the Rote Flora occupied social center, conclude with a riot. This follows on, I was told, from a police provocation, a charge on the crowd or such. Then the young men react. On May 1st they demolished a bank with cobblestones. It seems almost necessary for that to happen, from the state's point of view. If you call out 500 or 1000 police onto the street, even bring them from other parts of Germany (there was a troop here from Berlin, one person said), then you have to justify the expense somehow. So there is a riot; you must make one happen so the repression has "value."
We left the "parade" before the end, where the riots sometimes happen. But the newspaper reports no riot, all was peaceful. This confirms one observer's guess – now, with the political situation uncertain, the CDU right wing party would not risk provoking the (anemic) left Greens by beating up on people of the left. If they do, there could be no coalition, and new elections would be called.

Unter dem Motto "Lost in Repression" haben am Sonnabend rund 1000 Linksautonome auf St. Pauli demonstriert. (beneath the motto: "LIP" about 1,000 left autonomists demonstrated in St. Pauli district.)
Photo: Michael Arning, Hamburger Abendblatt -- more photos at:

Lost in Repression? Control Yourself!
details of the campaign, in German
propaganda here:

and a very impressive ad spot for the Pirate Party, which spells out the problem in English, German and Spanish: called "spot of the Pirate Party"

Thursday, July 22, 2010

A New Grand Bazaar

Years ago I was in Germany acting like an artist, and I took part in a group show at NGBK in Berlin. There a critic observed that my art was kindisch, like Sesame Street. I was a little hurt by that. But now I think it is okay. So also is my theory, like in a playground, observing and learning from what the other children are doing. I like that the Frise Kuenstlerhaus where I visit now backs onto a playground. I especially watch the cool kids, not the ones who are always following the rules and staying close to the teacher, but the kids who have their own fort.
This is only to say that things that happen influence my theory. Since I have been in Hamburg, I have had a few of these kindische theoretical insights. Basically what is going on in cities now is a culture war, a struggle between productive and consumptive culture. This is a struggle between the local and the global, between self-organized, self-sustaining cultural producers and cultural marketers, i.e., culture within capitalism. It is most dramatically exemplified in Hamburg maybe by Gaengeviertel -- productive culture asserting itself, and the opera house monument to classical consumption, an as yet unbuilt tower of babel, reaching for the heavens of parity in signifying global cities' consumptive power, a crystalline crown of pure money. Now this consumptive culture ideal is consumptive in another sense: it is sick because of the economic crisis.
I see these two kinds of culture as exemplified in the movement of occupied self-organized social centers as versus capital markets and their collaborating institutions. To be sure, markets can act independent of the interests of speculative finance capital, just as institutions can collaborate with other actors rather than mainly or only with the speculating rich.
With its rich mix of activities, the SC embodies production culture, whereas the institutions of showing have galleries and stages in them where things are shown to be consumed. Most people only look, but the rich can buy. (Already we have here two kinds of “rich.”)
So, to other kinds of markets: in the Altona district of Hamburg where I stay, there is the Mercado, a vertical shopping center, air-conditioned in summer and warm in winter. Very nice. But inside no one is making anything, except money. In Istanbul there is the Grand Bazaar. It is a famous labyrinth of consumption, shops upon shops, arranged over centuries to make the winding streets of Altona seem like a grid. But among this maze are numerous workshops, called “hans,” where things are made. So the Grand Bazaar, a descendant of the caravanserai, and built to support the great mosque Hagia Sophia, contains both imports and local products in its form. To get into the Mercado, a local producer must start outside, to deal with the capitalist mediators who run the shops, and only then maybe they will be allowed to come inside. That can seem a little strange if you live and work next door.
The huge building that was recently occupied by artists in Altona is an amazing design. It is a department store with a parking garage – very typical for the USA. But there the the store and the garage are separate buildings. I have never seen them squashed together in such a manner. This old department store is gargantuan, but very exciting in its form. Now it is empty. Artists occupied it, turning it into a warren of productive culture with many outlets – galleries, shops, theaters and meeting rooms – forming around its public edges. The artists were evicted. Now it is to be taken over by Ikea, and become again a pure outlet for an archetypical multinational capitalist actor. Not only that, but it will be knocked down and rebuilt.
The form of the Ikea store in USA is invariably a shed, the cheapest form of construction, really like a humongous shipping container in Swedish national colors of blue and yellow. How nice! How simple! And how appropriate for Hamburg. I am sorry, but I think an Ikea shed would be a stupid replacement for the incredible grand architectural construction that sits like an abandoned space station in Altona.
The Frappant project was constituting itself not only as housing, or even as housing for productive capacities (studios and ateliers), but also as a market. But this was looking as if it would be self-sustaining, like a social center. The people who would run and maintain the place would live there, so they would not need to be paid much. The people who worked there would also sell there, like in a bazaar or medieval market. So there would not be any profit. If you are a capitalist, of course, this kind of situation would be intolerable. Where is there any room for you?
Now I see in Berlin there are a number of projects to reclaim Tegel airport, long abandoned, as a public space. This is very nice. Tegel was the site of the famous Berlin airlift. This was a response to a Soviet siege – very medieval, which the USA and western allies responded to by throwing food over the walls. It is a high moment of climate-destroying “air power,” and also of the form of post-war global trade, also really destructive of atmosphere. (Although I can't complain that I am here because of it.) Really the airlift of food falling gently from the air to defeat the brutal siege was the heavenly apotheosis of free trade. When he crowed about it, John Kennedy said, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” a nice bit of Germglish. Many people liked that he claimed he was a pastry. Now Tegel can be reclaimed for making pastries if you like, instead of bringing in things from other places.
So I apply this kind of kindische thinking to analyze the function of the social centers in Europe as I have understood it. The classic squat provides housing. They take an abandoned building – not abandoned in terms of ownership usually, but unused – renovate it and maintain it. There is no profit in that for the owner! But people need housing. This is understood. So finally some of the squats are legalized as social housing. This is good. The modernist social contract requires that the workers get housing in return for giving up their lives to the factories. You can see the same kind of deal in China today with the corporate barracks for the poor peasants who come to the cities to work. But maybe that isn't really so useful in the post-modern city. Maybe that kind of social housing, really a state subsidy for industrial capitalism, isn't what cities need.
There is no profit in making this social housing, to be sure. And finally people who were bold and aggressive when they were young get cheap apartments. That is nice, but.... what is the social benefit?
I think maybe the social benefit lies in what kind of people they are.
And that comes back to Richard Florida's arguments for the creative city, which Hamburg planners were very entranced with. Activists all over Europe (especially in UK) have vigorously criticized Florida's “creative class” ideas as a theoretical blunt instrument for planners of the hypercapitalist city to do what they want while pretending to respect people and culture. And what they want is to knock everything down and rebuild it bigger and more slick, so everyone who was there before falls off onto the edges, away from the new playground of the rich and their workers. Who are the real creative class? Those who can reconfigure everything, the masters of the universe. You say you are an artist? Ha, ha, ha! What do you really make?
So the occupation movement in the global cities proposed as a counter argument their own fort built in the woods of property-as-commodity, built inside large abandoned buildings in the form of the social center. (Hamburg now so far as I know has really only one, the Rote Flora.) Why should a city give these buildings to the activists who take them? Why should a city even give space to artists? Why shouldn't a city just dogmatically enforce all property rights?
Well, the answer to the last question is I think now maybe obvious. If you dogmatically enforce property rights, you uphold only speculative capitalism. And in this moment of crisis, when speculative capitalism has proven that it doesn't lead to uniform social benefit, but instead very efficiently produces mass social disruption and ruin, maybe it isn't so wise to put all your eggs into that one basket. Unless you like to color the ground with them... and egg tempera is a very durable pigment.
But it is less obvious why these aggressive people should get this space in the city. Maybe they should get it because of the social effects they produce. This is some of what Richard Florida says when he responds to the Hamburg manifesto, “Ohne uns.” That manifesto text concerned the hyper-gentrifying city that was being built without us, that is, without the cultural producers who are not rich.
What of this social effect, though? Of what value is that? Or, rather, how does that create value? Let me call that the Ganas effect, after a commune in Staten Island named Ganas, the Spanish word for “desire.” (It is only one letter away from ganar, or “win.”) The Ganas commune is not especially idealistic. They are business people. Ganas produces festivals in the community where they are located. That place is mostly poor, pretty depressed, full of immigrants and many abandoned institutional buildings. Year after year the waterfront festivals were very small-scale but charming events which involve a lot of artists who play for free, and the immigrants who can bring their families and eat cheap and have the kids be entertained. Very modest, really. But the people of Ganas build a kind of magical atmosphere around these events. How? There are about 20 people in the commune working the event, and as they move around they look at each other, smile, wave, interact nonverbally. (Ganas is deeply invested in using a special set of group psychological techniques among themselves.) This interaction spills over to everyone else who is there – every other person there also sometimes gets a direct look, a smile, a nod which has just bounced off another commune member. This is the social glue that makes everyone at the event feel that they are acknowledged and that something special is happening.
In a temporally condensed form, this is the kind social effect that artists and activists have in a community. Artists are always looking for connections and customers, and activists are always trying to organize people. For these reasons they look at people, say “hello,” and interact more than most people. People in the ideal shiny slick hypercapitaliist city are more or less going to their jobs and back home to their families. They can seem like figures in those marvelous toys where everything is on a track, running, running. They are entrancing to watch, but kids get bored with them really quickly. They want something they can move around off the track. Something they can play with. Similarly, the spillover effect from the kinds of social relations activists and artists engage in benefits a community by making people there more social. More social people create more networks, and more new initiatives likely to succeed than do alienated unsocial people.
So this is the primary social value that artists create. And I argue that activists also make it. They have bars, VoKus, cafes, infoshops, bike ateliers, and other primitive anti-businesses. They organize demonstrations. And all of this activity is useful in stimulating people involved in other parts of the city economy to think of what they do differently.
In Madrid a new artist occupation has been legalized by the state. It is called Tabacalera, because it is in a huge formerly state-owned tobacco product factory. (Actually it was first built to make snuff and playing cards for the royal court.) Like a giant cigar, the social nicotine from Tabacalera can stimulate Madrid's neurosystem to make faster connections. This could become addictive...

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

It Begins in San Francisco...

A group of housing activists occupied the vacant second floor of a building on the corner of 20th and Mission Streets Monday night and said they don’t plan to leave unless they are forced out.

T-Mobile occupies the first floor.

“We are going to vote with crowbars,” said one protester at the rally that began at 5:50 p.m. at the 16th Street BART Station.

Another added, “You can put me in a house or in a jail, but if you put me in jail, it’s going to cost you more.”

Read more:

Sunday, July 18, 2010

15h Anniversary of Reclaim the Streets Celebrated by European Union

I may have to retitle this blog "Flexible Governance." I am diggin' this, as are a million Germans... [Reblog from Associated Press/Yahoo] "People gather, to celebrate `` Still-Life '' People gather on the Autobahn in Essen, western Germany, to celebrate 'Still-Life' on Sunday, July 18, 2010. The most-travelled motorway in Germany A40 is closed for one day on 60 kilometers for the most spectacular event of the European Cultural Capital Ruhr 2010, when 20,000 tables are set as the longest banquet of the world. About one million visitors and inhabitants of the Ruhr agglomeration area meet, eat and drink together on a Sunday between the cities of Dortmund and Duisburg in Germany's most populated region." (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
Now, as crisis government shrinks, civic creativity is being outsourced... So take the next step! DePave Summer 2010!

Reclaim the Streets archive

DePave Summer 2010

Saturday, July 17, 2010


After the intensity of the Tabacalera's beginnings in Madrid, I bounced through Berlin to Hamburg. Now I am staying in a schoolroom a few blocks from the spectacularly busy port on the Elbe River. My hosts Sabine and Michel led me on a tour of the major historical sites during my first day, and I am afraid it passed in a blur. The next day Sabine showed me more, including the famous Gängeviertel occupation in center city.
That first day we had a drink on a terrace at a historic Bauhaus-constructed school building overlooking the Elbe. (I don't know the name of it.) The school has been vacant for 10 years, and only now some artists have permission to open a small cafe with exhibitions inside. Upon walking into the elegant modernist classic the first thing that struck me was the extraordinary flow of air through the building. It was coming from the terrace and rolling through the rooms, freshening the interior on a very hot day. This school is to be torn down to build a high-rise building, luxury apartments with views. There has been talk of occupying it to forestall this destruction.
Then we walked along the Elbe riverfront. Sabine pointed out a trendy bar that had been a squat only a year or so ago. Many giant luxury buildings have been built along the waterfront, ;like a wall obscuring the view of many others. Despite these monster, the walkway along the water remains a public access. We walked through tables filled with diners at one point.
Then Park Fiction hove into view. This is a park designed with multiple S-curved lawns to resemble a flying carpet, and tall metal palm trees, and it is full of people, chatting, drinking, strumming guitars. The park in St. Pauli neighborhood is the outcome of a 15 year long struggle to reclaim public space from top-down development plans of the Hamburg government. Park Fiction was a participatory planning exercise led by artists. They organized the process as a game, and collected an “archive of desires.” After the group was invited to present at the prestigious art fair Documenta, the city started to deal with them more seriously. The outcome finally was that the city withdrew its intentions for another giant high-rise, and today there is the park. (The Park Fiction group is in the thick of engaged artistic practice worldwide; of that more later.) Next to the park is the Golden Pudel Klub, the original squatter's bar with a political music scene which does a booming business – about which I am told they are ambivalent. Park Fictioneers remain very active, working with a new group called “It's Raining Caviar.”
We met Michel at a bar on Haffenstrasse, the harbor street where Autonomen squatters staged pitched battles with police to defend their squats in the 1980s. (Eddie Yuen, et al. eds., book “The Battle of Seattle” has a chapter on this.) Today it is calmed, and we walked on to Rote Flora, which remains an resistant occupied social center in a standoff with the city. We arrived at the antique theater which is the focus of a nightlife area thronged with young folks. A bassy disco was in progress, but a woman there showed us inside, and took us to the silkscreen atelier in the back. It is here that the beautiful monthly schedules are produced to be posted on the street. (Some of these are in the House Magic exhibition, since Michel had brought them to NYC.) Michel told me that during the winter the silkscreen workshop is the warmest room in the place, so the bands sit there between shows! Rote Flora houses a social movements archive which I hope to visit.
The next day, Sabine took me by the vast abandoned department store that is slated to become an Ikea (a Swedish furniture giant). This was occupied in protest and then evicted. We ended up at Gängeviertel, a recently squatted cluster of late 19th century buildings, survivors of wartime bombing, that adjoins the center city with its massive skyscrapers. The place is a relatively recent occupation, and it faces the stark skyscrapers of the Springer publishing company in a contrast that could not be starker. The artists turned it into an overnight warren of studios and ateliers (see diagram above). The surprising thing about this occupation is that they are talking with the city, which has been almost amiable! (The article from Der Spiegel below lays out the situation quite well.)
After this intensive introduction to the Hamburg scene, and a lot of biking and getting lost, I spent this day in bed, studying. Now I am going to hear some music... and probably get lost again! But for the “House Magic” project, it is clear to me that Hamburg is the place to be.


my hosts, Kuenstlerhaus Frise

Park Fiction

Christoph Schaefer's 2008 lecture at MIT is online; at about 27 minutes he talks about the Parkl Fiction project

Es Regnet Kaviar/It's Raining Caviar

Rote Flora website

Gängeviertel website

“Squatters Take on the Creative Class: Who Has the Right to Shape the City?”
By Philipp Oehmke (translated from German),1518,670600,00.html

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Tabacalera Is Smokin'

Yesterday was busy! After a long lunch and a rest, we returned to Tabacalera, the new CSA in Madrid. (That is Centro Sociale Auto-gestionada, or self-organized social center.) A party climaxed the events of the week long fiesta for three years of “red”-sistance thrown by the CSOA Patio Maravillas (that's “O” for okupa, or occupied, a squat). Thanks to an artist who has been working with the group since the beginning, we quickly met half a dozen of the most involved people in the space. My Spanish is growing, leaning on guesses at the infinitive forms of many Latin-derived English words. Also I have learned a sort of Spanish word order from my lover, now much damaging my English prose style I am sure. While I can somewhat speak, I cannot well understand what people say to me...

Before our friends arrived, it was frustrating. We were to meet Ely at the cute, brightly-painted hut which is the bicycle workshop in the patio behind the building, but the way out back was blocked by a tape and a guardian. We could see people outside sitting there, but were not allowed to reach them. Also I needed water, but no one was serving at the bar. In frustration, I waited on the street for Ely.

Later my problems were solved in a very revealing way. The access to the patio is through a wooden spiral staircase, really a hole in the floor behind a cabinet, in a room that houses the historical relics of the old Tabacalera factory. “No tocar los cosas historicos,” (?) the sign reads – don't touch the historical relics. People had been vague about directions to us. It's kind of an open secret: Down the rabbit hole, and you are in the patio. When our friends arrived, we went to the bar, where there was by now a good press of people. I saw the stacks of plastic cups behind the servers, and behind the bar a large kitchen. I simply trotted in, grabbed a cup, and poured myself a cup of water at the sink. A sign behind the bar says something like, “This is not a bar. This is a place to serve yourself.” Not true during a big public event, but the principle holds true. Always, if you act, like you know what you are doing – yes. But the place really could use a drinking fountain!

At length Ely arrived, and we chatted on the street. She said that a number of people who had been active in the CSOA Laboratorio – 1, 2 and 3* – were central in the assembly at Tabacalera. They had long wanted a neighborhood center in Lavapies, the multi-cultural district where many of them lived. The giant building had been empty for ten years since the privatization of the cigarette-making business. Now at last, after long lobbying with the city government, they finally have it.

When Montfrague arrived with Manuel our tour began. First I met Anna, who did not have much English, so I tried to talk to her about the situation in the U.S., in NYC with ABC No Rio. She asked if it had been a squat. No, but founded in an occupation, and later, during the period of most contest with the city, in the 1990s when the Lower East Side squatter movement was most strong, the whole building of ABC was actually squatted. Today the director is a squatter, living in a now-legalized building wiith a very low rent so he can afford to work at ABC for very little money.

Anna was in the cafe, where a Czech actress talked with us about her job of doing theater for free. Tabacalera is dedicated to free culture as a foundational principle. The actress was a curious person, smiling, very sweet. At one moment I saw that she was standing with one foot in a large green plastic tub...

After this we descended into the basement, where years ago tobacco leaves were stored. There I was introduced to Ciril, who was central to the Taller Urbana, a group of street artists working collectively. They had a big table, with many people around talking, drawing, drinking – and in the first bay of the basement warehouse a sort of ad hoc exhibition area for the products emerging from the Taller. Ciril it turns out worked at Tacheles, the famous Berlin squat and art center, in the 1990s, from '92 to '96. These were during the glory days after die Wende of '89, when the wall came down and many vacant properties near it in the former city center were up for grabs. The Berlin squatter movement seized the day.

Ciril thought the scene in Spain was sluggish, so he went to Berlin and stayed for four years. Now, after the Barcelona squat scene has been more or less crushed, Madrid is where it is at. Ciril asked me to talk to the Taller next week, and I look forward to return and discuss the House Magic project. The street art inside the Patio Maravillas last year before their eviction was extraordinary. The winding stairs of the building were a blaze of colorful forms. Although the installation was a chaotic free-for-all, and many people didn't like that, the result was a striking spectacle. Something like that, if it could be put together with the coherence of the 2640 and Justseeds installations I have seen in the U.S., would be a wonderful show which could travel to cities all over.

Back upstairs, we stood beside the stage as a punk ska band blew it out to the crowd. Too loud for my old ears!, yes, but a crowd of boys were moshing like monkeys, and everyone seemed to dig it. The band – I didn't get their name – had horns, and one musicians used a penny-whistle and then a bagpipe. I couldn't well hear any of the “oi!”-ish chants, but if they didn't have to do with Spain's soccer victory, I'd be surprised.

At lunch I learned the bizarre story of the oracular octopus who has infallibly picked the world cup winner for many years by fishing food from a bowl marked with different flags. The creature is German, actually. I hope its disappointed keepers didn't eat it! All this was revealed over a delicious plate of the animal served with potatoes. I suggested that Spain should not eat “pulpo” for a while to honor the oracle.

A couple of the Patio Maravillas crew showed up beside the stage, bouncing to the music. Of course it was too loud to talk. Later in the hallway I met Luis, who has good English, and I learned more. I asked about the “legitimation crisis.” Tabaclera is a CSA, not a CSOA or occupied space, but in residence legitimately. The graffiti on the banner outside – “vendidas!” (sell out) – reflecting the fear that many squatters have that a legitimated space will mean that the other okupas will more easily become targets of the state. Luis said that remained to be seen, but that many of the other okupas were already seeing the usefulness that Tabacalera could have to the movement. The fact that the Patio Maravillas party was drawing a crowd of many hundreds shelling out 3 euros each could mean a lot for that place. I recall the confidence Pierpaolo Mudu expressed in London about raising money for a publication through a concert at the massive Roman CSOA Forte Pretestino. “Once with Manu Chao, and we have it.” Although free culture and “copyleft” are ideals in practice, there is disagreement about what role money should play in the new CSA. People are seeing the possibilities.

So the criticism being expressed by the graffiti outside may not end up to be too toxic. The movement in Madrid, Luis told me, is more open and less fractionated than it is in Barcelona. This cooperation among many people of many ages and points of view has made something like the Tabacalera possible.

Of course, when money appears, many open hands appear also. Manuel told me that the state has been making noises about the group in Tabacalera paying rent. I suggested that if they were to budget their project, with the “in kind” work, the “sweat equity” that everyone is providing cleaning, repairing and administering the space, the calculation should end up with the state owing them for providing such an extraordinary service on such a scale!

Just as Leoncavallo in [Milan] began in 1979 to provide volunteer social service, so the Tabacalera CSA stands ready to become a primary artist-run cultural center for a city which has never had one. Right now, in the heyday of its beginnings, the place is as Manuel said, “boiling.” How in the long run it will be run can be open to question. There are already many disagreements to be worked out in assembly, frictions between the culture of activists and artists. Manuel and I had an obscure argument about Tabacalera administration. I think he saw it as a kind of collection of groups, like religious cults, each revolving around a guru. I maintained that, with its anarcho-syndicalist tradition, Spain is in the best position to realize anarchism in its ideal, as “the highest form of order.” (Although their students now may not really get it, Stefano Harney, Matteo Pasquinelli, Stevphen Shukaitis and others teaching “critical management studies” in the London business schools are rolling out the really new ways of doing sustainable democratically organized economic activity.)

Manuel spoke also of the Medialab Prado. This e-art workshop and learning center lies behind the Caixa Forum museum in the city center, around the corner from what should be Henry Kissinger's favorite hotel should he dare to come to Madrid. (I guess this by the cloud of black cars and body guards all around out front.) Medialab Prado is a small but important state-funded center of special culture that represents the cutting edge of technological development in the kind of culture industry every city dreams of nurturing. The Medialab had an organizational meeting this week to discuss making some kind of arrangement with Tabacalera. What is the result I don't know yet.

As the evening continued my magic language pill was wearing off. I met two members of a “conceptual art group” called Tauromachia whose project I could not understand at all, only that it will be big. They were working on set-ups in the large sculpture studio we visited earlier. One of these artists told me he was working with a dancer who had choreographed movements in which she was at once bull and matador. “Ah,” I said, “the hamburger that eats itself!” I'm afraid that was a little flip for the week in which the bulls are running the streets in Pamplona. The Spanish relation to food is a lot more mystical than in the U.S.

All in all, though, this was a very big evening for me. Many of the initial goals of the House Magic project seem now somehow to be within reach – at last! A genuine relation with a CSA, deeply rooted in the squatting movement, can help move this information to the U.S. in its pure and unmediated form. We shall see. But the prospects are good.

As I move on to Hamburg, I have finally and unexpectedly, come upon the kind of public private cultural development project I had been looking for in Madrid. The Tabacalera it seems to me is real anarchist urban development, a clear instance of “the city from below.”

*We showed the video “Laboratorio 3, Ocupando el Vacio” at the House Magic show at ABC No Rio. I recommend it. The trailer is on YouTube.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Flexible Governance

I had heard about La Tabacalera as soon as I arrived last week, but only yesterday did I get around to see it. I wandered through the decrepit halls of this new artists' project located in an immense former tobacco factory in a kind of disbelief. This emerging cultural utopia is right off the busy traffic roundel at Plaza de Embajadores, near a cluster of university buildings, and only a few blocks from La Casa Encendida, a large well-funded cultural center with a fine exhibition series, films screenings, workshops for young people, etc.
La Tabacalera has been given over to artists temporarily by the Ministry of Culture. I don't have the whole story yet – and given my lack of Spanish, may never have it... But La Tabacalera appears to be a kind of outgrowth of the work of Patio Maravillas, the occupied social center evicted last year only to reappear in a building on Calle de Pez owned by a bankrupt firm.
The Tabacalera is a building with a very interesting history, for labor and “capital,” built in the late 18th century as a royal manufactory of liquor and playing cards, then tobacco and snuff. Now it is to be a “CSA,” a self-organized social center – but not an “okupa,” occupation, but a legitimated short-term use. From the organizers' own account, an invitation from the Ministry to put up a photo show in the place turned into a proposal to organize a self-managed social center in the very multicultural and historically poor neighborhood of Lavapiés. After long wrangling, this was accepted – for a while.
The plans as announced are incredibly ambitious. Dozens of projects, ateliers, theaters, studios have been launched. All activities will fall under “copyleft” common license; they will be collaborative and cooperative, and ecologically sustainable. The Tabacalera is “self-organizing” – meaning that the administrative functions will be discharged in assembly, a regular open meeting, just as in a social center. This is horizontal rather than vertical administration.Symbolically, the assembly meets in the former office of the factory boss (“jefe”).
The Tabacalera outcome has a tortuous history, which may be seen to have begun at a conference at the Museum Reina Sofia in February of last year considering the case of the occupied Patio Maravillas. The talk was titled “Art of the Crisis.” The shadowy Spain-wide cabal of academics called Universidad Nómada produced a text at the time. Then in May of '10 Observatorio Metropolitano, a multi-disciplinary group which published a fat book on Madrid as a global city, organized a meeting to consider “economic crisis, social crisis and new political scenarios.” In particular, they wanted to talk about “the different possibilities of re-appropriation of common resources against the urban model of governance.” When eggheads get serious about activism, some different things become possible.
The building now sports a coat of arms with two dogs, a flute and the motto “quien la propone se la come” (“who proposes eats”). But already this is disfigured with graffiti – “vendidas” (sell outs), indicating that there are many who do not accept this line of action. (The legitimation question, extensively discussed at the SQEK conference by Miguel Martinez, is a divisive one among occuupied social centers and squats.)
The space is only on loan – Cinderella will have to fold her dresses on February 2011. Then a hard-line vertical governance may step back in to a building renovated by the free labor of dreamy-eyed volunteers. There are many things to be said from a skeptical point of view... Still, it seems promising. It is an outgrowth of very well coordinated and intelligent pressure by partisans of OSCs rather than the kind of clumsy appropriation of activist strategies by government and private firms that has been seen in Copenhagen.
I hope to find out more. There is a dance this Friday, concluding Patio Maravillas' third annual festival of resistance, “ Crítica Urbana.” As Times Up Bill always says, “you gotta have tunes.”

La Tabacalera

An opening invitation, issued in later June:

a detailed explanation on a left website

a lot of work to do – “architects of necessity”

Patio Maravillas conference at Reina Sofia last year

(Casa Encendida is showing now a splendid assemblage of artists' publications culled worldwide and installed in a library-like atmosphere as part of “Inéditos 2010.” )

Friday, July 2, 2010

Summer from Below

Now we are so many particles in motion... I am in Madrid, early July. It is very hot. So much has been going on since my last post! In late May I went with Matt Metzgar and Carla Cubit to talk about political squatting at the exemplary anarchist Wooden Shoe bookstore in Philadelphia. Matt organized the New York City Squatter Archives, part of which is now at the Tamiment Library, NYU, and Carla is an artist, a maker of brilliant assemblage works, who lived in the Lower East Side squats in the 1990s. Alan Smart, who is working on Provo, came along. We all stayed the night at the luxurious Basekamp, courtesy of Scott Rigby. I packed up the “House Magic: Bureau of Foreign Correspondence” show which had been there to take it back to New York.
At the roundtable at Wooden Shoe a number of Philly squatters turned out to talk over their issues. A “cloud” of crusty punks sat on the street out front of the bookstore, entering only occasionally to use the toilets. At one point, a speaker said he thought there were thousands of squatters in Philadelphia. But there is no network, no organization at all. Traditional housing activist groups do not support them. (The Kensington Welfare Rights Union squatted a number of buildings for the poor in the 1980s, achieved some of their housing objectives, and backed away from the tactic.) There is, in effect, no movement – but there is a lot of action!
Although it was not possible, I would have liked to go to Detroit in June. The Allied Media Conference there was soon followed by the U.S. Social Forum. Many friends were there – part of A New World From Below: An Anarchist and Antiauthoritarian Convergence. I haven't had time to track the blogs, but now that I cruise 'em, I see Nicolas Lampert has done a great series of reports on the Just Seeds artists' collective blog. And the gang from Area Chicago have dedicated a bloggish zone to the conference. So there is a lot of reading to catch up on, as well as the main left news outlets reporting on events like the conversation between Grace Lee Boggs and Immanuel Wallerstein.
Instead I went to London for the Squatting Europe Research Collective meeting (SQEK). This was an intimate gathering of people squeezed into a tiny little building called LARC (London Action Resource Centre). For five days these researcher/activists shared plans and papers, analytic frameworks, stories and camaraderie on squatting as a social movement. This experience has really super-charged my understanding of the subject and questions around it. A week later I am still typing up the notes, and there will be much to come about this here and on the House Magic website as I scope the Madrid scene and move on to Hamburg.
London is big, and I stayed with friends in Deptford, a good way from Whitechapel. I skipped the party in Hackney, and the visits to OSCs like Ratstar and Infoshop 56A. But we did all meet to support the Foundry eviction resistance. Here is a photo of the doomed building in Shoreditch...

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