Wednesday, September 18, 2013
Wednesday, September 11, 2013
Friday, September 6, 2013
I came to attend the RC21, the “Resourceful Cities” conference of urban sociologists at the Humboldt-Universität in Berlin Mitte. My comrades in SqEK (the Squatting Europe Research Kollective) had invited us to attend, since a few of them were organizing sessions in the meeting. I'd like to give a rundown of that great conference, but... I am supposed to be writing this book, and organizing this and that, so – that will have to wait. Enough to say that squatting research, far from being a cul de sac, is blooming. That's not for ideological reasons – not mainly from interest/desire for/concern with the disappearing commons, lack of public space, yada yada. It's because the deprived people of the world's global cities, the service proletariat, are insisting that they be allowed to live in the cities where the work is. Since they can't pay the rent, they have to squat. In the millions. How do they do it? Sociologists need to know.
The papers at RC21 showed that the question of squatting is broadening out. It's been an under-researched broad scale popular movement for a long while now, and as this conference considered global cities and their changes, it became increasingly clear that squatting and land occupations are a shared phenomenon. And it's not just shantytowns in never-visited cities of the global south. It's favelas and chabolas on the doorsteps of cities throughout the “developed world,” as under-employed hopeless pissed off people throng the vacant spaces saying “hmmm” – or “illegal, Scheiss-egal,” as the German squatters say.
With the urban sociologists, I heard how “informal settlements” are being managed, with governments choosing to assist residents to improve their self-managed slums rather than bulldozing them and resettling folks in housing blocks. These new approaches connect directly to the social movements – the organized squatters – who have achieved electoral leverage through their increasing level of organization. The kinds of innovative initiatives being tried, partnerships between NGOs and governments, are ripe for use in the U.S.A.'s more benighted regions where the denial of homelessness and criminalizing measures have a firm hold.
SqEK had a meeting in Berlin a few years ago, and I fondly remembered the Regenbogen Fabrik (rainbow factory), which we had visited on a tour. This time I stayed in their hostel. It's swell: a courtyard of 19th century low-rise factory buildings, made over into a garden yard. Kids swarm in the kindergarten during weekdays. There's a free women's repair clinic run out of the bicycle shop which is always crowded. The RB Fabrik runs the hostel, of course, and a cafe. In the back the kitchen has breakfast for guests and a very popular blueplate lunch special for the neighborhood. Their other projects are a woodworking shop and a film screening room. We visited the latter, and instead of normal seating they have rows of old couches.
The hostel crowd was divided between the single rooms, which seemed to be mostly older German women and the multi-bed dorms, where I was. The dorm crowd was pretty normal hostel guests, hang-around drinkers, and so forth. But also some street musicians. One of these, Changa Mire, was from Zimbabwe. He told me of increasing repression of street musicians in Berlin, which explains why I didn't see hardly one around. Changa is an instrument builder. It is his ambition to build the world's biggest marimba. I tried to think of where they might want to do that...
Saturday saw a big street fair, just up the steet from the RF Fabrik. This was one of several in the Kreuzberg district, all on the same day. This one was marked by its strongly political character. The whole crowd seemed to be dressed in black in a weird punk throwback to the 1980s. It felt like an Autonomen party, and I was delighted to wander among them. I had lunch there at the “VoKu,” a Volks Kuchen run by a group of African immigrants – a vegetable stew with rice, lentils and a big glob of flavorful peanut sauce for a few Euros, a tremendous deal for more food than I could eat. I bought some tough t-shirts from the political tables.
I saw some friends from the conference at the street party, Armin who organized an excellent panel, and Martin who had hosted SqEKers in their house, the Rote Insel. A few of us also made a formal presentation outside the conference, at the New Yorck Bethanien. (I was continually interrupted by a drunken punk from Brooklyn, a subcultural version of the ugly American.) It was striking and a kind of reversal for me to be in a squat next door to an art space – the Kunsthaus at Bethanien, which is having a show of New York artists in mid-September. I had written a text addressing the art/squat split (although finally I didn't talk about that). It's a hard one... A former Kunsthaus Bethanien director at one point tried to get the New Yorck occupiers evicted, claiming they were “bad for culture.” (See “House Magic” #2.) The well known sociologist and gentrification specialist Andrej Holm told me at a party for RC21ers that Kunsthaus Tacheles was resented by the squat movement because they had made a deal with the city early on, and supported civic redevelopment initiatives like the Berlin bid for the Olympics. Only when they were on the point of eviction did they appeal to the movement for help.
"Artists are whores," I told him.
But not all artists are rank opportunists or neoliberal accomodationsts, prepared to fight squatters for public space. After months of emailing, I finally caught up with Jaime Idea. Jaime worked with Basekamp to edit the giant compendium of conversations with artists' collectives called “Plausible Art Worlds.” She's a multimedia artist, a former Flux Factory resident who came to the SqEK meeting in New York in 2012. She is shortly planning to participate in a show in London called “Made Possible by Squatting.” This is a play on the famous “white book of squatting” put out by the Dutch movement a few years ago in a failed bid to stop the criminalization statute from passing. The Dutch also put up signs in different cultural venues that had started as squats – there are dozens of them – to remind people what they could lose if the occupation of vacant speculative properties was curtailed. The London show is underground, clandestine, so... we'll see what goes. (A report has been promised here.) As her contribution, Jaime is working on an online add-on map of evicted squats in London, a useful geographic tool for demonstrating the long-term prevalence of the movement there.
We met Jaime and her friend Jordan from Brooklyn (isn't everybody now?) in the Bauwagen platz called Lohmuehlen along the Spree River. This is one of the last of the places travelers can park their house trailers, and part of it has been fitted out as an open air cafe with a bar and a big stage. Lohmuehlen does public events, concerts, screenings, exhibitions and the like as part of their engagement with the neighbors, to muster support for their staying there in the face of developers' pressures to get them off so that oh-so-important luxury housing can be built.
Like every Sunday, this was “tea and cake” day at Lohmuehlen, and we feasted on cheap desserts and talked on benches under the rare Berlin sun. Jordan told me his story of Surreal Estate, the famous New York City collective house which was twice targeted by NY police in collaboration with federal agents for the subversive activities there. The place was important for organizing media work around demonstrations, he said. The last time it was violently evicted – illegally; they just won a settlement – was during the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations when Vlad Teichberg and his comrades were live-streaming the demos worldwide. For a government whose military gunned down journalists in Iraq – as Bradley/Chelsea Manning's leaked video shows – shutting down inconvenient truth-tellers stateside is all in a day's work. As a long-time lefty American, I can't say I'm surprised. But as a near-senior citizen, I can say I'm dismayed at how brazen the police state has grown.
After the sweets we climbed on our bikes and pedalled off, hoping to catch lunch at a vegan VoKu which was making pizza. (All these kinds of events at autonomous spaces are listed in the indispensable Berlin publication “Stress Faktor,” available at many lefty places. The VoKu was in a bar inside a courtyard, the ground floor of a building rented for a communal house project of the kind that motivated many past squats. The bar was dark, graffitied, and full of lounging vegan punks. They had a great infoshop table, and I bought a bunch of cool patches – a red rat with a match, another of a hand holding a match to the moon over a cityscape (what is being contemplated?), two in Spanish, and another: “Life is ecstatic intercourse between destruction and creation.”
Happily, despite the German government's determined hardcore repression of all new squats, the culture the movement generated persists, living off the deeply rooted naturist spirit of German youth. A character map of Kreuzberg I bought called “Kiezplan” features a sniffiing dog, a running cat, and a curious rat. The banner outside the Koepi read something like “We don't want your yuppie flats/ We are happy with our rats.” Equal partners in occupation? An eviction of the Koepi, the largest remaining public social center squat in Berlin, would mean open street war with the remnants of the squatting movement and young people from all over the region. That and the local politicians Kreuzberg has elected mean there is some chance they can continue their long-term ragtag occupation, and their partying ways. Since the cleanout of the accomodationist art squat Kunsthaus Tacheles late last year, Koepi is about all there is left. Ringed by Bauwagen encampments and strong fences, it would be tough to evict without a small army.
Still, very nearby the Koepi are now apartments with private elevators for tenants' luxury cars, an excess pioneered in NYC's Chelsea district, not long ago the stomping ground of meat market tranny streetwalkers. So.... we'll see.
Saturday, July 27, 2013
The conversations on the day that followed, the “theoretical sessions” (the first day was “historical”), were dense and winding. Felix Rottenberg emceed the arguments. The main current was around the question of institutionalization, legalization of free cultural spaces and the compromises it entails. (This, as it happens, is a line of investigation for our SqEK group.)
Ivanjka Geerdink spoke about his Novaglobe project to link up “flowtowns” on the world wide web. Geerdink's idea germinated when he began to use his mother's land in northern Holland whilst she was on holiday. He and his friends party and try to build a community. Now his intention is to use his formidable IT skills to build an online infrastructure to help in “keeping a flow alive, a spirit alive in places” – Flowtowns. IT for him is the “ring of power” that can do this. Ivanjka is a “hippie with a plan,” building on concepts like the “trusted global community” behind couchsurfing.org, the “Route Soleil” of seasonal human movement – which he compared to the French seasonal migration of cattle, the transhumance.
Rutger van Ree, who pontificated so well the day before, asked Ivanjka how he will deal with “the angry outside world?,” that is the people who hate migrants, gypsies, travelers, and all manner of temporarily present human beings. Alan Smart observed that the project smacked of technocratic utopianism. “If you replicate this system of network, can't you take some poison with it?”
Rural occupations in the increasingly depopulated countryside is getting to be a hot project, even in the political squatting world, as police in the cities bear down heavy on new and old occupations alike. Ivanjka's faith in (a well regulated) network of mutual trust is not so “hippie,” useless, naïve and misplaced as to warrant the routine dismissals that come from both left and right.
David Graeber explains money in his necessary opus “Debt: The First 500 Years.” Drawing on decades of economic anthropology, Graeber reminds us that money came into general use with the advent of moving armies who needed some way to regularize their commerce with local peasants who relied almost entirely on systems of mutual aid and credit for subsistence.
Ergo, those of us “on the grid” are living like soldiers, alienated from the source of all we need to subsist, and entitled by our coin to ignore any scraps of human relations that might adhere to our smooth monetary transactions.
While I liked Ivanjka's project – and believe something like that is going to matter a great deal in the very near future – the toughest talk for me came from Jaap Draaisma. (“Tough” BTW, in my youthful surfer days meant “cool,” but more in the sense of really real.) Jaap was a squatter in the hardcore punk squat Vrankrijk (Frahnk-reich; est'd 1984), during the days when the Amsterdam squatting scene was political – but “not so political as in Germany!” He later worked for the city government organizing the controversial Breeding Places program that legalized many squats. With this experience, he worked on the legalization of Ruigoord and their Landjuweel festival. In that work he was always practical. But he acknowledged the dilemma that “If you follow all the rules it's expensive, so you exclude people.”
Contrasting the attitude of the hippies who came to squatting a generation before him, Jaap said “You build your paradise for yourself or you want to change society,” making “collective action for a tribe's benefit, or for the larger good.” Now the political situation has turned bad, and squatters are being regularly arrested. In Berlin and New York they have formed a strong Right to the City movement. Maybe, Jaap asked, something like that could happen here? “Can we make a political agenda as a tribe?”
After Julian Jansen, a demographer with the Amsterdam city planning department explained the population statistics of greater Amsterdam, a squatter from the nearby ADM, also in the harbor area, explained their work there since 1997. Bev – (I did not get her full name, since the program changed radically, and she ended up not on it) – explained, “We organize as little as possible. We work together” as artists.
Bev, who grew up off the grid in New Zealand, is an ecologist trained in earth sciences. She studied “transformation management,” that is, “how to change the world.” You can't do that from within; “you need places for new ideas to develop.” The squatters at ADM developed and protected a lake which harbor authorities wanted to fill in. Her mission: “Protect the ecological systems in the harbor area.”
After the sessions Maik of the Robodock group explained a little of the “cultural defense” strategy at ADM. The owner of the building, he said, were “mafia,” who came around at various times in a limo with thugs, bouncers, wrestlers, and “cage fighters,” and later with demolition machines. Robodock was the answer to these intimidations and attacks. This highly successful festival, which “grew bigger than ADM,” used machine components, fire, and circus, working with NYC's Madagascar Institute. Their motto: “Safety third,” after “fun” and “fear.”
There was ever so much more... presentations by the “ambassadors” of Christiania, the spokesman for the nomadic Mongolians who never appeared, held up by visa problems at the various borders they had to cross. And sometime soon the audio of the conference should be posted on the website.
This symposium went on in Hippieland for real, as the purposively fantastic Landjuweel festival slowly gathered steam during the course of it. To send my emails I sat on a stump, my bare feet in the sand outside the “Salon” house with the wifi as Ivanjka the theorist strummed a guitar nearby... a woman approached carrying a frying pan. The bright-eyed musician who shared our tipi the night before lit up a hand-rolled cigarette. Two stiltwalkers dressed like Michelin people in costumes of orange and green walked in front of the church blowing bubbles. A woman passed pushing a child in a bakery trolly. And Aja Waalwijk dashed by, clutching conference papers. Aja does not wear a watch nor carry a cel phone. “His friends remind him what time it is.” Amazingly, things came together very well.
There is a lot more to be said about the rich load of information, about instances of alternative movements, and there were many realizations. There is also an analysis to be made of the symposium discourse, what was said and what was not said, what was allowed and what was not. I certainly want to know much more about the Ruigoord artists' community – I'm looking forward to the “ethnography” of the beaming Rumanian student Anna.
While I did not smoke the poros of hash and tobacco that were circulating, I certainly contracted a “contact high” from the lush hedonistic environment of happy people, hippies both for the weekend and lifelong, milling about and looking forward to their festival. Finally, though, I had to leave, although everyone was telling me not to, that there was nowhere to go better than this. Maybe so, and I surely feel the siren charms of the Landjuweel. But really, it is too late for me to reach for that kind of life. I felt better immediately with the city sidewalks under my feet, with soap and water close at hand. And in the end, I will have to fight for the right to the city, not the right to be left alone in the country. Although it is always so nice to come for a visit!
Thursday, July 25, 2013
The tipi we are sleeping in was built by a pair of Dutch twins who brought the two dwellings down from their community in Jutland, in the north of Denmark. They are expertly made and set up. One of the van der Schaar boys spent nearly a year in a tipi while he was at university. It seems the best spot for us Americans, me and Stevphen Shukaitis, who was also invited to this symposium.
It's nice to be invited. We get the tipi, and a few free meals with the volunteers. But the real deal here is the festival. It's one of many – only a couple of weeks ago the barefoot festival – but this is the big one, the largest of the year. The tipi now is surrounded by tents, since it is on the “familie veld” campground.
The symposium has been grand – chock full of subcultural history, the hard stuff. I spent most of the time seated next to Alan Dearling, a historian of the traveler movement in England and Europe. He's written 42 books, sold hundreds of thousands, and lives off the proceeds. He lives in Scotland and teaches archery for a living. That scotch company can't have him, though – he drinks cider.
The proceedings of the symposium were rigorously conducted by Felix Rotenberg, a Dutch TV host who has also served in the Labor Party. On the first day of “historical sessions” we heard from the long-time denizens of Ruigoord, a lineup which included our host Aja Waalwijk (who wrote on this in “House Magic” #4) and ex-Provo Hans Plomp. The symosium is being held in the heart of the community, a deconsecrated Catholic church. As the village was evacuated, the last man to turn out the lights, the priest of the church, handed the hippies the keys to the gothic-style edifice. Over the handsome wooden door now hangs a new sign, “fortune favors fools” (translation from Latin). After this infro, Simon van Dommelen outlined the “cultural defense line” of Amsterdam, the alliance of squatted houses and lands, all in various stages of legalization, which have banded together in the face of shrinking culture subsidies and tightening repression. Britta Lillesoe and Nils Vest arrived from the Copenhagen “free city” of Christiania – she let out a whoop and he showed maps. Frank Sol talked up the Doel project outside Antwerp, another small town evacuated of residents in preparation for a harbor reconstuction project, just like Ruigoord. The project has not been built – the installations around Ruigoord were constructed only in the late 90s – although hundreds of millions have been poured into the paper plans. Sol and his comrades are pitching Doel as the next Ruigoord, and an embryonic free town is already well developed there.
Ralf van Schaar talked of the place he lives in Jutland – ThyLejren, “the People's Lair.” Inga Cholmogorova pitched her project Art Guslitsa as a straight-up artists' residency program, on land given by a rich sympathizer, then fell into a twisted, expressionistic Butoh dance. This to me more or less said it all about the repression nonconformists face in Putin's Russia. After lunch at the organic canteen, we trooped back to the church to hear from the Italian organizer Chiara Baldini about the Boom Festival in Goa, Portugal, a trance dance rave which has been going many years (see HM #4 on the links with Ruigoord). Then Rutger van Ree, a writer and organizer I met at Quartair in the Hague this spring, gave a rousing rhetorical call to resistance.
Geanme Marin came over from New York to talk about her life in the “Umbrella House” squat on the Lower East Side. She showed a filmic portrait Sebastian Gutierrez had made of her eventful life, which began in the sefl-organized city of Pereira in Colombia. Several important people did not show up. Missing were the group from Tacheles, the recently evicted cultural center in Berlin, and the group from Warsaw, the “Orange Alternative,” a Kabouter-style pranking protest movement which was a key ally of the Solidarity Union in the move away from Soviet dominance in the later 1980s. The organizers filled in with more Dutch groups. There is sure no shortage of them!
Now, with my feet in the sand of the open-air cafe, and blossoms following gently on the keyboard I think it may be time to pause in this telegraphic account of the Ruigoord free spaces symposium, and pick up tomorrow. A small band is playing the Monty Python song, “Always look on the bright side of life” alongside the church. Besides, it is time for the presentation of the embassies – Christiania, Boom Festival, and the North Americans. I have to go; I think I may even be part of it somehow, although I have mislaid my diplomatic robes....
Monday, July 22, 2013
Tonight begins the third annual free culture symposium, three days of talks with folks from all around reporting and opining on their lives outside of capital. (The full program, as participants received it, is pasted at the bottom of this post.) I will report here on the symposium as often as I can.
I arrived in the former Magic City last night, jetlagged and work-exhausted for a stay in the Winston near the central train station. Crazy at night with young folks avid for drink – “you can get a bottle water at the bar,” I was told around 9pm Sunday night. “I'm afraid...”
After sleeping off the jetlag, I met up with Jordan Zinovich this Monday morning. Jordan is one of the organizers of the Landjuweel, and in between errands he took me and his guest Ken Minault of the San Francisco Diggers on a whirlwind walking tour of radical Amsterdam. Jordan is an editor with the Autonomedia collective, my publishers. They've done a number of volumes on pirate lore, and Jordan pointed out a hanging painted head of an African hanging above a tavern. That was an apothecary sign, he said, with a very old reference. It's from the time when the pirates had the best medicines, the medical plants their indigenous crews knew of from their homelands. That African is sticking out his tongue for the medicine, showing that you could get it here. Long long before it was a tavern.
Jordan also paused his running at the massive Amsterdam state house, wherein he said is the map of the world in tile on the floor, laid down during the Dutch golden age, when the country was an empire. Sailors' wives could pace that floor and follow the likely route of their absent lovers' journeys. At a corner of the building, scratched into the soft stone, is one of the last remaining scraffitos of the mad genius of the Provo movement, Jasper Groetveld. This rune is an apple in a triangle, signifying.... I forget what all, but a penis, buttocks and anus, and the Beatles' unacknowledged inspiration for their record label. We have to make a rubbing!
Groetveld's old teenage sidekick Arie Taal was waiting for us on his floating island, moored among the houseboats of Amsterdam. Groetveld had built these 25 years ago out of styrofoam blocks roped together with fishing nets. This ramshackle recycled ad hoc innovation has been gradually extended. Ari saw that the birds were getting into his garden, and built another part of the island just for them. There's also a lovely little house with an old office typewriter sitting on the desk, and a toilet all covered in vines that just drops its load straight into the canal.
We sat on the island listening to stories for a while, drinking white wine since it's Sunday and we're dying of heat, and well, why not? Then wandered up the canal to see the original Groetveld floating island, built as an extension off a houseboat in 1968. It was here, Ari told us, that the original Lowland Weed Company opened its, um, gangway, selling pot plants for 1 guilder each. Yes, said Jordan, I saw the photo with a banner advertising 10,000 plants for sale. There is still one painted sign from this time left on the side of the boat.
Across the street was the police station. They did not interfere with Groetveld's blatant scheme because by then the cause was lost. The youthquake was in full swing, hippies had flooded the city, and besides, Groetveld was married to a TV producer.
Jordan edited and translated a book by Marjolijn van Riemsdijk called “Assault on the Impossible: Dutch Collectives and Imagination in the '60s and '70s,” which treats of the art culture that accompanied the infamous Provo movement that marked the first evanescence of hip politics. This is the radical countercultural history that was peculiarly Dutch. These folks knew what they were doing with their plays to the media, and their tactics with the cops. The Situationists disdained them. Pah! “Hijack the culture and the politics will follow,” Jordan said. (“Free your ass and your mind will follow,” said George Clinton.)
Slowly, globally, I think this has proved true. But the work of carving out and maintaining space for free culture in the neoliberal world as it was screwing down to the repression-drunk form it presents to us today, has led many to think that art and fun are a distraction from the real political work of fighting capitalism.
Even so, as bicycle activist Timesup Bill says, “You gotta have tunes” if you want people to turn out. And this Landjuweel is shaping up to be ever so tuneful. I wandered the grounds of Ruigoord after shaking hands with the local gang – characters who will play a role in the story I will write of this event in the days to come. The swarms of folks around here are putting up tents, knocking together structures, and getting ready for the big fest. Tents are springing up – “there will be 500 tents in that field tomorrow” I am told, where the teepee is going up in which I plan to sleep. A stone's throw from this hippie paradise stand giant turning windmills, oil storage tankers and cargo cranes, off them built in the last 10 years as the port development Ruigoord was squatted to prevent finally unfolds. Passenger jets constantly roar overhead. The free culture festival unfolds in the jaws of the beast.
Saturday, July 20, 2013
Ruigoord's Third Futurological Symposium on Free Cultural Spaces.
Space Is the Place
― Sun Ra Free Cultural Space Is the Place! More particularly, the place is Ruigoord Culturele Vrijhaven, which between the 23rd and 25th of July 2013 will host the Third Futurological Symposium on Free Cultural Spaces. This year, again under the inspirational chairmanship of Felix Rottenberg, The Cosmopolitical Parliament welcomes an international group of presenters from important Free Cultural Spaces. Central aims of this year's Symposium include generating a comprehensive collective vision of the extraordinary value and essential importance of Free Cultural Space and refining and publishing a Declaration on The Universal Right to Free Cultural Spaces.
The first day's program focuses on the practice of declaring cultural space free and autonomous. Our presenters, responding to input from Felix Rottenberg and the attending audience, will help generate the substantive foundation for the Symposium's Declaration. On the second day, which will focus on theory, we will view Free Cultural Space through different disciplinary lenses, refining the Declaration on The Universal Right to Free Spaces during course of the day. Thus the overall Symposium will serve as a true Futurological session of the Cosmopolitical Parliament.
Participants scheduled for the presentations and debates include town-planner and demographer Julian Jansen, who advocates for the importance of Free Cultural Spaces in urban environments; founder of the Totaltheatergroup Solvogn (Sun Wagon Theater Troupe), Britta Lillesøe, attending on behalf of the Culture Union of Christiania in Copenhagen; Penny Rimbaud, founding member of the Punk band Crass and founder of Dial House Dynamic Centre For Cultural Change in Essex, England; Waldemar “Major” Fydrych and Agnieszka Couderq for the Orange Alternative Group from Warsaw, Poland; Diogo Ruivo Mendez for Portugal's Boom Festival; and Dalch Ochir and Harun Wolf representing the Blue Sun group in Mongolia. Russia's Guslitsa group will send representatives. New York City-based Canadian author and publisher Jordan Zinovich (the 2013 Ruigoord Trophy recipient and Ruigoord's North American ambassador) will represent the Autonomedia Collective. Kent Minault, one of the original Haight-Ashbury Diggers, offers a historical acte de presence with a theater piece chronicling the Diggers' emergence. Geanme (Jane) Marin will represent the Umbrella House squat in New York City. Allan Moore will represent Madrid. Stevphen Sukaitis will represent the Minor Compositions publishing project (http://www.minorcompositions.info). The Cultural Defense Line of Amsterdam will be represented by Simon van Dommelen. Ruigoord will be represented by Hans Plomp, Michael Kamp, and Aja Waalwijk.
Please note that this list of participants and topics is neither exclusive nor completely finalized and may change ― see the final agenda for more information.
Ruigoord has contacts with many important free cultural spaces around the world, including: Christiania and Thylejren in Denmark; Doel in Belgium; Tacheles and UFA-Fabrik in Germany; Blue Sun in Mongolia; Finisterre in France; Dial House in the UK; the Harrop-Proctor Community Forest in British Columbia, Canada (http://www.hpcommunityforest.org); Tree Frog Radio of Denman Island, British Columbia; the Mattole Salmon Group in Northern California (http://www.mattolesalmon.org); the Ida and Pumpkin Hollow Communities in Tennessee; the Autonomedia Collective in New York City (http://www.autonomedia.org); and the Boom Festival in Portugal. Ruigoord is also part of The Cultural Defense Line of Amsterdam, a network of about 30 free cultural spaces in and around the city, including: Domijn, Nieuw en Meer, Zaal 100, Tetterode, OT33, ADM, Op de Valreep, Krux, NDSM, and Slangenpand.
There will be no entry fee for the Symposium (De Entree Is Gratis!), and we encourage and welcome public attendance.
Following the launch of Ruigoord's new community history, Freehaven Ruigoord, on the 25th of July our Symposium will come to an end with the formal opening of Embassies representing Christiania, Tacheles, Blue Sun, Boom, and Autonomedia in Ruigoord.
Friday, May 17, 2013
Edward and I mostly spent our time rustling up content for the long-planned SqEK popular book of squatting. I threw prints of the House Magic wallpaper of photos I'd made in den Haag into the mix. Those sheets might go into an upcoming art show in a squatted gallery curated by a USAer I did not meet. He, like Ben Burbridge, the art historian who put together the Brighton Photo Biennial program with images of squatting, seemed to be out of town...
Edward publishes the zine “Using Space,” and has written on the recent illegalization of squatting in the UK. The campaign for that law was led by a Brighton rightwinger in the parliament. We watched clips of this joker spewing disconnected cliches about evil squatters and private property rights (read large-scale corporate speculators in vacant land and buildings). He was paired on TV with an ineffectual liberal talking about cuts to social service, public housing, etc. It was a typical Murdoch TV news setup, at home in the old country.
We also watched films from Edward's library about the rave scene of the 1990s. He was a DJ then, and followed the huge illegal parties which spread from the UK all over Europe and points east – most famously France and the Czech Republic. The British government also criminalized these parties in the '90s, and later passed laws to curb the traveler culture of people living nomadically in fitted-out trucks and wagons. So that's mostly over, except for the remnants – and the re-emergences. (We would later see a few travelers' wagons along the road, and there are still some encampments.)
Gogol Bordello, “Not A Crime” (acoustic version)
I knew almost nothing about this. I only dimly recall the campaign of the “Squall” magazine crew against the criminalizing bill from issues of their journal I saw in NYC. The ravers weren't very interested in fighting the government, they wrote. They preferred to move on out of the country. This huge subculture mobilizing tens of thousands of people for a single surprise event which could turn into a multi-day encampment was strongly connected to the squatting scene. The techno music and neo-psychedelic drugs that drive the giant raves must be added to punk and hip hop as an important cultural pillar of reclaiming space, or radical commonsing.
The parties are always free – it's also called the “free party” scene. (The organizers make some coin at the bar and selling mixtapes.) Edward's library contains a number of books by photographers – in one of which he appears – documenting the raves. We watched films, news clips of rural dwellers complaining about the hordes that had descended upon their peaceful communities, ripping off stores, their dogs killing sheep, booming music audible from miles away.
The Rainbow Family gatherings in the USA are held in national park lands, while the Burning Man takes place in the Nevada desert. In crowded Europe, there is no way to hold a giant free party except on some stretch of populated rural land. This occasional use is bound to step on someone's toes, no question about it. And it is unsurprising that the suppressors, the proponents of nothing happening that they don't control, should win out at the end of the day. These explosions of festive youth threaten normal social order in ways far more profound than some pilfered food and killed livestock.
Rave parties have also been held in the catacombs of Paris, a vast underground network from which the stone to build the city was removed. For centuries these served as cemeteries. Georges Bataille notoriously proposed holding sacrificial ceremonies in these labyrinthian regions in the 1930s. In recent years sculptors and grafiteros have made their way down there, to decorate many passages as bohemian palaces. The city government has begun a campaign of filling them in with a cement slurry to put a stop to the newly emegent bohemia. (I learned this from a book on Edward's shelves.)
The irrepressible festive culture takes what it can get when and where it can. I recall reading years ago of a giant Russian rave at Chernobyl, the closed-down site of the nuclear power disaster. Radiation be damned, we're all on fire! Some of the techniques of the free parties have reappeared in major protests, most spectacularly in the Reclaim the Streets actions, instant-seeming mobilizations against the mad English compulsion to build giant roads through their ancient forests. The thought that overnight – or within only a few hours – a huge rollicking drugged-up happy crowd might appear in their town must cause many policemen sleepless nights.
While raves and travelers have been well squashed by the state, and squatters may soon follow, the political tactic of encampment rolls on. A small zine I picked up later at the 56A infoshop on Cramdon Road in London called “Holidarity” describes the trip of a couple of mates to a protest camp in Derbyshire. The writer, Paul Walker, proposes that his readers go to such a camp for a nice holiday from the corporate city. He lists a bunch of these, some opposing the building of roads, others the development of “hypermarkets” (giant shopping centers), and most famously, nuclear weapons. The Faslane Peace Camp has been up near the nuclear submarine base outside of Glasgow for 30 years, and recently sent out an appeal for help – money and/or campers. In addition to anti-development and peace camps, the zine also plugs No Borders camps (“who can tell” where the next one will be?), Climate Action and Earth First! rendezvous – as vacation spots!
A Protest Camps research group dedicated to these has sprung up – they recently attended the American Association of Geographers conference in Los Angeles, the same group that hosted SqEK in NYC in '11. It's clear that, as Edward's zine title has it, “Using Space” – without permission or even against the uses the corporate state intends – is a well-established broad-based practice in the UK. Political squatting and urban social centers are only one aspect.
Later we piled into Edward's tiny car and headed for Essex University for the conference Stevphen Shukaitis organized with the Ephemera magazine collective on the practice of Workers' Inquiry. (That's a journal of “theory and politics in organization.”) An accident investigation clogged a major London road turning a two hour trip into six, and we missed the first day except for the dinner. I presented a paper on the Art Workers Coalition – or, rather, the idea of it that had motivated subsequent self-organization among artists. This is too much to go into here – I will try to post something about it on my other blog, “Art Gangs the Book.” Enough to say I was trying to connect earlier work I had done on artists' collectivity with my current project on political squatting.
Workers Inquiry comes from Karl Marx, who concocted a survey questionnaire for workers which was intended through a series of queries to bring them to consciousness of their oppression, and lead them to take measures to end it. The keynote and closing talks were given by Gigi Roggero, an Autonomist-identified Italian labor theorist. The presentations I saw worked closely with the theme of inquiry or research conducted among communities of workers. This included a charmingly performative talk on New Jersey diner waitresses by Heidi Hasbrouck. The closest talk to what I am on about was given by a group of three from the Fast Slow University of Warsaw, who are doing a project on artists in Poland. They have a state grant, and expect to end up making policy recommendations.
How we found ourselves in this thing was because Stevphen's publishing group Minor Compositions (with Autonomedia) put out the SqEK book “Squatting in Europe” (see earlier blog post). Also our group SqEK considers itself to be an engaged research group – maybe not exactly militant, but largely participant, and definitely not unreflexively positivist, or speciously objective. So there we were, listening attentively and chatting companionably.
I had a brief talk with an English artist who had started out as a squatter, then obtained a vacant storefront under a Thatcher-era program to encourage entrepreneurship! This was a bizarre wrinkle if you will, in the weird fabric of state economic initiatives that somehow cross wires with (or filch from) generally leftist self-organization and extra-legal work. Jonnet Middleton opened a cake shop in her storefront, where the cakes were horrible, growing mold and getting rotten – an extended jibe at the whole idea of self-entrepreneurship in a bourgeois ethos of service to consumption. (That was the rightwing suggestion for the vast number of workers displaced by the outsourcing of their traditional jobs in manufacturing and other sectors of the economy – become an “entrepreneur of yourself.”)
Directly after the Essex conference I decamped for London, to stay in a new hostel near the Elephant & Castle. This part of London has been a hub of anti-gentrification activity, and a recently evicted social center. I didn't catch up with any of this activism. Instead, this turned into more of a ruminative historical kind of trip.
I had breakfast with Matt and his pals, and heard about some of the anti-gentrification work being done in the Elephant & Castle area. I later dropped into the indispensable 56A Infoshop, but I missed Chris who runs it yet again. I come by only yearly, and every year I miss him. The bicycle shop was open, however, and I was advised to wait for Chris down the street at a cafe, the “Electric Elephant.” The cafe sits at the entrance to Iliffe Yards, a street of shops and studios in the Victorian-era “speculative development” called the Pullens Estate.
While I waited there, I read a 2004 pamphlet by the Past Tense history group, which was organized out of 56A. “Down with the Fences: Battles for the Commons in South London” tells of the 400-year struggle by many generations of Londoners to protect their historic commonses from enclosure and development. The buildings of the Pullens Estate themselves were protected from the kind of mostly ticky-tacky high-rise development that surrounds them by great effort, including bands of squatters who took over vacant flats in the 1980s. About half the buildings were saved. The 56A infoshop, bike workshop and a food coop are remnants of those days. These holdouts of alternative culture are seriously tiny, considering the “business” they do. Even so, they persist – long may they run.
We visited in town with Iain Boal of the Mayday Rooms group. He met us in the Blackfriars pub, a gem of the arts and crafts era (ca. 1875) which had been marked down for destruction. It was saved in the middle 1960s by a campaign of aristos led by writer and TV personality John Betjeman. Cold comfort to know that New York isn't the only city where developers can casually wipe away history for their own senseless plastic visions. The pub sits on the site of a three-century old monastery, and recalls that presence with an extraordinary program of architecture and decoration. Only a criminal could have proposed to destroy it – the kind of criminal who is never called to account.
After a pint, Iain and his comrade Anthony toured us through the Fleet Street building they are refitting across the road from the world headquarters of Goldman Sachs, in the center of money London. There the group plans to organize discussions and work on the preservation of fragile countercultural and left archives, creating a kind of fully wired-up remembrance engine for what is all too easily forgotten. It promises to be amazing to produce countercultural knowledge in such a beautiful building in a rich historic area.
Iain has recently edited a book of essays on the communes of California called “West of Eden” which begins the process of historical recovery of those important collective social experiences. I am only beginning to dip into it, but I am already reminded how important this kind of communal life has been, both as an ideal and a practical solution for so many squatters.
The project of the Mayday Rooms is intended to be “a safe house for vulnerable archives and historical material linked to social movements, experimental culture, and marginalised figures and groups.” A promising start has already been made, with materials from '70s projects like Wages for Housework and King Mob. A first publication concerns the Anti-University of London, its “music art poetry black power madness revolution” (that's not madness as a party dress, but anti-psychiatry), with reproductions of some of the original documents from these projects. The Anti-University, or Free University projects of the 1960s were interrelated between New York City, Berkeley and London. (Clayton Patterson, ed., “Resistance” includes an interview with Fred Good about the one in NYC.)
The organizer of the New York Free University in 1965, Joseph Berke, told the Guardian newspaper in 1968, “We have to step out of Structure A to be able to see it. But one can’t step out if there is nowhere to step to.” A classic problem. In the era of full-scale student movements resisting massive privatizations (Chile, Mexico, Canada), huge debt loads for new building passed on to students (e.g. Cooper Union), all-around corporatist rapaciousness (NYU), and the ongoing Bologna Process regularizing European universities, the peoples' university, or pirate university, if you will has become a standard project of political occupations worldwide. This history now is more than relevant, it's a playbook.
On my last day in London town I awoke to learn that my only meeting had been cancelled. It was the first day of a bank holiday, so the city was shut up. After a coffee at the Electric Elephant I wandered around the polyglot shopping center of the Elephant & Castle and bought the extra suitcase I needed. All of these hardscrabble immigrant businesses – the Thai street food kiosk, the Polish cafe, the Indian wedding and Caribbean electronics store – seem the kind that developers would love to see replaced by a faceless European luxury mall. These ambitions seem to be signified by the immense building opposite crowned by a trio of enormous windmills. “Take a look at them,” Matt had told me. “They don't even move.”
A few times on my way to the hostel I had walked past a towering housing complex, a shadowy group of buildings set back among the trees on Walworth Road. It seemed to be boarded up. I felt this needed at least a look, so with nothing else to do I started to walk the long lonely road that bisects the complex. It was truly enormous – many buildings are laid out among park-like grounds, in the style of modernist public housing approved by Le Courbusier. I stopped a man walking towards me to ask if he knew the story. He was a computer programmer, moved to the city for a job, and knew nothing. Yes, he agreed, it seemed a shame there should be thousands of apartments boarded up when housing was so dear (3,000 exactly).
Even in the spring morning daylight this abandoned place seemed somewhat fearsome. I later learned it has been the favored scene of Hollywood disaster movies, crime TV shows and music videos. Lured by the brilliant painted walls and a few political posters, I at last ventured in. First I spied what looked like a plastic tent. It was a greenhouse on an upper balcony, sprouting seedlings for the spring planting. This served a garden, laid out between low buildings with a hanging sign which announced: “Heygate Regeneration Project.” Now indeed I was intrigued. In the next courtyard I came across inhabitants.
A large man with a walrus moustache was reclining in the sun with a friend. A car was pulled up and a few other folks were there, apparently packing for a holiday journey. I expressed my astonishment at finding people living in that place. A woman hurriedly introduced herself as Caroline, on her way off on a bicycle journey.
“Are you with the SqEK group?”
Why yes, how odd you should guess. “You'll find the whole story of this place over there. Sorry, I've no time to talk.” She indicated an kind of open air gallery of news clippings, and then cycled off. The others climbed into their car and also left.
The news clippings told the long sad story of the clearing of the Heygate Estate, a giant social housing project which had become notorious for drugs and crime. The tenants had been relocated, their community broken up, and the redevelopment just never happened. The architect defended his conception, and pointed the finger at the management. A handful of tenants had refused to leave. One, the walrus-moustached man I had seen, was a retired soldier. He remained on the estate, obstinate and armed. The council (a kind of administrative body which oversees social housing, and is roundly mistrusted by tenants in England) had forbidden gardening, but the holdouts had persisted. The gardens have the nicest graffiti pieces. A skateboard festival was recently held – that explained the monster mural, and the slogan “Release the wolves!”
And there it stands. Power bides its time. Resistance shrinks to a tiny point, glimmers, and.... We'll see.
Ben Burbridge did “Political Squatting in Brighton” at Another Space, Fall 2012
“Political squatting: an arresting art” – photo historian argues for a creative activity that transforms privatised space into a commons
Protest Camps research group at Los Angeles conference
Gogol Bordello, "Not a Crime" acoustic version
“Down with the Fences” from:
“Reclaiming the History of California’s Counterculture and Resistance Movements,” a brief review of “West of Eden”
Joseph Berke is quoted from The Guardian, 15.2.1968, in Jakob Jakobsen, “The Antiuniversity of London – an Introduction to Deinstitutionalisation”
Monday, May 13, 2013
The Dutch sociologist Hans Abbing, who wrote “Why Are Artists Poor?: The Exceptional Economy of the Arts,” works with the Warsaw-based group Fast Slow University, members of whom I met at the workers' inquiry conference at Essex (I will discuss in a later post on this blog). While I don't know Abbing's work, I assume he cannot be unaware of the pleasures of poverty as artists know it. They are the same as drove monks and hermits in earlier ages to seek communion with the divine through communal life. (I picked up a copy of Thomas Cahill's “How the Irish Saved Civilization” in Dublin, and chewed on it throughout my Hague days; so call me a neo-medieval romantic!)
I only once discussed my research project on artists' squatting with our hosts at Quartair, in an informal chat during my first evening there. Pieterje van Splunter and Marlies Adriaanse both lapsed into a deep melancholic silence punctuated by sighs as they reflected upon the early days of the Quartair project, when it had been a squat, open and free. All the stories and rich depth of the experience of full creative autonomy was contained in that silence. But I did nothing to open it up.
The building which houses Quartair was only one part of a large baking factory complex which was squatted. It was located quite near the royal palace stables, and in its day, the bakery was large enough to need a narrow-gauge railroad track to convey raw materials from the street to the mixing rooms. So the artists had quite a playground! The squatters were moved out of the main buildings of the bakery, which have since been converted into housing for students, and they have only one left, although it is very large.
They formed an alliance with Stroom, an art service and public art exhibiting agency in Den Haag. In the years before they had their own space, Stroom took over the exhibition rooms during the winter months, when they were expensive to heat, and the artists of Quartair had them during the warmer days. The artists have studios and rooms upstairs, and I stayed in one of these with the Artcodex group which had invited me into their “Ghost Modernism” project.
Quartair then was hooked up early on with the mainstream instituions of the artworld in their town. So it seems to be for the artist-squatters in other Dutch towns. They have a lot of room to maneuver, and a subsidy from the government to run a studio program for visiting artists. Despite the recent draconian cutbacks in Dutch cultural funding, I and the other artists of the U.S. group were actually reimbursed for the cost of materials incurred in making our work, in addition to some food expenses and free lodging during the weeks of residency. If this strikes some readers as paltry, be aware that many art residencies now charge their “guests” like hotels (although the rates are usually very low), and artists are almost never reimbursed for any expenses they incur in making exhbitions.
Even as she helped out us artists from New York, Marlies was preparing for her own residency, a visit to Toronto called “Dutch Settlement,” in which she and other Quartairians planned to produce various creative social events (opens May 31).*
The cry of the NYC artists' group WAGE – “We demand payment for making the world more interesting!” – goes largely unheard. The result, of course, is that art is almost always a gift to the world, more and more often proferred by a person who can afford to give it, that is, someone from a privileged class background. Artists try to be oblivious to these kinds of facts, that is, they don't generally pay much attention to the systemic problems of their economy or the social distortions that it may introduce. They don't inquire where the wine comes from. They are basically too busy trying to get by, to manage the strange arrangements they almost invariably live by, strategems that rely on social solidarity in order to succeed. Squatting is one of these strategies – but for most artists, it is a passage, not a way of living.
The product of artists' social solidarity is continuous provision for their living and working, but it is also art itself. During our stay at Quartair, we were invited to an event remembering Henk Peeters (Henk Pay-terz), a venerable artist and teacher who had died little more than a week earlier. Henk Peeters organized the Dutch section of the Zero group, an international radical avant-garde of the early 1960s which advanced abstraction to the point of non-object status. They had anti-market, anti-commodity values, philosophies, really, and semi-collective practices. (Their understanding of the market system of art, and observance of its norms, seems not to have enabled them to cohere in the face of its pressures – but this is the story of many artists' collectives, and continues to be an issue as long as the money flag waves.) Peeters had a distinguished career as a teacher in Den Haag. His work as what the French call an animateur, however, while it is a “service to the field,” does not earn an artist respect from galleries or museums, and Peeters had long since given up showing his work.
The artist duo Topp & Dubbio quickly organized a kind of object and performance art promenade along the long pier of Den Haag as a tribute to Henk Peeters. The artist had decades earlier unsuccessfully proposed a grand avant-garde exhibition on the pier. Today it is semi-derelict, since the city ran out of resources to maintain it. Tenants there don't pay rent, I was told, and a futuristic disc-like building is used as a bizarre kind of casino, apparently without customers. There was then no one around to complain about the art posters which had been pasted up on various pier structures, nor the sculptural interventions into its decaying boardwalk.
During this kind of latter-day Fluxtour, Marlies and Jessy Rahman, our most constant hosts at Quartair, performed along with the other artists at different spots along the pier. Marlies made a pot of coffee using a gas burner on the windy pier then pitched it into the sea. Jessy performed an honoring ritual from his native Surinam, sprinkling rice on the wooden deck. He asked us to toss some paper rings – “Zeros” – into the waves lapping the shore.
The event was utterly devoid of piety or conventional memorializing. It was however full of nonsense of a highly serious order. The final perforamnce featured three of Henk's friends entirely covering the head of one with shaving cream, until it resembled a large white cloud. (“Is it warm in there?” someone inquired, since the wind was fierce. “Yes, very.”)
To explain this kind of memorial, I can only offer an anecdote I heard about the service for the Fluxus artist Nam June Paik in New York. He was lying in his coffin, when an old friend arrived and cut off the end of his necktie. Nearly everyone in attendance then began to cut off the ends of every tie on every neck they could find. (Where'd they get the scissors? Ah!)
While Paik made his peace with the markets and institutions of art and thereby achieved fame, many of his cohort did not. Honoring the spirit of their work is more important to artists than honoring their mortal existence.
On my last day I took part in a talk, “Squatting – What Next?” a discussion about “squatting & creative anarchy.” Mike Estabrook and Vandana Jain of Artcodex invited Rutger van Ree from Amsterdam to talk. They had met him the year before in Amsterdam. He had invited them to the “Winter Games” at the giant ADM squat in an industrial area of the city. They showed me the photos of wild outdoor events in which fire was liberally combined with the ice covering Holland during that season. In his talk, Rutger outlined the options for artists to live in the cities today: They may rent, but that has drawbacks; they may accept an “anti-squatting” spot – it's a job, actually, where the “renter” works as a security guard in an empty property, but has no rights as a tenant, and is severely restricted in activities permitted. Or they can squat, which is now illegal in Holland, or finally buy, which few can afford.
Sutapa Chatterji, my colleague from SqEK, came up from Maastricht for the talk together with her little daughter. She's a charming girl, and a dead ringer for Dora the Explorer! As Rutger talked, Hans Pruijt appeared on his fold-up bicycle. Sutapa spoke about the situation of immigrants in Europe in relation to squatting. They were the demons the right wing had invoked to get the law passed against squatting. Hans offered deep perspectives from his activist days in the 1970s. Both SqEKers greatly enriched the conversation among the small group in attendance, and I was glad they were able to come. I gave a brief tour through the “fence” display, pointing to the pictures which illustrate the extremely rich 40+ year history of political and cultural squatting in Europe and the USA.
The next morning I was in Amsterdam, booked into a hostel next door to the principal object of my trip, W139, the art space on Warmoesstraat which began in 1979 as a squat. W139 is now a well-regarded state-supported venue for contemporary art. The last time I was there at the invitation of the director, Tim Voss. He had invited me to talk about the Lower East Side art scene of the 1980s as part of a show by Jonathan Monk. Monk's installation was a highly metaphorical consideration of that same NYC LES, or, rather, “East Village art scene,” which he had known as a student. Monk had a dropped ceiling built over the entire extent of the space, just the height of himself in high heels. A catalogue of a show of East Village appropriation artists – Jeff Koons is the best known – recalled the “winners” of that phase of DIY artworld frenzy, artists who emerged from it with solid international careers.
At the same time, another group had paved the entire floor of the gallery with asphalt. After the opening, one of the friends of W139 drove a custom-built motorcycle around the room, making an incredible racket and delighting the daylights out of me and the cleanup crew.
Tim's projects somehow proved too much for the W139 directors, and his contract was terminated. Still, when I arrived, I was warmly received by the business manager Jowon. The gallery was closed for renovation, since they had decided to remove the asphalt floor which I first saw installed the year before. (The stink of it had long since dissipated.) With the dropped ceiling gone, I could see for the first time the enormous height of the W139 gallery. It is a space you could, indeed, hang an airplane in. At that moment I understood an aspect of Monk's piece. By dropping the ceiling, like the triumphal museum exhibition of 1980s art he was recollecting, he closed off all sense of possibility and expansion at W139. It must have struck the artists of Amsterdam as profoundly depressing. To me, it was perfectly consonant with the historical outcome of the moment Monk was recalling, the “triumph” of the approriation artists in the East Village gallery scene. All other modes of working, like the famously demonized neo-expressionist painting, graffiti, and political practice – were suddenly erased from consideration as “important art.” The high heels? Well, you know, you gotta walk the walk if you want to get over in the artworld.
Jowon invited me to stay in the unoccupied guest room behind W139, and again I was struck by the extraordinary generosity and hospitality of this place and its people. As a longtime artist organizer and late historian of DIY and counterculture in NYC, I could get the time of day and a free drink at an opening there, but not a great deal more. (I admit that has been changing a bit lately. As Tom Otterness told me, “How can we miss you if you won't go away?” So I did!)
I happily moved out of the rock 'n' roll hostel with the urinals shaped like giant lips – (red light district, yeah?) – and into the back room at W139. There in the yard behind the buildings that face out on the crowded touristic street, I could hear birds in the morning. The entire block of these buildings was squatted in the 1970s. The city government had planned to pull them all down and build an enormous parking garage. I had no idea how this could ever have made sense to anybody. Certainly it didn't to the citizens of Amsterdam. That's why they supported the mass squattings of many lovely vacant buildings marked for demolition.
The W139 was the abandoned warehouse of a nearby department store. In the depressed Amsterdam economy of the 1970s and early '80s, they didn't really know what to do with it, besides use it as a warehouse for construction. The squatters on the block – called the Blaulokkenblok, for the laundry often seen hanging there – used it as a kind of bank of materials, poaching from the store with the indulgence of the foreman of construction. Finally, the department store let go of the building, nudged by some veiled threats to their plate glass windows.
Then began nearly a decade of free experiment as the place became also a production center for art. Shows were announced by posters plastered on the facade of the building. These reached sometimes enormous dimensions, as the bedsheet-sized examples hanging in the guest room reveal. Many of the casual tourists may have been scared to come into this very punk-identified venue, and the rough neighborhood of junkies, hookers and crooks suppressed commercial development. Artists, however, relished the freedom to experiment, the possibilities of the enormous space itself, and the jolly community to be found there, nearly all of whom lived in the squatted houses nearby.
Over the years, along with the houses of the Blaulokkenblok, W139 legalized and formalized, receiving subsidies to renovate and continue as a center for contemporary art. They set up a system of temporary directors, whereby one person would have control of the directi of the space for a limited number of years. Ths system combined the best of artistic direction (a wise autocracy beats committee work in aesthetics nearly every time), while avoiding the ossification which can follow with a permanent director. Most of this I have from my conversation with Ad de Jong, one of the original artist founders of the place, and for some time its director.
Ad is one of those generous and committed individuals who make cultural life exciting. (The artworld alas, is more full of those who channel, direct and extract value from it.) He has taken the lessons of W139 and its early wild days into teaching, consistently urging art students to organize their own affairs rather than waiting to be allowed to do something. This is really not as easy and self-evident as it may sound. Artists basically just want to do their work, and let someone else take care of any necessary arrangements, although in most cases that really doesn't work out very well.
Oddly, it was in Amsterdam that I learned more about the art squatting scene in Den Haag, from an artist who lived there while working at W139. Sara told me of the artists squatting the long-abandoned Congolese embassy in the ritzy part of Den Haag where the foreign missions to the Dtuch crown are housed. She also told me of another party house, a squatted art gallery and the notorious Pirate Bar. (Hans and I had bicycled out there, but it was, like many squat venues, closed when we got there.)
The artists at Quartair, absorbed in their own lives and careers, had not kept track of the younger artists' ventures. Their historic institutional partner, Stroom, advertises artists' studios on their website which are managed by the anti-squatting companies. Now that squatting is officially against the law – (although that law was by no means uncontested in its passage, and its application can also be half-hearted in practice) – the official art agencies seem to have let it go as anything that might possibly concern them.
In Amsterdam, however, the practice rolls on. As Hans Pruijt pointed out in his talks at our SqEK meetings, the people of Amsterdam appreciated the improvements in civic life that the squatting movements have brought to their civic life – and there have been many of them, along more or less generational divides. I met Rutger van Ree there for a kind of informal tour of some of these, although it turned out to be more of an elegaiac look at places of contest and eviction. Chief among these were the immense buildings on a canal which had been evicted and converted to luxury housing. These had once housed hundreds of artists and studios, and were crowned by a pirate radio station reached only by a precarious metal ladder along the outside of the building which wobbled in the wind.
Rutger described himself as principally into parties and politics – but not as one might think! The connection with festivity and occupation would remain somewhat obscure to me until I visited Brighton (in the next episode).
We finished up at a bar at Overtoom, a large former film academy squatted some years back and legalized as art spaces, recording studio, etc. I had visited it two years before, and recall the interesting graffiti and charmingly informal air. Now the halls are all painted with a nice, but unmistakably institutional decorative scheme. After meeting Deanna Dadusc, we cycled off to the Vondelbunker. This place was described to me as a squat, although later I was told it was also legalized. It was built as a fallout shelter, and it is still full of the air filtration systems and bicycle pump power setups of those long-ago paranoid times. Talk turned to the impending coronation of a new Dutch king, and nostalgia for the days of riots which marked the last great royal event when the squatters' movement was large.
The next morning I was off to England on the ferry boat, the stately Stena line. It's not the cheapest way to go, but it offers the luxury of a private cabin at very little cost, and a chance to digest my experiences and prepare for the rest of the trip. I needed to recalibrate, from artist to researcher. Upon landing, I resumed my journey, taking a very long train ride to Brighton, a one-time hotbed of squatting in Britain...
* I must mention this coincidence – Artists from Quartair are doing a show this May in Ottawa called “Dutch Settlement.” It's part of an exchange with artists there. The PR: “From an empty building with squatters to an officially recognized non-profit cultural breeding ground, Quartair was founded in 1992 by a group of young artists after graduating from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in The Hague. Quartair is located at The Hague Bread Factory, built in 1902, on the Toussaintkade. Serendipitously, in 1992, when recent art graduates from Ottawa University were looking for studio spaces, they set up shop in the abandoned Standard Bread Factory in Ottawa. They became the Enriched Bread Artists (EBA).” EBA was not squatted, but rented. Today it is an artist studio co-op. “During the opening, Quartair artists will evoke the unique ‘do it yourself’ atmosphere that compelled them to squat... over twenty years ago.” The story of the setting up of EBA is also quite charming.
Transparent Studio: Interview with Artcodex, the NYC art group I worked with in Den Haag
A discussion of Dutch economist Hans Abbing's work in the context of economic research by artists at:
art manifestation on the Pier in Scheveningen in honour of the Dutch avant-garde artist Henk Peeters
A brief history of W139
Photo: A view through the green colored tube at the Scheveningen pier event for Henk Peeters
Wednesday, May 8, 2013
I didn't really want to hang around making the young rebels nervous. I chatted a bit with a French guy there, and added a couple of posters for the ZAD occupation to the wall display of internet images on ZAD they had posted on the wall. I got the posters at the Transfo in Paris, a huge squat in the Bagnolet district of Paris. (We visited there during the SqEK Paris conference; I didn't blog it, did I? No, only the promo; it was too intense and fast-moving. Miguel did something on his blog, though [see below for link].) Seomra Spraoi (Irish for “play room”) is kind of homey, rundown and crummy, but it really seems to be the nerve center of the anarchist movement in Ireland.
Only a couple blocks away, there was an IRA-identified pub with a mural of the hunger strikers on the wall. (Bobby Sands, elected as an MP at the time, was one of them.) I had an urge to go in and ask folks there what they thought of the new generation of activists, and how their work related to the Republican struggle. I thought better of that, though. Figured there wouldn't be much sympathy anyhow. I later passed the Sinn Féin Bookshop, but, like so much during my trip, it was closed. So I didn't get my “Unrepentant Fenian Bastard” t-shirt. I'm not sure I'd have the sand to wear it, anyhow, especially in London...
On my way out of Seomra Spraoi, I bought a few raffle tickets from the French guy who was shivering in the doorway, selling entrances to the luncheon. I didn't return for the drawing, to see if I had won the grand prize – a crowbar, of course.
What brought me to Dublin wasn't Seomra Spraoi, after all, but the presentation at the United Arts Club of “On Bolus Head,” an artists' book collaboration between poet Michael Carter and painter Brian Gormley. Michael is an old friend from New York City, a squatter-homesteader and beatnik familiar to all on the Lower East Side extra-alternative scene. He and Brian had produced “On Bolus Head” after their residencies at the Cill Rialaig (“kill rillig”) arts center set up in an abandoned village on the rocky Irish coast of Kerry. Brian arranged for the book to be shown in a vitrine at the grand Trinity College Library, a tall dark woody hall built at the turn of the 16th century. The reception at the arts club brought out a curious and rollicking collection of characters, and was a charming introduction to the life of Dublin's artistic community. It also began some days of “milling pints” in Dublin's magnificent pubs, like the all-too-comfortable Stag's Head.
The Union Arts Club is part of a network of early 20th century arts clubs which includes the one on Gramercy Park in NYC, and the Circulo de Bellas Artes in Madrid. In addition to their functions – receptions, lectures, performances dinners and parties – these clubs offer(ed) their members places to stay at reasonable cost when they were visiting in different cities. It's an interesting adaptation by artists, always more or less impecunious, to the costs of travel, and the inconveniences (for some) of fame. It's an open question how much this quasi-familial system still operates among the arts club network. Or is it, like San Francisco's infamous Bohemian Grove, exclusively the refuge of the rich and illustrious, a kind pinwheel Davos or Bilderberg...
My next stop was The Hague, Netherlands. I'd been invited by compañeros from the ABC No Rio cultural center who were doing a show at a place called Quartair with their group Artcodex. I was to participate in a “transparent studio” project called “Ghost Modernism.” What's that? The artists told a blogger, “We often talk about how we see the New York art world as dominated by two main forces, the art market and art academia, (i.e. theory). Through our collective practice, we strive to find a third path, one that is neither elitist nor hierarchical, and allows access to people without regards to economic status or specialized education.”
This sounds great – in practice, however, it is immensely difficult. It is also exactly what the occupied social centers try to do, to give people access to situations and facilities that enable creative work and self-discovery in a politicized collective environment. So of course I am in. I built a sculpture entitled “Low fence for folk devils” intended to point to the decade of achievement by political squatting and occupation movements. This consisted of House Magic project “wallpaper” – essentially, photos from the last five issues of the 'zine, printed out and pasted onto colored paper in black, red and green. (That stands for the triplex ethos of anarchist, communist and eco-socialist.) These photos were captioned and arranged in a rough kind of geographic chronology, starting with the cornerstone, the (in)famous “White House Plan” of the Dutch Provos in 1966 – “Save a building occupy a building just for fun.” The wallpaper was intended as a rough outline for the long-incubating “Popular Book of Squatting” project of the SqEK group.
I had forgotten how much work art-making can be. My plan involved a free-standing structure to hold the wallpaper which projected out from the wall – that was the “fence.” It took me three days to make this... “rusty” doesn't begin to describe my skill level! Mike Estabrook knocked out some great “folk devil” drawings on doll house paper I had bought in Dublin. That idea refers to the concept, introduced by cultural historian Stanley Cohen in his study of English Mods and Rockers in the 1960s. A “folk devil” is a group painted in the media as deviant outsiders, who are blamed for crimes and provoke a “moral panic.” Deanna Dadusc and ETC Dee recently wrote a paper on this, which examines the media lead-up to the criminalization of squatting in the UK. Squatting has also been criminalized in the Netherlands, after much the same kind of negative publicity campaign.
The “fence” turned out okay, I guess. I also set up a stand for the “House Magic” zines, and a cup for donations. A corporate printer on the corner banged them out fast, although not very cheap! Both the arduous labor involved, and evident minimal impact of this kind of artisanal propaganda initiative was ever-so-clear to me in The Hague. It confirms my decision to abandon it in future, and put my full energies into research and writing. We'll see if the House Magic web-zine can come into existence. I am very hopeful that Alan Smart and Jack Henrie Fisher will cook up some long-promised solutions. There is a pretty good back-up of content right now, which I am anxious to share with a tiny but ever-growing audience in these very precarious times.
NEXT: The journey continues....
Seomra Spraoi - Dublin's autonomous social centre
the Zone À Défendre, anti-airport occupation near Nantes
Le Transfo (Transformador)
SqEK in Paris: “[EN] Book released in Paris!”
The Irish Anarchist Review
Miguel has posted on this: “Okupaciones en París: divisiones internas y regulación estatal” at:
Sinn Féin Bookshop -- "Ranked #593 of 744 things to do in Dublin by Lonely Planet travellers"
“Michael Carter, Poet, East Village Homesteader”
Brian Gormley, artist
Cill Rialaig Arts Centre
Artcodex artists' group
“Ghost Modernism” at Quartair as part of the "Transparent Studio" program
Transparent Studio: Interview with Artcodex
House Magic zine on the culture of occupied spaces: all 5 are here as low-res PDF downloads:
Provo’s White House Plan
“Moral rhetoric and the criminalisation of squatting,” by Dadusc, Deanna and Dee, E.T.C
IMAGE: “Squatter Folk Devil,” by Mike Estabrook; charcoal on dollhouse paper, 2013
Thursday, April 4, 2013
The House Magic zine catalogue #5 was composed in January of 2013, and finished in April of 2013.
the annotated Table of Contents:
Editorial – “It's not only gypsies and punks anymore.” The global Occupy movement has reanimated the tactic of occupation, and squattings have swelled with new activists with new intentions
Evictions – “Necessary squats.” Miguel Martinez reflects on the life and times of CSOA Casablanca. Alberto Corsín Jiménez and Adolfo Estalella take a “Jane's Walk” through Lavapiés. Jens Balzer records the “Creative Destruction” of Tacheles in Berlin. “The Sabotaj Story” tells of a Brighton group's attempt to stop a grocery chain's advance. Jacqueline Feldman recounts the “Winter Truce” that gave a music squat a respite.
Housing – “The 15-M Movement in Spain” by Ter Garcia is the story of a movement convergence. An interview with the Paris group Jeudi Noir reveals their methods. Robby Herbst is about “Notorious Possession: Occupying Foreclosed Homes with Art” in Los Angeles.
Showing Occupy – The “Occupy Bay Area” show in San Francisco traced a hidden history of resistance. HM tracks some of those routes.
Occupy Art Meeting – A number of meetings between artists and movement activists took place in Europe last year. HM reports on the Berlin Biennale, and the Graz, Austria festival. “We Are Not Representable” is an anti-art declaration. “BB7 Conversations” continue, with arguments, and, finally, a recommendation: “How to Build up Horizontality” in the artworld.
Theater – A report on the widely influential “Teatro Valle Occupation” of “Rome's Oldest Theater.” It has been followed by a “Theater Occupation Wave” in Italy. Two years before, D.B. recounts an adventure of movement theater on the road.
Festivals – HM reports on a number of convergences and festivals, mostly up with one down. Art Squats – The infamous “Mayfair Squatters” of London, the posh party people, speaking for themselves. Their Paris inspiration, “History of 59 Rivoli,” “l'essaim d'art.”
Education – “Contaminating the University, Creating Autonomous Knowledge,” Claudia Bernardi tells Class War University interviewers about Rome's ESC. Meanwhile, Oakland activists try to reboot a historic public service by “Liberating a Shuttered Library.”
This is the last issue of "House Magic" to be published in this way. The project will mutate in 2013.
Artcodex: Ghost Modernism
House Magic #5, Spring 2013
House Magic logo by Suck Zoo Han
Tuesday, April 2, 2013
You can get “Squatting in Europe: Radical Spaces, Urban Struggles,” edited by the Squatting Europe Kollective online as a download at – http://www.minorcompositions.info/?p=504, the website of the UK publisher. A bunch of the books have been sent to the USA, but it will take a while to get there. Also Hannah Dobbz' book on U.S. squatting is out, and she's touring...
The blurb follows:
“Squatting offers a radical but simple solution to the crises of housing, homelessness, and the lack of social space that mark contemporary society: occupying empty buildings and rebuilding lives and communities in the process. Squatting has a long and complex history, interwoven with the changing and contested nature of urban politics over the last forty years.
“Squatting can be an individual strategy for shelter or a collective experiment in communal living. Squatted and self-managed social centres have contributed to the renewal of urban struggles across Europe and intersect with larger political projects. However, not all squatters share the same goals, resources, backgrounds or desire for visibility.
“Squatting in Europe aims to move beyond the conventional understandings of squatting, investigating its history in Europe over the past four decades. Historical comparisons and analysis blend together in these inquiries into squatting in the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, France, Germany and England. In it members of SqEK (Squatting Europe Kollective) explore the diverse, radical, and often controversial nature of squatting as a form of militant research and self-managed knowledge production.
Essays by Miguel Martínez, Gianni Piazza, Hans Pruijt, Pierpaolo Mudu, Claudio Cattaneo, Andre Holm, Armin Kuhn, Linus Owens, Florence Bouillon, Thomas Aguilera, and ETC Dee.
“Amidst the proliferation of post-political banter, it is refreshing to see the time-tested politics of pre-figurative direct action being taking so seriously. This is a must-read for anybody who wants to better understand how the politics of squatting offer a set of transformative strategies for a creating a more egalitarian world. Furthermore, this collection illustrates how such transformative politics so often start in the world’s cities through deliberate organizing and thoughtful reflection by committed groups of activists, scholars and everyday citizens.” – Nik Heynen, University of Georgia
“In an era of austerity, capitalist accumulation by dispossession, and the criminalization of protest this excellent book serves as an inspiring and timely reminder of people’s re-appropriation of urban spaces in order to fashion alternatives to the status quo. Structured around a typology of squatting configurations – as anti-deprivation; entrepreneurial; conservational; political; and alternative housing strategies – this empirically-rich collection of essays by scholars and activists provides persuasive evidence of the creativity and politically transformative potential involved in such practices.” – Paul Routledge, University of Glasgow
Bio: Squatting Europe is a research network focusing on the squatters’ movement. Our aim is to produce reliable and fine-grained knowledge about this movement not only as an end in itself, but also as a public resource, especially for squatters and activists. Critical engagement and comparative approaches are the bases of our project. The group is an open transnational collective (SQEK) whose members represent a diversity of disciplines and fields seeking to understand the issues associated with squats and social centres across Europe.
In other news,
Hannah Dobbz is touring her book "Nine-Tenths of the Law Property and Resistance in the United States" from AK Press. (See http://www.akpress.org/ninetenthsofthelaw.html for description and order info.)
She is roaming the country of the Settler State this spring -- April 6, 2013:
3 – 5 p.m. The People’s University lecture series
@ Carnegie Public Library (Main Branch) Pittsburgh, PA
April 9, 2013
4:30 – 6:30 p.m. MPR (Multi-Purpose Room) @ Tulane University NLG
New Orleans, LA
April 11, 2013
7 – 9 p.m. @ Treasure City Thrift 2142 E. 7th St.
April 16, 2013
6 – 9 p.m. with Steve DeCaprio of Land Action and Becky Dennison of the LA Community Action Network @ Blood Money 1725 E. 7th Street, Unit C
Los Angeles, CA
April 19, 2013
6 – 10 p.m. with Steve DeCaprio of Land Action @ The Looking Glass (address available upon RSVP) Fundraiser for Land Action – $20
Buy tickets at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/349165
April 20, 2013
7:30 – 10 p.m. + dance party afterward @ Hotmess/RCA Compound 656 West MacArthur Blvd. (@ MLK Jr. Way) Oakland, CA
May 3, 2013
(details TBA) @ Loyola University Chicago, IL
May 5, 2013
(details TBA) @ Indiana University
Photo: TimesUp Bill relaxes in the basement of the MoRUS museum.
Tuesday, March 26, 2013
I´ll call the Paris SqEK meeting of March ´13 a spectacular success – or, as it should be, anti-spectacular. We learned so much, saw so many places and heard so many stories some of us experienced blank attention passages, a kind of waking sleep where you know someone is telling you something interesting but all you really understand is that their mouth is moving and some sound is coming out. “Oh! What?” (Much of this week was recorded, of course, but it may take years to sift through all that real-time data in English and French.) It was an adventure: a five-day event that was at once scholarly, exciting, exhausting, passionate, enlightening, dehydrating, cold, ridden with gremlins, and politically effective. Also shot through with moments of rare beauty.
The show began in the garrett of Sciences-Po, a maze-like school of conjoined buildings. (They are real antiques, and thus have some excuse; for these confusing disjunctive passages clearly inspired the modern architects of numerous U.S. public university buildings.) Beneath the massive exposed oaken beams of the named attic meeting room, the SqEK group gloated over their first book, “Squatting in Europe.” Boxes of the Minor Compositions/Autonomedia title had been hand-carried from London by a few people who thereby sacrificed their luggage allowances, and had to wear the same clothes all week.
I brought the last proof of the new “House Magic” #5, along with copies of all the other issues. They evaporated into the crowd, and I was only paid for one. Even so… I grouse all the time about the inconvenience of making zines on the run. This #5 was a typical nightmare – I spare readers the hairy tale of my last-minute rush to Barajas airport with copies for the meeting… Even now I type this in a copy shop that is moving on tortoise time, yada yada. But as Edward of “Using Space” zine reminded me, print copies pass from hand to hand. They have a material reality, hand-made items with a kind of gritty integrity which items with slicker production values do not have. They are literal building blocks of the movement. Still, in the future, if they don´t contain hand-made editioned prints, I don´t want to mess with them any longer.
The beloved “squatter priest,” Frank Morales, arrived from New York with his partner Vanessa, bearing a passle of propaganda, including rare issues of Chris Flash's newspaper “The Shadow,” catalogues from the Bullet Space squat art gallery, flyers from the MoRUS (Museum of Reclaimed Urban Spaces), and silkscreened posters by Seth Tobocman.
After back-slapping and book signing, the conference began. Miguel Martinez described his conception of the “action research” collective which is SqEK -- “Qu'est-ce qu'un collectif de recherche-action?” (While his consideration is very well worked out (it is mostly drawn from a longer text), it strikes me that the operations of such a group – SqEK fr´instance – generate results that are unforeseeable. Well beyond the “observer effect,” or “participant observation,” “action researchers” or militant researchers (a self-conception I feel that SqEK has yet to fully embrace) are highly active agents. Gone is the academic fig leaf, the positivist pretense of scientific objectivity. (The real-world corollary is that many such researchers are ejected from the multiply compromised academy: “Don't let the door hit you…”) It´s the difference between making ripples in a pond, disturbing a system by your research activity, and driving a car into it.
After Miguel, conference co-coordinator Hédiman spoke about the Intersquat festival, an annual opening of the doors of the art squats in Paris. The festival began as a collective response or follow-along to a show at the new-fledged Palais de Tokyo museum around the year 2000, then under the directorship of Nicolas Bourriaud. The squatters of Paris were invited to show in whatever manner they wished. The “art squatters” and their political compatriots are nothing if not multi-various and contentious, so this project generated a lot of noise and heat. (The theorist Jean-Claude Moineau weighed in on this with a text then, and talked about it when I met him with Michel Chevalier in 2010, although my French is such that he might as well have been talking to a tree…) Hédiman has bravely soldiered on working on the organization of these festivals, besides catching more than his share of tomatoes in the face because of it. Next, Fulbright fellow Jacqueline Feldman spoke of her encounters with Paris squatters. She´s been blogging a lot of it. (Jacqueline also did a lot of translations throughout the week, for which she has the heartfelt gratitude of all us French-less.)
When the first day´s talking concluded, the indefatigable Hédiman took us on a squatter´s dinner – down to a food court near the Seine, where we bought chain-store vegetarian slop and beers at a supermarket. About a dozen hardy souls encamped in the cold on the stony banks of the river in the veritable shadow of Notre Dame cathedral. We waved at the tourists riding squat wide boats as they came surging up the Seine, blasting the night with their bright lights. (The passengers aboard seemed more interested in us than the cathedral.) A drunken guy joined us, and cadged a beer (or two). I felt as if I were following in the clammy footsteps of Guy Debord during the days of the derives… After that – well, I forget. Besides, we´re going to Athens tomorrow morning, and I can´t spare anymore time to write.
To be continued…
“Using Space” zine can be found at:
Jacqueline Feldman wrote of the Jeudi Noir group at:
snap quote: “'I recognize property rights, but I don’t recognize the right to do nothing with one’s property,' says Gauthier Caron-Thibault, councilor to the city of Paris and a member of Hollande’s Socialist Party.” She also blogs at:
Image from squat.net of UK squatters' demonstration against the recently enacted criminalization law.