Saturday, April 2, 2011

We Squat – House Projects, Collective Factories and Scholars in Berlin

Berlin! The big city, just like I pictured it. The style here knocks me out. And the trains get me lost. But the place is very doable on a bicycle, so I got one, a fat tire clunker that was just fine. The Squatting Europe (SQEK) conference was a blast. Most of us bunkered up all together at the Rote Insel, a “house project” squatted in 1981 southwest of Mitte (central city) in -----------. The place was big, with screaming murals on the outside, graffiti and radical posters all up inside it. Lots of Basque stuff – the nationalist movement that spawned ETA, an armed clandestine group – and “antifa” (anti-nazi, anti-fascist) slogans and decor. The house logo is an AK-47 between two palm trees! But really, most of that militance seems to be in the past. R----, who showed me around the house when I arrived, is a little embarrassed by that logo, and all the really hardcore posters are yellowed and peeling... Which doesn't mean these guys don't go on the streets when the state fucks with their movement. Rich folks' cars do sometimes get burned and bank windows get broken when a long-term house project gets evicted by the court so a developer can get to work. There was one of these dust-ups not too long ago, actually.
We, however, was in like Flynn, staying in the visitors' quarters of the house project. Gunejt, a resident from Istanbul, cooked a splendid meal for us on the first night, working from almost nothing it seemed. I bought a couple bottles of red wine, very cheap and good here in a city of beer, but a real luxury for the guests at the Rote Insel. Gunejt – it's pronounced like a French “Jeunait” maybe – is a trained photographer who worked archeological sites and now is cooking to get by in Berlin. A sharp cookie and a sweetheart. His brother lives in a community of “overnight houses” in Turkey. In these towns he said, is “the craziest architecture you ever saw.” The overnight houses are traditionally legal – if you build a house on unused land during one day's time, you can stay. In practice, the government often sends soldiers to evict them. “They do what they want,” Gunejt said.
The next day, the rest of the crew rolled in. Lynn from Vermont, Edward ( from the Brighton-based Cowley Club, Miguel and Elly from Madrid (CSOA Casa Blanca and Critical Mass, respectively), and Daniel from France with his partner. Tisba, who organized the conference on-site, showed up and jawed with R----, our host. They had never met; all had been arranged through someone else. This is the nature of good connections in the culture of resistance – they are fast and firm.
The conference was amazing. I have never been to anything like it (and I've been to beaucoup). We heard each other's papers, and responded carefully and insightfully. Nearly every conversation was meaningful. We lunched on-site at a kitchen run by a street theater company. Then we were also toured! The Rote Insel had their bar night and Voku – peoples' kitchen – on Monday night as always, and they told us the story of their house. The next day we were toured through an even older squat-based house and collective working project, the Regenbogen Fabrik (Rainbow Factory). Our grinning host with the red bandana was simultaneously translated by two young historians as he told of the 19th century factory yard and houses behind. These had been painstakingly renovated with a good deal of sustainable technology over the course of decades. Among the projects in the factory is a woodshop and a bike shop. Both do conventional work, but they are run collectively and they are open to a public to participate and learn these crafts. The Regenbogen also has a beautiful “sofa cinema” – a large room full of yes, couches – with 16mm and 35mm projection and a theatrical video beamer. This project actually was burned out by neo-nazis some years ago. I wonder why it is the dream factory that is seen as so threatening; the Surrealists of Paris also endured a fascist attack on their cinema in the 1930s. Regenbogen Fabrik's most successful money projects are a cafe and a hostel. I'll try this charming cooperative compound on my next visit.
Next we were toured through Kreuzberg by Carla and Armin, two historians of the movement. Carla showed us sites that have figured in the redevelopment of the district in the tangled history of struggle between the forces of capital and the peoples' resistance. That sounds so lame and old hat... But, like the conference papers, you will have to visit the House Magic website in the coming weeks and months, or wait for the book, to learn more! Actually maybe not – a show is being planned about the squatting movement in Kreuzberg for one week in early September. I expect it will be amazing. Already it is amazing that in fact there is no book on the squatting movement in Berlin! A handful of novels have been written. And a number of archives are bulging with material – zines and flyers and posters and videos. But the story of this decades long resistance to top-down urban redevelopment has simply not been told. It will be as new to most young Berliners as to the rest of the world.
The SQEK meetings were held in the New Yorck Bethanien, a big social center in an old hospital that was squatted several years ago. (That story is told on the House Magic: Bureau of Foreign Correspondence website, and in zine #1 – it searches up easy.) NYB will host some version of the Hamburg show that is now at the Rote Flora – when and how ain't yet clear. I booked out of the Rote Insel to stay with A-----, a graphic designer who is working at the NYB and will help arrange the show. He's made some knockout graphics for the Mediaspree campaign, an attempt to hold back the privatization of the Spree riverbank. We cycled by a quaint old Bauwagenplatz – a trailer encampment – along the Spree this morning. They host a beer garden and stage during the summer months. A----- said the camp faced a cooperative living development that had been built by well-to-do people. Despite the announced good intentions of these bourgeois, A----- felt the days of the encampment were numbered. Someone can make a lot of money there, right? Yeah. I had a chance to return to the Kreuzberg museum where I had seen a beautiful book “Wagenburg: Leben in Berlin” about these encampments. It is a portfolio of prints – maybe made in the museum's spacious book arts workshop – celebrating the free-living style of these gypsy-type encampments.
On my last day here I breakfasted in the Bateau Ivre cafe (drunken boat; a reference to Rimbaud). It's on the former “squatter village” square near the Bethanien. Then I visited a spot we had passed in the tour, the Oh 21 bookshop. We had been told this shop was the continuance of a squat infoshop. So are many bike shops in Berlin continuing from the open workshop days of squatting. Oh 21 had a nice poster in the window of a moose kissing a camel – it advertises a forthcoming event queer and transgender people for which they are a sponsor. I bought a copy of Alexander Kluge's epic film on Marx and Eisenstein, hoping it is subtitled in English. (The Goethe Institut showed this over three days in New York City recently.) I also picked up a back copy of “Interim,” a cheap-printed radical zine that happened to have an article on the New Yorck Bethanien in it. I asked if this was the same magazine that the police had confiscated at the Schwarze Risse (black crack) bookstore in the Mehringhof? They told us this story of the police in the bookshop, and I could scarcely believe it. In these days of e-info, why bother to bull into a bookstore? Yes, she told me. They had been five times to the Oh 21 to do the same thing. Zounds! Old habits die hard...
There is too much more to tell of this intense exposure to the deep squatting culture of Berlin – and I am not really taking a rest after the pressure cooker. Today I am off to Hamburg to see and talk about our show at the Rote Flora...

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