Thursday, February 2, 2012

A Center, Yes, but What Kind of Social?

I've been worried about Tabacalera for a while now. That's the giant former royal tobacco factory that has become the biggest social center in Madrid, and probably all Spain. It was never an okupa, or occupied, squatted space, but Tabacalera is run in much the same way as many of the larger occupied social centers – CSOA's, or self-organized occupied social centers – with self-regulating workshops and activities, an assembly, and various committees to take care of the necessary tasks of running a big building.
Tabacalera however has an internal conflict for a while now, and it does not seem to be getting very much better. The center was recently closed for cleaning and repairs. The centerpiece of the weekend was a “day of reflection,” when new guidelines for managing the place were presented by the committees which had drafted them. One of the ateliers, the Templo Afro, was not happy. Their projects have been much curtailed, disciplined and interfered with by the management. I talked with a very aggrieved Templo African during the day of reflection, and shortly afterwards received a lengthy bill of particulars outlining just how the group felt they had been mistreated.
This notion of a despotic management mystifies me, since Tabacalera, like all social centers, is committed to horizontality. But it is taken as an evident fact by Templo Afro partisans. The place is run by a junta. Tabacalera of course has a contract with the state which spells out many obligations that the management – however “they” might feel about things – must discharge. There have been complaints about the behavior of Templo Afro party-goers... I know I don't have the whole story even by half.
The relation of the social centers – the crown jewels of the European political squatting movement – and the oppressed immigrant communities of the cities in which they are found is very important. These places are critical informal integrators for people of color into what are, after all, insular and nationalistic white European cultures. Of course there are all sorts of government programs, and private foundations at work, but – really. Where do people have agency? Where can they determine more or less for themselves how to do things?
Last night I returned to Seco ( It's a CSA – that is, a self-organized social center, not in occupation, but legalized. It's on the very edge of Madrid center, down along a highway surrounded by immense housing blocks. I'd been there years before, at the start of my “House Magic” investigations.* But Seco isn't into art. Their walls are almost entirely bare, and a few years ago that bugged me. I stuck with the more cultural of the social centers in Madrid, and Tabacalera is the most cultural of them all. In fact, so much so that politics are more or less under the table there. But because of the problems Tabacalera is having, I decided I needed to go back to Seco and get an opinion. The folks I had met there before suggested I go on Thursday evening, the regular social hour. But this night was a special dinner, cooked by the Senegalese participants of Seco for all the volunteers, a dinner in honor of the birthday of the Prophet.
I chatted with a couple of gals before the sit-down, explaining my project – my Spanish is crummy, but compared to my last visit, I'm fluent. I talked about the problems at Tabacalera. “It's just too big,” said one. “They can't have intimacy with anybody there.” Another said it sounds like badly need a mediation. Then we sat down to a wonderful economical meal – Senegalese cous-cous with a few chunks of curried chicken hidden beneath a cabbage leaf. A man darted between diners pouring condensed milk over each plate. The chef offered me a drink of “African wine,” a juice – non-alcoholic, of course – which goes with this food and would settle the stomach. The meal was unexpected and delightful. The camaraderie between the Seco folks was lovely to see.
But that's what they do at Seco. They are committed to immigrant rights, teaching Spanish, providing legal services. “At Seco they have a program,” said the Templo Afro guy at Tabacalera. And here the culture is food, not art.
This month SQEK – the Squatting Europe Kollective – begins a research project with a meeting in Madrid. I'm going to participate in that, and through it I expect to get a lot more fine-grained in my understanding of just what's going on here within and between the numerous and diverse social centers and occupations.

Photo: Seco in 2005, before they got legal, posted at

* That's what this blog is about, in case it's been forgotten – my life running the “House Magic: Bureau of Foreign Correspondence” information project of European squats and occupations. See:

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