Friday, May 17, 2013

Travels in the North Country III: Monster London

Brighton is an old seaside town, famous for its 19th century iron-frame buildings. It was also well known for its “seediness,” and it is full of picturesque districts. It was once a hotbed of squatting, with many houses open and running. My host there Edward ETC showed me many of these on rambles around the town. Now they are mostly developed or still vacant, but shut, with heavy metal screens over all the windows. Edward has a hand in running the Cowley Club, a rented social center on a commercial street. There's a library and bookstore in the front, with comfy couches for self-education, regular music gigs, movie nights and always a pint at hand.
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

Ephemera journal

“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

Travels in the North Country II: Tales of Squattings Past

My days at the Quartair art space in The Hague, the seat of government in Holland, were something of a blur. Between the demands of making the House Magic display, and the active social life of my artist hosts, I let go of my research agenda and fell into art life. Being in Den Haag then continued on from the pubby whirl of Dublin in a kind of social hangover – and not so metaphorical! I have always loved artists. They sacrifice what most other people value for the enormous privilege of leading an interesting life. This life is mainly organized outside normal channels of regimented capitalist society, and can be a very pleasant place to be...
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

Travels in the North Country, I: Irish Arts Clubs & Folk Devils

I have returned to Madrid after nearly a month of research travel. My first stop was Dublin, where I visited the longtime rented social center Seomra Spraoi. It was a cold call – I had sent them a note, but no one replied. They just happened to be having a “squatter weekend,” a whole day of advising, food, games and fun. (The consequences are yet to be seen.) Roaming around the place I discovered an uncatalogued extensive zine library which seemed to consist of a few earlier collections which had ended up here. Librarians are on the way this summer, I was told. As I prepared to leave, a crew of folks burst into a second floor room, carrying posters for an anti-tax demo nearby that was even then assembling. I poked my head in, and was able to score a complete set of the Irish Anarchist Review, a recently produced journal. It's a very nice quarterfolded newsprint number, which features a full-color artwork on the back cover each issue. “Art is behind us.”
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