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

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