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”

1 comment:

  1. Oh that Xchris of 56a. He doesn't run it but he does help run it and he never sits in that cafe down the road neither!! No way!