Rotterdam is a city bombed flat in World War II. It has been rebuilt with great brio. Extravagant buildings rear up and jut in every corner of the skyline, making a total spectacle of a city that understands itself completely. And what it understands is business. There seems no room for anything else. Even so, it was here, not too far from the center, that the squatting research group SqEK had its spring 2016 meeting in a 19th century road-straddling building called the Poortgebouw. It was squatted in 1980, and is now in its umpteenth generation of people living together collectively. They are young people mostly, and fighting to stay in court cases with the developer who slipped in some time ago to buy the building cheap with the help of the city council.
SqEK has been around for nearly 10 years, meeting annually to share research and experience about squatting, mainly in Europe. The big issues burn on – gentrification, the theme of the conference, the squalorous embarrassment of the migrant camps in Calais, and the constant eviction battles that beset occupied social centers. As the Rotterdam conference convened in May of '16, the Banco Expropriat in Barcelona was being evicted with the spectacular street battles that city is known for. As we came together, we were told it was going to be nasty. There was a vault on the premises, and activists had locked themselves inside it. Klinika in Prague had been cleared by police, just as the Czech attendees arrived. “A bomb inside,” police said – a patent lie. (But not so funny when you recall that Putin's cronies are suspected of being the real culprits behind a devastating bombing of an occupied housing complex in Russia which was sought for redevelopment. No investigation was ever made.) Klinika was re-occupied immediately, the activists alternating between worry, phone calls and sudden elation.
I rarely take this kind of thing too seriously. The SqEK group is ten years old, and this meeting included a program at the Erasmus University. The chances that the cops in a small city like Rotterdam had no idea what was going on at the Poortgebouw, and that they were desirous of busting a gang of mostly academics with all the noise that would come with that, seemed slim to none. Besides, I hate to write on myself.
The punks turned out to include two important activists – Mike from London and Sid from Calais. Mike and his peops had been among the first to squat in the Aylesbury housing complex in Southwark in early '15. I'd been to Southwark twice before, once after the massive Heygate housing complex had been nearly cleared, except for a handful of holdout residents. On my next visit, it was a vacant lot, with luxury housing under development, and a creepy collection of containers artily announcing themselves as some sort of laboratory for entrepreneurship. [See O&P blog post, July 2015] Only the street name remained, evidence of gentrification with the biggest hammer of capital.
The Aylesbury Estate of social housing was next. Although I didn't visit, x-Chris of the 56A Infoshop reported that it had been partially cleared, and a sort of security zone patrolled by rent-a-cops deployed around the houses to deter squatters. Mike and his punky shock troop of squatters was undeterred, and had squatted there in support of the residents under order of eviction. (As in the case of the Heygate clearances, their relocations were liable to be many miles away, even in other towns and cities.)
Sid from Calais – (originally from Ohio, he told me) – was the most tatted up and pierced of all. He had been working with a No Borders group in informal migrant camps around Calais, France. Sid and his peops had helped break squats there, roamed the “jungles” which amount to migrant favellas with a full urban complement of businesses, and endured police attacks alongside the residents.
Jeanette and Jan came from Germany to Entschede, a town of about 160K in Holland. They gave a rundown on what it means to be working in the “art squatting” scene in a small Dutch city today. Ten years ago, they said, there were about five active groups squatting. Today, six years after the criminalization of squatting, there are only two. The largest holds a building under a five-year-old contract for guardianship (what is called “anti-squatting” in Holland and England). They do mostly cultural production there, once a year a DIY festival, and a gaming fest. They are getting money from the city council and Dutch arts fund for these activities, and consider themselves artists, and unpolitical. The city has just offered them a contract to “guard” another large space.
In Jeanette's view this group is causing gentrification, making their underground scene really attractive by organizing festivals. They are 80% funded by the city, and supported as well by a real estate developer's foundation. Because of this they started a new group of about 10, and took a warehouse which they called in English “Diversity.” There they've organized exhibitions and parties, run a semi-regular bar, free school events, workshops, a free shop. A few people live there, and some have studios. It is illegal; there is no deal with the owners. A recent court case decided if owner sells they have two weeks to get out.
Their group supports political acttivity. They are “not crazy active, but people are not discouraged.” They operate with a consensus process, which is easier because “we are friends anyway.” The other group exists mainly to have their studios, and “keep their personal projects going,” so their meetings don't work well.
In Entschede, a number of venues for music and culture which were squatted are now legalized. The criminalization of squatting has changed the culture. There are still a lot of empty buildings, but anti-squatting companies are taking advantage of the vacancies and starting to “rent” them with very precarious contracts. It is not the same culture as squatting. The art school as well, which was a free school with a leftist orientation, where “you could do everything,” and squatting was a topic of reflection was privatized in the 1990s and then moved to another part of town. The mindset of the students has changed.
In discussion, a woman from Vienna and Basel observed that, “It's everywhere the same thing.” In the past, every cultural venue was a squat. The only way to do sometthing against that is to politicize the way you are living. Tim from Klinika in Prague observed that they are being persecuted because they are political. An artistic squat is celebrated as creative, but the political is persecuted. “The authorities are acting politically against a political action which is subversive.” Jeanette said that in Entschede it's not the authorities, it's really controlled from the inside. Other people, other artists object to political activity. Michael from London said that today, there is fear of using the word “squatting.” Today, “everything is an occupation.” He called for less negotiation, and more insecurity. This seemed like the germ of a real political aesthetic, spoken by a guy from a town recently famous for its “pop-up” social centers.
It became clear to me during this conference that the combined effect of the criminalization of squatting and the “anti-squat” guardianship companies which manage vacant buildings mainly for “renting” to students has brought deep change to artists' organizing and working conditions in Holland. The normalization of a paid-for sanctioned precarity in living and studio has effectively returned artists to a self-centered entrepreneurial direction fully consonant with redevelopment projects. The squatting culture seems to survive as a nimbus of historical recollection, or as a determinedly political project. The places where they cross are rare. And, while they may be the most exciting kinds of squatting projects, they are hard to sustain.
Hardcore squatter artist Fly Orr from NYC LES was with us in Rotterdam. She did a slide show in the cafe on the hard scrabble '90s movement she was part of, and sketched during the talks. She then went on to Naples for the Tien@ment event celebrating counterculture and squatting. There she posted of three days “talking about Squatting West Berlin in the 1980s and on adventures around and 'on' the Wall (!!!) in a historic church of a beautiful former Monastery and then Youth Detention Center in downtown Naples, now part of a new Social Center/Squat (Scugnizzo Liberato).” This series of events celebrated “the movement of counterculture born of occupation in 1989” with concerts, exhibitions, theater and film. Three days to “remember the history of the antagonistic movement” in Naples.
I was glad that this ever-sunny North American squatter artist could reconnect with the European movement she had seen and depicted 20 years ago while touring with her punk band Zero Content.
Jim Fleming of Autonomedia, my publisher, was also in Naples. Jordan, also a member of that crew, showed up in Rotterdam with his compatriot Aja Waalwijk and Frank Vranckx(?), from the squatted village of Doel outside Antwerp. Jordan and Aja dressed as clowns for their presentation to SqEK, speaking of their work to network “free cultural spaces.” The “kids” at SqEK were mostly impassive, as the hippie/punk divide gaped wide. The pair were planning to go on to Lithuania for the June “Meeting of East and West Network” in Vilnius. After that, there's another network meeting in Russia, at the eco-center YES in Shiram, village of Borovoye, Tverskaya oblast. (Visas required.)
Fight for the Aylesbury -- multi-lingual site (ENG, SP, FR) last updated in 2/15
Nuit debout on Wikipedia; incredibly current for an event that began at the end of March '16
“The Squatting Europe Kollective (SqEK) is a research network focusing on squatter movement(s). Their aim is to produce reliable and fine-grained knowledge about this movement not only as an end in itself, but also as a public resource, especially for squatters and activists.” The Barcelona conference website continues to be enriched with documentation of the 2015 conference, “SQEK BCN 2015: Squatting Houses, Social Centres and Workplaces, a Workshop on self-managed alternatives”
Squatters and Homeless Autonomy is on facebook.com, with recent bulletins from the struggles in London and beyond... E.g.: "Ongoing pop-up squatted social centre. Get down there." They're also knocking out an occasional broadsheet, posted as a PDF on FB.
On the massive displacement and redevelopment in south London, see “Southwark Notes – whose regeneration?” https://southwarknotes.wordpress.com/heygate-estate/
News about the Futurological Symposia – “an informal international group of free-thinkers and activists engaged in alternative lifestyles such as: eco-villages, eco communities, communes” and festivals, and their forthcoming and past meetings
More to come on this? Hoping so...