In the center of Madrid, facing the famous statue of Cibeles, the vast over-built wedding cake of a town hall has been renovated as an exhibition space and cultural center. The spacious courtyard has been glassed in, and is now a year-round stone lounge and event space. For such a heavy looking building, the interior of the redundantly named Centro Centro is surprisingly bright. Spanish architects do beautiful renovations of their historic structures. The country’s finances may be on the ropes, but they did not waste public money
“Artists do not have much choice if they want to work. Only a few of the many who want to live a creative life can even begin the long march through the institutions of art school, graduate program, invited residency and teaching, museum and gallery shows that lead to career success today.”
LAPIN KULT is radio program run out of the La Generale squat in Paris: It is, in the words of its founders Erik Minkkinen & P.E.S. « A strictly vinyl & tapes playing Flashbackroom Radiosoundclash System. A raw and dusty radio show with one cassette player and a still functional record player. Soundtracks from b to z movies – occasional rants and grunts c’est la – pin -kult. Photo credit: Iddhis Bing
This Show Brought To You By The Squatting Movement
In the center of Madrid, facing the famous statue of Cibeles, the vast over-built wedding cake of a town hall has been renovated as an exhibition space and cultural center. The spacious courtyard has been glassed in, and is now a year-round stone lounge and event space. For such a heavy looking building, the interior of the redundantly named Centro Centro is surprisingly bright. Spanish architects do beautiful renovations of their historic structures. The country’s finances may be on the ropes, but they did not waste public money when they had it.
The problem for Centro Centro, as for other grand fixer-uppers in Madrid, is what to do there, since the money for cultural programs is drying up fast. For now there is a grand café and reading rooms, a show about the building itself (yawn) for renovation geeks, and on the top floor, sparsely attended, a sprawling exhibition of the “Post-It City” archive of temporary urbanities.
Here are the wild ways poor people use their cities, in inventories, texts, and photos laid out in transportable metal vitrines. The variety is dazzling—tent cities, car condos, markets, and festivals, immigrants’ bundles in trees, cemetery squats among others make up the Post-It mix.
This is the Ur-project on temporary urban uses, and it is spawned many offspring investigations among artists and architects. These can often ignore political intention, treating their subjects like ants moving busily about doing strange things. In this iteration, though, some additions to the archive deal directly with politics, i.e., the tradition of big-building occupation in global cities.
Political squatting has chalked up many accomplishments since it began in the 1970s. Most people know the “free city” of Christiania in Copenhagen, the former royal military base that became the prototypical hippie haven. But not many know the variety of other occupations that have marked the cultural scene there, like the Ungdomshuset, the “youth house,” and the “Candy Factory” complex of self-organized artists’ ateliers.
Without these autonomous “free spaces” (Freiraum), life in the Danish capital would be pretty boring for unestablished artists. The Candy Factory—more an idea than a place, since now there are three—hums with projects. Musicians, bike-makers, sewing clinics, hacklabs, cinemas, bars and nightclubs, magazines, art studios, silkscreeners, and who-knows-who is doing something obscure in some corner or other. It is cold in the winter, most toilets do not work, and despite that fact that it is illegal, many folks live in sleeping bags behind the bar. For young creative people in Europe, this kind of place is exciting, entrancing, the place to be.
Governments in Holland and Germany have tried to replicate this feeling by restoring abandoned factories as “breeding places” for start-up businesses. It is all part of the creative city shuffle, the post-industrial panacea for urban development promoted by urban sociologist Richard Florida. But when governments try to pen up for-profit creative enterprises like veal calves, the results can be mediocre at best.
This is clearest in the smaller towns. In Lübeck, the last Western city on the Baltic coast, the old-time rollicking punk club and artists’ squat, Alternative, sits on the edge of town. Across the road there is a new public fairground, and nearby, long rows of warehouses repurposed as ‘breeding places’. The facilities stand largely empty, incompetent attempts to emulate freedom.
Because the European social centers emerged from oppositional politics—black-clad anarchists and anti-fascist brigades, Autonomist Marxists and urban apaches—their cultural functions are not so well understood. Most people probably remember the (legalized) Copenhagen squat Ungdomshuset (“Youth House”) more for the well-publicized week of convulsive rioting that drew street-fighting punks from all over Europe for a molotov cocktail holiday than for the decades of packed-out concerts of start-up bands from throughout Scandinavia. The Youth House was the must-do gig for generations of musicians, until a right-wing city government sold the building to a Christian sect. That pissed people off! Finally, the police begged the city council to give the punks another building so they could go back to catching crooks instead of cobblestones.
The clearest association between art and squats is surely the extravagant murals that spring up like mushrooms whenever a building is occupied. The walls of the massive squat Forte Prenestino in Rome—another former military base—are encrusted with aerosol murals by artists from around the world. They come, make a big colorful stink, and move on to the next freed wall.
The squatting movement in Amsterdam is most famous for mobilizing resistance to the clear-cut urban renewal policies of the 1960s and ’70s. When big highways everywhere were seen as modern, squatters took over the buildings emptied for the bulldozers. They insisted on participatory planning, saved many lovely old canal houses from destruction, and earned the trust of Amsterdam voters.
In the 1980s, a group of artists squatted a building blocks from the train station in the tourist district. The place persists today: W139 (for “Warmoesstraat 139″) opened with a giant table filling up the main space, upon which artists presented their work while spectators shuffled around. The excitement they generated led to confidence, then to institutionalization, and a state-funded renovation. Today, W139 is mainstream, but it’s still predictably weird.
In July, oddball English artist Jonathan Monk lowered the ceiling—to exactly his height in high heel shoes. Meanwhile, an artists’ collective had asphalted the entire floor of the gallery. Before the opening, a punk on a custom motorcycle roared through the place, endangering the entire staff who shrieked in delight.
Artist Vincent Boschma was among them. He was working on an installation in a derelict shopping center nearby. That place was managed by an “anti-squat” agency which protects vacant properties from being squatted by letting them out on short-term contracts. For Vincent, it was an opportunity, if a limited one. (Lots of oversight, restrictions, etc.) The real action, he assured me, was with the art-squatters of Schijnheilig (pronounced: shine-high-lig), who had taken over an old school building and filled it with activities. At a party that night, I listened to poets read and bands play on a stage beneath a banner that read “This cultural activity brought to you courtesy of the squatting movement.”
The banner was a residue of the “White Book of Squatting” campaign against the right-wing effort to make squatting in Holland illegal. That effort failed; the law was passed last year. The same initiative succeeded in England. Schijnheilig was evicted violently in May 2011. Over a hundred were arrested, and foreigners were sent to the notorious immigrant detention camps. The Schijnheilig group was not ready for this kind of heavy-handed police action. They had filled some of the rooms with foam in anticipation of a carnivalesque street party eviction.
But as squat researcher Miguel Martinez has observed in the case of Spain, police repression does not always do the job. In fact, in many cases it simply spreads the virus, resulting in many more squats and occupations.
Artists do not have much choice if they want to work. Only a few of the many who want to live a creative life can even begin the long march through the institutions of art school, graduate program, invited residency and teaching, museum and gallery shows that lead to career success today. Most artists just have to manage somehow.
As always, to make the road you have to walk it. To get something going on you have to make it happen. To get some space you need to borrow it from those who are not using it. Artists are used to putting their work up for a little while, then moving on. As nomads and squatters, they are naturals.