Squatting the planet

May 13, 2008

Can Masdeu is a former leper hospital in the outskirts of Barcelona, which was left unused for decades until a group of environmental activists occupied it for a conference on climate change. They stayed in the house ever since. The occupants have resurrected an ancient irrigation system and turned the property into community gardens for the neighbors, who have since become fierce defenders of the squat in front of the authorities. (Luke Cordingley in Brett Bloom & Eva Bromberg, Making Their Own Plans, 2004)

The KRAX conference in Barcelona had participants from places as diverse as Spain, Istanbul, New York, Mexico City, Helsinki, Ljubljana, and Mumbai. One recurrent theme in the discussions was that of squatting. It immediately became apparent that squatting had different and shared meanings in the East and West, North and South.

The history of squatting in European contexts has been straightforwardly tied with creative use and re-use of abandoned space. Even within a larger urban economy of relative scarcity of land one could find unused or underutilized spaces that got imaginatively infused with life by squatters from even middle-class backgrounds. Artists and cultural practitioners favoured squats as studios mainly because they were economical and flexible in the way they could be used.

La Escocesa is an artist squat situated in Poble Nou a rapidly gentrifying area of Barcelona. The occupants are now negotiating with the authorities who left them a year to come up with a plan for its future.

On the other hand, within cities like Mumbai or Istanbul, the economic arrangement of land was such that squatting became inevitably tied down to survival issues. Subsequently, when poorer migrants squatted on available land they were pulled into an informal economy of rent-extortion, an economy that transformed many neighbourhoods into so-called slums.

Yet – in spite of such hugely differing contexts, squatting practices across the world share much in common. They become spaces of relative inclusiveness and cosmopolitanism and allow for cultural and creative expressions in control-free contexts. Even in (maybe particularly in) poorer neighbourhoods of Mumbai we find robust cultural environments that are extraordinarily diverse.

In the west, squats have been refuges for artists and cultural practitioners. They help them negotiate time, social relationships, and livelihoods with greater freedom. They also help create some of the coolest spaces for sharing ideas and bring together practitioners from diverse backgrounds to create culturally dynamic environments. Squats work in effect as cultural incubators in many of Europe`s cities. Berlin for instance, which is widely seen to have the most vibrant cultural scene in Europe, is full of such squats, especially in its eastern part.

Magdalena squat provides fresh beer and good music all night long to an eclectic clientèle. In the photo above some of the guests and organizers of the KRAX Jornadas, including Tom (Belgium), The Rog (Ljubljana), El Cali (Mexico), and Mariano (Argentina).

Often middle or upper class artists from cities such as Mumbai, Tokyo or Singapore, which don’t have similar squatting histories, try and replicate the environment in a completely different context. What they land up doing is to produce gentrified spaces that are unsustainable and do not in anyway keep to the spirit of the squats. We often come across artists paying huge amounts of real-estate money to recreate a loft-like studio in an unused industrial space – having completely missed the point.

In Southern cities, it would instead be more relevant to connect with the culturally rich environments within the huge squatted spaces that exist in them. Often despised as slums or informal settlements, these structurally deprived neighborhood are often left to themselves by the authorities, for best or worst. It would work both ways if artists infused such neighbourhoods with their imagination. It would help them discover economically viable workspaces and culturally inspiring environments.

Besides, these locations, often under the threat of redevelopment projects are themselves desperately looking for inspiration for their future. They would certainly benefit from a different gaze that would see them, not as undesirable slums but as edgy places. This might infuse the neighbourhoods with just the right dose of gentrification – that the residents would actually welcome.

In so many ways cities depend on such investments of the imagination.

Open air movie screening and paella at the Barceloneta squat, which was destroyed a few months ago by the authorities as part of a redevelopment plan for this touristic part of Barcelona.

The experience of squatting in the West shows how this has often worked quite well in those contexts. However, today, even there, squats are becoming more endangered with builders and civic authorities doing their level best to re-use those spaces on purely commercial terms. That has not however, stopped artists from finding new ways of squatting.

Increasingly squatters need to apply their creativity to find new spaces rather than to keep existing ones. After all the art of squatting pertains to the realm of the ephemeral and the elusive. It is a survival strategy that certainly precedes the first shelter.