Sunday, November 22, 2015

Social Center Activists Talk in NYC

Update: The "Change Everything" tour of international anarchists organized by Crimethinc is now concluded. A report on their travels has been posted on the Crimethinc blog. It is an excellent and stimulating read. (Note: URLs to references and links are at the bottom of this post.)

Last September, a day before the opening of the exhibition connected with our anthology "Making Room: Cultural Production in Occupied Spaces," a group of activists gathered at the MoRUS museum on New York's Lower East Side for a talk about squatted social centers. Some of the activists were traveling with Crimethinc's "Change Everything" tour. Brian of Crimethinc, he of the long dreads who debated Chris Hedges a few years ago on the question of the black bloc in the Occupy movement, is wandering around the edges of the crowd. It's small. The tour, we are told, is part of a global dialogue between anarchists all over the world. The pamphlet text has been translated into many languages. The speakers this night were from the squatting movement in different contexts -- Slovenia, Sweden, Argentina, and Scandinavia. Bim of Stockholm speaks first.
There is not much of a squatting culture in Scandinavia. Tenants' rights there are stronger than in most countries. In early summer Bim was part of a squat in a southern suburb of Stockholm. The suburb had been built around a metro station there. The building they squatted had been sold to a private company pushing gentrification. They planned new construction advertised to higher income people as "15 minutes from the city." Demonstrations and organizing was done against this. This included concerts, free shops, and other events. Finally they took over the building to show that it could be renovated. They expected to be evicted quickly, but they weren't. "So we were surprised to have a building." We had to figure out what to do with it. People came quickly. "They didn't plan to make a social center. It just happened." This showed the need for such a place. The free shop was full of stuff within hours. "Everything sort of happened by itself." This was surprising since Sweden has no history of doing occupations.
The assemblies were long meetings which were exhausting. People were "differently educated," so we began to break out meetings by topic. For us, without the experience of Occupy, this was something new. We didn't promote rules because we wanted to be inclusive. In [Hed-dollen, the town of the squat] there is also a skate park and Cyclopen [another squatting project]. But you can never have too many spaces. The legal spaces would not be in conflict with what was happening in the area. [Stockholm also has a network of suburban art centers, some of which I visited during the Creative Time Summit there in 2014.] We were not just a group of punks. Even for people who were not radical, "we experienced that we could do something." Still, after a month of work, the initial group was burned out.
Ileana of Argentina spoke next. She sought to describe some of the active tensions in the squats she was involved in. In Argentina squattinng is not a political thing. People come continuously to the cities -- (now 90% of the population of Argentina) -- and start building their little shacks. A political movement is not present. People feel they have a right to build their own dwelling. In the year 2000, the financial crisis led to occupations. [The Take movie is about these factory occupations; see link below.]
I was involved in two projects in Rosario and in Buenos Aires. One had a number of provisions. The other, in Buenos Aires, was a really big old pizza place taken over by neighbors when it was shut down in 2001. Since then there has been increasing repression and evictions of important spaces. Spaces opened up for a year or more, opening up possibilities, and then closed down again. Ileana was also involved in a squatted house, "living politically together." People there were engaging their "micro-political relations and their decision-making." It was really exhausting. Assemblies in the social center are "a coming together of different bodies." In the house, as versus the social center, that process was very different. We talked about our emotional relationships. We assume that horizontal spaces are going to be horizontal, but they aren't.
Shifting affinities are something to be aware of when talking about horizontality. This goes to the question, What is collectivity? I gave up a lot to live in that house in Buenos Aires. But my whole self does not need to be decided upon by an assembly. This is a subtle thing. There is tension in our relation to the collectivity. Finally, it's a question of how we care for one another.
Ramona from Slovenia spoke next. In that country, she said, the squatting culture emerged in the early 1990s. The Metelkova military base in Llubjana was squatted in 1993. The Rog bicycle factory is another. Ramona comes from the anarchist infoshop in Metelkova. The late 1990s saw a wave of residential squatting. We were allowed to have our infoshop in Metelkova, but we also lived there. Every kind of project is there. [She names them.] The 22nd anniversary was just last week. Gentrification has intensified in the last five to 10 years, and we are now into the third generation of squatters. We ask what role or function we play in this process? Metelkova looks very open and friendly. For young people it is one of the last places in the city they can hang out without consuming. Tour guides promote Metelkova. "We see 10 or 20 cameras every day trying to take a picture of the natives." The city mayor complements Metelkova as a zone of critical thought -- the "ghettoization of critical thought" is imposed upon us.
We ask, what is the role of a radical community which is a part of this squat in the face of gentrification? When creating these spaces we want them to last. But institutionalization makes them more open to cooptation. The state deals with the emergence of resistance in terms of repression. The other way is sending inspectors, and of course we fail all those tests. It's a way to pressure us to legalize. The squat produced cultural value which is capitalized by the state through tourism. While it might be tempting to legalize, why do we fight for autonomy? Metelkova was an expression of deep disagreement with the way the city was developing under capitalism. It is easy to forget this conflict orientation as the space closes and becomes self-sufficient. It is "a tiny island of resistance.... If it doesn't go into conflict with everything else around it, it has no meaning."
Sara from Ljubljana then spoke. There are a quarter million people in the city. Both squats -- [Metelkova and Rog] -- are in the center of the city and they are huge. The origin of Rog is connected with the story of transition from Communist rule. This was more gradual in Slovenia than in other Eastern Bloc countries. But we have been facing increasing precarity and austerity. Rog was a very successful bicycle factory, but it shut down in the 1990s. Different speculations were made on the building. In 2006 it was occupied as a production space by collectives which had prepared the occupation. Metelkova emphasizes alternative culture. Rog emphasizes social production, not only cultural production. Temporary usage was a leading concept. We will leave when the city decides what to do with it, but in the meantime it needs to be used. In a couple of years we realized we were collaborating with gentrification, so we began to think how to develop. We turned into a center of cultural production.
With the Europe-wide economic crisis, the city could not find an investor to develop the space, so we are there 10 years now. In the beginning, it was very nice, with solidarity and so on. Then with the first winter, a huge factory with broken windows and no electricity, it was hard. Many people left. Many collectives began to build their own spaces within the factory. [She names various uses.] After two years the assembly became very hard, then it stopped, and restarted on a new basis. We believe in "non-perfectibility." We are "inclusive, non-hierarchical and non-institutional."
David of Rog: The "social center" within Rog has seen itself as political from the beginning. There have been two broad phases. The first was a campaign-driven collective with clear politics around the "struggle of the erased." This concerns the 25,000 people who lost citizenship during the transition. It's a complex story, but this campaign started in the early '00s and continues. Another campaign concerns the rights of migrant workers. They lost rights with the crisis and were never paid. People were in the social center because of these campaigns. It was also always open to community initiatives. The second phase came with Occupy Slovenia, a five-to-six-month occupation during which many activists became engaged in the Occupy struggle, and went away from the campaigns. The space became more about being collectively organized. A new formation is the Precarious Wasps' Nest of Workers meeting, also the Insurgent Women Social Workers which started in 2013 with a radical approach to social work. The media collective asks what does our space mean for us, and what is its function in the wider society?


anthology, Making Room: Cultural Production in Occupied Spaces
includes the essay “Metelkova, mon Amour: Reflections on the (Non-)Culture of Squatting,” by Jasna Babic

Crimethinc: Ex-Workers' Collective

To Change Everything US Tour, Sept-Oct 2015

“Välkommen till kulturhuset Cyklopen”

"Radio Sweden covers the re-opening of the Cyklopen libertarian social centre in Stockholm" November 2013

The Take is a documentary film by Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein
full movie on YouTube at:

Metelkova mesto
Metelkova is an autonomous social centre in the centre of Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Tovarna Rog on official Slovenian culture website
“Opened in 2006 within the 7,000 square-metre former premises of the Rog bicycle factory in downtown Ljubljana”

Tovarna Rog

“Rog: Struggle in the City,” by Andrej Kurnik, Barbara Beznec
Transversal e-zine, April 2008

Photo at Metelkova: Matej Družnik/Delo; at

poster image: First Latin American Gathering Of Worker-Recovered Factories, Caracas, Venezuela, November 2015

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Talking “Streetopia” in San Francisco

During my recent book tour for “Occupation Culture,” everyone wanted to talk about gentrification. While it is certainly involved, squatting really isn't about that... At the “Making Room” show at ABC No Rio this past September, however, we hosted a talk by Erick Lyle, whose new book “Streetopia” documents and reflects on an artists' project that got right to the point in San Francisco. My notes are below.
Barry McGee work in the "Outerspace Hillbillys" show at the Luggage Store Gallery in San Francisco
photo from

That city is changing fast, under the pressure of a massive wave of super well-paid tech workers. Everyone there, if they are not counting their money, is worried. Chris Carlsson, the great San Francisco historian talks about that; and the anarchist writer Cindy Milstein has been reporting the many struggles which have broken out in the street, where increasing numbers of San Franciscans are finding themselves.
The blurb for Erick's new book explains: “After San Francisco’s new mayor announced imminent plans to 'clean up' downtown with a new corporate 'dot com corridor' and arts district–featuring the new headquarters of Twitter and Burning Man— curators Erick Lyle, Chris Johanson, and Kal Spelletich brought over 100 artists and activists together with neighborhood residents fearing displacement to consider utopian aspirations and to plot alternate futures for the city. Opening in May 2012 at the Luggage Store Gallery, the resulting exhibition Streetopia was a massive anti-gentrification art fair that took place in venues throughout the city. For five weeks, Streetopia featured daily free talks, performances, and skillshares while operating a free community kitchen out of the gallery.”
The project took place in the Tenderloin district of San Fancisco. Erick explained that the mayor intends this part of the city "to be a dot com corridor" of tech businesses. The second dot com boom is underway now in SF, "Tech 2.0." The first dot com boom in San Francisco saw a united organizing response which resulted in key legislation. This solidarity has dissipated. “Streetopia” was an opening cry from the artists' community.
The roots of the "Streetopia" project, as it happens, were in a squat -- at 949 Market street during the first dot com boom. After long seasons of demonstrations, Erick said, “We wanted to do something more about what we're for rather than what we're against. We were tired of holding up protest signs at city hall. We wanted a social space where people wouldn't have to spend money.”
Erick has written about this great adventure, a covert occupation and development of an abandoned movie theater, in his book On the Lower Frequencies That book is “a manual, a memoir and a history of creative resistance and fun in a world run rotten with poverty and war.” While Lyle's best known zine venture is called Scam, his book tells of a less well-known photocopied project, The Turd-Filled Donut, which largely concerned the SFPD which was beating down hard on him and his punk pals back in the day.
The Luggage Store Gallery, a 35-year-old project which owns their building, was the partner for the “Streetopia” project. “We were making art projects for the people living there, he said. The artists built a simple structure which combined a bleacher-type seating with a stage. They "funkified" the gallery space. The architect was inspired by the St. Louis city museum, an "unsafe structure" with labyrinths. Although maligned, the Tenderloin district has strong community organizations. The idea of the show was to amplify those. For example, "What if the space of Occupy was normalized and made constant?" For the five week run of the show, there was a free cafe -- inspired by the Diggers; a "healing arts studio," where they practiced tincture making, and led ex-urban herb walks. The idea was to heal the city trauma due to displacement.
Julian Dash did a Holy Stitch project as an afterschool with kids, remaking and selling clothes. There was a stand selling coffee and trees, nurselings in planters. The Drug Users Union which seeks to set up safe injection sites, as exist in the European Union, collaborated with Barry McGee. They mocked up a design for a safe injection booth. Out of this came another group, the Urban Survivors Network.
Sarah Lewison's project was to reactivate a communal news network. The Kaliflower commune network of newsletters claimed to circulate to 300 communes in the Bay Area during the 1970s. All of this was non-monetary. It was not the "sharing economy", but real sharing – "a lost world." Silicon Valley and the gentrifiers have stolen that language from us. For the “Streetopia” artists, real time was important, so they did not photograph everything.
Even so, underground hobo celeb Bill Daniel was artist in residence, making photographs. Bill made the film classic “Who Is Bozo Texino?”. As it happened, he also showed up at ABC No Rio in September as well, touring his vintage photos of punk shows in Texas.
The artists of “Streetopia” did skill shares, for example how to find information about the city's hidden forces. Sarah Schulman came and talked about ACT-UP. A new group is using ACT-UP tactics to shut down banks. Caroline Dins made a project about James Baldwin. He did a PBS documentary, "If I Had a Hammer". Fifty years later, Caroline found the kids from that film, and talked to them about the legacy of neglect of the neighborhood.
In the discussion after Erick's talk, people noted that there has been some community land trust action in SF to preserve art spaces and housing. Sarah Lewison called this settling of younger people "a resuscitation act." With this tech stuff, "it's like the coming of the railroads," a reorganization of urban space on that scale. Today we have "a dialogue of powerlessness," complaining about stuff like gentrification. The tactics used by power to change and degrade communities are not clear. It is like the AIDS crisis, when people were dying and nobody in power was talking about it.
In the Lower East Side, said Fly Orr, we witness the takeover of the community by high level transients -- students and workers who don't plan to be here for very long. She works at the Lower East Side Girls Club where many people come to meet and organize.
I have the book, which include some deep thinking by smart people about the ongoing urban disaster that is wiping out working class and artists' communities around the world. I haven't read it yet. When I do, I'll post more about “Streetopia.”

"Vote for Survival," by Emory Douglas, shown in the Streetopia project
Emory Douglas/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / via New York Times


“Streetopia” – Order the book from the artists' collaborative JustSeeds for just $20.

Streetopia book Facebook page

Chris Carlsson talking about SF gentrification in 2014, article and podcast

Erick Lyle, On the Lower Frequencies

TRI-X-NOISE a mobile photo installation by Bill Daniel

Sarah Lewison's "State of Community" project for Streetopia

San Francisco Drug Users Union

Article about the Holy Stitch project, in "Bare" e-zine, March 2014 by Caroline Young

Holy Stitch page on Cargo Collective

Monday, November 2, 2015

Cooling My Heels...

...back in Milwaukee. Book touring is done for the moment, and I've been trying to take stock of what happened. I'm almost ready to start reporting some of these findings to this blog. As well, more ad hoc autonomous shadow-world publications are marinating in the stewpots of our gang's minds....
Squatting is pretty minoritarian stuff. In the USA in particular, while occupation is a political tactic, squatting isn't understood as a political movement. Indeed, occupations are rarely undertaken for any length of time.
So now, after a few months of sporadic touring, I shouldn't have been surprised that the U.S. reception of the books we have produced -- my own Occupation Culture and the anthology Making Room has been so lukewarm. What these books discuss and I've been talking about it seems is a curiosity of European culture. Folks are maybe thinking it's like lederhosen and paella -- curious, even tasty, but not something we do here in America.
Three years on, Occupy Wall Street seems to be forgotten. If it was, as Michael Gould-Wartofsky writes, manufactured by a dedicated cadre of media activists as a media event, both online and in the mainstream broadcast and print, it seems to have faded as completely as any of last year's celebrity kerfuffles. (That author swung through Milwaukee talking about his book The Occupiers: The Making of the 99 Percent Movement; we swapped books and I'm reading his now.)
The upshot is largely invisible. A generation of lefties with the kind of solidarity forged only in action; a reanimation of activism across the country; and, arguably, Bernie Sanders' focussed and issue-driven campaign today. Some new journals and a slew of books.
But, unlike its progenitor, the 15M movement in Spain (Gould-Wartofsky, like Nathan Schneider, points to the Spanish who were key actors in the OWS in New York), Occupy Wall Street did not succeed anywhere in the country to take any permanent brick-and-mortar positions, like squatted social centers. (The 15M movement led to dozens of sustained occupations all over Europe.) Nor did OWS have any electoral outcome. (Anti-austerity movements Europe-wide have led to some electoral victories; the Podemos party and related initiatives came straight out of the 15M in Spain.)
Now I am back in the foggy pre-winter chill near the banks of the Milwaukee River, far from the bustle of New York City September, and further still from the roiling, exhilirating political terrain of sunny Barcelona in May. Family business will hold me here now for some time, during which I plan to continue processing the data accumulated during the events celebrating the Making Room anthology book release, and the Barcelona conference of SqEK.
Considered objectively, the New York City events series was not a success, if success is measured by the yardsticks of increased attention and monetization. All the events were ignored by print press and media alike. To be sure, not a lot of effort was put into promotion, essential in the hectic New York environment. Still, gallery attendance was scant; some events had to be cancelled for lack of participation; and audiences at all events were pretty small.
On the other hand, discussions were focussed and intense. Several of those I intend to report on this blog in the weeks to come. And if this was not the moment to generate a broader public interest in the histories and potentials of the squatting movement, the people who were interested were very interested. Finally, that's what counts in this kind of thing. Oft cited, sourced to Margaret Mead, it's still true: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

Occupation Culture: Art & Squatting in the City from Below
by Alan W. Moore
published by Minor Compositions; free PDF online at --

Making Room: Cultural Production in Occupied Spaces
Edited by Alan W. Moore and Alan Smart
Co-published by Journal of Aesthetics & Protest and Other Forms; free PDF online

Occupation Culture tour website

Review of The Occupiers: The Making of the 99 Percent Movement
by Michael A. Gould-Wartofsky

Website of the 2015 conference, of the Squatting Europe Kollective -- SQEK BCN 2015
"Squatting Houses, Social Centers and Workplaces: Workshop on Self-Managed Alternatives"
NOTE: Numerous videos, texts, posters and images are on this site, and uploading continues
PHOTO: At ABC No Rio, during the "Making Room" event series, September 2015. Left to right Sarah Lewison, Alan Smart, Sophie Hamacher, Martha Rosler and Erick Lyle