Thursday, June 15, 2017

BCN Muni 2: Theory, Practice, Theory


(My reports on the “Fearless Cities” conference on municipalism in Barcelona are coming out rough. So I won't make any more promises about what's coming next!)
The ferociously over-determined space of the plenary sessions, the Aula Magna of University of Barcelona (19th c. medieval revival)

In a Saturday panel, “Municipalism for Dummies,” a speaker referenced the book “La Apuesta Municipal” – (the municipal bet or wager; democracy begins from the local – in Spanish, free download).
Ana Méndez was introduced as strategy advisor to Ahora Madrid, and I'm pretty sure I've seen her representing Observatorio Metropolitano. That's an independent research group on the city of Madrid that has been working for years to compile information on every part of the city. This kind of research, with links to academia but first of all militant, is key in building the base structure of a municipal movement.
(This is in contrast to academia which encloses information as part of its work of selling it and building professorial reputations, aka academic assets; this is a bind which individual figures, most notably Nicholas Mirzoeff, have fitfully sought to escape.)
To make an institution closer to the people, she said, we became researchers of the territory. Thinking of what is available, we imagine new kinds of economic models that are more in relation to the territories. Those include not only money but access to physical resources. (This has to do with the “social unionism” described by Beatriz Garcia of Instituto DM, also an Ob Met researcher.)
Another line of action of Ahora Madrid is the opening up of the institutions, changing structures that have been impenetrable to citizens. (I thought immediately of NYC Mayor Bloomberg's early innovation of a 211 telephone line for any kind of query or complaint. It cut through the maze of city agencies in a way that an internet business billionaire could conceive and implement.)
Her talk was fascinating – an exposition of “theory on your feet” borne of the hard experience of wielding municipal power. We try to understand local government functionaries – the city's bureaucrats – as inhabiting enabling structures, she said. When you get into government it is very complicated. We struggle with deep structural situations. Government in Spain is mainly on an administrative scale, requiring a very specifiic kind of managing which is in the detail of the law. The devil is in the details, and these are not systems that were designed by us. We wrestle with the codes that order the social activity that produces the state, and what we understand as municipalism.
Classical politics is built on inside/outside relations. It is built on demands which are answered or denied. Our question is how to do otherwise, how to build platforms that can make structural proposals. The in/out relation is less clear – now we are out/out, in/in, etc. We have not developed the tools to deal with the social movements from this complexity. With municipalism we are proposing local institutions that are less attached to the state organization, or state-like organization.
How can we imagine local governments that are not local branches of the state, but are the places where this state structure meets reality with all its complexities? It's like, how can we desflecar – like threads on cloth. How can we open the threads on this very heavy structure of the state?
All the power is in the mayor who delegates by decree (like a chocolate fountain). But the city is not a tree – the city government shouldn't be a tree, society is not made like that. It's a very hierarchical structure.We are faced with structures that don't understand the overlapping of things.
She said this is a question of what researchers on organization call “information ontology” – the system, the names which institutions use to name the world is rooted, and clings in a way that is very deep. We face a 25-year-old machine designed by the rightwing Popular Party. “It has tendencies.” We little by little open up spaces, making redistribuution, making other things happen – this has to do with this feminization of politics.
The question of citizen participation is a great shift in the mentality around governance.
Kate Shea Baird, coordinator for Barcelona en comu's international committee and a key conference organizer, moderated this session. At one point, during a discussion of problems, she remarked that when we think of the opportunities and limits of municipalism, we need always to think of the alternative. Another on the panel agreed, citing a saying in Catalan, “If we don't do politics, politics will be made against us.”
Beppe Caccia of Venezia in Comune buttered us up. “I think there are very few dummies here. Most are already working.” As a political culture municipalism does not need to be “a new ideological item, or discourse.” We need to connect a plurality of political cultures with our daily practice. We cannot even discuss models. We have to discuss single examples like the exempla of Spinoza's ethics.
Municipalist political culture has always been a minoritarian one, even in left political cultures. He said. The workers movement, for example, has always been a state-centered political culture. There is an idolatry of the state on the left. The state is the driving force of capitalist development. The state is also the possible regulator of wealth distribution and possible provider of social protection.
Even so, new municipalist culture emerges again and again in transition times. Now, following Gramsci, we are in the time of interregnum. The old economic and social models are dying. New social forces, new economic models of common life are striving to affirm themselves. These are dangerous times, times of monsters. The resistance of the old creates reactionaries – nationalism, protectionism, authoritarian responses. This is a crucial time. New social forces are emerging and looking for tools, for theoretical weapons to achieve radical structural social transformation.
The main impact of austerity policies has been on cities, rending the urban social fabric over the past 10 years. The logic of political reputation has been challenged in the past decade mostly from below, by developing new forms of social organization. (Not sure this has been true in USA, though!) In the late 1990s, the focus was on participatory democracy and participatory budgeting. Now participation is empty of significnce. It has become about building consensus, not building democracy from below.
Why we are winning elections is, after the new cycle of social movements, there is a desire, a demand to have a different way of governing our towns, villages, and cities. We take a three-fold approach to establishing municipalist practice. First, there must be a strong social dynamic from below. Second we must be able to build confluences, and construct new political platforms. These are not the same as social movements; they assume the demands of social dynamics and formulate a political project. Finally we work to transform the city institutions.
Soon we broke into small groups. I was supposed to send in my report, but I never did it. That's okay. Prensa will never get back to me on my query about the substitute speaker's name, so... it evens out. More soon!

LINKS and REFERENCES

Pablo Carmona and Observatorio Metropolitano, “La Apuesta Municipal” from Traficante de Suenos in Spanish, free download).
https://www.traficantes.net/libros/la-apuesta-municipalista
Observatorio Metropolitano independent research group on the city of Madrid http://www.observatoriometropolitano.org/
An Italian perspective on militant research (Ephemera journal on the theory and politics of organization has a special issue on the subject)
http://www.ephemerajournal.org/contribution/notes-framing-and-re-inventing-co-research

Instituto DM – Instituto para la Democracia y el Municipalismo
http://institutodm.org/

Last lunch at the "Fearless Cities" conference -- paella

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Meeting for Fearless Cities in Barcelona 1


Back from the inspiring summit on municipalism in Barcelona, produced by the city government there. That is the new political movement which corporate media misread as left populism – or simply ignore. There is so much to process – notes by hand and on computer, the posts by many participants in English and Spanish, the streams appearing and disappearing, and the sprawling website itself, that... Well, here is a start.
Most of the time there I spent with a U.S. delegation – (there was more than one, but the one I was invited to seemed to vanish) – comprised of hardcore political activists. Working Families Party operatives, Democratic Socialists and Black Lives Matter people predominated. Their discussions were intense and focussed on building electoral campaigns. It was exciting to watch them grappling with the tenets of the municipalist program and ideology. It seems simple: It's direct democracy, high ethics, transparency, and at the center feminism, ecology and the care economy.
There are many rough stumbling blocks along the path to realizing or using these new ideas in practical political organizing. (They're really not so new; ancient, actually, but refashioned.) I know these folks will get it together, though. And I am convinced, through spending time with these energetic, committed and intelligent political activists that we're going to see some dramatic electoral results on the local level around the USA. I'm sure I was in the room with many future elected leaders – but people who also know that the ration of glory high office holds is not what their work is all about.
This was a wildly diverse conference, with people from so many countries, and so many sessions I could not hold names and positions together. I just tried to keep up with the conversations. Now I'm giving only a mostly anonymized taste of some of that talk. Please comment if you wish to add some detail.
Arriving for the conference, I was fortunate to have a solidarity apartment from an Italian professor and writer on Spanish politics. Steven Forti presented on Italian municipalist platforms in the conference, while running around doing things for his radio station as well. Almost immediately I ran into some SqEK academic/activist comrades – Miguel Martinez, Claudio Cattaneo who lives in Can Masdeu, Julia Ramírez Blanco, Andrej Holm and Galvao Santos.
The first event of Fearless Cities was a welcome in the public square in front of the art museum MACBA. (I longed to see the show inside of “Forensic Architecture” and punk in contemporary art, but – no time for my love.) We heard Ada Colau, the mayor of the city and head of Barcelona en comu, the political platform that has taken power in the city government. She welcomed us “back to the squares” in springtime, a reference to the 15M movement of 2011 where in a sense it all began. That pivotal Spanish political event was one among many “movements of the squares,” including the US Occupy. Numerous recently-elected dignataries spoke, including Madrid's own mayor Manuela Carmena. The event was live-streamed, and is still online (in Spanish only, however; highlights also, all over-dubbed in Spanish).

Photo: Manuela Carmena y Ada Colau at opening of Fearless Cities

The next day saw an opening plenary with statements from muck-a-mucks in BCN en comu laying out their ideas. Is that online also? Maybe... as the conference went on, less and less seems to be, although it will likely come along later, as happened after the 2015 MAK-1 and 2016 MAK-2 conferences on muncipalism, which featured reflections by many participants (search #MAK2; the first MAK saw afterwards an important assemblage of texts on the transversal website – see my own post here “Where Does Municipalism Come From? II” from February 2017 for a precis). The big difference now is that these folks have been governing for a while now, and their ideas are tempered – chastened in some cases, stronger in others.
Still optimism and inspiration ruled the day. Looking at some of the conference-time tweets conveys some sense of the lead themes as seen by conference organizers and speakers:

Kate Shea Baird‏ (a key organizer of BCN en comu's international group) @KateSB – “Can the municipality be a space of self government rather than the local branch of the state?” asks @anametropolitan

“Municipalism is not about implementing progressive policies,but about giving power back to ordinary people.” – @debbiebookchin #FearlessCities (she's the daughter of Murray, the revered theorist of libertarian
municipalism)

"Without the soil of fear, the 1% can't win" @drvandanashiva

“We must put life and care at the centre of politics! 💚”

"Gender equality isn't about specific policies for women. Gender must be integrated in all public policy" @L_Makeba

"Without feminism there is no revolution of municipalism" Laura Perez Castano - Councillor for Feminism and LGBTI, BCN en comu

"We measure the amount of time men and women speak in meetings to visibilize inequalities and reduce them"

“Ada Colau (mayor of Barcelona): States are slow, authoritarian and patriarchal. Against this municipalism is a must, it is morally obligatory.” #FearlessCities

“When the states fail to assume their responsibilities, cities should step in. This is why we need more #FearlessCities working together.”

"Intelligence, diversity and self-organization are the essence of life, and it's stronger than fear" @drvandanashiva in #FearlessCities

“There is no one size fits all in municipalism. You have to find your formula"

Social Protection instruments for housing are not enough without civic mobilization @AndrejHolm #FearlessCities

More than the pep talks and high-flown rhetoric to which the left is addicted, the “Fearless” conference included numerous discussions of ground-level strategy on how municipalist platforms in different cities were built. There were fascinating statements of the kind of new subjectivities the movement was both based on and was constructing. And there were discussions about how to apply some of these lessons in the USA.
I listened to a lot of it, but know I missed a lot as well. The organizers handled the event as well as may be expected, given the language divide between Spanish and English.
The need for efficient organizing in the USA is now so urgent I prioritized sessions on strategy and application. The best of these I saw was in English, “Como creat una canidatura municipalista y participatia” (title in Catalan in the program, go figure).

Next: Fearless Cities 2: Local Strategies from:
London, England
Comu de Lleida, Spain
A Coruna, Spain
The US contingent of organizers held their own sessions and breakouts. You could feel the urgency in their meetings. One session I came in on dealt with white supremacy, and the personal damage of racism. (Other sessions I missed considered neo-fascism.) It was very affecting to hear the stories of oppression people of color are often reluctant to share. From the terrible shared childhood experience of "Mommy, what's a nigger?" to the the call from the agency after you have rented the apartment, "Oh, we made a mistake, it's already rented."
These are stories white folks read about, from the children of families trying to better their situation who were kicked in the face on their way up the ladder – as you are reading now. But to hear people tell them, and to see the effect these oppressions as children, these experiences had as remembered by mature people is to realize something fundamental about the nature of our rotten society. And as well, to see something of the motor spring of revolutionary intention. During lunch, one white conferee from Canada asked me, when will there be a truth and reconciliation commission in the USA as their had been with indigenous people up north?
Yes, white organizers need to relearn the lessons of the New Left, and let organizers of color lead. This was such a sturdy, intelligent, sensitive and militant bunch!
But when some tried to generalize to Europe as, yes, ideological cradle of white supremacy, the contemporary application of the argument broke down. In Europe it is Muslims who are the oppressed and racialized minority, and also most of the refugees and the terrorists. The “M” word was not spoken during that US session. But it struck me then that Barack Hussein Obama was for the extreme right in the USA a convenient way to displace and deny their racism. When Trump inveighed against Muslims while before he had denied Obama had been born in the US, he was playing to a deep-seated Other-izing fear of white USAians stretching all the way back to Malcolm X. It wasn't a dog whistle, it was a fog horn. And it was a lesson learned by the US extreme right from the international neofascist movement.
A key question for me at this conference was how could the US progressive left and its various movements use the lessons of Spanish municipalism? How does it differ from the practice of politics in the USA?

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Kunst und Gentrifizierung in Berlin



Poster for the 1980 show, by Andy Baird of Artpolice

I participated in an art show this June, “The Real Estate Show Extended,” Berlin edition. The title refers to our famous/notorious exhibition in New York City in 1980, when the BeeGees were still big. We took over a building to mount a show of art protesting the exploitation of artists and the eviction of tenants in Lower East Side social housing – the early stages of what has become a global problem – gentrification.
This show-in-occupation was remembered and reprised in NYC itself in 2014 in four galleries and at the place that came out of the original Real Estate Show, ABC No Rio. The Cuchifritos project space in the old Essex Market also held a part of the extended RES show – a Free Speech center, where passersby and community members were informed about the impending plans to develop the enormous parcel of vacant land where the 1980 RES took place.
A curator from Berlin, Matthias Mayer, saw the show there and invited Becky Howland to mount a version of it in Berlin. We helped him produce a show of documentation from the original RES, and participated in the “RES Extended” alongside Berlin artists.
It was great to see old comrades again – Becky, Peter Moennig, and Joseph Nechvatal. We are all still making art, and despite our separate life courses, we all recognize that our project of 37 years ago was prescient. Gentrification has turned out to be the way Big Capital rolls now, destroying big city neighborhoods and reconstructing them as rich folks' quarters. It's a major problem for working class people and artists.
I made two “zines” for this show – collages, actually, in the form of newspapers. Each one hung on a cafe reading stick (Zeitungsstock). One concerned the events at the Free Speech center and the giant development proposed in '14, and now a-building. The second concerned gentrification itself, and the erasure of bohemia in both Berlin and New York.

Panel with Becky Howland (NYC), Peter Mönnig (Cologne), Alan Moore (Madrid), Joseph Nechvatal (Paris). Moderated by Howard McCalebb (Dada Post, Berlin). Photo by Anne Fatoyinbo

I want to describe these zines in later posts. But first I'll talk a little about the show itself. The documentary part opened in a small art space in Kolonie-Wedding, a district well to the north of Berlin's Mitte (Spor Klübü project space). The housing is fine old stock, and full of working class families, including many of Turkish descent. The neighborhood was sehr gemuetlich – quiet, children playing, folks lounging out front of cafes – it was hard to realize how rapidly it was being transformed. In Berlin the landlords' scheme is to upgrade the infrastructure in an old building, needed or not, and then raise the rent through the roof. I stayed in an AirBnB apartment not far from the first show venue where this had happened. The room was great, light-filled with a balcony, and three very nice young roommates. The person who let the room had moved out with her boyfriend for the time I would be there. They needed my money to make their rent.
In this case, AirBnB buffers gentrification, giving young people a strategy to manage high rents.
I met Fred Dewey at the opening of that show. He's from Los Angeles. There and in Berlin, Fred organized neighborhood councils. He wrote a book about that, and his other adventures. Now he's into Hannah Arendt's political philosophy, leading a reading group this summer. We sat down for a conversation in his apartment near Templehof. (A report on that will also be coming along here soon.) Later we went for a walk to the vast disused airfield. Development plans there were halted by a community referendum. No political party supported that, but it went through. For the moment, Templehof is a vast public commons, with a small community garden area, places to picnic grill, and numerous runners, bikers and kiters.
The second show of the RESx-B included a large number of Berlin artists, and was held at a space called Kunst Punkt in Mitte. I hung around there for days during the install, but not many conversations happened. Everyone was just working on their piece, the way artists do when preparing for a show.
The opening was mobbed, however. And the talk the next day, with the three of us “veterans” on stage, was also well-attended.
For my part, I had to make a relevant noise. I began the panel talk with a kind of performance. I asked how many knew who Andrej Holm was? Not very many, maybe 5 or 10 raised hands. This matters because Andrej Holm was appointed as Berlin's housing minister under the new red-green-red coalition government elected last year. A concerted defamation campaign against him caused the government to dismiss him. Soon after he was fired from his university position at Humboldt as well.
In reponse to that action, students of the sociology faculty occupied their part of the university. “Holm bleibt!” they cried – “Holm stays.” (#HolmBleibt will fill you in on their action and manifestos.) And so did I, in the art gallery, while banging on a beer bottle with a stick of wood. The point? You need laws to protect tenants and neighborhoods. Holm was fired because he would help to draft them, and see that they were enforced rather than exceptioned and looking the other way.
Andrej Holm is Germany's expert on gentrification. His case study is Berlin. He is also a member of our SqEK network of squatting researchers, so he has learned from that movement and its strategies of self-organization.
Then I held up a poster from the Köpenicker Strasse squat's street festival, a “festival of counterculture.” I had passed by there on my way to the gallery. The streets all around the Köpi, as it is known were full of police vans, waiting. These events often end with a riot – although when I passed by the music was just beginning on the blocked-off street, and kids were playing with their parents.
I said that in order to preserve housing and communities and cultural spaces you need law. That would have been Andrej's job. But you also need “anti-law” – disobedience, contest and disorder. The punk culture which impels, animates and preserves squats like the Köpi is something Berlin is famous for. It not only animates the milieu of bohemia, it is a concrete path for working class kids who didn't go to art school or music academy to enter into a kind of artistic life. It is also a solidarity experience for many marginalized and dysfunctional people, folks with mental problems, addicts, or just young misfit toys in the capitalist playing field.
Andrej Holm in a photo from the publication Taz.de

Afterwards I had an argument about this from a fellow who insisted the punks needed to be dealt with because they took property and did not follow rules. Well, the property is not being used, and not following the rules is kind of the point of punk culture. Anyhow, punks have their own rules which are in effect as strict as “straight” society. And social solidarity for society's outcasts means they aren't sitting around public parks and skulking on streetcorners.
But the place is so dirty, a terrible eyesore! With the Wagenplatz nearby, there are mounds of garbage. Could it be that the city is deliberately not picking this stuff up? Imagine if, instead of repressing them, and feeding the aggressive self-defensive side of the punk culture the city cooperated with these places. They are not as chaotic as they appear. There is a plenum, an assembly, which runs the place through open meetings. There are lawyers who protect them, or they wouldn't still be there. These places and these people would act differently if they didn't always have to defend themselves so strongly.
Finally, I showed the back cover of Erick/a Lyle's most recent issue of SCAM zine with an image by Barry McGee. What is more, sez me, important artists have come out of the squatter punk subculture. And that's not to mention innumerable musicians, like the Clash – although this is rarely a part of the official biographies of those who promote them.
On my last day in town I waited on the street to meet Matthias on a lonely stretch of Frankfurter Allee, in the shadow of the Plattenbau housing complexes built by the East German government. There, right next to the Stasi museum, the artists' coalition he works with is scheduled to receive some run-down buildings to develop as artists' studios.
I had it all planned out for him by the time he arrived, whether he wanted to hear it or not. They should open a cafe in the part with the nicest door, and next to it a bookstore and women's center. The cafe should be run by a politically-minded workers' co-op. That way, if they succeed, they might be able to spin off another business into the neighborhood. The bookstore, similarly constituted, can provide venues for poets and writers. Artists in the building should be required to do at least some hours of collective labor regularly so they have to interact with the community. Included in that can be sittting in the bookstore, a semi-social activity, or working in the cafe. Both of these projects would be open to the public and would materially enrich the neighborhood's cultural resources which are bleak-to-nonexistent.
Of course there are all sorts of regulations you have to observe for every different activity... the more money the less freedom.
We'll see.

"The Real Estate Show" Documentation of the original show from 1980 from ABC No Rio's Archive, organized by Becky Howland & Matthias Mayer
May 27-June 27, 2017 at Spor Klübü project space, Kolonie Wedding, Berlin
http://www.koloniewedding.de/sporkluebue/

The Real Estate Show Extended / Berlin @ Kunstpunkt Berlin – June 3-24, 2017
Schlegelstr. 6, 10115 Berlin – Opening hours: Wed-Sat, 14:00-18:00


LINKS

"The Real Estate Show Extended -- Changes on the Fly" has not yet been reviewed... this is an artist's site:
http://www.xeniafink.de/?/news/real-estate-show/

A fine review for Studio Int'l online, "Lower East Side: The Real Estate Show Redux," by Natasha Kurchanova
http://www.studiointernational.com/index.php/lower-east-side-the-real-estate-show-redux

Nice blurb on Fred Dewey's book "School of Public Life"
http://bombmagazine.org/article/7238121/fred-dewey-s-em-the-school-of-public-life-em

SqEK network's biggest conference, in Barcelona in 2015, has the best developed website

https://sqekbcn.squat.net/

Hunh! Here's a video about the Spanish PAH with Andrej pacing around up front...
https://vimeo.com/131662060

Die Köpi (auch Køpi) ist ein 1990 besetztes und 1991 legalisiertes Haus in der Köpenicker Straße 137"... I did not know it was legalized.
https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/K%C3%B6pi

A traveler's recent experience in a Wagenplatz (2015); by "leetheperm":
https://wearetransient.wordpress.com/2015/05/08/my-experience-staying-in-a-wagenplatz-in-germany/

SCAM, Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Issue, Erick Lyle (Editor)
https://www.akpress.org/scam-25th-anniversary.html

Yes, the Stasi Museum. Yow!
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stasi_Museum