by Ben Burbridge
When we planned Another Space, a short visual history of political squatting in Brighton and Hove for the forthcoming Brighton Photo Biennial, we weren’t to know the project would take on an additional dimension following the criminalisation of squatting in empty residential buildings. Mike Weatherley, Conservative MP for Hove, was instrumental in introducing the legislation which saw the first squatter jailed this week. He is said to be keen to extend the law to vacant commercial properties.
We have defined political squats as empty buildings opened by squatters to the public as social centres, libraries, gardens and, in particular, places to make and show art. The small publication we have produced, designed to parody the magazines used to peddle ‘property porn’ to Brighton residents, will be distributed free across the city in October.
Over the course of the past six months, I have watched videos of exhibitions staged in empty buildings that were once banks, complete with a children’s area and library. I have seen disused department stores, lecture theatres and long-empty flats transformed by ‘conceptual architects’ into creative spaces where visitors become artists. I have spoken to art college students who worked with squatters’ networks to turn an empty shop into a gallery to oppose the opening of yet another branch of Sainsbury’s Local.
Most memorably, I have seen footage of an old courthouse refurbished by squatters and turned into a social centre in opposition to the 1994 Criminal Justice Bill. This played host to a series of gigs, events and performances, including the trial of a man dressed up as a demonic version of (then Home Secretary) Michael Howard and a debate including the real (Lib Dem deputy leader) Simon Hughes, arguing against the Conservative government’s plans.
The present fate of the buildings provides the squatters’ short-lived occupations with an additional resonance. The courthouse is now converted into yuppie flats, which cost upwards of £800,000; the bank is a high-end cook shop; one building has become a designer tailor’s, selling suits starting at £700; other squats are coffee houses. Gentrification complete.
Why do these interventions matter? The coalition government has responded to the financial crisis through the introduction of severe austerity measures. Arts Council England had its budget cut by 30% and art sales have experienced a significant decrease as collectors tighten their belts. Yes, recessions are sometimes said to present opportunities for artists to negotiate short-term lets, and set up gallery spaces. The risk of this activity lies in beautifying the ugly consequences of recession, promoting a form of opportunism that reinforces the capitalist ethos of entrepreneurism or the Tory rhetoric of Big Society. Squatted art spaces do something different.
In the UK, what is generally understood to represent official artistic culture is governed by the twin forces of the market and the state. Although each sometimes appears to view the other with suspicion, they share a close relationship – both look to the other for guidance and validation (note the number of curators from public museums who will be chinking champagne glasses at the Frieze Art Fair next month).
Both use creativity for instrumental goals, whether that be as investment, prestige symbol, to heal social wounds, or ‘regenerate’ deprived areas. Where political squats are used for – or even understood as – a form of artistic production, they allow for an unbridled form of creativity that shows outright contempt for the controlling agenda of politicians and collectors.
Sitting resolutely outside the art world, the squats I have been looking at are relational in their goals and interventionist in their methods. Their significance lies in the links forged between collaborative forms of creativity and the claim laid to what Henri Lefebvre memorably described as “the right to the city”.
For the geographer David Harvey, neoliberalism has denied the right to determine how urban space is used to all but a wealthy elite. Where UK citizens are offered a say, it is through the self-same elected government that has responded to a financial crisis caused by the greed of plutocrats by cutting, closing or privatising playing fields, hospitals and social housing, art colleges, museums and galleries.
While millionaires leave ‘spare’ houses empty for months on end and Tesco buy up land to be left vacant indefinitely, so called public space continues to diminish. By opening buildings to the public to make and share art, squatters create temporary autonomous spaces that radically refute this logic. Not unlike the occupations that stretched from London to New York last year, or the activities of UK Uncut, political squats use strategic forms of creativity to transform privatised space into a commons.
Ben Burbridge is lecturer in art history at the University of Sussex and co-curator of the Brighton Photo Biennial, which runs from 6 October to 4 November
Citation Reference for Article
Photo Credit: Another Space: squatting culture in Brighton and Hove. Photograph: Alec Smart / Brighton Photo Biennial 2012
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My take on this after watching the show on Amazon Prime called Squatters Next Door, I find that in the UK the owners are tolerant of squatters. Owners have old buildings that need to be renovated, so they allow squatters to stay there in exchange for them watching the property and make sure it is not vandalized. Landlords actually will sign contracts allowing them stay. Many of them will sign year to year. The owners do have to have a cash exchange of some sort with them that allows the contract to be valid. Many times it is just 1 pound for one year. ($1.20)
It is too bad that this is isnt commonplace, yet I do understand that not all squatters are kind and will do the right thing. This is a very interesting show that makes me wonder about the stories that are not going well.