‘I’ve painted myself into a corner’ – Learning from the divide between ‘artistic’ and ‘anarchist’ squats in Paris
This comes from the zine using space 8, where it contains lots of pictures of cats.
After an intense week in Paris for the Squatting Europe Kollective‘s annual conference I wanted to set down some thoughts about a rift which seems to go very deep in the squat scene there. I was already aware to some degree of this rupture through discussions with anarchist friends from France and would not by any means claim to have a complete grasp on the situation (if that is even possible); my aim here is to contribute some thoughts from an outsider perspective which would hopefully help to break down this divide, one which ultimately would seem rather destructive for the Paris squat scene (although having said that there is also a real point to be made about who is actually squatting and who is actually in the scene). Places still occupied will not be referred to by name to respect their privacy and what I am saying is intended as constructive criticism, I don’t think there is necessarily a right or wrong to this, although I would own up to a definite sympathy with the anarchist position. I would hope that debate and introspection is valuable to the squatting scene. I will frame the debate then offer some thoughts on it, adding some experiences from places I have lived in or visited.
There is a large split in the Paris squat scene between openly political squats (which tend to be referred to as anarchist or autonomous) and artistic squats. However, this is not because anarchists hate art (maybe some do). This rift goes a lot deeper than that. Even if the terms anarchist and autonomous are not synonymous I will talk of anarchist squats since these are the ones I am familiar with. Anarchist squats refuse to negotiate with authorities such as the police, the local government and the state and take an antagonistic position, declaring themselves against private property. There is a strong tradition in these squats of no-one making money from the place or from the events which are always either free or prix libre, raising money for good causes (meaning you pay what you feel rather than a fixed price). Infoshops are also prix libre and also sometimes the bar (a truly mind-blowing concept for me!). Groups are run non-hierarchically, without leaders, with decisions being made collectively through consensus at weekly meetings which anyone can attend. These squats may contain artistic projects but these would then be likely to be explicitly political and non-profit.
With artistic squats, spaces are occupied to provide ateliers and sometimes also accommodation for artists of whatever discipline. These groups often appear to be led by one charismatic leader, as a sort of mini-dictator who runs the project. Various places were described in such terms to me.
Whilst the squats are often cracked, they tend to quickly make a contract with the mayor, thus becoming legalised and thus actually not really being a squat any more. These contracts can vary in type.
Sometimes the group is supposed to create X amount of stuff to “prove” they are worthy artists, or must agree to visits from the owner to check on the place, or must apply every year for a new contract. I also met a group which had a contract which simply stated they agreed to leave when the owner planned to work on the buildings, with no other conditions attached. Obviously, the latter seems like a better option.
So the devil really is in the details.
On one day, we went to visit several projects, all in one district, all on contracts, and we were told they would all be evicted within the year, for new things planned by the city. Sqekkers from places with a tradition of militant resistance to gentrification such as Berlin, New York and Barcelona asked why people would agree to leave places without a fight and we got a range of answers, some more persuasive than others.
For me it is true that it is worth fighting for spaces, of course, because anti-capitalist spaces which promote alternative culture and where we can all feel at home are few and far between. But I also respect people’s feeling for the local situation and would say we have to pick our battles.
One group wanted to leave their space (which was lovely) and simply find another one, since Paris has many empty spaces and there is a certain joy in moving and being inspired by a new place. I get that on some levels, I have left places feeling fairly happy to move on and start afresh somewhere else (I’ve also been completely gutted and not left without a fight). Another group were fairly okay with getting evicted since the new plans would end up with their urban garden being done out nicer (even if the same plan would also destroy another green project nearby).
A third group affected by the same plan seemed fairly resigned to it, saying they would move somewhere else, which seemed weird since they were a community garden so you would imagine that the whole point would be to be in that specific place rather than to take on willingly the role of activists parachuting into a new area. It’s also interesting that all these projects were really close to each other and didn’t seem to be thinking as a collective force which could perhaps team up to fight eviction, even if they did occasionally organise events together.
The anarchist critique of artistic squats comes on a few different levels.
One is that rooms in their “squats” (legalised squats) are sometimes rented out to artists as ateliers. Even if this is at below commercial prices, anything which means people are making profit from free spaces tends to make me feel sick. In one huge place, gangsters had taken over and appeared to be extracting a large supposed rent for utilities which in reality seemed to be going straight into their pockets. That’s pretty sketchy. On the flipside, if anarchist squats are completely against profit-making, then by definition everyone else needs to be getting their funding from somewhere. I mean, in the short term at least you can live pretty much for free in the city, dumpster-diving, scrapping and stealing, and I think that’s great, living off the mess that is capitalism in the same way we end up living in amazing buildings which have fallen through the cracks, but then some squatters still need to work to get by and what then is the difference between working outside your squat and working inside it for money? Artists may be an extreme case since art prices are ridiculous once you’ve struggled to get onto the merry-go-round of the artworld, but then I know a lot of anarchists in England and the Netherlands doing fairly non-ethical jobs just to get by, since there is at the end of the day not unlimited choice, even if not paying rent means that they need to work part-time rather than full-time to get by. Although it’s hard to envisage, there must be some sort of middle-ground here where people can make enough to get by within the scene without ripping people off. And i think options here need to be explored, for example people producing beer in microbreweries which then can supply the scene with cheap somewhat ethical drinks and can at the same time provide the workers co-operative producing it with a living wage. So I don’t think the criticism of artists here is particularly well-aimed, yet at the same time charging people rent for profit is unforgivable in a squat.
By the way, don’t think that there isn’t art in anarchist squats, that’s far from true. But then as mentioned earlier, it would tend to be politically related, therefore fitting to activist norms and therefore it is “okay.” Of course, under scrutiny this is also problematic since certain forms of production are perhaps easier to set up in squats eg painting, drawing, graff, theatre and so on whereas other forms such as welding and large-scale sculpture need more space and expensive equipment, thus may be harder to enact.
Although I met lots of nice people in the different places we visited, I only met one artistic squatter who seemed politically aware and onit generally – she admitted that it was shit to move sometimes but also argued that land in Paris is so expensive (we heard a few times the crazy figure of 6,000 euros per square metre) that it was therefore hard to fight developers successfully since they would always find a way to evict eventually. In her group’s case, they had actually won in some ways since first they were living on a contract which simply said they would leave when the plans to redevelop were complete and secondly they had persuaded the city to renovate the place sympathetically leaving a lot of the original features, whereas the first plan for renovation had been very chic and soulless.
Plus she was a welder and I can understand you wouldn’t want to install large and expensive equipment in a precarious squat, no matter what your political principles. And what’s worth remembering is that in following her artistic career, for better or for worse, she is living and working in an autonomous space, away from the mainstream, unlike some purists who presumably do not allow profit-making in their squat but then go off somewhere else which is probably not part of the autonomous scene to work.
Another criticism of the artistic squats would be their sometimes hierarchical organisational structure. This is understandable coming from an anarchist perspective and I totally get it, I don’t want to participate in a project which replicates all the bullshit patriarchal attitudes of mainstream society. Plus I’m so used to organising non-hierarchically and by consensus that I have real problems being told what to do by anyone unless it’s on terms I agree with. Of course, having said that, it is sadly the case that there are also a lot of manarchists in the scene in the places I’m aware of and most probably in Paris too, so again the anarchist position is based on a pure theoretical stance which may not be replicated in actuality.
Parisian anarchist squatters also argue that by taking contracts, artistic squatters made it more difficult for everyone else, since they have jumped happily into the good squatter/ bad squatter distinction which meant that in the eyes of the mayor they were the good squatters and should stay, whereas squatters who didn’t sign a contract or were not providing a cultural service to the city (as judged by his officials) were bad squatters and therefore could be evicted without any qualms. Again I agree, although of course every context is different and I simply don’t know enough to make any sweeping statements – my main point here will be that the lessons from other countries and other situations is that you have to take of the local opportunity structure if you want your project to survive.
To change tack, let’s take the example of Jeudi Noir, who squat buildings in central Paris to protest against the city’s housing policies and to house refugee families. The group contains members of the Socialist and Green parties (the Socialists are currently in power) and has many links to mainstream media. They are definitely another type of ‘good squatters’ for the state yet they still often get evicted before their media machine can kick in and it isn’t really a surprise to me that anarchist squatters who openly declare war on private property and the state get evicted fast – it goes like that everywhere I think. However, at another artistic squat someone told us proudly that the mayor himself had endorsed their squat and being happy about that in an unqualified sense did seem rather unwise. One would hope that such an endorsement would be viewed as a tactic to aim for, which having been achieved could then be mobilised to lend support to other projects, but it seemed more like these particular art squatters were happy to isolate themselves from others and enjoy their lovely situation whilst other places were brutally evicted. What’s also worth noting is that they were legalised and were not allowed to live there (and had regular inspections) and actually were paying a fairly high rent for their “squat.” Higher than Dutch anti-squats for example.
An idle thought which simultaneously occurred to a few friends was that anarchist squats should pretend to be art squats, get legalised and then carry on with their anti-authoritarian activities – but of course a strategically chosen identity is easily essentialised and I suppose an antagonistic place masquerading as something else would quickly be reassigned to the bad squatter category by the state. Or maybe that’s where the challenge lies. The lesson from other places such as Amsterdam is that institutionalisation is possible and there are types of institutionalisation, it’s certainly not the case that legal=bad and squatted=good. Not at all. In Amsterdam some broedplaats (breeding place) projects have successfully legalised and remained radical. Others have legalised and disappeared from the scene. Others again, such as the Kalenderpanden, ticked all the boxes for being a broedplaats but were instead evicted.
Another problem (I have to mention this even if it is admittedly rather pedantic) is that the Parisian artistic squatters have stolen the webdomain intersquat.org. Intersquat events have been happening in the French speaking world since at least the 1990s. Paris anarchist squatters were linked through intersquat in those times and more recently places like Dijon, Lausanne, Geneva, Grenoble and Barcelona have been linked in various ways, including events and a beautifully produced zine called Roberta. At a certain point in the early 2000s Parisian artistic squatters appear to have switched from using the name interface to intersquat, which I find a rather unfortunate choice, since there is already a colourful
history attached to that name. This pisses me right off.
But that is a rather niche point I admit.
I think it’s useful always to give comparative examples from different places, in the hope that ideas can circulate and help scenes develop. I can talk from my experiences squatting in Czech Republic, the Netherlands and England. One observation worth noting is that criminalisation was achieved fairly easily in both England and Wales and the Netherlands and perhaps if there had been a more unified and coherent movement in these countries it would not have been so easy for politicians to push things through. This is of course a hugely debatable point, but perhaps if there was a move to criminalise squatting in France, this division in the Paris scene might be easily exploited.
In the case of the Czech Republic, I can offer the example of one place which has been squatted periodically since the mid-1990s. It recently got resquatted and the owner was fine with that, since he has no current plans for it and perhaps he realises a lived in buildings better than a derelict one. The squatters began various projects and then got evicted illegally by the police DESPITE having the owner’s permission to be there. So now they have asked for and received some sort of paper contract which they can show to the police next time to prevent another eviction (hopefully).
This case shows how in certain cases a contract could be useful. I feel it’s quite instructive to look at the Dutch situation, for several reasons.
Nowadays in Amsterdam, there certainly isn’t the division between artistic and anarchist squatters as in Paris, although there was the notorious case of the ‘political squatters versus basically everyone else’ which led to a breakdown of the squatters movement early 1980s, famously narrated in the film De Stad was van Ons (The City was Ours). The Paris debate does make me see some things a bit differently however, since in Rotterdam for
example there are very few openly political squatters and only occasionally social centres or political cafes. Everyone else seems to squat fairly individualistically, using the free rent aspect as a way to facilitate an alternative lifestyle, whether that means doing graf or doing speed or doing sound systems or studying art or whatever. The general political viewpoint seems to be ‘fuck politics’ which seems to be the default position of most of the Parisian art squatters I spoke to as well. I’ve always found this a strange position to take (and in itself intensely political), but certainly not one which is wrong. The interesting thing for me is always how much I agree with these supposedly non-political people when we talk about the state of the world. There are a lot of intelligent interesting people squatting in the Netherlands and just doing their own thing, which surely is an important component for an alternative culture to develop.
One squat which I spent a fair amount of time at over its seven year history in the industrial zone north of Rotterdam could be construed as an artistic squat (in fact the place where I stayed at in Paris reminded me of it somewhat since they both had long naked brick corridors). It could be taken as such since it provided an (unofficial) home for about ten people,who made electronic music, ran a free party sound system, made records and did graphic design. Some were on disability benefits, some worked, some were on a government grant for artists (which of course has now been cut). It was composed of office space where people lived, a huge showroom (50 metres long, 20 metres wide, windows on three sides) and a warehouse. Other people using the space included a mechanic who was building bakbrommers (motorised ice cream carts) for competition in the World Bakbrommer Championships (yes this is a joke, yes it was a very serious business), a theatre group, a man who made freaky installations for clubs and squat parties (think fairground bendy mirrors and trippy lights), other sound systems storing their boxes and people parking their live-in vehicles in the yard (I stayed there for two summers, it was great). Two friends even ended up building themselves an amazing four room bungalow at one end of the showroom.
What’s interesting with this group is that they actually kind of fit the artistic squat description but I never conceived of them as such or had any kind of problem with the various things happening there. For example, at one point, an architects firm used one part of the warehouse as storage and offices, so there was a commercial outfit using the space, but they were hardcore recycling freaks who built really cool stuff so that seemed
ok. I don’t think they paid rent, I never enquired but the ethos there was not about making money from people using the space – I imagine they paid the electricity bill for that the warehouse and that was that. Some people worked in office jobs or in a flower factory to earn the cash they needed to pursue their fairly hedonistic lifestyles. I’m not sure if the place had a contract or not, they did have a fairly good relationship with the
owner (the Taiwanese Government) but it doesn’t really seem to matter to me ultimately whether they were on a contract or not, since a contract can mean many things (right now as I’m revising this piece, I’m sitting in a squat in Elephant & Castle in London which has been here a couple of years on a frequently adjourned agreement with the owner to leave when he will develop the space – this especially makes sense when we remember that squatting in residential properties is now criminalised, so otherwise the owner could have gone straight to the police and got them kicked out). [This squat has since ended]
In the Netherlands, of course, there is also anti-squat (anti-kraak), provided by several multi-national companies such as Ad Hoc and Camelot.
People sign a use contract as property guardians rather than renters and can live at the address subject to rather stringent conditions, such as no pets, no parties, no holidays, no access to certain parts of the building.
The company holds a key and can send a representative to check on the guardian at any time. The contract is often for a limited time only and people can be kicked out with one month’s notice and no new place provided. The only thing making it a good deal is the cheapness of the “rent”. Artists, alongside students, make up a high proportion of these guardians since anti-squat offers the opportunity to live cheaply in large spaces, often office spaces in central locations. This is known as anti-squatting since the person living there (without the rights of a renter) prevents squatting through occupation. Perhaps many people who might end up in artistic squats in Paris would end up anti-squatting in the Netherlands? I’m not sure about this since the restrictions are pretty heavy, but as mentioned earlier in some cases the artists claiming to squat in Paris were paying more rent than anti-squatters in the Netherlands.
Another example from Rotterdam would be a factory squatted in Delfshaven, in the north west of the city. It had previously been squatted in the 1990s and then evicted and left empty for a long period of time. The main impetus to occupy it again came from one charismatic individual who had a business renting out sound equipment. He squatted the place to live
there and also to store his stuff. People rented ateliers and had to contribute to repairing the place, which was in quite a bad state. The place occasionally did parties and had a weekly surprise film night (‘surprise’ so as to evade any licensing problems with the scarily efficient body that claims money for artists – in France that’s called SACEM I
believe, in England it’s PRS, in the Netherlands I don’t know what they’re called but I remember we had problems with them in our squatted social centre). The strategy for staying there was not going for a contract but rather continually putting off appointments with agents of the state, a tactic perhaps explained by the fact that the leader had not grown up in the Netherlands and therefore wasn’t really from the scene, thus he wasn’t
used to the usual methods and tactics of resistance. This may or may not have been a good thing short term, but eventually (after a year or so) the city officials finally got inside and promptly declared the building not fire safe. The upshot was that the group had to leave the squat or do thousands of euros of repairs. They left willingly, which seemed a bit perverse after so much work had gone into creating bedrooms, plumbing in toilets
etc etc. Yet if they had decided to resist, I am not sure how much support they would have received from the local squat scene, since the atelier rent thing had already been quite controversial. However, perhaps this was a good strategy for the requirements of this particular group, since they then negotiated a rental agreement on a building due to be renovated in another area of the city. The group exists to this day in another place,
having negotiated some sort of anti-squat arrangement quite similar to the Parisian artistic squat dynamic. But no-one, not even the people involved with the group, would now claim that they were squatters.
Regarding the UK, it’s quite difficult to imagine a divide between artistic and anarchist strands of the squatting movement since the scene is so fragmented and disparate already. In London there have been instances of artist collectives squatting buildings to use as exhibition and atelier space, but an important factor here is probably the likelihood that spaces will be evicted after between three to six months, so that any debates about
institutionalisation tend to be ungrounded in reality. There are however a 491 Gallery which was evicted after few counter-examples such as the more than ten years in early 2013.
Another tactic to deal with short term lifespans is to embrace them, so following in the steps of occupations like Aspire (Leeds) and SPOR (Brighton), a group called Random Artists have put something like eight Temporary Autonomous Art events in London.
As the name suggests, these exhibitions are time-limited, normally to a week, so all the energy can be compacted into a short time and then the building can be left before the inevitable eviction proceedings (whilst remaining occupied up until that point). This idea has spread to other cities such as Sheffield, Manchester, Bristol, Brighton and Nottingham. The Oubliette collective squatted several high-profile buildings in London and appear to have been led by a man called Dan Simon, perhaps a charismatic leader figure (although maybe the mainstream media made him so). In a Guardian interview he states that the collective does not use the label ‘squatters’ and that they always attempt to negotiate with the owner. In the article he claims to have made several successful use deals
but I would still argue it’s pretty difficult to broker something like that in
the UK context.
In fact, the transitory nature of squatted spaces in the UK means that I reckon a lot of places would be up for signing some sort of agreement with an owner (if it were possible) so as to gain some sort of stability (especially for people sitting in residential buildings – since at least in theory the new law works retroactively, although legally this is very dubious).
Some places have made informal agreements of some sort, not necessarily a contract but still some sort of deal. People I know who have done that are from all types of backgrounds, ie tekno party people, anarchists, artists, students and so on. However, whilst signing a contract would not generally be frowned upon, there are certain things which would not wash, such as renting out rooms in a squat. In Brighton it was cool to see
that when some people voluntarily left a place they had squatted as an art gallery and got paid off for doing so, other squatters were really angry and argued that they should have negotiated for time, not money.
At this point it’s probably worth mentioning that another response to the transitory nature is for social centres either to become pop-up (for two weeks, like the OK cafe, or Cuts Cafe or Palestine Place or Open House) or to set up in a legal capacity, either owned or rented. Bought social centres such as 1in12 (Bradford), the Cowley Club (Brighton), Kebele (Bristol) and Sumac (Nottingham) are owned co-operatively by a collective and provide
long-term spaces from which to organise and to my mind can remain antagonistic despite engaging with the demon of private property. For some, a legal space can never be truly anarchist, but perhaps it is more about pragmatic action than utopian thinking (although utopias can be planned from physical spaces). From my perspective the move to buy
makes sense since long-term organisational spaces are necessary for activism. We need infrastructure. And for example at the Cowley Club, there is a strong culture of everyone being a volunteer and no-one getting paid to do anything, with the intention of showing that self-organisation can work. Gigs and other events are by suggested donation, which is not that far from the prix libre system. Bar prices are however fixed, but
cheaper than a commercial venue.
In Paris, there did appear to be at least one example of this sort of project, since Lucio the (in)famous forger had bought a place where he lived upstairs and which apparently had a social centre downstairs. But I didn’t go there. To return to places I actually visited in Paris, the place where I stayed appeared to have quite a lot of people living there and
using the space regularly. There was a roof garden, ateliers (painting, glasswork, gaffer tape artwork), a cinema with real cinema seats, a music studio, a bar, a theatre space, a hack lab, a vehicle workshop and a really funky kitchen with lots of water tanks bubbling away. So in this office block there was quite a lot going on, with most of it seemingly DiY for example gigs and film nights were free, except for benefits raising money for political causes.
This collective had been living together for seven years in total, and seemingly had fallen into the situation where they could negotiate to be given a new building when they had to move. They had started off squatting but I got different answers as to whether they had squatted the current place, where they had been living for almost three years. One person said they had squatted it, two others said they were given it.
They did have a contract, but everyone was vague on whether they were paying money or not. This sort of situation to my understanding seems somewhat in between a legalised squat and anti-squat. Overall, I think this is a good thing, since my conception of what squatting is revolves around putting space to good use. By “good use” I guess I mean organising or hosting anti- capitalist activities – which I saw the people I stayed with doing. And like I said already, I saw a lot of thematic similarities of this particular project with long-term squats in the Netherlands. It was interesting to note that on the day I arrived, the free cinema was showing THX1138, the classic dystopian scifi film (George Lucas’ first) and then later the same month an anarchist squat I visited was also showing it. Little things like that make me think that the rift between artist and anarchist squatters, whilst there for genuine reasons, is perhaps more entrenched than it needs to be.
It seems to me that it isn’t really squatting to occupy a place and then immediately negotiate a contract. I don’t necessarily think that is a bad thing, I believe in diversity of tactics and I also believe empty space should be used, but such an action seems like a probably effective tool for getting a cheap atelier than anything else. Having said that, I guess a lot depends on intention since in one place in Rotterdam it did go precisely
like that: we cracked this empty warehouse with office space (with absolutely no plan to sign a contract) and then a week or so later the owner came round and offered us a contract which basically said we would not trash the place, they would pay our utilities and we would allow estate agents to show clients around and leave when they asked us to. We
liked this deal, especially when we heard on the grapevine that the owner was in a dispute with his brother but in the end we had to move after six months. This was a bit annoying since we were just beginning to plan our garden but also shook up the living group and we took a different warehouse fairly easily. So I guess for it depends on the specific details of the contract a lot. In any case, we didn’t squat to make a deal, we squatted to find a place to live where we could have space for all our projects such as bike repair, vehicle repair, sound system storage and whatever else we felt like. I think the contract actually prohibited commercial activities but we were never interested in using the building in that way anyway.
Also another time and with a different group, we squatted a place as a social centre with eight residential flats above it and made an informal agreement to leave when the building was to be redeveloped and when we saw the plans. This duly happened a year later and we brokered a deal which resulted in two rental flats at 100 euro a month each in exchange for leaving nicely (and the people from the other flats moved into other squats).
I can understand that groups who squat together for years and end up with the possibility of negotiating use of buildings with state actors would do that. Why not? In the Netherlands, many long-term squats are legalised and remain part of the antagonistic scene, providing vital spaces to meet and organise. In the UK, because squats invariably do not last very long, a tactic was then developed to buy places co-operatively to run as social centres. If more negotiation room had been possible, this tactic would doubtless not have been embraced. These spaces are run collectively on a non-profit basis by committed anarchists. This may seem absurd to some that people set against private property becoming landlords, but it when seen as a tactic it makes sense. It is flexible institutionalisation, which is not without its dangers, since centres then perhaps begin to assume the identity they have pretended to be, of being “good”, non-troublesome activists. But my main point here is that we can learn a lot from looking around at different situations (it’s too late to deal with this fully here but a recent visit to Berlin showed it to be a unique example of a place where squatting is hard but a lot of projects flourish and there is wiggle room for legalised projects to stay antagonistic).
So, moving lazily towards some sort of vague conclusions, I think one important way to combat the good squatter / bad squatter distinction is solidarity. If Jeudi Noir visited anarchist squats and supported them during evictions, perhaps that would break down some barriers. If the same happened the other way around, that would likewise be good. Jeudi Noir still doesn’t seem like the enemy particularly to me, although of course I don’t know the ins and outs of it all. Another similar group, DAL (Droit aux Logement – Right to Housing) claimed at a presentation that they had over the course of their existence housed 6,000 people in squats, which is a truly awesome statistic.
Ultimately, it seems theory and practice can combine to create amazing projects in Paris. It is understandable that fault lines have developed in the squat scene there, and I’m not sure what an article written in English can do to help with that other than to make some hopefully useful observations. As just mentioned, solidarity is important, especially when we bear in mind the example of how criminalisation was achieved in other countries. I guess squatting is a tactic used by many different groups and I would argue for a pragmatic support between these groups since they are all occupying space to put it to good purpose, whether that be residential, artistic, anarchist or whatever.
And of course in reality these distinctions are not exclusive.
We are all in boxes … but we don’t need to be…
- SqEK-Event in Berlin / 29th of August 2013
- [EN] Book review: Squatting in Europe