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April 15th, 2009 - click opera — LiveJournal
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April 15th, 2009
Wed, Apr. 15th, 2009 11:05 am

There are heartening signs that the recession is causing a creeping "Berlinification" of England. An article in the Business section of yesterday's Guardian said that MPs, desperate to prevent the recession turning Britain into a succession of ghost towns, have outlined a series of emergency measures which include giving thousands of grants to people who find creative uses for vacant shops -- and there are predicted to be more than 70,000 newly-chained and shuttered shops in Britain this year alone.



The article describes UK law coming halfway to meet potential squatters: "Planning rules will be relaxed to allow changes of use which go against local guidelines. For example, a disused clothes shop could become an art gallery or an empty Woolworths an NHS drop-in centre. Temporary lease agreements will enable owners who want to retain a vacant property in the long term to make it available for community or creative use."

This development shows the UK government embracing the so-called Slack Space movement described in a February article in The Guardian's art and design section. That article, though, came out and used the s-word: squat. "Artists and curators have begun colonising "slack space" freed up by the recession and are transforming vacant shops into "creative squats", galleries and studios."



The February article sees defunct branches of Woolworths and Carphone Warehouse colonised to house community cafes and performance art events. "We know recessions are awful," says a member of a group of art squatters who've taken over a parade of shops in Margate, "but they can be a good time for artists as creative ideas start appearing while otherwise redundant people are sitting at home fiddling and doing creative stuff."

Meanwhile, an article in last Sunday's Observer looked at The artists who are hot to squat. "Straitened times call for ever greater resourcefulness," wrote Hermione Hoby. "They also - luckily for artists if not the former occupants - mean more empty buildings than ever. According to England's Empty Homes Agency, 784,495 are unoccupied, and the number rises each day. Taking their cue from similar movements in Berlin and Amsterdam, artists in this country are realising that squatting provides not just freedom from paying rent but also extraordinary creative freedom. The chance to make large-scale work, to put on frequent, artist-curated exhibitions and to form collaborative relationships based on sharing a space, has made squatting more than simply a housing solution." Hermione's article covered the Da! Collective, Steal From Work, Artspace Lifespace, The Hannah Barry Gallery, and !WOWOW! collective.



Berlinification indeed; when Germany legalized squatting in the 1990s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a new verb -- Instandbesetzen -- entered the language; a combination of "to occupy" and "to renew". Berlin squatters became adept at adding cultural value to their squats, knowing it put them in a much stronger position. Many squats became cultural centres -- art galleries, music performance spaces, bookshops, coffee bars. Many of the places I go to regularly -- places with names like Eschloraque, Neurotitan, Zapata Coffee, Ausland -- began as squats, or still are.



Now, I'm too lazy to be a squatter myself; I don't have the energy for hacking at building infrastructure, making repairs, changing locks, let alone having confrontations with owners or police. I just want to get on with my own thing, thank you very much, and paying rent buys me time and space. But I live in a city that's been vastly improved by culturally-minded squatters, and I often think the current recession came along just in time to prevent Berlin getting too chi-chi, too bourgie-bourgie.

Since it's a global recession, I also like to think Berlin has now become a sort of template for cities all over the world. Whereas we might once have looked like a museum of crusty subcultures past their sell-by date, this city now looks like the future of Tokyo, the future of London, and the future of New York. We're your best-case scenario, guys, your optimal recessionary outcome. Everything else is dystopia, Escape-From-New-York stuff.

If the major cities of the world all become "Berlins", though, I can't guarantee I'd stay in the actual Berlin, the black flagship, the Big Squat itself. If Tokyo, for instance, got as cheap and cheerfully creative as Berlin -- if it became the kind of city you could simply occupy without having to scuttle around pointlessly making rent -- I'd be there in a flash. Secretly, what I'm doing here in Berlin is waiting for Tokyo to Berlinify.

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