Can Squatting Be Art?

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If you are a well-informed person who keeps up with the cultural news (I like to imagine my reader to be someone like that), you might know that recently the Turner Prize was awarded to Assemble. The 18 members of this architecture collective won with a project of urban regeneration to the area of Granby Four Streets in Liverpool, a group of rotten Victorian terraces that were slated for demolition after the Toxteth riots in 1981. The stubborn locals who decided to stay, disregarding threats of eviction, planted flowers in huge tubs on the street and painted the windows of dilapidated buildings with curtains and vases of flowers: a rather schmaltzy but effective demonstration of non-compliance with the demolition plans for the area. Assemble were called in to work in collaboration with local artists and craftspeople in refurbishing 10 houses and creating a workshop selling home-wear made from the rubble of already demolished buildings.

Granby Four Streets designs.
Granby Four Streets designs

At this point, if you are the savvy reader I imagine, you should be worldly enough not to dwell on the philistine interrogative “but is it art?”, and rejoice for this stirring tale of urban resistance and participatory design! Still, don’t be carried away by optimism, but ponder carefully on the reasons behind the decision to confer Europe’s most prestigious visual-art prize to a collective of non-artists for a project realised outside the typical art environment. Is this the sign of a shift in the art world towards a bigger social involvement? (Too much) Is this mere provocation? (Maybe) Is this the end of the cult of a single artist’s personality? (I sincerely doubt so) Is housing such a relevant issue that it was decided to draw attention to it through the UK’s most famous art prize? (Definitely.)

Housing is indeed a very current theme in London, and discourse on this topic has been explored not only in a number of boring architecture talks, but has lately become prominent in art circles as well. To name a few of my favourite exhibitions and events in the last year: the recent London’s Squats and Counterculture: 1970 to now at the ICA, an exhibition of photographs of rebellious and attractive London squatters back in the day; BalinHouse Projects an artist-run, not-for-profit space in a private flat in South-East London; Real Estates a 6 week series of screenings, discussions, and readings around issues of spatial justice in East London that took place in PEER in March 2015. Within the current atmosphere of housing red alert, Assemble’s work was destined to receive the recognition of most outstanding artistic achievement of the year 2015.

Though Granby Four Street project is a relatively mild instance of radical housing solution – in comparison with Frestonia. In 1977 Freston Road, placed in now the now ritzy Notting Hill Gate, was declared a 1.8 acre micro-state: The Free and Independent Republic of Frestonia. In the 1960’s London, squatting wasn’t the abhorrent transgression that it is today: actually it was a very common phenomenon due to the boom of high-rise’s being built, which condemned terrace houses to sit empty. Freston Road had already been squatted for years when, in 1977, the Greater London Council (GLC) decided to kick out the squatters, with no greater scheme for building alternative housing. The result? A group of 200 local disobedients resolved to declare independence from the UK. In order to proclaim an independent state all you need are guts and a marked surrealist attitude: the practical model came from Freetown Christiania in Copenhagen and the farcical aspect was inspired by the 1949 comedy Passport to Pimlico, in which an unexploded WWII bomb detonates exposing an old document that declares Pimlico to be part of Burgundy, and citizens celebrate their new identity with boozy enthusiasm.

The topsy turvy extravagance of Frestonia surpassed that of its cinematographic reference: dwarf actor David Rappaport was nominated Minister of Foreign Affairs and a two-year-old child was the Minister for Education. Stamps, passports and visas were issued. Frestonia was both serious and a prank. Overall, the Frestonians were an outlandish population: lots of them had drug and alcohol problems, others had a history of mental illness, there were obscene punk bands (think of Sex Pistols as politely mainstream in comparison) and there were ordinary working class people who just needed somewhere to live.

Taking advantage of a legal loophole; all squatters living in Frestonia adopted the surname ‘Bramley’ so, should the GLC try to evict them, it would have had the inconvenience of having to move them all together, as a family. That step towards legitimacy spelled the end of Frestonia, with the original squatters slowly moving out and a number of new residents moving in who were less committed to the ideals of the Frestonian nation, and just wanted a free place to live in. What’s left now? Some ancient squatters still hanging out in the area (which explains the grey flotsam mixing in with Italian tourists at Portobello Market) and the People’s Hall in Olaf Street (ironically, rented studios are available in the building).

There are ways to counter the seemingly inevitable bleak future of London, so prone to housing crisis. The solutions need not be necessarily the infamous ‘controversial solutions’ – such as moving elderly people to cozy shoebox-size flats in order to make space for young families, or building like crazy on the green belt. All fantastic ideas… (not really), but if anything, these 2 stories of urban resistance made me think that there might be a couple of alternatives to sort the housing problem in a city where most of the buildings are empty and privately owned.

So next time your rent goes up, squat a street with a bunch of junkie misfits friends of yours and call it a independent state like the Frestonians did… or, if you were brought up proper and consider this too lively a form of resistance, take the long and polite route through flowers, the council, and eventually approaching a collective of young charismatic architects. If you have gardening skills the second one is recommended: it can yield a return of £25,000 courtesy of the Turner Prize.

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Photography curtesy of Assemble

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