Experimental Geographies

"There is tenderness only in the coarsest demand: that no-one shall go hungry any more" – Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia (1974: 156)

Politics of Pacification?

I’m not sure what to make of Helen Pidd’s recent article on the London-based cultural organization The Oubliette. The organization, we are told, aims to support the arts without public or private funding. Over the past year, they’ve occupied a number of properties in London and have currently made a nine-story building in Mayfair their home. They are not, however, to be mistaken for squatters. Or so they say. 

Their goal is to transform the capital’s many empty spaces into venues or platforms for various arts-based projects. On the surface, there is much to recommend in this view. After all, there has always been a close relationship between squatting and participatory forms of artistic practice. Indeed, the events-based scene in Berlin with which I am especially familiar owes much of its recent development to the changing fortunes of squatters in the city. 

At the same time, the article seems to almost revel in the Oubliette’s pseudo-corporate business model. The group are”PR-savvy”; their spokesman “debonair” and “erudite.” We are also informed by Pidd that the group is now in the process of putting together a PowerPoint presentation to persuade owners of various empty buildings to “sell squatting as a way of providing free security, preventing property devaluation, and adding value to the community.” Uncomfortable as I am with the re-alignment of squatting with conventional understandings of ‘property’ and ‘community,’ what’s really important here is how the group is portrayed as being unlike other “less-organized” squatters who tend to be “chaotic” and “anarchic.” This is patently risible stuff, in my opinion, and I’m dismayed at the crude moral geography at work.

While it is not my intention to revel in some original untainted form of squatting, the anaesthetization and pacification of the practice to the extent that it is just another appendage of a suitably ‘hip’ culture industry is deeply worrying. What we have here is a normalization of activities that may have once spoken to a trenchant right to the city. Of course, that right has itself shaded into a more precarious geography of necessity where questions of habitation and livability have returned with a vengeance. Doesn’t this – acknowledging and speaking back to precarity– remain the real challenge for any legitimate form of participatory practice?


One comment on “Politics of Pacification?

  1. Dan Simon
    December 22, 2009

    Dear Alexanpv

    First of all thank you for your incisive, well written blog on the article. I’m glad to discover your site and hear your concerns.

    It’s always a bit of a challenge getting across to the media what it is we are doing and why, and it’s par for the course that some things tend to get confused or contorted.

    Firstly, we are not a corporate entity and have no absolutely no aspirations to be one. We are a business-minded initiative whose model is designed to promote emerging artists and run an independent arts programme whilst ensuring financial self-sufficiency, which at present we achieve through donations and adverse possession. We are currently seeking a property with long term consent to remain, in which to realise the ambitions for the project.

    We don’t consider ourselves squatters because, first and foremostly, we are using the properties to apply the ‘arthouse’ business model, not to reside, the latter being the principal reason to ‘squat’ a building. Squatters invariably agree with us and, though we rile a few, the majority are either indifferent or supportive of us in what we are trying to achieve.

    Pacifism in the face of the increasing sterilisation of culture is something that I personally find deeply worrying. The Oubliette, in refusing public or private sector funding, runs an independent arts programme with no extramural targets or objectives. Our bottom-line is creative freedom, not profit. I think we are quite proactive anti-pacifists in this sense!

    Overall, my personal interpretation of the article was that the journalist, whilst supportive, was not reveling in our ‘near corporate’ status so much as using our business-like intiative to ripost to the anti-media squatters who have slammed the door on her face on many previous occasions.

    Would be great to meet and have a chat. I’m on 07552996028 or dan@theoubliette.co.uk

    Best regards,


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This entry was posted on December 21, 2009 by in Commons, Public Space, Squatting and tagged , , .
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