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