Apparently the police are calling the people here dangerous Nazis."
Last month I visited a project called AZ Köln in Cologne (Köln) in Germany.
This old cafeteria, surrounded by disused factories, was squatted in April 2010 and converted into an autonomous centre. AZ Köln (Autonomes Zentrum) includes studio spaces, meeting rooms, performance spaces, a dark room, a cinema, sports facilities, a bike workshop, a free shop, a vegan cafe and numerous other resources and is described as 'a self organized space for emancipatory art, culture and politics'. All of the workshops, talks and other events provided by the AZ are free, or offered on a 'pay what you can' basis.
Since it's creation AZ Köln has hosted over 50 self-organised events every month. When the police came to evict them in March 2011 the squatters resisted a dramatic siege for three days. During that time they were able to negotiate a contract with the owner. This allowed them to use the site rent-free for 2 years, obliging them to pay only for water and electricity and to meet certain insurance obligations.
The people of AZ are currently facing a new eviction attempt as their contract has run out and there is no offer to renew it. The local government have plans to demolish their building and create a public park in it's place. Considering that it is entirely surrounded by empty factories which, when demolished, will provide plenty of park space and that the AZ has a lovely garden which could link a public park with their buildings making their events eve more accessible, the demolition plans seem politically, rather than practically, motivated. In the campaign material put out by the AZ they explain:
"they want the building evicted by the police and tear it down in order to make room for a park, which has been especially designed to make the AZ a problem"
All attempts at dialogue and negotiation that have come from the AZ have been met with silence or threats, and a smear campaign in the local media has been presenting the people of AZ as dangerous and violent hooligans.
In the face of all this, AZ Köln, organised 10 days of meetings and workshops under the banner 'Gather and Resist'. This was an open event looking for support and solidarity, and inviting people to come and stay in the centre, discussing methods of resistance, creating networks and building barricades. This event ran from June 28th to July 7th and I joined them there. Here are my notes from Friday July 5th:
"There is a shifting population of about 70 people here each day supporting the struggle. People from all over Germany, some also from Sweden, Holland, the USA, the UK, Malaisia and Iran. In each meeting someone offers to translate for me, or they switch the whole conversation into English. People drift about, punks, hippies, people in fancy dress, men in drag, everyone is expected to respect and accept each other and from what I've seen, everyone does. I haven't even heard anyone shouting. People hug, laugh and share. The days are filled with meetings and workshops, the building of barricades and making actions and protests in the streets. In the evenings there is music and fire in the courtyard. I have felt completely safe, comfortable and accepted since I arrived.
Apparently the police are calling the people here dangerous Nazis."
As I write this, AZ Köln still stands and is still under imminent threat of eviction.
I have spoken to several German activists and squatters based in Germany about the legal situation of squats there. The general consensus is that there are no 'real' squats in Germany any more. All of them have been pushed into legal contracts, become housing projects, or have been violently evicted. When the contracts expire, the projects are expected to close. Any new squats are squashed immediately using the full force of the Government's power. The old ones that have managed to negotiate a contract, face their own expiry date in that of the contract. As one Berlin squatter told me:
"in five or ten years time the only squats still left in Germany will be the ones that managed to buy their buildings, and they are no longer squats, they have become part of the system we are trying to fight"
I had thought that the policy of offering contracts to squatters may have positive benefits as well as the obvious limitations - surely having the security to know that you will have your building for the next two years allows you to plan and run more long-term projects than in the fly-by-night world of informal squatted spaces? I have yet to meet anyone who shares this view. The problem is money (who would have thunk it?). Most of the contracts made with former squats require some rental payment, as well as insurance, water and electricity. One squatter living in such a house described the effects of this to me:
"At the end of every month we have to have raised a certain amount of cash. During the month our focus is on finding the money and our events start to be more about fund-raising than anything else"
This process of replacing the social function of these spaces with a financial one is a story I've heard repeated many times. The other issue is that if the money can't be raised, the contract is void and the project will be evicted. So in projects functioning hand-to-mouth on low budgets, even the potential security of a contract is removed and the future of the place is just as precarious as a non-contracted squatted project. These stories have been repeated to me again and again: squatted project is threatened with eviction; contract is negotiated; money becomes king.
I asked one Köln activist how things had got to this point. He told me:
"The problem is that you can't resist an eviction. The police won't allow it. They will come in with full force. There is no way to resist against a full on military assault."
Knowing all this, and facing the combined forces of the police, the politicians and the media, AZ Köln continues to stand alone. Facing a probable armed siege, they are preparing to fight for the right to use a derelict building for free cultural and arts activities and to claim one free space where money doesn't rule.
At the end of July I took part in an exhibition called La Condición Humana with two Barcelona based photographers Javier Gomiz and Phil Evans. As part of this show we put together a projection of images. I present this slideshow below along with the accompanying text.
Javier Gomiz - The Included ones
This tells different stories about a group of people who gather and wander together at a very well-known square in Barcelona.
Phil Evans - General Strike, Barcelona, 29 Marzo 2012
Eighty percent of the economy participated in the Spanish General Strike of 29th March . The strike was a direct response to the proposed €27 bn (£22.5bn) in spending cuts and tax rises, as well as the labour reform laws passed in February 2012.
The demonstrations were peaceful until around 7pm, when a shop was set alight at Plaza Catalunya and a small number of protesters threw bottles and stones at the advancing police lines. After which, police fired rubber bullets and tear gas into the crowds, pushing back and dispersing the otherwise peaceful protest into the plaza and surrounding roads.
Lisa `Furness - Abandoned
The 2007 global financial crisis led to a huge increase in the number of abandoned buildings in Spain as industries and construction companies went out of business. These pictures bear witness to the tragedy of these wasted and forgotten places.
Javier Gomiz - Inclosos
Este proyecto fotográfico cuenta acerca de las diferentes historias de un grupo de gente que se juntan y vagan en una de las más conocidas plazas que hay en Barcelona.
Phil Evans - Huelga General, Barcelona, 29 Marzo 2012
Ochenta por ciento de los ciudadanos del país, participaron en la Huelga General del 29 de Marzo. La huelga era una respuesta directa a los recortes que sufren las instituciones publicas y ademas las reformas laborales realizadas en Febrero de 2012.
Las manifestaciones eran pacíficas hasta las siete de la tarde, cuando una tienda fue incendiada en Plaza Catalunya y un grupo pequeño de manifestantes lanzaron botellas y piedras a la policía. Seguidamente, la policía dispararo bolas de goma y gas lacrimógeno a la gente, con la finalidad de dispersar a los manifestantes.
Lis Furness - Abandonado
En 2007 la crisis economica global ha dejado muchos edificios abandonados en España ya que tanto, industrias como empresas de construcción quebraron. Estas fotos reflejan la tragedia de estos lugares olvidados.
Ours is an old house.
Home to hundreds in it's long lifetime, it's last four years as a squat has seen it under constant threat of eviction and providing continuous, eccentric shelter for an ever changing population.
The quirks in this tall thin house include: a washing machine that needs to be operated using a screw and an iron bar (and until recently a head-torch); an oven which needs an upturned bowl to support the oversized oven shelf at an angle in order to allow the door to close (resulting in some fine wedge-shaped cakes that have become a speciality of mine); an electric hob which electrocutes the unwary; an electric wiring system that combines electricity cables with water pipes in a jaw dropping manner; and until it was recently thrown away, a kettle that required an upturned colander and a big plastic bowl.
This house is quirky, filled with memories, personality and life, and it is difficult for me to explain how thoroughly it has become my home. In the last few weeks (after our most recent eviction threat) we have been fighting battles against bed bugs, fleas, heat, dirt, smells, rats, mosquitos and piles of junk, and we have been winning. The work has pulled those of us left in this house closer together and has given all of us a sense of pride and ownership in the home we are building.
Anyway, filled with love for this crazy place, I present to you my most recent collection:
My house is made of stairs.