International Squatters Convergeance, Brighton UK May 2012

I screened the sitcom at the International Squatters Convergeance, hosted by the Squatters Network of Brighton (and Hove actually) aka SNOB(aha) this past May.

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For the site for the convergence, SNOB(aha) squatted an ArtDeco building owned by the Cooperative bank that had been empty for over five years. The building had been a massive department store in its previous life. Walking through the vast, empty rooms, with high ceilings and wood paneling, I felt sad that the building had been in disuse for so long.

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The convergence itself had the phenomenological appearance of most anarcho-squatter events. Enormous, empty spaces. Clumps of black-clad, pierced, tattooed people sitting in circles and chatting. The occasional dog meandering. Musicians practicing. Although  it was  the blueprint for radical left subcultural youth events from the past 40 years, I found the environment to be pleasant and enjoyable.

I screened the sitcom with Momo, a veteran Amsterdam squatter activist with 15 years of experience. We introduced ourselves, the project and proceeded to show 2 episodes at a time followed by discussion.  Compared to the screening at the School of Ideas, which was  truly demoralizing , the discussion at the convergence was engaged and exciting.

After watching the first two episodes which focus on internal group dynamics, the audience had plenty of comments and questions. The audience debated questions of power, authority, and transparency within ‘the scene’ (which is shorthand for radical left/anarcho social groups in Europe).  They discussed gender dynamics and the problem of avoiding conflict in order to maintain an ideal of utopia.

Some squatters in the audience were appalled by how organized, structured, and regulated the mini-society of the squatter living group in the sitcom were presented. I found this quite an interesting departure from the comments that I usually receive when I present to Dutch audiences, both squatter and non-squatter. Dutch audiences are often shocked by how disorganized the sitcom living group is, while British squatters are horrified by how regulated they are.  Dutch audiences also tend to focus upon my persona as an anthropologist, asking about how squatters relate to my work, and sharply critiquing my findings. I’m not sure if Dutch audiences react to my work in this manner because they dislike being at ‘the observed’ end of the anthropological gaze or if it’s simply a more assertive stance towards provocative research.

After we screened the last two episodes that portray the group learning  how to campaign to defend the house from eviction and metaphorically enacting the emotional experience of being evicted, the audience was surprisingly silent. I asked  if their silence arose from the fact that British squatters in general do not campaign or resist eviction. The discussion then focused on what it means to campaign, whether its useful and valuable, if it actually works, and why people resist evictions in the Netherlands.  It was amazing to realize that the people in the audience had both never had the experience of winning social struggles nor were they aware of the tradition/and or history of such successful resistance.

On a side note, it’s always lovely to take a little break from London and visit breathtaking Brighton. The city has the decrepit beauty of Coney Island with its mix of nostalgic working class beach resort feel and sinful raunchiness. I was last in Brighton in December on a weekend break, staying at a hotel on the sea, soaking in the gorgeous excesses of the Pavilion, fiddling around the Lanes, walking through the creepily empty arcades on the Pier in December, and battling a hurricane in order to eat some exquisite South Indian food.  I also reconnected with Paul Boyce, who I first met in Calcutta many years ago, and now works as an anthropologist at the University of Sussex. Brighton brings many pleasures, from engaging with convinced British squatters to debating anthropological positionality with Paul! A nerd’s paradise 🙂

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