in may 2011 the thirty residents of the first trampery space on dereham place packed everything into boxes and shifted to a brand new purpose-designed site on bevenden street, little more than half a mile away. it was a worthy trampery mixture of smooth organisation and chaos.
here are fifty-four pictures from september’s trip to stromboli. catching up with old friends, getting to know matteo’s family, the birthday party he organised for me, long idyllic days beside the sea, the tempest which held us captive on the island on the final day. it was a very happy time (though not without its little stresses).
in four days i shall arrive on stromboli once again. i think matteo and i are slightly apprehensive about seeing each other for the first time in a month and a half, but mainly we’re excited. this will be like meeting for the first time. something new and different.
here’s a short film from one of the social nights at the new krankenhouse squat, which i wrote about in my previous post. this was towards the end of march when the occupation was at its peak. the shift to a new location and the sheer magnitude of the space unleashed a wave of exuberant optimism and creativity in stark contrast to the grim factional bickering of the group’s final months in the old building. i hope a little of that positivity and excitement comes through in the film.
the community made great efforts to prepare the space for the night and the result was magical. turning an abandoned twenty-foot river boat into a tilted bar and lounge was a stroke of genius. some friends of the group had brought it round one day saying they needed a big enough space to repair it after which they promptly vanished. apparently it was cheaper to transport it to the warehouse and dump it than to scrap it.
the second huge space was turned into a skate and bike park for the night. you can glimpse some of the crazy re-engineered bikes which are created in the community. most of them are fiendishly difficult to ride.
watching the film again i cannot help but feel sad knowing it wasn’t destined to last. within a month the building had been repossessed and everyone had moved on. but in the squatting community i get the sense that the most beautiful things are often fleeting.
following on from my previous post, the breakthrough in the krankenhouse’s search for a new building came with word that another group was planning to take over an abandoned courier warehouse in bermondsey for one night for a party. the krankenhouse group had been told that if they wanted to stay on afterwards and try to occupy the building they were welcome to do so. it sounded like the space was enormous, big enough to accommodate everyone from the group.
i arrived at the new space around 3am the night of the opening party with bertrand and a couple of other friends. the space was even bigger than i imagined, two vast open sheds with a two-storey office block attached on one side. by the time we arrived the police had already paid a visit and shut down the largest of the three sound systems. but the remaining two provided ample entertainment for the rest of the night. i cycled home at dawn.
as the party wound down a group of half a dozen krankenhousers established themselves with sleeping bags, water, an electric heater and canned food in one of the smaller rooms of the office block. i visited whenever i had a chance over the subsequent two weeks. the group’s primary objectives were to fend off any attempt by the building’s owner to regain possession of the building or any attempt by a rival group of squatter to displace them. just a few days after the party in the early hours of the morning an alarm was raised that some people were trying to break down one of the doors with a battering ram. the group rushed to defend the door and after a short skirmish they prevailed. that was the only serious attempt to disrupt the occupation.
on the day the crouch end building was evicted a steady convoy of refugees arrived at the new building with their belongings. by evening the floor of one of the sheds was covered with a patchwork of furniture, audio equipment, juggling kit and assorted bric a brac. for a few days people slept wherever they felt like throughout the office block but gradually pressure grew for a permanent allocation of rooms.
a couple of squat meetings were called where it was expected the question of rooms would be decided but each time it was put off. finally a day came when it couldn’t be avoided any longer. there was still a reluctance to broach such a contentious question but in the end one of the girls grasped the nettle and posed the question of how the allocation should be decided. several suggestions were made but it was rapidly agreed that the whole group should walk round the building looking at all the available rooms and people should put their names against a maximum of three rooms each. wherever a claim was uncontested the room would be allotted straight away. where claims were contested people would negotiate room by room until everyone had been assigned a place.
determining who gets which part of the building is the primary resource allocation question for any new squat. it’s an extremely complex problem and must be settled by a strong consensus if the squat is to be harmonious. if anyone feels resentful at the result or regards the process as unfair it can store up trouble for the whole community. as an ethnographer, and particularly as one with an insatiable interest in emergent collective decision-making, it was a great privilege to be permitted to be with the group during the process when this was decided.
it took an hour and a half for the group to make its way around the building, stopping at each room and discussing its pros and cons, then listing the people who wanted to make a bid for it. in some of the larger rooms various possibilities for sub-division were floated and a consensus needed to be reached on this before people could bid on parts of the space. there were a couple of heated moments when individuals sought to make a case that they had a particular right to a room they liked but otherwise the process was good-natured and slightly chaotic. the same girl who’d started the discussion took responsibility for making the list of rooms and bids. she also subtly defused the moments of aggro that cropped up. as the tour progressed i grew more and more impressed by her gentle shaping of the process.
after all the rooms had been inspected, all the sub-divisions had been agreed and everyone had put their names down against the rooms they wanted the group returned to the common room downstairs. with pleasing continuity this was the same room the advance group had lived in during the first weeks of occupation. people got themselves beers, settled down and the allocation process commenced. first the easy ones were apportioned, where only one person had made a bid. then the slightly trickier ones with two or three bidders. gradually the complexity increased and the trade-offs involved more steps. after a couple of hours i had to leave but i understand the process was still continuing two hours later. in the end only two people out of twenty-five felt unhappy with their lot, an amazing result from a process based entirely on consensus where there was no possibility for any person to impose a decision on anyone else. i think this experience did more to reaffirm my belief in democracy than anything i’ve witnessed before or since.
it was a joy seeing the community take root in the new space. such a huge blank canvas unleashed a surge of creativity and excitement in the group. by the end of march a bicycle stunt park had been constructed in one shed, a bar and lounge had been created from a twenty-five foot river boat in the other, the walls were decorated with artwork and smart graffiti. there were a couple of magical parties.
but the writing was already on the wall, hopes that agreement could be reached with the owner permitting the group to remain had come to nothing. it was clear eviction would come within a month and the tribe would have to move again.
slideshow and thumbnails below. the album is also on flickr.
after ten years as a squat the krankenhouse was finally evicted in february 2010. there had been several stays of execution. the occupiers had even reached an agreement with the landlord to stay several months longer in return for going quietly when the time came. however shortly after making this agreement a boy from a local estate injured himself on one of the fences outside the property and brought a claim against the community, forcing them to leave immediately. whether rightly or wrong, the community rapidly concluded the owner had arranged the whole incident, offering a suitable reward for the boy if he were to hurt himself in this way.
it was fascinating to observe the developments in the community once the writing was on the wall. whilst the squat was a going concern a myriad rivalries and resentments had been suppressed. without the motive to keep them in check all those forces surfaced with vigour. before my eyes the group began to splinter into factions. there were some who remained committed to keeping the community together and finding a new building large enough to house them. this is no mean feat in london, where there are fewer than half a dozen squats exceeding twenty permanent residents. but many people viewed it as inevitable that the group would have to break up into several smaller units.
the critical test for any squat as it approaches eviction is whether the community can maintain the discipline required to organise reconnaissance parties to scout for new potential homes, “opening” the most promising ones then “sitting” the most viable one. this final part involves a small group of five or six people staying in the opened building twenty-four hours a day with someone permanently on watch ready to raise the alarm should anyone try to invade the building so the group can mobilise to defend it.
at first it looked unlikely the group would get its act together to do this. but in the final weeks something changed and those who wanted to keep the community together gained enough support to start the process in earnest. with barely a week to go a new space, an abandoned courier warehouse in bermondsey, was found and occupied.
the photos show bertrand’s and tails’ rooms plus some of the main shared spaces in the krankenhouse as everything was dismantled and carried out to a convoy of ramshackle vans, themselves a staple of squat life.
here are forty-six photos from london spanning december of last year to may of this year. the set includes bertrand’s arrival and his establishment of a sewing workshop in the shed on my roof, various friends passing through london, life around dalston and the passing seasons as reflected in changing flora on the roof.
slideshow and thumbnails below. annotated copies on flickr.
i’m thirty feet above the ground in a treehouse woven between three pine trees. this has been my home since i arrived with kirmo and tim on friday night.
the house is a tangle of ropes, beams and platforms which has evolved around the angles and conjunctions of the branches. it’s roughly pentagonal in plan with a diameter of twelve feet or so. one corner is sheltered by a tarpaulin roof but other than that the structure is open to the elements. the mid-morning sun casts flickering shadows across my keyboard as it filters through the tree canopy. from the front there’s a view over recently-harvested grain fields, forests and smooth grey rock outcrops.
reaching the platform involves a climb of twenty feet up a slender oak before crossing to a pine to ascend a further ten feet. i suffer from a fear of heights so my first few ascents and descents found me clinging in mortal terror to each bough. stepping across from one tree to the other required an act of particular determination. but as i grew familiar with the location of each foothold and how i needed to move to get from one to the next my fear gradually became more manageable.
five years ago tim clubbed together with nine friends to buy sixty-five hectares of land here on the island of livonsaari in finland’s south western archipelago. several of them have built houses, settled here permanently and started families. there’s now a full-time community of 13 adults and 8 children. one of them farms the fields. two of them can build and repair just about anything. at the centre of the community there’s a communal house and a wood-fired sauna. tim started building the tree house in the first year and has added to it each summer. yesterday we carried some windows from an old pig shed and hoisted them up to the platform. two of them are already fitted and as i write tim is hammering a third into place. eventually he plans to enclose the roofed corner so the tree house can be used for brief visits in winter.
on saturday night the community’s wood-fired sauna was lit, a lengthy process undertaken about a dozen times each year. the stove must be lit and kept fed with wood for six hours before it’s ready to use. there’s no chimney so the hot fumes fill the sauna cabin. when the last wood has been consumed vents are opened to let clean air in and the sauna begins. we were amongst twenty-odd people roasting in the sauna, sitting wrapped in towels on the terrace and singing songs around a bonfire. after our first spell in the sauna kirmo, tim and i walked down the track to the shore and threw ourselves into the baltic. the water was surprisingly cold and the bottom was slimy black mud. this was more than compensated for by the electro-illuminescent plankton which sparkled in the water as we swam and left a milky fizz behind us.
it’s three days since i touched running water, saw a mirror or used a mobile phone. i’m mostly wearing mostly the same clothes i arrived in. the night air is chilly so we remain fully dressed in our sleeping bags. our meals have been cooked alternately on a small paraffin stove and a steel brazier burning small branches. an escape of this kind works wonders an soft, urbanised, over-networked creature like myself.