The Null Device
In Britain, the government is making plans to let artists and community groups take over shops hollowed out by the recession, to sow the seeds of Berlin-style regeneration (which, for all its lack of respect for the sanctity of property rights, is a lot nicer than the alternative, urban wasteland):
Planning rules will be relaxed to allow changes of use which go against local guidelines. For example, a disused clothes shop could become an art gallery or an empty Woolworths an NHS drop-in centre.
Temporary lease agreements will enable owners who want to retain a vacant property in the long term to make it available for community or creative use during the recession. Councils will be urged to take control of empty properties until the recession ends.
"Empty shops can be eyesores or crime magnets," Blears said. "Our ideas for reviving town centres will give communities the knowhow to temporarily transform vacant premises into something innovative for the community - a social enterprise, a showroom for local artists or an information centre - and stop the high street being boarded up.Of course, as always, the devil is in the details. What exactly "relaxation of planning rules" involves is uncertain. As long as the shopfronts are used for community centres or art spaces and not, say, cut-rate toxic-waste processing facilities or something, that's a good idea.
Not all artists and activists are waiting for Her Majesty's Government to hand them the keys to a disused Woolworths, though; some have taken matters into their own hands:
The slack space movement has echoes in previous slumps when many now successful architects, magazine publishers and artists moved into vacant premises. There is certainly room for creativity again. One in six shops will be vacant by the end of the year, according to the data company Experian. It predicts that 72,000 retail outlets could close during 2009, more than doubling the number of empty units to 135,000 in the UK.Of course, some artists still haven't shaken off the language of Thatcherism-Blairism, and talk not of "community spaces" but of "business development". Art, you see, is a means to an economic end, and, even immediately after the recessionary shock, in Anglocapitalist cultures, there is the assumption that artists and squatters' role is merely that of the microbes in the soil of commerce, to prepare the ground for the next wave of aspirational consumerism, and hopefully make a few quid at the end of it:
"Rather than letting lots of pound shops appear, we are encouraging people to start up businesses," said Firmin. "We know recessions are awful but can be a good time for artists as creative ideas start appearing while otherwise redundant people are sitting at home fiddling and doing creative stuff."And here is a profile of various groups of artist-squatters, including the Da! Collective, notorious for outraging the tabloids by having the temerity to move into a disused mansion, rather than a warehouse or something more appropriate; not to mention a chronology of the history of squatting in Britain (and Europe).
Via Momus, who's, understandably, over the moon about this, hailing it as a triumph for the Berlin model (which, for a while, looked like it was going to be ground under the wheels of yuppification):
Since it's a global recession, I also like to think Berlin has now become a sort of template for cities all over the world. Whereas we might once have looked like a museum of crusty subcultures past their sell-by date, this city now looks like the future of Tokyo, the future of London, and the future of New York. We're your best-case scenario, guys, your optimal recessionary outcome. Everything else is dystopia, Escape-From-New-York stuff.
If the major cities of the world all become "Berlins", though, I can't guarantee I'd stay in the actual Berlin, the black flagship, the Big Squat itself. If Tokyo, for instance, got as cheap and cheerfully creative as Berlin -- if it became the kind of city you could simply occupy without having to scuttle around pointlessly making rent -- I'd be there in a flash. Secretly, what I'm doing here in Berlin is waiting for Tokyo to Berlinify.
Your humble correspondent is now back in London, having returned this evening from Iceland.
Iceland, you will be glad to know, seems to still be there. There is still a Reykjavík, and it's still a living city (except perhaps on public holidays, when everything closes). Hallgrimskirkja still stands tall, visible from across the city, though now it's covered in scaffolding. Laugavegur is still full of groovy cafés and bars (though fashion boutiques, apparently, have been closing down), and 12 Tónar still has an excellent selection of music, much of it by new Icelandic bands. Furthermore, the café culture leaves London in the dust, as does the quality of the coffee on offer. Alcohol is still more expensive than elsewhere in Europe, which still fails to deter the locals from consuming it enthusiastically. Outside of the capital, there are still spectacular fjords, glaciers, waterfalls and desolate landscapes.
Politically and economically, Iceland is undoubtedly in trouble, though not without hope. It looks like the conservatives, who have governed forever, will be ousted at the next election, with a Social Democratic/Leftist Green coalition likely to govern. Scandinavia is being cited as a model for governance. And while the prospect of Iceland joining the EU has been cited, it remains unpopular with the population, and looks likely to go to a referendum if it comes up. Meanwhile, the Icelandic people are developing a taste for protest and for rocking the boat in an uncharacteristic way. During a visit, I saw an empty building which had been taken over by squatters, who intended to set up a community centre. On Tuesday evening, the building was surrounded by activists, anxiously awaiting a police raid. (Squatting is uncommon in Iceland, and there is no concept of squatters' rights there.) Anyway, only time will tell what will happen.
Anyway, I have posted photos from my visit to Flickr; they can be found here.