The Null Device

Slack space and global Berlinisation

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.

There are 9 comments on "Slack space and global Berlinisation":

Posted by: gusset Fri Apr 17 08:59:43 2009

This is already well in effect in Bristol where the likes of the Altspace Lifestyle and Steal from Work collectives have been occupying spaces rent free on behalf of developers (as it’s cheaper than providing security).

Posted by: Greg Fri Apr 17 11:16:03 2009

Let's see if I've got this right. Creatives spend months of their lives in otherwise-unrentable real-estate, working to beautify an area and lift property values, for no pay. Then when the economy picks up, they are turfed out, and the landlords proceed to enjoy the fruits of their labour. This is supposed to be a victory against the landlords?

Posted by: acb Fri Apr 17 11:58:24 2009

Assuming that the recession is a temporary blip and the cycle of credit-based aspirational consumer capitalism will resume afterward, yes.

Posted by: ctime Fri Apr 17 20:40:26 2009

^ What he said. The big question is if/when the cycle will ever resume in the way we understand it now, how will these people be treated? It's all gravy right now but there is room for huge amounts of conflict in the future if limits are not imposed right now. Think in 10 years when someone wants the property back they are going to just let them destroy all of the art to renovate for the newest profitable business trying to move in (futurebucks or some addiction treatment center for eg).

sadly, I don't really think this model will ever work here (US), at least in conservative (most) states. I think that normally the private property rights laws heavily aligned with the owners wishes. Squatters here are quickly arrested/tazed/beaten by the police as they see fit. Although I suppose it's possible that government owned buildings may be an exception to this.

Posted by: acb Fri Apr 17 23:59:33 2009

Which part of the US do you have in mind? I imagine that there could be a difference between, say, the more liberal/cosmopolitan parts of the coasts (or even places like New Orleans or Austin, from what I've heard) and the staunchly conformistic Calvinist heartland.

Also, isn't something similar happening in Detroit?

Posted by: Greg Sat Apr 18 03:00:52 2009

Seriously, aren't the creatives being dudded by the landlords in this English scheme? I hope I'm wrong - somebody please show me how. Scam goes: The economic recession means landlords can't find tenants to rent their shops, so they get creatives in to culture-fy the neighbourhood and improve property values. Creatives work hard on this for months or years, for no pay. When the economy picks up and/or the neighbourhood is attractive to rent-payers again, the creatives are booted out, broke, back where they started. The key step in the scam is, they don't own the properties they are improving, so the wealth they are creating goes to the landlords, who didn't lift a finger. This is similar to what has happening for years to kick-start the gentrification of run-down suburbs.

Posted by: datakid Sat Apr 18 04:30:30 2009

Marcus Westbury, one of the founders of Newcastle's This Is Not Art festival, has been busy doing something similar in NSW:

Posted by: ianw Sun Apr 19 00:17:39 2009

> like a museum of crusty subcultures past their sell-by date

ha! well put. I am reminded of people (hmmm, myself included?) who seemed not to have updated their wardrobe/musical taste since they were frogmarched out of Shitsville (or too-expensivesville) uk/usa/au/..

> This is supposed to be a victory against the landlords?

I'm not sure if anyone is making this claim; squatting/etc is a victory only insofar as (while the occupants retain the space) it's an alternative to renting, ie. paying off a landlord's mortgage.

I understand the Berlin model involves the state allowing post-reunification squatters to remain (in some cases, on a wage) so long as they are fixing up the building, paying cheap rent.

The Wächterhäuser scheme (similar to what seems afoot in the UK) has been underway in Leipzig for some time - here's an interesting summary (in English) addressing issues discussed above, on the HausHalten e.V. website:

Posted by: ianw Sun Apr 19 00:24:23 2009

> when someone wants the property back they are going to just let them destroy [...] renovate [...]

PS. I'm not happy about it either, but this is what happens when you move out of a rental property.