CAPSULES: THE LANDLORD IS COMING
Nine vital initiatives that organise against real estate speculation and help us envision fairer ways of cohabitation, organisation and cultural production.
Skyrocketing rents, relentless gentrification and continuous eviction and displacement of working class tenants are just a few in the manifold of factors contributing to the unprecedented global housing crisis. Accelerated to terrifying proportions by the global pandemic, the housing crisis is oftentimes pushed to the back of the governmental issues or made invisible by the media. Despite this, all over the world grassroots initiatives, project spaces and activist organisations are fighting this imminent threat and making sure to catalyse the conversation around such crucial questions.
The queer feminist squat in Berlin-Friedrichshain was evicted by the police on October 9th, 2020
Could you quickly give us an idea of who lived in Liebig34? Who are they and how did they end up there?
People from all over the world and with various gender identities have lived here. The stories of the now former residents are also very diverse. Sometimes people who couldn't find a place to stay for the night ended up living at Liebig34 long-term. Others moved to Berlin just so that they could live in Liebig34. It has always been a very unique and international collective that has been organized without cis-men to create a safer space for female, lesbian, intersex, non-binary and trans people.
What changes, recent or long-term, have you seen in the neighborhood around Liebig34?
Friedrichshain used to be a typical workers neighborhood with a very colorful anarchist subculture. Now this is almost absolutely gone. Without Liebig34 I personally couldn't live in Friedrichshain because the rents are much too expensive. The whole atmosphere has changed. I have known this part of Berlin for years and it used to be a place where you knew your neighbours and supported each other in the struggles of everyday life. Now there are so many people that only seem to want to take care of themselves. These are the results mechanisms of capitalism and gentrification – people are individualized more and more. There are still some signs of a sense of community, but I feel it's largely fading out.
In what concrete ways have anarchist, queer and feminist values been directly implemented into the infrastructure of Liebing34?
The house has its anarchist origins in the squatting movement of the 1990s, when a lot of people moved to the former DDR to occupy buildings that had been left empty. From this point Liebig34 was organized as a self-determined collective. This do-it-yourself ethos represents the anarchist aim of trying to live without oppressive hierarchies. As I said before, Liebig34 is a space organized for non-cis-men which, from a feminist perspective, is meant to empower queers and womxn. All the shifts and debates within feminist movements over the years were also discussions that took place within the walls of Liebig34. This house was an attempt to create a safe space for queers, womxn, trans- and inter- persons. Not only this – it also became a place to identify patriarchal and capitalist oppressions and attack these injustices.
The eviction of Liebig34 is more than just a symbolic loss in the fight against rapid gentrification and displacement in Berlin: 50+ people are now without a home. Who are they and what are they doing now?
Yes, we're now without a home. But our situation is different from so many others who are facing eviction on their own everyday in silence. We have seen and received a lot of solidarity since our eviction, which is a huge privilege. People have offered us rooms and everyone is safe, at least for the foreseeable future.
In the context of the current pandemic, the eviction of the residents of Liebig34 takes on yet another level of structural violence, especially against womxn and queer people, who statistically are more likely to face discrimination and harrasment. How would you contextualize the goals of squatting in relation to a wider array of political and social issues?
The idea of squatting is a simple one. There is an empty house and you need housing, so you go in and live there. Squatting is an act of practical solidarity and self-empowerment. People need housing, so you take what is sitting empty and you offer this space to people in need. But this is criminalized in Germany and that makes quite obvious the social injustice we're facing. Investors are making a profit off of people's basic needs. Berlin has a lot of empty houses and investors are hiring security to „protect“ these houses. Meanwhile, there are people living on the streets. People with old rent contracts have no access to water because the owner company wants them out of the flat to make more money with private property. It's absurd.
"Squatting is an act of practical solidarity and self-empowerment. People need housing, so you take what is sitting empty and you offer this space to people in need. But this is criminalized in Germany and that makes quite obvious the social injustice we're facing. Investors are making a profit off of people's basic needs."
Immediately after the eviction, the press was accompanied by police on a tour through the house, some reporters even made live-streams online. What do you think about this visual representation of Liebig34, your home, and more generally this representation of a way of life which is so intimately tied to a particular political position?
The whole thing was once again a move of patriarchal violence and a moment of crossed boundaries. We don't even have to discuss that the representation was so false – they didn’t bother to show the main parts of the house where people were living – but it shouldn’t even matter. People should be able to live how they want and to make fun of someone’s way of life is such embarrassing behaviour for these reporters. They held themselves higher than us and this shows exactly what we're fighting against: taking power from people and abusing power to put others down. We knew that our idea of living together was and is seen as a threat to the capitalist system and we knew that the media would never try to understand what Liebig34 was actually about. They only wanted the dirty hysterical feminists. The whole scene was really just an old anti-feminist representation: Look at these dirty women who can’t keep a house clean.
What dreams do you have for new or alternative ways of living together? What potentials do you see for alternative or autonomous housing projects, especially as they relate to our current moment?
I think it's really important to find ways to organize outside of the state. In Germany there are big renter’s protests and it's a struggle that resonates with a lot of people. The Corona crisis especially will have consequences for people who struggle to pay their rent. Alternative ways of living should always connect with fights for social justice, providing opportunities for mutual aid and common structures of organization. I think there's a huge underestimation of what autonomous housing projects can offer for a movement. We’ve always said: We have to take care of each other, to be dangerous together. This is one of our main slogans. Autonomous housing projects should be places where people can break out of isolation and take care of each other, on emotional, economic and social levels. This way of supporting each other is a chance to empower one another, to gain power together, and be a threat to the oppressive structures we are living in.
This interview took place between Chris Paxton and a representative of Liebig 34 on November 9 2020.
Is a self-organized and autonomous temporary housing solution for homeless and illegalised migrants in Berlin.
What challenge led to the creation of your organization?
There were protests after the eviction of the Gerhard Hauptmann Schule, which housed a project where refugees were organising their own living space. In this climate, people began networking and formed support groups to organise housing for people in need: refugees, “illegal” migrants or asylum seekers. This organization eventually became the self-organized and autonomous group SchlafplatzOrga.
What challenges do you face now?
At the moment, the biggest challenges have been stricter regulations since the beginning of November and the cold as people get more cautious about who they want to let into their homes. Because of this it’s been much harder to mediate for people who are searching for a place.
What are your visions for living together?
With the real estate market being so capital oriented, it seems that “housing for all” could be wishful thinking. But we see a future that has shifted to holding humanity as the backbone of society, not capital. A future where all people, without distinction of race, sex or class, will always have a place they can call their home. To tackle the housing crisis we need to expropriate real estate from those who own too much and redistribute to those in need. We need to move away from the landlord vs. tenant situation and towards a system that values the tenant’s autonomy and housing as a basic right.
This interview took place between Chris Paxton and a representative of Schlafplatz Orga in November 2020.
Conversation with Camille Henrot on movements against evictions and rent strikes in NYC.
Camille, how did you get involved in such actions?
I have been following the work of Vanessa Thill and Jamie Chan from Art Against Displacement and Housing Justice for All on Instagram and I really admired their work, both as artists and activists, in their fight against the Two Bridges skyscraper development (1). They contacted me to help illustrate some flyers to circulate on social media, which I made based on the ideas we exchanged.
I strongly believe that cancelling rent and rent stabilization during lockdown are the only solutions to preserve what makes NYC so special: its strong community of artists, art workers and small businesses. The rent in the city has always been too high and for many people sustaining a life here is only possible with the sacrifice of stability, security and comfort.
I am astonished that Bill de Blasio isn’t doing anything to support migrant workers and small businesses. Aren’t the immigrant and artistic community an integral part of the identity of New York? NYC is a city that people dreamt of visiting because of contributions of artists, not those of wealthy real estate owners. Governor Cuomo is indecently favoring an already well-protected population while allowing the working class to drown without necessary support.
Are you looking to unionize with art workers in these extremely precarious times?
I believe in the urgent necessity of unionizing for art workers. I also question why it is still a challenge for so many artists to receive adequate artist fees, if any. Since the beginning of the pandemic, I have turned down a lot of requests for free streaming, talks or exhibitions, but even with this personal rule, I often feel foolish because my participation always ends up costing more time and energy than a fee usually covers.
What I have learned is that sometimes just circulating information internally within the community can help change a lot of people’s lives. We need more unions, forums, exchange and public conversation on the economical reality of the choices that artists have to make, including contracts, agreements and artist fees. I also think that prolonging exhibitions’ durations could save some additional money and the leftover be used by institutions to support artworkers and artists better in their annual budget. I have been surprised by how silent the press and the institutions have been on these necessary changes and this silence is very revealing.
"What I have learned is that sometimes just circulating information internally within the community can help change a lot of people’s lives. We need more unions, forums, exchange and public conversation on the economical reality of the choices that artists have to make, including contracts, agreements and artist fees."
In April I started to work on a series of talks and texts called “We The Agile Cats” with the new platform Home Cooking, which started in March 2020 and was founded by Asad Raza and is organized in collaboration with Marianna Simnett. Our initial text stated:
They say we artists are agile cats. While isolated at home we are supposed to stay productive, entertaining the world with our feline creative unwisdom -- our flexibility immune to financial crisis. We have seen these ideas written about and circulated, and we agile cats have reinforced them and put them on display […] We are expected to entertain, stimulate, provide hope, donate work, raise money and deliver an immediate analysis of this historic moment. Meanwhile, very few government resources are accessible to artists. A majority of us don’t have a regular income and spend most of what we earn to produce new work.
The assumption that most artists would give up their comfort and expectations for exposure has been going on for too long. It is in line with the patriarchal bourgeois 19th century framework that a ‘good artist’ is an outcast that has resigned themselves forever from happiness, family and domestic life, love and comforts and basically any other human need, or has another source of wealth like an inheritance that keeps them secure.
A sick body and a pregnant body brings the taboo of the artist’s body to light. Once the French government invited me on an official trip to China. I happened to mention that I was 4 months pregnant. They said, “You are invited, but we would prefer if you don’t come.” To be so unafraid of discrimination shows how little concern is given. The phrase stuck with me, and I hold onto it as motivation to work more on this topic. There are so many elementary protections that artists don’t have. I really hope that an international artist union will be able to change this.
This interview took place between Sebastjan Brank and Camille Henrot on November 13 2020.
FLANERIE IN THE TIME OF CORONA
KUNCI experiments with methods in producing and sharing knowledge through the acts of studying together at the intersections between affective, manual and intellectual labor. Since its founding in 1999 in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, KUNCI has been continuously transforming its structure, ways and medium of working.
If we consider artists’ initiatives in 2020, the year of living carefully, where stay-at-home orders and social distancing become the norm, chances are we won’t find much movement, neither individual nor social. But despite these odds, movements, unions, and activism have come to define the year in many ways. The figure of the flaneur in the post-digital & post-pandemic era allows us to consider more possibilities: "The art that the flaneur masters is that of seeing without being caught looking,” said Zygmunt Bauman. As a figure of modernity the flaneur could be an apt depiction of humanity, caught in the middle of a pandemic, where intimacy and distance have become so strangely entangled.
So why discuss this activity which may seem so counterintuitive to us now? As a pretext, we could think of the flaneur as a test of the possibilities for preserving cultural production and reproduction in an era of inequality magnified by globalization. "Ziarah Utara: Pilgrimage to the Coast" is one initiative that we could revisit to think this through. Over eleven days and nights in February 2018, Irwan Ahmett, Tita Salina, Jorgen Doyle, and Hannah Ekin walked along 42 km of Jakarta's northern coastline. As a means of grasping for a situated knowledge, they passed through a fishing community facing evictions and floods and into a very different world of an AirBnB on the 30th floor of a luxury housing block.
As an action in disguise, this seemingly insignificant act contains possibilities to set our imagination in motion. In medical discourse, it is common practice to confine and isolate those who have the potential to build (political) movements. Here, cordon sanitaire, the confinement of all healthy and infected people in an area, differs from quarantine, where the intention is to isolate an infected population. The act of strolling the streets would mean a problematization of these current conditions, challenging movement through zones of access and exclusion. Given that the possibility of paving the way through protests in the streets has already been anticipated by city planning, from Haussman’s renovation of Paris to the current surveillance era, strolling makes us aware that confinement under the current medical discourse could be just another symbolic gesture of the unwillingness of the state to provide social support in favor of saving the neoliberal economy.
Strolling the streets shows us that community is not homogenous and that urban regimes maintain every possibility to obstruct or accelerate speculative and risky hyper-investment. It makes us aware that all those who must still roam in the streets in the midst of this pandemic, whom we have deemed essential workers, are in fact irreplaceable, but not the system that makes them so. We should not, however, be led to imagine a bourgeois-individualist-flaneur who isolates themselves from their social condition, but rather to consider this act of flanerie as an effort to map alliances, share resources, and pave new paths for immanent critiques of our broken system. Before all else, what we need are spaces to imagine and strive together, to form alliances that make ourselves no longer disposable. In other words: we need to form a union. But before we shout "Flaneurs of the worlds, unite!”, we must first ask ourselves: who are your allies? and where do they live?
This text was adapted from the conversation between Chris Paxton and Rifki Akbar Pratama that was held in November 2020.
The Vancouver Artists Labour Union Cooperative is transforming labour practices within the arts and cultural sector, empowering Artists and Cultural Workers.
What were the local circumstances that led you to establish The Vancouver Artists Labour Union Co-operative?
First of all, artists' labour is underpaid, and the secondary gigs we do are not generally in support of our focused craft. By democratically operating, we are value driven and empower artists and cultural workers through fair, secure, and flexible employment that supports artists to do what they do best—make art. We strive to do our work and organize in an intersectional and anti-oppressive framework that supports our members’ needs, and which contributes meaningfully to our communities.
How does solidarity with marginalised local communities reflect in your everyday work ethic?
Co-ops require the active participation of its members to make democratic decisions together, dismantling hierarchies and oppressive systems from within. Without bosses, CEOs, or managers, we prioritize a consensus model, letting our living VALUes guide our decision-making at every stage. When consensus cannot be reached, we maintain the co-op principal that 1 member = 1 vote. By the nature of our organization’s structure, we are working to hold space, to speak out, to listen, and to relentlessly work to dismantle white supremacy, cis-hetero patriarchy, and all forms of oppression.
How does your Community Reserve Fund work?
As an artist-run organization, we critically consider the role that artists often play in neighbourhood gentrification and the subsequent displacement of marginalized communities. As part of our commitment to anti-oppression values, we have mandated policies within our organization to prioritize solidarity with these communities. By redistributing revenue generated by the co-op through our Community Reserve Fund, we can contribute our creative and financial assets to our communities’ struggles.
This conversation was held between Zandi Dandizette, member of VALU CO-OP and Sebastjan Brank, in November 2020.
The antithesis of “maker-space” gentrification hype in Berlin.
In what ways is ExRotaprint reimagining ownership?
ExRotaprint institutes a unique form of ownership and self-organization within a precarious environment; the legal structure prioritizes group interests over individual interests and ties the notion of profit to the physical site and its goals. The complex has been withdrawn from property speculation for the long-term. The focus here is not on marketing or financial profit, but on the users and the work they create. Rental income provides the financial basis of the project and covers the costs of the renovation, the building modifications, the annual ground rent, and the operational expenses.
You look for tenants that are going to be a good fit for the local community. How is this anti-gentrification ethos affecting your local surroundings?
ExRotaprint is predicated on a diverse social mix that lays the groundwork for new impulses and furthering mutual acceptance in a precarious neighborhood—for and with the people who live here.
ExRotaprint rents a third of its overall space to each area of “work, art, and community.” Working on site are businesses, community outreach organizations, and independent creatives. What emerges is an overall community image—one that challenges the imposed dreams of investment return monocultures, and instead promotes togetherness and exchange.
"What emerges is an overall community image—one that challenges the imposed dreams of investment return monocultures, and instead promotes togetherness and exchange."
How can artistic strategies be taken as a model to reorganise urbanism and housing differently?
Although initiated by artists, ExRotaprint is not intended as a location for artists alone. From the very outset we viewed it as an opportunity to create a common space for people with different occupations, backgrounds, and histories. The reality here is organized using social, economic, and cultural strategies from art. Optimal solutions must be conceived and discussed for both spatial and social concerns in order to maintain an overall balance and to ensure its effectiveness and adequacy. Communication and direct contact are essential.
This conversation was held between Daniela Brahm and Les Schliesser from ExRotaprint and Sebastjan Brank, in November 2020.
Artists designed stocks to co-own their multi-uses. Cultural compound, preventing their eviction.
In 2008, during another wave of mass privatization of public realty in Berlin, the city of Berlin sold a 18.000 m2 heritage-protected streetcar workshop in Wedding for 6 million euros to the Uferhallen AG, controlled by the investors Hans-Martin Schmidt and Friedrich Orth. Today, over 100 people work on 8000 square meters in artist and rehearsal studios, artistic workshops, and exhibition and concert spaces. “In miniature, we represent the city-wide artistic production and also its threats”, says artist Heiner Franzen.
In order to save the property from speculation and to secure user’s control over their work spaces, founder Hans-Martin Schmidt came up with an exemplary model from which there’s a lot to learn, especially from its flawed realisation: In 2011, artists designed 3100 works to serve as stocks. With these artist shares, ownership of the Uferhallen was meant to be spread among the tenants and across the whole city. Yet, in the end, big chunks of stock ended up in the hands of people with investment interest, with 95 percent controlled by the former majority shareholders (Schmidt had meanwhile left). In 2017 the compound was sold for 27 million euros, together with three more properties, to Alexander Samwer, founder of tech investment company Rocket Internet, famous for founding Zalando, among others. In 2016, the tenants had organised in the union Uferhallen e.V. and urged the city of Berlin to also bid. The then-new culture senator Klaus Lederer rejected to pay more than the market value, which the district of Wedding saw at 10-12 million. Samwer’s first drafts envisioned two residential towers. His company pressed artists into selling their shares (having risen from 1500 to 8000 euros in value), in exchange for a three year lease extension. They helped themselves – and the city – by selling the shares to the city of Berlin instead, as artworks acquired for the collection of the city-funded Neuer Berliner Kunstverein. With that trick, they made Berlin a minority shareholder. A very small minority indeed, but one with high symbolic value. “We do sense a bigger support since then”, says Heiner Franzen. The district of Wedding has used their leverage by restricting the use of the compound to cultural causes, shedding all plans for residential exploitation. Recent building drafts have been rejected by heritage protection. The new majority owners will go ahead with refurbishments, and the resulting rent increase is not dealt out. But the tenants have been assured they can stay. The senate has learned its share and has since vehemently worked towards protecting artistic work space (see conversation on this page). “We set an example for how the city should deal with artist studios in the future”, says Heiner Franzen, who, in the face of artists of all income groups afraid of losing their working basis, still sees a strip of light on the horizon: “At least, Berlin still has a tiny toe London or Amsterdam.”
This text was adapted from the conversation between Kolja Reichert and Heiner Franzen that was held in November 2020.
Permanent housing based on a normal lease and individually tailored support services to tackle the Finnish homelessness issue.
Y-Foundation is Finland’s largest non-profit housing provider that arose from the simple, yet radical belief that ‘everybody should be cared for’. Its CEO Juha Kaakinen has developed the principle ‘Housing First’, whose goal is to provide permanent accommodation to people experiencing homelessness. In the 1980s, Finland’s estimated homeless population was around 20,000, or approximately 0.4 percent of the population, the main driver being a lack of affordable housing. In the decade since 2008, homelessness has increased in every European country, except Finland. During that time Finland has eliminated rough sleeping, and reduced homelessness by 35 percent. The homeless population continues to decline. Y-Foundation realised that the traditional thinking of using hostels and shelters wasn’t working, because the same people were going into temporary accommodation and exiting back into homelessness. “People living in shelters and hostels are still homeless,” says Kaakinen. So, in 2008, having considered Kaakinen’s report, the Finnish housing minister implemented a national scheme targeting the chronically homeless, using the Housing First principle. The Y-Foundation owns more than 16,500 apartments across Finland which are rented out to people experiencing or at risk of homelessness – the organisation is the fourth largest landlord in Finland. Many of the 3500 apartments provided to date – well above the initial target of 2500 – came from converting temporary accommodation into permanent housing, with support staff located in the building. Through this system, 82 percent of people have been able to sustain their tenancy after two years of moving in. There is a firm agreement between the municipalities and the property developers that in each new housing area, 20 percent of new development is dedicated to social housing, at exactly the same quality as what is provided in the private rental market. They are working on increasing that number to 30 percent. Kaaniken says: “If there’s a huge imbalance in the housing system, it will lead to increasing homelessness. /.../ They have to be tackled at the same time, and for that reason social housing is so important. It’s a question of social fairness.”
Adapted from “How Finland is Ending Homelessness: Juha Kaakinen” on Assemble Papers.
Independent studio complex in London, saved from eviction by fans of the nearby football club.
Which challenges led to the founding of your organisation?
Zona Mista is a project space located in South Bermondsey, an industrial area with many car garages, artists studios, waste disposal companies, nightclubs, rats, building suppliers and some low level housing schemes. It is also the home to Millwall Football Club. We have had studios and a project space in the building since 2014 but we officially took the name Zona Mista in 2017. Around that time the area was being developed by a nefarious offshore private company through council backed compulsory purchase orders. We received an eviction notice. In response we contacted a number of artists studios on our street in an attempt to form a united response to send to the Mayor of London’s office. Instead it was Millwall Football fans whose collective action delayed the development. In doing so they also saved countless artists, residents and businesses from eviction. We decided to curate a show about football, politics and art as a way to examine and challenge our relationship with Millwall, a club that has had a reputation for hooliganism in the past. By curating an exhibition we hoped to question our assumptions, fear and detachment from the club and the surrounding neighbourhood. Titled ‘Zona Mista’, an Italian football tactic meaning mixed zone, the show featured Louise Ashcroft, Robbie Howells and Guy Oliver. Since then the space has been an active site for projects, screenings and exhibitions.
What is unique about your organisation?
Zona Mista is collective chaos. Unlike many other studio buildings in London, we are independent. We found the space, rented and developed it without a studio management company. We did it ourselves for ourselves. Each artist built their own studio from scratch and pays a little extra rent to maintain the project space. This system allows us a lot of freedom, cheap studios and a sense of both collective ownership and responsibility for ourselves. As an independent studio space, some- thing rare in London, we need to work together to maintain the running of the building. Our lack of hierarchy has fostered a sense of community and mutual support.
"Zona Mista is collective chaos."
What are the challenges you are facing now?
The pandemic has brought insecurity for the artists in the studios, the project space and our neighbouring businesses. We decided to channel this uncertainty and anxiety into another exhibition engaging with our neighbours and local community. Focusing on the garages in our street, we curated an exhibition about cars. Emerging from lockdown London, we were into ideas of freedom, journeys and escape. The show featured Saelia Aparicio, Charlie Duck, Nicholas Pankhurst, Berry Patten, Jim Woodall in conjunction with Wolf of South-east Customz, Nooshin Askari and a text by Amelia Stein. The structure of the space allowed us the freedom and support to create the exhibition and performances and welcome the local community, artists and car enthusiasts. The show was a moment of hope, anchoring ourselves deeper in the fabric of South Bermondsey. Yet the artists, businesses and residents are still facing instability; located in an area zoned for development, they are looking at eviction in the not too distant future. Going by the plans, Zona Mista is destined to be a swimming pool in a new gym!
This conversation was held between Alina Kolar of Arts of the Working Class and Hadas Auerbach & Kate Fahey of Zona Mista on November 19 2020.
Read the original versions of the capsules in the 14 "The Landlord is Coming."