Stand in the place where you live
Think about direction, wonder why you haven’t before.
Now stand in the place where you work
now face West
Think about the place where you live
Wonder why you haven’t before.
While Andy Field opened one of his Citylab essays with a DeCerteau quote, I have opted for the great contemporary philosophers of the mid-90s - REM. Yesterday, Maria Gil took us on a walking tour of independent cultural spaces in her neighbourhood, Carnide. Carnide is a very different place to the neighbourhoods we have been already on this trip - neighbourhoods where grand churches are adorned with flyers to Fado bars and hungover stag-dos posing for a photo by tiles. In Carnide, Maria and some of her contemporaries have been establishing independent, DIY-run arts and cultural spaces. Largely avoiding the bureaucratic grant-hunting culture so prevalent elsewhere in Europe, to really get bang for my buck on the REM quote, these artists clearly stood in the place where they lived, and saw empty buildings – a cultural centre that had been left un-open for eight years, a “washing house” where women used to (and still do) come to bring their laundry and wash it the old fashioned way, in large basins of water. Seeing empty buildings, Maria and her contemporaries presumably thought about direction, and from there made it their mission for doors to open, keys to be handed over, and local cultural institutions that appear to be far more responsive to their communities than the "institutional" institutions, to be born.
Although that makes it seem easy, doesn’t it? And surely it wasn't that easy – not quite. Although from the conversations we had on the tour, Maria and her friends did make it seem not effortless, but obvious. If the buildings were empty, why not do their best to take them over and fill them with something that would benefit artists and their community? What was difficult to entirely access or understand from our walking tour (or from a short visit in general) is the minutiae around property laws which is no doubt at its heart bureaucratic, decided upon by politicians and property developers from city to city, that allows more grass-roots projects like those we visited in Carnide to exist. (The places we visited were, for the record’s sake, Teatro de Silencio in the Lavadouro Público de Carnide, a marionette theatre that had just had a new roof put in, SPIN, which is a kind of hostel for school groups and larger groups in general, and Centuro Cultural de Carnide, a cultural centre that was left empty for eight years and was re-appropriated six years ago for local arts projects, run by a small team of artists). Being resident in a city like London, where "the housing crisis" is a depressingly familiar term, although there is a very small, determined and fringe on-going squat culture, the idea of a council handing a building in that market over to artists seems inconceivable. And yet even as I write that I’m aware of the fact that one of the Lab participants, Jorge Lopes Ramos, is running an artist-residency space in West Ham, a neighbourhood that may share some similarities in terms of London’s landscape with Carnide. I’ve made a mental note now to ask him about some of the practical and logistical details around their use of that space. Like REM, I wonder why I haven’t before.
Inasmuch as this City Lab in Lisbon has been about religion it has also, inevitably because of deep-seated links between Catholocism and the government in this country, been about politics. Space – everywhere in the world – who owns it, who is it in it, and how they are permitted to use it – is the major political question, relevant (essential!) to our past and quickly and frighteningly shifting in our future. The very unquestionable existence of a host of churches with their large symbolic and geographical footprints in the centre of a city like Lisbon, some with tiny ageing congregations, and granted 10% of the country’s budget, is itself a political reality. These artist-run DIY spaces in Carnide, on the outskirts of the city, kept up by will power, determination, and “thinking about direction” in a neighbourhood as a first step to having some power and agency to influence it, is also a political reality, and it seems, from yesterday’s walk, a difficult but promising one.
REM – the contemporary philosophers of the 1990s – encouraging us to take ownership of our space, to see it as our right, as difficult as that is, and to wonder about direction, even if that wondering makes you angry and disempowered and feel like crushing all the property owners and throwing a brick through an estate agent’s window, and not to wonder why you haven't before (because you have), but who is hoping that you haven’t before and won't again.