FEB 07. 2005
A View on the Alternative Realities of Freespaces
Innbetween Text for the Paper House Zine at Taiwan Biennial Oct. 2004

So you want a few “personal” lines about “freespaces” in Rotterdam? Well, it is not the first time we find ourselves writing about this topic. In addition to our own interest in the theme, a lot of writing, editting and publishing work is necessary in the current battle for the future existence of our group within the walls of a very special building, the Poortgebouw. Often it’s pretty dry explanations as opposed to our more colorful fantasies and imaginations.

But if there is an extraordinary quality of these freespaces which we have discovered and want to pass on, it is this: the opportunity to directly affect the development of the concept and strategies for the place where you live and work. Not many people ever have to or even see the need to do that in their whole life. In our homelands of Austria and Canada (where squatting buildings is simply not a realistic long-term accomodation option), one is conditioned not to question the nature of the available living and working spaces and how they should be used. After 3 years in Rotterdam, we now must ask afresh “What the hell is really happening behind the facades of all those houses in a city?”

Perhaps it is more expected from artists to question consensus reality than with others – especially when your basic survival strategies are involved or even an integral aspect of your work. In our case, it is fair to say that without places like the Poortgebouw we would not be able to exist in the Netherlands: when your permit of stay and a rent contract are dependent on an evidence of “sufficient and regular monthly income”, it is a clear reminder that the right of a roof over your head can only be granted through money.

Freespaces operate differently. But this doesn’t mean that they can just be used without any exchange or return. They are definitely not just “for free”. Instead of an anonymous monthly bank transfer, the investment is a lot of time, energy and responsibility to keep the space “running”. And since every space has a different story, there are no standard blue prints of one approved system to rely on. The freespace inhabitants/users must constantly adapt to the current (often unstable) situation, invent new tactics to survive, diagnose where their weak and strong sides are, and often they have to argue bitterly amongst each other. In our opinion, this is precious social and political thinking and action. These are the real engines of a living democracy.

But don’t get us wrong: fights about dirty dishes and filthy toilets are just as much a part of this as organizing a demonstration in front of city hall. And one can be as demanding as the other...

The places represented in the Papierenhuis project have very different reasons of why they came into existence or why they vanished. Be it because artists needed affordable atelier spaces or activists protested against shortage of social housing or the unsuspecting “average couple” fell in an unexpected “gap” of the social-political system. But there is a connecting thread: the need to create mental and physical room within our apparently irreversibly allocated living space. On a planet where all space has been divided up and claimed somebody’s property, freespaces occupy the blindspots in a monolithic power structure which regulates and prescribes our co-existence.

We entertain the notion that cities emerge and are desirable basically because of the advantages of shared infrastructures, work and knowledge. But at the same time, it seems that they prosper and grow through almost exactly the opposite forces: inclusion, anonymity, separation. Communal exchange and awareness are in practice more rural characteristics that often are —with more or less success— imposed on the urban population. In Rotterdam, for example, there are countless governmental to artistic interventions designed to stimulate social cohesion and exchange. In our so-called “knowledge economy” trade (read: profit) seems to be the only remaining key to access and open structures (social, academic, scientific, cultural, political...). We experienced that these self-organized places (be it through squatting or any other method of civil empowerment) provide and exercise an alternative economy in a city. Contact, culture and experience/knowledge are naturally transfered —as opposed to top-down concepts— throughout very different layers of society.

We hope that presentations such as the Papierenhuis can help to open the minds of all users of the city to experience space and housing as an alive flexible entity which is subject to change for everyone. Otherwise, we are afraid that cities are nothing more than a static assemblage of building blocks whose usage forms are predefined on the drawing board and then blindly executed by their inhabitants.



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