In his book Occupation Culture (a project six years in the making), Chicago born writer Alan W Moore jumps with vigour into the world of squatting and art.
A force in 70’s New York helping form cultural centres like ABC Rio, Alan W Moore takes us on a weird journey across Europe. Taking in countries like Germany and the UK, Madrid based Alan W Moore focuses his gaze on this hidden world and approaches it as a “scholar” and a “journalist”.
In this first of a two-part interview #itchysilk talked to Alan W Moore about the more recent scholarly interest in squatting and how his book forms part of that discourse.
We are aware that your history is wonderfully varied. How did your formative years have an impact on your chosen path?
“Formative” – I always imagined I could fly when I was a kid. I was quite disappointed to learn that wasn’t true. My dad was a writer, and I thought that was a good way to go. Lounging around the house all day. Can’t beat it. I saw Marcel Duchamp’s first retrospective in Pasadena, and thought, “If this is art…” I want to know about it.
Having spoken to Marc H Miller it’s clear that the 70’s was a powerful time but tell us your take. How did that period impact on a young Alan W Moore?
I was shy. I would go home and write what I thought about and what I saw. The problems began when I started getting that published. And problems meant engagement with the world deeper than writing, which has never been enough for me. Socially, I was a late hippie. I embroidered my jeans, took acid, mushrooms and cactus, got harassed by police as a white boy. This was all before drugs became recreational. But that wasn’t cool in New York. It wasn’t until I punked out that I really found my footing in the ’70s. But by then I wasn’t so young.
I got nerved up enough to organize an art show as a building occupation – the Real Estate Show. Marc Miller and I made a book about that whole adventure in ’85, and the work that came out of it, called ABC No Rio Dinero. Marc put it online.
The Loisaida squat movement we covered was all about housing, gentrification, and solidarity with the homeless-marginalized and excluded people.
Why has squatting only recently received ‘scholarly attention’?
I think it’s the Global Justice Movement of the ’90s. People experienced in that, who did “summit hopping,” saw how important the social centers were in each city. Many of those ‘super activists’ went into academia. The old bearded Marxist professors, who disdained study of any kind of movements that didn’t seek state power, retired and the younger profs authorized their students to study squatting.
For all that, study of squatting is still constrained within the disciplines of academia. That’s urban studies, sociology, some anthropology, and geography. It relates to housing policy but even then, governments and banks have more influence overall on those matters. In truth it’s not a great way to make a career. Many of the senior people in our group SqEK who are in academia, who concentrate their research on squatting, live precariously.
Still students want to know about it, and activists use it, so it must be studied – that’s the bottom line. Like anarchism. Those who are best qualified to teach about anarchism are mistrusted and marginalized. Most aren’t in academia at all.
And can you talk more about the inspiration or socio-political situation which fuelled squatting?
Squatting is as ancient as needing somewhere to live and finding some useful place empty. It was a post-WW2 social movement during a time of severe housing shortages, and widely supported. The movement gained steam in the mid-’60s in Amsterdam with the Provos’ “white house” manifesto. Provos were well known in the Anglophone alternative world, so squatting was taken up in London with whole squatted streets and communities like Frestonia.
The big twist came in the mid- to late ’70s when the Italians started squatting big empty buildings, like the factories where workers had become unemployed, to open what they called social centers – self-organized occupied autonomous social centers, CSOAs. These places serve organizing functions, providing social, political and cultural services. And they don’t pay rent.
Occupation Culture was a mammoth 6-year project firstly how did those years (if they did) in the 70’s and 80’s have an impact on you pursuing this book?
What was happening in those years, what was possible in NYC no longer seemed to be. All the adventuring and libertarian social construction came to a slow stop. Most people I knew were either making money or became bitter and or crazy. I was re-inspired by what younger people were doing like: Josh MacPhee, Sam Gould, Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri, Brian Holmes, Nato Thompson. But we’re talking now ’90s, not earlier. People around the Global Justice movement. Which I was totally down with, although my street fighting days were over by then.
First talk about those travels and the places you visited in that 6-year period researching the book?
I first went to Berlin. I’d been there in ’86 doing a show, and I’d seen the squats in their heyday. But they were ringed by crowds of drunks and junkies. I was too wussy to check them out. In NYC I worked with Clayton Patterson on his telephone book anthology Resistance: A Radical Social and Political History of the Lower East Side (2007). The Loisaida squat movement we covered was all about housing, gentrification, and solidarity with the homeless-marginalized and excluded people. This remains a sharp issue as gentrification bites in cities all over the world. I realized – although in USA we never heard about it (media blackout), there was a strong continuous movement of squatting for political and cultural purposes as well as living going on in Europe for decades. I had to learn about it. Teaching jobs were hard to find at home, so taking off on research trips was possible.
Most artists aren’t part of a regular capitalist economy.
The cultural center ABC No Rio agreed to let me do an exhibition about my findings. At that time, this was almost entirely direct research. That meant visits to squats – my old ass hanging around suspicious young punks who didn’t speak English – internet research, and archival work. I made a research exhibition called House Magic in 2009. (Very few people saw that show.) After that, Nils Norman invited me to do a “research institute” at his project with Michael Cataldi called University of Trash at Sculpture Center near P.S. 1 in Queens. I made a zine catalogue after that which was called “House Magic: Bureau of Foreign Correspondence”, like the show. That was the first issue. There were six more, all PDFs online.
By then I was going regularly to Madrid. That city has a lot of occupied centers. I met Miguel Martinez there, who invited me into the research group SqEK. That was really my ticket to know the movement well. SqEK meets roughly annually in different cities. The members are hosted by activists, and most stay in squats. It’s true militant research in that we try to give our research work back to the movement, listen to them and try to advise.
We met in London, Paris, Rome, Berlin (twice), Amsterdam. I didn’t go to Prague or Catania, which were the most recent meetings. We didn’t see sights; we did squats. Those meetings were intense. I’ve slowed down on this research now, but I’m still engaged. Now I’m trying to do projects in centers in Madrid, and I still blog on issues of concern, at “Occupations & Properties”. The book mostly came out of that blog.
The relationship between squatting and the arts why is it a perfect synergy?
Most artists aren’t part of a regular capitalist economy. (I’ve written some on this; Hans Abbing wrote more, in Why Are Artists Poor? The Exceptional Economy of the Arts, (2002) So why should they be required to play by its rules? Allen Ginsberg asked the great question: “When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?” In your dreams – or in a squat where the food’s been scavenged.
To do a project in a social center, you need to propose it to the assembly. That’s classic grassroots management, and it’s what we all do through various kinds of mediation with all our cultural production – propose it, put it forward, to an audience. You explain it, they question you. They explain their rules and constraints and then you do it. Or squat your own place with your gang – “Okupa tu tambien.” Of, course it’s illegal, and there’s no money, so those are problems for many people.
Featured image part of the Do Not Leave The Neighbourhood To The Rich movement in France
Second image unknown
Third image taken from Seth Tobocman’s graphic novel War in the Neighborhood (1999/2016)
Fourth and Fifth image unknown