The public look on at the Argus Archive exhibition during BPB12.

Ideas Series: Activism & Alternative Media

For some, the idea of squatting summons up visions of poverty and desperation, or at times the more illiberal amongst us even believe that squatting is a way of avoiding any kind of social responsibility, such as paying rent or taxes.

Living in a city like Brighton is one way of disproving these ideas – the number of campaigns that our native squatters have successfully launched, and peacefully undertaken, is quite remarkable. Having been here for just two years I can already remember various campaigns, including most memorably ‘Sabo-taj’, whereby squatters took over the former home of local supermarket Taj, following one of its two branches being forced to close due to increased rent, then building a temporary art exhibition with University of Brighton students in the space beneath.

Having attended the Activism and Alternative Media talk at the Caroline of Brunswick it became apparent just how much organisation and time goes into these campaigns, and how the members of groups such as squatter’s rights group ‘Justice?’ are not in it just to be outspoken, as the above mentioned illiberal folk would think, but are indeed dedicated to the causes that they represent, and intent on continuing to promote the rights of those who are not always well represented.

Starting off with Australian photojournalist Alec Smart we were given an overview of why he came to the UK to begin with, and a mini-retrospective of his exciting career. Having photographed many protests from the ‘front line’, including anti-hunting campaigns, the 20th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, and motorway extensions, Smart had many stories to tell and many lessons to share. Being an independent photojournalist working for the squatting organizations means his work hasn’t been produced for the national newspapers, therefore he was free to represent them as they deserved to be shown. It seemed quite early on in his career his mantra became – “don’t trust the media, become it”. As a photographer in these protests, he was often seen to be encouraging them by the very act of capturing them – even once being given a short prison sentence. This seems like further proof that the power of the picture in the right hands can have a profound impact.
Next up was Edward from the Squatter’s Network, who went on to discuss the importance of the zine and alternative media, and how they have helped to counter the mass-media’s perception of squatters. After reeling off various amusing, and of course grossly exaggerated, headlines that had been written about squatters, including “Brighton Squatters Scared Off By Cagefighters” (courtesy of the Brighton Argus), Edward discussed the way in which squatters are often ridiculed by the press. He also pointed out how harmful and vicious lies were made up in order to defame small groups of people, such as the mods and rockers in the 1960s’. On the other hand, the positive outcome of this is how zines and alternative media have helped to promote what the squatters are campaigning for. The list of available zines and online resources is impressive, and it is worth mentioning that Another Space has published an issue especially for the Brighton Photo Biennial.

Alex Casper, an interior designer of squats, gave a sort of squatter-art history lecture. It was told how its roots reach as far back as the Surrealists in Paris, but most obviously began with the Fluxus movement that followed several decades later. These anti-art movements still sit well within the ideas that the squatters continue to practice, and it was interesting to hear that they are still being used in the way that was intended when the manifestos were written. Casper, who came to the UK from Brooklyn, seemed to have the knowledge of a university lecturer when he ran through quotes from Heidegger, and made comparisons to works by contemporary artists. He also appeared down to earth in the delivery of his own quotes, such as my personal favourite: “squatting can mess things up, but it can also make things better”, and his graceful acceptance of a surprise glitter facial [parody of Casper’s own glitter-bomb of Brighton MP Robert Nemeth] from a colleague in the audience.

As all of the speakers confessed tonight, their efforts don’t always reach the intended outcome, but what is important is that they continue to fight – peacefully of course – for the causes that they believe in. With the new Conservative squatting laws that are about to be imposed it seems as though this era of squatters may well be over, but after hearing about the ingenious and inventive ways in which this group of people have evolved from their beginnings, it seems like they will continue to be a strong voice in our communities for many years to come.

 

Published on 17 October 2012
Submitted by Dante Parker
Edited by Photoworks