I was recently interview via email about the film I made a decade or so ago about an anarchist arts-activist squat. The documentary is available in various places, it was published in the Deleuzian online journal A/V from MMU (available here) and is also on YouTube (available here).
Matt Lee interviewed by Edwin Coomasaru
A Discussion of Rhizomatic #1 (2001)
1) What were the intentions and aims behind Rhizomatic #1?
I think the primary aim was the desire to show the action of the squat in a positive light, not in a simple propagandist way but more as part of the collective production that was the motivation behind the squat. We also simply wanted to make a film as we enjoyed making films and finally I found the ideas of SPOR, the use of notions of the rhizome that derived from Deleuze, whom I was very interested in at the time as I was studying his work for my doctoral project, a clear example of supposedly abstract ideas from philosophy having a direct and immediate resonance in the practical work of activists.
2) What was your relationship to Spor? Did you have a degree of independence or were more involved in the squat?
The SPOR collective had initiated the project but gathered support for it through the local networks of activists and we came across the project because we were part of those networks. We had previously organised our own squat art space called art/error in a small shop in Black Lion Street, Brighton, during one of the May art festivals that are held in the city, so we had a strong interest in the possibility of creating cross-overs between art and activism. We would go on, after the SPOR squat, to be involved in another semi-public squat project in Viaduct Road where a chaos magick temple was established and used for a number of weeks, a project that is documented in a book by Julian Vayne called ‘Now That’s What I Call Chaos Magick’.
In terms of ‘independence’ this almost misses the point. We were not independent, if that means ‘outside’ but we were entirely independent in the sense that we had complete control over what we wanted to do, what we wanted to say. We were not ‘embedded’ but simply already engaged. The story of the squat was as much our story as it was someone else’s, a point we try and make when we show our own installation both at the start of the film and at the end. The idea of TAZ’s (temporary autonomous zones) that derived from Hakim Bey was influential in seeing empty spaces as spaces of potential rather than absences of use and squatting was often loosely but intimately connected to the activist networks existence because of the simple need for somewhere to live and love. Making a squat a ‘public’ space is a curious cross-over as well because whilst a squat was semi-legal it was also outside the norm, simply by entering a squatted building someone does something outside the ordinary, either through necessity or – in the case of art spaces – through choice.
3) How did you aim to represent the Spor squatters? Did you seek to portray them in a positive light to counter mass media stereotypes?
As I say in response to your first question, the aim was indeed to present ourselves in a positive light I suppose, yes. I don’t think the idea of countering anything was much in our heads, the end ‘use’ of the film wasn’t even considered, it was not intended for broadcast or as part of a film career, it was simply a tool of expression. I suppose we thought we might show it at a couple of meetings, maybe online – the use of video in activism was widespread at this time, with the Undercurrents team having reached some conisderable prominence in the anti-capitalist networks. I suppose we just assumed it would be part of that general production of videos and films that was going on around us. As far as I can remember there were no real distribution plans at all.
4) What kind of editorial decisions did you make in producing the film? What did you choose not to include, or to cut out?
I can’t remember anything specific being cut, I think the editorial decisions were just governed by the shots that fit the story. We wanted to have some intereviews, let others in the squat speak for themselves, so we tried to interfere as little as possible with those interview sections – after all, these were our friends and fellow activists, they would have been able to spot us manipulating their words and this would have been a rather large breach in trust. I suppose the fact that everyone in the film was happy with the way they came across was a consideration and as far as I’m aware they all were more than happy with the outcome.
5) What was communal life like in the squat? How did their behaviour differ to the way the space had been previously used as a bank?
Communal life was much like most squats, a core of people organising things, a smaller circle of activists – often living outside like us – who were supporting the work in various ways and a larger group of party animals and people who, for want of a better word, formed something like an audience. The idea always was to try and prevent audiences forming as a kind of structural position, so people who entered were allowed a large degree of freedom and involvement where they had ideas. That meant things were often quite chaotic but that appearance was primarily because the emphasis was on activity – if someone wanted to do something, put up installations or show a film or organise a workshop, then they would do so. There were boards where events were scheduled and rooms were used for many different things – our own installation was a ‘room’ with TV’s and sofas, with the wall covered in letters from prison, bailiffs threats, council tax bills and the various detritus of living in a capitalist bureaucracy. There were two TV’s and VCR’s in the room, one TV that showed films like Star Wars and another that had videos of demonstrations and activist films. That room was used during the parties as a chill out room and crash pad, much like it might have been in reality had it been someone’s living room. The use wasn’t organised but happened because it leant itself to that role and I think this was fairly common for the rest of the squat space, rooms would be used for what was needed, no-one was really in charge of anything.
6) Were tasks and jobs gendered in the squat? (e.g. men using heavy machinery and women more ‘domestic’ work)
Not that I remember, although my perspective on that is perhaps limited.
7) How did the squatters cultivate their own appearance and visual identity (hair, clothing, piercings, etc.)?
In retrospect I suppose squatters and activists do cultivate an appearance, in a way, although it seems rather amusing to think of this as cultivation since it was usually driven more by necessity and what was available. People would have shied away from blatantly fascist or Nazi symbolism no doubt and usually from corporate logos, standard items of ‘subculture’ such as Burberry perhaps, but often people wore whatever was around. Piercing and a degree of ‘dressing up’ were commonplace but to consider that whole area of crusty punk ‘style’ as as something ‘cultivated’ is kind of a category mistake. The signals were no doubt present, it would have been possible to tell something about the people involved by their clothes, as in any situation, but often because of the absence of certain things, rather than than the presence of them.
8) Many of the images of the human form in the squat art exhibition seem quite deformed, disturbed and ‘anxious’. Why do you think this way of depicting the body was particularly prevalent in the squat?
I think some of that has to do with the close connection to ecology and the earth and the struggles that had been a background of the SPOR event, the anti-road protests, the free party scene and the like. Some of it has something to do with the art brut that is expressed in that type of situation, where expression is valued over technique.
9) Dirt, soil, paint seem important materials for art production in the squat. How did people relate to them?
Often materials were used because they were available or easy to access, that no doubt formed a large part of what was happening. Again, it’s important to remember that the central drive in place in the squat was one of freedom and self-expression, the idea was to try and encourage as much creativity as possible and with no funds available that meant skip-hunting and scavenging for materials. In that situation it was kind of inevitable that quite raw materials would be used, but there was some joy in using these things, is feeling the mud between your fingers. I wouldn’t want to speak for everyone involved at all and some of the artists who were involved had brought work to the squate to display that came from more developed technical backgrounds so they may have had more explicit reasons for their choice of materials but my impression is that much of what took place is the result of accident and utility.
10) What were the flyers, posters and publicity material produced by/for the squat like? Why was it important for Spor to publicise itself?
The publicity material built on the SPOR 23 name, which was quite well known in the free party circles because one or two of the people had been very involved in Spiral Tribe during its earlier days. The materials used the slightly psychedelic imagery that was around at the time, a logo and the number 23 often prominent. The aim was to draw upon subcultural awareness of the free party and squatting scene to bring people to the squat, with the sense of a party space being perhaps the biggest draw for a large amount of people. You can see the logo in use in a YouTube video here
and the SPOR people, having derived from Spiral Tribe, made a lot of use of that logo as it was quite easily recognisable.
The aim, no doubt, was to create more from the seeds, to develop a network of art/activist/squatters, but like many of the initiatives at the time it had very little in the way of a ‘plan for the future’ and little developed from the initiatives. They were moments of beauty that slipped away and now are perhaps not even possible with the recent criminalisation of squatting.