Making Space: an exhibition of squatting, trespass, and direct housing action.
Squatting, trespass, and occupation have a long and radical history in the UK which is often overlooked, dismissed, or forgotten; yet parallels and shapes the way we think about property and ownership. As we face a time of inequality, injustice and uncertainty; our ability to learn from past actions and campaigns allows us to better understand and contest the housing crises and urban inequalities of today.
As part of my wider Leverhulme-funded ethnographic research project into squatting, property, and the housing crisis in London, I increasingly found myself engaging with a number of different activist and institutional archives, to get my head around the history and context of these actions in the UK. Inspired by the Resistance Project – whose public archiving workshops and Resistance Exhibition have been incredibly successful – my aim was to work with activists, archivists, and collections in London to create a spin-off exhibition focusing on contentions around property and housing.
As well as working with the Resistance Project archives and taking part in their archiving workshops, ‘Making Space’ also took shape through the Advisory Service for Squatters (ASS) archives (both at Freedom Bookshop and Bishopsgate Institute) in addition to the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton. Other materials were also lifted from personal and online repositories – including photographs and video from Adrian Arbib, Neil Goodwin, Richard Hering (Vision.On TV), Phoenix, Morag Rose (The LRM), and wUK (UrbEx), in addition to data from Adam Elliott-Cooper, Jenny Pickerill, and Kesia Reeve – whilst my wider literature review provided much of the context for captions.
Build-up to the exhibition
‘Making Space’ as featured in Now Then Magazine, Issue #128, November 2018.
Pulling the archives together to create the exhibition involved many months work, including weekends and evenings, and I perhaps underestimated the sheer amount of time required. Each of the 44 posters had to be collated, their information verified, and then the design and layout perfected as far as possible. As well as an article for Now Then magazine, I also wrote a piece for the Art/law network in which I explained my intentions for the exhibition. It was particularly important to me that each historical example was linked explicitly to something in the present: this was not going to be a romantic and melancholic reflection on past movements, but an exhibition that enabled clear engagement with issues in the present.
An open ‘info-table’ as well as spare wall space meant that local campaigns would also be represented, including: Assist Sheffield, ACORN Tenants Union (Sheffield), and STAG (Sheffield Tree Action Groups).
Interview with Matt Hill at Union St Co-Operative Workspace and Cafe.
Launch (5th November 2018)
Photos from the launch event, 5th November 2018.
The exhibition was split into 5 sections: Prehistory; First Wave; Second Wave; Global Justice Movement; and Today. Beginning with the Magna Carta, Charter of the Forest, and an outline of Anglo-liberal political thinking around property; the exhibition sought to frame squatting, trespass, and direct housing action as fundamentally a challenge to the way in which we have become accustomed to think about property and ownership.
‘Prehistory’ sought to cover some of the earlier contests and movements around property, ownership, and housing – including the Diggers (1649); resistance against enclosures (including Highland Clearances, Irish Plantations, and the colonial dispossession through the application of liberal property values); challenging links between property and the franchise (Chartists, Suffragettes); Glasgow Rent Strikes (1915); Landgrabbers, Plotlanders, and the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass (1932).
The ‘first wave’ (after WWII) and the ‘second wave’ (from the late 1960s to the late 1970s) outlined the emergence of organised squatting movements in the UK. While the first wave, and the beginning of the second wave, were focused and justified by a moral argument (that empty buildings, in the middle of a housing crisis, should be used as homes), the movement which developed throughout the 1970s also became entangled with many other issues. Beyond simply ‘shelter’, squatting began to be used to fight urban speculation; as a way to find communal refuge (e.g. women fleeing domestic violence, the Bengali community fleeing National Front violence, LGBT+ squats); as artistic and cultural space (including events, rehearsal space, and simply not paying rent in order to pursue non-profitable alternative culture); and as means to other end by providing space for campaign organisation (such as the British Black Panthers).
Squatters Playlist (Spotify). Featuring music made possible by squatting.
After 1977, when the Criminal Law Act brought in new laws around squatting, the context began to change. In place of the large amounts of empty houses which had been compulsorily purchased by city councils as part of redevelopment schemes, the neoliberal revolution under Thatcher saw the state withdraw from direct responsibility for housing (amongst other things) through schemes like Right to Buy and stock transfer to Housing Associations. The Global Justice Movement section, therefore, focused on new types of squatting throughout the 1980s/1990s, including peace camps (e.g. Greenham Common), social centres, experiments in sustainable living (ecovillages), and ‘temporary’ occupations such as the anti-roads movement and Reclaim the Streets. Here, a lineage can be traced, from early free festivals and the free party scene (raves), through the anti-roads movement and Reclaim the Streets, and up to the Global Justice movement protests of the late 1990s, the anti-Iraq war march (2003) and the post-crash protests (Climate Camp, Democracy Village, Occupy).
Finally, it was crucial for the exhibition’s aim to be a platform for networking, discussion, and engagement with contemporary issues, that the final section focused on squatting, trespass, and direct housing actions today. Beginning with post-crash resistances and anti-cuts movements, this section featured the campaign against the criminalisation of squatting in 2012; the homelessness crisis and Streets Kitchen; occupations against regeneration and social cleansing (Camp Constant at Dale Farm, Focus E15, Sweetsway, Aylesbury, Tidemill Gardens); environmental protests like Grow Heathrow; movements reclaiming the city (including Slutwalk, Reclaim the Night, The LRM, Guerilla Gardening, Die-ins); art and cultural actions (Temporary Autonomous Art, Street Art, UrbEx); anti-racism and refugee solidarity movements (Black Lives Matter UK, End Deportations, Bridges Not Walls); and occupations for defending public education.
It was explicitly emphasised that no exhibition, nor archive, is ever complete. In recognition of this, visitors were encouraged to ‘add’ events or details to the timeline, using placards strung from blue poly-prop rope at intervals. The exhibition also featured background music (made possible by squatting) and video footage on iPad displays from various actions over the decades.
Interview with Sheffield Live (Online Report).
In addition to the 45 people who came to the launch event, I estimated an average of 15 visitors per day, making the estimated total around 135. Some visitors completed the ESRC festival feedback survey, whilst others left qualitative feedback in the guestbook:
Survey comments from the Sheffield exhibition
‘Brilliant exhibition, really excellent exhibits. Really enjoyed it.’
‘Wish there had been more coverage of a very local initiative “saveshefftrees” – what was there seemed to be an afterthought! It ticks all the boxes, I think.’
‘Maybe check out how easy some of the derelict buildings near me are easy to get into. Potential venue for spoken word?’
‘Very interesting and informative. Sorry its not on longer as there are lots of people I could encourage to come. Would like it to be repeated and published or circulate more widely.’
‘Absolutely loved this exhibition, particularly the way it brought together such a range of social and political activism under one umbrella. Eagerly await the book!’
‘Brilliant way of representing research – would like to think it would come back to Sheffield and exhibit it again.’
‘A rigorously academic approach made gloriously accessible to the general public.’
‘Incredible exhibition. Learnt so much, very inspired. Well done Sheffield uni for uncovering so much hidden peoples’ history.’
Guestbook comments from the Sheffield exhibition
‘Great exhibition! Lots of information.’
‘Thanks. Good exhibition. Lots of information. Nicely encapsulated.’
‘I will be back during the week to assimilate more of the information.’
‘Thank you for putting together a thought-provoking and informative exhibition, of which I had very limited knowledge about previously.’
‘This was super-interesting – if there is an academic report form or dissertation from this I’d be interested in reading if possible.’
‘Fascinating and great that there are such local examples.’
‘Awesome exhibition – looking forward to tour’.
‘This is terrific – informative, radical, with so much info packed into such a small space, great photos/videos. A people’s history of housing & squatting.’
‘Fantastic, resonated, recollection of radical housing practices. Well done Sam!’
‘Amazing. Full of facts and information. Really well done. Makes people think.’
‘Fantastic exhibition! Amazing content and displays. A great example of how academic work can be shared to wide public and enhance its political meaning. Well done!’
‘Thanks for archiving all of this, it was v. well made! Let me know when the material is made publicly available’.
Photos from the Exhibition. Credit: Matt Bell.
Resistance Project and Reclaim the Power National Gathering
At the end of the week (9/10 November), Richard and Phoenix from the Resistance Project came to visit, which involved an interview with Phoenix in which we toured around the Making Space . Also over that weekend was the Reclaim the Power National Gathering, which created many more visitors to the exhibition (although I was not present in order to count these).
Interview and exhibition tour with Phoenix (Resistance Project / Solutions Zone TV).
Exhibitions are an effective way to publicise trespass, squatting, and direct housing actions, making wider moral arguments surrounding property and inequality, as well as challenging perceptions and prejudices. Archives can also provide stability and coherence to fragile movement legacies, but this precarity can also put archives in danger. As well as losing material through squat evictions, archives can be destroyed via arson (such as the fascist attack on the former ASS HQ on St Paul’s Road). Archives have also been used for legal battles, and the ASS continues to mobilise their archives as part of squatter defence cases today.
The way in which we remember the past is never neutral, yet it is essential to how we perceive possibilities for the future. As such, archival projects like the Remembering Olive Collective (ROC) can not only help us to address silences and biases in history (such as Black radical histories and struggles) but can also alert us to these exclusions in the present. Rediscovering activist histories can help develop movement legacies as well as draw practical lessons from actions of the past, unsettling taken-for-granted views and re-orientating us towards possibilities for change in the present.
There are plans for future exhibitions in Leeds, Manchester, London, as well as Glastonbury festival. The exhibition is highly portable (so long as there is space for the 44 A2 boards) and can be prefaced by a launch event (for example, a public talk or workshop).
Please get in contact if you would like to host ‘Making Space’: firstname.lastname@example.org
There is a forthcoming report on the exhibition to be published in the first issue of the Radical Housing Journal. I will post a link here when it has been published.
Many people have also asked about plans for publishing the material from the exhibition. I am still looking at the best way to do this, but the aim would be to make the exhibition publicly available online. In the meantime, please feel free to download the Making Space zine (which attempts to provide an overview of the exhibition in a 16 page booklet).
Download: Making Space Zine
Thank you to the following individuals and institutions who made this exhibition possible.
Adrian Arbib, Finn Burgum, Chris (56a), E.T.C Dee, Stef Dickers, Adam Eliott-Cooper, Lucy Finchett-Maddock, Neil Goodwin, Richard Hering, Matt Hill, Lynette Hodges, Myk (ASS), Phoenix, Jenny Pickerill, Kesia Reeve, Morag Road, Sam Walby, wUK
The Bishopsgate Institute, The Black Cultural Archives, The Resistance Exhibition, The Advisory Services for Squatters (ASS), 56a Infoshop, Union St Cafe, Assist Sheffield, STAG (Sheffield Tree Action Groups), ACORN Tenant’s Union (Sheffield).
This exhibition was funded by the ESRC Festival of Social Sciences. The research is supported by The Leverhulme Trust.
Download: Making Space Exhibition References
Download: Making Space Exhibition Sources