by Anthony Iles
Illustration by Rachel Baker
This ongoing proseexperiment uses fiction to think through the present housing situation in London after the financial crisis.
Connecting struggles against gentrification, inflation and privatisation, the Egg, a phantom organisation, seeks to intervene in the crisis by updating existing tactics as well as inventing new tricks of its own. Through the vehicle of fiction as speculative thought it tries to test a number of possible scenarios and actions as radical responses to the crisis.
There is and has been a housing crisis in London for over 15 years. At the same time the financial services sector, the primary profit-making industry in the UK, has been plunged into crisis through it’s interweaving of new financial products with a boom in housing speculation. Homeowners have been re-using their houses as credit cards (re-mortgaging) and banks have been re-packaging mortgage debt to leverage huge sums of cheap liquidity for further speculation on the world market. Since ’the’ crash, UK government response has been a series of bank bailouts, quantitative easing (printing money to facilitate lending) and lowering interest rates to stimulate the housing market. In 2009 the whole house of cards is still tumbling down and a carnival of values is in train.
An earlier version of the story, ’The Bloody Hamper’, was written for the Happy Hypocrite magazine, August, 2009. Elements of this text were distributed as a pamphlet ’Speculating on Housing’ at Undoing the City, May 2009.
Thanks in particular to Alessandra Chilá, John Cunningham, Megan Fraser, Maria Fusco, Chris Jones, Fanny Lacroix, Monsier and Frére Dupont, Max Reeves, David Panos, Tim Savage, Benedict Seymour, Keston Sutherland and John Wollaston for inspiration and support.
Gav, Penny, Ayanna and Rag are in the Palm Tree, a pub in Mile End park, East London. The Palm Tree was the last in a row of buildings to survive aerial bombing of the area in World War II.
Gav: The Egg is a phantom organisation... it’s an idea, it’s not something you can join.
Penny: But what’s the point of a group you can’t join. What does it do? What does it have to do with us and our work?
Gav: The Egg has nothing to do with work! If anything it undoes any compulsion to do.
Ayanna: Sounds just elitist nonsense to me. Where’s your head at these days Gav? I mean where have you been – you’ve not been to any of the meetings these days, No Borders, the G20 organising meetings. I mean fuck, you didn’t even come to the G20 at all. Where’s your commitment Gav?
Gav: Fuck all that. I’m so past it all. I got fed up of all the misplaced recognition, false dueness, the spectacle, the ideological kettling, the fucking lifestyle of it all, the reformism, the lazy thinking.
Penny: So I get it, you’ve invented a phantom organisation so that you can play chief, so that you don’t have to put up with other people’s stupid opinions! You’re a fucking elitist wanker Gav.
Gav: Fuck it, fuck it I knew I shouldn’t have told you about it. I knew you lot wouldn’t understand.
Silence for a few minutes as Gavin, (hurt), stands nursing his beer.
Gav: Listen guys. I’m sorry. I really want you to understand this idea and get behind it. I’ll try to explain. The Egg is an idea, but its also more than that. The Egg acts upon what isn’t acted upon, what is ignored in the activist scene, in politics. We have this problem in the activist scene that our politics is reactive, our actions defensive – against new laws, against police repression and so on. The Egg is about exacerbating the contradictions and conflicts. Its about...
Penny: This sounds like Class War redux...
Ayanna: ...Nah Penny... let him speak. Go on Gav, I wanna hear this.
Gav: ...It’s about seizing upon this crisis, deepening it, making it pregnant with change. The Egg doesn’t recruit and it isn’t clandestine either. The Egg is present as potentiality, it would turn the inside of our politics out – but it never gets actualised. What sounds like a turning away and inwards is actually an opening out. The Egg is real, in many ways it’s more real than the IWW or the GMB, some activist campaign or whatever.
Rag: Are we gonna bomb shit? Totally fuck the system?
Gav: (laughing)... Shut up Rag. I’m serious. The Egg is a proposition, its a structure for thinking some things through, a carrier or vehicle if you like, but I’ve got other ideas too... lets go outside.
The crew heads out into the garden. Gav gestures towards the huge blocks of nearly finished luxury flats on the other side of the canal from the park and group sits down on the grass directly opposite one of the blocks. ’Fucking cunt stables’ Rag offers nonchalantly, echoing the graffiti he has taken to daubing on luxury flats around Brick Lane.
The group discusses the housing situation after the credit crunch – thinking through the campaigns they have been involved in; occupations, community campaigns to save Queen St Market, Defend Council Housing. Ayanna raises the reformist nature of these campaigns. She suggests that even with these limits, ’its always good to get involved... y’know meeting real people’. Gav agrees, ’yeah there is the necessity of acting in real situations with all their contradictions, but I don’t know about “real people”: I mean what the fuck is a real person anyway! I’m not, I don’t know if I want to be one!’.
Breaking the silence Gav gestures again, ’the flats...’ Penny second guesses him, ’you wanna squat them?’. ’Bagsy the penthouse’ she shouts, beaming at the others.
Ayanna is riding the Docklands Light Railway train passing through Deptford. The landscape is typically post-industrial, battered by recent regeneration, most the built fabric is obscured by billboards and placards promising new buildings and new residents. The odd church or cathedral-like factory juts above the grey horizon and below small winding roads around the docks and light-industrial units have been reduced to mud tracks by the intensive transport of construction materials. As the train cuts a curve across the neighbourhood close to where she grew up and left home as a teenager, Ayanna’s thoughts turn to her dad and his struggles.
He was a union militant in the 1960s as a West Indian bus driver. Whilst there were strikes on he was popular, active, full of energy constantly running to meetings, house to house to communicate news, write and distribute literature. Yet, beyond this role he never had many friends in the neighbourhood. His work kept him out of the pubs and really the white guys at work never wanted to hang around him outside of picket lines and meetings. Later, after they’d moved down to Lewisham, Ayanna’s mum got involved in anti-fascist community organising. Her dad never wanted to get involved, somehow he fully supported her mother but he’d never attend demos or meetings. Too much violence, he said. He didn’t see race as the premise for political activity. Arguments used to rage in the house ’til all hours.
As Ayanna grew up this domestic conflict had formed her identity and her politics, she understood her mum and followed her, but she’d never understood fully why. On the one hand her dad identified as a worker, but on the other, outside of work he couldn’t seem to see any politics. He couldn’t see any politics in himself only in his situation at work.
One of her dad’s campaigns in the early 1960s was an attempt to get the bus companies to recognise ’Busman’s stomach’, a condition by which bus drivers suffered stress and gastric problems due to long hours spent sitting still over a running engine.
Ayanna thought of the contradictions between this social resistance to work – its intimate bodily character – and the ordered masculinity and bureaucracy of organisation around it. This to her was the key to her dad’s own contradictory sense of himself – as a worker he fought against work, but outside of it he was lost. She thought of this division through two figures – Artaud and Stalin – the permanent revolt of Antonin Artaud contrasted with the paternalism of Stalin. She empaphiseded with Artaud’s visceral speech and aspired to the same immediacy of gesture and emotion that he flung about and embodied. She imagined her dad as Stalin with stomach cramps. Onwards her thoughts drifted to Amadeo Bordiga’s fame as the last person to insult Stalin to his face and survive. He had addressed the great dictator as ’Il Bufo’ – the buffoon. There are no more dictators to insult, no organised workers parties to subvert or berate for their conservatism, but where had all that energy gone? Where had those tensions transported themselves?
Ayanna pondered on how the Egg might apply itself to this divide in the militant tradition. Should the split be resolved or merely deepened, made coarser and more present? How could the body be brought in again, not as expressive of identity but of struggle, rebellion and suffering life? As these thoughts developed Ayanna began to jot down notes on her forearm in black biro, it would be exactly this question that she would apply herself to at the next meeting. She felt animated. She’d never really been into Gav’s plans, usually finding them too esoteric and impractical. Somehow this one was doing it for her, chiming with something that she’d been working through in her head herself.
As the unmanned train steered silently into Canary Wharf Ayanna felt something moving inside – organs, parts and senses swept ahead to meet accelerating thoughts – a pull like a current by which old ideas begin to loosen and flow in new directions.
the locals have the blotchy pallor of cave-dwelling consumptives – Unknown Glasgow city politician
At the beginning of the first meeting Rag is on fire: ’Right, first we start with this idea of ’the locals’. I hated all that shit around Queen’s Market – ’locals this, community that ... I mean, why identify with a regeneration agency-made pariah? First of all communities are built upon exclusion, they need recognisable limits to function. Not only do those limits exclude, but there’s a violence that patrols their perimeters. The best moments in that campaign were when people opened up and talked about the repressive self-policing that circulated in their immediate social world – how glad they were that the occupation had exploded some of that. Secondly, whenever we spoke in the terms of community and rights that we were already defeated. I’m not doing anything in the name of community ever again.’ As the four activists debated their problems with past and future operations Rag would explain how, as he grasped it, the Egg could produce the spectre of an imagined community, but one which offers only anonymity and temporary shelter to its adherents – ’an operational space, not an end in itself’.
Penny disagreed with Rag’s harsh dismissal of what for her was the first time she’d been involved with people struggling for immediate improvement of their own conditions. Taking something back. She said that she too had trouble with the word ’community’, it rolled off the tongue of politicians and privatisers as easily as off those of anarchists but seemed to pass most people by. Loose thoughts on stuff she’d been reading around ’immunisation’ – something about how exclusionary communities could be thought in biological terms. Turning to the recent global pandemic of swine flu, Penny wondered if the others too recognised it as a disciplinary device acting most directly on the poor and weak.
They talked over Giorgio Agamben’s description of the biological foundations of the organisation of the cities around two diverging disciplinary models – the treatment of leprosy and the control of the plague. The paradigm of leprosy is one of exclusion: lepers must be moved outside the city and a neat division between outside and inside needs to be established. The plague was a different model: those afflicted by it cannot be excluded and the city is divided into areas; each area, street and home is then placed under strict surveillance and control.
Later they would explore the idea of illness and seek ideas for how to put Penny’s talk of ’using illness as a weapon’ into practice. Did Agamben’s ideas mean accepting weakness and sickness, bringing it into the city again, bringing it into their politics?
They’d agreed early on they didn’t always feel the need to carry out every idea and make it a practical instrument, Gav was very wary of this, but each of them found they could personalise this idea – relate it to their own experience of what Penny, when she’d talked about her eczema in the pub, had called her ’social leprosy’.
Each of them had found something of their own bodily disgusting or socially punishable at some point. Whether it was Rag’s dislike of hygiene, his green hair and self-inflicted piercings or Ayanna’s early experience of the medicalisation of her sexuality by her mum or Gav’s relationship to his brother’s downs syndrome. They thought about how they each used these relations of exclusion to orient themselves to the world differently. Was there advantage to be taken, could these be used to force the world to reorient itself towards them on their own terms?
Ayanna brought up Busman’s stomach and the thoughts she had been having about this struggle around the suffering working body. She pointed out that although throughout the ’boom’ official unemployment had remained low, this hid a sickly demographic of two million on incapacity benefit. Incapacity meaning incapacity to work, incapacity to ’get along’ – two million British subjects leaning on the State to prop them up through otherwise unbearable lives. Inadmissible forms of life – the medicalisation of the refusal of work.
Penny responded: ’So, the point is rather than propping up some repressive social form or trying to save something which has been lost, instead we should think about how we can go on the offensive? How can we dynamise these mutations in subjectivity and resistance? How can we make shelter and power as feral and sick subjects in need of nothing but further disrepair?’
As usual Penny’s enthusiasm was in disproportion to her earlier distrust for the new. They all laughed. ’Nice one Penny! You’re on one! You killed it.’ Rag scoffed and staggered off. ’My round’. When Rag returned with the drinks they got down to more concrete business, discussing the occupation of the luxury flats. They agreed on a plan begin scoping out the canal and river for likely targets, checking access and security, making lists and meeting again to decide who to involve.
Like the sons of Freud’s mystical primitive father, who after uniting in homosexual bond find the strength to kill him, but are then overtaken by remorse and establish in memory and substitution for the father the totem, the phallic fetish, so the homosexuals who meet in liberation groups are largely powerless against the attack from the superego that immediately assails them, and find themselves forced to establish in their midst leaders, phallic and charismatic figures who “command” them, personifying the authority of the superego that binds every individual member of the group with a sense of guilt.
Ayanna threw the pamphlet down in the corner of the room and began scrabbling through her bag looking for a cigarette filter – there were always plenty of them floating about the bottom of her rucksack. As she smoked she stared at the stark black lines of the now upside down cover of the pamphlet – ’Towards a Gay Communism’.
Ayanna didn’t think much of Freud, but she loved Mieli and was chuffed to find him rounding on the group. She’d long suffered the tyranny of groups, through her mum and dad’s activism she’d been habituated to group situations since a small child. Oddly reassuring yet also somehow inhibiting for her. She always felt she’d have to escape groups before she could become herself – a self that she could fully command.
Ayanna had identified as queer since she met her first girlfriend at 15, but like every other political scene she’d been through, there was always some sort of unquestioned consensus that weighed on her, which made her want to disrupt and question the group. Groups invent themselves on common assumptions and she felt that for that commonality to work, too much difference had to be suspended. More and more she found she could better explore her own infinite capabilities to be differently with the stream of lovers, sometimes strangers, with whom she shared her bed, than these lefties who identified so closely together and squeezed out any challenge to their collectivity.
Now, as she continued to think through the previous night’s meeting she felt there really was the possibility that the Egg could be a vehicle of exodus from what to her was a tired and restraining scene. They’d begun to discuss in common not only their politics but how they actually felt their way through them – singularly and collectively. She knew that if the Egg was to realise this possibility it would need to move beyond the small self-selecting group that had formed around it. Ayanna felt strongly that they would have to round on themselves to destroy and re-make what had brought them together. She’d have to make some moves if she was really going to really test this form. Picking up Mieli’s pamphlet again Ayanna quickly jotted out some points on a piece of paper to take with her on tonight’s mission. While they waited in the shadows of the yuppie hutches she’d try out some ideas on Gav and Rag. She knew she could have some fun with Rag – he’d always enjoy a bit of dyke banter, but in reality he was up tight about questioning the supposedly solid foundations of his own heterosexual status. She headed out the door. This was going to be difficult. Difficult fun. Ha!
Ayanna, Gav and Rag had been hiding out for hours, waiting for the security shifts to change so they could record the hours the guards rotated.
They were on a mission together, Ayanna, Gav and Rag, but Ayanna had a second mission. She wanted to puncture the separation between the conversations leading up to the action and the practical task of getting in the building. Now was the time, and thus exactly the awkward time to bring up some difficult thoughts. She’d brought her notes from Mieli and was winding up the other two by bombarding them with her thoughts on Mieli’s Gay Communism: ’Gav, read this: “the object of the revolutionary struggle of homosexuals is not that of winning social tolerance for gays, but rather the liberation of the homoerotic desire in every human being.” That means... rather than you two having some liberal responsibility to tolerate me and my “perversions”... it’s actually the other way round. I, through the practice of my desire, liberate you!’
Gav raises his hands to his head. There was not really space to entertain such a gesture and the other two didn’t really register it or take any notice. Rag: ’Thanks Ayanna! So I can just carry on as before shaking hands with the unemployed and you’ll do the liberation bit! Cheers! Thanks a lot... now that’s liberation baby.’
’Quiet’. The group held still for a moment. They stared at each other beaming, enjoying the power over themselves that it took them to hold in the laughter and maintain calm. When the stillness seemed to have overtaken their bodies again Ayanna continued to unravel her notes and fill the other two in on how Towards a Gay Communism went to work on groups. Gav waited patiently before responding, ’Obviously there’s a...’ ’Wait!’ Ayanna interrupted, ’NOTHING IS EVER FUCKING OBVIOUS!’.
Silence. And they all breathe in again. Gav says, ’delete that word’. He breathes deeply, before beginning again stuttering. ’... t t there’s a strong tradition of communists who became disaffected with groups and turn themselves to the task of internal critique. Jacques Camatte, Sam Moss, Debord even... you get this from anti-psychiatry too. Gangs, council communism, the working class, schizophrenia – each provided the promesse de bonheur, the sacred or profane form. The question of organisation is ultimately not resolvable, but it could be that the destruction wrought by internal critique is productive. Prompting splits, an endless secession rather than endless revolution. Though we are constantly being duped into believing in, and identifying with images of individuals which are not ourselves – we are duped into thingness, yet the revolutionary organisation also does not provide an answer in the dissolution in the crowd, the singular identification does not speak poverty to the richness myriad possible alternative attachments...’
’...There he is. Duck you sucker!’, Rag whispers as Gav finishes his short sermon.
They would wait another hour in silence before speaking again. After this intermission they went to work. Rag takes total control. Leading them along an unfinished ditch at the side of the building, they followed the curved grey wall tightly to the back of the building away from the canal and the bright lights checking the entrances, door sizes, locks and windows. At the far southern corner of the building next to an unfinished pit with a drain at its base they find a door ajar and slip inside.
The next day Gav and Rag are sitting in an Irish pub in Stoke Newington, the kind of place where everyone looks conspiratorial, they blend in with the furniture. Rag’s relating his experiences with sound systems he used to run with in the 1990s, Desert Storm and Exodus. ’...cos there we’re plenty of conversations during quiet times, but when we had stuff to do we didn’t wait to think about it all that much, it was always just a question of where, when and how to get in. Brute force...’ he laughs, ’... and a bit of canny timing that’s gonna do the trick.’
Reminding Rag they not here for idle chatter, Gav wants to know how they’re going to defend the building once they’ve got in. They’ve enough people to get in and they know the entrances they’re going to use, how to get the security off their backs for enough time to seal the place... Gav stands up, ’I know. We use a flash mob. I’ll call a flash mob outside the Comedy Cafe – 400 people dressed as clowns miming the words to the Beatles “Hard Days Night” should provide enough of a distraction to get in. After we’re in we’ll send down a crew to bring the clowns in and party. At noon a massive banner drop off the top of the building. The banner says “Here we make ourselves anew – Free Housing for All!”. That’s it!’
’Great’, Rag mumbles ’...but still way too Leninist for me’. He strolls off to bar. Gav calls him ’a cunt’ under his breath. Presage the first split.
End of the night. Gav and Rag are standing waiting for buses going in opposite directions.
’After a step forward comes a split’ Rag says, and turning seeing his bus rolling up the road, ’good to start with a split then. I’m off... you know everything about how to get into the building now, but I’m not down with your plan. I got my own. I’m going to approach it from another direction. I’ll be in touch.’
Rag doesn’t go far, but as far as the others are concerned he’s gone for good, they break off all contact. He visits another building further up the canal, The Pinnacles, the building is finished, but the garden, car park and reception have not yet been completed and it looks like work has been abandoned long ago. None of the retail units around the base of the building are occupied. Rag counts 11 flats out of 90 flats occupied.
The next day he calls the company who manages security for the building. He calls the developers themselves, then the agents who manage the building for the developers. To each he puts a simple proposition, that he ’live in the building and occupy a few flats, decorating each one and giving the impression they are lived in’. From the agents he gets an appointment to meet one of them on site the following Tuesday.
Inspired by Melville’s scrivener, Bartleby, Rag is on a mission to invest himself into the building as a recalcitrant employee – at first this takes a lot of groundwork, but in time he’s able to make of his body a costly blockage
Initially it’s just Rag, but it’s not long before he smooths an entrance for others. He notices a shortfall in the cleaning services and manages to persuade the agents to take on an Ecuadorian cleaner – someone he met at his weekly adult learning classes – in exchange for a small broom cupboard and less than minimum wage Adolfo sweeps the corridors, landings and stairwells of the Pinnacles. He’s surly and uncommunicative, barely exchanging a syllable with any of the other staff or residents, but when he and Rag are in private he opens up about his past in Ecuador and alienated present in London.
Officially Adolfo’s staying in the broom cupboard where the cleaning products are kept, but since Rag’s got three flats and by now, the second month, he’s managed to purloin the keys to a further 10 vacant flats, Adolfo has his pick of places to crash out in, listen to the radio and read. By the end of the second month he begins to make a garden in one of three flats Rag is charged with making look as if inhabited. Adolfo fills the bath with soil purloined bag by bag from nearby building sites. Ferns and horsetails spill out of the bathroom and form a leafy curtain across the entrance hall, light fittings support vines and small mushroom trays spill from bedside cabinets and wardrobes.
In the coming months Adolfo will turn the flat into a rainforest – an uncommon meeting of species – blackberry plants brought from Lidl mix with seeds and fungus he’s received in care-packed parcels from relatives. A reddish algae elsewhere found only in Ecuador and perhaps some few colonial botanical gardens stains the glass plates surrounding the balconies. The sprinkler system is tampered with to trigger regular rainfall every 12 hours. One day Rag notices a small plaque on the inside of the door ’Jardim Botanico Entropico’ he reads. Sweet.
Kevin on the top floor isn’t like the rest of the residents, a retired carpenter who’s taken some sort of massive payout as a result of an industrial accident, he quickly clocks what Rag is up to. He’s one of the most stalwart residents, having berated the developers for failing to fill the building, he’s happy that Rag’s giving this empty shell the semblance of life.
The developers had claimed they weren’t getting enough revenue through maintenance to pay a receptionist. Kevin goes direct to Rag with a cash offer to find a receptionist £150 a week and ’she’s got to be nice looking’. Rag thinks about the other crew, but decides to keep his distance for the time being.
He remembers Azurre the Pugliese architect he met raving in Southern Italy last summer and gives her a call. She’s in London alright and not impressed with the money, but when Rag explains it’s a kind of ’project’ and mentions an interesting outcome, she’s persuaded. ’Fucking beats working in an architects office for triple that money. It’s unbelievable what they’ve been asking of me there, I’ve been working most weekends til 10 and besides, they are fucked, not enough work on the books to see them six months into this crisis! Che paranoia!’ Azurre drums out all her hates and spleen for the industry, but also this firm in particular (MJT). ’They’ve got a top name, but their stuff is just cheapo sub-Adjaye’ as far as she’s concerned. She’ll quit that day, she’d been waiting. It takes her exactly five minutes to delete all the CAD files she’d been working on, type out a two-line email of resignation, collect her stuff and head out the door.
Rag’s happy, Azurre’s got no need to be told what to do or what the plan is. Rag knows she’ll make her own.
Rag and Adolfo are sitting on the decking over the canal opposite the Palm Tree pub watching the sun go down. This is their usual end of the day ritual and it usually passes in silence except on Sundays when an elderly gentleman in a motorised wheelchair rocks up and sees out the sunset booming music from the back of his vehicle. To Rag’s surprise Adolfo opens the conversation. ’I’m thinking about my garden... Mr Arbour made the sign for me... I’m always thinking about my garden these days’. ’Whilst I’m looking at the pub and thinking I should have a palm tree in my garden, I’m also thinking of another garden.’ Rag has learnt the art of pause hanging around this surly cleaner-gardener. He waits quite a while, until a swan below them has slowly floated by and the air has cooled slightly, before asking, ’And which garden would that be? Is there another garden in the world as beautiful as this one?’. Adolfo tells him about the other garden, the one he is thinking of, the one Pizarro’s conquistadors found in a temple in Tumbes in the territory now called Colombia. ’This garden was made from silver and gold, mined by the sweat of the natives and fashioned into flowers and plants by the temples’ finest craftsmen.’ ’What happened to it?’ Rag asked hastily, despite having already guessed the answer. Adolfo looks up at him with a look of mock surprise, ’The Spaniards melted it down and transported it across the ocean. Of course, with everything else.’ Adolfo goes on, Rag is amazed to hear more words spring from his mouth in one evening than in the sum of their conversations over the last months, ’My garden is dedicated to the memory of that garden at Tumbes, but my garden works in the opposite direction. It does not spring from labour, but from entropy. It does not dissolve into value and universal equivalence. It poisons value and destroys it, it is particular and never equivalent to nothing... never.’
With Azurre taking care of things front of house, Rag retreats to one of the more isolated flats at the back of the building. With no canalside view and overlooking the unfinished gardens full of bags of cement, these were the cheapest and least desirable. Rag’s got plenty of space to make as much noise as he pleases undisturbed, he’s planning to go to work on something that’s been a long time percolating. On the far wall of the apartment lean nine full length mirrors collected from nearby empty flats. To it’s right Rag has plastered the wall with fragments of broken glass and mirrors he’s found in skips and on other sites. In amidst the broken glass wall are bits of tiles, broken CDs and ribbons adding to colour to the disorienting play of reflections. Rag has rigged up one of the CCTV cameras to a Hard Disk recorder and each night he stays up till the early hours reciting political speeches dressed in a range of costumes; from drag to commedia della arte, workwear and high fashion, African and Trobriand masks. He delivers Jerry Rubin’s speech outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago dressed as a Wild Man, the Marquis de Sade’s ’Yet Another Effort, Frenchmen, If You Would Become Republicans’ in the costume of a petrol station attendant and the Arabic translation of Valerie Solanas’ S.C.U.M Manifesto dressed as explorer Wilfred Thesiger. The great work is the recitation and recording of the ’Putney Debates’ delivered in comic voices, make up and various costumes over the course of eight nights.
Rag spends the daytime lounging on the sofa snorting Ketamine and reviewing the previous night’s video footage. He thinks of these performances as out of body experience, time travel and a total exorcism of all prior political histories and rituals. While he’s laying this material to rest without peace he’s also putting himself through intense fragmentation – a complex and generative game between selves which become increasingly distant and unrecognisable.
Four months have passed since the small group initiated by Ayanna, Gav, Penny and Rag made plans to occupy an empty luxury housing block located by Mile End Park called Pan’s Court. Rag dropped out immediately before the plan was carried out, but the others, joined by marginal groups from the activist fringe and myriad lost individuals constantly turning up on their doorstep, have successfully ’held court’ through the initial police harassment, seen off gangs of heavies sent by the building’s managers and established themselves as a rebellious and ludic community wedged between the deprivations of crumbling post-war state-built housing and the luxury-in-ruins of a decade of speculative building.
Ayanna, Gav and Penny’s execution of the plan had worked more or less perfectly – the flash mob had distracted the security for long enough for a small group to get locks on the front door and close all other exits. That was enough for legality to be established but they still had to deal with the cops. The first few days were easy, with a rolling party in the centre of the East End there were plenty of bodies to keep the cops at bay, but tired and surrounded by the detritus of 3 days partying, when the first confrontations came on Monday morning things didn’t go so smooth. Plenty of plain clothes police had been at the party and they seemed to have a good scope of the building and an idea that this was not the normal party – trash and leave type job, but something more long term. However, as soon as they’d settled on a plan, and in the weeks leading up to its execution, Ayanna and Penny had worked hard to pull together a coalition of groups from the activist scene and local area to fill and use the building. An emergency text-out and a few phone calls brought between 20 – 30 people in the first half hour and within an hour there was often a crowd of 50 or so. After this the security was good and the cops realised they didn’t have much chance getting near the building in a hurry, let alone with vans and equipment. Pan’s Court was one of the first of a cluster of luxury blocks to be ’completed’ beside the canal and facing Mile End Park. The block was entirely empty when the crew moved in and before it was an enormous trench surrounded by fencing. Access was via a mud track which met the end of a short alley onto Roman Road. For the first few days the developers’ security guards had remained in their huts at the entrance to the mud track, but they cleared off when things had started to get really messy on the second day of the party. A few cider-fuelled crusties set fire to one of their two portacabins. Penny and some of the people from the sound system put it out before the fire brigade came, but the same group of crusties made a blockade at the main entrance with the remains of the blackened tar-encrusted cabin for the duration of the party. Throughout the night they tried to charge whatever entrance fee they think they can get away with – ranging from 5quid to ’give us that can then’. Nobody challenged them, not even the local kids who hung around the fringes of the party making trouble. When they cleared off on Monday morning, someone had the bright idea of setting up in the other of the two portacabins. Within a few days the occupiers of Pan’s Court had got the basics of a small café running out of there and it doubled as a lookout on the street and thus the first line of security. It was a pain keeping the lookout face manned, but in retrospect, as well as being a good point of contact with labourers working on the surrounding sites, it turned out to have been the vital measure that had saved the whole place from early eviction.
The block is occupied by a floating population of between 40 and 100. An assembly has been established for each floor and each assembly meets more or less irregularly, taking responsibility to report to the large weekly, and eventually, monthly meetings and once the basic standards of waste management, electricity, water and energy provision have been established each assembly manages their floors on whatever basis they see fit.
Ayanna, Gav and Penny are in Gav’s flat at Pan’s Court after September’s monthly meeting – an assembly of assemblies. It’s late, they are all wired and each of our characters almost tastes the dry bitterness in Ayanna’s voice when she spits:
’You never fuckin said it... we were going to have a meeting about “speculating on housing” and we never had it. We agreed this right from the start and we never had the discussion in the first place, you’ve never even tried to raise it!’ Gav counters, rebounding almost mechanically to the confrontation but without much substance, ’There’s just still so many people in the place I’m not sure about. I feel like I could talk to a few, sound out the ideas, but trying to insist on something concrete and meaningful with so many people, it would end up completely deformed and distorted.’
Ayanna again, but now less fiery: ’We never had the chance to talk things through. Just moved straight into occupying a place, barely thinking about it first. And when I say ’we’ its a pretty stable we isn’t it, just the same old gang isn’t it and who are we exactly? That guy and his fucking pamphlets, he really pulled us off the rails. I mean, it’s not just him who wrote this, but what the fuck have we been doing in this mess but remaking ourselves as heroic examples?’.
Ayanna especially baulks at the authority each of them wields almost purely from having been in the occupation from the beginning, but it effects the temper of the others too. Gav shies away from most it, almost dissociating himself from any responsibility for what has been established. He gets so tired of being asked what to do or what is allowed by the newcomers, that he’s adopted an almost ghost-like presence in the block. The muppets who turn up and expect to be told what to do... even worse are the active types who turn up and want to tell everyone. He never attends any of the parties or workshops, he sleeps all day, works and reads at night and roams the local area in the early hours of the day. This gives him minimal exposure to the other occupants, which is how he prefers it... Penny and Ayanna had expected this. Each find something regal in Gav’s remoteness and constantly admonish him for it in small ways, trying to trip him up somehow. So much discussed along the way, the anticipation of such problems had been the very foundation of the egg – and the promise to make everything new. But something still escaped proper articulation.
Gav: In many ways the discussion has already happened, or is happening.
Ayanna: Not good enough. False immediacy wotsit. Cobblers. Plus that getting involved with that fucking author guy was such a bad idea.
Penny: I agree, no good for us at all, wrong move. I’m glad we’ve broken off from that. Still I’ve got some ideas about what to do about that situation later, but first lets press on with what is actually urgent. Gav? Are we going to talk this through? Or what?
Gav: Ok. It’s hard. Things I wanted to talk about back then have already shifted quite a bit. In fact we’re not in the same place at all. My thinking is... My feeling is now, I mean it’s changed. People gather around an event – you need an action to draw people together. Like the way a word is a bridge thrown between myself and another... it is territory shared... and an action can be the same – it’s the start of a conversation not its end. People are getting on with it, y’know they are getting on... But, I mean, at the same time I admit somehow we got things mixed up. Wrong.
Penny: You pushed it! You showed us the flats! I mean why do we always have to do the action before the thinking? What are we always doing wrong?
Gav: There. Always administering blame that’s what’s always wrong.
Penny: It’s not just me!
Gav: It’s us. There. Right there and no wonder others feel no interest for us. That’s it... administering blame and guilt – carrying culpability with us everywhere. What are we doing? Enough. There’s no need for this. What’s wrong with us? Is it just us or is it everyone?
Ayanna: No justice. Just us! Right? We! We... are just so fucking confused.
They break up with laughter
Penny: Where’s Rag. We need him right now. I mean he was right to go, but we need him back, – he’ll know how to change things. Instinctively. He is change.
Gav: Yer right. You’re goddamn right. But that’s not all. We’ve trapped ourselves. There’s things which haven’t been said. First we’re going to discuss the situation. We’ll call a proper housing meeting at the Court. Next we’ve got to get back in touch with Rag. Then we’re going to decide what we do next – sorry, no we’re not... We’re going to do things differently from now on. First I depose myself. I am banned from leading or directing a meeting... Next... and most importantly... we’re gonna have a laugh.
The crew work the rest of the night back at Gav’s ’office’ space at Pan’s Court, discussing who to contact and sending emails. They hammer out a rough sketch of who they are and what they want to talk about, but tailor it to the groups and individual activists they want to get in touch with. Mostly it’s Penny and Ayanna’s personal touch which has the final say, both of them have good relationships with a whole bunch of people who have been involved with different campaigns. They all feel there’s no need just to contact people who are most active now, but instead try to find people who reflect a rich history of engagement and disengagement with activist and community politics across the previous 10 or 20 years. Gav doesn’t get out much, a total fear of strangers even writing to them. At the end of the night he’s done so little that under the pressure the girls pile on him to contact Rag, he crumbles and sends a humble SMS:
’hey mate, you are missed here. You were right, friendship is a gift which can’t be taken back... call. Gav’
Continuing his nightly rituals, Rag has by now assembled a library of tapes, of gestures and affects.
He had formed a kind of den built from skipped ceiling tiles as a secondary stage of isolation from the penthouse. Video equipment, mirrors, building detritus litter the apartment. Rag persevered with the development, through his play, of an absolute inauthenticity. Previously Rag had found any contrivance or artifice meaningless decoration, hating theatre and fiction, in particular the annoyingpsychologisation of fictive figures. He had never been able to conceive of a work detached from life. Rag’s performances attended instead to the matter of making himself an ass in a lion’s skin and a king of nothing – pushing the inhabitation of other poses until they be, through his body, forced to impart the real. At present the real was taking the shape of scar tissue forming inside Rag’s lungs from the asbestos dropping off the roof of the cave and onto the table where he cut his Ketamine. Ambivalent about his imminent end, he chopped out fat lines of K spelling out the various names for the possible conditions that might in time be responsible for his demise; Pulmonary fibrosis, Mesotheliomas, Asbestosis. Musing on this proximity between his own bodily mortality and endless of the death of the subject he was staging. When Rag heard the alert of an SMS he couldn’t read actually the display properly, but knew it could only be Gav. Dropping the bloodstained £20 pound note next to the piles of off-white dust Rag stumbled to the corner of the room heaving a glass sheet onto the oak and glass coffee table, with the glass he squashed down the drugs, tobacco and money on the table. Sealing it all in with a few metal clips around the four corners before lumbering off to bed.
Penny takes one of her tours of the building she enjoys at least weekly. She’s used to floating about between scenes, priding herself on being welcome, if not always comfortable, anywhere that people come together.
Wearing army slacks, sandals and a giant woollen cardigan, something between a rug and a cloak, Penny drifts through the corridors and walkways of Pan’s Court. Initially the flat’s we’re modelled on dormitories, with narrow corridor space and five separate blocks, but with only a third of the actual flats lived in residents realised they could easily knock down partition walls, break locks and doors and make bridges between facing balconies. Penny hasn’t visited yet, but apparently between the fourth and fifth floors some of the occupiers have knocked through the floors and air ducts to make vertical access between flats and use of wood burning stoves viable. She makes a mental note to pick up some cakes from the Brickbat Bakery later and visit those floors later this week. On the ground floor a series of unfinished retail units have been re-fashioned as meeting halls, a cinema and a crèche. Most of the spaces are run by the individual assemblies related to the layout of the blocks, but lately more open groups have formed and taken over the running of at least two of these spaces. This is the case with the crèche, it’s a project between a few of the mums in the flats and local single parents. Last time Penny was there, they were having a meeting about opening up the crèche to a wider range of ages and introducing home schooling groups and so on. It seemed they would have to dispense with the name ’crèche’, someone suggested ’distributed learning centre’ but all agreed that sounded too New Labour and phony. Penny’s proposal was to rename the centre The Great Learning, as far as she knew they were still mulling that over, she quietly hoped they’d go for it. Another group she’d heard about was the so-called ’Potlatch Block’, they were quickly developing an aura of militant secrecy amongst the occupants of the flats, and Penny was determined to check them out. They’d moved into the last space in the row underneath block five – it was the roughest space still available, with one outer wall practically unfinished, no door and some breeze blocks piled bare, without cement. Penny enters under the canvas shelter covering a brick barbecue and through an improvised PVC curtain which acted as a door into the space. Ethernet, telephone and electricity cables dangle from the ceiling... and on the right hand wall a huge black sheet hangs, white Hebrew lettering cut out of cloth stitched to the black background.
Trestle tables in front of the banner support literally heaps of food. Some neatly piled and grouped; bread, tins, etc. Some just in bags containing odd coagulations of different food types, cheese moulded around yoghurt and packets of ham. From the ceiling two smaller banners hang bearing the statements: ’Politics here is death’ and ’Everyone is cheated, but not equally!’. It’s a strange scene, something like a social centre but with a weird formality to the way the space has been ordered. There is mess, but the container for it possesses rare harmony.
It is quite dark when Penny enters and she barely notices two figures in the room. One is crouched at the end of the long row of trestles, slowly sorting crates of vegetables stored there. Another body lies supine on a couch in the far left corner of the room. ’Hello’, offers Penny. ’Hi’ replies the vegetable sorter, barely glancing over his shoulder. Penny steps back slightly to survey the scene, but her focus falls still on the activities on the figure crouched under the table. ’We’ve been making’ says the figure on the couch, apparently not stirring from his position. ’Sorry?’ Penny turning and walking towards the couch. ’We’ve been up late making’ the figure replies sliding down on his back onto the floor and stretching his arms out then rub his head. Penny strolls over and places herself in one of the battered chairs facing this sofa. ’Hello, I’m Penny’ she stares warmly at the figure waking himself. ’And. What, may I ask, have you been making?’. The guy stands up and offers his hand. ’Greg’, ’That’s a sort of funny question. You could say we’ve been making things, or trying to make things... of which we know not what they are.’ Big grin from Greg as if he was looking to be asked that, he stretches a bit more and shuffles over to the trestles. ’D’you wan some coffee?’. Penny, a bit spellbound, not just by the answer she is given, but also now she notices that the guy’s accent is neither exactly Californian, nor Irish, as she’d at first thought, but has an almost West Indian lilt to it, sing song somehow, light. ’Yes, I’d like that’ Penny replies, immediately pleased with herself for keeping a lid on all the questions that his enigmatic answer stirred and, she hoped, she’d get to ask after the coffee was made.
Penny spent the whole morning and most of the afternoon with Greg. He’d explained the Hebrew banner and some of the principles that the Potlatch block had gathered around. The lettering on the banner spells the Hebrew word, Tzadekah, it means gleaning or charity. In Old Testament times it had worked as something like a law by which a part of each farmer’s estate or harvest was left for the poor to help themselves too. Some instances of the practice still operated today, but modern observers had more or less conflated the practice with the giving of charity. Greg explained how he interpreted the word and its history – as a history of taking rather than giving. He explained how he was working with the potlatch block to realise aspects of a gift economy at Pan’s Court and in the surrounding area. They would soon have a free shop, a free kitchen, a free larder and so on. When Penny referred to what he was doing as an ’economy of kindness’ Greg got quite agitated, ’it’s not about charity, or even self-help’, he insisted. The point was not so much to produce a parallel economy as to fundamentally undermine the capitalist economy, its patterns of production and consumption. Animated by the coffee, Greg summed up: ’By drawing on these traditions; theft at work, la perruque, coin clipping, cabbage, commoning, tapping the admiral, but also developing rituals and a culture of ways through, we want more, much more than mere survival, we’re hungry, playful and festive parasites, we’ll abuse our host and dance on its graves’.
Ayanna is taking time out of the city to visit her mum out in Norfolk. She’s trying to take a breather from some of the madness at Pan’s Court, but after some days spent cementing the feeling of a physical distance she begins to stay up late on her laptop, keeping in touch.
For a month now Ayanna hass been having weekly IRC dialogues with Steve from the Potlatch block. He was an early casualty of the crash, a junior trader, originally from Braintree, he still speaks the lingo – fast material dirty banter. A hobbyist mathematician with no qualifications, Steve was always stung that he’d never fit the management’s notion of a quant, neither educated nor eccentric enough. Nonetheless he’d followed the crisis ruthlessly, the latest developments in derivatives, the complex mixture of soon-to-be ’toxic’ debts in collatoralised debt obligations. For the two years leading up to the coincidence of the smoking ban and the crash, Steve had become a lounge expert in the pubs of Bethnal Green and Whitechapel, eschewing the creeping incursions of neon and leather sofa adorned bars, he’d in his own small way tried to take the message to the people – what he thought of as his people – the cab drivers, chippys, market traders and scaffolders those two-years-solid-saving-and-pile-the-money-into-a-mortgage-in-Ireland previously feckless and fuck-it-all brethren who’d suddenly come under the delusion that they too could get something out (a little pile) of this neighbouring gilded square mile. He’d made calculations of his own about when the crash might actually happen from 2 years before it actually hit the press, but despite the accurate modelling he’d missed something, it hadn’t been pure numbers – you’d add up the numbers and at any calculation ’the excess challenged the absolute distribution of risk across the system’, but it held a good six months over what he’d expected. Steve put this down to politics – he’d used what he’d learnt from day traders, quants, economists but even allowing generous leeway for hidden state actors fire fighting by flooding the markets with ’helicopter dollars’ something else kept the system running on empty. Steve’s conclusion was that there was something else holding it together and ’magic it ain’t’. Habituation, exuberance, politricks, there was an outside to the system which he’d previously not been able to see, but once he turned from it it didn’t become any clearer. To save himself from going mad obsessing over it all he’d dropped his former interest, let go of the Financial Times subscription and simply drifted through the crack houses, squats and brothels of East and South London till he arrived here. Some guy at a warehouse party had offered him pills at a party, shouting ’CDOs, SIVs, pills, ekkstaaasy’. ’fuckin toxic mate, I got the funny money fer some o that’ Steve replied. He liked the joke, they had a laugh thinking up more fiendish crisis-related brands for the cheapo chemical balms that were in circulation in those early days of a massive fall in quality and rise in demand in the post-crisis scenes that were developing. After the party they’d caught a fry-up in Pelicci’s on Bethnal Green Road and the dealer invited Steve to crash at Pan’s Court – ’me brother’s crew set-up a place down there on the canal... is s wicked’ the two of them strolled down Roman Road together and Steve quickly became part of the floating population.
- - Begin transcript irc.freenode.net channel #haidasitin 09/12/2010 - - -
[2010-03-09 03:33:03] *** now talking in # haidasitin
[2010-03-09 03:33:03] *** topic is tactics – ways
[2010-03-09 03:33:03] *** set by Ayanna on Tue Mar 08 23:52:14 2010
[2010-03-09 03:33:03] *** channel #haidasitin mode is +n
[2010-03-09 03:33:03] *** channel created at Tue Mar 08 09:42:21 2010 [2010-03-09 03:33:04] [freenode-info] why register and identify? your IRC nick is how people know you. http://freenode.net/faq.shtml#nicksetup
Demands are incredibly stupid: they say nothing about what we really want, of the transformation we really need. Making demands means that we define ourselves in relation to the given order of things and in dialogue with those in positions of control.
[2010-03-09 03:44:59] *** st3ve quit (Read error: 54 (Connection reset by peer))
Pause. Hours go by. Steve goes out for a walk gets a can of beer, sits by the canal and phones his family. No warmth from dad as usual. He’s just worried, but not about Steve, he’s worried about his shares and the stocks Steve had advised him to pull out of six months previously. It seems there’s been a rally on the markets. Steve reassures him its all just ’irrational exuberance’. The markets are fucked and that’s it, best to sit tight in gold.’ Anyway, haven’t you got better things to think about?’ Steve ponders, as much to himself as to try to deflect his father’s stress. After the phone call is over Steve wanders back. He hopes Ayanna’s still there – her shift as moderator on the IRC ended half an hour ago.
[2010-03-09 06:43:36] *** st3ve ( firstname.lastname@example.org) joined
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- - end transcript irc.freenode.net channel #haidasitn 09/12/2010 - - -
Ayanna and Steve carry on talking into the night, dropping the usual combativenessich has up until now characterised all their exchanges online and off. Steve ends he can’t keep up the banter and still get to the sense of exactly what Ayanna’s trying to tell him. He drops it, recognising how this language has formed a hard shell distancing him from others and he lets down his guard a bit. He’s pleasantly surprised to find Ayanna doesn’t take this as weakness, she lays out the basis of her problems of Steve and the Potlatch block’s approach. Its not that she doesn’t admire the ideas – she just wants to push them further,beyond what they’d all imagined was sufficient before the crisis. The conversation ends when Steve starts to fling some new ideas up and Ayanna suddenly grows tired. She doesn’t think he’s totally got it, but he’s got something. He’ll not think about propaganda or press again as part of the actions. He’ll think of the actions as a form of self-address, of communicating themselves through each others articulation in action. Steve starts to get soppy declaring love and call Ayanna ’sista’. Ayanna tells him to cut the crap and signs off sweetly.
Accidents happen. Happy accidents manifest.
It’s late. Sick yellow street lights illuminate his way as Gav crouches and crawls crab-like chalking an egg shape around the perimeter of Tesco supermarket. The base of the egg forms a neat semicircle cutting through the car park, crossing and bisecting the gridded outlines of the parking spaces. The shape Gav has drawn is not immediately apparent from the grounds of the supermarket, but its arc is enough to hint at a call to assembly. Tracing the southern circumference next to a bus stop on Roman Road, Gav has scrawled the word EGGJA in well-spaced capital letters.
Once he’s done, Gav legs it to the Pinnacles knowing that from the roof he’ll have the best position to check his work. Entering through the basement fire exit stairwell and running up the unfinished concrete steps, he stops by the penthouse flat to drag Rag out of his early evening K-hole. The pair of friends stand on the roof of the apartment block admiring Gav’s drawing.
The outline of the egg is more or less visible, circumventing three sides of the supermarket building. Lines cross the tightly confined plant beds running up walls and onto the pavement again only to curve and converge in a point at the back of the 10 foot security fence which encloses the plastic refuse skips. The same skips into which residents of Pan’s Court dive each evening searching for edibles. Gav proudly pronounces the written word, ’EGGJA... EGGJA. It’s Icelandic for to incite, to sharpen, we use it in the sense of to egg someone on. Nice, eh?’
Rag, reluctant to follow Gav’s drift into familiar pedantry, stifles any admiration, and grins turning to him, ’You is a good egg mate.’ Then patting him on the shoulder in mock military formality, ’So, what’s it all in aid of? I mean what’s going off? I’ve seen loonies and black block types turning up at Pan’s Court all week. Tell me please you’re not the captain of all this?’ Expecting something like this, Gav is ready with his response: ’Absolutely not. I only went to the first meeting to find out the date of the action. Some of the kids have been coming to Ayanna’s workshops, I’ve been throwing some ideas around, but that’s it. The rest is up to the kids – that’s my contribution right there, incitement and sharpening, that’s all. Now let’s get some kip ready for the morning’s fireworks.’
Gav and Rag sleep up on the roof warmed by blankets, red wine and Adolfo’s weed. There’s activity throughout the night over at Pan’s Court with small parties of two or three making short runs back and forth between the occupied building and Tesco, sometimes dropping small bags of tools and materials in the verges surrounding the supermarket, sometimes venturing into the fenced refuse yard for reconnaissance purposes. At dawn the pair wake up, well aware that this is going to be a special day. Everyone is ready.
A group, apparently dressed as druids, form a semicircle on the lawn in the central courtyard of Pan’s Court. For the last two weeks they’ve been collecting packing boxes from IKEA, Tesco and Habitat from the basement of the building and surrounding bins and skips. From these, the druids have built large crude models of skyscrapers, signature modernist and post modernist buildings. These buildings are lined up against the East horizon from which the sun will soon rise. The druids kneel facing the horizon making incantations before the miniature skyline. Some of their murmured lines drift upwards:
For the limbs of the god were made to tremble, all of them in turn.
Without affection and not mixed together.
Heaped together in greatness.
If there were no limit to the depths of the earth and the abundant air, as is poured out in foolish words from the mouths of many mortals who see but little of the all.
Swift-darting sun and kindly moon.
It shines back to the City with untroubled face.
The kindly light has a brief period of shining.
A borrowed light, circular in form, it revolves about the earth, as if following the track of a chariot.
And night the earth makes by coming in front of the lights.
And many fires burn beneath the earth.
(The sea) with its stupid race of fertile fishes.
The sea is the sweat of the earth.
(Fire darting) swiftly upwards.
At midday a group of dancers begins to weave its way from the courtyard of Pan’s Court, crossing the bridge over the canal in single file. The dancers move to the sounds pumping out of a fridge on improvised rollers rigged up with two active speakers, a generator and an iPod gaffer-taped to its side. The sound system pumps out Baile Funk, Kuduru, Senegalese and Ivory Coast Rap; the dancers carry djembes, whistles and coloured plastic horns. Some of them have costumes, cheaply produced imitations of those worn at Notting Hill Carnival. They are accompanied by a small crew of tramps who wave cans of Polish lager and sometimes join the fray spinning, stumbling and leering. A few of the dancers stand by, at the back, keeping the tramps away from the children’s part of the procession, whilst the dancers at the front are happy to play to the tramps, shaking hips, arses and breasts, only to lurch away again and back into formation. It might be called a procession but it’s pretty chaotic and formless until it reaches the destination.
As the crowd snakes up the steps onto Roman Road and into Tesco’s car park, a troupe of eight choreographed dancers slip into formation and begin to prance forward crouching and shaking their hands at their sides, then clasping their arms to their chests before falling and rolling on the floor in mock agony. The moves are part of the Bird Flu dance, popular in the Ivory Coast. The troupe has been learning the steps over the past month from videos on YouTube. DJ Lewis’ signature track, ’Grippe Aviare’, booms out followed by M.I.A.’s ’Bird Flu’, as the procession led by the eight dancers advances towards the main entrance of the supermarket.
While the dancers continue to cast shapes on the asphalt of the car park, a second procession, dressed sombrely in black jeans, T-shirts and hoodies enters from the left, marching parallel to the long front of the building’s façade. These skinny, pale, tattooed and pierced teenagers make up the self-styled Vegan Martyrs Brigade: a parodic tribute to the suicidal militancy of some Islamist and Leftist groups. At the front two kids hold a banner aloft, ’THE BLOODY HAMPER’, behind them another banner proclaims ’ALL IS LABOUR – ALL IS FLESH’ and between these two banners members of the brigade are armed with rocks, crowbars and baseball bats. Near the back a crew pushes trolleys stocked with breeze-blocks, flags, and balloons filled with lemon curd, jam, honey and red paint. At the entrance to the supermarket two security guards stand, one a nervous white guy on his radio with his colleague, a thickset Ghanaian, both staring at the dancers twitching lightly now and then in time with the rhythm. It’s already too late when the two security guards notice the second block, who by now are already at the entrance. The security guards simply step back out of the way as the front-line steps towards them to let in the block and the trolleys. Four members of the Vegan Martyrs Brigade nonchalantly escort the security guards through the car park and into the smoking shelter provided for supermarket staff where they will hold them for the duration of the attack.
Inside the supermarket the Vegan Martyrs Brigade are joined by members of the Potlatch Block who until then had been milling about inside posing as shoppers. Once the security guards are taken care of, both groups begin to raid the shelves. Empty trolleys are filled with meat products: whole chickens are brought out and thrown to the dancers in the car park. In the frozen food section, tomato and ruby orange juices are poured into the freezer cabinets until the aisle resembles a mortuary scene. Once their trolleys are full with packaged flesh, the Vegan Martyrs Brigade ram-raid the meat counter smashing its glass front and covering the delicatessen with paint and detritus. They go on attacking the cash tills and spraying graffiti on the walls behind the counter until the entire section is smashed and wrecked.
A group from the Potlatch Block produce tablecloths and fold-out tables and place them in the aisle, and adorning the tables with candles, cheeses and fine wines, they invite panicked shoppers and cash till attendants to picnic at Tesco’s expense. The rest of the Potlatch Block continues to go to work on the shelves; at first emptying, then re-stocking them with all manner of bizarre fetishes, both ready-made, and fashioned from combinations of materials from the supermarket with objects they have brought with them in rucksacks. Potatoes are pierced with pencils to resemble naval mines, courgettes are wrapped in the gold foil removed from Easter Egg packaging, sliced disks of aubergine are fashioned into coins with gold and silver marker pens, avocados are scooped out, their skins packed with mince, and all this is heaped back onto the shelves.
Once the vegetable rack is emptied, members of the Potlatch Block erect an effigy of gross fecundity personified: the Egg Lady. She’s huge, with gauche ketchup make-up, covered top to bottom with fresh eggs, plants and drenched in milk from the dairy section. Wax, ribbons and saffron liberally drip from her pumpkin head, and at her feet joss sticks scorch the paper plastered over her chicken wire frame.
Twenty minutes into this intense flurry of activity police begin to arrive. Upon a signal from the entrance, the Vegan Martyrs Brigade make a hasty exit, sabotaging the vast generators at the rear of the supermarket, setting fire to bins, then wheeling them into Roman Road to give them enough time to split up and disappear. Inside the supermarket there is so much confusion between the ordinary shoppers now turned looters, estate kids who have turned up specifically to loot, and the remaining members of the Potlatch Block still stuffing their faces and filling the shelves with mess, that few arrests can be made. The police try to restore order by pushing everyone, staff included, out of the supermarket. They are pelted with eggs fruit and avocados stuffed with mince by bystanders, but otherwise meet little resistance. Many shoppers leave with basketfuls and even trolleys of goods indifferent to whether or not they have been paid for.
openhagen er en kollektiv blog, et digitalt tidsskrift eller en åben platform. Det handler om byen, om at forandre det urbane rum og de tanker vi gør os, mens vi gør det.
Lessons from 6 December, 2008 › After the Greek Riots
Five years since the killing of Alexandros Grigoropoulos – live updates › After the Greek Riots
Posters in english regarding the imprisoned anarchists from the Velvento case › After the Greek Riots
Políticas de la percepción › Continental Drift
Políticas de la percepción › Continental Drift