'Our Autonomous Life?' curatorial introduction
(The text is available only in English.)
Introduction to "Our Autonomous Life?"
On October 1, 2010, an official ban on squatting (kraken) was put into effect in the Netherlands, criminalising a practice of occupying unused and empty spaces for living that had been tolerated by Dutch law since the 1970s. Meanwhile, the decline of the Dutch social housing stock, increasing gentrification, the displacement of low income communities to peripheral zones and growing conservatism towards lifestyle and living space, was revealing that “the social” in relation to housing was at a crucial turning point in the Netherlands. As part of the long-term project, "The Grand Domestic Revolution ¬– User’s Manual" ("GDR"), Casco had been investigating what self-organised, and cooperative social housing experiments remained in this former welfare state landscape including squatting, co-housing (centraal wonen) and other communal living groups (woongroepen). The goal of this research was to experiment with new forms of social action by making connections between the internal dynamics, spatial forms and concrete practices of living together and how this corresponded with changing housing policy on the one hand, and the broader political context on the other.
At the mid-point of the GDR project Casco presented the forum, "GDR GOES ON: Dwelling in Commons" , where we invited Nazima Kadir, former squatter and researcher at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, to present in-depth case studies from her dissertation, “The Autonomous Life?: Paradoxes of Hierarchy, Authority, and Urban Identity in the Squatters Movement in Amsterdam”. Her evocative cases and vivid “character” profiles, delved into the complex power dynamics existing within the squatter’s movement in Amsterdam revealing the gendered divisions of labour, varying levels of unspoken authority and other hierarchical forms that were not explicitly confronted or discussed within the community. Her presentation implicitly asked whether the movement presented any real alternative to mainstream social structures. During the discussion, one of the Forum panelists admitted that she recognized many of the dynamics in social activist groups she was involved in, and asked whether the making and sharing of this research could be useful to the community and other social movements to critically reflect on itself; an observation that seemed particularly urgent considering the current precarity of the squatting movement. Would the thesis remain as merely an academic exercise of anthropological analysis, or was there indeed potential to transform it into a vehicle for reflection and action?
Challenged by this question we proposed to Nazima to make her research public, commissioning artist Maria Pask to co-develop the concept for what would eventually be titled, “Our Autonomous Life?” The form that we decided to use was a sitcom, the process, cooperative, and the actors, stakeholders in the practice of communal living and social housing rights who would be assembled through an open call to develop the content together, using their differing experiences of social, private and squatted housing as a starting point. The intention of making it cooperative was not merely to make reflexive the relation between content and process, but also to undertake the situations of conflicts observed in the thesis as points of departure, to link together different groups and initiatives, and create a tool for a broader public discussion. The project also became a mechanism to continue the research into social housing. We soon came to understand the nature of new housing “co-operations” such as anti-squatting ("anti-kraak") and broedplaats (“breeding grounds”) for cultural entrepreneurs that involve varying levels of questionable “co-operation” between residents, housing corporations and the state.
Those who gathered for the sitcom, mostly people working in the cultural sector, embody the experience and challenges of current housing conditions that put them into precarious living situations, as shared here in the following texts. Not exactly a funny matter you could say, but by appropriating the sitcom genre’s capacity to perform comic relief, we aspired to shake up the possible contradictions and ironies one may have in engaging with the above issues from whatever positions, social backgrounds or sensitivities one may carry by using the convivial and subversive tool of humour. The serial quality of sitcoms also turned out to be a remarkable frame by allowing us the continuity, time and space to evolve the format and our own positions on the issues as personal and political contexts change over a season.
At the time of writing, we are producing episode four, the season finale, where in the end the squatters eventually get evicted from their home. It departs from the narrative structures of the previous episodes by resisting a scripted dramatization of events and instead improvising multiple channels into what it means to accept or resist eviction, implicitly asking viewers what position they might take if it was their home. With this final episode experiment, it has never been more clear to us and the cast members that we are not producing a sitcom merely for laughs and filmic representation of research, but rather, "Our Autonomous Life" keeps moving towards becoming an action in itself, generating new relations and alliances, suggesting the further movement of the project collective. Could appropriating this popular form of domestic entertainment produce some kind of germ for the possible spread of new social housing movements? Who out there might undertake this in the form of a new season?