After several months of silence and a few short weeks of summer weather, it seems that a sense of community was brought back to the city of London this weekend through the brave and noble efforts of a few dedicated individuals. September was an uncertain and daunting month as squatters throughout the country debated the potential effects the ban that would have on their homes and lives. After 21-year-old Alex Haigh was made an example of by being sentenced to 12 weeks in prison for occupying a flat near Pimlico, an increased number of squatters began to search for ways to stretch beyond their means to find some type of rented accommodation. For many, however, economic constraints make this option an impossibility. For those people, the new law makes homelessness and economic precarity even more dangerous through the criminalization of the means to avoid poverty’s impact on their lives. Far from being deterred and losing faith altogether, this weekend one group of occupiers pulled together their meagre resources and used their brains and networking skills to demonstrate the benefits of utilizing empty space for the good of the community.
The event was Focal Local, an open gallery organized in Holborn with the intention of “bringing our community back together”. The old office space, which consists of five unused floors- each around the size of a football pitch, is now home to fifty individuals who would otherwise be homeless. The group that occupied the building can definitely count themselves as lucky. The abandoned space is clean, spacious and equipped with several kitchens, running water and electricity, offering a much more comfortable living situation than the majority of squats around the world. Situated a five minute walk from Holborn tube station in central London, the building is a prime example of corporate greed and waste. Having been left derelict for the past nine years, there is no apparent plan for the building’s use looming in the future. Instead of revelling in their good luck and getting on with life, however, the new occupiers decided to turn the space into a place where artists can come and exhibit their work for free, challenging the popular belief that art is a luxury accessible only to the wealthy.
In a metropolis such as London in which the price of renting even the smallest studio can reach the equivalent of several months rent, one can easily come to believe that the only artists who can afford to exhibit their work are those that come from wealthy backgrounds. By creating an event in which anyone with varying degrees of artistic ability can participate and exhibit their work for free, the organizers of Focal Local ensured that for one weekend this was no longer the case. The event allowed community members to appreciate and participate in the art of local and otherwise unknown artists, and the gallery was a space where anyone could come and spend the day, exhibiting pieces of photography, painting, fine art and graffiti.
“We would all like to be Tracy Emin and get into the Tate modern”, one young London artist commented as she allowed a friend to practice her painting skills while drawing a flower on her back. “But we aren’t all going to get there. This kind of event is important because it is allows those of us who make art because we love it to share our life’s work with a public that otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to see what we do”. I asked the artist if she exhibits elsewhere around the city. “Only in pubs”, she responded, while expressing the belief that pub-goers don’t take her work as seriously as she would like. On this sunny October morning, the enthusiasm felt by the artists and the appreciation demonstrated by the art aficionados roaming around the building’s vast halls was evident.
Aside from the gallery, the building was host to a variety of activities throughout the weekend. A designated time for skills sharing allowed people to teach each other new skills and tricks. Workshops included how to live-stream an event, how to juggle and how to make a collage from old magazine clippings. There was also a media-training workshop, legal advice for squatters, banner making for Occupy London events and a late night open-mic cabaret. People of all ages participated (I think the youngest visitor I saw was around 3 years old and the oldest was in their 80s), demonstrating the event’s ability to build bridges across the generational gap and cultivate a sense of community spirit.
This beautiful building that would otherwise have gone to waste is currently being used to house the vulnerable, promote community values and help young and low-income artists overcome adversity. The occupiers of this building will face eviction in the coming weeks. Everyone who has the time and energy should come out and support if they can.