Words by Clare Hearty
As a Europhile left devastated by the EU referendum result, it was great to spend the 24th June attending the truly European Maverick City event, covering projects in Spain, the Netherlands and Albania to name a few. I would sum up the main themes of the day as the idea introduced by Toria of We Make Places that ‘anything about me, without me, is not for me’, the idea of copyleft (favouring the rights of the user above the creator), and ways to engage with communities to give them what they truly need, through initiatives as diverse as digital hacking of public spaces, recycling, self-built houses and making hidden communities visible.
While all the projects impressed me, my favourites were the Cascoland regeneration of the Kolenkit area of Amsterdam and regeneration of the Westergas factory. I liked the way both projects developed organically through the artists spending time in a community to discover what it needed, then working on a strategy to deliver this. It makes a refreshing change from the top-down decision making process we often see, which can lead to bland attempts at regeneration of areas which ignore their character and needs. I also enjoyed hearing about the WWB.cc digital initiatives which bypassed local bureaucracy to provide links between communities in different continents. In fact, all the projects focused on giving a voice to those who live in the area and who are often disenfranchised. The best examples of this for me were the Riovisivel project which enabled favela residents to talk positively about their area and experiences, and Julia Hislop’s self-build project working with local homeless people and offering them a therapeutic and learning space.
The day also raised some interesting questions on how to involve local authorities and get projects off the ground when funds and support are limited. The talks made it clear that authorities often follow, not lead in these areas, but that once the projects are off the ground they can be a useful tool to effectively address massive issues in society as well as solving a practical problem. The ‘El Barrio es Nuestro’ [The Neighbourhood is Ours] initiative by ‘Todo por la praxis’ is a prime example: it started out as a cultural resistance movement, but has now been embraced by the council and a legal framework is in the process of being set up, showing that what starts as a revolt can end up being accepted and endorsed. As one of the speakers said, it’s a lot easier to ask forgiveness than to ask permission, but both parties have a big part to play – activists and communities are the experts on the ground but authorities have the resources to roll out schemes so should be kept on-side!
Finally, I found it really inspiring to see how the speakers had all worked together with other organisations, individuals and activists and used shared resources. It was really interesting to hear how online spaces like the Temporary Autonomous Zones and the Grrr collective enable activists to engage and collaborate online, and to blend built and digital environments. Free software and shared blueprints make it easier than ever to reproduce community engagement projects elsewhere, and it was great to find out about some of those resources and hear that they are actually being protected from copyrighting and commercialisation.
The message I will take away from the day is that the best way to give people spaces they love to use is to invest time in discovering what makes communities tick and what they need. As activists we all have different experiences, skills and knowledge, so we need to be ready and willing to work with others. Meetings like The Maverick City are key to keeping us connected and motivated, and it certainly was an inspiring day!