Author interview – Patrick Bresnihan and Michael Byrne talk about 'Escape into the City: Everyday Practices of Commoning and the Production of Urban Space in Dublin'

Published online earlier this month, Patrick Bresnihan and Michael Byrne’s ‘Escape into the City: Everyday Practices of Commoning and the Production of Urban Space in Dublin‘ (which will be in print in Antipode 47:1 late this year/early next) explores the myriad needs and desires that aren’t met in – or are excluded from – the contemporary city, given high rents, the commodification of social/cultural life, and the regulation of public space. Against this dynamic, Dublin has seen a number of experiments in urban commoning, that is, people collectively finding ways to “open up” space in order to do what they want to do (whether finding a space to work, making food, showing films…) Rather than appealing to existing institutions to change the situation, new urban commons are being created by groups devising practical ways of escaping the forms of enclosure currently limiting what can happen in the city. Patrick and Michael’s militant research examines the potential of, and limits to, these experiments in urban production and organisation.

Here we have an interview they recently conducted and published on their excellent website, The Provisional University. Many thanks to Patrick and Michael (who can be contacted at [email protected]) for letting us re-post it here; we think it’s a brilliant bit of “public geography”…

*         *         *

Cracks in the city: An interview on Dublin’s independent spaces

For the last couple of years we’ve been researching Dublin’s independent spaces. Whether they’re art spaces, social centres or community gardens, independent spaces have become an important feature of life in Dublin for many, providing affordable access to culture, socializing, education and lots more. They also offer people the chance to get involved in collectively shaping urban space. The research has been published in the academic journal Antipode, but we’ve also written up some reflections on the project in the form of an interview that we’re sharing here. We hope this can feed into and stimulate discussion within the community of independent spaces and their participants.

provisional university 1

What follows draws on conversations with participants in independent spaces, especially Seomra Spraoi, the South Circular Road Community Garden, the Joinery, Mabos, Dubzland, Supafast, Hendrons Collider, the Citric Road Community Garden, Ja Ja Studios, Exchange Dublin, Granby Park, Market Studios and Block T. As well as working tirelessly to keep their spaces open, all of those we spoke to were very generous with their time and reflections – so thanks a million and keep up the good work!

How did you get interested in the spaces?

We’d been involved in various spaces for a good few years, including Seomra Spraoi and the Unlock NAMA campaign. In early 2013 we started to use Supafast, which was located on Great Strand Street, to work from. We were both unemployed at the time and found it really frustrating working individually from home and to be honest it was quite depressing. By working from Supafast we were able to work together which was much better and allowed us to work on joint projects and escape from the isolation we had previously been experiencing. This made us more aware of the value of spaces and the resource they provide.

At the same time, at a more political level, we were becoming more interested in the everyday, practical ways in which people create alternatives for themselves. We thought this was interesting as a contrast to a tendency within activism that focuses on what we’re against and on making demands on political institutions. What seemed more important to us was the actual material practices through which people work towards, in this case, a different way of accessing and creating urban space. Obviously during the property bubble Dublin changed a lot as a city – becoming very commercialized and also very regulated. It made sense to think that if any change was going to come in relation to this it would come from the grassroots ways in which people were doing something different to that. So we thought, rather than starting from a critique of capitalism or of neoliberal urban development, it would be interesting to kind of ‘start from where we are’, i.e. to start from our own lives and the kind of community we were involved in and how we were trying to make the city more liveable for us and work out the politics from there.

provisional university 2

The political question that jumped out was pretty obvious – while we were interested in how independent spaces might have a role to play in changing the city, the majority of people involved in independent spaces are not explicitly involved in challenging the wider dynamics of the city in terms of financialization, property speculation and so on. Even Seomra Spraoi, the only independent space with an explicitly political objective, is very much focused on the day to day running of the space and isn’t really involved in urban dynamics beyond its doors. Most of the spaces are very much pragmatic, concrete projects and lots of them would explicitly say they are not ‘political’.

This was a concern for us, but it didn’t seem very useful to dismiss the potential of independent spaces to generate change in the city solely on the basis that they don’t have any kind of ideology that could be understood as ‘political’ in traditional terms. If you can only identify as political things that talk and think like you do (i.e. that share your political analysis and goals and so forth) then you’re unlikely to get very far! So we got really fascinated by this question of how to interrogate the political potential of independent spaces as a form of collective action without reducing them to some kind of pre-ordained ideological schema – we wanted to address this question from ‘within’ the independent spaces, so to speak.

This is where the notion of ‘militant research’ came in. Militant research is basically a way of addressing these kinds of questions collectively in order to work through them together in the hope of transforming the situation. We don’t all begin in the same place, with the same convictions and visions of how society should be. Nor is there a privileged position that some people occupy that allows them to know what the best course of action is. Reality – and social change – is a lot messier than that. We knew that we wouldn’t be able to get answers to questions we had about the city by sitting around reflecting abstractly on them. The answers didn’t exist because the political dimension of independent spaces was, and is, basically ambiguous and undecided. The kind of questioning militant research offers is not about discovering the truth about the spaces, but more about working through the questions together to bring out the possibilities for change that exist in a situation.

What did researching the spaces involve?

We didn’t get involved in the spaces to ‘research’ them but the more we participated in them the more interested we became in what they were doing and what that might mean in the wider context of the city. I remember someone coming to a talk in one of these spaces, for example. He hadn’t been anywhere like that before and was really taken aback by the fact that people were listening to a (free) informative talk, having a few drinks and generally hanging out after in a really relaxed way, a kind of public event that had the feeling of a friend’s living room. That might not sound like something very significant but when a few spaces start opening up that allow for that kind of experience, especially in a city that is dominated by commercial interests, then it is probably worth thinking about.

provisional university 3

The first question we asked was: what was involved in sustaining and organizing an independent space in Dublin? Recognizing that these spaces offered something different to the public and private/commercial spaces throughout the city, it followed that they had to be organized differently. We already had a certain amount of knowledge just from being involved in the spaces, but we built on this by interviewing some of the people who were involved in running the spaces on a day-to-day basis. For the most part we were friends with these people, or at least knew them, so the interviews were informal and relaxed and lasted for a couple of hours. We found that the people interviewed actually seemed to like talking about the spaces from a bit of a distance because it is not something they get to do much – to give a narrative of how the space began, what had happened, what is required to keep it running, etc. This is important because the spaces tend to be ad hoc, practical projects where problems are just worked out between the people involved as they arise without much overarching strategy or vision. This isn’t a criticism but more just to point to the fact that a lot of what goes on in the spaces – to organize them and keep them running – can be taken for granted: new ways of doing things are developed over time before being established as normal, everyday practices. In one sense, our research sought to make these practices visible, to show how important they are for making a different kind of city possible.

The second question was more concerned with the external dynamics that affected the spaces. This was interesting because we had initially thought that paying the rent every month would be the biggest obstacle to running an independent space. Through our interviews we found that while finance was an ongoing struggle, the more immediate threat – and one that has only been reinforced since we began the project – was eviction or closure by the authorities, namely Dublin City Council (DCC) and sometimes the Gardaí. This pressure from the authorities came in different forms, for example on the back of complaints from neighbours about anti-social behaviour or failure to meet legal requirements in terms of fire and health and safety. Identifying this common problem was important because the spaces tend to be quite fragmented and separate from one another. While everyone was aware that individual spaces were being closed down, this was seen as regrettable but not something that should be addressed collectively, by all those who want these independent spaces to exist.

From the beginning, our research was intended for the people involved in the spaces, ourselves included. This didn’t mean that we would simply write a report for people to read. The aim was not to produce an ‘output’ but to change the situation in which independent spaces found themselves. Having identified the threat of closure as a common and recurring problem for the spaces, we held a meeting for all those involved to come and discuss what this meant and what could be done about it. While the meeting didn’t produce any clear solutions or common strategies, it was important that so many people involved in the spaces came together in one room. This was the motivation for the research project to begin with: to use the research process itself as a way of bringing people together, creating a common ground by collectively asking questions, building knowledge and, hopefully, devising collective actions.

provisional university 4

This is not how it has materialized – things are never that easy! There is always a great difficulty in bringing different people together, especially when it is not clear what can be done and the context in which you are operating is changing so fast. But we didn’t set ourselves a specific timeline. The idea of the research was to get inside the particular context of the independent spaces, to come to understand what the dynamics were, both in terms of their internal organization and the external pressures brought on by urban development – something that has become so evident with the recent case of Mabos and the Factory in the Docklands. Building our knowledge about this situation doesn’t just provide us with an analysis, it also builds social networks and ties with different kinds of people, something that has probably been the most important outcome of the research process so far.

What did you find out?

We were a little surprised to find out that while most people involved in independent spaces were framing what they were doing in pragmatic more than political terms, they were also motivated by the context of what we would call ‘neoliberal urbanism’. This has a lot to do with how commercialized the city has become, how expensive it is to do pretty much anything. For example, quite a lot of spaces emerged from people who need a space to work from but couldn’t afford to rent anywhere as individuals.

People were also motivated by how boring and limited social and cultural life had become in the city. This is something we also experienced but had never really reflected on. As we talked to people it became clear that they were really frustrated with basic things like expensive, boring pubs that close early.

Looking beyond the motivations behind independent spaces and more towards what goes on inside them, one thing that jumped out was the amount of work that goes into the spaces. Sometimes you visit a space and you just think ‘that’s a great little spot’, but don’t maybe think too much about it. When you sit down with the folks involved it becomes clear that it really is a full time job.

provisional university 5

Probably the most important thing we found out, though, was that by and large spaces do share a certain way of doing things and working, and even a shared ethos. In terms of the research, we have understood this in terms of three ideas: ownership, production and governance. While these terms are a bit awkward they’re a useful lens for thinking about spaces and what makes them important.

To begin with ownership, the spaces in general are characterised by a very different way of relating to the built environment. Obviously most of the time a building is either public or private. Either it’s owned by someone who uses it in some way to make money or it is owned by the state and this usually means that the citizen has zero input into the space, despite its allegedly public nature. Independent spaces, by contrast, generate this sense of shared ownership over spaces. In some places this is quite informal. In spaces like Supafast, Dubzland or Hendrons Collider there are informal ways that give you a sense of ownership over the place; in Supafast unless they thought you were a bogey they would give you a key for a contribution of €20 per month, and then they would very much encourage you to come and go as you please. Other spaces have a more formal, explicit commitment to collective ownership. Both Seomra Spraoi and Exchange Dublin (which is currently closed, hopefully temporarily) have advertised weekly or fortnightly meetings that anyone can attend and where anyone can participate in decision making, take on responsibilities, etc. These types of practices generate a different way of relating to a space, and to urban space in general. They create a sense of ownership – it’s kind of like the space belongs to everyone and no one (without getting too hippy about it!)

The second lens we find useful is ‘production’ – there is not just collective ownership of a given space but collective production of it. Most of the time without the people all you’ve got is a pretty run down building which in most cases has been empty for a long time. What turns it into something that’s a resource, something that people are drawn to and use, is all the work that goes on. This includes the obvious stuff like doing the place up, getting it safe, building partitions and painting and so on. But it also includes less tangible things from organising events, to greeting people at the door, to taking the time to chat to people about the space and get the word out through social media, etc. Usually there’s a core of people involved in all this, but in all cases there is also a wide network of people without which spaces would simply not happen. So what you’re talking about is creating collectively, or creating in common.

Finally, you have the ‘governance’ of the spaces – which is about how they are run. There’s a relatively high level of informality in all these spaces but at the same time they are quite ingenious at developing ways of working together and keeping the show on the road. This includes everything from financing the project to decision making, liaising with landlords and dealing with challenging behaviour. There are no rules here because people develop ‘protocols’ in response to concrete issues and based on the kinds of resources they have. Sometimes these lessons are hard learned, like quite a few spaces have closed because the vetting process in terms of organising events was too loose so parties happen which get out of control, but it’s all part of the process. One of the interesting things is that it’s often in the discussion around these ‘governance’ issues that the ethos of spaces comes to the fore. For example, in Supafast they had a party that got out of hand and so they were thinking of how to have some kind of control over that but it also became clear that they were very committed to not compromising the sense of openness in the space. You also see this a lot in terms of responding to challenging behaviour – you often have people with mental health difficulties or addiction issues and that can generate tensions but at the same time places like Seomra Spraoi and the South Circular Road community garden were very conscious that the space should be accessible to all and be diverse. So you can see how there are no hard and fast rules but there’s a kind of system for managing these issues.

In terms of all of these dimensions – ownership, production, governance – people were basically just working it out for themselves as they went along, but as time goes on these ways of doing things become collective practices and knowledge that people who come into the space, or want to set up their own space, can draw on. Nowadays, given the relative break down of community and forms of collective organisation (such as trade unions), this is really important. The general problem of ‘individualisation’ is well known, but when we speak of ‘individualisation’ were not just talking about an ‘ideology’ but a material reality. It’s not just that we internalise this attitude that we’re an individual and ‘look after number one’; more importantly it’s literally that we can’t work in groups because we haven’t learned how. Spaces like Seomra Sparoi and Exchange are quite explicit about this and recognise the importance of skill sharing in terms of people learning how to participate in collective decision making and so on. In other spaces it’s more informal but in all cases that learning process is happening. Barry from Seomra Sparoi had a really nice metaphor to describe this. He said a space like Seomra is like a gym, but instead of exercising your muscles and your body you’re exercising your ability to work collectively, to create community. Those things are very material, you can’t learn them from a book – they have to be learnt by doing them. Without this factor, it seems to us, it’s not going to be possible to create change in the city at a wider level.

What are the challenges for independent spaces?

When we began this research process there were a good few more independent spaces operating in Dublin: within the space of about 18 months four of the most well-known and vibrant of them have closed – Supafast, Dubzland, Exchange and Mabos. All of these spaces were paying their rent and were thus financially viable. The specific reasons and circumstances around these closures are different but there is clearly a pattern, and one that should be worrying for anyone who cares about the city, not just those involved in these independent spaces. While some of these projects may open again, the likelihood is they will be further from the city centre, in places that are not easily accessible for many people. A more pessimistic analysis is that each closure of an independent space has a deeper effect on the city, discouraging future efforts to start something because of the likelihood that it will all end in nothing.

The short answer to why these spaces have been closed down is that they don’t fit within the vision of Dublin’s future development. The speculative and commercial value of real estate continues to dominate this vision – this is no clearer than in the Docklands where Dublin City Council and NAMA are engineering a new wave of foreign investment and commercial property development through the SDZ, resulting in the closure of Mabos and the Factory. It is not just property speculation and ground rents that dominate Dublin’s development though. Dublin’s economy also relies on tourism and consumption, with considerable resources and effort directed towards transforming the city centre into a consumer-friendly environment. The result is that those elements that are not involved in buying and selling are excluded – the closure of Exchange in Temple Bar fits within this logic, displacing alleged ‘anti-social’ elements to where they won’t be seen, while at the same time opening up space for more commercial enterprises.

At the same time, there has been growing interest in independent spaces from Dublin City Council. In spring, we attended a meeting in Woodquay called ‘Creative Uses for Vacant Spaces‘. However, it was a galling experience to listen to DCC spokespeople extolling the importance of creativity when Exchange was in the process of being closed down. The emphasis of that meeting was on the ‘temporary’ use of vacant spaces; ‘Pop-ups’ are envisaged as a way to cover up urban scars until new investors appear. However, for many of those involved in self-organized, independent spaces, they don’t invest all of their time and labour just to be ‘temporary’. If Dublin City Council really recognized the social value of these spaces then they could provide them with substantial financial and institutional support. This doesn’t mean ongoing funding for projects but financial support to make a building fire-safe, for example. Without access to the €20,000 needed to make a decrepit building fire-safe, people are just not going to be able to access and use buildings for social purposes. Planning regulations and other legal requirements are also a major obstacle to small, independently run projects, and could be changed to make life easier.

One of the ways to challenge this situation is to engage with these inconsistencies and contradictions. Dublin City Council has plans and projects that claim to represent the city, including social and cultural aims, for example, but often the reality is very different. Making this gap visible in order to challenge the Council and force a different result is one strategy. Again, to do this requires research, a certain amount of knowledge about how DCC operates and what their development plans consist of, as well as an engagement with people working in or alongside the Council in order to foster relationships.

Finally though, DCC is not going to change its strategy, or do anything to disrupt Dublin’s image as an attractive place for investment or tourism, unless there is pressure put on it, pressure that would have to be quite significant in the current circumstances. This is not just a question of opposing values but of power. We are not going to be able to do anything unless we are committed to achieving even a minimal demand, such as keeping a single space threatened with eviction open. Even a small victory like this could change the tone of things – it could remind us that change can happen through collective action. This brings us back to the motivation for this research: the hope that it would help channel minor chords of frustration and anger towards a collective desire to act.

Where is the project at now?

We’ve done most of what we wanted to do in terms of the initial objectives of the research. Specifically, we developed an understanding of the spaces, how they work and the contribution they make to the city, and we also identified the key challenges. Finally, we used the research process to organise a number of events and write a number of pieces which we thought were useful in terms of generating collective discussion and analysis among those involved in independent spaces.

From the outset, as mentioned, we had hoped that the research process could play a role in empowering the spaces and fostering collective action to respond to the challenges discussed above. One element of this is that through the research we developed a fairly strong network – by this stage we have developed good relationships with most of the people in independent spaces and especially those who are very passionate about the contribution they can make to the city. We also developed useful contacts working in Dublin City Council and with elected councillors.

Developing this network, which means spending time with people, discussing, working towards shared understandings, etc. has helped in terms of what we said earlier about fostering collective action. The Exchange Dublin closure is probably the clearest example. Around February 2014 Exchange received a letter from their landlord, Temple Bar Cultural Trust. TBCT is a QUANGO owned by Dublin City Council. At the time Ray Yeates, who is also the DCC Arts Officer, was acting as interim CEO of TBCT and the whole thing was being wound up. Anyway, the letter basically said that due to local residents complaining about anti-social behaviour TBCT was closing Exchange. They demanded the keys be handed over within a very short period – I think it was less than a couple of weeks. The ASBO allegations were all nonsense; we’ve written about the context here for people who want to know more.

Exchange got in touch with us immediately, largely because we’d spent quite a bit of time chatting to them over the previous period, and we were able to get involved in terms of figuring out how to respond. That was a very interesting process because from the beginning the possibility of directly resisting the closure was raised – and that is something that we have not seen before. There was also a very successful media campaign set in motion and a petition which racked up about 5,000 signatures. It was a moment when a very large community of people who strongly value independent spaces in Dublin were actually coming together and saying ‘we’re tired of being stepped on’.

There were negotiations that followed but at the end of the day Exchange and the supporters took the decision to accept the closure, hand over the keys and then begin a negotiation process with DCC about regaining access to the space. These negotiations are ongoing and it seems likely they may come to something, although DCC want Exchange to adopt a more formal structure and be subject to greater oversight.

To be honest that outcome was quite disappointing to us because we felt it was really important that people take a stand. While a number of people from other independent spaces got involved in supporting Exchange, and there was widespread interest, it didn’t really translate into what we would have liked to see – which is basically a sustained campaign to maintain the space and force a recognition on the part of DCC of the value of independent spaces and our right to access and manage urban space on our own terms.

Similarly, we’ve seen spaces like Mabos close. They have really gone to great lengths to work within the system and to stay open, but again they haven’t sought to develop a collective response that would try to go beyond what is currently possible and force some kind of change.

We understand why people take this route. Ireland is a country were if you don’t play ball you get blacklisted pretty quick – there’s very little tolerance of dissent and the attitude is very much like ‘how dare you question our authority’. With the Exchange case it was really incredible the extent to which those that were closing the space were outraged that we dared put across our views and our side of the story in public. Anyway, the point is that there’s this underlying view that it’s better to play the game, even if the rules are unfair, than to challenge it. This view is captured in a number of sayings that we’ve heard time and again: ‘you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar’; ‘we don’t want to burn too many bridges’; ‘we don’t want to ruffle any feathers’. Another aspect of this is the view that we can’t win, and that is more than understandable since we have not had any real experience of collective action bringing about concrete results. Another space we have been working with, which we won’t name because they are in ongoing negotiations with their landlords (NAMA), said to us recently ‘it’s a case of David and Goliath but in this story only Goliath can win’.

To be clear, we’re not criticising the spaces or the people and we very much recognise that everybody is working in difficult and uncertain situations with limited resources. Our view however is that only collective action can make possible what seems impossible and can cause political institutions, such as DCC, to change. This has been perhaps the most challenging, and often frustrating, aspect of the research project and our participation in independent spaces.

Nevertheless, we are continuing to work on a number of small projects and sometimes work with spaces facing concrete issues. We’re also talking with some other researchers who are doing some fantastic work in this area and with some Councillors who really get what independent spaces are about. The preparation of the new Dublin City Council Development Plan will begin soon and there is actually quite a lot of scope to get stuff in there that would support independent spaces.

Lastly, we still spend a lot of time independent spaces and are part of ongoing discussions and if there are any future situations were we can work with people to challenge the closure of a space and support spaces more generally we would very much like to be involved.