No Money: Free Space, Free Art, Free Lives

Personal, Poetry


Had a fantastic time down at the Oubliette Arthouse on Saturday night. If you were in London that day, you’ll remember how the heavens opened that afternoon, heavy rain like nothing we’d seen in weeks, and if you were in Southwark and had as sense of fun you would, like me, have been skipping across flooded roads and kicking up spray from puddles. But inside the Oubliette it was dry and cosy and filled the cushions — and art.

The Oubliette is a squatted arthouse which has taken up residency in six interim bases over the past couple of years in its quest for a free, fantastic home for artists. They turn disused embassies, offices and warehouses into places to create art — visual, performance, musical, anything. Along with ArtEvict and others, they’re part of a growing subculture of free-dom in the arts: spaces which are free to use, free to attend, freed from the constraints of mainstream and monetary means of production. Brecht once wrote of artists and intellectuals that

“Thinking they are in possession of an apparatus, which in reality owns them, they defend an apparatus over which they no longer have any control. […] The producers are completely dependent on the apparatus, economically and socially; it monopolises their effect, and progressively the products of writers, composers and critics take on the character of raw materials: the finished product is turned out by the apparatus.”

Now that’s an argument that still holds true for the vast majority of so-called political theatre. David Hare, anyone? But at the Oubliette and spaces like it, I start to get the scent of something new, something that smells like theatre: a “place of action; field of operations” for performance.

But you don’t need me, a privileged middle-class white-boy with a laptop and a vintage clothes habit, to rave about the joys of free living. I’ll problematise that later. Let me rave about the art for a bit.

Things opened up with a free jazz duo, sax and drums, with a contemporary dancer improvising alongside. (I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your names.) It was relaxed, smooth, alert, disconcertingly beautiful. The most fascinating stuff happened in the spaces between–rhythmic counterpoints of dance and drums, the melody against the dissonance, the performers against the hushed, fairy-lit audience. There was a sense of people being here, together, hoping.

The Improsarios took some suggestions and built some rapid, hilarious improv theatre scenes. There were good jokes and great performances — but the best thing, for me, was the level of narrative drive and genuinely touching emotional content they brought to improv. After some training its not so hard to get laughs — just reel out some stock characters, have a knack for punchlines and when to cut a scene, add a dash of the absurd — but it’s damn near impossible to build a story of any length that works, that carries you with it, that doesn’t lag, that keeps you smiling. Well, they did. Whoops and applause.

Meanwhile, upstairs were paintings and installations and people smiling at some very strange pictures of Hitler and Stalin performing trouser-less cabaret; outside in a caravan, Stoke Newington International Airport were up to performance art antics. But by that point I’d got all wrapped up in poetry and was missing things (the sign of a great art night being that you can’t see everything).

Spoken word was hosted by the indefatigable Catherine Brogan – a bittersweet Irish poet who knows just how to charm and rally a crowd, how to bend simple words into complex ideas, who doesn’t bury her convictions under ironic distance but keeps you laughing nonetheless. There were features from Alain English, Camila Fiori, Jill Abram (and others whose names I didn’t catch, including a stunning Spanish cycle about air travel), but highlights for me were Sabrina Mahfouz — who gave us a breakneck epic Twitter-age Dorian Gray re-telling with extra blood and gore — and Dean Atta — who’s been tearing for a while with rhymes about race and sexuality and love and death and all the important things.

I gave a set too. I kicked off with my ancient Eat The Rich poem, given that it was May Day, and it went down a storm. Tho’ here’s the thing I want to talk about, or at least mention. I’ve a good artist friend who mentioned being a bit disoriented one night at the Oubliette — disoriented by the accents and backgrounds of the people around her. Nasty words get used in situations like this — bohos and trustafarians , often — when we’re dealing with the fact that the artists and audiences around us in such spaces are, often, a bit posh. And yeah, it is weird to be rapping about the ills of excess wealth and get cheers from people I’d heard speaking in some distinctly cut-glass tones a few minutes earlier. (Yo, I’m not talking about the whole crowd here. It’s not like I did an economic survey of those present.) And yeah, I do have some problems with that, and I do have a massive chip on my shoulder about class, middle-of-the-middle as I am. And yeah, maybe it is sometimes the case that freedom — this kind of no frills no money kind of freedom — is often the preserve of privilege people who aren’t tied down by responsibilities, do have an overdraft or a family to fall back on, who’ve got some of that behind them. Only people who’ve had money seriously think it might be a good idea to live with no money; sometimes it’s people for whom much of life has been more-or-less free who are lucky enough to contemplate free space. those who can afford to make it all free. I see it in art squats and anarchist squats, amongst activists and musicians and everyone. In these post-socialist days, days when class war sometimes seems so distant, we’ve still got some shit to work out about how we deal with all this. You can’t just ignore it. But you can’t get too hung up on it either. In the end, whatever our backgrounds, the squat and the free house are where you go if your marginalised, if you’re a drop-out, if you never fit where you came from and don’t know where you’re going. Sometimes you have to be privileged to drop out; sometimes you get pushed 0ut; sometimes you’re from somewhere that means you’ve nowhere else to go. Less important than where you’re from is where you’re going: and if you’re going the same place as me, and you really believe in it and give yourself over to it, then we’re together. Even if your accent pisses me off.

<<And who am I to talk? I’ve saddled myself with masses of debt to take an MA, but middle-middle in this country is still pretty privileged, still better off than 99% of the world and much of this country. And with the future barreling towards me, I’m deciding about whether I’m going to be a drop-out or financially stable, whether I’m gonna pursue this art no matter what, or whether I’m going to get a “proper job”. Christ, I’m lucky to be able to make a decision rather than have my life decided for me.>>

So whatever. Vive L’Oubliette! Long live freedom! More! More! More!