D H I T I

Squat!

In Culture, Europe, France, Germany, Places, Travel on February 17, 2012 at 1:13 am

A woman looking at the work of one of the residents of a squat in Berlin

The Oxford online dictionary reveals the following entry for Squat:

verb(squats, squatting, squatted)

  • 1 [no object] crouch or sit with one’s knees bent and one’s heels close to or touching one’s buttocks or the back of one’s thighs: I squatted down in front of him
  • [with object] Weightlifting crouch down in such a way and rise again while holding (a specified weight) across one’s shoulders: he can squat 850 pounds
  • 2 [no object] unlawfully occupy an uninhabited building or settle on a piece of land: eight families are squatting in the house
  • [with object] unlawfully occupy (an uninhabited building): Clare, Briony, and the others had squatted the old council house

adjective(squatter, squattest)

  • short and thickset; disproportionately broad or wide: he was muscular and squat a squat grey house

noun

  • 1 [in singular] a squatting position.
  • Weightlifting an exercise in which a person squats down and rises again while holding a barbell across one’s shoulders.
  • (in gymnastics) an exercise involving a squatting movement or action.
  • 2a building occupied by people living in it without the legal right to do so: a basement room in a North London squat
  • an unlawful occupation of an uninhabited building: this squat cost the ratepayer £46,000

Unfortunately, it does not include the squats as they exist today, whether in Berlin or in Paris which are buildings occupied by artists who live and work there and today some of these buildings, at least, are accepted by the local authorities and allowed to flourish and are no longer unlawfully inhabited. The battle for acceptance at the political and legal level was not easy though, for Berlin nor Paris. The name squat however, has stuck and remained synonymous with these establishments.

I visited my first squat in Berlin. 

Tacheles, in Berlin is situated just a few blocks away from the newly renovated Synagogue, considered a towering landmark of the city before the Nazis arrived. What is striking about Tacheles, at first glance, is its location. It started getting inhabited by squatters sometime after the Berlin wall came down, when it was just a torn down derelict building but today while it retains most of its torn down look, it is situated in one of better areas of the city, which makes it look completely out-of-place. However, it has the ability to grab your attention in a way that you wouldn’t expect of a run-down building. What I remember of Tacheles is lots of live music and bright colours. Tacheles is composed of a run-down looking building of around four storeys and a couple of smaller workshops and a bar that comes alive in the evenings, in its backyard. And once you enter and start looking around, you find artists bent on their work, unconcerned by the flow of visitors or the sounds, going about their business as if nothing else mattered.

Can you imagine just walking into someone’s workplace and watch them  work? Well, we did exactly that. We watched people turn metal scrap  into shapes we had never imagined possible, newspaper cuttings into  witty slogans and rubber tyres into jewellery. It was clear that some of  them lived there because you could see their belongings when you walked around through various rooms filled with their work. The place  is also supposed to be a meeting place. It has a bar where anyone can  pop in for a drink and some grub, at cheap and affordable prices and its  also a place for like-minded people to share and exchange ideas and  work. Tacheles has of course become a very famous spot and today  hosts cultural events as well.

In comparison, the Paris squat et Rue Rivoli is quite sedate.

Squat at Rue Rivoli, Paris

It may not be a torn down building in the middle of a posh neighbourhood, but it is definitely striking to see it in the heart of Paris, its entrance flanked by boutiques and high-end shops. In the four floors occupied by the artists, you can find everything from the quirky to the sober, from cheap to very expensive and from serious to shocking. However, unlike its Berlin peer, the artists here seemed more serious about selling their wares. It lacks the bohemian feel that the Berlin squat has but that said, there are more chances that you find something unusual which at the same time, you can put in your living room, without giving the impression that you are suffering from nostalgia of your hard rock and rebel years.

It was recently, in 2002, that the squat was allowed to re-open, thanks to Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë. Today they publicize themselves as being a cultural center,they have a website, they are open to the public everyday of the week except Mondays, organise concerts every weekend etc. They are also organised and call themselves an association, they organise workshops for art students and they have their own newsletter. Basically, it is the professional version of the Berlin squat.

In the end whether you prefer the bohemian Tacheles or the more composed 59,Rue Rivoli, both are undoubtedly a haven for all things art.

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