We need to expand radical democracy | kulturpunkt

English Interview


We need to expand radical democracy

Architect and activist Kike España talks about cultural and social centre La Casa Invisible and shares views on touristification, cultural and housing issues the city of Málaga is facing.

by: Kristina Tešija

FOTO: La Invisible / Facebook

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Kike España, an architect from and currently based in Málaga, is part of La Casa Invisible, a cultural and social centre in Málaga. He studied Architecture with a focus on urban studies in Málaga and Seville, he has a Ph.D. in urban theory, with a focus on urban theory teaching that involves and engages urban social movements, and how those movements affect and understand the city. From September 20th to 22nd, he was in Split, where he presented the current situation of the city of Málaga to Croatian and international audience, as a part of the Minutes to disaster city 19 (Grad na rubu katastrofe), a seminar organized by the informal initiative DegrowthCity. Kike describes himself as an academic outsider, because as a student he was very involved in student movements and still is politically very active. In 2011 in Spain, he was a part of the 15M-Movement (also referred to as the the Indignados Movement, or Take the Square) which came as a reaction to the crisis, and this experience put him in contact with La Casa Invisible. This changed Kike’s way of understanding space and architecture, and he saw more clearly how spaces, politics and political engagement/activism in the city are connected.


KP: Kike, can you start with telling us a bit more about the context of Málaga and share some of the problems that this city is facing today?

Málaga and Split are facing similar problems when we speak of "touristification". Málaga in the 19th century was an industrial city and its economy was based on industry. From the 1950s it has changed to a city based on touristic attractions. Málaga is called the capital of the Coast of the Sun in the south of Spain, so the main attractions are based on the coast, not in the city, like in some other Spanish cities. There was this idea that started in the 1990s, and became very prominent in the 2000s with the mayor of the conservative party (Partido Popular) coming to power, which is the strategy of growing economy through tourism but using culture to attract visitors. In the coast, you have the sun and the beaches, and in the city, you have that, and also culture. The thing is, Picasso was born in Málaga, but he moved to Paris when he was six. So this idea of rebranding the city is based on this "picassization" of the city. Following that point in the early 2000s, there was a Picasso museum opened, which led to the gentrification process. 

The main problem of Málaga is something that can be described as a dictatorship of only one form of understanding the production of the city, one which is based on private profit. This is the main reason why the city is constructed for the profit of only 1% of its population (foreign or local elite) and the rest of the city is suffering the consequences of that model. Tourism is only one face of this form of extracting money for the elite, but there are many others. The whole idea of tourism and economic growth bringing money to the city and then, logically, to all parts of society, turned out to be false. The rents in the city centre increased 200% from 2016 to 2018, which led to the eviction of 60–80% of the population, so only the property owners stayed in the city centre. Also, at the same time, we have seen a process of precarization of labour and the elimination of labour rights in all industries connected to tourism.

The main question here is: is the city and the housing in the city a commodity, and the city just a theme park for the visitors, or is it a place for habitation and living?

I am not saying, to be sure, that we need to forbid people from coming. Cities in themselves are places where people come and go. It is impossible to control that, and it is not our desire to do so. But what is important is to regulate and maintain life in the city. If the city is only a theme park for its visitors, then after tourism we will be left with a desert, a scenario no one would wish for.

KP: How was the idea for La Casa Invisible born?

It all started in 2007, which was at the beginning of this strategy of the city government. The place we occupy is an abandoned 19th-century palace, which people squatted in 2007. In fact, we have seen a merger of four traditions here: on the one hand, the classical squatting movement which was active in some other places in the city at the time, then some social movements which were connected to this squatting movement, people from the university who were critical of the way education was developing at the university and, the fourth tradition, the artists and creators without a workspace in the city. This combination of four things was very interesting because it brought about major changes to the squatting movement; squats came to be called social centres of the second generation and introduced a significant change to the classical squatting movement – radical inclusion.
In other words, we are not being self-referential about our activities, but are trying to start a very radical process of democratization by opening a space not only for new forms of living and culture, but also for anyone who needs a space to use for any purpose related to the promotion of human rights and democracy.
The connection between the space and the people inhabiting it is important to see. It is important to see this place and initiative not in a defensive and/or reactionary way but in a creative way; it’s not about trying to stop this processes from happening in the city of Málaga, but about generating alternatives and showing that other forms of living in Málaga are possible. And that will, of course, be conflictive at times. This relation between art and activism, while the city government is trying to use art and culture purely as an economic factor, shows us that some artistic tools and practices can be used in a subversive way and not only in an individualistic way. This means using creativity for the purposes of resistance, for inventing other forms of fighting and making alternatives for the city model that does not allow life in the city.
KP: Let’s go back to the beginning, to the process of entering the space. Can you describe that process?
For us, the whole idea and process came from the general understanding that there is no space for us in the city, for people who want to create and imagine the city in different ways. And it also came from the understanding that the city government, which has been run by the same guy for the last twenty years, doesn’t believe in these sorts of things. So we decided to do what we believed in. We realized that the only people we need to talk to are not the people from the city government but the citizens of Málaga.
We entered this abandoned building very simply, with a key that somebody had. The first idea of the occupation was to put on a one-week program in this abandoned space and show the citizens of Málaga that there is a lot of energy to do some things, but that there is no space for that. So, in this performative action, we planned to show how things could happen. But the energy deployed in this week was so strong and people had begun imagining how to further develop their ideas in this space. So they decided to continue working in this space.
From the very beginning, people were trying to start a dialogue with the city government, wanting to negotiate and regularize their activity, but without taking a step back.
KP: What about the years that followed and your relation to the city government?
This is a model of citizen management, not public management with bureaucratic control. It was very difficult at the beginning and it still is, because we still have the same illegal situation; we are not established in any way. We got the mayor to sit down with us many times, to discuss face to face, and many times he said that he will allow us to stay there legally, but never did so. During one year (2011), we got permission to stay there and it was supposed to be a one-year preparation for the real agreement that we never reached. We always keep trying and we are always in this "standby" situation in which the negotiations are going on, only to be followed by silence. 
They’ve tried to evict us last summer but we showed a lot of citizen strength and resistance. At the moment, we are waiting to continue negotiations, and in the meantime, we aren’t stopping with the fight, nor with our work and programs. There is a very important thing that people should understand: a space like this one, a space that is fighting for different forms of experimentation and understanding, will never be understood by the city government. We will always be in a conflictive situation, even if we get the agreement. Because, even with the agreement, the city government will be worried about us and will want to finish us off, since we are against their city model and are fighting them politically every step of the way; this is quite clear. The negotiations are not the end of the story; there is no end; it is always a process of conflict and you just have to live with it. The good thing is that we know how to live in a conflictive way, in a never-ending process of resistance, and that’s our advantage. They have the power of the state and the city, but we have the reason, the citizens of Málaga and we know how to resist and survive.
We always focus on specific points and things: for example, defending this space is one of these struggles. To make things clear, we are defending a piece of land that could be very profitable for the city government, and we try to use it in a way that profit isn’t a part of it. We are showing, on a daily basis, to the citizens of Málaga and its visitors, that this is possible and that we don’t need to wait for permission to do that. 
KP: What are some other ways of fighting the struggles and problems that you detect in the city of Málaga?

There are plenty of other things. For example, we’ve developed a platform called Málaga is not for sale (Málaga No Se Vende) that involves more than 30 different groups, collectives, associations and spaces in Málaga. We are organizing demonstrations together, assemblies, working together on certain topics (the problem of terraces in the city centre, for example). 
We research the topic, think of the ways how to organize people to fight against the problem, how to put the problem on the media agenda, how to get people to know that it is a real problem of the city. The same goes for the problem with the rent. We’ve started an association, a collective, something like a tenant’s union, to defend the people facing the huge rise in rent prices, but also to face the illegalities with the platforms like Airbnb, where houses are being turned into illegal hotels. In less than six years, the population of the city centre fell from more than 15.000 to less than 4.000. There are other problems and conflicts, like little gardens, urban forests, places for people to gather in the neighbourhoods, but we always try to use these networks to see all the problems and concentrate on specific fights.
KP: You joined La Casa Invisible in 2011; are people who were involved in the initial movement still active in this community?

Yes, more or less, there are three generations of people involved in La Casa Invisible now; the first generation comes from the period the precedes the 2007 initiative, from experiences in the city that involved the squatting movement. The second generation, which I am a part of, comes from the 15M-Movement. But there is also a new generation in La Casa Invisible, of people who have backgrounds in social mobilizations such as feminism and climate change activism. These three generations are all working together in La Casa Invisible and this is one important aspect of the whole organization – there is no vertical hierarchy or any kind of elite or group that controls everything. Every two weeks the assembly meets and makes all decisions together, based on consensus, not on majorities. It doesn’t matter who is "new" or "old" in the group; we discuss every topic and make decisions together. The word community is problematic in the sense that it generates an "inside" and an "outside". But in a sense it implies cooperation, because yes, we are a community. We try to include more people, to get them to participate.
There are many different forms of how people are included in La Casa Invisible; there are individuals who participate directly, others are individuals who form different groups here, but I would say that La Invisible is not a place for associations; it’s neither individuals nor concrete associations and collectives. It is a place where you can go individually, but you can also connect with different people there and do something together. When it comes to management, 65 of us are included in the everyday working group; we are the core of it. In everyday management there are around 150 people, and maybe one hundred more using the space.
What is the model of management in La Casa Invisible?

We absolutely reject the model of participatory management with the city government. It is a model that is good to have in the city, but what we are fighting for is absolute autonomy; we will do whatever we want, without any kind of permission from anyone. Of course, we don’t receive money from anyone, we only get the money that we somehow make (for example, in the bar during the concerts, collecting the money), and we don’t charge our programs, save for some education programs, and certain seminars.
There are decisions that are made only in the assembly, and then we have areas that are led by working groups. One of them is communication, the other one is strategy (strategy towards the city government or mobilization in the city), and we have a working group for activities and culture (organizing activities in the space of La Invisible, handling the schedule and spaces). We also have a group for the renovation of the building, and one for research and self-education (conferences, seminars, meetings…). 
All of this is based on self-organization and self-management. If you want to use the space, you need to take care of it. It is, in a way, a pedagogical process in which people who engage at the same time learn how this is working. This is very difficult for some people to get used to because they are used to the cleaning and the organizing being delegated to groups of other people, usually with a class division. But here, this is completely rejected, because we think that cleaning and doing art practices are the same thing, so we do everything. It’s always a learning process in which some people cook, some people clean, others are fixing the electricity, but at the same time, we all do everything. This is what gives you autonomy and allows you to do whatever you want.
KP: What kinds of activities are taking place in La Casa Invisible?
There are always many activities and they are always changing, but they are grouped into four main areas. One is basically the space for social movements (assembly for tenant’s unions, defending of certain rights…), another one has to do with political experimentation (knowledge production – how we learn, how we understand the city, how we organize people to, in a way, construct other forms of living, how we reach people to do that, organizing conferences, seminars, any kind of formats). For this specific tool, we’ve invented Universidad Libre Experimental (Free Experimental University), which is a bit of a joke given what the university usually is when it comes to its strict hierarchy, differences between teachers and students, the commodification of knowledge and the way it is produced. Knowledge production always has to be embedded in social relations and in people who are active in movements and politics. Then, there is another important thing: art practices and the cultural sphere. The most important activities here, because there are many, are contemporary dance and musical/noise experimentation (audio-visual), the circus and music in general (any kind, flamenco, electronica…, many different things together). Many important and prominent artists were ‘born’ in La Casa Invisible.
And I think that this is one of the most important aspects of La Casa Invisible – mixing these two ideas, of political and creative experimentation. Culture is not something separated from politics. It’s always something that is mixed, and everyone involved in La Invisible has a political understanding, even though it can be just in the form of intuition at the beginning. We always say that the desire and the joy (in a sense of enjoying things) is the key to political engagement and improving life in the city. It is completely opposite to the traditions of viewing political engagement as something sad in a way, very compromising and serious. We need to fix this way of looking at it and be related to things from our desires, to what we want to do and to our inventive approach. This form of experimentation is interesting because it keeps generating other inventive forms of doing things.
And the fourth type of activity, which is more concrete and related to the city model itself is – thinking about Málaga as a city, how it’s developing when connected to our movement. This also includes networking with other spaces in Spain and on an international level – exchanging knowledge, and trying to get people in the city to change the city.
KP: You mentioned different spaces in Spain. Do you collaborate with them?

We are part of a network, which is called Fundación de los Comunes, and it’s a collaboration of many spaces in Spain (Málaga, Pamplona, Zaragoza, Madrid, Barcelona, Terrassa). Some of them are social centres like us, some are community bookshops, others are militant research groups. Katakrak in Pamplona or Traficantes de Sueños in Madrid, for example, are places with which we have very direct communication (sharing strategies, for example). Also, with other nodes of the Foundation, we have online meetings every month and physical meetings every six months. We share some programs, for example in the self-education part; we have online courses that we organize together. Some conferences and book presentations we organize together as tours which go from one city to another, and that is working very well. We are, at the same time, cooperating with some other institutions. For example, we collaborate with Museo Reina Sofia, a national museum of contemporary art in Madrid, and organize different conferences, seminars, and meetings together.
KP: Let’s go back to people. When it comes to people visiting programs and participating in activities in La Casa Invisible, do you have any problems and struggles with attracting new users?
Yes, sometimes you feel like it’s always the same people. But I don’t think it’s so problematic because, in a way, it’s always changing. There are always people who are interested. We are against any form of community identity or self-reference, because, in a way, these things are always a barrier to people who want to engage. So, it’s more about creating an atmosphere which is comfortable for people who want to get close to something. It is a form of doing things, but without borders. When it comes to choosing some activities to include in the program, we choose the things that we believe in it, but the filter is very open.
Of course, this never works ideally; people never feel absolutely comfortable to directly say: "I’m new", and completely engage from the beginning. It is a process, of course. This is why we have one concept in La Invisible called acogida (welcoming) for people who show some interest; we talk to them about our history, the areas we work on and discuss the ways they could fit in one of them.
There is always a double danger: of not being open enough for new people and new ideas to engage with and, at the same time, of losing the radical and politically experimental form of doing things in the city (not just being a place for activities). We have to defend this horizontal form of decision making in the city, expanding radical democracy, free culture, and political experimentation, and at the same time, multiply complete openness to new forms of living in the city.

Objavio/la hana [at] kulturpunkt.hr 28.10.2019