Sacralizing Space

The One Day Long Squat in Budapest

In the end of October 2004 a group of young people moved into a rundown building in downtown Budapest. They would have been labeled as “squatters” if Hungarian people knew this concept at all. In principle, the group’s move was illegal, something condemned by the majority of the society, as they broke into a private property. This particular case though could be an exception, considering the added cultural value squatters created in this particular district of Budapest. The core squatter group consisted of about 15-20 people who turned some parts of the huge, ruined building livable creating a community space.

Pictures: Indymedia Hungary

The so called Centrum squatter group has chosen a well-known building that used to be the Úttöro (= pioneers) Department Store in the socialist times that offered wares for children. For all those aged between 20 and 40 this building evokes memories from childhood. Especially the big alley and the decorative wall at the entrance with the ceramic sculpture visualizing the map of the world with happy children allover – the masterpiece lacks the American continent in the spirit of fight against imperialism.

A short experiment

After a week of intensive preparations the squatters decided to open their creation for the public. The owner got to know about the action via the media, and rushed to the place. On the day following the grand opening ceremony the spokesman of the squatters announced, that they follow the demand of the owner and leave the place. Therefore the Centrum squat turned out to be a rather short experiment – it died within 24 hours.

At the opening ceremony on November the 7th, that was attended by local neighbours, friends, media, the police, and the security people of the owner that had just recently caught a whiff, one of the spokesmen of the squatters announced in a pathetic tone:

“I would like kindly to ask the members of the Budapest Police, that they close the gate. Those who are inside – we all – have violated the Hungarian civil and criminal law. In this building that used to be the temple of consumption we re-sacralized the space for some other purpose!”

What a tempting trap for visitors it seems. But actually what could be that “other purpose” mentioned, in the interpretation of those individuals – green activists, punks, and university students – who contributed to the thing to make it happen? The crowd in the fist of the police at the opening ceremony faced an impressive and colourful picture.

Turning the ruin into a cultural center

After a week of intensive work, squatters managed to turn parts of the 5000 square meter building capable for using: five-six rooms, two toilets, a cafeteria, a cinema room, and an exhibition hall. They were cleaning, fixing, bringing in furniture, and making decoration on the walls. The outlook was developing step by step, puzzle piece by puzzle piece, somebody brought a poster, somebody else a sofa, again other a bucket and so on.

“When we entered, it was dirty here, plaster was peeling from the walls, but we managed to make a cultural centre, where anytime, anybody can come in, where people are not obliged to buy anything, they can just simply sit and talk. We also run a free clothing shop, where one could take any second hand clothes he liked, we had a cafeteria, where we offered drinks without making profit.”
/a young squatter-lady/

Sounds like we have heard about such a thing already. Squat communities worldwide, despite of their illegality are integral parts of urban subcultures with strong globalisation critical attitude and artistic angles. And there are squats allover Europe – in London, in Amsterdam, as well as in Prague, Wien, Warszawa, Ljubljana. So far there has not been a durable one in Budapest.

“I have been to a squat in Ljubljana, that was a kind of a cultural space, something that we try to create here as well. But they did not live in the building itself, meaning they went home to take a shower. But my most beautiful squat experience was in Wien. There I have been to a huge building where each floor was used for a different purpose. In the basement there were concerts, on the ground floor was the buffet, on the first floor offices of civil organizations were located, on the second floor stayed immigrants from Pakistan, on the third floor lived the squatters themselves, and on the top floor there was room dedicated for visitors.”
/a young squatter-man/

The history of squatters can be traced back to the times of the 1968 student revolutions on Western European scenes. According to the myths about origins, the first squat communities were mostly leftist and revolutionary, they consisted of anarchist, punk or hippy groups, who for either movement purposes, either for the joy of being together, or simply because did not have a place to stay have moved illegally into an abandoned city building. As the squat itself is as a rule an illegal construction, squats work like this: people move in, paint the place, decorate it, start to use it, and sooner or later comes the owner, who kicks them out. Then squatters look for another abandoned building. This model inspired the people for stepping into action, create the Centrum group and reshape the abandoned building according to their own taste.

“Fifteen years after the change of the regime, Budapest is in a need of a grassroot cultural zone free from political and economic group interests. A cultural zone, where participants, based on the principles of free expression try to model a community lifestyle alternative to the consumer society.”
/Ember Zoltán, Mancs magazine/

A Rainbow of Messages

So this non-stop party seems to be wrapped up in messages. Actually not a single message, but a rainbow of messages. Centrum squatters seem to have their ideas about how to solve the growing problem of homeless, and about what to do about art relic buildings of the city that are about to be dismantled. The squat experiment put into the spotlight some issues of public concern.

“We cannot accept that after the change of regime in Hungary, as a consequence of closing down cultural houses and public libraries, several cultural functions are neglected in Budapest. We also do not like that there is a layer of the Budapest youth that cannot afford to go out, because clubs are all about consumption. We also think it is a pity that artists have to run around for their art studio. These are the problems that we wanted to direct attention to.”
/spokesman of the squatters/

Playing in the role of “rebels in a local revolution” meanwhile representing the “interests of the weak” could be fun. Be these people rebels, or rather not, in this self-organised carnival they went through was an interesting process. They experienced a special lifestyle and learned a bunch of things about articulating their opinions. Not to forget the fact what level of mobilisation was necessary, combined with thorough preparations and coordination. The group made its decisions on the basis of consensus, and this is not known as the fastest and simplest way of dealing with issues.

“Squat communities are one of the most interesting subcultures. It is a system that has its own language, own rituals, and most importantly its’ own values. Whereas most other subcultures follow a trend suggested by the media, a squat does not follow a fashion, but attempts to shape its surroundings, and to criticise its surroundings as well.”
/Gábor Csillag, cultural antropologist/

And how many echoes this little stone thrown into the valley could create? Well, the media coverage of the event was quite extensive – reports appeared in several leading newspapers and even mainstream television channels. And media did not take a hostile approach towards squatters. The impression was that many people were interested, many people even resonated with the messages about freedom and autonomy. That depends on the squatters, how effective they are in pushing through their messages.

“Whether something legal or not depends on the public decision, and I think it is not impossible to create a mood in the society that the public accepts this.”
/László Bihari, journalist/

Excerpts based on the interview from the documentary film
made by Balázs Horváth in 2004

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