Free Class, Copenhagen 2005-2006
Free Class was a self-organising class that took place in Copenhagen for one year in 2005-6. The theme of Free Class was ‘art and politics’. We had our base at the University of Copenhagen but used the city as our class room. The class was publicly advertised and was open for anyone who wanted to participate and contribute. The core of participants consisted of students from the institute of Art and Cultural Science, but the class also involved students from other fields such as geography and sociology. Furthermore, art students and undefined drifters joined the class. Even a local school teacher took part. We implemented a meeting structure as the framing structure of the classes, changing the focus of the social interaction from a teaching situation to a decision-making situation. With the meeting structure the ongoing objective became deciding how to proceed with our specific investigation. This made sure that there was nobody who ended up in the position of the teacher with the damaging consequences of locking the social interaction of the group in a specific hierarchy. We viewed our work as a collective process of research and we adjusted and changed our methods as we went in relation to the more specific topics of our investigation. As an example of this decision making process, we decided to spend one class at the main railway station of Copenhagen as a way to concretely sense and discuss biopolitical control applied to a concrete space.
During spring 2006 we decided to look into resistance and zones of contestation in the urban landscape. To gain a close insight into the urban conflicts we decided to link directly to local struggles and talk with people who in their everyday lives were navigating and resisting the normalising pressures of the neoliberal restructuring of the city. We wanted to hear people’s stories. At the first meeting we had a discussion about how to publish and share our findings in a way that made these useful for others beyond the circle of people around Free Class. We wanted to make the knowledge that we developed public and represent it back to the political and social context of the city. We decided to collaborate with the activist television station tv-tv on producing a series of educational television programs. tv-tv reaches all households with a television in Greater Copenhagen and about 1,7 mill. people. This communicative intention became an integrated part of the process without changing the way that the class was developing the investigation into the conflicts of the urban fabric. We picked some specific and perhaps representative classes to film and we wanted to produce the programs with just one small camera following our journeys and discussions. When we met for one of the classes that we wanted to record, two or three people volunteered to film the proceedings and we founded the Free Class Video Collective to produce what became four programs of 30 minutes each that were eventually screened on tv-tv during Summer 2006. The titles of the programs are: Free Class on Street Art and the Battle for Public Space, Free Class on Urban Gardening and Environmental Activism in the City, Free Class on DIY Architecture and Selforganisation and Free Class on Sex and the Public Sphere. We are still working on publishing the videos on a DVD with the intention of distributing the videos to local schools as educational material.
The dialogue in the series differed according to the people that we met and the context we met them in. Following are four excerpts from the programs where we talked to a gay activist, two street artists, a DIY builder, and a guerrilla gardener.
Free Class on DIY Architecture and Selforganisation
Birte: I moved in 28 years ago. Into a real old Frederikshøj house with lots of extensions and protrusions and towers. We called it Super Goof’s paddle steamer. I lived in that commune for six or seven years. We had a stove. The Tip was so rough and ready that rubbish was simply dumped there. We had a wagon to fetch firewood in. The toilet was in a shed. It was emptied at night. We had a kitchen with a gas geyser for washing. By then some people had more mod cons. But now it is completely different. I’ve a bathroom and central heating. The old kind of residents made more of a mark in those days. I was one of the first people who discovered the place and chose to live here for its qualities. But the people who already lived here had no choice. Not all of them; there were lots of people from the brewery, too. But most didn’t live here by choice, not the way it is now. The make-up of the residents has changed. Since the 1980s, I reckon, people have realized the qualities of life in the middle of Copenhagen yet so close to the ground, with lots of democracy for little money. It’s a dead cheap place to live. So lots of people with children don’t have to work long hours. So they have more time for each other. Lots of artists live here. They don’t have to do much paid work if they don’t want to ... But on the other hand it means it is duller now. I liked it better in the old days in some ways. It was more fun, more colourful, more dramatic. The police had to come to our annual general meetings. But we have become more and more alike. And with the changes happening now with formal approval for residence all year round, we will be no more than a residential area with traditions we still try to prolong but ... that will be it. I reckon. Coming to live here used to be a bit of a risk because it was illegal. We were duty-bound to clear our plots. You can’t be too conformist and afraid of the future, can you? And it puts a damper on rising house prices. It is vital that the homes here don’t become expensive.
Free Class on street art and the battle for public space.
Ask: As regards the political side of it, specially where graffiti is concerned, the first graffiti you did was inspired by political commitment. Did it come to you with street art and then you went back to graffiti?
Jonas: Our strategy has been offensive, ever since ”Garden In One Night”. The idea has been to constantly claim more space. It was the same thing when we started out in the People’s Park. The People’s Park has two areas, the old and the new. When we started in ’97, the new area was an empty site. You couldn’t even park there. It was completely empty. So we went in and said: ”We don’t want to just fiddle about. We want to do something new and make it bigger.” The same thing was the case here. We wanted to do a new area, lay out a lawn, for example, and we offered the supermarket next door to do something along their wall and give them a flowerbed. It was up to them whether they wanted cute little roses or whatever. We thought it was stupid to have 3 or 4 metres of paving stones when the fire department only dictates 2.4 metres.
So we constantly thought: ”How do we progress from here?” At the same time, we’ve been restricted by the fact that we’ve become the Garden Group for the Youth House. We’re not ... Perhaps we could have done more to say: ”We’ll set up a proper garden action group, go out and claim other spaces, and create new spaces.” We’ve sometimes given plants away, both in the People’s Park and locally. We had a lot more plants here, but we’ve given some to other projects. That way, we’re not just throwing stuff away, but starting new things. The land was actually owned by the City of Copenhagen. But we didn’t really care about that, because the same thing applied to the Youth House. The way we’ve done things is to simply use the area as if it was our own. We also believed it was a really great idea, neighbourwise, to do something which might inspire people. We hoped to be able to provide some inspiration for the courtyard renovations which were part of the community renewal.
We wanted it to be megagreen, with lots of colour, but at the same time we also wanted the place to be used. Often people will stand out here sawing, patching up old bikes etc. That was the whole idea, to create an urban space, so that you don’t just send your bike to the bike shop every time you’ve got a puncture ... You enter public space, shop for food, and hurry back to your flat. Maybe you go out visiting someone. We wanted the city to become a place where ... thinking back to the pretelevision era, maybe, where you used the urban spaces to go for a walk after dinner or sit and discuss things. In the warmer months, people used the outdoor spaces much more. On Vesterbro, especially, people grew vegetables in the backyards, up until the last hen left Vesterbro in ’87, I think. That’s when the last hen run closed. You have to say: ”What’s actually possible?”
Lucia: It’s incredibly difficult to discuss sex in the public sphere without being put into those very extreme boxes. I think it’s definitely a good idea to show resistance against this overwhelming heterosexual, male fixated pornofication which we see all over the place. There’s a very fine line, I think, between not eliminating sexuality from the public sphere, while at the same time being able to criticize it and restrict it. Because sometimes you don’t want to look at it. Just as you should be able to actively choose commercials, and not be forced to look at them as soon as you switch on the TV or walk down the street. I think it’s a really difficult thing to discuss, actually. Maybe that’s why we’re all a bit ... No one really dares say anything ...
Mads: It’s not just an exclusion of non-heterosexuals in public space. The exclusion takes place in many other contexts as well. Whether it’s punks or graffiti artists or homeless people, you see this normalization of the public space taking place. There’s this idea that everyone should be allowed to be here, but “everyone” doesn’t include everybody. You could argue that a phenomenon such as cruising can easily exist alongside other uses of the park. For years, people have met here to have sex, alongside the homeless and backpackers hanging out here. People can easily work it out in different ways, together.
Christian: Listening to what you said, do you see the state as becoming more restrictive towards this? Is the state becoming more restrictive towards these activities?
Mads: I don’t know if it’s the state, specifically. It’s difficult to say whether there are more restrictions today. I don’t know. There are other types of restrictions. In some ways belonging to a sexual minority has become easier, but in other ways it hasn’t. The restrictions are different, because you see some specific, acceptable or desirable ways of being a homosexual. As I mentioned before, we’ve obtained a certain level of rights which means that you get these specific, more or less acceptable ways of being a homosexual. But this also means that when you widen the space in one area, you limit it in another. And then you can use the widened space as an argument and say, “It’s okay to say that this is not okay.” I definitely see more restrictions today concerning sex in public than we’ve had before. But that doesn’t mean, necessarily, that it’s become more difficult to be a homo. But it’s become more difficult to be a homo in that certain way. But then you have other options, so it’s a kind of boomerang effect.
Lucia: There’s a tendency to normalize, to start regulating an area - which no one complains about. Certain things are not allowed, even though they’re not obstructive. Even the most closed spaces are being destroyed. Christiania is not okay, for example, even though it’s not disturbing. It’s disturbing in as much as people display deviant behaviour, - no matter how overt it is.
Ida: You create a discourse on something and make it dangerous. It’s the same thing with street art, graffiti etc. It’s made out to be very dangerous, even though the scene is introvert and poses no danger at all to anybody else. But starting a discourse on a problem makes you look pro-active when you’re a political ... a politician. It’s a strange kind of self-propelled system, actually.
Lucia: You construct enemies which you can see and have an opinion on.
Ida: Yes, and it’s very easy to construct enemies out of minority groups, which the wider public doesn’t have immediate access to, or understand, such as the graffiti scene or the homosexual scene here. It’s easy to turn it into something dangerous, even though it might be a culture which exists in isolation, parallel to all the others, like you said.
Free Class was organised by Jakob Jakobsen with Tanya Lindkvist, Ask Katzeff, Inge Agnete Tarpgaard, Trine Porret Randahl Hansen, Trine Friis Sørensen, Lucia Caceres, Per Brandt, Tage Wester, Martin Steiner, and others. Text by Jakob Jakobsen.
Free Class Video, TVD, 4 x 30 min, can be ordered at firstname.lastname@example.org