It’s 2am and I’m standing in the middle of a disused building near Old Street, neurons firing rapidly while strange chemicals make their way through my system. I’m fumbling the construction of a joint because my head is taking a battering from the hard techno that’s blasting from the massive soundsystem at the front of the room. Cheap cans of beer are being sold from the makeshift bar and an assortment of malingerers are taking shelter from the furious beats by leaning against the wall behind me, chatting and smoking.
I’ve had an intense and much needed break from reality, and from my humdrum working life in Bristol. Strange that I find myself increasingly returning to the city I fled, as old cycles repeat themselves and what felt new and exciting a year ago is feeling increasingly drab and dreary.
A couple of hours ago I was watching Squarepusher perform his wholly unique electronic shamanism via the medium of jazz/jungle weirdness and other-worldly glitch that left the crowd either standing in awe, scratching their heads in confusion or off their faces and raving in a state of ecstatic possession at the back of the Troxy, down the road in Limehouse.
I now find myself at the London Anarchist Bookfair afterparty, hosted by Dissident Island, a crew I spent several years with (at varying levels of participation), helping to produce an online radio show, based out of East London squats and social centres. I learnt a huge amount from them, and haven’t seen most of them for a while. To my relief, one of the D*I DJs, Squeaky Grinder is replacing the techno with deep, skunk-infused dubstep.
Even though I’ve been away for some time, I’m well acquainted with these territories: liminal, temporary spaces sprouting from the cracks of the city, at the borderlands of contemporary capitalism and host to a renegade aesthetic intent on designing it’s own future, free from the impositions of what Terrence McKenna referred to as ‘dominator culture’. Stepping back into this realm, it suddenly hit me how much of my 20s had been shaped by these spaces and their contradictions. I’ve put few if any of these thoughts down on paper before.
I first stumbled accidentally into this world when I was 22 and leading a peculiar double-life: surviving from the paltry wages of a internship in a publishing company and various short-lived bar jobs, squatting by night. It was a year of very strange experiences, including getting barricaded inside one building by private security guards employed by the City of London Corporation, while I had garbled conversations with my crew about attaching kitchen knives to broom handles to ward off the dogs and organising for sandwiches to be put through the letterbox as emergency rations. Parties were a regular occurrence, as both benefit gigs for various groups, and purely for the sake of it.
At their best, squat parties are inclusive spaces where weirdos, misfits, and the curious can get together and listen to very loud sounds, free from restrictions on substance intake, dress codes and all the trappings of consumerist nightlife culture, with its bouncers, shit music and exorbitant prices. Furthermore, the squat party culture represents an alternative way of interacting with the city, underpinned by an anarchist sensibility that demands authentic experience in spaces that are collectively run, allowing for a wayward energy to flourish and breathe. These are spaces were sexism, homophobia, and other isms are not tolerated. This is the utopian arm of the free party culture, kept alive since the early 90s, but tracing its origins further back to the punk/squatter cultures of the 70s.
At their worst, squat parties can be nightmarish, apocalyptic experiences. Fed by a spiky, ‘fuck everything’ vibe verging on nihilism, they can be full of aggression and bad drugs, with music that sounds like sticking your heading in a tumble dryer along with a pneumatic drill, people pissing on the stairs and getting robbed at knifepoint in the toilets. Depending on the crews that ran them, some parties I’ve been to were like a twisted mirror to commercial raves: dodgy ‘security’ charging a tenner to stand in a broken down warehouse listening to horrifically dark and repetitive techno while shadowy huddles dissolve into k-holes in the corner.
Like other aspects of life, most squat parties contain elements of both these sets of competing energies. And maybe this antagonism is what gives them their own momentum – their open, boundary-dissolving potential balanced by a desire for chaos. Even at their best, squat parties, like all human endeavours are sometimes littered with their own contradictions. One aspect of the culture that has always grated with me is the under-representation of people of colour, something that is especially glaring given that most London squats I’ve known have existed in some of the city’s most ethnically diverse boroughs, including Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Lambeth and Southwark.
Despite this, I have learnt so much over the years: about the contradictions and messiness of cities; about the possibility to create art, music and media by yourself in a basement with a few scraps of scrounged materials; and about myself – my own desires, abilities, limitations and fears. Most of all, I learnt about the enormous dedication of crews who put huge amounts of energy into seeking out spaces, hauling their own rigs around the city in the middle of the night in battered vans, all for chaotic one-night celebrations of life in a city of eight million, only to have to clear the mess up in the morning.