From The Ashes of The Tobacco Factory: La Tabacalera

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In economic crisis, Spain’s creative class turns Abandoned buildings into Artistic Utopias where self-government is the rule.

Right in the heart of Madrid’s hippest and most cosmopolitan barrio, Lavapiés, lies a bizarre oasis. Within the walls of the abandoned state-owned tobacco factory, a utopian creative community has emerged. Seemingly oblivious to the economic carnage in the outside world, this band of egalitarian, non-commercial collectives is thriving. The Madrid counterculture’s slogan “Another world is possible” is being proved right by this band of outsiders.

So how did this idyll come about? How was the government convinced to hand over 9,200 square metres of listed building, in prime location, to what might some might describe as  a bunch of squatting crusties?

Spain is in a state of upheaval. With the property market bubble well and truly burst and youth unemployment approaching 50%, the country is awash with empty buildings and kids with a good idea of how to use them. Thanks to the Ocupa (Occupy) movement, squatting is no longer a dirty word. Unsold blocks of flats are now regularly ‘occupied’ by communities of respectable, recently evicted, middle class families.

But, obviously, it’s not just the middle classes who are taking advantage of the numerous unoccupied spaces. Hundreds of locations around the capital have been annexed by activists, creating temporary illegal bars, workshops and cultural projects. Ocupa’s battle-cry of “One more eviction = one more occupation” has been so effectively put into practice that the government had no option but to look for a solution for this crisis.

La Tabacalera – the tobacco factory – had lain abandoned for 9 years after the privatisation of the tobacco industry. In 2009 various local pressure groups got involved in discussions with the Ministry of Culture about what to do with the space, and were eventually permitted to set up the temporary project known as the Tabacalera Self-Managed Social Centre, with the remarkable proviso that the Ministry would have absolutely no control over what happens there.

So what does happen there? At present there are 30 collectives – groups of people who collaborate on projects and workshops. Each collective has a theme, which is social, practical or artistic: one is for theatre and dance, several for music, another for sewing, another for providing legal support and so on. All these activities are entirely free and, in fact, making profit is a strict no-no. A recent assembly (where all decisions are taken collectively) almost came to blows when a member of one collective accused another collective of trying to make money.

Collectives come and go and there is a fluid movement of people between them. Many will arrive hoping to learn, for example, how to fix their bike, and end up part of an African dance troupe. There is also a free flow of collaboration – everyone is happy to help. As no money changes hands, all advice and labour is given just for the fun of it.

Indeed, the centre simply wouldn’t exist if weren’t for the huge amount of unpaid work of all kinds carried out by the Tabacniks, as those who now inhabit the space style themselves, including refurbishment and maintenance as there is no government funding.

Most of the space available to the collectives is underground in a labyrinth of passages strewn with murals and piles of junk to be recycled. Poke your head through one of the doors and you may find a half finished recording studio, a group of performance poets or an ensemble of percussionists. Above ground there is a patio area, which is currently largely inhabited by an organic vegetable garden. The produce from this garden is regularly distributed to the needy. The central space in La Tabacalera is an imposing high-ceilinged hall, which is used for all kinds of events. Entrance to these events is, of course, free and the performers wouldn’t dream of charging a fee. That said, the events held here do generally raise money for good causes, through donations and the sale of food, drinks and other types of merchandise.

Wandering round La Tabacalera, as you are welcome to do, you may get the impression of a bunch of fun-loving creative types living out their dreams and supporting good causes, but, in fact, its roots are strongly political. The Spanish, disillusioned with their corrupt political systems and leaders, are turning their backs on the establishment and setting about creating their own ‘other world’ from the bottom up. La Tabacalera is the embodiment of this approach. It is entirely horizontal in structure – there’s no such thing as a boss. All decisions are made communally at assemblies, which are open to everyone. Each assembly not only deals with practical matters, but reinvents the democratic process itself. Protocol and procedures evolve week by week. Despite this lack of hierarchy, and even though all Tabacniks are equal, there is a structure. The five comisiones (which are manned in rotation) take care of the logistics of sharing the huge space. They deal with timetabling, communication, and such things, as well as arbitrating between collectives when there is a dispute.

La Tabacalera is the first project of its kind and so far the results have been impressive – national literary prizes have been won, an exhibition was recently taken to the Guggenheim in New York, and the weekly events are wildly popular. But can it continue? Although many in power would love to see the project fail, last December La Tabacalera won a two year stay of execution. But even if the government does eventually pull the plug on the project, it is clear that those involved in the movement won’t let it die. Even now, similar projects are springing up around the country and, perhaps, the world.