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Do Make Say Think: Totally Dublin Article On Seomra Spraoi

category dublin | arts and media | other press author Wednesday June 13, 2007 15:20author by himself Report this post to the editors


Playing with the future in Seomra Spraoi

Words: Jane Ruffino / Pictures: Maria de la Iglesia



Sunday afternoon, and the Seomra Spraoi (Irish for ‘room of play’) is living
up to its name. There’s Brazilian music, capoeira, sunshine and palpable
cameraderie. Polish anarchists occupy the couch, eating lunch before their
scheduled meeting, and visiting French activist Sebastien browses the
Forgotten Zine Archive in the corner. Collective members’ toddlers (it’s
also Kids’ Day, even though children are generally welcome at daytime events
or evening meetings) bang toy instruments or have used their infant charms
to commandeer bongos. But the effect of the cacophony is a harmonious one.
Seomra Spraoi began in late 2004, a collective brought together to provide
an informal space for artists, activists, and just about anyone sympathetic
to its DIY and pro-equality ethos.

I’m sitting on the floor chatting with Marianne. The music is lively, but we
can still hear each other. “I hope the neighbours don’t complain,” she says.
One of the problems with the Seomra Spraoi is that while most European
social centres occupy entire buildings, Dublin’s has only a single room in a
partly residential building. Noise isn’t the only issue. It’s also a
constant struggle to maintain the sense that this is a community space, and
not a service. Says Marianne, “We're brought up in a world where everything
is a service. Here if you mess the place up it's other people around you who
have to clean it up. People also still think there's some overlord or
something, some unknown force that says what's ok and not ok, what is
possible to do in the space and what isn't.”

It is the people who define the space, and everyone I talk to emphasises the
value of the informality that feeds its creative and social potential.
Marianne gets inspired, “When new projects come together because of it or
even people just meet and hang out and talk to each other.”

It isn’t only a space, but a physical place allows its purpose to extend
beyond the largely word-of-mouth network of people who simultaneously
benefit from and contribute to its operation. “In a city with few common
spaces, we wanted to replicate the autonomous social centres in Europe,”
says collective member William Hederman, who also lectures at DCU.

The pan-European trend for autonomous spaces grew out of a tradition of
squatting, more common on the continent, where the productive use of
abandoned spaces is often tolerated, if not legally provided for. In Dublin,
it was more practical to rent: Irish property law means that a squatted
space is by necessity a secretive one, and thus defeats the purpose of a
centre that, as William emphasises, wants to “reach out of the activist
ghetto and into communities.”

The rent is paid through fundraisers, donations and standing orders to the
group’s credit union account. It may be only one room, but it is an oasis of
practical idealism in a city full of greedy chrome bars and ham-fisted
panini peddlers, where developers and the government happily conflate
‘society’ with ‘Irish economy’.

“We always wanted a non-commercial place for people to be, where you can go
and sit and read a book without having to pay for the privilege, “says
Marianne, “We wanted a place that would be a focal point for activity,
politics, art, music, whatever.”

The Seomra began its search for a home in 2004, occasionally using the St
Nicholas of Myra Hall before finding temporary shelter in the boisterously
painted Middle Abbey Street dwelling of an artist from August 2005 until
early 2006. In August of last year, they began renting this space on Ormond
Quay, which they quickly made their own.

Every day is different. Monday evenings, the Radical Anarcha-Feminist Group
(RAG) meets to discuss issues or work on the magazine it publishes, and
Tuesday the space is used by Dublin Shell to Sea. Although the very nature
of a collectively run space is a form of political action, it isn’t all
explicit radical politics. There are also informal social gatherings,
sometimes loosely themed, such as this afternoon’s Brazilian Day, or
make-and-do coffee mornings, where you can come and work on your own
creative projects. In addition to the zine archive, it houses the Revolt
Video Collective, and you can also come on Saturdays or Sunday afternoon
(the only days it is possible to have the centre open) and curl up in the
corner with a volume from the Bad Books Community Library.

There’s no official joining process. “In fact if you start showing up on
Thursdays at meetings and helping out you are one of the collective,”
asserts Marianne. “New people always bring fresh enthusiasm and new ideas,
which is great.”

From his involvement with Electronic Resistance, an organisation of
politically- active producers and DJs, Fergal Scully was inspired to step up
his involvement about four months ago. “Everyone was very welcoming. You
really can come along and contribute as much as anyone else from the word
go. The group accepts how little or how much you can contribute at any time,
so you never feel like what you’re doing is a chore.”

Marianne is concerned but optimistic. “I was, and still am, always worried
that it won't work. It's constant, it's never finished. Maybe that's what
keeps us going, it never gets boring. We still think of the space we have as
a stepping stone to a bigger better more accessible and workable Seomra.”

What would it look like in an ideal world? “[It] would be huge and have
ground floor access so people could just walk in off the street without
ringing the bell. It would be wheelchair accessible. It would have an
outdoor area, room for a bike workshop and the libraries, a kitchen area, a
large meeting room, space where bands could practice and play gigs, a dark
room for photo developing and screen printing, I could go on and on. It
would be in the city centre, the area we're in now is great, and the rent
would be affordable.”

For now, at least, the Seomra has a home, but even this is temporary, a pity
in a city where, as William points out, there are millions of square metres
of empty space, mostly in private hands. Look at almost any city block, and
you will notice a boom in activity, but look more closely and you will see
terraces peppered with vacant or semi-abandoned buildings in even the most
exclusive neighbourhoods.

Productive use of these spaces could provide a home for community
activities, bring neighbourhoods to life in ways that wouldn’t be dominated
by commercial interests. Ironically, though, the use of these spaces, even
if only temporary, threatens not the preservation of buildings, but the
dereliction that allows an otherwise historic structure to be demolished to
make way for shiny minimalist luxury. In New York, it was the ‘broken window
theory’ that allowed ‘decaying’ neighbourhoods to be gentrified (which
brought its own problems of socio-economic exclusion), but Dublin has
redefined it: to a developer hoping to demolish a building, each broken
window might symbolise another step closer to its future as an ‘exclusive
development’.

The Seomra’s floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the Liffey is both a
physical one onto a city hurried and worried by economic booms and potential
busts, and a metaphorical one, into the kind of city the new Dublin could
be. And there is an atmosphere of possibility, that with wider support and a
more concerted vision, things might actually get better.

This building, like most of Ormond Quay, was developed in the 18th century
as part of the Jervis estate, built to house the prosperous middle classes,
fuelled by profits from trade as well as large-scale rural enclosure, where
common lands were consumed by private landlords eager for landscape gardens
and arable fields. It seems fitting, then, that it is one of these Georgian
buildings that houses the Seomra, where it is a ‘room of play’ as well as
one of rest and relief.

The roots of popular resistance stretch back much further than modern
activism, and as I’m lounging on the sun-warmed carpet like a cat in repose,
I can’t help but think of the 18th-century English protest rhyme:

They hang the man and flog the woman,?That steal the goose from off the
common,?But let the greater villain loose,?That steals the common from the
goose.

Contemporary collectives aren’t about a romanticised past (and indeed, the
historical reality of the ‘commons’ was hardly egalitarian) , they occupy a
hopeful present, making their immediate surroundings more amenable to
change. “When you see what can be achieved in this way and how easy and
enjoyable it can be, it makes you try and bring this to other parts of your
life,” says Fergal.

After my afternoon’s bask, I leave and walk down the puke-stained quays,
past lifestyle shops in Georgian buildings ten-generations deep in
conspicuous consumption, but I feel buttressed, my cynicism at least
temporarily replaced with a defiant optimism. It might fade by morning, but
right now, it’s Sunday afternoon and I’m actually smiling.

Postscript: after this article was written, eviction papers were served on
the occupants of Seomra Spraoi. If you know of a suitable premises or can
help with a donation, please contact seomraspraoi@ gmail.com
See also: www.seomraspraoi. org

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