Is squatting art?

Squatters have turned the house into a homeless hostel Image copyright PA
Image caption The squatters have turned the house into a homeless hostel

I've been thinking a lot about ANAL today. That is the Autonomous Nation of Anarchist Libertarians who are currently squatting in a whopping five-story house in Eaton Square, an upmarket part of London near Buckingham Palace.

According to the Guardian, the "1,329 square metre property has polished parquet floors, tasteful uplighting and a grand spiral staircase" and is owned by a wealthy Russian man (media shorthand: an oligarch) called Andrey Goncharenko.

He is not in residence, but apparently has representatives seeking a possession order at a hearing scheduled for tomorrow so he can (presumably) get on with adding the gym etc. for which he has sought planning permission.

Meanwhile, Anal argue that London is full of unoccupied buildings such as 102 Eaton Square, and that's daft when there's a palpable need for housing in the city. So, they have put into place their own plans by turning Mr Goncharenko's house into a homeless shelter with a projector for movie nights.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Emin was among many artists who lived in squats

I'm not going to get embroiled in the rights or wrongs on either side of this coming together of world views, but I will admit I'm interested in Anal. Its members are doing something I feel I've rather missed out on.

I have never lived in a squat, although I have lived in places that thought they were squats, like a flat in Swiss Cottage, which was so rank that when a friend from New York came to stay he actually chose to sleep in his rental car.

Nevertheless, I paid to live there, entered through the front door, and stored my belongings, consisting of a record collection that slowly warped in the damp. But it was legit, and therefore not cutting edge 1980s cool.

Image copyright Google maps
Image caption The mansion in Eaton Square, Belgravia, was entered through an open window

Back then, hipsters didn't live in smart apartments in Hoxton or gentrified high rises in Stoke Newington. They lived in squats. Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Jeremy Deller - they all lived in squats. It's what you did if you were an artist, which I wasn't.

But maybe Anal are: although to my knowledge they are not proclaiming to be - but that doesn't matter anymore. When the architectural and design collective Assemble were shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 2015, it marked an important moment in the history of art.

Not one of the members of the ensemble of 20-something architect-activists considered him or herself to be an artist; without asking or knowing, they were anointed to be such by the art world.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Assemble won the Turner Prize for their work in Liverpool's Cairns Street

No matter that Assemble members were handier with a slide-rule than a paintbrush, they won the Turner Prize anyway. And it was for a project that wasn't wildly dissimilar in conception to Anal's Eaton Square squat.

They were working with local residents in the Toxteth area of Liverpool on a direct-action project to regenerate the run-down Granby Four Streets area, with "the intention of bringing empty homes back into use".

There's a long history in art of political protest in the form of direct action. Dadaists, Surrealists and Situationists all sought to break down the barriers between art and life through protest, action and undermining the establishment.

Property was often their conduit, as it has been more recently for street artists and performance artists such as Petr Pavlensky, who, when he's not nailing his scrotum to Red Square or sewing his lips together, makes his political point via interventions - including setting light to the front door of the FSB building in Moscow.

Is there a huge difference between any of them and Anal? I don't think so. Will they be shortlisted for the 2017 Turner Prize in Hull? I doubt it. But it's not impossible.

And if they were I assume they'd set up a squat as their entry (Assemble created an Arts & Crafts shop for its exhibit), which would be in the richly refurbished Ferens Art Gallery: An intervention I suspect its eponymous founder, the campaigning Thomas Ferens, would wholeheartedly support.


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