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Here’s a nice piece written about Seomra Spraoi and published in Totally Dublin magazine, May 2007.
DO MAKE SAY THINK
Playing with the future in Seomra Spraoi
Words: Jane Ruffino / Pictures: Maria de la Iglesia
Sunday afternoon, and the Seomra Spraoi (Irish for â€˜room of playâ€™) is living up to its name. Thereâ€™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 membersâ€™ toddlers (itâ€™s also Kidsâ€™ 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.
Iâ€™m sitting on the floor chatting with Marianne. The music is lively, but we can still hear each other. â€œI hope the neighbours donâ€™t complain,â€ she says. One of the problems with the Seomra Spraoi is that while most European social centres occupy entire buildings, Dublinâ€™s has only a single room in a partly residential building. Noise isnâ€™t the only issue. Itâ€™s also a constant struggle to maintain the sense that this is a community space, and not a service. Says Marianne, â€œWe’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.â€
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, â€œWhen new projects come together because of it or even people just meet and hang out and talk to each other.â€
It isnâ€™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. â€œIn a city with few common spaces, we wanted to replicate the autonomous social centres in Europe,â€ 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 â€œreach out of the activist ghetto and into communities.â€
The rent is paid through fundraisers, donations and standing orders to the groupâ€™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 â€˜societyâ€™ with â€˜Irish economyâ€™.
â€œWe 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, â€œsays Marianne, â€œWe wanted a place that would be a focal point for activity, politics, art, music, whatever.â€
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 isnâ€™t all explicit radical politics. There are also informal social gatherings, sometimes loosely themed, such as this afternoonâ€™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.
Thereâ€™s no official joining process. â€œIn fact if you start showing up on Thursdays at meetings and helping out you are one of the collective,â€ asserts Marianne. â€œNew people always bring fresh enthusiasm and new ideas, which is great.â€
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. â€œEveryone 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 youâ€™re doing is a chore.â€
Marianne is concerned but optimistic. â€œI 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.â€
What would it look like in an ideal world? â€œ[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.â€
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 wouldnâ€™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 â€˜broken window theoryâ€™ that allowed â€˜decayingâ€™ 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 â€˜exclusive developmentâ€™.
The Seomraâ€™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 â€˜room of playâ€™ as well as one of rest and relief.
The roots of popular resistance stretch back much further than modern activism, and as Iâ€™m lounging on the sun-warmed carpet like a cat in repose, I canâ€™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 arenâ€™t about a romanticised past (and indeed, the historical reality of the â€˜commonsâ€™ was hardly egalitarian), they occupy a hopeful present, making their immediate surroundings more amenable to change. â€œWhen 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,â€ says Fergal.
After my afternoonâ€™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, itâ€™s Sunday afternoon and Iâ€™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 firstname.lastname@example.org
See also: www.seomraspraoi.org