Identity Urban

A Night in a Squatted Dungeon: What I Learned From Re-imagining Spaces

There is an expression in Spain that could be translated as “a goat will always go to the mountain”, which basically means that we tend to walk in directions that are inherent to us. As the rusty-hearted stubborn goat I am, two weeks ago I travelled back to my beloved Amsterdam once again, although we (yes, this time it was a “we”, but that’s a whole different story) weren’t going to stay in anyone’s apartment. Fran – my adventure companion – and I had been invited by a friend to stay in Spinhuis, one of the last illegal squats in Amsterdam, and so we spent one of our nights there.

Now, I had been in squats before, attending events or performing in them. But I had never stayed overnight, sleeping in as a guest – neither had Fran. We were both fairly excited, yet nervous. We didn’t want them to take our enthusiasm as touristic voyeurism.
That night we entered the place, hungry, tired and soaking wet from the rain. It was a subtly hidden space under a bridge, below the water level of one of the main canals of the city. As our friend pushed the ramshackle door open, we entered a wide, beautiful room made of brick under an oval ceiling. The first thing I did was slip and fall down the short stairs at the entrance in front of everyone. I can travel like a bad bitch, but elegance is not a gift I’ve been blessed with.
However, it wasn’t long until we had a beer in our hands, talking to whoever wanted to talk to us – friendly people of different ages and genders who explained more about where we were. Apparently, the squat used to be an old dungeon from centuries ago which they found by chance and decided to bring back to life, since no one was using it. I have to say, this is the strangest place I’ve ever watched a comedy movie at.

I don’t know about you, but I haven’t grown up with the concept of space as something of questionable use. I mean: a house is a place to live in, a school is a place to go every day and learn (ha, I know, but that’s another topic) and a train station is where you take the train. That’s it. But when you start travelling, te use of spaces becomes suddenly relative and mixed. You start seeing possibilities in spaces that aren’t meant for them: Is it illegal to sleep at that train station? How about changing clothes in that public library? Will they let me shower at that war veterans’ center if I ask nicely? And, of course, if a certain place is actually in use, its given purpose should be respected – but what if the new one doesn’t collide with the original one? What if it’s actually not even being used? Squatted abandoned places such as Spinhuis are not only a practical solution to the lack of homes and cultural centres in cities, but they are also a reminder of the possibility of redefining spaces. After all, a squatted dungeon was, to us, home for one night.

Of course, there is an important point that, despite being obvious, should be remarked – and that is the fact that sometimes (without going further, in the case of some of the inhabitants of Spinhuis), making a home out of a space that isn’t supposed to be home is not a choice, but a hard decision born out of the lack of possibilities. There are many reasons why someone would decide to squat, but some of them find its origins in a given lack of privilege and some others don’t. The necessity of re-imagining spaces is sometimes a survival one, and we should always remember that when we are lucky enough to just plunge into playing with it.

If we take this subject back to travelling, though, our perspective changes. During a low budget trip, for instance, the process of imagining the possibilities of a certain space is usually a fun game born out of the need to supply basic necessities such as shelter or personal hygiene with little or no money. This is why we don’t see space as something questionable in our everyday sedentary lives – because we don’t have to. And for this reason I believe that mainstream tourism equals to moving your comfort zone to a different place – you use spaces (hotels, restaurants) as they’re meant to be used. Non-low-budget travelling implies little or none problem solving. Unless, of course, you call problem solving to deciding if the hotel bartender will give you the dirty look if you ask for a margarita on a Tuesday at 1pm.

However, the fun starts when you’ve learned this vital lesson on spaces and then you travel back home.

If you live in Madrid, there is a tiny, minuscule possibility that you’ve heard about a place called El Tipi. When you look it up, you’ll see it is some sort of cultural space in an apartment in the centre of the city, where its three inhabitants organise concerts, workshops and sometimes crazy shit like horror tours. And they do it all for free.

Well, that place is my apartment.

When my roommate Pablo and I moved in together almost a year ago, we didn’t know each other at all and the apartment had no furniture. Everything was literally a blank space. And, just like in life, things developed in the following order: first, we covered the basic necessities furnishing the house (mostly, from furniture we found in the streets). Meanwhile and afterwards, we became friends. And, finally, we created this artistic project together where our later-to-be new roommate Eva jumped in immediately.

There is a certain charm in performing in front of an audience in the same living room in which you blow your disgusting nose over a bowl of soup and a pack of ibuprofens whenever you catch a cold. The barrier between private and public seems to fade out for a few hours and, before you call me a communist, let me tell you that it’s still us who pays for the bills and cleans the apartment after everyone leaves to make it, once again, our own home. But the most fulfilling part is that we don’t do it out of a tangible necessity. We have chosen to redefine the concept of home just because we can and we play with its possibilities because it is fun and it makes us grow creatively speaking. Well, and also because sometimes people bring food.

Whether it is for survival or for fun, re-imagining the use of a certain space has the astonishing effect of opening your mind to question everything further than that, from the use of any inanimate object to what we actually need to live happily. And so, as this happens, you become a more imaginative person, and thus freer, because you find more ways to solve given situations. My roommates and I didn’t have a venue where we could organise shows, so we created one in our living room. The last night of our trip Fran and I didn’t have where to stay, so we built a pseudo-camp in the airport with sleeping bags and our worn-out clothes. Slowly, reality shows itself mouldable and full of possibilities, like a game, just as it used to when you were a child – long before you actually started listening to things like “girl, the supermarket is not a playground!”

But then, one day, you turn around and say “or is it?”… and that’s when everything changes.