"Now we are seen as the experts"

So what is your story behind Toestand and Allee du Kaai? Can you describe the process?

Two years ago, we started to occupy empty spaces for creating places with many possibilities. They were always spaces in transition: soon to be destroyed or rebuilt. This allowed us to make holes and make changes without having to ask permission. We realized many spaces for youth are limited in terms of possibilities of what can be done with the structures (such as drawing on the walls). For us, this was paradoxical so we wanted to create a space where young people could make mistakes; because you learn when you make mistakes. So we created an organization, Toestand, when I was an art student. I had a very free and open curriculum during my study. I had to start my own projects and my teachers coached me through it. They provided resources for my endeavors by researching relevant networks to develop my personal projects. They provided me with the legal framework and information on the pertinent forms of financing, people, politics, building owners to negotiate with. Two years ago, while I was a student, we occupied an empty school building on the periphery of Brussels for three months. We lived there and even over-programed the space. We didn’t sleep much, but it was a good exercise learning how to improve our process.

I finished my studies and we discussed if and how we should continue it: full time or part time. In light of the government pressure to look for real sources of employment, we decided to take it on as a job.

When my school finished we took 2 months over summer break to write a project proposal while meeting with various organizations to create partnerships. Despite winning the funds we applied for, at that point, we didn’t have an authorized space yet. Everyone we spoke to was enthusiastic but not helpful, which left us frustrated. With another organization with similar frustrations, we squatted a school (5000 sq. meters) which had been empty for 3 years. After 2 hours the police arrived and we were evacuated. After realizing there were no buildings we were allowed to occupy, we thought of finding an empty plot to construct our own building. We found an empty industrial space with only 4 walls outside Brussels, formerly used to clean coal. We stayed there for a week and built a little village with a church, a train station (because there were train tracks), and so on. We were in contact with the owner who allowed it since we were doing something constructive. We had a good relationship with him until he realized the large scale nature of the project (with many wooden pallets and 20 people helping out). We organized a public event at the end of the week with concerts, pizza, and train coupé bar. There was an illegal party which prompted the police to contact the owner. We were then asked to leave the space.

We found a large warehouse in the center of Brussels which smelled terrible; we cleaned a section of the space, built a large balloon and invited 500 people inside.

So up until then we organized many little temporary occupations.

Then, the environmental administration in Brussels (IBGE/BIM) put out a call for projects to use empty spaces on a lot before a park would be constructed. They wanted a temporary project to prevent the buildings from deteriorating while permits are approved and the land is de-polluted. We won the competition and were awarded the buildings, and the funds to organize our projects. Then we started Allee du Kaai.

We expanded to 4 people (3 full-time and 1 part-time) in Toestand – but more depending on the project.

What a story. So how long can you all stay in the building?

With Allee du Kaai, we have 4 buildings and outdoor space which adds up to 7000sq meters. The park is being constructed in different phases while the land is de-polluted. At the end of 2016 they are going to destroy 2 of our buildings and at the end of 2018 they will destroy the other 2. However the dates are always changing.

Will you still exist there in some new form?

What’s interesting is that they now ask us for our opinions, since they see how we involve the neighborhood and work with many organizations in occupying the space.

They want to create an interactive park with sports, and other activities and want our opinion on what is best for the park. It’s nice. We want to keep one building for a selection of indoor activities.

It’s the one building on the land in which we do not occupy that is being used as a club. The authorities want to throw the organizers out. Our proposition is to give a selection of the activities a new place, with or without our organization, to create a link with the park. However, it’s still in the negotiation phase.

It’s interesting because they are listening to us. Due to this project, it’s the first time an administration from the government is engaging with temporary use. It’s a bit revolutionary in Brussels. Its interesting for us because we are young and just trying to do new things and now we are being approached as if we were experts. It’s nice because they are now proposing other projects to us. So we need to think about the future.

They asked us to occupy an empty farm and we proposed to start a camp there. This is a new project at the border of Brussels. The idea is to have people live on the farm and run a camp in the summer. The rest of the year, they work towards improving the site. It’s an alternative place to stay; a place for people to work together on a farm. For instance: on Monday you work in the garden, Thursday you work in the kitchen and on Friday you clean the toilets. It’s participative/cooperative camping.

This is the most concrete of propositions that we have this far.

As they propose larger projects to us, it has prompted us to rethink our role as an organization: as a coordination between administration and the people who occupy the space, and propose activities . Otherwise it would be too much for us, so we are rethinking what we want to continue to do and how.

What other projects inspire you?

Even though I am living my dream doing what I want to do, I still miss the artistic space to create projects where I can decide everything (as was the case during my studies). Now it’s very geared towards social thinking and solutions creation with many people. I used to create performances, actions, installations, and occupy empty buildings, but I can’t do this in these project. It’s something I miss. I hope one day these projects can be self-sustaining, and I can be involved with less intense responsibility.

What are some similar initiatives inspiring that have been starting since you have been working?

Communa: They are similar to us; they create living and cultural spaces to find solutions for the living crisis (including for the homeless). They occupy empty buildings with or without permission and offer places for people to live, especially with difficult backgrounds like the undocumented and those facing economic difficulties. Their background in law and policy has proven quite useful in negotiating contracts and dealing with owners and the municipality.

123 Logements: Similar to Communant, they also provide living opportunities in reclaimed spaces.

Niels Coppens

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