THIS WEEK Ray Yeates, acting head of the Temple Bar Cultural Trust and arts officer for Dublin City Council, sent an email to Exchange, a collectively-run arts space in Dublin’s Temple Bar, informing them that they had to hand over the keys to the building within a few days and be moved out within two weeks. The building will then be closed for three months during a period of ‘reflection’. The formal justification for this action is that Exchange has encouraged ‘anti-social behaviour’ in the area.
For people who don’t know what Exchange is, or even what a ‘collectively-run arts space’ is, this might not seem very important. However, in the context of how this city has developed over recent years it could be not be more important. The eviction of Exchange is not just a problem for the people who participate in it, it is a problem for anyone who believes that the people who live in this city should have a say over how it is used, valued and managed.
Exchange is inclusive
One of the first things you notice about Exchange are the glass walls. Even when the glass is steamed up on a cold winter’s evening the bodies inside are visible. This is not coincidental. From its origins in 2009, Exchange has been run on the principle of openness. It is open to people of all ages, to people of all social and national backgrounds, to people with little or no money who want a place to exhibit art, perform music, hold dance classes or any other variety of social and cultural activity you can imagine.
For the people who participate in Exchange, then, there is something deeply offensive about the accusation that they have been encouraging ‘anti-social behaviour’. Since August, when these accusations were first raised, Exchange has been doing all it can to work with Temple Bar Cultural Trust to remedy whatever seems to be the problem. But the problem has never been clearly defined. This is always going to be the case with a term like ‘anti-social behaviour’ – it can mean anything the accuser wants it to mean.
If it means late night noise and drunken antics it is more than surprising that an alcohol-free, all-ages arts space would be identified as the main cause of this in Temple Bar. Things become a little clearer when the word ‘undesirable’ is used to describe the kinds of people attracted to Exchange.
‘Undesirable’ means young people with nowhere else to go. It refers to people with no intention of buying anything in a commercial area. Exchange is not responsible for these people, nor for the deepening social problems which are visible everywhere around Dublin. Exchange could be part of a different, more inclusive response to the root causes of ‘anti-social behavior’, a term which is too often used as justification for the exclusion of already marginalised groups from the city centre.
Exchange is non-commercial
It is not news to anyone that the cost of rent in the city has risen astronomically over the last decade and more. Some of the more tangible results in the city centre have been the multiplication of multinational cafe chains, retail shops and expensive bars. The high cost of rent means that it is very difficult for less commercial enterprises to survive.
Exchange is not funded but it receives an indirect subsidy by not paying full commercial rents to Temple Bar Cultural Trust, soon to be dissolved into Dublin City Council. The rent and additional costs are then paid through donations raised at the activities held in the space, while the volunteers work for free.
At the public meeting in Exchange last Wednesday, a woman from Spain who wasn’t aware of the impending eviction asked if she would be able to use the space for samba classes to raise money for charity. This is what Exchange allows to happen. Comments posted on social media since news of the closure broke recount countless examples of young artists, film-makers, musicians, photographers and community groups who have used Exchange to exhibit, perform and gather when everywhere else in the city centre was too expensive to rent.
Exchange is democratic
Exchange is collectively managed through consensus decision-making. This can be best explained by describing how the open meeting took place last Wednesday. There were over 60 people present. It was diverse in terms of age and nationality, and most of the people had probably never met each other. We were discussing an urgent and emotive question: whether or not to accept the harsh terms offered by Ray Yeates. There was confusion and anger, but even amidst these strong feelings an inclusive and respectful debate took place. Despite great differences of opinion the discussion ended in a consensus. A consensus does not mean that everyone agrees, but that people recognise that their individual interests or opinions can be put aside in the interests of the collective.
In a city, there will always be disagreement and conflict. This is normal, this is what it means to live beside other people who may not be like you or agree with you. The response should not be to exclude or evict, but rather to talk to each other and try to work out the problem. This is the basis of democracy.
This is not what has happened in the case of Exchange. It has been given an ultimatum: hand back the keys and move out ‘or else’. There has been no clarity about what ‘anti-social behaviour’ is or who decides what it is or how it is to be measured. They have been told that the building will be closed for three months during a process of ‘reflection’ but they have been given no assurance that they will be allowed back after this period has passed.
Why it matters
We need to recognise that Exchange offers a different way of valuing the city and a different way of making decisions about how it should be used and for whom. Exchange is one of the last, fragile pieces of the public good we have seen eroded so rapidly over the past few years.
In a final statement issued to Exchange last week, Ray Yeates claims that the closure of Exchange is necessary to ‘break the cycle of anti-social behaviour’. If the doors are finally closed on Exchange this Friday, the only thing that will be broken is the four-and-a-half-years of work it has taken to create one of the few genuinely inclusive, social spaces in Dublin’s city centre. If this happens it will not just be a loss for a small group of people, but a loss for all of us as another part of the city is taken out of our hands.
Dr Patrick Bresnihan is currently writing a book on scarcity, enclosure and the commons to be published by the University of Nebraska Press. He is also part of the Provisional University, an independent research project based in Dublin: visit the Provisional University website.