Make Some Space by Emma Warren was my favourite book of 2019. Ostensibly about a single space – the Total Refreshment Centre, located in a warehouse in Hackney – the real story is one of building communities, and making things happen amongst the people you chose to do that building with. I came away from it inspired in the same kind of way I was when we first started the Sunday Social back in 1994; there’s also no way The Social Gathering would have happened without the jolt that that book provided. Faced with everything we’ve had to deal with this year, the message is more vital than ever – there’s not going to be some magical state sponsored recovery – it’s going to be down to us to rebuild nightlife.
Emma’s latest publication is Document Your Culture – a self-help manual for anyone wanting to ‘tell the story of a space or a community’. Like Make Some Space, it’s self-published, driven by belief and straight from the heart. And it’s fantastic. Emma very kindly let us post some words from the introduction below – you can buy Document Your Culture here.
I wanted to quote from Make Some Space in this intro, but my copy has disappeared. I’ve no idea who I handed it to in a drunken, ranting moment. Hopefully its off on it’s next inspirational journey; hopefully I handed over to someone with a brilliant glint in their eye who’ll take Emma’s vital words and use them to re-wild some mad urban space ready for loud music, strobes and dancing when we’re finally allowed out into the night again.
Humans are communal. We need places where we can meet like- minded souls, where we can gather to do things that make us happy and keep us well. We will still need this despite Covid-19 and the effect it will have on existing spaces.
Fear is a virus too, and the pandemic has dented our confidence about proximity. We might carry this fear with us for longer than we anticipate. Masks, shower curtain dividers, drive-ins and socialising outdoors? We’ll have to adapt, safely, step by step.
We will still need space, even if it’s different to the space we needed before. Those of us who care about community and culture will need to do a better job of explaining the value of our locally-influential places before we address how they’ll be saved, reshaped or rebuilt. State systems behind austerity and gentrification had zero interest in supporting affordable communal space, even before Covid or the new ramped-up nationalism. We’ll have to do it ourselves.
Stories create a long view. We lack this because most people find themselves in these spaces during a very specific period of their life, usually in youth. These places are often made or maximised by young, Black and queer communities, groups that lack structural power and are therefore easily, and conveniently, overlooked. Stories can act as blue plaques.
I’m not just talking about history or nostalgia. I want to create a living archive of examples that we can use to inform and educate ourselves. Stories about basements, venues, community centres, youth clubs, co-ops, cafes, squats or roller skate spots can create an evolving blueprint. We can use that blueprint to open up possibility: to hang out together and dance, protest, make music, or just spend time in the resurfacing art of dossing. It’s hard to know our histories, and to quote Carl Cattermole, who told the story of his time behind bars in Prison: A Survival Guide “we need more accessible and open formats so we don’t get fucked over by the same techniques as yesterday”. His book began life as stapled- together sheets of paper that he photocopied and took to record shops like Rough Trade in the late 2010s. Now it’s published by Penguin Books.
We need historic stories but we especially need real-time documentation. In an essay about the structural racism underpinning music journalism titled ‘A Letter to RA and the Rest of the UK Press’ Roshan Chauhan, aka R.O.S.H. makes a good point: that middle-class white DJs benefit from coverage. “Longer careers, higher fees, greater exposure to a wider audience. None of these missed opportunities can be gained by being mentioned in a fan-corrective history book. These opportunities are lost forever.” The same is true of spaces and communities.
There’s also a language gap. I know how to describe my boyfriend, my girlfriend, my best friend, but I don’t have language to describe a place I love. Many of you reading this will know that it’s possible to love bricks and mortar, and that a building can break your heart. People who have run spaces will also tell you that a building can break your back, your relationships and your bank balance, but that on balance it was worth it.
Document Your Culture aims to help people tell stories of space, but we’ll also need new spaces to tell stories about. The pandemic will empty thousands of offices, pubs, shops and developments that will either move to remote working, or stop working entirely. Find the keys to these spaces by talking to the council, landlords, developers and agencies that deal with what’s called ‘meanwhile space’, and get them open again, however you can. Then tell the story (unless the story gets a place shut down. If that’s the case, you might want to hold on for a while). Make space in car parks, warehouses, street corners, parks and basketball courts. Do it yourself and don’t let megacorps take control of emerging space – and the culture that inevitably happens within it. Read Sarah Pinsker’s post-pandemic novel A Song For a New Day for ideas on what we might want to swerve.
We all need somewhere safe and welcoming where we’re left alone to get on with it. These spaces are the bedrock of a creative life and are the foundation for the broader cultural life of towns, cities and whole countries. Positive spaces also mitigate against serious youth violence. We don’t need more stop and search or more police powers. We need an army of youth workers, and we need them now.
It’s also worth mentioning that some of these valuable spaces can exist without physical buildings; a crew or a collective can create the kind of spaces we need psychologically. The Y-Stop app, which was built by youth to support young people being disproportionately stopped and searched, is a space too. It creates a pause and the pause makes it possible for something else to happen. Tell all these stories.
Stories offer support. They create networks of possibility, and they offer a set of practical blueprints. They’re also funny, relatable and inspiring. The stories you will make offer hope and permission through example. They may help us repair and rebuild.
Build your own myths, as Sun Ra said.
Make the space you need