Free as in Nicked

By Dresden for Free & Hamburg for Free, 13 July 2004

Mute interviews the Dresden for Free and Hamburg for Free groups on their campaigns inciting people to go 'proletarian shopping'

Who is a city for if not for those who live there? Why do we have to pay to take a bus, go swimming, eat, or watch a movie? Beginning with such simple but, under capitalism, explosive questions, a wave of ‘for free’ campaigns have spread across German cities. Projects such as Hamburg for Free and Dresden for Free attempt to challenge the dominion of money in the increasingly gentrified and privatised metropolis. The Hamburg group have led mass free eat-ins at university canteens in protest against price rises and student fees (students and staff all joined in), organised a free night out at the local multiplex cinema for 70 activists (quickly aborted by the police) while Dresden for Free have staged actions in swimming pools, on public transport, and in theatres, a direct response to ongoing closures and cutbacks. Mute spoke to some of the activists involved

Mute: How did your ‘for free’ campaigns come about? Hamburg For Free (HFF): The creation of ‘Hamburg Umsonst’ (Hamburg for Free) was influenced by developments on several levels. Internationally, the uprising in Argentina, and particularly the struggles of the Piquetero movement were important. Several of us have been involved in solidarity campaigns for, and cooperative work with, these movements that were characterised by a combination of confrontation and self-organisation to fulfill people’s needs. Nationally, an onslaught on social security and benefit systems, combined with the privatisation of public services, has led to a redistribution of wealth from bottom to top. Locally, the right-wing Hamburg city council has been particularly ruthless in destroying public services and in suppressing alternative cultures, while parts of the radical left were trapped in cycles of repetitive demonstrations and ritual confrontations. HFF is direct action, based on your own personal needs, directed towards possible everyday practices. It is not about demands, it is about appropriation.

Other projects and campaigns served as important inspirations. YoMango from Barcelona showed us that appropriation is not only about fulfilling your basic material needs but also about fun, provocation and creativity, while the Italian Disobbedienti have been inspiring in their attempts to establish widespread civil disobedience.

Dresden For Free (DFF): ‘Dresden Umsonst’ (Dresden for Free) began as part of a workshop, ‘Reclaim Public Space – the City is Ours’, that was organised by the group Spotoff within the framework of a series of politico-artistic events called Dresden Postplatz. The purpose of this workshop was to thematise changes in public and metropolitan space. An additional aim was to develop strategies for a playful confrontation with spatial exclusion. With the dismantling of the welfare state by the Labour-Green Party government in full swing, we felt the need to problematise social and economic exclusion. To a large extent, this was also motivated by our own personal situations. Most activists in Dresden for Free are employed under precarious conditions or try to pay their bills with badly paid student jobs.

Over the course of our discussions, and stimulated by the campaign Berlin Umsonst, DFF was formed. DFF rejects the logic of financial restraint as political automatism, pushes the articulation of our own needs, and demands: Give us the good life now!

Mute: Did your campaigns, as a form of direct action, emerge out of dissatisfaction with symbolic protest or do they aim to agitate by other means?

DFF: Over the last few years, those involved in DFF have to an extent participated in anti-globalisation events but came to the realisation that anti-capitalist critique needs to be expressed in the context of everyday life as well. DFF is an attempt to develop forms of political confrontation that, because of the changed social conditions, have to be different from Fordist industrial action. In the context of Dresden Postplatz the interventions took the form of events, cinema, etc. while the group Spotoff had looked into changing metropolitan space, for example, drawing attention to gentrification processes in Dresden’s Neustadt, a Wilhelminian district close to the city centre. Dresden Postplatz also highlighted racist police controls and the criminalisation of skaters and graffiti sprayers. However, DFF have made interventions that go beyond agitation, for instance the reappropriation of privatised, previously public spaces. We would prefer to distinguish between agitational and non-agitational action because even the appropriation actions remain symbolic because they are only temporary.

HFF: Openness and ‘publicness’ are the foundations of the campaign. We want to reach people’s minds and make them join in, and this only works if disobedience is not symbolic but real. Of course, our public actions can be seen as symbols for wider practices of appropriation, but they represent real, practical examples of appropriation and re-distribution which can be transferred to any other economic sector.

Mute: How important is the aesthetic aspect of what you do?

DFF: We use creative and artistic forms of expression and intervention in order to communicate political content. We want to use the means of provocation and temporarily appropriate the goods, services or spaces from which more and more people are excluded. While doing so, DFF is itself open for appropriation and can be used as a label. For our campaigns we use media – we’ve made jingles for temporary radio frequencies, and staged short performances in theatres threatened with closure. We aim to get beyond classical forms of action such as demonstrations and rallies, making interventions with flair that are open for individual interpretation.

Mute: How do your activities relate to those of ‘artivist’ groups such as RTMark and YoMango?

HFF: Like most of the other Umsonst campaigns, HFF does not have an ‘arty’ background but is primarily based in local social and political struggles. However in our search for new forms of political activism and connection with a wider public, we have been strongly influenced by YoMango and others.

Mute: How do your activities compare or relate to illegal activities undertaken by the masses who cannot afford not to (steal, smuggle, enter countries illegally)?

HFF: Umsonst campaigns seek to promote such illegal activities as normal everyday practices, and at the same time they seek to make them visible and collective. We are trying to connect with groups and movements working in related fields, for example we are currently planning an action which will involve support groups for migrants.

Mute: How are your ideas getting across to the public? Is your activity addressed to a particular interest group, to the dispossessed, or is it a general incitement to ‘reclaim what already belongs to us anyway?’

HFF: ‘General incitement’ would probably be a nice description! The public addressed depends on the action. We address whoever is there and sees what we do, and we invite people to re-think and to join us. The response to an action in a big cinema ranged from indifference to interest to tacit support, an action in a student restaurant triggered enthusiastic support and incited many students to eat for free.

DFF: DFF has received an exceptional amount of local as well as national press coverage in relation to an action in a swimming pool which was followed by police repression. Six people were charged with trespassing. As well as this press exposure, Umsonst actions are covered in the left-wing press, we have a website and have presented programmes on Free Radio Dresden.

Our actions are not supposed to address any specific social group but are a declaration that goes out to everyone: the becoming precarious of work and the economisation of life will not take place without resistance. And our actions are an invitation to demand that social and cultural needs be met.

Dresden For Free []Hamburg for Free []