Volunteers and candlelight
‘Above all there are more men,’ says Roberta Megias Alcalde, a librarian working in a village near Granada, La Zubia. ‘Whereas before you’d mainly have housewives coming in for novels, now there’s a lot more unemployment and everybody in the household is borrowing books.’ Her library, though, has faced dramatic cutbacks, with its staff reduced to just herself from January.
Alasdair Fotheringham, The Independent, 17 July 2013
In August 2011, the city of Granada (Spain) closed the Las Palomas Library, in the large working class district of Zaidín, just one more cutback among so many. People were told to go elsewhere, and all the books and furniture were removed. But when local residents found the building abandoned, unlocked, they moved in. They collected books where they could—they now have a collection of about 8,000 volumes—and opened their doors in December 2012.
Today, the place is thriving, though it has no funding or electricity. Local people have taken over—without help and without permission.
A crisis with no solutions
In 2008 the global economy collapsed like a badly made soufflé. Since then, politicians, professors and polemicists have stood around the congealed mess, shouting one another down with alternative explanations (and excuses) for the disaster. But there is little competition in suggesting solutions. They all want to make another soufflé to the same recipe: the main difference is how brutally they intend to scour the dishes first, and how much they want to cut the kitchen staff’s wages.
That story is very far from being over. We’re living through a period of deep change whose outcomes and consequences are unforeseeable. It affects everyone, albeit in different ways and degrees. It has been affecting artists, and those in the cultural sector who facilitate their work, for five years already. Public budgets are cut, and cut again. Commissioners play safe. Consumers worry about spending. There is, in short, a restructuring of the cultural economy across the world—and that means there will be a transformation not just in how art is made and shared but in what it means, to whom and why.
Without help, without permission
Like most people, I’ve been affected in large and small ways, but since my work is in culture, that’s where I’ve seen most change. It’s often been dismaying, but there have also been inspiring stories and experiences. I’ve been wondering about what’s happening and what it might mean, and I don’t have any answers. But I am encouraged by seeing people—artists, activists and people with no previous engagement in culture—starting to take control of their own work.
Like the people who’ve taken over the library of Las Palomas, they no longer expect help from the failed institutions that formerly held such sway over their lives. But as a result, they no longer feel the need to wait for permission to act.
Underlying this is a changing relationship with authority and specifically the states that have let them down so badly. Leaders in all fields are faced with winning back the trust they have lost. Perhaps one result, when this change has worked itself through, will be a more accountable democratic settlement that gives us all of us more control in our lives.