- Barcelonan Okupas: Squatter Power! by Stephen Luis Vilaseca
Farleigh Dickinson UP, 2013
By Stephen Luis Vilaseca
Put simply, Stephen Luis Vilaseca’s recent book Barcelonan Okupas: Squatter Power! (2013) sets out to answer one simple question: What is an okupa? To answer that question, Vilaseca offers not only a definition, but a thoughtful and compelling explanation of what okupas signify in Barcelona and in more global currents of protest and activism. In his concise introduction, the author looks to the work of philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari as well as research in neuroscience and psychology to argue that what okupas “are” is an “entanglement,” as he puts it, of “word, art, body, and built environment” (ix) that challenge cognitive capitalism’s commodification of language, thinking, and writing.
To explore this “entanglement,” Vilaseca’s study considers poetry, cartoons, blogs, full-length feature films, a soap opera, novels, children’s literature, newspaper articles, graffitti, pop-up video installations, and public acrobatic performances. The breadth and diversity of this list and the comfort with which Vilaseca combines these materials is the highlight of this volume. By juxtaposing high culture, low culture, the written word, visual representation, and the study of ways in which activists manipulate the built-environment, Vilaseca demonstrates that to effectively study urban culture in a digitized and mediated world one cannot be limited solely to city space or to the written word. Rather, it must be carried out in a careful study of the ways in which the urban experience is produced—to [End Page 301] use French urbanist Henri Lefebvre’s term—in the conjunction of the “symbolic (the written word and art) and the material (the physical space and . . . bodily actions within physical space)” (Vilaseca x). Vilaseca’s book offers an effective model of how to carry out this task.
Early in the first chapter, “Meet the Barcelonan Okupas (1997-2011),” Vilaseca does, of course, define the term okupa—translated loosely into English as squatter—by offering readers a brief, but useful taxonomy of squatting that distinguishes the act of “okupar” from its homophone “ocupar.” The squatters, or okupas with a “k,” that form the focus of Vilaseca’s volume are a heterogenous group of political activists dedicated to resisting the exploitive practices of real-estate speculation by appropriating derelict or abandoned spaces to establish social centers or centros sociales okupados organized around principles of self-management or autogestión where decisions are made in general assemblies. While privileging horizontality and autonomy, these social centers also promote the production of knowledge and culture not as “commodities but common goods” (4). This “commoning” is manifest in the diverse public activities that take place in these self-managed social centers that include classes on Linux or other open-source software, free legal consultation sesssions for immigrants, theater performances and art exhibitions, yoga classes, seminars on combatting real-estate speculation, and even merely meeting space for local neighborhood coalitions these spaces. These activities, Vilaseca argues, “prime” individuals to act and use their bodies differently, a concept from neuroscience and psychology whereby words and images generate physical responses in their audience. In this way, okupas offer an alternative to the “creative placemaking” of cognitive capitalism. In contrast to the images and symbols that “prime” consumers to traverse city spaces in a particular way, okpuas, in their activities and in their very act of squatting privilege the values of sharing, community, and the commons. As Vilaseca points out, this interest in the “commons” was and has been a main feature of the 15-M movement and the 2011 Occupy movement in the United States. While making these connections and suggesting the influence of the 1960s radical left from the United States (namely the Diggers of San Francisco, the Yippies of Greenwich Village, and hippie communes), Vilaseca’s approach seems to deemphasize the broader European networks in which Barcelonan okupas participate. In so doing, it seems that this volume has a tendency to exceptionalize the okupa experience in Barcelona. The inclusion of just a few examples beyond Barcelona—for example the important role that squatted social centers in Madrid played in the 15...