It had been a fraught week for the Collective, a group of some 15 artists, musicians and performers who specialise in squatting in derelict buildings and turning them into arts spaces cum party places. They arrived back from Glastonbury Festival to find the front door of their two-month-old squat, 'The Canteen', which used to cater for power station workers in Deptford, south-east London, had been welded up. Later the police arrived and asked them to move on, leaving a day to find and prepare a venue for their next event.
Somehow, they had managed to pull it off. Two large rooms in an empty hall (the location of which I promised to keep secret) have become an underground party paradise. Using recycled decor, the walls are covered in fluorescent backdrops and abstract projections. A stage for the three guest bands has been built upstairs.
The night attracts all sorts. The Big Boot Brigade, complete with nose rings and dreadlocks, rub shoulders with students, nine-to- fivers and ravers disillusioned by the mainstream scene. The consensus among the 400-strong crowd is that the growing number of squat outfits are providing a fresh alternative. Jo, an art student, says: 'Why go to a West End club? You spend pounds 15 to get into a place that's like a dozen others. Here, you get three live bands, interesting surroundings and a good atmosphere for a fiver.'
With virtually no money, and a lot of energy, the Collective has kept its venues going as well as putting on 'The Squatter's Ball', a legal fund-raiser for a squatters' rights group in west London. Tomorrow its latest project comes to fruition: the third Urban Free Festival takes place in Fordham Park, Deptford - with the council's blessing and funded through local support. From noon until 10.30pm there will be music on four stages, a fun-fair, a healing area, and a craft and food market.
'Putting on parties is only a part of what we do. Creating a platform for arts groups is our main function,' says Julian. 'When we first squatted in Deptford, we found there were lots of small groups with good ideas but nothing to focus them on. No funding, no local arts centre within their means, nothing to strive for.' Their first venue, a community centre known as Lady Flo's, quickly became a magnet for groups starved of funds.
Having no funding makes life hard, but Julian believes the Collective can survive. 'We hope more will come in as we get bigger. A lot of arts groups were killed off in the Eighties because they were soft targets, not self-sufficient. We only have the Collective to answer to and we'll adapt and change according to circumstance.'
Now that many councils are being forced to sell off properties which few want to buy, Julian Rudd believes arts squatting could be the way forward. 'Artists should get together and do everything from the arts to business side. We've got the space to do what we want, with a certain amount of empathy and support for each other. Often artists are afraid to lose control of the ideas. At Flo's we've combined everyone's talents to create better ideas and more of them.'
The Collective tried to persuade Lady Flo's owner, Lewisham Council, to allow it to become a local arts umbrella group with a nominal rent. The proposal was rejected and it was evicted in April. Lewisham's Chair of Leisure Services, Mike Barry, admits there is a dearth of venues for performance art in Deptford but maintains the Collective has to play by the rules. 'We're not unsympathetic but my understanding is that they applied too late. They should have approached the council first for a meeting of minds, rather than squat now, act later.'
Although up for sale, Lady Flo's is still empty and the group sees it as a waste of space. 'Generally, the buildings we squat have been derelict for years and are useless to anyone else.' Julian is adamant that the group is sensitive to local residents. 'We choose venues away from residential areas and make sure everything is sound- and fire- proofed. We try to be as co-
operative as possible with the police and fire officers.'
With new squatting legislation in the offing, does the Collective have any plans to look for a legal venue? Julian shrugs and says: 'Look at Pullit.' A six-storey art gallery and party venue in Camden, north London, Pullit is rented by former squatters. But its organisers were recently served with an injunction to halt party nights - their main source of income. 'That's what you come up against if you go legal. I don't think the new legislation will affect us too much. Councils already have a legal framework to deal with this kind of thing.'
But isn't it futile to put so much effort into venues from which they will almost certainly be evicted? Julian shakes his head. 'The fact that we're putting on good entertainment and giving performers the opportunity to play to large crowds with a minimum of fuss is an end in itself. If bands didn't have us, they'd be ripped off by bigger venues.'
On the day of the eviction from Lady Flo's the Collective held an impromptu street party outside the building. A bemused bailiff was greeted with tribal rhythms emanating from drums, bongos and a grand piano.
So how do they keep going? Rob, an artist in charge of Conscious decor, puts it simply. 'What we do gives you freedom. Don't think that we're not interested in money but essentially we're here because we enjoy it. It's about the freedom to do what you want, on your own terms. The trouble is, that's in conflict with the authorities.' At this point Julian laughs and adds: 'There's a need for this in the community. No one can destroy us, short of shooting us]'
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