Tribal Britain: Cool Tan Arts

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The Independent Online
The recycling bin in front of a red-brick building in Brixton's Coldharbour Lane bears the slogan 'Consume a little, waste a little, give a lot]'. The iron railings of the former unemployment benefit office are decorated in candy-

coloured stripes, and crudely made posters flutter on the gateposts. Above the front door a purple board welcomes visitors to Cool Tan Arts.

The hallway smells of damp army boots. Stalls for an arts and crafts market are being set up in the hall where dole cheques were once collected. Upstairs, chairs and tables rescued from skips and tips furnish the Cool Tan cafe. The blemishes on the wall are concealed by mystical paintings and more posters. 'Art is a weapon in the battle for freedom and truth,' reads one, 'Criminalisation is no solution,' states another.

Shane Collins, 33, takes a break from ferrying vegetarian lasagne and treacle tart to the dozen customers chatting in the candlelight. 'This is the Savoy compared with what it was like when we moved in. We had to rewire, redecorate, replumb, re-everything,' he says.

The collective's first venue was a former Cool Tan sun lotion factory on the other side of the borough - hence the name. It was squatted with the owner's consent for almost a year and turned into a gallery, performance space and venue for arts workshops, but last March it was demolished. 'The site's still covered in rubble,' says Shane. 'It's such a waste. It was empty for 13 years before we moved in.'

With his baggy clothes and shaggy beard, Shane Collins epitomises the 'yuppie who got away'. At 23, he was working for an advertising agency, RSA, before moving on to set up his own business. A stint travelling in South America and two books in particular - Fritjof Capra's The Turning Point and E F Schumacher's Small is Beautiful - helped him to make the jump. He is also the Green Party's Euro-candidate for London South Inner.

'The best way to show there is an alternative is by example,' he says. 'But there's no point in everyone coming to Cool Tan. The idea is to motivate people into setting up similar centres all over the country.'

The group makes ends meet by running the cafe twice weekly and collecting donations at arts and ecology exhibitions and events. Today a new show of local artists opens. Apart from the core of artists, performers and 'general doers' in the collective, there are 20 or so part-time members running courses and workshops. Although the Cool Tan is used by many of Brixton's bohemians, it is gradually attracting more conventional users, including a local councillor and an accountant from Clapham.

There is a monthly craft market, poetry and story-telling evenings, children's workshops, lectures and alternative film and fashion shows. The building is also home to six 'housekeepers'. 'They keep the place going, answer the door, take telephone messages,' says Shane. The rest live in rented flats or domestic squats.

'People are crying out for places like this,' says Johnny Adams, 27, an artist and member of the collective who holds life-drawing classes once a week. 'There are loads of people bursting with ideas who don't have the space, funding or encouragement to put them into action.

'I think a lot of people are completely disillusioned with the whole political system,' he says. 'There's a strong undercurrent of feeling that people want to go back to small community set-ups, where they can make their own decisions, rather than being told what to do by people who have no direct involvement in their lives.'

Shane and Johnny admit that for many this feeling stops short of refusing state benefit. 'Most of us are on the dole, but it's a lot more fun being on the dole and doing things together, and I reckon we earn every penny of it]' Shane grins. 'If we're allowed to stay here, eventually we'll be able to support ourselves and get other people off the dole as well.'

Cool Tan has also joined local exchange trading systems (Lets). In the past three years the number of such groups in Britain has grown from five to more than 140. So far, Tan Cool has attracted 50-odd local members, who exchange skills and services from dog-walking to car repairs through a central computer.

Despite the insecurity of his situation, and the fact that he is poorer than he was 10 years ago, Shane is a lot happier. 'Of course, we have highs and lows here. But it feels good because we're doing something we really believe in.'

(Photograph omitted)