3 July, 2013
In an effort to round out my brief experience with occupation groups in Spain, I also took a trip up to the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid to check out a different kind of occupied space. After a short walk along the university’s perfectly manicured lawns, I found spray painted signs overwriting a defunct school bookstore. “Kairós– Espacio-Tiempo Social Okupado Autónomo!” and “OMG Campus Libre!” the writing declared.
Last February a group of 19-24 year olds from different disciplines took over these three abandoned rooms and they’ve been holding free academic workshops, yoga classes, and lectures ever since. For the last three months they’ve operated without electricity, hauling buckets of water from other campus locations when needed.
I arrived just in time for the weekly management meeting. Inside the graffiti decorated room, students were settling into lumpy sunken couches as jazz music played softly on a MacBook Pro. They were opening homemade lunches in plastic containers or peeling fruits with knives, joking and chatting or making out in the afternoon heat. Almost everyone had a personal tobacco pouch, from which they seemed to be continuously rolling cigarettes and dropping ashes into homemade ashtrays. Cactus plants and bottles filled with questionable things lined the wall, along with a giant cork board calendar. It felt like the beginning of a movie set in the ‘60s.
It was interesting to observe an assembly in action. I’d been hearing about the assembly format my entire trip, but hadn’t actually attended one yet. One girl was the leader for the day and she chose who got to speak. The agenda evolved organically with the main topics being: “no one is helping clean up the trash,” and “the university will try to kick us out next month.” The trash issue was decided quickly – the group would have a giant clean up after the meeting and thereafter institute a new and more frequent cleaning schedule.
But the question of how to deal with the university caused more consternation. Some wanted to “put their cards on the table” and present an argument to the university directly. Others saw this as a pointless exercise and a betrayal of principles. Instead they wanted to only publish a manifesto and awaken the media to their plight. Since there was no consensus, they went in a circle and each offered an opinion.
I tried to understand why this space was so important to them. Didn’t they have other places to meet? Could they use another classroom provided by the university to present activities?
Sara and Diego, two participants of Kairós, explained that the issues with the university stem partly from a multi-million dollar futuristic student-services complex built in the center of campus as the height of the construction bubble. They complained about mismanagement of funds, arguing that the huge new building wasn’t needed and ended up displacing other centers on campus, like the bookstore they now occupy. The also complained about unneeded printers and soda machines, projectors that don’t work properly, speculation – all of it coming out of their tuition and taxpayer money. When the crisis caught up to the university, budget cuts hit professors, materials and activities. Now that some of the older buildings are abandoned, the students decided to make a statement by taking responsibility for managing their own projects and activities within the university, but separate from it. They explained that without a space like this, students have to go through faculty clubs or institutional groups to get spaces, and they value their independence from any interference.
Kairós is removed from the occupation movements in the heart of Madrid in terms of content – they aren’t focused on the national issues of bank fraud or people losing their homes etc – but their grievances with the university and way of operating very much mirror the larger 15M movement. They want a space to construct their own self-managed activities without depending on any outside group with an agenda. And, like the occupied social centers in Madrid, they also say they need an independent place to practice unfettered political discourse with a self-government system based on assembly-based democracy.
Once action plans were discussed and tasks delegated, the meeting ended as fluidly as it began, with people demagnetizing and drifting back into their separate activities – the mention of a mass-cleanup effort seemingly forgotten, for now.
I went to visit the brand new student center afterwards. In sharp contrast to the lived-in retro vibe that dominated the Kairós space, the semi-circle shaped center is resolutely ultramodern. A futuristic-looking snack bar crowns the top, reflecting panes decorate the building, and lounge-trance music blasts at 3 PM. Sitting down under octagonal orange shades that splay over Coca-Cola sponsored white plastic chairs, I ordered a “natural” strawberry milkshake that turned out to be made with an undrinkable sickly sweet syrup. No wonder the students prefer their homemade snacks.