urban nomadism // a conversation with Mark Bennett
A conversational piece with artist and designer Mark Bennett. The piece focuses on an experiment, Urban Nomadism, where Mark spent a considerable amount of time living in a squat both out of artistic desire to live what he'd theorised but also out of necessity. It all began with a project towards the end of Bennett’s time at the Royal College of Art:
‘For two weeks we lived with three different families and in those weeks, we had to work out their schedules and each one was different - very different.
‘I had a woman who was a single mother with a six-year-old living in a tower block. I had two young lads who were living on a catamaran on the Thames, up near Big Ben… I also had this Indonesian couple living in a bedsit near Chelsea, with a child on the way.
‘So, basically it was looking at how they used the city and the whole premise was that we had to work and design a 24 hour city or a way in which it could become one’ - in other words, Bennett needed to discover how to capitalise on what the city had to offer whilst breaking up the 9-5 work pattern we, as a society, have become accustomed to.
‘We had to redesign how they would use it. So we had to change the way they lived with the new concept and work out what would happen, you see. That was a brilliant project…
‘So what I went and did, they had to be quite radical changes: you couldn't just say, “right, we're gonna put £10 extra on every tube train, so you can't go that far anymore, you've got to stay local”.
‘I remember just being on this jetty and in this jetty was a hole. The tide was down, at its lowest, and there was a boat at the bottom; at high tide the boat would come back up. I just had this spark of an idea: what if this was your house or your living quarters? … There was no shape to this at all, it was just an idea.
‘What if you could only get into your house at high tide or low tide?
Now, it was a life changer for me, absolute life changer, because it made me understand the infrastructure we have created - that mankind has created through time - through necessity.’
He began to ruminate about the idea of being at the mercy of nature when accessing a home. ‘If I wanted to get into my house [i.e. the boat below the jetty] - let’s say the tide is at its highest at 9 o'clock - I can get on or off [only at that time]. The next day it's around about 45 minutes later, etc., so after a week… you can see the pattern. It's gonna be later and later when you can get in or out.
‘So you're potentially spending [as much] time out [of the house] as you are in.’ Bennett recognized the problems which arose as a consequence of this ‘given that we've been conditioned to have a more of a 9 to 5 existence… We go to work at 9, we know everyone is there and we can comm-
unicate a lot easier, things can happen, there's an order to that. Whereas this project meant that you couldn't. So how would you get the kids to school? How [would] you go shopping? Would you therefore have to stay out more in the city and use it in a different way? Course you would.
‘It opened up this whole pattern in which the city could be used. That led onto lots of other creative ideas, that if this [way of life] existed, how it would develop over time.
‘It got me into thinking about all of the natural rhythms of life: the tidal based moon system, the pull of the oceans. That made me understand architecture in a different way to me saying “okay: architecture is about materials and buildings and we put this together like that”. That has no meaning and [therefore] I kind of like buildings that create censors-
hip and have a sort of spiritual dimension to them - it’s from within, people can interact with it. I'm not saying you can't interact with a cafe, [because] you’re going in for a coffee and a chat, but I like buildings to have more of a meaning. Look at the Amazon, the Congo, the Pygmies - the way they use their forest is architecture. They use it differently, they're a bit more behind than us, they haven't had the development of roads and buildings like we have. It's limited."
After finishing at the RCA, Bennett began to squat in abandoned buildings in Brixton. "I loved it. It gave me a bit of freedom. I didn't care what people thought. Lots of people had been there before me. You get in and you get out. I had just broken up with a partner after many years and Brixton was still being upgraded - there [were] a lot of empty properties, a lot of social issues there, house prices weren't so expensive, there was a lot of dereliction.
‘I ended up getting into one of these derelict houses. There was no real intention other than to get out of a tricky time in my life, wasn't like “oh, that's it: I've got a job, let’s go break into a building and squat it”. It was never like that - it was like “shit, I have nowhere to live” and it wasn’t till I was with a girlfriend a couple of months later and she was in a squat and from hanging out with a load of people that I realised, wow, there [are] so many people squatting.
‘It felt like a normal thing you could do. There were consequences, there's always that vulnerability. People just think you're breaking into a building for an easy life, [but] it really wasn't about that. When you've got everything taken away from you and you've got nothing, it was desperation… You work it out once you're in there.
‘You know, there are laws, human rights, you don't know these things
things until you're actually in that situation. I'm entitled to these things. No matter how you go about it, I used to go to the council and offer them money for council tax, but they wouldn't have it because it meant that they would have you in a contract for being there. They just didn't want us there at all. They were quite happy to leave the houses empty for 10, 15 years. We didn't want them to be sold off for private landlords - at the end of the day they were social housing and they deserved to go to the people who needed them, people with extreme hardship.
‘We all need those spaces. So yeah I got into one, I was there for about 9 years. Throughout that [time] I was petrified the first couple of years, petrified thinking I'm gonna be kicked out any minute. Living
like that for two years was frightening: you didn't know that when
you went home if the door was gonna be bolted or boarded up again. But, like I say, we had rights.’
Although Bennett fell into squatting through convenience, he effectively lived in this manner for the sake of art, rather than out of necessity: ‘I used it in a way in which I could sort of investigate [further] my last project at the Royal College [which] was about borders and boundaries. It was about a sort of urban nomadism. It was going off this sort of project where the tide goes up and down. Rather than me going off travelling to India or somewhere, I thought I'd do this, try and live like this, this lifestyle. The squat was a kind of a “work in progress”.
‘At the same time it was my home and it did offer me a lot of freedom as I didn't have to pay rent. I paid my bills and that, [though] it was very difficult to get that sorted out. I mean, in the first one I lived a whole year without gas or electricity. Most people would think “oh my god, that's awful”, but when you've got my head that was full of ideas and solving creative problems, that was just like a dream come true. “Wow, no gas or electrics what do I do? I'm actually living this project, where do I go to keep warm? Where do I cook my food? I'm gonna have to stay out more, eat in restaurants or cafes or at a friend’s house”. I did that a lot.
‘I was earning money, not much, which enabled me to explore an environment in a different way with timber [Bennett is also a sculptor/ designer who works predominantly in timber]. I just didn't have that pressure that I do today where you've got to pay for bills. I try and keep things simple. The squatting really broke me down [into simplicity and thinking about priorities]. I had nice things, you know because I wanted to buy well. You do adjust - squatting made me adjust everything about my life, but I loved living there.
‘It was all about this [semi-hypothetical] house that went up and down, it's how you lived in the city. If you couldn't get in to your house at particular times, you became this nomad: there was this transition were you let go of one life and go into another. You adopt this whole new way of living.
‘It was about deciding how you live, do you want a job 9 to 5, where you've got to be somewhere everyday and finish everyday and do your work and go home, feel tired, go to sleep and then come back and do it all over again? That's not really a life, but that's what we've chosen [as a society]. That's our answer. I was sort of saying, well, that it doesn't necessarily have to be like that for everybody. It can be like it for a lot but not for everybody. I know there's a system and I know it works but when you want to get out of this system because you've got a few ideas, you've got to just live it. That nomadism, it's in us all.’
All the while I was there [during Bennett’s time in the squat] it was design driven, it was about investigating things that we've lost, it was trying to put things back. ‘I'm not saying
after nine years I was going to change the world but it gave me an insight and a way in which I could start thinking about how changes could be made, through design, situation. It was very important in that way. I still believe that now, but back then it was [a] very strong conviction I had: if I have a full time job, I'm not going to change much and I'll have no effect for the ‘greater good’. I mean, an idea can change the world. How can I live like this, what changes can I make to actually show that to other people that it could better your life? It was multifaceted really. I really enjoyed it. I had no one to answer to. If I was working for a company than I would have to be there everyday doing [x, y, z], working for them.’
Bennett closes by reflecting on the effect the project had on him and what it became: ‘I would recommend doing it. This borders and boundaries project we did [at the RCA], there were like five laws or boundaries. There was a physical boundary, an ephemeral boundary, [a] statutory boundary, [a] political boundary and a social boundary. You can apply those boundaries or figure out what they are within a certain thing and you make little adjustments. How can you change them to make something happen? It’s about manipulating them.
‘I didn't want to be there for the rest of my life [in the squat], this is just an experiment that has ended up becoming more than that. I ended up walking out, I got fed up, I didn't want it anymore. I went to get on with my life, I couldn't deal with the insecurity of it all. Some people probably hated us, others probably just thought “who cares?”. I look back with a bit of love and hate. It was an interesting time.
I'd do it again, I'd do it tomorrow.’