autonomous futures

Forest: social centres article
February 25, 2008, 9:02 pm
Filed under: articles

What is the Forest? Where did it come from?

The story of the Forest began about eight years ago when a group of friends, bored and unimpressed with Edinburgh’s overpriced, commercialised entertainment and cultural options, decided to do it themselves. Basically, they wanted a cool place to meet and socialise when none existed. The idea was to pitch in some money, find a one month lease and create a space to show films, play and listen to music, make and look at art, discuss things, dance, learn skills – anything that anyone wanted to make happen. A vegetarian café would pay the rent. All of this was to happen alongside the manic chaos that is Edinburgh during Festival time. Perhaps most importantly: all of the events would be free to see and free to put on. Much to the group’s surprise, other people came along and wanted to help. Even more to their surprise, the experiment was a success. Soon they set out to do it again.

Since then the Forest has moved buildings twice, published books and put out a record, thrown street parties, hosted more than a hundred exhibitions, built a darkroom, offered workshops from Arabic to crocheting, transformed from organising as a closed group to a committee to a working group system, battled exploding toilets, grown a garden, nourished a free shop, given out grants, built a practice studio, started a swap library, made friends, battled the bureaucracy, hired out free bikes and too much more to remember. People have come, gone and sometimes they even return. Thousands of people have participated, volunteered, created and enjoyed the Forest as an alternative to the grim entertainment prospects and corporate art and culture scene elsewhere in the city.

The Forest excites and inspires people. So many times I have been told “I just can’t believe this place exists!” At its best, it provides an example of how things could be; of how to do things differently. I hope that it encourages people to take control over their own lives: to develop ideas, to create, to talk, to act. It is a community hub and a place to hang out, free from the pressure to buy and consume, right in the middle of the city. Our space stands in stark contrast to our neighbours: chain pubs, up scale hotels and multi-million pound retail-housing developments. Whilst privatisation and corporate hijinks rage on, we have carved out our own autonomous space and a different way of doing things.

What follows are a few of my personal reflections. It is not the official Forest narrative and you’d likely get quite a different interpretation depending on which collective member or user of the space you ask. Actually, you’d probably get a different story from me depending on whether I’ve been taking care of the rubbish and recycling (again), or whether I’ve just attended an amazing new exhibition opening in the gallery. Regardless, this article is an account of some of Forest’s challenges and successes. Hopefully it contains a few tips to pass onto others collectively organising spaces, as well.

Community Arts and Events Space? Alternative café? Social Centre?

Early last year I attended the gathering of the UK Social Centres Network in Bradford. It was a good weekend and great to meet other people in the network, but I was surprised to find Forest had been taken off the Network’s map. Reading the mailing list later on, I realised just how much debate existed about the inclusion of spaces which are not explicitly anti-capitalist.

The Social Centre Network’s information and publicity tends to emphasise self-management, autonomy and independence in describing what makes it different from state and NGO sponsored community spaces. In this regard, the Forest fits well. We are fiercely independent and entirely self-financed. A few projects have received grant funding, but never the space itself.  Money for rent, equipment and projects comes from food and drink sales in the cafe. Each day there is one paid kitchen manager and up to eight volunteers making this happen (more on the contentious pay issue later). Of course, we are also not-for-profit.

We strive to be as participatory and non-hierarchical as possible, whilst still managing to keep the space alive and thriving. We make decisions by consensus and we use a working group model. Five working groups organise the various aspects of Forest. A sixth group made up of members of the other five makes decisions on budgeting and issues that affect the entire collective. Anyone who has been involved in one of the five open working groups for at least three months has the opportunity to become part of this final closed working group.

The group isn’t meant to be a glamorous cabal, but more like spokes coming together from various aspects to make decisions that reflect the space as a whole. The group is made up of about 20-25 people right now. Also, it’s worth pointing out that there are some decisions and issues that benefit from being dealt with in a more closed environment. We don’t want building security (or insecurity) being discussed in an open forum with minutes posted on the website. At the Forest people know where these decisions are being made, by whom, and how to get involved. So far, this method is the best balance we’ve found between openness and keeping up with the more tedious, and sometimes sensitive, bits of administration that need to get done.

But there is also an argument that only spaces which explicitly state their opposition to capitalism have a place in this network. While other groups might provide similar services and resources, the network is about facilitating communication and links between radical, anti-capitalist social centres. I have some sympathy with this line of thought, but I also believe it is unnecessarily limiting.

For example, I cannot imagine the collective at the Forest coming together to publicly admonish capitalism any time soon. In part, this is because the Forest began in order to create an arts space and a community space. Generally, this involves quite a radical political outlook, and many radical projects and events have taken place in the space, but political activism per se is not the raison d’etre. So I can put on a Zapatista solidarity night by marking it down in the events book, and we’ll give out small grants for things like CIRCA training, but I can’t assume that everyone involved will agree with anarchist or anti-capitalist principles.

In many ways, this is one of the Forest’s greatest strengths. The diversity of happenings means a huge diversity of people using the space. Breaking out of the activist (or artist!) ghetto is not so much of a problem here. People may be drawn in by the gallery or free internet, but they can leave with a working group schedule and some trousers from the free shop. Volunteers in the café range from school kids, to asylum seekers; travellers to retirees. For many, the Forest is their first engagement with a self-managed, autonomous space. I believe that without its diversity, many would never venture to check it out in the first place. I like to think that some of them look at things in a different way once they’ve experienced it.

Paid staff

When the Forest first opened no one got paid. However, the kitchen (aka the rent paying machine) heavily relied on one individual to continue its proper functioning. This was only sustainable as long as he was on the dole, and being on the dole was not sustainable for him. So, very early on the collective had to decide whether or not it was acceptable to pay staff. I wasn’t involved, but I’m told it was a time consuming and difficult decision. In the end, there was agreement that it was better to pay someone to help coordinate the tasks which were absolutely vital to paying the rent and keeping the project afloat, rather than to not have a project at all. Over the years, the discussion has cropped up every so often, and this is usually the principle referred back to.

It’s probably important to point out that the Forest relies primarily on food and drink sales, rather than booze, to pay the rent. Sometimes we have managed to get a temporary alcohol license for August, but otherwise it’s a fairly cheap café that keeps us running the rest of the year.

Also, the space has quite ambitious opening hours. For as long as I’ve been involved we’ve been open seven days/week, from around 10am-11pm. On occasion we have to close early because there’s no one around to be responsible for locking up, but we almost always keep the hours regular.

Then there’s the huge amount of volunteer turnover. With upwards of eight volunteers staffing the café in any day there is always someone new to show around. Often english isn’t their first language and they’ve never used an espresso machine or made hummus. Without some sort of consistency it’s a recipe for utter chaos.

The responsibility and time commitment involved in making the kitchen work requires a paid role. We all have rent to pay, mouths to feed, etc. It’s unrealistic to expect anyone to sacrifice the amount of time necessary to make it happen for free. So, we have a paid ‘kitchen manager’ in the building from 10am-7pm each day. From 7pm an experienced volunteer takes over to make sure doors get locked and everything is sorted at the end of the night.

Of course, there is then the slippery slope to deal with. To keep things together we also need accounts and year end done – and now payroll! At times we have offered some compensation for this job. What about the fire alarms? We’ll get shut down without them. How about grant applications or cleaning? When does it cease to be a volunteer organised, self-managed project? As we get bigger, there are more jobs that seem to be like the kitchen manager role, further blurring the lines.

Personally, I’ve been very resistant to the idea of more people getting paid (creating hierarchies, losing volunteer initiative, selling out…), but I’m beginning to give it real consideration. Negotiating what is and isn’t a paid job is difficult, but that doesn’t mean the only solution is to pay no one. Consistency has been crucial to keeping the Forest going over the years and paying someone enables them to give their full attention to the project longer term. It would be great if everyone had the freedom to commit as much time as they’d like to the Forest, without the business of food and shelter getting in the way. Until there is a mutual-aid based solution to this wider problem, some form of compromise is necessary. In the meantime, we’re still trying to figure out what the best answer is for us.

The Future

Over the years the Forest has evolved from a small shop front venue organised by a few friends, to a sprawling multi-purpose space with participants from most parts of the world. Along with new opportunities, this growth has created many new questions. One of the biggest is probably whether or not the Forest would be best served by downsizing.

The project thrives on new crazy ideas and constant creative output. This inspires people to get involved and stay involved. It prevents things from getting stale. However, a bigger building means more administration and management, and less time to implement our ideas and dreams. Most of us did not get involved simply to become service providers for others. Then again, limited space means we might not be able to house all the resources we’d like. Do we sacrifice the darkroom or practice studio or the meeting space?

This is even more relevant now that it looks like we will soon be moving buildings again. What do we want in a new space? Where do we go next? Thinking about another move can be both scary and exciting. It’s hard not to get sentimental about a place we’ve devoted so much and time and energy to building, but the process of coming together to prepare a new building can also be an inspiration and catalyst. After all, change is the opposite of death.