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Going Underground

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by Henderson Downing, for outsideleft.com
originally published: February, 2005
Welcome to the revolution of everyday life

The first major Space Hijackers event happened back in 1999 when 150 people hijacked a Circle line train on the London Underground and transformed the space into a moving disco. Their agents constructed suitcases that turned into bars, DJ booths, disco lights, counters dispensing free vodka, tequila, and assorted snacks for partygoers and passengers alike. Each time the train left a station the party kicked off, temporarily halting at the next stop before the impromptu poledancing started up again, surprising those commuters who had just boarded.

For those unfamiliar with the idiosyncracies of the Tube here's a few trainspotter facts: the Circle line runs along the tracks of the oldest part of the first underground railway system in the world. The tunnels are Victorian but I'd like to reassure potential visitors that the trains have been upgraded since those old steam-punk days of stove-pipe hats and roofless cattle-trucks. The line makes a circular journey around centralLondon so you can do laps. But no, not in a perfect circle. If you like geometry look on a tube map and you'll see a yellow line that looks like a bottle that's fallen over (a fitting logo for that pub-crawl beloved by many Antipodeans in London which consists of drinking a beer in each of twenty-eight different watering holes close to the twenty-eight stations of the Circle line).

Like the Sex Pistols first gig, many more people claim to have attended the first Circle line party than could ever have been physically possible. It's characteristic of the Space Hijackers enterprise. They construct their own Temporary Autonomous Zones connecting the concrete city to the surreality of urban myth. It's the revolution of everyday life that never forgets how to smile.

I've been following their Situationist-inspired pranks since stumbling across their website trying to find the date of the next party. Although their manifesto hijacks the concept of anarchitecture and outlines a serious analysis of the incremental losses of liberty and the often subliminal controls imposed upon the contemporary city-dweller by designers and urban planners working for corporations and institutions, the Space Hijackers are at their most compelling and most vital - as indeed the Situationists were - when at their most playful.

Applying their abundant and acerbic sense of humor to the anti-globalization cause the Space Hijackers do not see themselves as 'leaders of some kind of resistance movement' but more as a catalyst for others to engage in similar actions. They are not about confrontation. They say why smash a McDonalds window that will be easily replaced when you can use the interior as a makeshift McBingo hall with the cashiers as callers. Reinvent Starbucks as a venue for musical chairs using the instore stereo. Play Urban Sardines by trying to fit as many people into a Gap store as possible. Start a game of British Bulldog in Niketown. You begin to corrupt authoritarian codes of conduct, rebrand corporate space, and recapture that childhood buzz of freedom (before the security guards tackle you to the ground).

The Space Hijackers call it mental graffiti. They improbably combine an eccentric and satirical English gentility with a hybrid skate-punk approach to architecture and the street. It's part of their version of what those who have read Naomi Klein and Adbusters call culture jamming. When the multinationals indirectly annexed a tiny island in the middle of London's mall-like Docklands certain agents dressed up as pirates and reclaimed it, much to the amusement of onlookers and the bewilderment of the police. A recent three-minute film showed them dressed in cricketing whites playing against drunken city brokers in a midnight Test Match outside the Bank of England. Their actions imaginatively illustrate how it becomes possible to reverse the position of subordination in which the owners of space tend to place the users of that space. The city begins to be liberated as a place in which - and with which - it is possible to play.

Inevitably, each successive Circle line hijack has attracted a larger crowd and involved the appropriation of more carriages (and more mirror balls for decoration). The event has gained enough momentum to create a culture of its own. In so doing it enacts the closing words of the Space Hijackers manifesto:

By creating new and contrasting myths and stories within architectural space, we can create 'Anarchitecture', an alternative use of the architecture in which there is no hierarchy of control. The architectural language of places can be corrupted by merely spreading different ideas about the use of these spaces within the communities of users. This requires a method of splitting apart architectural myths and creating a space that is open to new forms of appropriation. A method of concrete change here and now as opposed to counting time waiting for yet another utopian revolutionary ideal.

These anarchitects can be contacted via www.spacehijackers.co.uk

see more stories from outsideleft's Culture archive »»

Henderson Downing

Henderson Downing has written for various literary journals and small press magazines, he lives in London


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