‘Schooled in Precarity’ at Roscoe Occupation Manchester

I had the privilege yesterday of speaking to some of the occupiers of the Roscoe building  in Manchester about my own research and thinking on architecture, space and power, and discussing with them their own experiences of these issues within the occupation.  I delivered a lecture outlining Foucault’s take on neoliberalism as a form of governmentality, the idea of precarity as a mode of production of subjectivity, the now dominant model of education as a ‘learning landscape’ and the role of architects in facilitating a space for this. What seemed to strike a chord with some was Boltanksi and Chiapello’s account of the New Spirit of Capitalism, where the ideas of May 68 – informality, spontaneity, grassroots connectivity etc  – have come back to haunt us as the paradigms of management theory as a means of control and valorisation for the very forces they were intended to undermine. As one of the occupiers said, ‘May 68’ is everything to us. Another conveyed that it was all too easy to simply reproduce the organisational ideals of May 68 without recognising some of the problems and paradoxes of this in the current situation. My discussion of the ‘learning landscape’ (see earlier post on Ravensbourne and FOA for details) also brought an interesting response in that everyone recognised this as the model which many of the new university buildings in Manchester were evidently now following.

Following the lecture we took the discussion to another building – the ‘Tin Can’ – in whose circular space we sat, under the watchful eye of the cctv camera placed panoptican-style at its centre. We talked both about the occupation in general, and their experiences with dealing with the space of the occupation and the types of power relations they were trying to challenge. What struck me as particularly significant was that they were trying to break down two sets of barriers. One between themselves and the other students not actively engaged in the occupation, and one between the space of education and the public. At Roscoe they are trying to rethink the possibilities of education, and to connect with the opposition against cuts in public spending. They find though that students are in general less enthusiastic about the creative aspects of the occupation, about the exploration of possibilities and the opening up to other issues, than they were around the single issue of opposing tuition fees. But at least there is a possibility of engaging with the wider student community in the way in which the occupation is organised. The occupation is, in fact, less of an occupation than a ‘co-habitation’, as they describe it. The regular programmes of the university run alongside the activities of the occupation. I’m not quite sure how they manage it, but it would seem to maintain a relationship which avoids the divisive nature of an occupation acting as a bounded space in which you are either ‘in’ and ‘for’ the occupation or ‘outside’ of and ‘against’ it. In terms of reaching out to non-students, they take the publicity for their events out on to the streets of Manchester and broadcast them through a mic and boombox. Of course people aren’t rushing into Roscoe en masse, but again it’s a positive move that explores the possibility of opening up education in a way which is entirely different, and differently motivated, from that of the construction of Ravensbourne as a semi-public space which only presents the spectacle of education to those outside of its institution. It was also apparent, from the mix of people I was talking with, that these were not all students, so perhaps they are making some headway in their goals. I took a lot from my discussions with these guys. I hope I gave something back, and that we can continue our dialogue. Roscoe, you are an inspiration.