REDWeb Conversations Series – Defining A Utopian Present In Christiania, Copenhagen.

Ashish Kothari and Shrishtee Bajpai speak with Natasha Verco about the utopian thought and practice , which have helped make Christiania, a neighborhood in Copenhagen, a successful autonomous community.

Ashish Kothari: Thanks a lot, Natasha for taking the time to speak with us about Christiania. Can you give us a description of what this place is all about? When did it start and what was the thinking behind it?

Natasha Verco: Christiania came into existence in 1971 when a group of activists occupied a recently abandoned military base. They had participated previously in various socio-political initiatives but what was unique about them was their involvement in the squatting movement in Copenhagen. Some of them were part of a politicized form of squatting movements, while others were simply involved in squatting a house, just down the road from here. The way they initiated the entire process was quite utopian  – they put an ad in a paper about their intention to occupy the former military base, made a media spectacle, took a photo of them breaking down the fences and said, “come and join us, we are starting a new community, a free community.” It was pretty amazing, I think. They claimed that Christiania was a free space for all, a refuge from the ravages of capitalism. But, at the same time the space also questioned the homogeneity of the Danish socialist state at that time, a place of difference. Initially, people came and squatted the place, they were evicted and the police chased them out. But people re-squatted it. So, it was quite a robust process and the administration realized that they couldn’t just keep evicting them. They didn’t have the capacity to get rid of the people.

From an abandoned military base, Christiania morphed into a creative expression of dissent against the ravages of consumerism of the 1970s Europe. Pic. Ashish Kothari

AK: Was there a stalemate, then? How was the issue resolved?

NV: Well, then the Danish parliament entered the picture. They discussed the matter and gave it a year for making Christiana a space for a social experiment. This idea of it being an experiment is something that the original squatters played with, and continually pushed forward the date of eviction through public action, defence campaigns, using all sorts of interesting and creative acts. It was only around 1991 that a legal agreement was reached with the Danish state, but the whole process was extremely contested.  It raised a lot of questions about the values in our society, and the way a community could and should be organised. That debate bounced around for the next ten years, till 2001, when Denmark elected a right-wing government after many years. The new government made no secret of its intentions to evict Christiania, and that led to a whole new struggle. So, where we are currently is the end product of that new period of struggle – a period which started with the threat of eviction and ended with Christiania being offered almost three quarters of the original land for a symbolic price, and to own collectively. The rest of the original Christiania, however, is still under struggle.

AK: So, how many people are living here?

NV: Officially, I think there are around 650 or so people living here and unofficially, I would say quite a few more than that, may be around a thousand. It is quite a large community.

AK: And, many more come here to work, right?

NV: Yes, people do come here to work. People travel through, do art work, feel inspired.

AK: You also get a lot of tourists?

NV: Yes, a lot of tourists! It is the second most popular tourist spot in Copenhagen. Can you believe that!

AK: That is quite amazing – a squatted place becomes a tourist destination! Can you tell us about the kinds of activities and work that people do here?

NV: Life is quite varied within the community – and there are multiple levels of engagements that people have with work and other activities. Many people are involved in the infrastructural sphere of Christiania, maintaining the place. People do a lot of part-time work or partial work, so as not to be fully invested in the labor market, to not to be selling their labor all hours of the day. That allows for more leisure time and to be able to participate more in the community. A lot of people come for art, for creative political expression, so a lot of the people who live here are artists, performers of some description. Christiania allows for that lifestyle a lot more than other places because of its atypical social arrangements. Some people come here to just jog in the morning, it’s a hugely popular place for jogging. A lot of people come here because they are inspired by the ideas behind Christiania and want to see how this sort of community works out in practice. I think if an experiment has survived for 40 years, it is a pretty good place to explore how things have shaped up in practice.

AK: We’ve also heard a lot about the ethic of sustainability, ecological or otherwise, that guides Christiania. Could you talk about that?

NV: Christiania started with a declaration of intent which was to avoid material and psychological pollution, at a time when it was quite challenging to do so, 70s being a consumerist era – buy more, consume more, be more. This place rejected that sort of materialism. Not surprisingly, Christiania was treated by outsiders as a very weird and strange place at that time. As time passed it became much more a space guided by an alternative world view, accepting that there are people who don’t fit into the mainstream or in fact choose not to follow the conventions of the society. The place is marked by an ethic of re-use, re-purpose, of low material consumption and minimising waste. People do that in a lot of different ways – some live off  the waste of other people, through using building material that other people have thrown out. Christiania, in fact, has created structures, which support this way of life.

AK: Can you give some examples of that?

NV: Yes, sure. For example, we have this place called ‘the great hall’ which is this big old riding hall where people collect building material that has been discarded by the city so that people can use it to build their homes. There is also a “building office” where people can get advice on how to start construction projects and it also offers a “green loan” – so, if you are taking up any ecological development of your home or if it has an environmental component, then you can get this loan. So, this kind of structural support builds on the environmental ethic of Christiania. There is also a scavenger mentality among the people, here. They would rather go out looking for what they need in the waste left by the city than use money to buy it. You’ll find people looking in the bins, going through the recycle centres to build themselves a bike rather than saving up and buying a new one. And, that’s just the way of living. It is very much encouraged socially. So, it makes quite a difference if all your peers get all of their clothes from the free shop and not from the boutique or first-hand store. It makes you feel more comfortable doing that. So, it’s like the entire culture supports such a viewpoint rather than institutions and instructions.

A free-exchange depot for clothes in Christiania. Pic. Ashish Kothari

AK: So, the structures as well as the culture of Christiania are geared towards promoting the well-being of the entire community and not just the individual.

NV: Yeah, that’s right. It’s definitely possible to live in Christiania and have pretty much most of of your needs met within the community. I think one issue that we don’t talk about in the Global North a lot is that of the social needs of people. I think Christiania does that particularly well. There are a lot of common spaces for people to hang out together, to be in a public space without being expected to buy something. So, it’s not like you have to go to a café or a market or a mall and to spend money in order to be out. You can be both indoors and outdoors in safe spaces and be socially supported. You know you will meet people in the community if you just go there, without appointments or a definite schedule. There is also an infrastructure out there, which allows people to live more simply. For instance, there are these collective spaces like public baths where people can bathe together. It means you don’t have to have a bathroom in your house and you don’t have to build that structure and maintain it.  Instead, you can have a much smaller and simpler dwelling. We also have a collective laundry. All these systems allow us to lead materailly less intensive lives while being more connected with other people.

AK: There are also a number of workers’ cooperatives here? How are they organized?

NV: As Christiania has always promoted ‘differences’, there are various ways in which we approch the idea of cooperatives. So, in some workers’ cooperatives everybody who works there has a say in the decision making, participation and access to finances or other kind of support when they need it. Other cooperatives have alternative kind of structures that work for them. But, what is common to the businesses that operate in Christiania is that they are run by the workers and their profits don’t end up in a private purse.

A workers’ run organic restaurant in Christiania ensures equal pay for every hour of work. Pic. Ashish Kothari

AK: Is there equal pay for every hour of your work?

NV: I think it really depends on the institution and on the circumstances. In some cooperatives people work for free as volunteers and in others they have a ‘right of pay’, sometimes it’s called Christiania’s “right of pay”. So, it is not a ‘wage’ as such but enough for people to live by.

AK: There is also a local currency? What is it called? And how does that work?

NV: It is called ‘Ion’ and you can purchase it from the recycle brewing place and at a bunch of other places in Christiania. It is functional within the community and it can be exchanged for 50 Danish Kroner per coin. So it’s like a standard.

AK: As someone who has spent a long time here what would you consider to be the remarkable features of Christiania?

NV: I think it is a really amazing place because so many people go through Christiania, and feel inspired by their experience of being here and take those ideas to various places around the world. I know a lot of people who have lived here for a short period of time and then have taken those experiences elsewhere, to re-create them in their own way. So, I think Christiania has an enormous impact on an ideological level, and on an aspirational level – it is a set of ideas that people feel open enough to try elsewhere. This place gives them a certain spark!

AK: Would you say that it is an attempt to live a life following the principles of anarchy? Or would that be an exaggeration? 

NV: To a certain extent I could agree with that. But, I think a lot of people in the community would say “Oh hello! We’re just living the way we want to”. I mean when you look at the structures of the community in Christiania, you have collective decision making, which is partly consensus oriented, you have autonomy at the lowest levels possible, working down to all the people who need to be involved in decision making. Every aspect of the community, from the infrastructure to the boutique, is a huge experiment in self management. Christiania attempts in many ways to balance the collective and individual freedoms in really interesting ways. I think from that perspective yes, you could say it is an attempt at living the principles of anarchy. Also, in my experience, this place is determinantly quite anti-ideological, which I think in some ways is a very anti-system approach to social change. It is like dealing with what you’ve got here, not from the position of ideology but from the position of what works, and how we can do this with compassion and empathy for each other. And, we do that in a way that manifests some values that we care about.

A Zapatista inspired mural in Christiania. Pic. Ashish Kothari

Shrishtee Bajpai: I would like to ask the last question. How do you see the future of Christiania? Apparently, there are frequent administrative crackdowns on the community and many other impediments. How do you think the place would deal with those issues in the future?

NV: This is an incredibly resilient community and that gives me a lot of hope. They’ve been through numerous challenges – huge political pressure, enormous amounts of public funds spent in shutting this place, yet it has survived and flourished in many ways. Then, there are some social issues within the community – the hardest problem confronting us is that of addiction. There’s also the matter of some groups having significant amount of power compared to others, and that is a huge challenge for Christiania, going forward. Still, the community survives, and it doesn’t just survive but people live here well. So it gives me a lot of hope. It makes me feel like it doesn’t have to be perfect for it to be possible. Christiania continues to be a very inspiring place. It still motivates people and they get quite passionate about being here. They come here for a short visit and they go away with stars in their eyes! That’s beautiful!

AK: Thanks a lot for speaking with us, Natasha. Christiania is, indeed, an inspiring place.

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Natasha Verco is an Australian environmental activist who has been a resident of Christiania.

Ashish Kothari and Shrishtee Bajpai are with Kalpavriksh, India.

This interview was transcribed by Shrishtee Bajpai.

The interviews published in the REDWeb Conversation series are not based on an exact transcription of the recorded interviews. They are an approximation based on an interpretation as well as a summation of the original interview. To view the recorded interview, click on the link below: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hVL0-fCl6-M

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