Republika 550: Fighting to Save a Creative Space

Taoist massages, salsa lessons, English or German classes, art workshops, theater, hip-hop teachings and graffiti; all for free. What’s more is they are all offered in a place that only a few years ago was home to nothing but mountains of trash.

Santiago Chile
Photo by Colin Bennett

Republika 550, located in Santiago’s university district on the avenue Republica, is the home to a host of workshops and creative spaces and open to all. But the actual building they occupy belongs to the regional government, and the bureaucrats want them out--now.

The cooperative of artists that founded Republika 550 arrived at the then abandoned house in 2005 as a second attempt to establish a home for their theater acts, which previously were held in city plazas. One of the members grew up near the house and knew it wasn’t in use, so they started putting on nightly theater shows.

Santiago Chile
Photo by Colin Bennett

The house then started to attract other people who dedicated their time to a wide array of arts and activities. From juggling, elementary art classes, salsa dancing and massage therapy, people started to show up with their skills and the house provided a space to share them, one of the collective’s members, Pola, said in an interview.

House might not be the best word to describe the large stone building. Built in 1924, the expansive lot has an internal patio, large front lawn, two stories with more than 10 spacious rooms each and a large basement. The interior has a tactile, studio feel to it, mixed with a touch of abandonment and old age. The spray painted murals and old wood floors complete the look. But the state of the house adds to its function as a place where art can be a complete experiment, you just have to be ready to try something new. The photo album on Republika 550’s website is a tribute to this.

Santiago Chile
Photo by Colin Bennett

Currently there are 23 different kinds of talleres (workshops) available. Mathematics, photography, theater, contemporary dance, tango, salsa, drums and paper mache all have regular sessions. For those looking for something a little different, check out clown workshops every Monday, or sit down for an “experimental workshop” on the development of consciousness at 7 p.m. on Fridays. Or maybe something with more of an urban feel, hip-hop activism is offered on Thursdays and graffiti classes are held on Saturdays.

At the heart of Republika 550 is the belief in an open space for everyone to develop themselves creatively. This focus on art and community is an important distinction for Repulika 550. In Chile it is not uncommon for groups to take over abandoned houses, schools, government buildings or public spaces in the name of one cause or another. In the case of abandoned houses or okupas, the slang term for the action, Anarchist groups have gained special notoriety. But the Akí collective looks to break away from this image and the emphasis on art is their method.

Santiago Chile
Photo by Colin Bennett

This is not to say that Repulika 550 is apolitical. Quite the contrary. Calls to fight against private property and support the compeñeros stand proudly on the group's website. Citizen activism mixed with community organizing, all with a grass roots feel that could be described as socialist. The house itself is even said by its current occupants to have been used as a torture center during the dictatorship. But in any case Pola says all are welcome, adding that some of the workshop participants have even been from Chile’s hard right wing party, UDI.

Much of the activism though is more than just an ideological ambition, it’s a practical necessity to keep the center from being shut down by the government.

When the house was first occupied the cooperative informed the government’s public housing authority, SERVIU, that they would be using the space for theater. The authorities gave no response for the first few months, but eventually made legal moves to evict the group. But again, little was done in the beginning to hamper the cooperative, and for nearly two years Republika 550 functioned without any major conflicts with the government.

But by 2007 the SERVIU’s efforts to take back the house stepped up. Written requests validated by civil courts were issued, demanding the group vacate. But Pola said official visits to the house have been almost non existent, save one visit by a lawyer in 2007.

Santiago Chile
Photo by Colin Bennett

The reason why the group must vacate has centered on the governmental ownership of the building, but cooperative members believe SERVIU has plans to sell the building to one of the many universities in the area.

The cooperative has weathered several other periods when they thought a forced eviction was imminent. But never has the possibility seemed as real as it is today, Pola added. The group has gone through several lawyers and its last appeal against the eviction didn’t convince the courts. In early May they received their final warning.

Relations with authorities are not all bad though. A police station is located across the street and members have been sure to inform them of events like concerts that could bother neighbors.

Santiago Chile
Photo by Colin Bennett

The fact that Republika 550 still exists after four years Pola credits to the actions of the workshop participants and friends. Neighbors, ex students, friends of members and even visiting tourists who wandered into the space have all contributed to letter writing and advocacy campaigns, something she believes has kept the authorities at bay.

Cooperative members have been adamant about laying down ground rules to avoid the perception that they have just taken the building as a place to squat or party. The conflict with the government only encourages this seriousness and they know a lax approach could be used against them. For example, drinking on the site is strictly forbidden, as is consuming any other recreational substances. Plus the amount of work to coordinate and keep the space maintained has been enormous.

Santiago Chile
Photo by Colin Bennett

But the future is unclear at best. The government appeared ready to come in and forcefully evict them and all the legal resources against the eviction have been exhausted. But on Friday, May 15, a letter arrived saying the forced eviction had been suspended. Pola said the cooperative is wary that the news means the eviction has been avoided. But according to her, the government has stopped to conduct an investigation, something she and the rest of the group welcome with the hope that it could convince the owners of the house how valuable their work is and how much effort it took to get where they are today.

“We are here working full time…it would be great if they realized how much we have accomplished,” Pola said.

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