After former squatter and anthropologist, Nazima Kadir, presented an ethnographic story that detailed power dynamics within a squatter living group at Casco’s ‘The Grand Domestic Revolution’ (GDR) FORUM ‘Dwelling in the Commons’ in November 2010, GDR curators Binna Choi and Maiko Tanaka approached Nazima to commission a participatory play based on her PhD dissertation, “The Autonomous Life?: Paradoxes of Hierarchy and Authority in the Squatters Movement in Amsterdam 2005-2008.” Binna and Maiko were moved by the potential to visually depict the vivid domestic case studies outlined in Nazima’s presentation against the backdrop of the recent criminalization of squatting and the decline of the Dutch welfare state. The task was then experiment with physical, visual, theatrical and narrative forms to present critical research that may otherwise be difficult to confront and represent.March 12, 2012
For a few months, Binna, Maiko, Amsterdam artist (and former squatter) Maria Pask, and Nazima worked on a concept to translate the dissertation to a theatrical production co-created by people who have experienced communal living. Over a few working meetings, this concept team eventually decided that the format of a televised sitcom worked better than a theatre play due to its potential for expressing contradictory relationships, ironic storylines, absurdity and comic resonance.
Sitcoms are nearly always set in a domestic environment, such as a home or shared living space (think Friends, Seinfeld, Three’s Company, the Young Ones, Spaced, Absolutely Fabulous and Frasier) and often represent family life and the dynamics of living groups (people who are not related by blood but share their lives together). The main differences with a sitcom about squatting would be that characters play out their daily comedic situations under the constant threat of eviction, making their intentions for living together glossed by ideological reasons rather than just for lifestyle, convenience and chance. Also by definition, a sitcom is a comedy, allowing distance to the often difficult and painful contradictory dynamics that Nazima analyzes in the PhD. The sitcom genre, through the tropes, clichés, laugh tracks and a plot that introduces and resolves a conflict within 20 minutes, seemed the perfect frame for a project based on research about a community that defines itself by external conflict but is unable to manage internal conflict. This unique angle offered the project its identity.March 12, 2012
In order to further structure the sitcom, Nazima produced abstracts of several different conflicts followed by analytical excerpts from the dissertation. Drawing from the discussions with the concept team, the dissertation, the abstracts, and her own experiences as a squatter, Maria then developed a 4-episode concept for the sitcom. Maria, whose process based performative art practice
often involves collaborative theatre methods, suggested techniques and workshops that enable participants to cooperatively produce plots, dialogues and characters.
Using the abstracts and suggestions from Maria, Maiko designed a “backstage” cooperative scriptwriting workshop, a 4-part 20 minute thematic episode structure , while assembling a production crew including cameraperson, lighting gaffer, sound engineer and a comedy consultant. The intention for the scriptwriting workshops was to enable the sitcom participants to share and exchange stories and conflicts of communal living while posing creative solutions for dealing with them, practically or imaginatively. These workshops were to be complemented by guest lectures, screenings and ‘skill-shares.’ Some of the learning outcomes that were proposed include developing knowledge of the histories and politics of communal housing in reference to the ban on squatting, spatial and architectural issues related to commons-dwelling sitcom analysis, and learning skills such as decision making, negotiation of differences, and solidarity building.