OCCUPY ME!

Riga sticker campaign leads to online collaborative mapping of empty spaces

‘Occupy Me’ was a sticker campaign implemented by the non-governmental and activist circle in Riga (Latvia) as part of the 2013 edition of the annual contemporary arts festival Survival Kit. Started as an artistic intervention, it ultimately led to the formation of a wider coalition and a partnership between the city and an NGO focused on temporary use.

Highlighting the problem and the potential of vacancy

In 2013, Riga was preparing to become the European Capital of Culture 2014. The idea to create ‘Occupy Me’ stickers to mark the city’s vacant buildings was created by a loosely associated group of 10-12 well-known artists, cultural event organisers and city developers, who had all previously organised activities or founded temporary spaces based on vacant property. This group was thus perfectly placed to understand the problem and the potential of vacancy. They observed the paradox that there was a large number of vacant spaces, but no space for the many new cultural, artistic and social initiatives arising in the city. They wondered, ‘how can it be that there is no public awareness of the issue of vacancy when it seems that nearly every fifth building is empty?’

Occupy Me in Riga © Janis Peshiks
Occupy Me stickers on a vacant building in Riga © Janis Peshiks

5,000 ‘Occupy Me’ stickers were printed as part of the contemporary arts festival Survival Kit 2013, which drew inspiration from the Arab Spring and Occupy movement with its theme of ‘slow revolution’. Stickers were distributed among the public in Riga’s creative quarters the day before the ‘White Night’, an annual mass cultural event held in September. To give the campaign its first push and to capture the imagination of the public, the campaign’s initiators organised the marking of the first 100 vacant buildings by themselves. They then co-created a manifesto highlighting the paradox of vacancy, with its crumbling listed buildings on the one hand and the many people looking for space on the other. The manifesto was spread both in the city’s creative quarters and in the places where ‘Occupy Me’ stickers had been stuck. The manifesto was also shared online on the Facebook pages of around 15 organisations and spaces participating in the campaign.

Online and offline success

This artistic intervention proved an astounding success. The manifesto was spread online and shared to at least 100,000 Facebook viewers, gaining many thousands of likes and shares. All the ‘Occupy Me’ stickers were snatched up in a single day. The aim to create awareness was achieved, with the issue raised high in the public consciousness and a new visibility given to a problem that many had noticed, but nobody had addressed publicly. This led to articles and interviews in Latvia’s biggest media outlets, as well as invitations to discuss the topic with representatives of the state and municipality working with property. It was also the first step in the partnership between the initiative group and the Property Department of Riga’s city council, which had incidentally just started tackling another side of the problem – the degradation of property left unused for long periods of time.

Inspired by their own success, the group behind the initiative created a website with a collaborative mapping tool to which the public was invited to add empty and abandoned spaces. Although the use of the tool was campaign-like (i.e. not permanent), it helped to gain information on more than 350 empty buildings, with people submitting not only the addresses of the buildings, but in many cases also valuable information on the building’s previous history and ideas for their possible use. The success of this visualisation campaign led to the formation of NGO Free Riga. This organisation has since set up various activities to promote and facilitate the cultural and social temporary use of vacant spaces and has become a Riga City partner in addressing the issue of vacancy.

By Mārcis Rubenis (Free Riga, LV)

 

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