A Brief History

“… residue of history, now-swell of living…”
Amiri Baraka

MayDay Rooms has been in the process of formation since September 2009. It took its impetus from several concurrent discussions on the need for a meeting place and supportive infrastructure for radical histories and communities, particularly those under threat. At the same time, the idea of a counter institution in the spirit of such provocative failures as Alexander Trocchi’s Project Sigma was incubating.
These founding discussions, which included contributions from the 10th Floor, TIPPA/CVA/Wealth of Negations and others, focused on Left film and the threat posed to historical material linked to organisations like Cinema Action and Platform Films. Horror stories of material being tossed in skips and counter-histories being lost lent an urgency to our coming together. By the time a nucleus had established itself in Spring 2011, the scope of the conversation had been widened to reflect the concerns of those caught up in state cut-backs. A ‘manifesto’ identifying four linked facets of crisis was drafted. This text reflects the confluence between ‘Archives of Dissent’, an event organized by the Retort group in San Francisco in late 2008, and a number of ongoing anti-pedagogical situations – events , programmes and texts – linked to the 10th Floor in London and the School of Walls and Space in Copenhagen. The document was a dispatch addressed to an imagined community, a line in the sand for those already involved, and a tentative sketch – of what MayDay might be and do. The Glass-House Trust also figured as a possible supporter of the organisation.

To help give form to the ambitions of the ‘manifesto’ and the various possibilities open to MayDay, an inaugural event took place in May 2011. Over two days, ‘Archives From Below: Engaging Histories’ gathered together a raft of fellow travellers and comrades who spoke of their own commitments, experiences and wishes – in the past and present. Amongst the organisations attending were: 56a Info Shop, Crisis Archive, the Feminist Library, History Workshop Journal, the Museum of Migrant Ephemera, Colorama, the Sussex Occupation Archive and Autonomedia/WFMU. Peter Linebaugh, as part of his May Day-themed address, relayed a message of support from the Labadie Social Protest Collection. Rick and Megan Prelinger of the Prelinger Archives each gave a presentation: ‘The Citizen Archivist in the time of Enclosure’ and ‘The Principles of the Prelinger Archives’. Following upon this inspiring weekend – which had the effect of sketching in a network of oppositional organisations, groups, communities and processes concerned with ‘destabilising the now’ – the core group entered into deeper negotiations with the Glass-House Trust about funding the project and housing it in a dedicated building. With the South Side Community Arts Center in Chicago as a model – it has been been continuously active since 1940 – it was proposed that, given the widespread threat of eviction and displacement facing many communities, groups and collections, ‘owning’ a building or having security of lease should be a priority.

With these agreements in place the practical work of searching for a building and registering with the Charities Commission began. As part of this process a Board of Trustees was appointed. By late 2011, premises at 88 Fleet Street were found and, after lengthy negotiations with the landlord, secured in March 2012. At the same time MayDay Rooms achieved educational charity status. The neighbourhood around 88 Fleet Street has a deep historical relationship to the culture of print and to communities of dissent, thereby investing the site with a unique symbolic resonance for MayDay and its allies. Being situated so close to the arteries of global finance capital can, of course, only amplify that resonance.

Earlier in the process the core group was referring to itself as the MayDay Institute, but in our desire for distance from mainstream institutional practice and different ways of relating, we settled on MayDay Rooms (MDR). Here, the building at Fleet Street itself was a main inspiration for the choice of name, suggesting a kind of intimacy and a hoped-for simultaneity of practices linked to the retrieval, collective ‘putting to work’, and dissemination of historical material.

Whilst the impetus of the ‘Archives from Below’ event may have dissipated a little during the practical work of ‘legitimation’ and ongoing constitutional negotiation, the core group tried to continue its effort to further consult, seek advice and take inspiration from other fellow travellers. To this end a short series of ‘MayDay Thursdays’ were begun in late 2011. The open invitation called ‘Bulletin 1’ stated:
“We see these gatherings as a provisional space for exchange and ventilation of issues and themes close to the heart of the MayDay project: the animation of our collective past to inform current struggles; the creation and dissemination in print and online of ‘archives from below’, and where necessary the rescuing of documents of dissent and radical expression (relating to individual lives as well as social and institutional histories) threatened with destruction or neglect; exploration and critique of intellectual property rights; radical cataloguing and taxonomies; resistance to the new information enclosures; MDR’s web presence and how it goes about structuring information and ensuring access; an introduction to initial projects including: radical and experimental education (e.g. the London Anti-University 1968-69), and the facilitation of ‘unfulfilled histories’ in an atmosphere of mutual learning and collective practice. The MayDay project is still very much ‘in formation’, and we ask you to help us as we elaborate our process and praxis.”

Whilst these themes and others will be part of MDR’s ongoing practice over the next years and beyond, it was becoming clearer that, in order to activate material and disseminate it for wider use rather than as a proprietorial ‘holding’ and ‘hiding’, it would be necessary for MayDay Rooms to think of means of circulating material as part of the process of its re-activation. To explore this and consider the ramifications of the ‘information enclosures’ a second forum was arranged. ‘Neither Private Nor Public: Information in Common?’ took place in January 2012. For this weekend MDR brought together a group of associates and friends from across three continents to explore – face-to-face and via skype – a range of issues thrown up by the information enclosures and urgent related questions of copyright, digital content, labour, infrastructure and surveillance.

Contributors to this event were librarians Shinjoung Yeo and James Jacobs; Sean Dockray of The Public School; Jan Gerber and Sebastian Luetgert of 0×2620 Berlin; Lawrence Liang and Namita Malhorta of the Bangalore Alternative Law Forum; Jamie King of Vodo and Steal This Film; wiki theorist Lee Worden; commons activist Alan Toner; Rick and Megan Prelinger; Shaina Anand and Ashok Sukumaran of media arts collective, Camp; Simon Worthington of Mute and members of the tech and media collective Hate Lab. Out of this sharing of experience the notion of a ‘distributed archive’ began to exert an attraction: with recent takedowns (of Megaupload, for example) looming large, and a desire to develop ‘light’, collective and non-centralising models for processing of material, participants speculated what a MayDay methodology might look like. Could a collection fit on a USB stick, solely via its references; what digital zones existed between the statist ‘public’ and the corporate ‘private’? The trans-atlantic session also strengthened links with the Internet Archive and catalysed an exploration of the possible use of its ‘Scribe’ digitizing technology and associated cataloguing and open-search software.

From late 2011, MDR acted as a participatory host and advisory companion to Jakob Jakobsen’s research into the Anti-University of London. As a close ally of the core group and with a project that touched upon the re-activation of archival material with, in this case, an anti-pedagogical slant, it was agreed to support a funding application to the Danish Arts Agency, since the project was congruent with the main thematic areas of MDR’s proposed practice. By June 2012 this research project – still ongoing – resulted in the launch of both the antihistory research blog and a tabloid newspaper that drew together original documents from the late 60s, particularly those of Joe Berke now held in the PETT archive. The tabloid set a sample of these documents amidst essays, interviews and a discussion on the then recent heightening of struggles in the edu-factory.

In the period up until refurbishment works started in December 2012, members of MDR’s core group continued to explore the thread of the original 2009 discussions with activists from the area of left film-making with a view to forming a Film Zoviet and making available previously unseen films and footage from the 1960s to the present. Discussions also began with Silvia Federici and George Caffentzis about housing and activating material related to the Wages for Housework Campaign and the Committee for Academic Freedom in Africa. When Peter Linebaugh offered material relating to the Zerowork journal, the material, taken together, came to figure for MDR as tributaries to a Midnight Notes collection.

There was also a series of intense discussions amongst the core group, together with the extended network of people now involved, about how to structure MDR and involve others in decision making. These organisational questions were marked by considerations of how best MDR could meet its responsibilities to a ‘community of influence’ (what could be called the radical tradition) as well as being responsible to an envisioned ‘community of confluence’ (activating and distributing archives). In an attempt to open out MDR’s ‘in-formation’ process, an Azsociate structure was attempted. This was summarised in an MDR Azsociate meeting of 6/9/12 as follows:
“MDR is something of an organisation-in-process that has already benefited from the inputs of many others (from Trustees to guests and advisors in many areas). From the basis of its recent history a discussion ensued about the Azsociate structure as, amongst other things, a means of

• moving away from the power of a directing body (the four ‘founding’ or ‘front’ azsociates and the Directors role as it is known in the terms of the Charity Commission)
• sharing some of the workload and responsibilities (such as the MDR Tech meeting has been doing)
• opening up the debate and discussion on how to continue the ‘in-formation’ process in terms of structure and practice
• enabling cross-fertilization and inputs for each of us
• sharing MDR resources

So, the Azsociate form, it could be offered, was a means of formalising local inputs in some way rather than have them potentially exploited. Other forms of structure have been suggested: a working groups model that would be task orientated and a membership scheme. However, as unresolved as this important issue is, it has given rise to discussions of methods of organisation from ‘activist’ modes of organisation to methods demonstrated by the 60s jazz ensemble that will continue to be a source of inspiration.
As this period draws to a close, the MDR core group continues to be closely involved with the building refurbishment and now looks forward to the completion date and occupation of 88 Fleet Street in Spring 2013. And then to putting into practice many of the ideas and methods that have brought us to this moment, methods that we hope can go some way towards making an institutional form in which our collective efforts are retrieved and made over rather than alienated from us…


January 2013

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