One chilly night in 2008, just fifty yards from the high security American Embassy in Grosvenor Square, and directly opposite the Michelin starred Corrigan’s, a young man climbed up a ladder, leant on the wall of a six-storey Georgian mansion. Clambering on to the balcony, the man was pretty sure this property was empty. His associates, stood below, had been watching the building, putting tape over the keyhole of the front door and peeking through the letterbox regularly for the last six months. A freedom of movement of the balcony window caused joy in the congregation of hearts below. This was not a robbery, but instead the first step in the realization of a collective dream, the establishment of an art squat, which would come to be known as MADA!, the MA standing for Mayfair and DA! standing for the name of the collective.
On gaining entry to the property the DA! Collective found a large lobby, an old spiral staircase and thirty rooms, largely unfurnished, though many possessed chandeliers and luxuriantly thick curtains hanging from ten-foot windows. Once inside the collective maintained permanent occupancy and re-enacted the life of our mammalian friend, the rat, adopting a strategy of freeganism scavenging fresh vegetables discarded in bins at New Covent Garden market and various supermarkets.
The squatting of 18 Upper Grosvenor Street stirred the emotions of tabloid editors, who chose to feature the squat on the front cover of their newspapers. The result was the squat’s first art show, in early November, had received the kind of advertising that one could normally only achieve with a multi-million pound budget. Tentatively, and with the added confidence given by the company of two friends, I decided to venture down to the squat the Friday night of the exhibition, having read about the show in the Guardian. Walking through the darkened and quiet streets of Mayfair, past the American Embassy with its machine gun toting security men, the street on which the squat was located, Upper Grosvenor Street, felt eerily quite. There was no activity outside the house and knocking on the front door was accompanied, I was concerned that there had been some misunderstanding somewhere along the line, and that I was about to disturb a dowager’s night cap, or be dragged in by two bemused ex-KGB security guards with sadistic smiles.
The door opened painfully slowly and then stopped ajar. Two guys in their early thirties poked their head around sizing my small party up. ‘Hello?’ they inquired. I explained what I knew, who we were and our intentions. This was not a party they emphasized. They were wary of who might be attending given that several newspapers had misrepresented the event as a house party. Receptionists in the lobby told us the show would finish at eleven. There was a sign saying ‘no drugs’.
Once over the threshold an enchanting world of delight and surprise opened up to us. The beautiful wooden interior of this Georgian town house was laid bare you could walk up the beautiful spiral staircase, explore the maze of rooms on several different floors and be wowed by the spacious dimensions. There was an old musty wooden smell to the house, as dust, which had lain dormant for some time, was now whipped up by the footfall. Art students and designers with Gucci handbags wondered around the building in a state of grace. It was like the ultimate Open House experience.
A variety of musical events took place. A guitar and violin duet in one room covered in autumnal leaves, a drumming session in the other. On the ground floor two old pianos in the lobby were being played simultaneously, releasing a beautiful melody, rather like rain falling.
In other areas video images were projects on to the walls. The art installations, presumably put on by art students, still finding their feet, wasn’t breath taking, but looking at any art in a six story Georgian town house felt cool. One artist approached me and spoke to me with the speed of the machine guns owned by the police guarding the American Embassy round the corner. Eventually his endless drawl culminated in a request for a can of one of the beers, which he had seen me carrying around. I gave him half the can I had in my hand.
The most amusing and interactive item was a Theremin with a plastic banana mounted on to it. It made children of us all.
Punters, many of whom from the crusty end of the spectrum, were in groups chatting, supping, sat down in various darkened rooms. Occasionally cans of beer that had been rested on the floor would spring a leak. The metal tacks in the floorboards had sufficient gumption to burst through the thin metal surface of any can, that had been left to lie on top of them, by unsuspecting visitors. The effect would be beery fireworks, unseen in the darkened room, the noise of which was masked by a guitar and violin ensemble, the effect being that when several people, stood up to leave, it appeared they were on an incontinents support group night out.
People looked relaxed. The whole thing reminded me of an episode of Heimat.
The gig was closed at elven, as advertised. Punters were reluctant to go, but did so with civility. A small guy came round, the antithesis of a Mayfair bouncer, and asked people, politely, if they would care to leave. Some were disgruntled, ‘I’ve been asked to ask politely’ stressed the young man. In a neighbouring room a bearded man with a beer can in his hand was stood up, singing and swaying with his eyes closed, jamming with a guy strumming a guitar in a jester’s hat sat hunched against the wall. ‘We don’t want to go, we don’t want to go,’ they sang. The exasperated diminutive bouncer remonstrated. The bearded man, determined not to hear this cajoler, closed his eyes and continued ‘Go home. No drugs’ (in relation to the sign put up on the ground floor: ‘no drugs’). I decided to play by the book ‘Fair enough’ I replied to the young’un ‘we all knew we had to leave at eleven when we came in here didn’t we?’ and the guy shook my hand. I felt a sense of respect gained, which had all but disappeared one hour later, at which point I was still in the building, on the second floor, playing with the banana Theremin.