|Brixton, London: The history of Cooltan Arts Centre|
Anyone that ever made it to the old CoolTan building in Coldharbour Lane will remember its unique and vibrant atmosphere.
It was a true co-operative squat that served the local community, offering art space, a café, office space for campaign groups, rehearsals rooms, darkrooms, and - of course - some of the best techno parties we've ever been to!
CoolTan Arts first formed in June 1991, taking their name from the disused CoolTan Suntan Lotion factory they first squatted in Effra Road, Brixton.
After they were evicted in February 1992 the building was razed to the ground and remained an empty plot of useless land for a decade afterwards.
The CoolTan Arts collective then moved to offices above Brixton Cycles, before squatting the old Unemployment Benefit Office in Coldharbour Lane in Sept 92 (such beautiful irony, eh?!).
The building (known as locally as the 'Old Dolehouse') provided a huge space and opportunity for local people to get involved, and it soon became a strong and important community focus in Brixton.
A thriving café was set up with local jazz bands playing at night, and the buildings provided accommodation for campaign groups such as Reclaim The Streets, Freedom Network, Earth First!, the Green Party, Lambeth Green Party and London Friends and Families of Travellers.
Criminal Justice Act
It also became one of the main focuses in the fight against the Criminal Justice Act, and hosted many tribal get-togethers where ideas and strategies could be discussed and exchanged between the various campaign groups.
Cheap rehearsal, darkroom and gallery space was made available, and a wide selection of cheap weekly workshops offered tuition in anything from yoga to photography.
Benefit parties were regularly held for various campaign groups, and these proved to be enormously popular, with DJs such as Mixmaster Morris, Liberators, Offshore, Tribal Energy, Astralasia, Scientist, Timeshard, Megabitch, Evolution etc., all playing out for minimal expenses.
The nights offered far more than your average usual rave and incorporated performance, dance, fire circus, poetry, live shows by bands like Zion Train, Revolutionary Dub Warriors, Grateful Dub and independent films and visuals from The Exploding Cinema, Small World and House of Skin.
Towards the end, these parties were attracting in excess of 1,500 people and proved an invaluable resource for keeping the building and campaign groups afloat - as well as providing what for us was the best rave venue anywhere in the UK. The place kicked!
One of the main movers at CoolTan was Shane Collins, now standing as the Green Party candidate for Lambeth. Shane's commitment was legendary and his organisational skills were an essential part of CoolTan's existence. Like everyone else involved, his contributions were entirely voluntary and his time freely given.
He reflects on the success of CoolTan:
"All of us at various times and to varying extents have worked our butts off, not for ourselves, but for the craic, for the benefit of all and for a common and at times cloudy goal. While it is probably easier for us to remember the mistakes, we have also got to check that we did a lot of good and achieved something worthwhile.
To know this, to take comfort and confidence from this and be able to carry the lessons and experiences through into other things is our reward. A bunch of often quite different people on the dole came together and we did it. A totally independent community arts squatted centre. We proved to ourselves and others that it could be done."
But wasn't all plain sailing, of course. Sometimes their enthusiasm to take things on was greater than their ability and the ensuing chaos could prove bewildering to onlookers. Finding enough people to take on the boring, dirty day to day jobs proved a tough challenge.
Like with any collective, they also had to deal with the dreamers, the vacant, the clueless and the spongers, but it's to their credit that they managed to keep it all together for so long.
CoolTan eventually lost their premises in September 1995 at the end of a 'Tenancy at Will' agreement with the Voice newspaper who outbid them for the building.
The Voice had claimed that they were going to move their offices and operations from next door, but soon revealed their true colours by putting the building up for sale. So much for their 'voice of the community' claims.
Meanwhile, Brixton Challenge money funded essential community projects like recobbling the street outside the Ritzy Cinema and draping pretty banners from the market, while the CoolTan building remained empty, boarded up and left to rot, a sad testament to wasted resources and unfulfilled potential.
Shane Collins summed up the achievements of their time at Cooltan:
"We have trod a new path. We have exposed new art in new circumstances; we have been part of the social changes and the cultural rumblings of the last few years. We have provided music, pictures, parties, politics, poetry, food and shelter for many people who might not have otherwise come across it, or been able to afford it. Maybe, and not just in our wildest dreams, we have offered a new perspective for some people on life and other ways of living it."
"To all those who have been a part of CoolTan over the past four years and those who have supported us by coming to events and allowing us to be independent - ta! We made ripples, we all did our part, it's been a laugh and we'll be seeing you around Brixton over the years to come. Lots of ripples make a tidal wave."
Unexpectedly, the building sprang back to life in February 1997 after being briefly resquatted. Two parties were put on, the café reopened and a host of sound systems filled the place with banging sounds again. Inside, the place looked exactly the same. In all the time the Voice had owned it, they had done absolutely nothing. We found it a strangely unnerving sensation to suddenly find ourselves seemingly transformed back in time and in a thriving CoolTan.
The pulling power and potential of CoolTan was reflected by the fact that both parties were packed solid, even though there had been no advertising and no publicity. Proof indeed that there is still a need for such a place.
After this brief hiatus, the squatters were evicted after a fortnight, the 'for sale' signs went back up along with new security notices and it looks like the lights have gone out for good.
CoolTan hasn't disappeared completely though. The spirit lives on in smaller groups - an art collective currently looking for funding, 'Eco-Trip', a green DIY networking group and 'The Carrot' an organic vegan co-op café in Camberwell (closed in 1998).
Eco-Trip continue to tour the festivals with their potent mixture of politics, culture, DIY and veggieburgers and are nurturing plans to squat another building, opening up an Agenda21 arts green community centre with monthly parties.
As for the Old Dolehouse, it's suffered a sad fate. Despite a seemingly never-ending succession of plans for the site (luxury hotel, backpackers hotel, small business centre, shopping complex) it's still lying empty and quietly rotting away for months.
Renaissance 2: February 1998
Familiar faces resquatted the building on the 6th and after a lot of work reopened the venue for one last party on the 14th Feb 1998.
As usual, there was an eclectic mix of sound systems, poets, political groups, great vibes and excellent food. Word of mouth round Brixton ensured that the place was packed and funds were raised for EcoTrip.
Sadly, it proved to be a very short lived renaissance and the building is once again lying derelict.
Postscript: 1st March 2003
The Cooltan building - and the adjacent Voice building - are still facing demolition, the latest plan being to replace them with two eight story, mixed use buildings. Or maybe a supermarket. Or maybe not (they keep changing their minds). Either way, the building is still rotting away, bereft of the majority of its roof and now surrounded by ever-taller wooden hoardings and ugly billboards.
What a fucking waste....
Update March 2004: Cooltan Arts are a new registered charity helping the Brixton/Camberwell area with arts courses for people with mental distress. Check out their website at http://www.cooltanarts.org.uk/.
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