Floating City: Abandon Ship

An alternative space, known for its highs and lows, is in its terminal stage. For the good of the project, everyone involved and the future of alternative projects everywhere, the time has come to talk about it.

The catamarans in disrepair, 2017. Little has changed since. © Minco Den Heyer

Preface

Radical platforms often post articles about life in alternative spaces with important systemic critiques written to help us all improve. It is important that we reflect on our cultures and experiences in these spaces, and we believe the time has to come to talk openly about Floating City/Flydende By (here abbreviated to FC).

The Authors of this piece have spent years of their lives in FC. We owe the project skills, community/event-making experience and long-term friendships/lovers that span continents. We would like it to offer the same to others, however, whilst we freely admit the project was never fully functional, we view recent developments with great concern and a sense of responsibility.

We have spoken privately about if our silence is complicit in harm being caused by/at FC. After speaking to other ex-members and after uncovering more recent negative stories we have decided to speak out. This isn’t a bad faith hit piece and there are no scores to settle between us, FC and its founder.

This is about care: for newcomers to the alternative scene, for the alternative scene in general, and for the people currently involved in FC. We want our social, creative and political spaces to be safe, where people do not suffer needless harm and are empowered.

That’s it. That’s the minimum.

In this piece we will talk about FC’s history, the present, it’s legacy of destructive social dynamics, why we believe it should come to an end and the painful questions this raises.

Note: The founder (as he encourages others to view him) will be referred to as Birk. This piece mentions him a lot as we don’t want to hide the fact that destructive individuals can exist outside of or in addition to systemic failures. It can feel uncomfortable or unproductive to even fake-name someone (sometimes it is unproductive!) but in our experience, there are individuals who cause disproportionate harm and do not change. We would like to see this be taken onboard and compassionately yet honestly discussed as we have seen many groups ignore this and suffer/disintegrate as a result.^[1]

Floating City- A Very Short History

Floating City is one of the older alternative projects in Copenhagen. Emerging from a splinter group at Bolsjefabrikken around 2008, it has somehow persisted at the fringe of the scene for the last 12 years.

Never as popular or punk as Ungdomshuset, as secure as Bumzen, as rough and real as Pirate Harbour, nor as cozy and welcoming as Folketshus, FC has still taken part in, helped, or hosted a lot of cool projects over the years!

From resistance to COP15, to helping organise Bike Wars, to some of the best regular open mics and fire shows in Scandinavia, to breaking the illusion of normalcy on the streets of Copenhagen, FC has been a place of radical culture.

The project’s original mission was to build boats from salvaged materials that would become a sustainable, sea-steading collective. FC’s initial efforts were rapid, resourceful and impressive, having built and launched two catamarans in a few hectic years.

Being based in the South of the city for so long the project gained a kind of “weird uncle” reputation. People have both described and experienced it as a hippie utopia, a radical sailing network, a run-down drug squat, a disorganized meeting spot, a radical workshop collective and a welcoming community.

The truth lay somewhere in between these things and depends on the year or month you checked.

[Mis-]Management & Toxic Leadership

In another universe FC is a thriving, pirate-esque anarchist navy.

In our reality the boats are partially finished prototypes at best, currently rusting in a shallow channel near Refshaleøen. Over years of calling in favours- often giving little in return- the project has gradually eaten through the goodwill of allied projects and has exhausted the larger funding bodies that could have kickstarted the material needs of the project. The amount of work needed to fix the boats, only a few years ago, was already huge.

Irresponsible economics was/is acommon trend in the project. There is not the money to renovate or even fix FC’s flagships and the project has been in debt to friends/family who initially supported the project for years. However, a big turning point in the good faith of friends tothe project came during FC’s most recent relocation.

Due to gentrification FC has moved warehouse 8 times. In 2018 there was a successful crowdfunding campaign (mainly ran by ex-members) to support the most recent move. However, when the eviction was negotiated away by Birk and his then partner, they decided to not spend the money on relocating. Without the intervention of the crowdfunding manager- who saw this as an irresponsible betrayal of our supporters- that money would have been spent on Birk’s personal debts from the project’s earlier years. Neither Birk nor his partner had plans to notify the crowdfund supporters.

The Authors are supportive of opportunistic usage or liberation of resources, but not when it misleads people in our community or changes social contracts without consent.

A more recent economic update consists of one of the Authors meeting a new FC volunteer in 2019 who intended to do funding work. They were poorly introduced to FC’s economic situation, details on debts were either false or incomplete, and they quickly developed doubts that their efforts were being misused.

The parties and open mics are different, too. The Flydende part of the project doesn’t just mean “water”, it means “fluid” and change has always been part of the project’s culture. However, we don’t view being charged for water and allegedly being able to buy hard drugs at the bar as a change any of us can support.

The Authors are critical of certain uses of call-out culture without responsible oversight. However, we are not critiquing the magical influence of a crumbling warehouse. FC has influencing factors from inside and out, but the influence of Birk and his power over the project space is inseparable from the name Floating City. We believe that at this point in time, his influence is overwhelmingly negative.

Newcomers to the project have often been impressed by Birk’s energy- especially before his more noticeable psychosis. For many young people FC has been their first taste of anarchistic communities. Without knowing about the history, finances or the tendencies of Birk, he could be rightly seen as inspirational to some.

Running a place like FC takes a lot, like fixing a roof during a storm, replacing broken sewage pipes or kicking out a violent junkie threatening to burn it down. Birk was somebody who you could look up to, who could and would do it all. However, living up to the project’s ambitions to become an off-grid alternative to our current prevalent society, combatting injustices and empowering through flat hierarchies … that takes a lot more.

Birk is not a mean-spirited macho patriarch but this is some of the issue- people don’t notice the toxic behaviour, leading some to view and protect him as “misunderstood”. This toxic behaviour has manifested as being obstructive or non-participatory towards attempts of structural change and has poisoned several community-building, project-saving attempts over the past years.

Testimonies

It would be irresponsible to write everything from our perspective so we’ve asked others to write testimonies in the hope that readers can better understand the risk of involvement at FC.

A Long-Term (6 Year) Friend:

“I feel broken, betrayed, and cheated. A father figure, a captain, and my closest friend. I really tried to be there through the fall of his “empire” and the deterioration of his mental health. Hospital visits, fundraisers, mediated conflict resolution meetings, reaching out to family and friends; nobody can say I didn’t make an effort. He introduced me to the anarchist lifestyle that has totally changed my world. He taught me the skills that will forever come in handy and helped me explore what I would come to love in my life. He was a beacon for so many of us who did not know where we should go or what we should do.

But it all began to unravel. Drugs, questionable sexual advances, narcissistic tendencies, and an inability to hand the reigns to his able crew and “family”. He speaks of a flat hierarchy, but there is no Flydende By without him in control. We tried. But despite being exiled he would not let his sinking city be led by anyone but himself.

So, if you are reading this man… what the fuck? You were everything to me. Get some help and let your city sink.”

A New Collaborater’s Warning

“I had been trying to organize an event with Extinction Rebellion, with a new affinity group, developing a co-creation artivist workshop. The Artivism workshop was about creating an artistic action for the international day to eradicate violence against women and was well-received by the whole community.

Before the event [Birk] changed conditions on using the space from one meeting (which he was often late for) to another, he would speak in the names of other people, even if they are in the same room, and displayed sexist behavior (taking decision about the potential emotional and physical potentials of people- often women- living in FC) and would insist on calling me at whatever time of the day. [Birk] would propose services to help the development of the project but then did not follow through, didn’t have the capacity to effectively use FC’s social media and was pushy in asking for help from us on FC problems unrelated to the workshop.

On the day of the event, I was met with a difficult situation. [Birk] displayed manic behavior, was running around aimlessly and stopped us from doing almost anything. Preventing us from moving chairs and tables to fit publics needs and Covid-19 regulations by stressing that “once something has been moved, it will NEVER move again“ or that “it should stay like this!” while I attempted to remove trash. One such area was a corner with sofas and armchairs, which allegedly is a “prototype of the perfect space“ although being full of unfinished plates and alcohol bottles. We never managed to clean that space.

While confronting such behavior, [Birk] who was our contact person, could not hold attention, while anyways pushing to take part in the workshop event as a co-host. He was claiming more and more space to deal with his personal abuse. He was forcing conversations about the fact he was a woman, “the biggest feminist in the world“ and „have been abused, and will talk about it during the workshop“. All the while he portrayed sexist behaviour e.g. needing a “strong man“ to help move something, being in need of a “feminine“ touch for e.g. dealing with internal problems of the community.

Overall, it was very stressful and hard to get a constructive conversation with Birk, who was constantly talking of himself and the inherent problems of the place. I was overwhelmed by him unloading his problems on me and trying to call me at any time of the day. I was pushed to my personal boundaries.

Finally, a mix of our crew and people from Flydende By, decided that Birk was a threat to our event and our safe space. Unable to find a solution we cancelled the event 30 minutes before it was scheduled to begin.

Despite all this I want to make it clear that we had amazing support from two other people at Flydende By- and their delicious food. I hope they feel appreciated no matter what.”

A Transient Ex-Member (4 Years):

“Whether it has been repetitive drug addiction, repetitive violent behavior, or repetitive instability with mental health- I have often taken the position that we in no way have had the capacity to responsibly act in ways which would actually serve to help the individual’s deteriorating mental health.

In Birks case, it was no exception to this. The difficult part is the sheer fucking magnitude of his issues and the fact that he has not changed in any way whatsoever, rather, almost every decision that we [as FC community members] made ended up exacerbating it. Partially because of our own ineptitude, being afraid of the situation, being emotionally exhausted, and just not having the knowledge and skill set that is honestly fucking difficult to build up.

I also feel that he has perhaps had more chances to change than anyone else in the project, and has had more people willing to help him, and more resources for the effort of helping him. But in the end, he has fucked them all away. To me, this is the most damaging thing. I respect what you [Authors] have written about the topic and I genuinely believe that we have the capacity to change and to become different people than the person that we might have been — but the only other option is the more authoritative one. And perhaps it is the fear of betraying our own autonomous principles that has led us to hurting both the individual as well as the individuals whom they have affected with their behavior/actions.”

Mental Health and Positive Disintegration

We are worried about Birk’s health and for the people around him. Both because places like FC can attract people who are already struggling, but also because its toxicity can drag apparently healthy, optimistic or naive people down.

Mental health is a difficult thing to talk about, especially when the person experiencing it hurts people around them and the situation is beyond our ability to help.

Many of us have little experience on what to really do when mental health gets tough. For most of us it is friendship or political ideals- not confidence or expertise- that prompt us to step in. From visits to mental health institutions with our friends, to hour-long face-to-face talks, self-medication attempts and regular check-ins — we’ve seen many faces of the same struggle. What occurs repeatedly is we don’t have many concrete ways of dealing with these situations.

On the so-called Left we are often good at feeling and expressing care. We are less good at navigating these complex situations and establishing boundaries that allow us to continue to care. Sometimes such boundaries feel like giving up or letting go.

In an anarchist utopia we would have teams of community health professionals that have their shit together and are capable of intervening in complex situations and providing care. Unfortunately, this isn’t the world we live in.

From an anthropological perspective if someone’s neurodivergence takes a destructive form, our ancestors and living hunter-gatherer relatives might opt for exile, execution or a distanced model of interaction where that person has access to some community resources but would otherwise have to live outside of the community- sometimes fulfilling a shamanic or other niche function. These options do not map onto our cultural setting, but we believe it is a serious thing to confront: destructive and extreme mental health and our capacity to accommodate it. We want to take an anti-ableist approach to Madness but under the crushing weight of capitalism it is so hard to imagine.

Given FC’s state of decay it will have to end at some point, the question the Authors have is what will happen next? We are skeptical of how hospitalisation sometimes functions as a form of imprisonment and we are worried about what might happen to Birk… if he is able to be helped.

We can worry all we like about the health of people at the project, of Birk, of what FC’s thrashing state will do to the wider alternative scene in Copenhagen. However, we believe none of these things can improve whilst FC still exists as is.

Polish psychiatrist Kazimierz Dąbrowski takes on a compelling angle and speaks of Positive Disintegration. He views psychological tension and anxiety as necessary for growth and personality development, conditions under which instinct and socialization shatter and a person renegotiates inner values to define a sort-of ‘true individuality’. This is a comforting framework to view the experience of falling apart but it’s not always a given that collapse results in something better. This is a scary idea.

At a social event one of the co-Authors was approached by somebody who heard we were writing this piece. He has been at FC over the last year and spoke about his brother who has been in a psychosis for the past two years. He saw in Birk the same behaviour as his brother. He said how he had to let go after years of trying to help, particularly because of the pain he saw his brother causing his parents and how he believes his brother is “not able to let himself be helped.”

We spoke about how scary this is. When you stop helping someone you never know if one day you’re going to get “the call”.

The Authors believe we are past the point of prevention with FC, but we would also like to know how we can improve our social and preventive mental health skills to avoid these situations in future.

Whatever happens to Floating City we’re not advocating for Birk’s de-facto exile from our spaces.

Something Better?

Like capitalism the very mode of FC’s existence has been crisis. Over the years me have observed FC’s cyclic nature, a development from eccentric Golden Years to decay and abandonment. This low period would be lifted by enthusiastic international volunteers who see infinite opportunities.

However, the very spirit (if not a particular person) seems to linger and few changes to FCs culture and subsistence have taken place. Over and over again projects are reinvented without learning from the past, bike workshops constructed, hierarchies renegotiated, and consensus-workshops held. We want for people to be adaptable, make informed decisions and act responsibly within new contexts.

Summary

The damage caused by the situation we have described can be vast. What happens in Floating City, doesn’t just stay there- we are all part of an ecosystem.

  • Continuous poor planning and violations of trust cause dysfunctional relationships and can erode overall trust in our community webs.
  • Groups of people trying to save the place or organise events, that are then sabotaged by the dysfunctionality of the project, are using energy that could be used to support and nurture other spaces that will care for them.
  • Local politicians who are tricked into backing self-destructive projects like FC (we have heard the kommun is currently covering warehouse rent) will be even more hostile to the creation of radical spaces once they find out.
  • On a personal level we have heard of women being sexually assaulted, having their physical/emotional boundaries crossed/pressured and people of all genders finding themselves in unhealthy dynamics. When they leave they carry emotional baggage they didn’t arrive with and might not find comrades who can help them understand what they went through.

We think the lack of public condemnation from ex-members/friends of the project comes from four places:

  • Floating City and Birk’s/[ex-]members overall lack of competence has been normalised over time, so people don’t notice it for the problem it is.
  • There is a sense of pity or fear of repercussions that if FC ends, what will Birk do? Who will help him?
  • A sense of guilt over the state of the project. Could we have done better/differently to avoid it being this way?
  • The belief that surely the project will collapse soon, without any of us having to do anything about it.

For all of these reasons we believe Floating City, as it has been, has to come to an end. Projects that have outlived themselves — sometimes it is better that they die and face groundbreaking transformations.

To avoid state intervention we decided to compile this public statement, now we ask readers to compassionately take matters into their own hands: avoid FC or simply spread the word whether you’re in Scandinavia or think there’s something to be learned from this wherever you are! If there are people out there with stories and experiences that resonate with this piece and can be shared in good faith, we hope you speak up too.

To those readers who have looked down on Floating City members for years, actively excluded them from other alternative spaces and feel a righteous fulfillment after reading this piece, this article is not for you.

For those of us who are serious about our communities being able to look after each other we hope this article makes you reflect on how you can/should act to prevent ever reaching this kind of situation in your own circles.

Black-flag Beard

Another Pirate searching for equality and liberty.

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