‘We have the whole of social space in which to find each other’: An Afternoon with The Haircut Before the Party

Published at ArtSelector on 12/08/2011 in Issue 6: ArtWorkSpace

Spending an afternoon at this unusual hair salon in East London makes one think: why can’t everyday be like this? The collective known as The Haircut Before The Party are in the process of asking such a question.

THCBTP is supported by Arts Admin and the collective participated in their project the Two Degrees Festival in June this year. This initiative was described by Arts Admin as ‘sitting between art and activism, performance and protest‘, a phrase which also pertains to the work of the THCBTP. As Lewis Bassett, one part of the collective, states ‘we wear different hats‘.

As I walk in off Toynbee Street in Whitechapel, a visiting activist from Turkmenistan called Selbi is having her hair cut. Whilst her hair is styled into a straight geometric cut, she discusses the nature of debt with Richard Houguez – another member of the collective and her hairdresser for the day. This is the basic arrangement of the project. Haircuts are offered for free in exchange for participation in a discussion around a certain topic, which varies monthly. The theme for July is Debt; a topical issue and one close to the hearts of THCBTP, who took to the streets with their scissors on June 30th to talk to people about the recent cuts to public services and universities.

However, the salon is not only a forum and provider of ‘squat-chic’ hair-dos. It is an open space: open to debate, open to the street and open to people. I am invited to hang out for as long as I like and given a cup of tea. Meanwhile, Selbi talks about her experience of communality and hospitality in Turkmenistan and begins to pick apart the different types of relationship between the people and the state. The nature of trust and social contracts inevitably comes up as she admits her own wariness of letting an amateur barber cut her hair. It soon became a collaborative effort. Richard pointed out that this is par for the course. The collaborative’s styling skills have greatly improved due to people sharing techniques with them and showing them how they would like their hair to be cut. The cooperative hair cut sums up a key aspect of the initiative. Visitors are very much encouraged to be proactive and to direct their own experience in the salon.

The work itself grew out of similarly equal exchanges on a day to day basis. As part of a group of friends living in a squat, the collective had already been experimenting with everyday forms of communality, including cutting one another’s hair. As stated on their website ‘The collective are attempting to open up some of these themes by providing free hair cuts and a social space through which to bring together wider groups of people‘. Conversely, I had wondered if the salon would simply be providing an echo chamber for a small group of like-minded people. Lewis pointed out that ‘being art is just one way of understanding (the salon)‘. A variety of people have visited them so far. Part of this is the location. Visitors have included workers from the bustling city district of Liverpool Street, tourists and intrigued passers-by, the homeless, locals from the nearby communities, as well as the art and activist crowd. ‘People know how to enter a salon‘, Lewis explained, ‘it’s a societal need and a personal need‘. More than this, it’s a welcoming, comfortable space; literally a space one can just be. Not booked in for a haircut myself that day, I still ended up staying for several hours just talking. Friends and acquaintances stopped by to have lunch and newcomers easily joined in with the conversation.

There are very few such open spaces readily available. The creation of trust between people here is not only evident in the allowance of hair to be cut and opinions to be aired, but is also shown in how easily everyone shares the space equally with one another. Currently published on the THCBTP website is a chapbook entitled ‘An Introduction to Becoming’ by Anon. Its exploration of the ‘I’ vs the ‘We’ is reminiscent of Erich Fromm’s important separation of Having and Being as forms of existence. Being, as opposed to Having, allows one to drop possession of the I, a mask that separates one from experience. The Being mode stimulates a productive use of our human powers:

To renew oneself, to grow, to flow out, to love, to transcend the prison of one’s isolated ego, ..to give’

THCBTP seems to be very much about this sense of present-ness. It highlights, in a variety a ways, a need for space. The salon provides a communal living space as much as a space for ideas to evolve and become practice. The plans for the space are purposefully flexible to allow it to be a ‘working space’. Richard spoke of how they will be converting part of the salon into a reading area with more tea, coffee and books. They will host talks and events and hope to provide a space for collectives,old and new,to work together.

In a filmed interview with David Greaber, an anthropologist and anarchist who is also currently a Reader in Social Anthropology at Goldsmiths University in London, Lewis asks if he thinks anarchism is ‘only a practice‘ and ‘purely a methodology’. Greaber’s answer was that ‘whenever we treat people the way they should be treated‘ we are acting the way an anarchist would and that ‘we are always communists with our best friends’. Similarly, I asked Lewis if he thought the connection with art, and perhaps even activism, as a label for the initiative made the experience of the salon somehow less real: the theatre of an idea. Lewis argued that it is ‘real, but also symbolic‘. In many ways it is a question of what we can achieve collaboratively and communally. The provision of the space itself moves the concept further away from an abstract idea to a practiced reality.

The Haircut Before the Party are providing a physical space for communality, for connectivity and for work to happen. It questions how we work, how we organise space and how we relate to each other. After an afternoon spent there, its hard to argue that day to day life wouldn’t be a whole lot better if there were more such open and enlivening places to spend our time.

With thanks to Lewis Bassett and Richard Houguez of THCBTP, and also to Selbi Jumayeva from the Activist Collective Subbotnik Q, for a wonderful conversation.

Reference to:

‘The Coming Insurrection’ by the Invisible Committee
‘Having and Being’ by Erich Fromm
Interview with David Greaber part one: http://vimeo.com/17904563
Interview with David Greaber part two: http://vimeo.com/18751385

Other Links: http://thehaircutbeforetheparty.net/index.html

The HairCut Before The Party
26 – 28 Toynbee Street
E1 7NE

July – December 2011  Open for free hair cuts Thursday to Saturday, 12-6 pm.
To book a hair cut, call the salon phone on 07928072825 or go online: http://thehaircutbeforetheparty.net/bookings.html


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