Tbilisi has an unquestionably vibrant, colourful cultural scene. However, poverty and social exclusion are widespread. Marginalized communities are often excluded from the arts and from social and political activities aimed at democratizing decision-making processes and improving the quality of life for Tbilisi’s residents. In an historic act, however, a diverse group of Georgian citizens and foreign residents have occupied a derelict building near the city’s hippodrome in the Saburtalo district, transforming the abandoned building into a cultural centre that aims to put an end to elitism and facilitate community activities in favour of the arts and positive social activism. Although their project is in its early stages, it has already caught the attention of artists and activists from across Georgia, Europe and the Caucasus.
As I walk up to the old stables that now house the Alternative Cultural Centre of Tbilisi, the last thing I expect is to be standing in the forest just 20 minutes later, a jar of hot tea in my hand as I gaze into the eyes of a camel. But here she is, Tchini the camel, slobbering and sniffing as she gazes at me with her round hazel eyes. ‘She’s half Afghan, half Mongol, a rare breed,’ her travel companion Goran explains as his little horned goats frolic to my left and right in the wooded area surrounding the stables.
All the way from Afghanistan
Some claim that Monika and Guillermo, volunteers from Lithuania and Spain who are completing their European Voluntary Service (EVS) in the Tbilisi-based Droni youth association, discovered the building and decided to bring Europe’s culture of squatting (occupying empty buildings) to Georgia. Others claim that Goran, the nomad travelling from Afghanistan with his caravan of goats, puppies, chickens, and of course, Tchini the camel, claimed the space as his own, opening the way for others to transform the building into the vibrant social centre it is today. Goran, however, claims that it was the camel who led the way. What is certain is that the organizers are determined to put as much love and energy as humanly possible into making the space a special one.
The scene that unfolds before me as I walk into the centre brings a smile to my face. The December sun pours in through the lofty windows, members of Tbilisi’s Frisbee club are practicing tossing disks, and people sit by a bonfire in the middle of the room, chatting and holding their hands over the fire to keep warm. Artists of all stripes are busy painting the building’s blank walls, and two DJs with waist-length dreadlocks play reggae music for those assembled. A makeshift swing hangs from the ceiling and people are taking turns pushing one another, shouting and laughing.
Still others mill around, taking photographs and coming up with ideas for the space. Free dance lessons, gymnastics, language exchanges, political roundtables, feminist discussion groups and film screenings are just some of the ideas being tossed around. What has been decided definitively, however, is that the space will be free of all recreational drugs and alcohol. This decision aims to keep the violence that often plagues Georgia’s bars and nightclubs at bay.
Alf the mysterious nomadic activist
I chat to ‘Alf’, the mysterious nomadic activist who originally put me in touch with Monika and Guillermo when they were looking for a place to launch the project. He speaks with infectious enthusiasm, his blue eyes twinkling, as he discusses his vision for the ACCT. ‘This is the first time anything like this is happening in Tbilisi. What we want is to have a free community space to bring together different groups of people, create community, challenge the elitist status quo that claims people need money to be involved in society and make the world better,’ explains Alf.
‘Not everyone can afford to be part of a foundation and sit in a nice, warm office to brainstorm ideas to make society better,’ adds Gio, 24, a resident of Tbilisi, ‘We can create a space for everyone here.’
Despite the many challenges of building consensus, the group remains committed to promoting a horizontal, non-hierarchical decision making structure that respects a diversity of opinions and takes everyone’s ideas into account. I meet activists from Russia, artists from Syria, Georgian students and seasoned members of civil society. I spend time sitting in the warm kitchen amidst piles of bananas and tangerines as a 21-year-old American studies student makes hot tea and vegan borsch for the crowd. I chat with Irakli, a middle-aged engineer and hacktivist who helped reinstall the building’s electricity.
As I scribble in my notebook, I brainstorm ideas for the creation of a free library and info shop with Rati. I hear Goran speak eloquently about freedom of movement, peace and citizenship and I listen, enthralled as people discuss how to promote animal rights and plans to house Tbilisi’s growing homeless population.
Elsewhere this is a typical Sunday in Tbilisi, but here in the cultural centre I know I am witnessing something special, an opportunity for a real grassroots movement to grow and thrive in a city that was devoid of prospects after years of war, transition, and economic hardship. The Alternative Cultural Centre of Tbilisi is an opportunity for anyone, regardless of age and background, to come and be a part of a community and participate in making Tbilisi their own. Moreover, the best is yet to come.