At 17:45 the answer phone message changes to reveal the address, “emergent service workers of the world unite…” is the command. I am told to make my way to the party, at the garish coloured buildings on Saint Giles High Street, and wished a happy May Day.
The setting is the new London headquarters of Google, who occupy five floors of the Central Saint Giles redevelopment, a place where residential and retail possibilities combine to make “more than an office building”. The premises are managed by Stanhope PLC, and are the sort of location preferred by the party organisers, who call themselves Space Hijackers. Self-identifying “middle class art school wankers”, the group peddle a playfully subversive politics; they daubed black paint across a dozen BP billboards prior to the Olympics, they have organised games of cricket in private developments of public space.
The crowd is clean-cut, some partygoers have arrived with their families, children are dressed in fencing masks and are using keyboards as foils. A keyboard maypole is wheeled in on a cargo bicycle, and May Day observers in white jumpsuits begin to dance around it with computer cables. A small-time drug dealer shuffles through the crowd trying to sell wraps of cannabis, off to one side, a familiar-looking band of freelance photographers have made the short journey from where I’m used to seeing them, waiting for celebrities at the BBC studios on Great Portland Street. They stand about in utility waistcoats and hooded sweaters, looking altogether disappointed with the small turnout. One by one, they take it in turns to visit a nearby café.
I arrive with the fundamental misgiving of whether a modern May Day is a cause for celebration or commiseration. The organisers refer to the event as an “after party”, their flier a wandering but lyrical complaint against workfare and overtime, they joke that the campaign for an end to the wage economy has been left half-finished, with the economy still intact and only the wages removed. In Turkey, I hear 27,000 police had been deployed that morning on the streets of Istanbul. Tear gas was fired, authorities suppressed turnout by cancelling public transport to the area. In Central Saint Giles, the Worker’s Day protest is suffering a distinct lack of workers.
The altogether strange environment is leant a final eeriness by the empty buildings, the bare concrete without interior. Most of St Giles’ ground floor premises have been filled with a pastiche of Latin or Mediterranean dining culture, but overhead and all around, quite clearly there are vacant lots. In Ground Control, her chronicle of the privatisation of public space, Anna Minton opens with the admission that the manuscript had been conceived of in a boom and written in a bust. She talks of how investors jumped at the promises of new developments, only to dry-up as the financial crisis came about. A party organiser passes me by, clutching an armful of beer cans, and I watch the Space Hijackers as they dance around their maypole, in the shadow of what looks like a development failure. From a corner, a unified screech rises momentarily above the volume of the sound system… “We love Google!”… from a group of women sitting outside a franchise Italian restaurant. The head of building security marches into the huddle of partygoers, he shouts orders into a phone, reprimands the masked children for fencing with keyboards.