08 10 05

Mediation and Construction of Publics

The MACBA Experience

Jorge Ribalta

I'll start with an obvious or even banal statement: Like all museums and cultural institutions these days, MACBA is in the middle of a confluence of economic and political interests which shape the current transformation of western cities towards the third sector (in which tourism is a major economic target). The new urban economies in post-fordist capitalism give a centrality to culture. Many theorists have described this process, from Fredric Jameson in the early eighties to David Harvey or Negri and Hardt more recently, just to mention a few among many others. "Cognitive capitalism" is what we call this fact that post-fordism (which is based on immaterial, communicative and affective forms of labour) puts subjectivity to work, as Paolo Virno has analyzed in a most paradigmatic way. In this context the cultural sphere as being an autonomous space of resistance or criticism (that is preserving a relative autonomy towards politics and economy) is no longer sustainable as such. We cannot really defend the cultural sphere as based on a critique of instrumental reason, since today subjectivity itself is embedded in the processes of capitalism.

What seems clear is that the present situation obliges us to rethink and reformulate the historical models of political art or an art produced politically, most of them anchored in an ideal of republican virtue, which is insufficient today to root a transformative thinking and action in the public sphere. In order to do that we have to work locally so we can find meaningful and relevant methods in which artistic autonomy can be redefined. We think that what we need is keeping a tension between the specificity of the artistic and the conditions and limits of each situation. Autonomy is then not something given as an essence of the artistic, but a construction, a space of negotiation. This negotiation is of course between autonomy itself and its opposite, which is instrumentalisation. Both extremes, autonomy and instrumentalisation, are always at work and both relative in themselves. Again, what is clear is that the modernist claim for artistic autonomy in a context in which that autonomy is not autonomous (but is in fact a hidden discourse of false depolitization and thus of instrumentalisation) is totally insufficient (if not, in fact, regressive). It is it necessary to look for other methods.

The museum in Barcelona is located in the Raval, a complex neighbourhood in the historical centre of the city, which is currently a site of struggle between two opposite forces: first, the force towards gentrification. Since the mid-eighties the local power has promoted a social transformation of the neighbourhood, historically constituted by a working class and sub-proletarian population. In this context art and cultural institutions (like universities, theatres, art centres, MACBA itself...) have played a crucial role in this social transformation. In the last few years it is clear that some parts of the historical centre of Raval have been conquered for the new urban middle classes (we have seen an increasing number of new fashion stores, restaurants, bars and clubs). Also the rise of the price of housing in the area (which was until recently the cheapest area in town) is favouring the arrival of new affluence. But the struggle continues, since the neighbourhood is also the most culturally complex in Barcelona and the arrival of new immigrants has enormously increased in the last few years. This is the second force in this struggle. Raval has a large Pakistani community, and there's also an important North African community (mostly from Morocco) and some other relatively large non-western communities (Philippine, Eastern European, Latin-American...). These communities, mostly constituted by poor and illegal people, are evincing a very strong capacity for growing up and re-conquering areas of the neighbourhood. Urban strategies promoted by the local power in Raval are clearly designed for enforcing the security and cleanness of the area for new middle classes and tourism. Which of these two forces will win the battle and condition the future development is unclear, although what is most predictable is that capital and urban engineering will win the battle. Unless the economic model of Barcelona, oriented towards tourism, becomes inefficient.

What does MACBA do in this context? Due to the complexity of Raval, there are no obvious or easy ways to approach the neighbourhood. What the museum can do is critically reflect on the conditions of art and culture today and keep open a space of debate. We do that. Some of our public programs and debates are precisely based on the critical understanding of the present confluence of financial capital, real state activity and culture. We are also developing projects with specific communities in the neighbourhood. For example, groups working with street prostitutes in order to get legal recognition (here it is important to keep in mind the long history of Raval as Barcelona's red light district, the Barrio Chino), or working with NGOs which are active with homeless children and teenagers in order to develop activities with them. In any case it is always a matter of developing specific projects with specific groups and for specific purposes. Not all of these projects are visible or easily translatable. This is of course not limited to the neighbourhood, but is a part of a larger context of thinking and practicing ways concerning how the museum can contribute to the reconstruction of a radically democratic public sphere and thus play a central role in the life of the city. What is important is to understand that we work locally in order to deal with global problems and conditions.

We think that what our contribution to a radically democratic public sphere is, quite simply, to be self-critical and open to debates. The discursive activity has a central role at MACBA. We try to counterbalance the hegemony of the exhibition media as being the main method or space of the museum. We think that publics are different and have different interests, and we have to allow different and non-hierarchical uses of the museum for those different publics. Those uses are not limited to the exhibition space. And we also try to investigate methods of circulating discourse through the website and other forms of publications and publicity. What is at stake here is an understanding of the processes of the construction of publics and the processes of the circulation of discourse in the public sphere.

The public and the public sphere are modern concepts which contain a number of simultaneous meanings and that are defined reflexively. The public has to do with what is common, with the state, with shared or common interest, with what is accessible to everyone. Public has a cognitive dimension, but also a political and poetic one. The public has a double meaning of social totality and specific audiences. There is a historical mobility in the public-private opposition, which comes precisely from the mobility of publics and their forms of self-organization. That public-private opposition is a space of conflict insofar as it may involve situations of inequality, as we have learned from feminism.

It seems clear that art is a public activity, oriented towards debate and confrontation with others. But we probably need a permanent redefinition of what we mean by public. The public does not pre-exist as a predefined entity that has to be attracted and manipulated. Rather it is constructed in open, unpredictable ways in the very process of the production of discourse and through its different means and modes of circulation. Therefore the public is not simply there, waiting passively for the arrival of cultural commodities; it is constituted within the process itself of being called. The public is a provisional construction in permanent mobility. The consequences of that perspective in terms of cultural policies and practices is a radical question of the dominant conceptions of cultural production and consumption, according to which those roles are immovable and closed, and therefore merely reproduce what already exists. Refusing the consensual discourse opens up a range of possibilities for new actions, in which the public takes on an active role as producer, which can therefore enable the emergence of new social structures. In that way, the public seems to be a project with the potential of constructing something that does not yet exist and can give rise to other forms of sociability. It is that very non-pre-existence of the public (which we can call a phantasmatic dimension) that allows us to think of the possibility for a reconstruction of a critical cultural public sphere. Today we can recognize symptoms of the appearance of non-state public spheres which have emerged from initiatives of civil society, which the Situaciones group from Buenos Aires have called ‘new social protagonism', referring to what happened in Argentina on December 19 and 20, 2001.

From that refusal to consensual publics there emerges an educational method in relation to culture designed to favour the autonomy of publics and the experimentation with forms of self-organization and self-education. The purpose of this method is to produce new structures both in terms of artistic and social processes (networked, horizontal, decentralized, delocalized structures). It is a matter of giving the publics ‘agency', of providing conditions for their capacity for action, overcoming the limitations of the traditional divisions of actor and spectator, of producer and consumer.

We think that sometimes certain processes need invisibility in order to be effective and remain as processes. Art is over-determined by a regime of public visibility that can have negative effects in terms of a subjective appropriation of creative methods. Visibility can weaken vitality, can be a form of institutionalization, a narcissistic fossilization of the potential of creativity. Beyond the regime of visibility, whose paradigm is the exhibition, we think it is possible to restore forms of the subjective appropriation of artistic methods in processes outside the museum.

What you see here is a project and a process. Our purpose is pushing the limits and contradictions of the institutional framework. A museum is nothing other than what you do with it, the forms in which people appropriate it. This is our contribution to a radically political redefinition of artistic relationality.

This is a shortened version. The full text can be found at:

Jorge Ribalta