|The silent voices of the past face a degenerate utopia (1)
[…] That which drives the majority of art and literature that embodies the utopian imagination in our era of supposed posthistoire and post-utopia is utopia and the past instead of utopia and the 21st century.
Andreas Huyssen, Memories of Utopia
"El Camp de la Bota" by Francesc Abad is the result of the partial materialisation, in the form of an exhibition, of a project in course that led to a complex study on the fragility of social remembrance and the construction of history in the present. Naturally, this artistic piece of work didn't set forth with any abstract theorising of the philosophical or speculative type. Obviously, reflections of a general character are not excluded by the artist. As is known, during the course of his career there are many examples of his interest in questions related to ethical and existential values which are always placed in the context of the controversial mutual relationship between civilisation and barbarity. In this way, we have only to remember the importance that some writers and philosophers like Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, Simone Weill, Paul Celan, Primo Levi... have had in the development of such a unique creation. However, despite the presence of aspects that already featured in previous works, what makes "El Camp de la Bota" so different, lies in the fact that, in this latest work, Francesc Abad approaches the legacy of the past and the analytical evaluation of its repercussions on the present, via the analysis of one concrete case, in one specific place: the cold blooded and calculated execution by firing squad of one thousand, seven hundred and four people between 1939 and 1952 by the franquist dictatorship in an area known as "El Camp de la Bota", a small squalid area of beach. It's like a no man's land between Sant Adrià del Besòs and Barcelona that, despite its apparent insignificant appearance, in the course of the last three centuries has had a prominent role in the collective memory of the people of Barcelona and Catalonia in general.
Reflecting upon the temporary nature of memory or historical amnesia as determining elements in the confirmation of essential symbolic features in the processes of self identity of diverse social groups, or of the totality of a community, constitutes the axis upon which Francesc Abad's exhibition rotates. Undoubtably, it's a symbolic description that transforms itself with the passing of time and which is exposed to the modelling of a variety of discourse in conflict, and finally also to the duress and filtration that are imposed by those who write history and condition its reception thanks to their instituted power. In order to obtain the visual plasmation of a dialectical relationship between the past, the present and the future with regard to the architecture of the perception of the knowlege of recent past times, the artist uses a resource that bases itself in the spatial dissemination of the archive as a device. In short, this involves the archive being unfolded in an exhibition in a restrained way that has no artifice. Firstly, what one appeciates is that the artist's soul isn't directed by the desire to precisely and exhaustively transer facts and information. One can see this attitude in an almost minimalist and extremely bare production which tries to achieve an allegoric affect that goes beyond being just a bringing together of information.
From this standpoint, in which the artist is more than simply a middle man in the organisation of material, one can subtly see his influence and he always gives the impression that his role is limited to a secondary position in relation to the veritable protagonists: the documents, the voice/image of testimonies reproduced in a DVD project.
One potential that can be obtained from the use of a tool like the archive is the ability to trace the genealogy of this place called "El Camp de la Bota". This means undertaking a journey that starts at the start of the 18th century until we get to one of the project's purposes: the restitution of a just memory of the victims of the franquist regime's brutality. For this rerason, one of the central resoures of the archive - together with the photographic and graphic documentation on the Universal Forum of Cultures, 2004 - are the complete lists that bring together all the people executed at "El Camp de la Bota", and in a more qualitative way, the oral and visual testimonies of seven witnesses who spoke about their murdered relatives without beating about the bush.
Naturally, Francesc Abad's aim is not only to dignify the anti-franquist fight and give recognition to the ethical debt owed to those who died. An operation that should be considered important enough in its own right, but which, fortunately, he complements with a second step of equal importance. "El Camp de la Bota" is the main location for the presumed great event of the year: the Univesal Forum of Cultures, 2004. Consequently, bearing this in mind, the artist echoes a primordial question in contemporary societies, like what is the purpose of culture, with the intention of legitimising the current state of things.
It's a phenomenon that at the same time also implies that culture is used to build a projection of a determined past - in line with the interests of the dominant classes - from the present time. In this way, we have to talk about a past that can't remain immune to the pressures of the deep-seated commercialisation of everyday life. This is something that normally goes hand in hand with the dissemination of forgetting the past within the social fabric, since it's perceived as a necessary process for a society that tries to deludedly exclude conflicts within its view. Those that are created in the present, as much as those that are inherited, aren't interesting for ideology, nowadays hegemonic in the context of western capitalism and which has converted consumption and entertainment into an existential paradigm. Consequently, realising an objective of such magnitude can only be successfully done via the proliferation of pretence as a norm in the transmission of the past, or even worse, via total indifference, as a model, towards the most tragic events of immediate history. These means and maneouvres to cover up the past are obvious in the case of the socio-political, historical and aesthetic analysis that Francesc Abad formalises. As well as having been the old filing range of an artillery school in the 14th century, "El Camp de la Bota" was also the place where almost two thousand people were executed during franquist rule. Despite the tonnes of cement poured into that area and the fact that the most ultra-modern designs and architecture act as agents of amnesia, we mustn't forget that until a few decades ago slums and social marginalisation were the norm in that suburban dead end street, thick with pollution. Consequently, what the exhibition puts forward is what an indisputable "place of remembrance" of democracy and the anti-franquist resistence, ought to be like. This has been overshadowed in the sea of confusion and celebration of the Universal Forum of Cultures, 2004.
One of the merits of the exhibition lies mostly in the fact that through the historical sequence of a physical, charismatic and very unique surrounding, it leads the way to giving lessons of the general type on the form that culture currently has in late capitalism. In this way one can deduce that the planning of great cultural events, as is the case of the Forum in Barcelona, constitutes a strategic factor of great magnitude. Firstly, this is because they allow economic movements which are inclined towards the increase in social inequality and the speculation of urban land, to dissimulate. Secondly, this is because, thanks to the lucrative association between culture and entertainment, they ignore and exonerate even that which is unjustifiable. The overall conclusion is that the Universal Forum of Cultures shows that one can, in the name of culture, on the one hand, genuinely falsify private economic interests, and on the other hand take away the foundations of irrenouncable values like peace, non-violence and the co-habitation of differences by taking advantage of them banally and with propaganda.
With "El Camp de la Bota", Francesc Abad doesn't bring anti-Forum 2004 to the surface with a simple, frontal attitude, but goes further by highlighting the paradox, manipulation and carelessness of creators of great cultural programmes, always under the supposed estele of modern progress. That's why it's so necessary to recove the silent voices of the past that strike at the excesses of pleasure seeking that impregnate the current hyper-commercialism. An era conceived by the ideologists of multinational capitalism as a last stop in the march of progress should have accomplished its objective: the creation of a happy and harmonic society, without conflicts, where history identifies itself with a mythical past that incorporates itself, without any type of prejudices, into the universe of goods. As the geographer, David Harvey, correctly remarks, we're threatened by the extension everywhere of "degenerate utopias" that in the form of shopping centres or theme parks, cheat us into being seperated from one another via the expansion of the serious alienating aftermaths of the complexity of our real world. The Universal Forum of Cultures, given all its rhetoric about good intentions, in reality comes closer to this model.
In summary, it's important to point out that Francesc Abad puts forward a critical lecture on the political and economic role of culture in the postmodern context of western capitalism, and simultaneously helps to recuperate and keep alive the neglected memory of the victims of the facist repession. Without doubt, this last question constitutes the real test of the fractures that the hypothetically utopian discourse shows, which is embedded in the current modernisation without checks and the absolute dismantling of history. In other words, veering towards the past, one has to be discerning, looking into a new, solid anchorage in order to garner critical adornments to face the offensive of pre-eminent presenteeism, linked to the hiding of conflict and the promotion of marketing. All these positive aspects truly sprout up in the "El Camp de la Bota" project. Alltogether, that which comes across as being the most relevant in this reconquest of the democratic memory circumscribes to a mediocre lyrical recreation, which is not much less than a representation of kitsch sensitivity with the aspiration to literally relive the past. Neither does it lead to monumental conceptions with the intention of reclosing this memory in some kind of mausoleum. On the other hand, it has some elements so that this incursion into the past becomes serious historical knowledge in which a just look into the past and an alive connection with the present prevails.
In the end it's a non-negotiable civil right that very often comes in second place to the questionable operations of the urban and technical market that blackens itself via the trivial use of culture.
Jordi Font Agulló
(1) This text was originally published in the catalogue El Camp de la Bota, produced for Francesc Abad's exhibition that took place in the "Fundació Espais d'Art Contemporani" (The Foundation for Contemporary Art Spaces) in Girona, between 2 April and 30 April 2004. To understand and contextualize some of the things which are referred to in the text, one has to take into account the context within which the exhibition took place at that time. It was a time when the celebration of the "Universal Forum of Cultures" in Barcelona was experiencing a huge public attendance and was the centre of numerous controversies.