|Places of oblivion
Some time ago French historians made the concept of place of memory fashionable. By that they referred to the place where a reflexive return of history upon itself takes place, that is the space in which the past is elaborated. In fact, it is very true that the idea itself of place of memory included a certain amount of misunderstanding, because it is a pleonasm: a place only exists because memory, in one way or another, identifies it, situates it, gives it a name and integrates it into a wider cosmological system. It is memory that cuts out a place so that an enunciative order can say or think something about it which is remembered by it or in it. A place is such if it has served to establish correspondences which make it possible to draw a cross on the surface of a territory to indicate the existence of certain logical qualities in it, among which there stands out an inalterability that is more lasting than that of words, facts or actions.
Then, in the same way that in history or archaeology these places of memory are often talked about, it would be equally relevant to do the same with another idea, that of place of oblivion, which has not been quite as successful, even though it is more appropriate to define the result of certain contemporary political-urbanistic operations, of which those associated with the Universal Forum of Cultures would be the apotheosis. It must be clarified that this idea of the place of oblivion is not original. It was adopted here from Jonathan Boyarin, who coined the phrase to refer to the concealment of the poor area of the Lower East Side in favour of the exaltation of Brooklyn, in order to construct a “pertinent” urban ethnic memory of the Jews of New York “Un lieu de l’oubli: le Lower east Side des Juifs”, Communications, 49). The case of the reconstruction of part of the Barcelona seaboard in the name of this supposed exaltation of peace – sponsored by enterprises involved in the arms industry –, its maintenance – with an extremely aggressive urban activity in both the ecological niche as well as the preexistent urban texture – and the cultural diversity – in a country in which the immigration law in force is incompatible with human rights – is very similar to what Boyarin describes in his article on the Jewish New York. In the name of a city profile at the service of urban marketing techniques, destined to be sold as a consumer product for investors and tourists, a colossal mechanism unfolds to erase a past considered incompatible with the new image Barcelona wants to offer.
The enormous operation of reform which is hidden beneath the pomp and ceremony of Forum 2004 is not only an extreme expression of tertiarisation, thematisation and capitalist reappropriation of the city. It is also an unbeatable example of how the history of a city can be manipulated by imposing an artificial memory, suited to the dominant political and economic interests, and, at the same time, ignoring the undesirable aspects – for being ugly or inconvenient – of its real past. This was seen repeatedly during the past decades in the case of Barcelona, and is still present in this latest episode of official amnesia which is the Forum. The seaboard of the city had already been the object of an official propagandistic treatment to promote the idea of “the recovery of the seafront” and a necessary exaltation of “Mediterraneanness”, which corresponded to a capital which had been found guilty of having lived “with its back to the sea”. This publicity campaign “forgot” that for decades thousands of people lived literally on the beach, in the great settlements of the shacks of Somorrostre, Bogatell, Camp de la Bota, Mar Bella, Pequin, that is to say in those very areas where the new Barcelona has been raised, an exclusive Barcelona devoid of conflicts which its designers – quite uselessly – dream of. Officially, this enormous subcity of shacks never existed nor were those who lived there really from Barcelona. Before the erasing carried out in the name of the great circus of cultures – which is exactly what the Forum is –, this same obsession for exalting the “marine values” of Barcelona was no obstacle to the removal of the dearly loved “xiringuitos” of Barceloneta (the beach stalls and restaurants along the seafront of the city). Or so that the commercial area of the Arts Hotel, under the shadow of the fish by Franz Gehry, should devour a good part of the seafront promenade. Or so that the high standing buildings and hotels of the brand-new district of Diagonal Mar should end up by erecting between the city and the beach a wall that is a thousand times worse than the one that supposed by the railway tracks in another era. Are violations of the horizon such as Imax of the Port Vell (the old seaport) or the World Trade Centre, which amputate the visual outlet of the Rambles, examples of the “recovery from the sea”?
The nature that is behind the “opening to the sea” of Barcelona is revealed as a pure sham and swindle. Barcelona must be the only city in the world which has a wharf at which no ship has ever docked: that of Maremàgnum, which, in fact, had to be installed to justify its declaration as a harbour area and enable its businesses to open on holidays. Before beginning the works of remodelling the coastal zone of Barcelona, very close to what would become the beach of Mar Bella, at Poblenou, there could be seen the remains of what had been a shipwreck or running aground. A keel, an air vent, part of a bridge. Later, these remains would end up presiding over the garden sector of the area. It is obvious that everything was arranged so that this would seem like one of the proofs of the nautical and even epic past of that part of the coast. In reality, it was a fraud, the fraudulent preparation of a cardboard-stone stage setting to conjure up facts which had never taken place. The scrap iron had been taken there deliberately from the port and it belonged to a Liberian vessel due to be taken out of service. What a magnificent example of invented memory, conceived in order to replace the destroyed memory!
Beside this evasion of the truth of a city which not only lived facing the sea, but also literally on the beach. Another even more painful evasion is that of the retaining wall which Francesc Abad tells us about by means of his work; this wall that was where now wonderful works by famous architects have been built, beneath the public areas “of quality” for which thousands of people will practise a calm and foreseeable urbanity. Against that wall, at the Camp de la Bota, a number of people difficult to calculate –hundreds, more than six hundred at least – were shot during the nineteen forties and up to the start of the Eucharistic Congress of 1952. No one thought of these people at the time of making the plans, projects, scale models, promotion leaflets, publicity campaigns. The only – and extremely worthy – exception is the wall that Josep Lluís Mateo built on the northern flank of the conference centre, a rough wall whose deformations recall the impacts of the bullets on that other wall which in the very same place had been the site of a human mortification practised systematically and on a large scale.
Why must we remember what we should forget? Who is interested in remembering all that? And why? Isn’t it better to proclaim out loud – without saying it – that the wall did not exist, that the hundreds of victims of the shootings were never shot? Because no one was shot there or anywhere else, no one was persecuted in that quiet city which opens its doors today to the cosmic embrace between cultures. Here no one was tortured, no one was killed, because there was neither war, nor post-war, nor shacks nor destitutes, and even less thin walls. Before the Forum there was nothing. An empty and virginal space that anxiously awaited the arrival of the architects and publicity agents, impatient for being rescued from the nothingness in which it found itself. The absolute triumph of a city submitted to Benetton aesthetics, without a past, or better still, with an invented past.
If only they, those who died from the Camp de la Bota, would make us pay for the unforgivable sin of our oblivion. Because they remain there; their bodies were never removed, they are still piled up in the same place, one on top of the other, in a huge pile that no one sees, but is there. The stench that they want to hide is not that of the purification plant upon which they have raised up the constructions and spaces of the Forum. The stench is that of the dead and rotting bodies which refuse to leave. Perhaps one day, near dawn, at the time of executions, the ghosts of those executed will awake to settle their accounts with the city that dared to deny them, and the debt which it owes them and will never be able to. The visitors to the Forum do not know that they walk among ghosts that hate them, because they hate – and quite rightly – the state of oblivion to which they are condemned.