|Public space as a palimpsest
The increasing difficulty in disseminating a specific statement, experience or point of view, be they of an individual or that of a group, is not so much because there aren't any means for communicating them, but because public space is saturated with debates. Even if a statement becomes public, exposed or retransmitted, there's a clear uncertainty as to whether or not it'll be well received in a context where not only is there a constant profusion of requests and messages, but also a swift renewal of this information in a way that the survival of any communicated effort is unlikely unless it's based on its repetition.
The two biggest generators of information in public space, advertising and the press, have this concept of the limited life or sell by date of what is stated perfectly assumed. Furthermore, on the basis of this ephemeral nature they adjust information renewal times and base how effective a message is not on the development of extensive argument, but on a process of synthesis and permanent repetition of exactly the same messages. In this way, the channels that are exclusively dedicated to information don't substantialy expand the analysis of the problems referred to in other programmes, but instead repeat the same news on a loop. A good part of the material that occupies communication space deals with current issues (in the sphere of politics: statements, counter statements, positioning, party strategies; in everyday life: events, accidents, statistics of events and accidents etc.) which would be perfectly irrelevent if it wasn't for the necessity to adjust oneself to the renewal of news on a daily basis. With regard to time (the present) and conciseness (the simplicity of the message) this is a very demanding system. That's why the texts that saturate public space of debate are mostly generated by communication profesionals via a system that's very much in the hands of press offices, press releases, press conferences, news agencies and news that is communicated via the media. They ensure the stable supply of information that's been sufficiently filtered in terms of communication. Parallel to this are the equally effective mechanisms that produce, with very similar parameters, information geared towards encouraging consumption. Both means of relating information are inter-woven using the same formats, space and time, in way that the news and advertising on television are interspersed in short and succesive fragments, without any necessary nor explained relationship between the cuts. Alongside this scenario, groups with different demands (environmental, political and those of individual neighbourhoods) that often have first hand and detailed knowledge of the problems, but which don't have direct access to the media, take on attention grabbing strategies to get the attention of the media. These strategies are closer to performances than any development of a line of argument. One minute of news and a photograph in the press are much more effective in dealing with public agents than a slow and reasoned argument. In a similar way, in the world of culture and science the producers of works elaborated over years are obliged, by the same mechanisms of disseminating these works, to condense them into a collection of statements that repeat themselves in succesive interviews that present these same works to the public. In the case of cinema this protocol reaches its paroxysm, and the time dedicated to promoting a film is sometimes greater than that dedicated to its production. All this is related to the decomposition of time into half hour fragments of consecutive and identical interviews and also of ten minute photo shoots in similar looking hotels all over the world that are later condensed into mimetic reports for seminars.
This process of encapsulating public space of information (and the perception of reality) in small and multitudinous fragments, has undoubtable effects on physical public space. One immediate effect is the city's direct occupation by advertising. Other effects, which are pre-recorded in this case, are the growing importance, with regard to the city, of how it is perceived through the media and also the construction of manifestly artificial urban settings which are exclusively used for leisure and consumption: theme parks, holiday centres, sports centres for the masses...
The origin of the occupation of urban space by advertising, or at least the point of inflection in which this occupation grows, coincides with what has been called the second industrial revolution: that of electricity. In the first few years of the 20th century, alongside the reduction of the working day, a certain displacement in the equilibrium between production and consumption started occuring leading to this second industrial revolution. The installation of a distribution network for electricity was an important factor. Artificial light, electrical appliances, cinema, the music hall, the increasing popularity of clubs, amusement parks, the radio, trams and also alongside all this, the car, characterise a developing scenario of urban culture, leisure and private consumption. Times Square, at the junction between Broadway, 7th Avenue and 42nd Street, the central area for clubs and theatres, is the paradigm of space saturated with signs and advertisements. It's also the place where the New York Times was located at the start of the last century. It's this newspaper that has placed in this public space its strip of advertising that rotates around the building's facade and allows passers-by to follow events from the street. It's in this moment that the convergence or confusion between public space, media space and domestic space, begins. The biggest urban signs mimic press headlines on a grand scale but, to tell the truth, reproduced in a photograph, they're the same size as a magazine headline. Posters transfer films credits and the enlargements of the most well-known faces that cinema has produced on the big screen, to building facades. Alongside this, the radio, the press (the pictorial magazines that proliferate in this age) and later and specially so, television, have introduced media space and public space into domestic space. It's done this via advertising in a direct way and the photographs of places where this advertising is present. This huge loop of icons and slogans converts the subject into a continuous spectator.
We were in Times Square in autumn 2001, soon after the attack. In those days immmediately after September 11, people came out onto the streets and the sidewalk. Building facades, shop windows and car windscreens were filled with spontaneous messages. Public space came to be made up of a contiouous account of the impact the attack had on the people and the whole city: a memorial permanently updated. They say that it's good to talk after a tragedy and therapists ask children to draw so that they can express, unconcsiously, emotions that are difficult to do verbally. In New York in autumn 2001 people had created an enourmous drawing made up of multiple strokes, achieved on a small scale. The images that really dominated public space, however, were others: portraits of beautiful, well dressed men and women, young people without problems that showed an attitude lying somewhere between defiant and seductive. The images painted a portrait of the models of leading clothes brands and occupìed building facades at the junctions between the city's main streets with gigantic proportions, some of which were more than twenty metres high.
When a sign or advertisement is placed in a public space, the value of its position in the city comes under consideration given that the amount of money it makes depend upon its location. When this location is within the context of a television broadcast this effect is amplified and evidently, it's economically quantified. A large proportion of the income of football clubs comes from this type of advertising. In some sports, like motor racing, the level of sophistication of the occupation of space by advertising means that this precise hierarchy of positions and sizes of logos and signs is transfered from the television to the bodywork of cars and the drivers' clothes. Some sports men and women extend this phenomena to tattooing their bodies, cutting their hair or colouring it in a particular way. This, far from being an inividual reaction to advertising being imposed on them, is in some cases a way to strengthen the uniqueness of their image and develop their personal edge in the advertising market. The case of David Beckham is the clearest case.
At Prince Felipe and Leticia Ortiz's wedding, thirty-five thousand metres of fabric with images of paintings by Velazquez and Goya was used to cover the billboards along the route that the couple went along. The intention was to decorate the city, but also to eliminate the influence of advertisements during the royal wedding. The big canvases of Goyesque landscapes as backgrounds to a theatrical décor, accentuated the artificiality of an event that was already highly scenographic. One of the painters chosen to cover the facades of Madrid was Antonio López, whose work symbolized those facades in a hyperrealistic way: a choice that converted itself into a strange and ironic mechanism for the restoration of the landscape. The spaces where television events normally occur are more or less conceived from the two-fold point of view that corresponds to two simultaneous spectators: that which attends the live event and that which follows it on television, bearing in mind that the latter is also a spectator of the former. The public as seen on live television: their reactions, laughs, applause, chants and their clothes, are protagonists that determine whether or not a brodacast is successful. Few events are stranger than those that offer empty stands even if the number of television viewers is enormous. In theme parks a complementary situation arises. The relationship is reversed in a way that the visitor repeats his or her experience as a spectator. The Disneyland phenomena reconstructs the scenes in Disney films in real life, with the intention that the tourist experiences the sensation of being in a fantasy tale. The immediate precedent to these theme parks, universal expositions, that were created with colonialism and technical positivism, established the basis for this fantasy architecture, with their taste for exuberant and exotic cardboard. The condensation of the marvels of the arts and the technician, these events, so highly praised by bourgeois public opinion of the age, are the origin of almost all the classic attractions (ferris wheels, rollercoasters....) and are also the pioneers of the playful relocation of landscapes: the Chinese pavilion, the tropical island... The common denominator of these families of space is an uncomplex decontextualisation. They're places with a specific function and their own rules. Moreover, they're perfectly absurd without this codification. For this very same reason, confronted by the construction of an urban or geographic project based on these types of uses, there exists a clear uncertainty over its survival and how effective its integration in the city is.
During summer 2004, Barcelona tried to recreate the same enthusiasm amongst its citizens that accompanied the 1992 Olympic Games with an event that, taking on the universal expositions as an initial reference, set about bringing itself up-to-date by substituting the national pavilions and the exhibition of technical innovations with the exposition and by debating problems that affect humanity. Within a few months it condensed itself in a simultaneous way to a multi-theme programme that covers the whole planet: globalisation, sustainability, peace, immigration, international justice, the world festival of youth, the city and the citizens of the twenty-first century, the firm in the twenty-first century, the value of the word, the ethical wealth of nations, water..... A great Babel synchronised to the media and seasoned with concerts, expositions and every type of performance. The slogan chosen to advertise the event was no less ambitious: "We'll move the world". Not even the most optimistic of the organisers probably thought that the Forum would, not so much change the world, but make headway in the solving of some of the problems it brought up in debate. It was an explicitly spectacular and promotional event aimed at keeping the media occupied. However, amongst the promoters there certainly existed a clear willingness for regeneration at a rather fenced-in scale. The Forum was located in the impoverished River Besòs estuary in an area with an extensive services infrastructure (a power station, a refuse incinerating plant, and a wastewater treatment plant) and traditionally marginal neighbourhoods (La Mina). One of its main objectives was precisely to take advantage of the investment of resources and the media attraction associated with the event in order to rehabilitate a neglected part of the city. One year later, the Forum already seems an extraordinarily remote event.
In the same location as the Forum, although it uses its original place name, "El Camp de la Bota", paralleling the great works and the celebration of the festival, with more sensitively limited means, Francesc Abad has put into motion an artistic project on a precise period of the history of this place. Abad did some initial work on documents by compiling different types of materials: letters, identity cards, death certificates, etc, of those who were executed at the parapet during the civil war and the franquist regime. As well as this he also used filmed first hand testimonies from close relatives still alive. Starting off from here, he went through, recut, annotated, reorganised and underlined the documents with a yellow highlighter, wrote names, pointed out places, ordered, inter-changed and connected. In this way the document, a page from the land registry, for example, or a newspaper cutting, or a photocopy of an old plan or a personal letter, is presented to us only lightly interpreted, or at the very least, read: a reading that detects information that is the catalyst for an associative process. Information that incorporates the document into the construction of a narration. The sign posting, the annotation, the dating, the marks on a document, that, in part, moves it from its original context (an archive, a newspaper, a chest) and relocates it to a new one in relation to the rest of the documents that, by selective accumulation, make up the bulk of the images and texts that constitute a type of textured link between thoughts, images, voices, history and annotations, that form a part of the uneven and certain landscape of a memory. Abad works with press interviews registered on video and in texts: the same formats that rush past in the daily space of communication, slow down here. The story, with the passing of time, doesn't become diluted, but grows. It travels and other landscapes and more voices are added to it. The story's narration is the very means by which it is propagated.
Francesc Abad isn't a historian. Memory, however, forms material that features throughout his work. It's the densest element. It's by the dense air of a space that he achieves incursions that allow him to confront realities. Testimonies and document material hang together to form a narration, and open a space which isn't easy for the spectator to pass through. It's the space of a moving story in which the artist is in essence someone who subtly remembers. In this way the work conforms as a remembered history, in which the author develops it with the intention of creating relations between different elements. It's a history that narrates itself, practically autonomously and finally, almost without an author. This is because the author makes himself hidden so that the work appears anonymous and propagates itself like only anonymous works can do: as a voice, as a memory.
The body that the memory in Francesc Abad's work aquires (historical, personal, human collective, repeated, dense...) gives it a physical presence: the weight of a four by thirty metre wall, orientated perpendicularly to the beach, perhaps with a light inclination that a wall aligned from north to south would have. A wall built with the intention that someone who faces it in the early hours of the morning or the last of the evening could never be blinded. The parapet not only doesn't exist anymore physically, but its previous location is impossible to find. It's like talking about some mythical time, so far away that nobody remembers it. The parapet seems to have been purified like a ghost that can't be seen, without foundations, without a body, without a physical presence, without texture, with no more material than that of testimonies that generally are presented as diffuse and inaccurate. It's not known exactly where the zone where "El Camp de la Bota" was in is located. It could probably be found in exactly the same place where they later built the wastewater treatment plant. A plant that has now been renovated and covered with a cement tombstone.
An image and a question. The image: a row of chairs with a group of old people at the front. Underneath, the same arrangement of chairs, now empty. The question: in front of who are these people sitting? In the jump from the first image to the second there is an unusual mechanism at work. A disappearance. Without metaphors, just as it is. Similar in form to the disposition that a group of people aligned in front of a firing squad adopts. The row of empty chairs portrays the execution of the testimony. An aged testimony, debilitated, with a fragile look. An execution undertaken by the mechanism of forgetting or, in other terms, by the progressive opacity to which the conscience of historical fact is condemned, via an accumulation of activities, the superposing of intervention, the acceleration of arguments that belong to the present. An execution without any shots, without a noise, without hiding. A silent and visible execution. Disappearance as forgetting; obscuring in the estuary of a river; the Léthé of the ancients. The waters of the Léthé belong to the stratum of the dead.
Projecte del futur Museu d'història de la immigració de Catalunya, a Sant Adrià de Besòs, fet per Jorge Mestre i Ivan Bercedo.