Fillip 7 — Winter 2008

Space-Run Artists: Art Activism and Urban Conflict in Contemporary Barcelona
Jeffrey Swartz

In late 2006, members of the La Makabra circus, expelled from the factory in Barcelona’s Poble Nou neighbourhood, where they had been squatting, chose to put into practice the guiding precept of the local squatter movement: un desalojo, una ocupación, the immediate occupation of another space in response to a police-enforced eviction. La Makabra decided to occupy a warehouse in the near-empty nineteenth-century industrial complex of Can Ricart, the largest of its kind still intact in Barcelona. The decision could not have been more symbolic. For over a decade Can Ricart had been the subject of a heated dispute between city hall and a coalition of neighbourhood associations, artist groups, and architects called Salvem Can Ricart (Save Can Ricart)—advocating community services in the face of rampant urban development, the need for production space for the culture sector, and the protection of industrial heritage.1

In the previous year Salvem Can Ricart had claimed a partial victory when the city agreed to save the immense factory from demolition. Yet over thirty small industries and a few nuclei of artists and designers had already been kicked out of their rented spaces, leaving only one site active: Hangar, an artist studio and multi-media resource centre run by the Catalan Association of Visual Artists.

Since La Makabra was perfectly aware that they would not be allowed to stay at Can Ricart, they understood their actions as a way of drawing press attention both to their cause and the Salvem Can Ricart agenda. Unlike the majority of squats in Barcelona, entered into surreptitiously and kept clandestine,2 La Makabra took a high-profile, festive approach, turning their eleven-day occupation of the space and prompt eviction into a media event.

A day after being forced out, members of La Makabra extended their protest by interrupting the official presentation of the city’s ambitious Strategic Plan for Culture, in the presence of the mayor, culture officials, and representatives of the creative sector.3 The incident brought to the fore the contradictory nature of the Barcelona city hall’s policy, which was governed by a tripartite coalition led by the Catalan Socialist Party. In spite of ongoing municipal persecution of alternative cultural activity in reoccupied industrial spaces, the city’s Strategic Plan for Culture features proposals that indicate a shift away from the longstanding subservience of arts policy to planning imperatives that had long ignored the needs of cultural producers. The first of its announced programs, Barcelona Laboratory, emphasizes the need to “rehabilitate industrial complexes in disuse” for their employ as “factories for creation.”4 This was (on paper at least) one of the policy shifts the Salvem Can Ricart coalition had been calling for.

In effect, the Strategic Plan for Culture gives official recognition for the first time to views that had emerged in the early 1990s in opposition to what is known as the Barcelona model. The term “Barcelona model” is used specifically to describe the consequences of urban planning policy since the early 1980s and, more generally, the action of city hall as a whole. For the model’s many admirers this policy has turned Barcelona into “the outstanding example of a certain way of improving cities...even globally.”5 Strong architectural and design values have been a common feature, bolstering civic pride while showcasing the city—and its architects—to outsiders. In the early years, projects were conceived as modest, low-impact interventions into the local cityscape. In contrast, from the build-up to the 1992 Olympic Games to the present (with the 2004 Culture Forum in between), Barcelona planning has been typified by ambitious, large-scale projects that have been less respectful in preserving historical working class neighbourhoods and industrial heritage.6 As planning initiatives could only be carried out in a climate of public consensus, politicians found it necessary to market their idea (or brand identity) of Barcelona to residents and the international community through enthusiastic advertising and marketing campaigns.7 Logically enough, not everyone bought in. In the cultural sphere criticism of the Barcelona model centred on the mechanisms used to manufacture consent, the excessive role of city hall in controlling cultural content, and municipal neglect of the needs of artistic production, much of it taking place in former factories. Only in recent years, and to a considerable degree in response to the debate over Can Ricart, has the city widened its list of protected industrial structures. The idea, then, is to turn many of these sites into cultural resource centres as part of the Strategic Plan for Culture.

space-run artists

By introducing these observations on artist-led initiatives in Barcelona with the example of La Makabra’s occupation of Can Ricart, I have no interest in giving play to an obscure circus troupe, however appropriate the image of multi-ring funambulism might be for the scene we have to paint. Rather, the conflict at Can Ricart offers a useful introduction to both the players and issues that have to be taken into account in any consideration of how artists have sought to shape their own reality in the city over the last fifteen years.

In this process, the artist-run space, conceived as a stable, non-profit venue with regular programming, has not played a significant role. Our attention is not drawn to artists who run spaces but to an urban space that has “run” artists and to the way planning issues have motivated and engaged the visual arts. A notable feature of Barcelona’s art practice over this period is the way artists have paid particular attention to the more volatile consequences of urban change and corresponding planning policy. As we shall see, this has driven and inspired theoretical debate sustained through unofficial channels. This does not mean that conventional artist-run galleries have not existed in Barcelona; they have and still do, though their role has been limited and their survival has rarely been considered a priority. One of the reasons such spaces have not taken hold is the perception that many of the ideals they are often thought to serve—innovative programming, independent curating, resources and funding for production—have been adequately fulfilled by other types of private, non-profit exhibition sites.

More interestingly, there have also been theoretical doubts concerning the validity artist-run spaces. Such views initially arose at the same time cultural self-initiative emerged as a desirable option in the local scene, in the lead-up to and aftermath of the 1992 Olympics. In 1993, Barcelona critic Tere Badia questioned the capacity of artist-run spaces to fulfill a truly alternative role, pointing out their tendency toward institutionalization, subservience to artists’ career interests, dependency on funding from the social welfare state, and forms of internal organization that contradicted the purported goals of egalitarian, collective action. “The possibility that these spaces could come to establish a risky—or at least clear—discourse on what contemporary creation means for a specific collective is diluted,” wrote Badia. “The awareness that this is the case has led to the development in these spaces of a certain cynicism in relation to their having become comfortable, of having ‘learnt’ the rules of the game and having turned into mere agents of an extensive bureaucracy.”9

Such a strict critical take at a time when artist-run initiatives were just getting off the ground could be seen to be lacking in pragmatism; better a slew of “theoretically deficient” independent venues than none at all, one might argue. Yet for all its apparently impractical rigour, Badia’s proposal for alterespais (alter-spaces), able to continually renew their critical edge through short-lived, ubiquitous, or fragmentary solutions, would in fact anticipate much of what was to come. Literally dozens of independent cultural projects that have appeared in Barcelona since the 1990s would pick up on this idea of the alter-space, overtly citing theoretical motives behind the choice to work outside or beyond a single, stable venue. While some would operate as a kind of “cultural guerrilla activity,”100 the majority have sought some form of détente with the public administration.

It should be noted that Badia’s interest in dynamic ubiquity and creative networking emerged even before the respatializing influence of the Internet could be felt. In any case, even taking into account the role of the Internet for art making, research, and dialogue, interest in alter-spatiality has always gone beyond merely formal or technological considerations, returning again and again to address the ideological apparatus and socio-cultural consequences of the Barcelona model.

critical collectives

In 1991 a group of performers and visual artists came up with a plan to occupy an abandoned convent in the city centre and set up a self-run, multi-disciplinary project space. A few of them had spent time in El Silo, an Amsterdam squat-cum-cultural centre, and sought to apply their experience there to Barcelona, where there was a lack of artist-run spaces for cultural production. Calling themselves Barcelona Taller (in referring to the studio the term taller has the connotation of an industrial workshop, unlike the more beaux-arts term estudi), they gathered thousands of signatures to support their cause, though attempts at an accord with city hall would co-opt the more radical, original idea of a squat. The city stonewalled and the project never materialized. Before petering out by mid-decade, however, Barcelona Taller would organize multi-disciplinary happenings and publish a magazine. Yet its real importance lay in its role as an engine for debate and encounter, inspiring scores of cultural agents and nascent group projects, many of which remain active.

One of Barcelona Taller’s legacies was to popularize a slogan still heard today: ciutat aparador—ciutat taller (showcase city—workshop city), which contrasts competing visions of how a metropolis might express its cultural identity. Alongside parallel initiatives like Tallers Oberts, an artists’ open studios project begun in 1993,(read footnote)2 associations like Barcelona Taller had a role in shifting awareness at city hall, making it possible to set up the Hangar artist resource centre in 1997, inside the then-thriving premises of Can Ricart.(read footnote)3 As difficult as it may be to categorize, Barcelona Taller exemplifies a type of collective cultural entity that has reappeared in the city over the years. It is typical for these groups to organize their activities through non-hierarchical participatory assemblies, a model that nostalgically refers back to the methods of 1930s anarchist and libertarian organizations that were repressed by the Franco regime. Many of the cultural groups active in the Save Can Ricart platform are manifestations of this way of working. The political and social activism of the artists of Nau21 is indicative of the complexity of their vision of the public domain. The parallel project of Straddle has focussed more on urban planning issues and alternative culture, organizing debates through their Open Fridays. A related project dedicated to issues of public art and urban space is Sitesize, run by the artists Joan Vila-Puig and Elvira Pujol. As with many other similarly structured initiatives, it is difficult to make a clear distinction between Sitesize’s artistic projects and their participatory research programs, like Repensar Barcelona (Rethinking Barcelona).

from artist-run to alter-space

A recurring pattern in the Barcelona art scene is that of stable spaces opting to renounce the confines of their own walls in developing projects. Conservas was founded in the mid-1990s by Italian performer Simona Levi on one of the roughest streets in the city, Sant Pau. Multi-functional and interdisciplinary, it was a place to see experimental cinema, new video, performance art, and theatre. With time, however, Levi decided to limit programming in her space, developing her own work for presentation in other venues. Since 2001 she has organized the InnMotion Festival, dedicated to performance and “applied visual arts,” as she terms it. In 2007, Levi toured a multimedia, audience participation performance called Advanced Realities, which deals satirically with everyday life as a form of crisis management in the face of subsistence wages and prohibitive housing costs. The original Conservas space is currently being renovated and will be used as an occasional venue.

A different case was 22a, a collective of ten artists and curators who decided to close their critically successful gallery and take their project into the urban space. 22a took its name from the street address of an industrial warehouse in Poble Nou, where some of the founders had their studios and where the gallery was first set up in 1996. From the start the name was the cause of a juicy confusion, as the municipal plan to rehabilitate nearby industrial sites for the creation of a high-tech cluster was called 22@ (after the district’s postal code). Under pressure from real estate developers, they moved into a small space in the Poble Sec neighbourhood (1998–2002). The gallery’s programming earned it an award from the Catalan art critic’s association in 2001. It was at this point that the group, citing the physical and conceptual limitations of “conventional exhibition spaces” (referring self-critically to their own), began a new phase under the rubric space invaders. “The new cycle,” wrote 22a at the time, “is motivated by the desire to experiment with new strategies to exhibit and promote contemporary art, beyond the restrictions imposed by the so-called ‘white cube,’ and to reflect upon the status of action and the artistic object in the present day.” Projects included Norwegian artist Anne-Britt Rage’s Fortress Europe, an exhibit in a private residence called Shared Flat, and the travelling postcard display Moments and Monuments. The group disbanded in 2006 as members pursued individual projects.

A more recent variation on the pattern has been implemented at Saladestar, an artist-run space founded in the Gràcia district in 2003. After doing regular programming for three years, in 2007 the gallery decided to rent out its exhibition space and do all its own programming outside of it. Calling their current program Nomad, Saladestar has participated in the UND#2 festival in Karlsruhe with an exhibit of artist suitcases, has organized art interventions in private apartments, and is currently developing a juried public art project (unimaginatively entitled Public) that will carry over into 2008. While city hall insists on commissioning rather conventional public sculpture, projects like Public encourage work that blends social sculpture with relational aesthetics.

artist projects

Of the numerous art projects that have dealt broadly and critically with urban conflict in Barcelona since the mid-1990s, two stand out particularly. Both Hospital 106, 4t, 1a (1995–2005) and Occupied Territories (1996–2000) were developed over relatively long periods and involved intense collaboration with residents and neighbourhood groups; both were shown in phases and through different formats in alternative and conventional exhibition sites. The former was centred on the urban core, the latter the periphery, though both addressed marginality, concealed forms of working class creativity, and the implicit violence of urban change. In Hospital 106 Isabel Banal and Jordi Canudas documented the process whereby the resident of an apartment on Hospital Street in the downtown Raval neighbourhood was evicted and the block demolished as part of a plan to cut a wide swath through the zone. With the creation of the polemical Rambla del Raval, the street address no longer exists. The many phases of the project—including cataloguing and redistributing abandoned personal belongings, cartographically laying over past and present street plans, documenting press reactions, or entering into dialogue with residents—were displayed through exhibits and events in studios, established galleries, and neighbourhood associations, and on local buses or through poster campaigns. The catalogue that closes off the project is available in English as Hospital 106, 4t, 1a: The Place and the Time.

With Occupied Territories, Ramon Parramón focussed on a forgotten or invisible part of the city, the zone on either side of the Besós River inhabited since the 1960s by working class immigrants, mostly from Andalusia. The exhibited version of the project included textual, cartographic, and video documentation, including interviews with residents, social workers, and local politicians. The project featured a fascinating study of illegal vegetable gardens occupying unclaimed space near the river banks. In some cases these gardens are accompanied by self-built structures that have become permanent residences (literally thousands of similar examples still exist in metropolitan Barcelona, though they are disappearing). A first phase of the project was shown in a municipally organized exhibit on new urban planning in 1999, with the definitive closing installation held at the Centre d’Art Santa Mònica in 2000–01. Since 2001, Parramón has been the director of one of the most innovative public art projects in Spain, Idensitat.

curated exhibitions

Finally, it is worth mentioning a large group show held at the Tàpies Foundation in 2004; Tour-isms: The Defeat of Dissent, co-curated by Jorge Luis Marzo, Montse Romaní, and foundation director Nuria Enguita. Specifically conceived to coincide with the Culture Forum held that year, the project sought to provide an in-depth analysis of international tourism and its meaning for globalized urban identity. By looking at both the “tourist subject” and “touristified” places, Tour-isms dealt transversally with issues that have been important in Spain since the 1960s but that have become particularly pressing in the light of environmentally unsustainable development and the changing focus of public policy away from the interests of residents and in favour of tourists and business travellers. The promotion of culturally hip, weekend tourism from other European cities (reinforced by low-cost airfares) has been an essential factor in selling the success of the Barcelona model to local residents (“if they come, it must be good”). Along with art, film, and video, the project included alternative sightseeing in the city, such as routes tracing the history of anarchism or working-class neighbourhoods.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Tour-isms was its role in addressing the idea that contemporary tourism had turned the admired Barcelona model into a brand. The new image of Barcelona was something to be meticulously filtered and neatly packaged in order to attract high-end tourists and international capital. Though the concept of urban branding is not new, in the early part of the decade, academics and culture critics looking at Barcelona had begun to apply the ideas of urban geographers and theorists like David Harvey,(read footnote)5 Saskia Sassen, and others. The work of Mari Paz Balibrea(read footnote)6 and Josep Maria Montaner,(read footnote)7 along with publications like Barcelona Marca Registrada(read footnote)8 (Barcelona registered trademark) were indicative of a shift toward the view that the model that had once been proudly promulgated as an urban success story, something to be emulated by other cities, had now been reduced to the status of marketable product. It would thus be possible to comprehend the growing degree of estrangement between the city of Barcelona and its own citizens, especially when it came to planning decisions. The exemplary campaign to save Can Ricart would not have been possible without the perception that a paradigm shift was possible in Barcelona society. Yet the new challenge, given the unlikelihood the Barcelona model will ever be fully revoked, is to find a way to widen its circle, to reform, rework, or expand it in such a way that traditional neighbourhoods, industrial heritage, and cultural production might find a comfort zone within it.

As the Barcelona model is remade or the city re-branded as part of this critical process, it is possible that city artists will deactivate their urge toward alter-spatiality and settle down to placidly run stable spaces where art is shown. Yet it is equally possible that the alter-space, conceived as a structure in critical tension with its context, will become an identifying feature of this new way of thinking and modelling Barcelona.

  1. The case of Can Ricart is the subject of a documentary film by video artist Jacobo Sucari, The Struggle for Urban Space (2007).
  2. In Barcelona there are over two thousand squatters set up in some three hundred buildings. A few dozen groups have a visible profile, organizing cultural and political events and protesting for accessible housing despite substantial police-led evictions.
  3. See a clip of the event online at
  4. Pla estratègic de cultura de Barcelona: Nous accents 2006 (Barcelona: Ajuntament de Barcelona, 2006), 63. The plan mirrors the Xarxa d’Espais de Producció d’Arts Visuals de Catalunya, a network of contemporary art production centres in Catalonia.
  5. Tim Marshall, ed., Transforming Barcelona: The Renewal of a European Metropolis (London: Routledge, 2003), 1. The architect Richard Rogers has described Barcelona as “the jewel in the crown of urban regeneration.” Quoted in Melissa Rossi, “The Barcelona Model,” Newsweek International, 2 February 2004. Equally adulatory is Peter G. Rowe, Building Barcelona: The Second Renaixença (Barcelona: Actar/Barcelona Regional, 2006).
  6. The Olympic Village itself, a residential development in Poble Nou, left only the odd chimney to refer to the area’s industrial past. Only a few artists dealt critically with the Olympic transformations, including Martí Llorens in his Poble Nou-Barcelona Series (1987–89) and Ian Wallace’s Construction Site (Barcelona Series I–V) (1991).
  7. For an analysis of the politics of the Barcelona model, see Donald McNeill, Urban Change and the European Left: Tales from the New Barcelona (London: Routledge, 1999).
  8. Tere Badia, “El fet X: de l’alternatiu als alterespais,” in De Calor 1 (Barcelona, 1993), 12–13 (my translation). Badia backed her critique of the alternative space with Canadian sources, in particular the Keith Wallace essay in Vancouver Anthology (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1991) and Barbara Fischer’s Decalog: YYZ 1979–1989 (Toronto: YYZ Books, 1992).
  9. “Before the growing concentration of power, capital, and information, which had come to be synonymous and had merged into a spectacle, opposition arose in the form of diffuse molecular action, a type of cultural guerrilla activity that sought effectiveness and media impact through actions that were ephemeral, local, and paradigmatic, instead of creating structures of intervention that would limit mobility and would not be possible to maintain.” Paloma Blanco, “Prácticas artísticas colaborativas en la España de los años 90,” in Jesús Carrillo and Ignacio Estella Noriega, eds., Desacuerdos 2: Sobre Arte, Políticas y Esfera Pública en el Estado Español (Barcelona: Arteleku-MACBA-Universidad Internacional de Andalucia, 2005), 190 (my translation). Available online at
  10. In 1994, Tallers Oberts organized a conference at the College of Architects featuring talks on cultural squats and a lecture on industrial heritage. On the evolution of artist studios in Barcelona. See my “The Decline of Artistic Production in Barcelona’s Raval,” in Isabel Banal and Jordi Canudas, Hospital 106, 4t 1a: The Place and the Time (Barcelona: Actar Editorial, 2006).
  11. Hangar was originally funded entirely by Barcelona city hall, which paid the rent on its Can Ricart building. This absolute financial dependency was a possible reason for the “soft” or “passive” political stance of the Association of Visual Artists’ of Catalonia, who run the space, in the face of the massive elimination of artist studio space in the city in the 1990s. Only recently, as the Association has ensured a wider funding base for Hangar, has it become more outspoken about the lack of studio space.
  12. Harvey deals specifically with the “mercantilization” of culture and the “Disneyfication” of Barcelona in David Harvey and Neil Smith, Capital financiero, propiedad inmobiliaria y cultura (Barcelona: MACBA/UAB, 2005).
  13. See Mari Paz Balibrea, “Urbanism, culture, and the post-industrial city: Challenging the ‘Barcelona Model,’” in Tim Marshall, Transforming Barcelona, 205–224; and “The Brand and the Past: Strategies of the Struggle for Social Space in Postindustrial Barcelona,” in Producta50 (Barcelona: Generalitat de Catalunya, 2007), 30–31. Available online at
  14. Josep Maria Montaner, “La evolución del modelo Barcelona (1979–2002),” in Jordi Borja and Zaida Muxí, eds., Urbanismo en el siglo XXI: Bilbao, Madrid, Valencia, Barcelona (Barcelona: Edicions UPC, 2004), 203–220.
  15. PePa, eds., Barcelona Marca Registrada (Barcelona: Virus, 2004). Most chapters are available in Spanish at

Image: Jacobo Sucari, still from The Struggle for Urban Space, 2007. 59-minutes. Betacam. Courtesy of the artist

About the Author

Jeffrey Swartz is an art critic and curator based in Barcelona since 1987. Recent curatorial projects include When Far Ends Meet, a series of five exhibitions at the Sala H, Vic, Spain, in 2006, and 419, or The Spanish Prisoner, a touring show about the 419 e-mail scam that will be seen in spring 2008 at the Centre d’Art Santa Mònica, Barcelona. Swartz teaches Theoretical Foundations of Art and Design at the Escola Eina, Barcelona.

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