Barcelona and the Impossible Choreography

3 Oct

This summer I have spent most of the time in my hometown. I live in a small narrow street close to the famous and touristy avenue of Las Ramblas. All those who have visited the city know about this beautiful street that has been during decades alongside its surroundings an important part of the city spirit. It has always emanate a distinctive and welcoming character that has been enjoyed by thousands and thousands of citizens and visitors. Since we hosted the Olympics, the city has been receiving more and more tourists each year, being tourism the main economic motor of the city. Unfortunately, a summer in the city has helped me to raise (even more) my awareness about how, step by step, the centre is becoming an amusement park that reproduces a simulated environment for consumerism. The danger of becoming a sterilized space full of hotels, fake local food and stereotyped rituals is quite evident (as shown in a recent documentary by a local TV channel). But rather than stressing the changes from a political, social or economic perspective, I would like to think the implications through a choreographic approach.

Las Ramblas used to be a great promenade to stroll about. Different types of people crossing from side, local stalls of flowers, pets (already gone) and artists created a lively and enigmatic atmosphere. Children running, couples wandering,  sailors arriving from the port, old people chatting and watching life passing by. The choreographies of Las Ramblas were infinite and were characterized by our own habits and culture. You could engage with the different rhythms and movements while enjoying reality bites. The theatricality of it emerged through the simultaneous acts of popular culture and everyday life. Unfortunately, Las Ramblas it is not a place for our popular choreography anymore. Instead it is marked by a multitude of individuals that configure a unique large body. This multitude is formed by hundreds of tourists that perform a sole tempo and choreography. As a local citizen it is nearly impossible to improvise and apply a different tempo for your movements and change the nature of your gestures.  You are forced to perform as a tourist as well: forced to be stuck and advance at their rhythm as if you were in the mechanic stairs of a shopping mall. Sorry tourists, it is not that I have something against each of you… it is that you are too much for us!

descarga

It is extremely sad to see how tourists govern our city, troubling mobility in our own neighbourhood. As Andrew Hewitt explained in his book Social Choreography: Ideology as Performance in Everyday Movement ideology is something embodied and practiced and now Las Ramblas are nothing else but an example of the capitalist imperative of economic growth through consumerism. What annoys me it is not the fact of having visitors in the city but their lack of knowledge or respect for our real culture; sorry guys but in Catalonia we do not dance flamenco despite it is a lovely dance (see long cues in the show offered in a local), paella is not our main dish and yes we do sleep at night so there is no fiesta for us every night. It is true that in the current economic crisis tourism seems a solution to our problems; but I am not sure that this is the only way to maintain or improve our situation. Recently, the council approved a new regulation in which allows the construction of new hotels in the old part of the city. From my point of view, the impact of it can be terrible. I do not think that the neighbourhood will be gentrified but rather there will be no neighbourhood but an amusement park adapted to visitors’ expectations with no locals living in it. The increasing number of holiday apartments, local shops closing down due to high rents and the disappearance of the actual neighbours leaving this area for other city districts are just evidences of this forthcoming decay. And perhaps when that time arrives Barcelona will not be fashionable anymore because it will have lost its original charm!

To be honest what gives me hope (although sometimes headaches) is still the poverty and problems that we have in this neighbourhood located next to Las Ramblas. Occupied flats, prostitutes, pickpockets, immigrants are keeping us strangely safe, although I do not know for how long. My is street it is not likeable yet and although I often wish it was cleaner and safer I find the implications of the touristy mass creepier. Of course, the solutions are complex but this post rather than a statement against tourism is a call for all of us to think about these questions: what are we doing with our city? What do we do when we visit other places? How can we make our wish to visit other cities sustainable? What should be the role of associations, politicians and urban planners?

Let’s choreography another sustainable future. The city will be pleased.

Waste, a Long Durational Performance

8 May

A few weeks ago Jenny Rohn researcher at the UCL and writer published an article  entitled ‘Show me the money: is grant writing taking over science?’ The article stressed the huge amount of time that researchers spend writing grant proposals in order to get funding.

There is some evidence that having the vast majority of scientists spend the vast majority of their time writing grants instead of doing and thinking science might be a tad inefficient, and not, perhaps, the best way to get science done. A recent correspondence in Nature about the Australian system, for example, reported that collectively, in 2012, researchers spent “more than five centuries’ worth of time” writing or revising grants for the major funding scheme; as only 20.5% were successful, this accounts for a staggering four centuries’ worth of wasted time.

This trend can be applied to other fields such as the social sciences and the humanities. This fact can be related to artists as well,  as many of the artworks they develop are generated through funding applications and grants. In this scenario, I consider the emergence of the paradigm of the ‘wasted’ as an alternative route to reconsider knowledge production. This paradigm might also enhance a more sustainable and yet interwoven knowledge as it wishes to be socially and environmentally friendly. The ‘wasted’ then,  gathers all these ideas that fail to respond to the standardized parameters of ‘excellence’, especially in the academia.

Factory workers

Currently, those who are trying to be in the system by getting funding are driven by a loop of frustration that leads to a learning process of ‘how to do things right’. The candidate learns how to be part of this system by acclaiming in its application the values and methods of the constructed moralized path of the successful. At the same time, those who have achieved ‘excellence’ and have repeatedly been awarded by the institutions fear the idea of loosing their status and the possibility to develop their work.  I do not pretend to be fully antagonistic by underestimating the quality of all the work that is done in research institutes and universities, but the fact is that I am extremely worried about the idea that successful applications might be paradoxically  contaminated by this standardized idea of the ‘right’ and the ‘feared’ as a generative engine. As the Burmese social activist Aung San Suu Kyi said ‘it is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it’. In this regard, when I start writing a funding application I ask myself: to which extent are my ideas imbued with these values and then corrupted? In this process of getting it right, am I betraying my own principals?

As the article shows, most of the researchers have participated in this long durational performance of the ‘wasted’. A long durational performance that also is characterised by repetition. Sometimes, I imagine all these researchers and scholars in their offices writing their proposals and executing a series of mimetic tasks as chain factory workers, with the difference that their work never achieves its aim. All the ‘wasted’ includes an aesthetics of failure that sparks my interest. Revisiting the ‘wasted’ is an interesting and necessary exercise if we want to create a more efficient and yet sustainable approach to innovation, creativity and knowledge.  The wasted as failure might help us to challenge the ‘cultural dominance of instrumental rationality and the fictions of continuity that bind the way we imagine the world’,  as Sara Bailes points out.

As you know, waste (as rubbish) is currently a problem that represents high financial and environmental costs to both the public and private sector. In the same way, this idea of ‘waste’ applied to the useless knowledge that is never applied or taken into account remains as problematic as it is not recycled, shared or distributed. Thus, the institutions instead of being productive are just pretending they are,  as researchers find themselves in this standstill of the approval pending (until a proposal receives funding). From my point of view, assessing the impact of research regarding all that has been explained remains a complete absurdity or perhaps it only makes sense through the capitalized system full of fictions and fictionalised values.

It is obvious that the ‘wasted’ calls for new tranductive pedagogies regarding our tasks as researchers. Perhaps, it is time to gather the ‘wasted’ to insert new codes in our discourse, to generate heterogeneous methods and forms of inclusive experience in order to find sustainable processes of knowledge production and circulation.  But for now, I have another application due.

Coming from the Cold

15 Mar

2013-02-27 12.58.31Last February I had the opportunity to participate in the Third Colloquium on Artistic Research in Performing Arts hosted at Teak (Theatre Academy) in Helsinki. That was the first time I was visiting the Nordic countries and that I was exposing my body to such low temperatures. While experiencing the landscape of the city and its culture I notice how different life is there. It is curious to see how climate determines our daily activities and organizes our routines. This is something that I was expecting but the trip offered other encounters marked by culture clash.

I am aware that in the academia there are notorious differences among countries but I was not expecting to find such a diverse approach regarding the notion of research in Performing Arts in the Nordic countries. To start with, most of the participants from there openly stated a difference between ‘researching’ and ‘creating artistic work’. This premise troubled me significantly as I cannot create work without doing some research, and at the same time, for me outstanding research has always a creative element that triggers it. A good piece of theoretical text can be as inspiring or creative as a good piece of artwork, and the other way round. From my point of view, this division creates huge problems to researchers and especially to students working on their doctoral dissertations. Is not the goal of a research to come up with innovative and fruitful knowledge? If we create these huge divisions in something that is ultimately interrelated, how are we going to create interdisciplinary discourses?  How are we going to place our work within a wider sphere of comprehension? These tensions, though, appear in other academic contexts as well. For instance, the UK, being one of leading countries in the field, is still struggling to give methodological and in-process strategies to their students working through a practice-based approach. This is due to the emergence of these practice-oriented investigations and the openness to the field to other disciplines. This fact is producing certain restlessness in the community of scholars as it directly interrogates the nature of their work.

I guess there are many reasons that explain this dissimilar understanding of our task. Nevertheless, it was really interesting to have the chance to exchange our opinions. I believe that these differences emerge from the notion of research itself. As they explained me, the average age of students in the Nordic countries doing their PhD is 45. They only invite consolidated artists to engage in an artistic/practice-based PhD. I guess they believe that an artist must have a certain level of maturity to develop interesting work. I do agree that a doctoral student must have certain experience; but I understand this experience more as ‘life experience’. I don’t believe in this idea of maturity based on the parameters of a successful artistic career. Younger students are perfectly ready to undertake research and bring exceptional contributions to the field. In this regard, I encourage the scholars there to open their doors to risk by widening the student profile.

Probably this problematic between research/artwork appears as often artists are asked to include in their lexicon concepts and ideas that do not belong to the understanding of their practice. Of course they do research when they work but I am sure they use another set of words to explain and give evidence of their creative processes and findings. In this respect, the field is living an exciting period as is demanding us to enhance the limits of our own work by expanding some of our rooted preconceptions. After coming from the cold, I am even more convinced that the unexpected always helps us to re-position our opinions, giving us a writing-site paraphrasing Jane Rendell.

Dedicated to Diego and Petra that kindly hosted me.

Here Comes the Sun

14 Jan

beatles-pola01I have been posting until now about unusual tasks that have to do with my own experiences. Today I would like to make an exception and dedicate my post to the admirable, often surprising and always worthy ‘unusual tasks’ that citizens in Spain are currently performing to keep their rights and report the difficulties that appear within the current social fracture. Rather than insisting on the obscure, painful and distressing stories that inhabit our neighbourhoods, today I prefer to introduce you to an exceptional episode that took place at Job Centre in Madrid. A few days ago a Spanish radio program called Carne Cruda (meaning ‘raw meat’) invited a group of musicians to cheer up the long queue in a busy random unemployment office playing the Beatles’ Here Comes the Sun.

The program that is now broadcast at Cadena Ser was formerly broadcast on Radio 3, one of the channels of the public and national radio. Last summer was closed down due to its left wing tendencies according to the conservative Spanish Government. The program aims to denounce social injustice and related social issues. This flashmob that brings the sun to the sad faces of the crowd waiting for a job emerges as an example of how citizens are empowered by arts and by others’ solidarity. As you might know, the rate of unemployment in Spain is 26% and is expected to grow. The flashmob has also appeared at The Guardian on-line edition. The article though does not stress another important reference that appears within the performance. The song has not been chosen randomly; the Indignados-15M Movement (one of the movements to inspire ‘Occupy’) used to meet in a square in Madrid called ‘Sol’, sun in English. The song then, triggers another set of political subtleties. I guess that the most important thing is to show how ‘unusual tasks’ bring significant experiences to our lives and fortunately some warmth to raise the necessary courage to cope with difficult but yet inspiring times.

Hunting treasures

4 Dec

2012-12-04 19.31.07-polaHunting treasures is an exciting exercise that I used to perform with my granddaddy when I was a child. It all started one day when we found in the park a small bag with a couple of bracelets and necklaces. They didn’t have any economic value but thanks to our discovery I realised I wanted to become a treasure hunter. Since that day we used to go to the park looking for an adventure! Let’s say that I found a Captain Sparrow inside of me. Most days I didn’t find anything so I used to go back home with empty hands and trust me, a big disappointment. Only once in a while the miracle happened and it had the shape of a small coin or a candy. Of course, that miracle took place thanks to my granddaddy that placed these small treasures between the bushes and small plants for me. I have been thinking lately about the usefulness that this unusual task has had in my education and possibly in my creativity and attitude towards problem-solving.

First of all, this unusual task taught me the importance of perseverance. In other words, my granfather was teaching me in a very special way the experience of failure and success…of course the percentage of failure was much higher that one of success. I remember my grandaddy encouraging me to go treasure hunting after weeks of no success: ― You must go today to the park, it might be a big treasure out there waiting for you! Secondly, my obstinacy brought the development of certain strategies in order to improve my hunting treasure efficiency. For instance I drew a detailed map of the park where I marked the hot hiding spots (that is the best places to hide a treasure). Besides, I started to pencil in my visits to the park in order to have a record of my activity. And thirdly, I learned to take each day as a start, knowing that every page of my hunting treasure adventures wasn’t written yet. In a way I had the feeling that I was the main character of one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books.

As an adult you might not be going for treasures after reading this post but I want to stress some aspects about this unusual task. Hunting treasures is something that we keep doing in our daily life; it happens when you are looking for great ideas, for a job, for an answer, etc. What you need first is to have a high level of perseverance, as you might find yourself failing or stuck before finding what you want. Secondly, it is important that you develop a routine and a clear strategy towards your goal. I believe that thanks to hunting treasures I learned and developed tasks related to planning, strategy and research. All of them really important skills that all professionals need to manage efficiently nowadays. And finally, every day is the start of a new adventure. You and your choices are the ones that often determine the nature of it; of course, other pirates, storms and obstacles might appear on the way. Without them though you wouldn’t be choosing your own adventure because adventures wouldn’t exist at all.

Sensory Writing

12 Nov

I came across sensory writing by doing some copywriting job for a publishing company specialized in cooking books. I was given the recipes of the cooks participating in the book and I had to rewrite them using a specific structure and style. The task was clear, simple and not really inspiring. When I am facing a situation like that I always say to myself: you always need to find something that motivates you, no matter which kind of work you are doing. If you are an artist starting a career, you might find yourself doing all kinds of jobs to support yourself economically. If this is your case, it is good to rethink and analyse your job to get something creative out of it. You should try to find a quality, a strategy, an input that you can apply later to your creative work.

One of the things I had to do was write a subtitle for each recipe. For instance, there was a simple recipe of grilled vegetables. To engage the reader I tried to write something more inviting:  ‘A colourful cooking collage made of garden flavours’. I realised that in order to transfer the sensations of the dish I needed to make the subtitle as sensorial as possible. Sensory writing is often used in writing courses as a technique to enrich descriptions. Probably during your schooling you have been asked to write a composition using sensory writing.  I do believe is a useful technique to be applied to any creative process. You can make a list of the sensory qualities that you want to explore, you can use it as a strategy to find a name for your piece, you can use it as a writing experiment to enrich your work, etc. Feed your creative appetite with sensory writing!

This post is dedicated to my friend Sira.

Singing as ethnography

5 Nov

In 2011 I collaborated with the German theatre company Rimini Protokoll in a piece called ‘Outdoors‘ commissioned by the National Theatre of Wales. Rimini Protokoll develops site-specific projects that often involve different communities or social groups. For that reason they are also known as the ‘Experts of the Everyday‘. ‘Outdoors’ was also a site-specific project developed in Aberystwyth (Wales). Concretely it involved a group of non-professionals actors and actresses that were part of a local choir: The Heartsong Choir.

The Rimini Protokoll collective uses non-conventional strategies in their creative process to get to know their target (or as they call them ‘the experts). Working with non-professional actors is a difficult task that implies some ethnographical work. ‘Outdoors’ was about the members of the Heartsong Choir and their lives. If you are familiarized with ethnography you might know that one of the main principles is sharing the habits and routines of the group that you are studying, especially if you are using participatory observation as a method. This project was not  an ethnography sensu stricto as the main goal was to develop an experimental theatre piece. However, as part of the creative process we were invited to join the choir in their rehearsals despite our vocal qualities.

The experience was great and I was really glad to be invited to their ‘social singing sphere’. We could have done all the fieldwork through interviews but I am sure that the result of the piece would have been completely different. The singing got us close. After attending the rehearsals the whole team used to sing a song of the choir to warm-up.

It was interesting to see how the Rimini Protokoll collective is open to perform different unusual tasks to develop their projects. This might be one of the keys to their success.

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