“No future for you” the Sex Pistols shouted in the audience’s face in their sublime 1977 song God Save the Queen. “Avui sóc ric. No tinc memòria,” [Today I’m rich. I have no memory] sang Jaume Sisa in 1979. We were looking over the abyss at the end of history, the 1980s, the fall of the Berlin wall, cheap cocaine and the triumph of global capitalism: the present continuous… The Sex Pistols were singing about the end of an era and the encroaching darkness of the Thatcher years; Sisa, ironically, was celebrating the fact that “popular capitalism” had made us all rich—we all had a mortgage and no need for any memory. For decades, we’ve lived, worked and thought as if it were playtime at school… present continuous… finally we could have fun… history was over! We no longer needed any commitment to anything… Thousands of artists filled the world with brilliant, immaculate, unembellished works devoid of any drama, fun, autistic, egocentric pieces, polka dot paintings, formaldehyde cows, giant puppies made out of flowers, extortionate bibelots to decorate the luxury nothingness of fictional capitalism. Reality confused with a photo call. While the drugged population was entranced by artists playing the fool, the owners of everything stole our past and, with it, the possibility of thinking of a different future. In the words of Martí Peran, “Analysis of the contemporary experience reveals the difficulty of thinking about the future. Modernity was characterised by its prolific construction of promises; today all we have is a present that always narrows our expectations of tomorrow. This sign of the times is due to a complex mesh of factors: the failure of mass utopias, consumer hedonism, the extension of the culture of fear, widespread precarity that makes it impossible to think of life as a project… Alongside these difficulties, all the spectacle of late capitalism can only us for the future is a collection of apocalyptic cinematic visions.” Dystopian visions with a clear lesson: the status quo is unalterable; any attempt to alter reality and subvert the balance of forces is doomed to fail.
Sensory addiction to a compensatory reality becomes a means of social control, and a large part of “art” enters the realm of the phantasmagorical as entertainment, as part of the world of merchandise. Marx popularised the term phantasmagoria to describe the world of merchandise, which by its mere presence hides all traces of the work that went into producing it. It hides the process of production and encourages spectators to think of it in terms of subjective fantasies and dreams.
History cannot be thought of merely diachronically. There are leaps, fissures, gaps, contradictions, short cuts and dead ends. Past, present and future occur both synchronically and diachronically. We need to explore the ways in which contemporary art can articulate the past—short stories that focus on recent and not-so-recent events that have remained hidden under the dense shadow of hegemonic narratives, even though in some cases they are vital for understanding our real-life present and imagining a “different future”. By capturing these spectres of the past, by helping these short stories and hidden accounts take shape, they become visible signs of the way reality has been created in our present. By way of example, I’ll talk about a project we did in Helsinki. It arose from reading about the work of Alvar Aalto—the best-known Finnish architect and one of the fathers of modern architecture—and focused on one of his buildings, the Kulttuuritalo, a cultural centre and concert venue in Kallio, an old working-class neighbourhood now becoming gentrified. After reading different sources that talked about how important the building was, its fascinating technical and formal innovations, its key role in the architect’s career and the evolution of postwar architecture, the unique design of the bricks and its acoustic properties, in one text—amongst a huge pile of information—I spotted the sentence “Built mainly by volunteers.” What did “built mainly by volunteers” mean? Why? Under what circumstances? Although I carried out research at several archives, such as the city archive and the museum of architecture archive, I couldn’t find any clear answers: only one tiny archive in a flat in the neighbourhood revealed all the details of this amazing story of collective creation: between 1954 and 1958 over 5,000 volunteers— workers, union members, members of leftwing organisations, youth associations and the Communist party—gave over 150,000 hours of their free time after work and at weekends to build this magnificent building that was at the centre of the neighbourhood’s social, cultural and political life for workers in Helsinki. However, this major achievement for the Finnish working class had later been appropriated by the hegemonic historiography and been forgotten by most of the city’s inhabitants. When we finally managed to interview some pensioners who had taken part in this collective process in their youth, they were puzzled as to why it had taken so long for someone to ask them about what was perhaps the most important episode in their life. The project aimed to rescue the voices of workers who took part in the collective construction of this symbol of modernity and icon of the Finnish workers’ movement. At the same time, the project also breached the gap between the age when the Kulttuuritalo was built and the present day, when the building has become an architectural monument stripped of all its ideological content. As well as endeavouring to relive the past, it also aims to reflect on the way we experience historical time.
A few days ago, a friend of mine asked me about a large number of contemporary artists who have suddenly discovered modern architecture—an interest he found somewhat superficial and saw as a nostalgic longing denuded of all its critical power. “As a fetish?” I ventured. “And maybe because they use obsolete devices to shape projects: slides, vinyl films, opaque projectors… a fascination with everything vintage.” When there’s nothing to say, nothing to question, we can always fall back on the document, the archive, the historical anecdote, the display. This nostalgic backwards gaze towards a past that was full of future perpetuates the helplessness of the present. If we fail to understand that rereading the past is only worthwhile if it is a dialectic weapon loaded with ammunition in the fight to transform the present, this gaze simply becomes the accomplice of hegemonic accounts and perpetuates the discourse that has always sought to defuse the critical, transformative power of these moments we are now looking at afresh.
Text from “Avantsala + Fuga. Art Jove 2013” catalogue, Barcelona 2013