The squat at the Princesa cinema in October 1996 was the first important action to question the ‘Barcelona model’. The philosopher and activist Marina Garcés traces in her latest book the amalgam of movements that raised a radical criticism of the model and the historical story that justified it.
Barcelona is Europe. The titanic efforts of the elites since the early 19th century to bring Barcelona in line with European modernity have succeeded. Since the invention of the Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter) to the Forum of Cultures 2004. But now Europe is showing us the long shadows that have always been there and that are cast, for example, over the Mediterraneaum, our mare mortum. The crisis and the collapse of the European historical story are also the crisis and collapse of the Barcelona brand or model. All the veils have fallen, the spell has been broken and, yes, among other things, we are terribly European.
There has been a generation of people, places and struggles that have come with this crisis, have reflected it and have been part of it. Marina Garcés speaks to us in her book Ciutat Princesa (Galaxia Gutenberg, 2018) of this intermittent, contradictory, living and radical force in which she took part and still takes part today. This is the rarely told story of an amalgam of social, cultural and artistic movements that have included squatters, autonomus agents, that have protested against the World Bank and against war. Garcés explains this generation to us: ‘With the Zapatistas we learned to say that we wanted to create many worlds in this world, with the squatters we learned to open up living spaces in our towns and cities, with the antiglobalisation movement we put words and colours to another possible world, with the peace movement we remembered that, as always, the dead are ours whereas the wars are still theirs, and with the 15M movement we invented the simplest expression of radical democracy: “They don’t represent us”.’
Barcelona, brand city
The Barcelona model, later the Barcelona brand, consisted in a utopian, possibly Messianic project, that was intended to put Barcelona ‘on the level it deserved’. The city had been through 40 years of dictatorship in the shade. A grey, post-war city that had to purge the sins of its dissident, revolutionary past. The Barcelona model found, in the Olympic Games, the opportunity to transform the city from top to bottom, thereby erasing its ominous past. Even so, the bulldozer of modernisation didn’t raze only the grey, insensitive Barcelona, but also many fragile and at the same time resilient living ecosystems that inhabited the city. At the same time, this new proposal smacked of penitence. Redemption of the inferiority complex of not being European enough, of not being modern and enlightened enough. Two opposed models of city, Franco’s and the postmodern one, coincided in one thing, each with its own traumas: redeeming the past, demolishing and levelling memory. Start again by building an impersonal hard cement city square with four levels of underground parking. Ciutat Princesa is the story and Marina Garcés the voice of evil influences that survived and conspired to bring down this model of city and this historical story.
It all began in Via Laietana on 28 October 1996. A minority alternative, the squatters’ movement, appeared in all the media. Before that, in 1992, there had been movements opposed to the Olympic Barcelona, but this was the first important action to question this city model. There was fierce resistance to the clearance by police of the old Princesa cinema. The support from so many people was the novelty and the surprise. From here on, a sense of what the city was began to emerge, complicities that went beyond strictly activist circles. The contagion was slow, against the current. While ‘Barcelona get pretty’, ‘The best shop in the world’ or ‘Barcelona smart city’ rang out from the city authorities, a series of movements –some intermittent, others persistent– were growing. Each eviction led to a new squat. ‘Que nos quiten lo bailao’ (‘No regrets’) was painted in the Princesa cinema, speaking for an unashamed wish to live. Squats were necessarily nomadic spaces where forms of life gathered that defied the establishment. ‘A bit of impossible or I’ll suffocate’. A premonition of the thinker’s group Garés takes part in, Espai en Blanc, that reflects this moment.
There were traditional political movements (anarchists, residents’ associations, etc.) that interacted with this movement, but its strength lay in the alliance between people, in some cases of friends, who wanted to live a radically political life. Ciutat Princesa speaks to us of the experience of squatting: ‘Opening a door with a circular saw and getting into a public building that’s been closed and abandoned is a feeling that marks a before and after in relation to the city and the people who live there’, she writes, and she adds, ‘Getting into a building where nothing’s planned reveals a world of possibilities and knowledge that suddenly start to relate freely’.
Kan Titella, la Hamsa, el Palomar, la Lokería, Miles de Viviendas and also El Laboratorio de Madrid drew a new map of resistance. A new, more and more global we that grew from the rejects of capitalism: migrants without papers, homeless people and everything that normality abused and denied. Places where everyone felt included to some degree.
Old and new wars
There was lively political debate. These were times of profound change in the left wing as well as in institutions. The collapse of certain political discourses and practices was obvious. The mere existence of squatters was indisputable evidence of this. The anarchist and communist old guards didn’t understand either the works of Negri or Deleuze or the idea that ‘the personal is also political’. Neither did they understand unclassifiable collectives like ‘Diner Gratis’ (‘Free Money’), an action group straddling performance art and sabotage that Marina Garcés took part in. Diner Gratis was a provocation that set out to challenge ‘forms of submission that money distributes and imposes, by means of its two implacable weapons: fear and loneliness’, as they themselves explained it. Diner Gratis organised bold and sophisticated guerrilla communication campaigns at the same time as it practised mass appropriation of assets in large supermarkets with its offshoot ‘Yo Mango’ (‘I Pinch’). A collective with a sense of humour that questioned us with the unresolved debate as to the limits of political commitment and how it should relate to the rest of society and all its grumbles. In this respect, Diner Gratis, Yo Mango and Las Agencias were also an experiment. Garcés explains to us the conflictive complicity they had with the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (Macba, Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art), which lent them space and infrastructures for their activity. In the end, the fragile relationship shattered. The museum couldn’t stand the creative tension or the collectives’ conflicts with legality.
It wasn’t all about avant-garde or even experimental collectives –although they weren’t exactly that. The antiglobalisation movement, the opposition to the war in Iraq or the Universal Forum of Cultures 2004 showed how the spirit of the Princesa cinema impregnated a significant part of the city. Movements with specific but also open-ended causes. Spaces that challenged war and the model of city at the same time. The squat in the offices of the old Municipal Treasury in 2003 was one example. In this case, the slogan was a question: ‘What’s your war?’ There were multiple answers: labour war, housing war, humanitarian war…
The Forum of Cultures 2004 represented the death-throes of the mirage of the Barcelona brand as a collective project. The story was exhausted. The City Council was unashamedly engaged in the global contest of brand-name cities. Words like ‘peace’, ‘diversity’ and ‘sustainability’ intended to justify increasingly inhumane forms of town-planning that looked more and more to capital than to people. The by-laws on civic responsibility and the Forum’s architectural legacy are examples of this. The latter, a public space, once again concrete, intended for privatisation, for making a profit in the form of conferences, festivals and all sorts of events. A place with no charm and a cause of angst beneath which, though no-one remembers, rests the Camp de la Bota.
Taking up the historical thread proposed to us by the Princesa cinema, we reach the climax of the 15M movement and the recent 1 October. Two different political arenas but with a lot in common. The slogans ‘They don’t represent us and ‘The streets will always be ours’ could apply equally to those two dates and would fit perfectly. The people’s challenge to power, to established order, connects these two moments despite the differences.
A new history of Barcelona
But over and above the valuable memories the book contains, Ciutat Princesa is a declaration of principles, a political positioning in itself. And also a philosophical and a personal one. As I said earlier, the story of a Barcelona tied to economic and moral progress has been unmasked. There is therefore a lack of a shared tale that also affects the people who took part in this ‘Princesa city’. Many of them right now run the municipal government. What city do we want? How can we fight and live in a global Barcelona that has been swallowed up by the tourist industry and property speculation? There seems to be no answer, no collective project. We’re at an impasse, a dead end, a cul-de-sac and on the defensive. An impasse in Barcelona, in Europe and also in our political lives. Garcés takes a step forward to unblock the situation. She puts body and mind into it in the form of a book to provide meaning and a story. To explain herself and to explain a vague and intermittent we that could contribute a powerful truth.
Marina Garcés makes an unexpected wager for history, for in-depth research into the distance between ‘the present that is and the present that could be’. It’s all about ‘the distance between the victories and the defeats, between those who are here and those who are absent, between the oblivion and the impositions, between what’s been done and what’s left to do’. Ciutat Princesa is an encouragement and it reminds us how many impossibles are still facing us.