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Bulegoa z/b


10 May 2021
This month's topic: Collective workResident Editor: Mela Dávila Freire

Bulegoa z/b

Office of Art and Knowledge, Bilbao, since 2010

Bulegoa zenbaki barik (z/b) is an art and knowledge office located in Bilbao which focuses its research on historicization processes, cultural translation, performativity, the body, postcolonialism, social theory, archival strategies and education. Bulegoa z/b was created in 2010 with the founding members Beatriz Cavia, Miren Jaio and Leire Vergara, together with Isabel de Naverán who remained as part of the team until the start of 2018.

Méla Dávila Freire –How did Bulegoa z/b begin and what was the context in which it emerged?

Bulegoa z/b – In 2010, we were all working on our doctoral theses, each at different stages and in different fields (choreography, art history, sociology and visual culture), and we shared a certain feeling of disappointment with respect to the institutional artistic panorama of Bilbao. The effects of the 2008 financial crisis were beginning to make themselves felt (though less and later in the Basque region) and it was not the best time to open an independent space. In addition, at the local level, people were moving more towards a large-scale institutional model, which left medium-scale cultural entities out of the game, such as Arteleku, Sala Rekalde and Centro Cultural Montehermoso, which closed or were abandoned after controversial processes of media criticism against their curatorial programs and content.

Before opening the space, we spent a year in cafes, bars and in our homes to get to know each other better and see if it made sense to do something together. This was an important process and it helped us avoid replicating the dynamics of the contexts from which we each came, and it also helped us to imagine something that would fit our life conditions and shared personal interests. After about a year, we realized that we not only wanted to share a physical place, but also to learn from each other and to mix our research methodologies. We decided then to apply for a grant, for which we constituted ourselves legally as a cultural association.

Right at that time, the Basque Government started specific aid programs for small-scale initiatives. Compared with the rest of the country, the support of Basque public institutions of the art and culture sector is greater, and without this support, initiatives such as ours or others like it, such as Azala, consonni or Okela, would have great difficulties sustaining themselves.

Installation and audition of Paraíso Terrenal by Elena Aitzkoa (2019)

Méla Dávila Freire –Bulegoa z/b defines itself as an “art and knowledge office,” a model that in Spain is not at all common. What made you want to become something that you probably never saw in the local art world?

Bulegoa z/b – There were some things that we were very clear about, and others not so much. We were clear about our needs and necessities, our interests and desires, and also what we did not want to do. The “how” we solved by endless discussions amongst ourselves. We did not have any specific institutional model in mind, but we did have many authors, artists, thinkers, and initiatives that we followed and admired and who we wanted to invite to tell us about some of their experiences, and to have their ways of doing things influence our project. For example, there was Ana Vujanovic, who had experience with TkH (Walking Theory), a platform for theory and practice in performing arts in Belgrade; Marta Popivoda, also a member of TkH, with her Illegal Film project which we have hosted in Bulegoa z/b since our first year; and Marysia Lewandowska and her Women’s Audio Archive project. These types of initiatives launched by artists were our models. Other independent structures have also influenced us. Within the Spain there was BNV Producciones, and internationally there were spaces such as The Showroom, If I Can’t Dance and the WHW collective, to name just a few. We have been fortunate to work with all of them, and right now we are closely following the work of other younger initiatives in order to keep learning.

Méla Dávila Freire – How would you define your way of working?

Bulegoa z/b – We work at many speeds and on many scales, both in ephemeral proposals that don’t require big productions, as well as long-term productions that require more production and continuous management. It is difficult to synthesize into a single methodology. Although our professional and life trajectories are different, we have ten years of collective learning together. There are also practical issues, such as the division of labor and responsibilities between us and/or those with whom we collaborate, and the relationship with the context or collective decision-making. For these reasons, we have been incorporating new dynamics, we are pragmatic and reflective, we share uncertainties and anxieties and we support each other in daily life. This means that we have managed to adapt our way of working to our lives, which is a great privilege.

Méla Dávila Freire –In the early days, did you have a plan to ensure the economic survival of the project? How has the financing of your projects evolved?

Bulegoa z/b – Although we have always been aware of the economic vulnerability of the project, something we share with much of the art world, we have never established any plan or viability strategy. Even though we didn’t have a formal plan, we soon began applying for public grants to cover program expenses, rent, and minimal salaries. Being four people, it was very difficult to think of comprehensive sustainability, but we tried at least not to use our own resources and to obtain a certain income from our work.

In the Basque region, there are a series of yearly public grants, such as the visual arts grants from the Basque Government, to which we initially applied, and there are more recent creation programs, such as Eremuak, which began in 2010 and which funded us that year. Later, the so-called “creation factories” were created within the Basque Government’s Department of Culture, with options of everything from containers to biannual mediation structures, which made it possible to work a little more comfortably. There were also municipal, provincial, and state aid.

In recent years, public subsidies in the Basque region have reflected a certain awareness of the importance of protecting the independent context, a change associated with the gap left behind by the end of the institutional commitment to medium-scale structures. At that time, a new independent scene emerged autonomously that decided to take an active part in defining the conditions for artistic production and exhibition. From the outside, the Basque region is always seen as a privileged context in terms of public funding, but this has not emerged spontaneously or merely reactively, rather, it responds to a complex dialogical relationship between the administration and the art scene.

However, although local funding is central to basic sustainability, it is international grants and collaborations, such as European projects, that have taken us to another level. Along with If I Can’t Dance, we became part of the Corpus performance network, funded by Europa Creativa between 2011 and 2017. We were the smallest institution there (as opposed to the Tate Modern in London, for example).

We currently have the support of the Foundation for Arts Initiatives/FFAI (New York) and the Culture of Solidarity Fund of the European Cultural Foundation. Our collaboration with the local art world has been fundamental, emphasizing networking with local spaces and institutions such as La Taller, Azkuna Zentroa Alhóndiga Bilbao, Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao, BilbaoArte, BAD Bilbao/Contemporary Theater and Dance Festival, Zinebi (Bilbao International Documentary and Short Film Festival) and, recently, with the cultural collaboration program between Bilbao and Santander Bertatik Bertara/Tan Cerca 2020.

As for ourselves, Bulegoa z/b has always been an important part of our individual economies, but not the only one. Over time, we have found ways to reconcile the work and careers of each of us and integrate them into the development of Bulegoa z/b, although we continually revise this balance. We all teach in universities and work on other projects of an academic or cultural nature.

We continue to emphasize the importance of public financing that is managed independently, and attempt to maintain balanced and responsible economic forms which generate decent economic conditions for ourselves and the people with whom we work. For this reason, we always pay those who participate in our programs and activities, and in all the different stages of production. We understand that what we do is considered work and must be valued as such, not only symbolically and economically, but also to promote a dignified life style, for which the investment of time, for example, is essential.

Grupo de lecturas cosmopolíticas by Olatz González Abrisketa and  Susana Carro (2017)

Exhibition El Contrato at Azkuna Zentroa (Alhóndiga Bilbao), 2014. Photo: Jaime Gartzia.

Anniversary party of Bulegoa z/b (2011)

Méla Dávila Freire –Is the progressive complication of bureaucratic processes, which recently threatens to short-circuit cultural activity by administrative inertia, affecting you? Have you considered private sponsorship to avoid this problem?

Bulegoa z/b – In the Basque region, as elsewhere, we are witnessing an increasing bureaucratization of these processes and, above all, a multiplication of evaluation indicators. Of course, we too are going through this process, as well as precarious and unsuccessful attempts to technologize and computerize administrative processes, quality control and implementation of internal control processes. At the same time, our management work and learning have supplied us with great resistance and the ability to obtain resources. Our perseverance and knowledge of public institutions, which are ultimately directed and managed by individuals, make it possible to inhabit these complex territories. Obviously, obtaining municipal subsidies, for example, has nothing to do with the process of applying for European funds, which requires much more experience and knowledge, but we handle these different modes of management and, to the degree that obtaining funds and resources rewards our efforts, we continue to move forward.

For now, we have not yet looked into private sponsorship. We are more interested in finding international co-financing, as this involves dialogue and collaboration with other spaces and contexts. There was a time when we feared a possible shift in public subsidy policies towards supporting the so-called “creative industries,” an option that continues to be present and that, as we have seen (and which in Catalonia has become clear), does not generate artistic activity but rather instrumentalizes art and culture for purposes such as urban transformation and tourism. Hopefully, this new crisis will make the public administration see that this is not the way, that what we need is sustainable artistic spaces.

Bulegoa z/b spaces  (2020)

Méla Dávila Freire – What is your current situation in these critical moments of the pandemic and with personal and cultural lockdown? How do you imagine the future of Bulegoa z/b?

Bulegoa z/b – We were born in crisis and with this pandemic we have strengthened our structure without, for the moment, having been more affected than other sectors or structures. Of course, we still have to wait at least two years to know the real consequences, but for now we are still afloat. The robustness of our context, both at a material, emotional and symbolic level, is probably what has allowed us to arrive at the present moment in better shape than those in other fields.

We have not yet achieved real stability but we know that instability is inherent in the independent sector. Every time we apply for a grant, we panic at the thought that we might not get it. The fact is, after ten years we see no greater institutional stability in the art world. Times are difficult for everyone, but we have emphasized our continuity.

Probably, the current independence of Bulegoa z/b is marked by its own style that is present in its art activities over the years, making the office an institution and at the same time a place where we can continue experimenting, testing, and taking risks, outside or beyond commercial or productive guidelines and logics. The fact that after all these years Bulegoa z/b is recognized as part of the landscape of stable structures in the local art world enables its continuity regardless of whether Leire Vergara, Miren Jaio or Beatriz Cavia are part of the project. That makes us happy, as it implies that we will have been able to pass on a legacy. Right now, though, more than the idea of future versions what concerns us and what we work on most is to keep Bulegoa z/b alive.

We know that staying alive depends not only on the efforts we make or on greater or lesser funding we receive. Bulegoa z/b exists and is as it is thanks mostly to the art world around it. Since we opened the doors of our office, our first collaborator and interlocutor has been the local artistic community, and it has been our support and context during all these years. We are fortunate to be part of a rich and complex art scene in the Basque region, in which there is a great level of discussion and in which the artists are central, active participants in the debate. It’s not possible to explain Bulegoa z/b without understanding the wider panorama and seeing everything that surrounds and supports us.

(Featured Image: Entrance of Bulegoa through one of the lenses of offerings. Vinita Gatne (2021))

Mela Dávila Freire. Recently, a poster announced her lecture at an art school with this title: “Mela Dávila is not a graphic designer, she is not an editor, and she is not an artist, either.” Combining periods in which she has worked in art institutions with other when she worked as a freelancer, Mela traces a path that at first involved translating, coordinating and editing, then later focused on archives, and recently encompasses research, writing, and curating. Although she still has not found a name for her profession, she increasingly likes the lack of a straight line in her career.

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