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Ruben Martínez is a well-known figure in the fields of free culture, cultural politics with a social base and investigations into a critically political economy. Cofounder of YProducciones (2003-2013), a project dedicated to investigating distinct policies and economies for the cultural “institution” and its elements in the city of Barcelona; co-founder of ZZZINC (2009-2014), a platform made up of curators, journalists, lecturers, independent investigators and cultural producers with projects focussed on cultural innovation; a collaborator in the Free Culture Forum; the instigator of the collective research group “Pro-common Companies”, (Pro-commons Laboratory – Medialab Prado). A regular at Nativa.cat, or the sorely missed festival Zemos98, he is the person in charge of the blog leyseca.net. Currently, he is a founding member of the Hidra Cooperative, a project centred on self-information and research into the urban economy; a node in Barcelona for the Foundation of the Commons. He’s finishing his doctoral thesis at the Institut de Govern i Polítiques Públiques (IGOP) of the Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona, on the tension between politics which foment social innovation and processes of community management.
I’d like to go over this working trajectory of yours, so tied up with self-organisation, and connect it with your training in Fine Art. How does an artist drift towards institutional critique on a more theoretical and academic plane, putting aside artistic practice, based or not on institutional practice? What relations do these two worlds have, if any?
Shortly before graduating in Fine Art, a group of us had the opportunity to exhibit in some more or less recognised gallery in Barcelona. We realised that certain things we wanted to do, in this circuit could only be shown as a symbolic action. The artistic ambit is one that promises a certain exceptionality to be able to say disruptive things but not to practice them. We saw that the forms of production, distribution and communication were very influenced by how this social field functioned, determined to a great extent by the gallery scene and the art market. At that time we were devouring the books of Pierre Bourdieu, and it was like living out all his theories in our own flesh: the artistic field as a space of continuous mutual recognition amongst the actors who configure it, with a brutal accumulation of symbolic capital (legitimacy, eccentricity, dandyism) and a continuous negation of economic capital. At that moment it already seemed that money was the taboo subject in a space populated by people that “work precariously but feel realised by what they do”. Just before setting up YProducciones, the basic question we asked ourselves was “what is production”? How is it produced and what does it mean to produce in the artistic and cultural scene? We set up some day sessions in which we wanted to dodge the traps of talking about “creation” – that sounded very spiritual-, to focus on subjects that seemed under analysed in the cultural field. Subjects like the origin and material conditions of the strength of work needed to set in motion an artistic or cultural production; what institutional conditions are influential in city holding some cultural products and omitting others; what is the circuit you have to go through to legitimate yourself or gain certain symbolic capital and how does your social position at the outset influence this. Along the way, we saw that what we were doing wasn’t so much analysing what was created, so much as the relations between the city’s economy and cultural production. And this, in some way, was what we tried to do with YProducciones: a critique of the political economy of culture (this little title was given to us, in his time, by the great Jose Luis Brea in a long and surprising mail, as we didn’t know each other personally). The idea, to put it in another way, was to analyse –with books, workshops and debates – the role of culture as a form of city government. After all this and after learning tons of things working with Jaron Rowan, Clara Piazuelo, Eli Lloveras and Marc Vives, my interest passed from analysing what means and in which conditions culture, signs, language, or an urban imaginary such as that of Barcelona is produced, to looking at how very similar dynamics were being produced in cooperative spaces, community management, and social actions.
In your discourse, the framework of context is usually the city, and not any old city. One gets a glimpse of an urban metropolis, with various districts and neighbourhoods, and a specific cultural and socio-economic scale, conscious of a certain tourist appeal that makes it possible to practice (and based on these be criticised) certain cultural politics. I ask, in relation to this, if it would be possible on a local or municipal level for suitable conditions to arise for a desire for re-appropriation of shared resources that could characterise a self-run space, but which nevertheless would have the aim of international impact, a specific artistic competitiveness (I’m not saying that this ought to be the objective…) Is it possible to extrapolate the idea of self-organisation on a macro level, within the cultural ambit?
We could think, as such, that for institutions of great importance become self-organised institutions, there are two pathways; either the State is taken to change them – understanding the State not as a thing, so much as a battle between opposing class interests – or the productive social base (call it working class, the precarious class or the middle class in decomposition) they drive processes of collectivisation of resources (work, accommodation, food) through their own cooperative institutions. And along this idea, thus, a touch caricatured, I’m thinking of your last question. Is it possible to extrapolate the idea of self-organisation on a macro level, within the cultural ambit? Let’s imagine that through a public competition (for example, for the management of CCCB that ought to occur soon), a project of management wins that includes a change in the government of this cultural institution, including a roadmap towards self-organisation. The subject on the bottom line is that if you don’t have all the civil servants/labour force hat works in this space convinced that the centralised power of this institution has to be redistributed, you’re going to have a hard time achieving it, even if you have the support of local government, of if you press me, of all the cultural sector. If there is no social demand or force, self-organisation is like a headless chicken on the run, a fiction without material, a utopian ideal with which you can make an exhibition about the subject and little more. To say a new management team will create create a self-organised institution is like saying that Juan Carlos I created democracy.
Critical production today. Critical or comfortable?
The production of signs and patterns of living, or what we could call in general “contemporary culture” is something infinitely broad. If someone wants to perceive contemporary culture as something hedonistic, idle and frivolous, let them do so with total liberty. With this I want to say that of course I’d not impose any regulation there. But if we talk of a certain critical perspective, without any intention of becoming dogmatic or saying “how one should act”, to start with, what I find missing in the formal circuits of cultural production the demands produced be not unionised or merely sectorial. The cultural and artistic field suffer from chronic navel-gazing. If there has been at any moment critical culture that was articulated, that didn’t “Talk of” so much as was “entrenched” in certain demands of social critique, it was because it was proposed as an instrument or as a another productive space from where to drive social change. “No culture without social rights” said the male and female casual stage workers in France, can there be a more powerful slogan than this? In general, even during and after the cycle of 15M, contemporary institutional culture (and the actors and collectives that configure it) have tended to talk of social conflict as a subject, as a source of aesthetic production.
Can self-organisation in the artistic field help to achieve rights that go beyond the ambit of the arts?
I wouldn’t give self-organisation a magic, democratising wand, but understood as the collective and democratic government of those who produce, self-organisation proposes a breakdown n the relations of power. In any ambit of production/consumption the norm is that the one who produces isn’t the proprietor nor has hardly any rights over the means of production. To put it another way, what sustains our existence (home, food, social care) is dependent on our (precarious) work. A life where you work intermittently on projects, where you have to compete for a limited space for work, that drives you into debt or displaces you territorially for not being able to pay the rent, is a life without autonomy. To collectivise production, to proclaim and endeavour to practice autonomy through unionisation or cooperatives, supposes a loss of power for those who possessed it previously. Power is not a zero-sum game –where if I win, you lose – but it’s a lot like it. To propose self-organisation as a conflict of power means it stops being a rhetorical game. The case is that in the artistic ambit it is very difficult to encounter practices of collectivisation. It is even difficult to find processes of unionisation, where “my problem” of precariousness is not mine, so much as it is structural, and the solution passes with constructing collective strength. It is a paradox that “precariousness” or “the crisis” have been a recurrent theme in artistic production, but in turn have not been a space for collective struggle allied with other processes of social unionisation to combat what is generating this precariousness and this crisis. To consider self-organisation as a form of placing in conflict the relations of power could be a way of reconsidering one of the historic demands: the access to culture. What would access to culture be today? Would it not pass for productive communities being able to govern themselves, generate their own institutions and collectivise their resources? I see real difficulties this step happening in the art scene in Barcelona. There is more culture of consensus than of conflict.
Self-organisation is, or ought to be, on the other hand, financial independence?
I don’t believe it is useful to measure autonomy based on whether you receive public money or not, so much as on the capacity that it doesn’t make you dependent on this public institution nor dilute your true objective. The relations with institutions are always complicated they have to be complicated, whoever is in government. To receive public money to make institutional critique is something that is still surprises (and exasperates) even to people within the actual cultural sector, but I believe there could be nothing healthier. In any case, not submitting sometimes calls for maintaining a relation of collaboration/conflict with the “source” of funding be it public or private. Somewhat the reverse of what the saying says: ”don’t bite the hand that feeds you”. On the other hand, however contradictory it might sound, I see all the sense of the cliché that if something is financed in the long run solely by public funds, it will end up losing its objective and deactivating its autonomy. The history of Barcelona is an example of how to deactivate spaces of autonomous organisation through forging client networks. Financial independence is a desirable objective –through social quotas, inter-cooperation, earnings, ethical finances – but I don’t believe that this denies that there are routes to finance oneself that, on the way, raise contradictions, that could, perhaps, point to new models.
What did you make of the exhibition Autogestión, currently at the Fundació Miró, in which you collaborated, with a text for the catalogue?
Well even though I wrote a text for the catalogue, I still haven’t been to see it. The text is about the concept of “self-organisation” not about the works, so I’m half excused. At the time I already commented to Antonio Ortega that I’d perhaps take a while to visit it, but not long ago I received a mail of his to go to see it in a group. But, to go out on a limb, which will undoubtedly sound arrogant and not that prudent, given what I’ve seen, I believe that some of my suspicions are going to be fulfilled. I’m worried that the exhibition deals with self-organisation as a subject and in a fairly elusive manner. For the works included in the exhibition, seem to deal with questions like precariousness, work made with limited resources, symbolic actions of negation of the fundamental laws of the artistic field while integrating the resulting work into the field itself. I don’t think self-organisation is this. I believe I understand the gesture that Antonio is making, but I believe that to propose self-organisation in the artistic ambit involves indicating the processes of collectivisation of the means of production as well as the control of the circuits of diffusion. This is an anathema in the artistic ambit. I’m referring, for example, to practices and experiments like the Cinema Liberté, the English cooperative cinema from the 30s, Prometheus Films or productions like “frozen stomachs” by Bertolt Brecht. There are also projects today, like Metromuster or the Antic Teatre, that propose a form of producing and dealing with subjects that I believe are totally coherent. I believe that in the exhibition the proposal is more conceptual and playful, but I’ll hold my tongue because I’ve not seen it yet. It is significant that, in the programme of activities of the exhibition, includes sessions with experiences of social and solidarity economy, which have little or nothing to do with contemporary art. Self-organisation in the collectives of contemporary artists, are usually used as an initial stage or as a trampoline to be able to enter into a consolidated circuit (when it comes down to it, what we did at the start of YProducciones). But processes of collectivisation, the communalising of resources, autonomy from the art market… the truth is know of none.
"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)