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Magazine

25 November 2019
The day they decided to stay

Rafa Barber Cortell

Like all great decisions, that was not a very thoughtful decision. Brexit had started with less repercussion and chaos than announced, Italy announced that it was abandoning the Euro and the new oil crisis made cheap flying a memory of the past. However, I think that was not what started the change, there were many factors that led to what came after.

It all started in the first and second decade of the 2000s, which was characterised by constant flight. The crisis hit harder than ever and the cultural industry, which, except for a certain golden age in the nineties, always moved into the precarious, was completely devastated. What became known as the “brain drain” affected many artists and cultural workers who left: Berlin, Amsterdam, London, Paris were the destinations chosen without a return date. Master’s studies abroad became a must for any artist or cultural worker and were not cheap studies. In an environment of unstable economic nature, studies at private universities abroad were the order of the day, doing a master’s degree at a university in our country was worth little and studying abroad was very expensive. Even so, many did: some with public support, from private foundations or simply working and studying at the same time. The national universities, which never showed an excessive interest in culture, looked relieved, understanding that this was not their job. Years later, everything is different.

Another previous reason was the desire to be on an international stage to which our country did not quite belong. For artists, working in an environment that allowed them to live off their work seemed like a dream, and for cultural workers, leaving a system where you could work in a public institution without opposition was a perfect opportunity. In addition, there was a strange paradox: every time a cultural agent decided to go out and start a practice outside our borders he became more popular in his homeland, it was something very much ours to think that if they had recognition abroad it was because they were doing something right. Cultural institutions spent money on inviting national artists who lived abroad, which produced a certain distrust in those who had rejected, for one reason or another, the exit. The young people never felt too supported by the country’s museums: the largest and most representative tried to place themselves within a kind of international discourse by inviting foreign artists with long careers to make large exhibitions and leaving the local artists for more transversal exhibitions. It was relatively easy in our country to be a young promise and gain access to awards for artists under 35, which was the limit of youth according to the institutions. The complicated thing was to stay after and, for that, going out was a plausible option. Seen from the time distance, they had more than enough motives.

For artists, working in an environment that allowed them to live off their work seemed like a dream, and for cultural workers, leaving a system where you could work in a public institution without opposition was a perfect opportunity. In addition, there was a strange paradox: every time a cultural agent decided to go out and start a practice outside our borders he became more popular in his homeland, it was something very much ours to think that if they had recognition abroad it was because they had to be doing something right. Cultural institutions spent money on inviting national artists who lived abroad, which produced a certain distrust in those who had rejected, for one reason or another, the exit. The young people never felt too supported by the country’s museums: the largest and most representative tried to place themselves within a kind of international discourse by inviting foreign artists with long careers to make large exhibitions and leaving the premises for more transversal exhibitions. It was relatively easy in our country to be a young promise and gain access to awards for artists under 35, which was the limit of youth according to the institutions. The complicated thing was to stay after and, for that, going out was a plausible option. Seen from the distance that the years bring, they had more than enough motives.

The day they decided to stay was one of those normal days, an average day: in London it rained as usual, in Berlin began spring, which was already settled in Amsterdam, and in Madrid it was hot. It was 2027 and, as I said at the beginning, the situation was not good, but they were used to it. Many had already returned, some for family reasons: forming families abroad was not easy and leaving them in your country was not easy either, others due to fatigue, defeat or simply a lack of vitamin D. On that day, a member of this emigrant collective that we will call J was visiting his city, something that due to price and border restrictions he did only once a year -or taking advantage of the visits paid by his country’s main museum, with which, finally, at the age of 41, he made his first retrospective exhibition. “What an irony,” he thought, “twelve years away, and my first major exhibition is in my city”. On that day J decided that he would no longer leave and that the effort he had to make to be outside would be invested inside. Nothing special happened, no triggering event. It was not like in those novels in which, after a long journey, the hero (J was neither a hero nor a heroine) falls off the horse and decides that the adventure comes to an end. He simply decided to return that day.

#Idecidetostay was born as a simple hashtag. J had no intention of changing anything, but soon it became contagious and popular. I imagine it was the right time, everything was more difficult and, of the few who were willing to work in the world of culture, almost none could invest in leaving. Capitals like London had lost their drive due to their political isolation, the conservative boom in Central Europe did not leave much money for culture, let alone for foreigners, and travelling to Eastern countries, which emerged as spaces for artistic experimentation, was unattainable for them, as travelling with only a passport and a little money was a memory of the past. By 2028 the remaining public universities began to invest in bringing back those who had left. They did not offer high salaries, but they did offer stability that was difficult to achieve outside. This caused the young people who risked to devote themselves to art to find more affordable training options closer to home. On the other hand, the public museums that the last crisis had left standing began to work with national artists in a more direct way and, little by little, both those who returned and those who remained began to form a community, beyond misgivings or old disputes, creating something they liked to call “discourse” or “voice”.

It was a time when the cultural system did what it always does and navigated through the adversity of a reality that was decomposing. The generation of #Idecidetostay began to be compared with other cultural avant-garde of our country that became strong in a hostile climate, I suppose that adversity forced them to be united. That international discourse from which we previously wanted to be part became something from which we could practically no longer escape, the world was global regardless of the place occupied by the bodies and this discourse that was atomized every day through the Internet began to accommodate more local needs. This was something that was seen from the outside as a power of reference, as a model that placed our artistic scene, without looking for it, in the place where it used to be. Since then, more than a decade has passed and it seems that, after years of conflict, the stability of the new system is settling, without oil travel is possible again and with telematic universities the educational offer has expanded, which allows us much more flexibility. After years at the public university, tomorrow I start my doctorate: I have decided to go to Moscow, like many of my colleagues. I think it will be a great opportunity.

 

A Spanish curator who moved to London almost seven years ago, he also writes from time to time for Editorial Concreta, This is Tomorrow, Frieze and Art viewer. He has curated exhibitions in institutions such as La casa encendida in Madrid, El Centro del Carmen in Valencia and The Showroom in London. Interested in how stories are constructed and how they use fiction to make history. This year curates the Absolute Beginners exhibition cycle at CentroCentro Madrid, in addition to working as a curator at The RYDER, a gallery based in London and Madrid.

Articles

25 November 2019

The day they decided to stay

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