Posted in Arts and Society
January 14, 2020

Reflections On “Anarchist” Structures And Aesthetics In Cultural Collectives, Part 1 (Jeffrey Swartz)

An abridged version of this text was previously published in Spanish as “Reflexiones sobre las estructuras y estéticas anarquistas en los colectivos culturales”, in Sitesize, ¡Cataluña termina aquí! ¡Aquí empieza Murcia!, Barcelona: Sitesize, 2014

The following is the first installment of a two-part series.

The use of the “anarchist” label on the part of a cultural collective brings with it difficulties beyond mere questions of nomenclature. Problems sharpen even more when dealing with cultural production: it is quite frequent to find overtly anarchist and libertarian bookstores and resource cooperatives, but less usual to come across initiatives producing culture identified as anarchist, especially in traditional fields such as theatre, music and art.

When reference to anarchism does appear in the current cultural context (the case of Pussy Riot and their theatrical anti-authoritarianism would be a recent case) it tends to be a convenient media-friendly tag fueled in part by the group in question, often in the quest for notoriety. The language of libertarian anarchism finds a greater comfort zone in political spheres, amongst activist collectives dedicated to public pedagogy or direct action against authority, or in the case of small associations and local centers focused on a concrete subject area (labor, eco-agrarian, feminist).

Yet it is still worth asking whether identification with anarchism brings with it particular and particularly acute difficulties in the case of producers of cultural content, and if so, why. Furthermore, what would this mean for the possible forms of anarchist expressivity, for attempts at coming up with an anarchist aesthetic?

Use of the anarchist label almost always responds to a will towards effective critique and action in counterpoint to other options forms of critical political praxis, including those with apparently parallel objectives (communist and other anti-capitalist variants, for example). It also corresponds to a rhetorical position, partially in assuming the risk of association with a name that has been a socially hard pill to swallow, and that since even before anarchy as a modern political philosophy was articulated. Hobbes in his Leviathan (1651) married social violence with anarchy to discredit the Puritan position during the English Civil War; over two centuries later Matthew Arnold drew on this association in his defense of a culture grounded in conservative values (Culture and Anarchy, 1869). Neither of these writers had any explicit advocate of anarchy as a legitimate political antagonist in mind; both spoke to a hypothetical foil.

That would change by the late 19th century as social support for anarchist principles grew. Those eager to stigmatize anarchism would seek out and readily feed off any visible connection with destructive politics (ignoring anarchist constructiveness). This is what French detractors did in the wake of the Trial of the Thirty in 1894 (as detailed in Jean Maitron’s account), or Spaniards after the bombing of Barcelona’s Liceu opera house in late 1893: both nations would come to vilify anarchism in law. Both cases, apart from sharing the same historical moment, reflected the rise of what was called at the time “propaganda by the deed” (known more familiarly to us as “direct action”).

Although open legitimization of certain forms of violence to meet political ends was a fully anarchist position of the time, it has by no means been a dominant or even majority position over the historical course of anarchist practice. Not even in the agitated 1890s. Regardless, the association of anarchy with violence would end up exposing any sort of avowed anarchism to widespread and ongoing stigmatization, with very occasional periods of respite (around the start of the Russian Revolution, with the roughly simultaneous emergence of worker’s councils in other European countries, or in Spain during the Second Republic). Insisting upon its terminological use has meant risking categorical rejection; those daring to assume the anarchist label regardless show a clear will to forge a space of distinction that is at once ideological, structural and activist.

Of interest here is the use of parallel or euphemistic terminology in indicating affiliation with anarchist positions and attitudes, so as to avoid having to enunciate them. In Spain the use of the term “acracy” was common by the 1880s, as evidenced by the publication in Barcelona of a journal called Acracia (1886-1888). Terms could often be highly ambiguous when it came to disguising what was being spoken of. This should not be surprising: a more open definition of libertarianism, such as that provided by George Woodcock (emphasizing “its rejection of dogma, its deliberate avoidance of rigidly systematic theory, and, above all, its stress on extreme freedom of choice and on the primacy of the individual judgement” (16) together with dedication to organizational models favorable to these values recalls just how feasible it might be to land ourselves in anarchist waters without having to pronounce the name outright.

In the case of the Barcelona context (where the art collective Sitesize has been based since its genesis in the early 2000s), and going back to the early 1990s, when cultural collectives committed to critical action emerged in force, the euphemism of the “assembly” has been frequent (from the Greek ἐκκλησία, or ecclesia). The assembly is an idea that is in no way esoteric though perhaps poorly defined. It has served as a code-word in Barcelona for anarchist and libertarian intentions, especially when it comes to models of self-organization and shared practice. Early 20th century Catalan anarchism was comfortable with the transfer of such terminology from Athenian democracy, so that a local social club from where to generate political, educational and cultural activity would be called an ateneu popular (a people’s athenaeum).

Amongst the best known of these many centers conceived in an anarchist vein was the Ateneu Enciclopèdic Popular, which was viciously repressed by the Franco regime, though it has since been revived as one of the most important anarchist documentation centers in Europe, as analysed in the Ferran Aisa monograph. For their project REpensar Barcelona (REthinking Barcelona), an open-ended think-tank reworking tired Barcelona paradigms and active from 2005 to 2007, Sitesize explored the legacy of the Ateneu Enciclopèdic Popular as an alternative model of independent education and self-government. For their 2011 exhibition at Barcelona’s Palau de la Virreina, a good part of the photographic documentation on working class and alternative use of Barcelona mountains and parks in the early 20th century came from the Ateneu’s archive.

Later, in 2012, Sitesize would participate in events celebrating the Ateneu Enciclopèdic Popular’s 110th anniversary. Perhaps because of the archaic association of the term with early democratic republicanism, and indeed because not all ateneus are anarchist (case being the Ateneu Barcelonès, a prestigious private club with liberal leanings in the city), use of the term ateneu has its ups and downs, though the term is still used widely and generically.

In contrast, encoded reference to the assembly as a model for praxis with ethical underpinnings remains strong. In an assembly each participant in a given collective initiative, whether ad hoc or permanent, is given a voice. Decision-making is done by consensus, thus staging the undoing of vertical hierarchies in the exercise of governance. The idea of a simple majority imposing its will over substantial minorities is ruled out in principle. The assembly works not as a single organizational entity acting alone, but rather as piece within a federation of semi-independent committees, connected at will in a complex horizontal network.

Leadership is handled collectively and, in the case of committee chairs, is provisional and thus rotated. Any participant could take on the role of spokesperson, such as when dealing with the press, though an effort could just as well be made to ensure no individual could speak definitively in the name of the whole. Membership itself is usually fluid and flexible, so that the structural edges of any organization grounded on the principles of the assembly are blurry. What we are describing is something very close to the model often articulated as “prefigurative”, a concept now widely used to describe the ethical praxis of new social protest and activist movements emerging in the 21st century.

There is no question that the terminological and applied proliferation of the assembly in Catalonia, referencing anarchism, responds to the legacy of the decades leading up to the Franco coup d’état, the Spanish Civil War and the Franco dictatorship. This legacy culminated in the mid-1930s anarchist revolution, which prevailed in Barcelona (and in other Catalonian industrial towns) at the outbreak of the Civil War in 1936.

The uncapping of this legacy in post-Franco democracy (which as Xavier Diez argues has endured as a fundamental tacit trait of Catalan society), has fanned its spread and acceptance, though not always by appealing to solid criteria. Even though it has been greatly insisted upon, the term “assembly” (and its corresponding Catalan adjective assembleari, “assemblyist”) can become fetishized, with mimetic behavior frequently diluting more grounded praxis. The assembly model is now bantered about by many non-profit associations and NGOs, and even mainstream political parties give lip service it. The driving multi-partisan force behind the Catalan separatist movement is called the Assemblea Nacional Catalana (ANC). The least that can be said is that the critical sense of adapting the full value of the assembly as a practical form is comprehensible, as it is the clearest way to erect the structure of a new world microcosmically within the shell of the current world, to repeat a habitual formulation familiar to advocates of prefigurative politics.

Only in certain moments in recent history has any attempt been made to articulate the sense of the assembly with greater rigor. In Spain this occurred with the tent cities appearing in the public squares of over 200 Spanish cities as part of the 15M movement that occupied dozens of Spanish squares with tent cities in 2011. Even in that case, however, while local assemblies born out of 15M (along with those pre-existing) continue to be active in hundreds of neighborhood-based cells throughout Spain, with dozens in Barcelona alone, it could not be said that 15M had any sort of substantial cultural component. The new anarchist assemblies only rarely have a cultural face. When they do touch on culture, however, it is most patent in forms that are dear to traditional forms of anarchist activism: open education; graphic design in support of campaigns; documentary filmmaking; theatrical forms of protest.

Even so, in the past twenty years literally dozens of cultural projects in Barcelona have chosen to adopt the language and ideas of the assembly. This is rather unusual considering that the anarchist link to such form of shared cultural practice has almost never been made explicit; not one of these cultural collectives, however prefigurative their modus operandi might be, openly calls itself “anarchist”. In this regard, and as an exceptional case, we might point to the anarchist tourist route organized by the Turismo Táctico collective in the mid-2000s, which was included as part of the Tour-isms exhibition at Barcelona’s Tàpies Foundation in 2004.

The focus and insistence of Sitesize in relation to this subject, with their work on historical and current libertarian and anarchist forms and practices, has been one of the most notable examples of an uncomplexed articulation of radical theory, research and activism in cultural practice. Elvira Pujol and Joan Vila-Puig began their project in 2002 with proposals for interventions in public space. Soon their shared practice would come to encompass a great diversity of initiatives: site-specific projects delving into local identities and urban geographies; critical cartographies, often related to transitional urban-rural landscapes; research into historical memory, centered on forgotten radical causes; and studies in working class education.

Workshops and shared research projects abound, both in Barcelona and throughout Spain and South America. For their SIT Manresaproject (the initials stand for Territorial Information Service in the original Catalan), they proposed an in-situdialogue with residents of the city of Manresa, where locals generated understanding, content and critique in the face of unbridled urban change. Presciently carried out at the peak of the real estate bubble, the project culminated in a major publication. Similarly conceived SIT projects were later developed for Ümea, Sweden and Valparaiso, Chile, both in 2012.

For their participation in the inaugural Catalonia Pavilion at the 2009 Venice Biennale, Sitesize brought together various projects, some dedicated to libertarian pedagogies. Other works seen in Venice reflected on historical urban development of the outskirts of Barcelona – including early shopping malls, improvised DIY housing construction and unauthorized vegetable gardens along riverbeds – coinciding with the arrival of working-class immigrants from the rest of Spain. Since then Sitesize have focused their work on collective learning and popular knowledge in and around Barcelona.

One fascinating line of research focuses on early twentieth century initiatives in ecology, nudism and vegetarianism, as seen in the development of the alternative Jardí de la Amistat (Garden of Friendship), run throughout the mid-20th century by an eccentric visionary who called himself Llum de la Selva (literally Light of the Forest), in Vila-Puig’s hometown of Sabadell. This contrasting set of projects came together with the publication of ¡Cataluña termina aquí! ¡Aquí empieza Murcia! [Catalonia Ends Here! Here Begins Murcia!], the title taken from a 1930s slogan painted on a wall on Barcelona’s outer limits by immigrants from the southern Spanish region of Murcia.

Jeffrey Swartz is an art and design critic and curator. He teaches art and design theory and history at Eina, Barcelona, ESDi, Sabadell, and at Emily Carr University, Vancouver and is also active in arts and academic management. He has also taught at Bau, Barcelona and has done academic seminars and lectures for degree granting institutions in France, England and Scandinavia. He is currently consultant and coordinator for Campus de les Arts, a project uniting 20 centers of higher education in the creative arts in Catalonia. In 2019 he coordinated the Campus de les Arts conference INDISCIPLINES. Swartz has published widely in magazines and journals (Flash Art, Art News, C) and has written book chapters.

Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,

Comments & Reviews

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.