In the opening conversation at FiraTàrrega 2019, Xavier Antich said, ‘public space is the place that bodies transform; that’s why the public space is literally ungovernable’. To fully understand the vitality and richness of the current Catalan street performance scene, we need to start off by looking at urbanism.
Georges-Eugène Haussmann (politician, 1809–1891) turned Paris into a network for a city in motion. Frederick Law Olmsted (landscape architect, 1822–1903) designed a green oasis – Central Park – in the heart of New York. Ildefons Cerdà (urban planner, 1815–1876) devised an urban fabric in Barcelona. Three figures of the modern era who transformed their cities. They went beyond form to take city life, co-existence into account. Haussmann strove to build an accessible city; Olmsted, a sociable city; and Cerdà, an egalitarian city. Accessible, sociable and egalitarian.
A chapter in the book Building and Dwelling, by North American sociologist and historian Richard Sennett, begins with these words: ‘In 1859, the Catalan architect Ildefons Cerdà first brought the words “urbanism” and “urbanist” into print. (...) The words appeared because the conditions of modern life demanded a distinctive understanding of cities’. The book thus shines a light on the figure of one of the founders of modern urbanism.
Pla Cerdà. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
With urbanism, Cerdà was founding a new discipline that aimed to organise and regulate buildings and ensure the well-being of the city’s population.
The structure of the neighbourhoods, the shape of the buildings, the design of the pavements, the routes of the streets, the urbanisation and definition of spaces for collective use, like parks and squares: urbanism and architecture play an essential role in making a city able to host and embrace street performance, and indeed all artistic expressions that take place in the public space. Cerdà laid the urbanistic foundations of a city for everyone: in short, a space for equality and sociability. You could even say that, in broad strokes, he paved the way for future street artists and performers to enter the city and encourage harmonious co-existence among residents.
The Catalan street performance scene
The main characteristic of street performance is that it takes place in the street. The second is that it is fleeting. But street performance can also be accessible, sociable and egalitarian, just like the cities Cerdà and his peers dreamed of and designed.
Currently, Catalonia is one of the world’s biggest exporters of street performance and arts in public spaces. Nonetheless, official, regulated training programmes in street performance are practically non-existent. Below are some clues that may (or may not) explain this apparent inconsistency:
Street performers and street performance companies train and create their artistic proposals at the margins of the academic institution and large cultural facilities. This way of working on the margins, on the outside, allows them to distance themselves from the aesthetic impositions of the classical theatre establishment. Street performance pieces, then, are framed in a living context, full of information, where the creators have to play with and adapt to what already exists. So, working in an exposed space like the street encourages artists to think and create within an open source framework, a system with space for strange, curious, (im)possible elements. North American researcher Melanie Mitchell points out that ‘complexity comes into being in the course of evolution; it emerges through the feedback and sifting of information rather than existing as in a telos preordained and programmed at the outset’. [OS1] In other words, thinking openly fosters innovation.
Reference points and knowledge transfer
In the seventies, Catalonia was a leading reference point worldwide in street performance creativity. Companies like Comediants, La Fura dels Baus and La Cubana broke onto the scene and made way for a new model of cultural/creative expression. These companies’ creativity and expertise have lasted for generations. I like to think that inhabiting a land with limited dimensions like ours has facilitated this sharing and transfer of knowledge between creators from different generations. It’s about that open source model I mentioned above.
One of the main events in the southern European street performance calendar is FiraTàrrega. Since 1981, every second weekend of September, this strategic street performance market has brought around a thousand professionals to the city of Tàrrega (L’Urgell, Catalonia), where they have discovered all the innovations in performance art from Catalonia and beyond. FiraTàrrega is an international shop window and the official hub of street performance in Catalonia that counts on (still fragile) support from the public administration, in the shape of creation and production grants from the Catalan Institute for Cultural Companies and funding for mobility and the promotion of Catalan artists abroad from the Institut Ramon Llull. This support enables Catalan companies specialising in creation in public spaces to be present on all the international performance circuits, such as the Festival d’Aurillac (France), Theater Op de Markt in Hasselt (Belgium), Out There Festival in Great Yarmouth (UK), Passage Festival in Helsingør (Denmark) and Seoul Street Arts Festival (Korea).
Evolution towards new paradigms
The public space has always been a central concept in philosophy. In her book Filosofia inacabada (Unfinished Philosophy), Catalan philosopher Marina Garcés states: ‘A true transformation of philosophy is at stake: feminisation, precarisation or proletarianisation and the collectivisation of knowledge. (...) Women, precariat and collaborative knowledges’.
The three concepts behind this transformation of philosophy indicated by Garcés can also partly explain the evolution of Catalan street performance. This creative marginality and insufficient institutional support have made it a precarious art; collaboration and the interrelation of knowledges and skills among Catalan creators have enabled it to endure over time; and the increasingly noticeable feminisation of street performance, with artists such as Ada Vilaró, Eva Marichalar, Alina Stockinger, Prisca Villa, Vero Cendoya, Lali Álvarez and many more, is bringing new, quality points of reference to the Catalan scene.
On top of these three transformative elements, I would add that, in Catalonia, we are likely to see an era with new performance paradigms in terms of creation in the public space. The public space will ‘come into fashion’ in the performing arts, too. The freedom and range of possibilities offered by the public space capture the imagination of creators and audiences alike. Creations designed and conceived to be performed in the public space will gain prestige and value. I’m not talking about those proposals that can be adapted to an unconventional theatre or space. I mean the pieces thought up and created to be performed specifically in the public space: 100% street performance. This type of proposal tends to need an active audience that participates in the piece, that experiences it, rather than watching passively. Street performance promotes the art of being present, of meeting. The rethinking of the audience’s role will also be part of this transformation in Catalan street performance. This new era is exemplified by the Kamchàtka company, which situates its creations in the public space and positions audience experience at the core of its work.
It is hard to create outside the usual parameters and avoid succumbing to the clichés of creativity. But here in Catalonia, we have an internationally recognised cultural identity filled with references that contributes towards projecting our cultural imaginary, in this case through street performance. Perhaps Cerdà and his urbanism laid the first stone. Perhaps Xavier Antic was right when he said the streets were ungovernable.
Artistic Director of FiraTàrrega