The Museum of Contemporary Art is one of the social spaces that has been most affected by the major crisis of the neoliberal system. Therefore, after the 1990s, when numerous institutions set out to search for their own ways of working, and after the collapse of financial capitalism which meant the deflagration of financial resources destined for culture, unknown structures opened up for the museum that, for the past fifty years, had seemingly existed in a perpetual state of depletion and permanent anxiety regarding refunding.
Most of the scenarios that were characteristic of the late 20th century—the search for ones “own model”, legitimisation by international spheres, a distancing from the “festivalisation” of culture, etc.—suffered a change of semantic scene as a result of the ideological rearmament of citizens. This means that the museum has now become untranslatable, although that should not mean that it reneges on some of its initial objectives.
On the one hand, the typologies that characterised museums under pejorative or exemplar labels have proven to be inadequate. On the other hand, the dancing in ascription or defeat that used to sustain them, almost always imported from culturally and economically hegemonic countries, also became ineffective. Idealisation and its dangers, in the form of excessive nostalgia and sectarian sufficiency, also adds to the framework of the contemporary art museum, which runs the risk of viewing its own critical genealogy from inadequate and revanchist positions.
While the museum settled somewhere between archaeology and prophecy, the mechanisms for the sensationalisation of culture refined their resources, resulting in urgencies and questions that seemed totally obsolete. Audience curves function once again by way of populist legitimisation or a mistrust of elitism and, in line with this, we hear a plethora of voices calling for the return of museums to a potentially Adamic and fabled past.
At this point, the need to restore the critical scope of the museum and its capabilities of social, subjective and artistic reinvention has become essential. For this reason, it is not enough to extricate it from the logic of blockbusters or glorify those mediations originating from “external” corporate methods, generated or stimulated by the museum itself as protocols for good public awareness. The museum in its entirety, not specific programmes or restricted areas, should function as a mediator deeper within a network without pre-existing or hierarchical borders, by opening up multiple channels for dialogue and exchange, erecting permanent structures and malleable systems of interaction that are in keeping with the diverse range of expectations regarding its use. Cultural awareness is reluctant to fit inside or outside a framework; it grows, prompts and causes new coordinates between the involved parties.
Accordingly, favouring participation, building points of connection and decentralising the museum, means the recognition of specific positions, the opening up of a number of devices whose use has an “institutionalising” effect, in other words, not only do they solidify the image of the museum in the eyes of citizens, but they also provide it with complex and tight processes as an institution, with informative and public values.
At La Virreina Centre de la Imatge we are dealing with the need to cooperatively build an architecture as an institution, a working philosophy and a public policy. In other words, perimeters, roles, a social exchange network and a specific place on the cultural map of Barcelona, all in a permanent state of questioning and not rigid in its forms, something that goes beyond definition, through different strata, a menu of exhibitions, public programmes and proposals of mediation.
Understanding the here and now is a must for La Virreina Centre de la Imatge; the district of El Raval and the start of the 21st century; current municipal policies and the context of industrialised European capitalism; the metropolitan memory of the districts and the network of associative and activist groups, that has already exceeded the limits of visual culture by dealing with micro-urban phenomena, displaying dynamics based on exchanges and, more importantly, demanding a space for representation and production within the current institutional map of Barcelona.
Ultimately, we believe that La Virreina Centre de la Imatge must contribute towards updating Barcelona’s neuralgic role in the development of culture in Catalonia, which requires a boost in strong, reciprocal relations with other cities within the Spanish context, as well as linking up with museums on the international level with a similar focus and scale.
Accordingly, we define research as one of our main responsibilities, because we understand that this avenue introduces, within the occasional time that historically defined the museum’s mechanism, other temporal experiences not geared towards immediacy and temporariness; other forms of knowledge that are resistant to being defined or that are outlined through expanded processes of listening, dialogue and recognition of antagonism; other critical subjectivities formulated from co-operation, through dynamics that break down institutional frameworks, opening them up to new socialised uses, incorporating microhistoric experiences that specify forms of interpellation that lack the weight of those more nineteenth-century or disciplinarian genealogies.
We therefore propose three major lines of action that support La Virreina Centre de la Imatge, organise its general activities and are expressed as exhibitions, seminars, courses, publications and shared learning activities, following a common discursive framework.
These three work streams act as idea incubators that traverse the centre, enabling its full potential, methodologies and vocabulary: they act as a far-reaching tool for artistic enunciation and collective co-operation that provides La Virreina Centre de la Imatge with a place as an institution, enabling it to question and be questioned by and from diverse public counterfields.
“Art, communities and public squares”
The art practices that explore the ties between image, critical urbanism, cultural theory and social activism constitute, nowadays, one of the most acute objections to the project of urban sanitisation and modernisation, proposing a radical reinvention of the city. In a context such as that of Barcelona, where the touristification processes have turned out to be startling, where housing conflicts have jumped from home to the social arena, where public squares have been simultaneously converted into collective megaphones and places for dissidence, it is important to address which positions are adopted by the artistic communities and citizens, what imaginaries they are working with and what aesthetic productions and materials they are developing.
The immediate history of the visual representation of Barcelona has constructed its critical tale from the major cultural events—from the 1888 Barcelona World Exhibition to the Olympic Games of 1992 and the 2004 Forum—however, from outside of these metropolitan apotheoses, from a sort of cultural belt that is no longer far away from the centre itself, rather within it, various projects have served to diagnose the modern city and its hubs of innovation for the 21st century. In this way, we observe new forms of photographic documentalism and a culture of images that questions the memory of Barcelona, suggesting instruments to understand the identities in dispute, the changes and the dilemmas that have arisen, as well as the processes of overflow in the urban context.
This line of action tackles one of the main challenges for a centre dedicated to images, that is to say, mapping and highlighting a whole plurality of visual imaginaries that converse with the historiographical narrations and that introduce variables of representation, renewed social perspectives and an understanding of the city that looks more closely at its fractures or blind spots than at the prevailing accounts.
“A visual memory of Barcelona”
One of the consequences of lacking a space that fully deals with researching the culture of images is the disorientation of numerous small- and mid-scale heritage collections that do not manage to find their own study and exhibition space. Accordingly, La Virreina Centre de la Imatge must undertake a task that overcomes the classificatory paradigm, linking these historical collections with the theoretical narratives of the time and taking them out of a merely local or subordinate context.
Here it is important to make an effort in cooperating with the other civic institutions, not only to write a particular global narrative, but also to open up a long-term chapter that allows for a diversity of individual perspectives.
Finally, the importance of La Virreina Centre de la Imatge creating a solid historiographical network around it must be pointed out, and of this acquiring a key role in the dynamics of the institution, boosting collaboration with academic research, the editorial spheres in Barcelona and, above all, with the civic cultural bodies whose heritage has been historically neglected both by the hegemonic narratives and by antagonistic revisionism.
“Towards defining the concept of the imaginary”
The ideas of image and the imaginary are totally vague, confused and mixed up with various fields of meaning. To associate images with what is visual is reductionist; to link imaginaries with immaterial productions is the same. The history of photography occupies a sphere linked to the construction, representation and diffusion of images; the imaginaries are added specifically into processes where social and artistic knowledge converge, sometimes favouring hybridisation but at other times turning against it.
In order to define a possible concept of the imaginary, as this line of action aims to do, involves broadening the boundaries from semantics to practice. The moving image, digital photography or expanded cinema are practices that must be included in a centre that deals with the culture of images, and likewise with literary fiction that constructs and tears apart the imaginaries of the city.
We understand that La Virreina must achieve an international dimension, presenting bodies of work that have not been exhibited before in our context. Likewise, we believe it is fundamental that El Centre de la Imatge encourages ties and cooperation with other Spanish cities that are also looking to critically explore what urban culture and social imaginaries mean today.
PUBLIC PROGRAMMES AND PROPOSALS FOR MEDIATION/NEGOTIATION
Although we insist on not stratifying our activities into typologies, we consider that public programmes and proposed mediation/negotiation are the areas where the lines of action of La Virreina Centre de la Imatge are transformed into areas for collective discussion. For this reason, its ambition is to build frameworks for analysing changes in the public sphere, possible uses of knowledge and subjectivity, that question social matters from the perspective of the numerous variables in dispute. To this effect, we are establishing collaboration networks with agents and communities who work in the field of university research, critical knowledge, activism and antagonistic cultural productions. Counter to an offer aimed at occasional consumers, we are opting for a cluster of formats that prioritise ongoing discourse and regular themes.
Accordingly, we have constructed four social imaginary production platforms that attempt to create various fronts of study and shared action with artistic groups, educators, historians, cultural agents and activist groups, and that aim to reconnect us with those civic initiatives that generate visual culture and political acumen in Barcelona.
The lines of research for these four platforms are:
- The topographies of urban dispute
- The heritage status of the culture of images
- Participative social documentary
- Community learning practices
Valentín Roma, director of La Virreina Centre de la Imatge