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Urban Critique Practices. An Interview To Democracia Collective

Être fort pour être utile. The latest project by the Spanish collective Democracia, Ser y Durar was born from this very aphorism, coined in 1912 by the Natural Method theorist Georges Hébert, instructor of physical education and French Marine (video, 18’30’’, 2011).

After Skating Carabanchel (2005) and Welfare State (2007-2008), this artwork by Iván López e Pablo España is the conclusive chapter of a trilogy dedicated to the city of Madrid, staging a recording inside the cemetery of Almudena of a session of Parkour, a metropolitan discipline popularized at the end of the Eighties, which today has become a practice of critical action based on the overcoming of any type of obstacle, through the adaptation of one’s own body to the surrounding environment [1].

Starting from the very title , the work of Democracia (a personal exhibition is currently taking place in Milan until October 18 at the Prometeogallery by Ida Pisani) situates itself as a crisis of contemporary contradictions between subject and historical context, a re-formulation that goes beyond the physical practice expressed by the traceurs [2], and focuses entirely on the relation with the environment.

 

The action takes place in the part of the necropolis where the artist Wolf Vostell, and the leaders of the socialist party Pablo Iglesias, Julian Besteiro e Francisco Largo Caballero, the laic philosophers Xavier Zubiri and Pedro Lain Entralgo, are buried. It is a place dedicated to preserve the memory of the modern social utopia. The choice to create a pathway through the tombstones where one can find epitaphs such “Freedom, Love and Socialism” is expression of a tension between an immobile narration—the funerary monument—and the transient nature of the physical act, born from a popular culture that has nothing to do with the era of a revolution that remained unfinished.

According to this reading, the de-contextualisation produced by the obstacle/monument enacted by the Parkour stands for a critical rendering of contemporary society, reinforced by a contradiction given by a discipline that evolves thanks to the appropriation of military training techniques. In fact, the theory of George Hébert originates from an empirical practice that he developed himself during a period of deployment in St Pierre in 1902 (Martinique). It is interesting to note how methods created for the control and containment of social unrest get turned into a desire that expresses a feeling of participation and sharing. According to España and López: “despite sounding paradoxical, it consists of a humanism that has military roots that should not surprise us, since the principal scope of today’s army is nothing but that of the humanitarian missions or the missions of peace” (être utile) [3].

If in the words of Hébert [4] one can find the rules that have brought about the Parkour, his philosophy carries the notion of the bon sauvage by the pedagogue Jean-Jacque Rousseau. For the latter, only an attentive observation of nature can guide the individual towards a correct physical and moral formation. [5] Thus, the physical training is read as an instrument for a modern paideia, whose competitive nature is neutralized in favor of an ethical reflection on the concept of individual, and where the obstacle is overcome only by suppressing the competition and by controlling the desire to direct both the action and the sensibility governing it.


In this sense, Ser y Durar recreates all the complexity of an iconographic architecture –the dynamic relation between the body and the monument by totally re-drawing the space of the necropolis—that addresses the need for a new practice representation in the metropolitan context and in the social practice. Here one can’t help be reminded of Situazionist Psicogeography, in its radical subjective interpretation of the urban space. However, while the latter aspired to the creation of a United Urbanism, the projects of the duo from Madrid don’t seem to contain any trace of it. [6] One can find a point of connection in the use of détournement as an instrument that introduces (and retrieve, re-utilizes, reconverts totally) current and past productions of arts into a superior construction of the environment. [7]

 

 

Political and social reflection is a constant element accompanying the work of Democracia, as is the care for the symbolic structures of contemporary society that express themselves through a praxis founded one a mix of opposed languages. In this sense, the détournement using consumer culture aspects (such as advertising, graphics employed by subcultures, merchandising) employed into the realization of artworks with a strong theoretical matrix (here are explicit references to Benjamin, Adorno, Rancière), is incorporated as part of a narrative re-definition of the forms of representation of public space and new urban languages. The path ending in Ser y Durar lay bare the cultural codes of institutional communication, obtained through mechanism of community identification aimed at the overcoming of individual autonomy.

A further connection consists in the demystification of the self-referential component in the artistic performance. This happens in favor of the ascertainment of the marginality, the subcultures, and more generally, the communities that don’t normally find any definition in the performative video, but in rare cases of mediation (the artist as interpret of a given social identity).

Ser y Durar is one such example. With the practice of walking being recuperated, especially in the visual arts as a autobiographical re-appropriation of the public, physical and biological space, Democracia chooses eight professional traceurs to pass the obstacles (not only material), obscuring their identity with hoods and scarves. This causes a lack of identification with the artwork by the artist and indicates an opening toward the expressive ellipsis, whose expounding can be found in the capitalist marketing—as the market has always based its strategy on a homogeneous individuation of any possible buyer. In this case too, the usual codes of commercial language are detached drastically from their regular context of use, they are subverted and incorporated into a targeted action. 

 

 

The direct action upon the territory is normally defined as a contemporary derivation of the works of Land Art from the Seventies. These works were the first to generate the possibility for the artist to re-elaborate the static artwork in a intellectual and physical sense, with respect to the relationship between subject and landscape.

In reality, because of its attention to the dynamics of utilization of the space by the social fluxes, Ser y Durar goes beyond the “sublime” interpretation of the relationship human-environment.

For instance, let’s take the artworks by Richard Long. They are based on the action of walking, as in Walking a Line in Perù (1972). Here the author explores the desert environment through his strolling, privileging the meditative and contemplative nature of his relationship with space, but leaving behind the significance of this context for the communities that live there (in this case peripheral).[8]

The result of a political context that prioritizes the individual affirmation, a similar intervention expressing a perspective on the arts as subjectivation of reality, is now very difficult to find. The cultural actuality tends to focus on the void to be filled in the political system, as artists such as Democracia try to materialize through the valorization of mass cultural archetypes, at the intersection between the aesthetic representation, the power relationships and the shared responsibilities of the civil society.

 

 

Pia Bolognesi: Ser y Durar is the last chapter of a trilogy dedicated to Madrid. How was the project born and why did you choose to utilize the natural method of Georges Hébert?


Democracia:
The first two works composing the trilogy that ends with Ser y Durar, are Skating Carabanchel and Welfare State. In Skating Carabanchel (with El perro, a formation preceding Democracia) some skaters skate in the Carabanchel prison, a building built during the regime of Franco and destined to host the political prisoners. In Welfare State instead, the destruction of a bidonville is turned into a sort of spectacle by inviting a conspicuous group of spectators to attend this demolition from a terrace.

ForSer y Durar, we started form a place like the civil cemetery of Madrid, where a great amount of failed dreams of emancipation of the Spanish society are buried.

Our intention was to go beyond this memory, by putting it in contact with some type of contemporary cultural expression. Then we learnt that the parkour comes originally from the military training developed by the French army. We found that practicing this urban sport, by de-contextualizing it inside the cemetery, would add to the current action a further level of reading. After all, a significant number of people buried in the cemetery were anti-fascist resistors in the Spanish civil war, some of them in the Second World War.

For this reason, the different logos printed on the uniforms of the traceurs are some sort of military medals symbolizing different aspects of battles for emancipation. 

 

 

Pia Bolognesi: The artwork explicitly credits the concept of psychogeography Lettrist and Situationist. Here it is central how “the study of the precise effects that the geographical territory, intentionally ordered or not, impart directly on the behavior of the individuals”. [9] I find that there is a difference in the use of the dérive, as in the traceur practice it maintains its active connotation (a preference for the structure of the labyrinth, the abandonment of the urban configuration, the rapid back and forth between the two elements). At the same time, it loses its passive meaning, tending towards re-establishing the construction of a utopian and pre-definite path that goes beyond the morphologic determinism.


Democracia:
The common point is the urban critique. On the one hand, the practice of psychogeography made it clear the level of alienation to which we are subjected in our everyday life, and the derive provided a technique to lose yourself in the city, far from the plans dictated by the urbanists. On the other hand, the parkour draw a map that ought to be followed, architectural barriers and street configuration notwithstanding.

Thus, it is not a less subjective experimenting with the city, since the traceur dismantles the order and the flux imposed by the city itself.

While the practice of skateboarding has been often compared to the psychogeography, nothing has been noted regarding the parkour, where in reality this relation is way more visible. Ironically, the reason can found in the progressive commercialization and incorporation into the mass culture of the skate, as opposed to the exclusion form the market and successive marginalization of the parkour.

 

 

Pia Bolognesi: In this perspective, the choice to set this non-catholic action in the Almudena cemetery is not just a political act, but also a gesture to the lack of any monument to utopia.


Democracia:
Yes, for us it was important that the action be some sort of subtle monument, with the ultimate goal to recollect the utopian movements and their failure (the ultimate burial). If we look at the parkour through a psychogeographical perspective – as a sort of critical practice aimed at the contemporary city– it is possible to read it as a post-political praxis, and as a practice that goes beyond the politics of political parties and unions represented by the tombs and the shrines located in the cemetery


Claudia D’Alonzo:
The traceur rejects the symbolic power of architecture. In the video, bodies move in a space that is both architectural and monumental. Is there any reference to the theories of the “counter-monument” by James E. Young? [10]


Democracia
: There is a connection in the idea that memory is something fragmentary that never stands immobile but is gradually constructed through simple factors, such as the desire to re-interpret it through action, thus activating a reflection in the spectator. The reflection starts from some tension created in a specific frame thanks to a sudden and deep symbolic bout, and from an action that oscillates in-between profanation and homage.


Claudia D’Alonzo:
Another fascinating aspect of the parkour is the obstacle. The obstacle is turned into what allows the body to do extraordinary performances. This emerges, for example, in the documentary My Playground, [11] realized by the Danish filmmaker Kaspar Astrup Schröder. What is the significance of this way to conceive of the obstacle?


Democracia:
It is important to note that the documentary My Playgroung offers a perspective on the parkour as a domesticated practice, by showing architects who think about building a big park to facilitate the training of parkour and freerunning. There is nothing more opposed to the philosophy of the parkour. It is interesting to challenge the pre-established function of architecture; more precisely, to understand the obstacle as an element of stimulus of the movement, but when this is normalized and normativized, the parkour loses its importance as critical practice. More important than the physical obstacle is the challenge to the municipal directives that regulate the contemporary city, and its illegal nature in a public space that is increasingly controlled.

 

 

Claudia D’Alonzo: Time is a fundamental element in Ser Y Durar: the juxtaposition between the immobile time of the monumental space and the hyperkinetic time of the traceurs. How did you work on the shots, the editing and post-production, in order to reproduce such contrast between the two antithetical temporal dimensions?


Democracia
: Editing and postproduction employ the usual standards used in the videos of parkour available online. We decided to approach the visual aesthetics typical of this youth culture. I think we can easily say that the contrast you noted is implicit in the typical visual documentation of the parkour. If in this case this contrast is accentuated it is due to the location of the cemetery, and not to the particular editing. Consider also that this video doesn’t have any narrative, but documents (in a more or less aesthetic manner) an action. The contrast between the two time dimensions is generated rather automatically, from the choice of the space and the practice of the parkour.


Pia Bolognesi:
The use of antithetical languages in our works has created a well-recognizable grammar. In it, one can find all mixed together graphics, political theory and reflection on the urban spaces, and the social systems. For Ser y Durar, the iconographic element of the necropolis is in constant relation to the symbolic matter, especially in the characterization of the traceurs, for whom you have created a system of logos, an effective allegory of value. In addition, one can find a constant oscillation between the static nature of the monument and the ever-changing nature of the action. In particular, the video never finds a conclusion. We can find it installed in Prometeogallery on mono- channel, while the exhibition Declining Democracy at Strozzina (Florence until January 22 2012) has been conceived for three screens.

Democracia: As you correctly noted, the video is an open work, being part of a bigger project, which allows it to be modified in its modes of exposition. Beside the video, there are other elements that compose Ser y Durar: the logos of the uniforms of the traceurs (referring to different aspects: the working class, the internationalism, anarchy and the secret societies, the revolution), and the photographic images of certain symbols (A for anarchy, a star, specific epitaphs) that have been transformed into posters and were hung in public spaces for the presentation of the project in Berlin. Moreover, there is the publication of the catalogue for Prometeogallery, where you can find essays and writings that explain further various aspects of the project. Ser y Durar is still a project open to various other approaches.

 

 

Claudia D’Alonzo: In your works you invert or deconstruct codified practices and behaviors. However, I think that unlike many practices of culture jamming, this deconstruction is never pushed towards the attribution of specific different meanings. You let the public decide openly what to make of it or you make evident the void left by the subtraction of the pre-constituted meaning. What do you think of this reading of your work?


Democracia:
We always let the public decide freely on the meaning, we believe in the idea of an emancipated spectator, who always has a personal reading and adds a new meaning to complement the work. However, this position brings us sometimes to be as literal as possible. For example, in some project we have affirmed “State Murderer”: there is not a lot to interpret here. It is clear that we utilize strategies of culture jamming, ma in an instrumental way, that is , as a communicative guerrilla and use of mass culture with the goal to make ironic statements on the homogeneity of popular culture and the seduction of advertisement.

 

 

http://www.democracia.com.es

http://www.prometeogallery.com

http://www.strozzina.org

 

Notes:

[2] – A definition of the parkour practitioners. In italian, tracciatori.

[3] – Pablo España, Iván López , Exhibition Catalogue Ser y Durar, Prometeogallery, 2011, p. 3.

[4] – Georges Hébert, L’éducation physique ou l’entraînement complet par la méthode naturelle, Librairie Vuibert, Paris, 1912.

[5] – Jean-Jacque Rousseau, Il contratto sociale, Feltrinelli, Milano, 2003.

[6]AA.VV., Problemi preliminari alla costruzione di una situazione, in AA.VV., Internazionale Situazionista 1958-1969, Nautilus, Torino, 1994, p. 13.

[7] – Definition of Unitarian Urbanism: “A theory of the utilization of arts and techniques concurring to the integral construction of an environment dynamically linked with behavioral experiences”. Ibid. The U.U. is defined during the polemic against the functionalism aimed at the conservation and support of the bourgeois society. See Mario Perniola, I Situazionisti: il movimento che ha profetizzato la società dello spettacolo, Castelvecchi, Roma, 2005, pp. 17-18.

Pablo España, Iván López interview with Piedad Solans, claim that the situationist ideas have certainly influenced the works of Democracia, although they seem to take the distance from position deemed as “inactive, characteristics of a Debordian orthodoxy”. Piedad Solans, Un’arte contro il pubblico, in Catalogo della mostra Ser y Durar, Prometeogallery, 2011, p. 11.

[8] – Francis Alÿs, On When Faith Moves Mountains//2002, in AA.VV., Situation, [edited by Claire Doherty], Whitechapel Gallery and MIT Press, London – Cambridge, 2009, p. 40.

[9]AA.VV., Problemi preliminari alla costruzione di una situazione, in AA.VV., Internazionale Situazionista 1958-1969, Nautilus, Torino, 1994, p. 13.

[10] – James E. Young, The Counter-Monument: Memory against Itself in Germany Today, in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 18, No. 2, 1992, pp. 267-296

[11] -My Playground, Denmark, 2010

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  • Pia Bolognesi Pia Bolognesi

    Pia Bolognesi is a freelance researcher in visual studies. She is PhD Candidate in History of Visual Arts at University of Pisa. She studied at the Universities of Florence and Bologna, where she specialized with [...]

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  • Claudia D’Alonzo Claudia D’Alonzo

    Graduated in Contemporary Art History, Claudia PhD student in Audiovisual Studies at the University of Udine (Italy). For several years, she has been interested in new media art, particularly in the audiovisual interactions allowed by [...]

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