2007. DISCUSSION PANELS / 01 Feb 2007 / Dionisio Cañas. U-TURN


Beyond human horror there is enthusiasm. Enthusiasm doesn’t move mountains nor changes the world, but does order everything that surrounds us in a different way. The enthusiast’s look is not a stupid look that doesn’t see things in a critical way, quite the contrary: the enthusiast’s look can penetrate the human soul’s darkest corner and the surrounding social framework. On the other hand, he isn’t naïve, and doesn’t get high on life, but never sees life, wherever he may be, in the showcase in which society likes to present it.

Recently, between 2005-2006 a couple of artists (or facilitators and mediators, as they consider themselves): Neil Cummings and Marysia Lewndowska presented a project called “Enthusiasm: love films, desire and work” in London, Berlin and Barcelona. It was about showing a group of amateur Polish films from the communist era that they define as enthusiastic.

In an e-mail exchange between Anthony Spira and the exhibition’s two other facilitators (that later became part of the catalogue), these said the following: “the phenomenon of enthusiasm has become an important concept. Enthusiasm is a motivational force that enables all kinds of exchanges. We are using films to draw a trajectory of enthusiasm that seems to have been extracted from art, culture, leisure time, sport and self-organization to be more thoroughly manipulated every day; enthusiasm has substituted work as a resource of contemporary capital […]. Financial incentives aren’t necessarily the ones that arouse enthusiasm. And maybe, this implies certain contradiction, but the fact that something may be accessible and free of charge doesn’t necessarily mean that there are no financial incentives to produce it”.

Cummings and Lewandowska located, in the nineteen eighties, the source of an attitude in which artists not only produce objects but become mediators; “they offer connections or build situations”, and although they mention the French Situationists as pioneers, they quote several artists such as Hans Haacke and Julie Ault and the Group Material, describing them like this: “We are dealing with a group of artists that started to focus on the structures through which art is produced, promoted, distributed and consumed”.

However, the ideological affinities of the Estrujenbak group can be found in the forties in groups such as the Experimental Group or the Cobra Group and, of course, the Situationist International of the fifties and sixties. Constant in particular, who participated in the development and was the creator of some of these groups in a text in which he spoke of “Creative Capacity and Social Organization”, said: “The heart of the cultural revolution of the twentieth century is in the step that goes from an individual static expression to an experimental collective activity […] [the artist]. Has to break apart from the obsession of a mass technological society if he wants to enter a new domain of creative capacity, in a domain in which creative potential and social organization are inseparable […]. The configuration of the surrounding material world and the liberation and organization of everyday life are starting points to new forms of culture”.(Check Jürgen Claus’ seminal book, Expansion of art. Contribution to a theory and practice of Public Art, 1970).

But, beyond any theory, we, the ESTRUJENBANK group, for the last twenty years have been enthusiasts that, while attending exhibitions and reading art magazines, philosophers or theoreticians like Paul Virilio, some trendy critic, between New York, Madrid and La Mancha, cared about what we were doing. Therefore, as we loved life; to read and drink, because we thought that our surroundings were boring pyrotechnical games linked to the ruling values established by the art market, more than true works of art that provide some type of change in the aesthetic and cultural landscape, we decided that we were going to do only things that thrilled us beyond the reasonable limits that trends and artistic institutions offered. And therefore, one day, in January 1991, we thought: Why don’t we do an exhibition with groups of artists in a village of La Mancha? Why don’t we create an exhibit in Cinco Casas?

Although in the beginning there wasn’t any theoretical plan to do it, we did have a founding idea: we have to take today’s art out of its pink mine field, the world of galleries, museums, institutions, etc. We have to take it out of that polluted realm which is subject to the market’s rule and political manipulation, we have to leave the highway of art and go for the exit on the next traffic sign; and the sign that appeared was the “U-turn”. And thus we did, we started off from that traffic sign and on a rural bar’s napkin designed an exhibit, an event, that we thought might change something, if not the world, at least catch the critic’s attention on the fact that art, at that time, not only should be present in big cities, where it was assumed that everything new should happen, everything that could renew the direction in which art was going in the nineties, but that a rural village could also host what we thought to be the most interesting art of that time.

Then, with our own money and the collaboration of Cinco Casas, in Ciudad Real, we created a call, for groups of artists only, that said: “The intention of the exhibit is to reverse the centralist cultural order that intends artistic events to take part in museums or in the galleries of big cities. Also, we would like to underline the importance of collective artistic work instead of the elitist narcissism of the conceited artist. The generally critical activities of these types of groups keep them from becoming Mainstream. However, some galleries, the press and, recently, TVE (on the “Metropolis” program) are beginning to take notice”. And we kept saying: “Cinco Casas is a small rural village with a population of less than a thousand. It was founded in the fifties with settlers that worked in agriculture and ranching. This exhibition will be directly related to the social life of Cinco Casas. At 6 in the afternoon of Saturday 11th some heifers will be fought. In the exhibition space there will be a popular festival after the inauguration. The next day, on Sunday the 12th, a collective meal will take place with artists from different groups; the press and the entire village of Cinco Casas will be invited”.

The exhibition as a whole was a success and a failure at the same time. It would take too long to explain everything that took place there and, probably, we won’t change anything in the unstoppable dynamic of institutionalization of Spanish art, but without a doubt ‘we’ have changed and also the people of Cinco Casas. But although, after the event they were still peasants, for a few days, for a few hours, they contemplated pieces of art that disconcerted them, and also had to confront themselves, because one of the main pieces, maybe the most interesting, was a collection of family pictures (weddings, christening, relatives, friends) that they had brought and that, in the end, was the only piece that was left hanging in the hall. That is, that apart from the groups’ pieces, they themselves were an art piece. And, on the other hand, we, apart from our role as managers and artists, were simultaneously spectators and part of the show.

 The attacks from critics didn’t take long to appear in different places. Juan Manuel Bonet was the first in expressing disdain of an exhibition which he didn’t even visit, in an article titled “The new social realism”. There he said: “The accumulation of committed art exhibits in Spain in these last months produces a sense of boredom and déjà vu […] the opening of the Estrujenbank hall in Madrid (where last winter the massive collect against the PSOE took place) and of Social Legacy, a retrospective by Francesc Torres in Reina Sofía […] Dionisio Cañas’ call in a village of La Mancha with a guerrilla poster, which dealt with artistic collectivism […], the reflections on the Gulf war in this or that exhibition”. And then, Bonet, arrived at the following conclusions: “the lack of aesthetic entity of these proposals is accompanied by an ideological nerve […] to sell the pup out of, none other than, social realism, a readapted social realism in terms of language, but as educational and demagogical and sinister as its predecessors”. And, finally, concluded: “For democratic ethics and for aesthetic reasons we must keep condemning new social realism as the worst trend of the times”.

 Unfortunately for Mr Bonet, he had to coexist with Picasso’s “Guernica” for many years when he was appointed director of the Reina Sofia Museum of Modern Art; I guess such a piece of political art must’ve produced daily vomits in his system every time he had to walk in front of it. And, on the other hand, it’s surprising that a person that has written an article as the one quoted above, were appointed as director of one of the main institutions of modern art in Spain. Thus, during his reign in the Reina Sofia almost every exhibit that took place there produced what he himself expressed as: “a sad sense of boredom and déjà vu”, a soporific boredom, opposite to the type of enthusiasm we believe art should inspire.

But, getting back to his article, we responded, although our response was never published then. We were able to do it a year later, when we published our book Tigers use dynamite as perfume. However, Francesc Torres, without defending it directly, did publicly express his outrage regarding Bonet’s text in his article “Answer to the fifth column”, in which he said: “From the tone of that article we perceive the fellow’s opportunism and vengeance; from its content, the hypocrisy and the most absolute lack of intellectual honesty”.

I would say that, in spite of the democratic free right to speak up and give an opinion, we must admit that Mr Bonet showed that he had an absolute lack of understanding of certain Western art movements of the time. Since the Second World War (as I have already stated in the beginning of this conference), in the US and in several European countries, a more participative and committed form of art was being generated and promoted, committed with the public sphere, everyday realities, political and social immediacy and, at the same time, was questioning the relationship between artists and institutions, art and society in general.

More than fifteen years have gone by since the “U-turn” exhibit, and, although we keep defending enthusiasm, having dissolved ESTRUJENBANK as well as all the groups that were involved in the exhibition, the initial impulse remains in our view of the art world, in our artistic activities and also in our everyday lives as a sure detonator of creative activity. In the same way, we have institutionalized that enthusiasm, the clearest proof of which is the fact that I am speaking here right now, and also the publication of a whole book on Estrujenbank, or also the fact that the group was included in a series of exhibitions that took place in 2005 in Barcelona’s MACBA and in the José Guerrero Centre, under the title “Disagreements. On art, politics and public sphere in the Spanish State”, in which’s catalogue the “U-turn” poster was shown.

In the framework of the topics that are discussed in these debate sessions, “Exchanges: artistic experiences and strategies on public space”, the rural world is conspicuous for its absence. Without a doubt the whole concept of public art is being amply studied and questioned, but the rural world appears more like “nature”, or “landscape” in which to insert public art and, in many cases, bearing in mind the urban audience that visits these public spaces, planted in the landscape. I don’t mean to say that there haven’t been public art experiments in which the people of small rural villages have taken part, but we know very little about their reactions. With “U-turn” we learned something: in the rural world you can present any avant-garde type of art work, as controversial as it can be, but you have to be ready to accept their reactions which may be radical and aesthetically conservative to us.

This is what happened to us when some people from Cinco Casas didn’t like one of the pieces we had exhibited and a situation of conflict arouse without us expecting it. What was considered a disaster now seems just the opposite: I think that the “U-turn” was a complete success. A success, because, although the controversial piece by E.M.P.R.E.S.A was not judged for its aesthetic value, but for moral reasons (it showed several naked men), the rest of the works not only received total acceptance by some of the people in Cinco Casas, but also made them confront art forms that they didn’t understand, being a great feat to have art, artists and audience, in a kind of festive mix that ended with a dance, including a brief fight between an artist and one of the people of Cinco Casas. Everyone moved at the same time in the dynamism of a frenzied dance in a place where we had changed for a few hours not only the direction Spanish art was taking but also the relationship between artists and the rural world, between the succulent plunder of spectacle art and the modest budget of our exhibition, subsided by ourselves. 

With “U-turn” we hadn’t changed the world, not even the world of art, but we did change it for some hours in a specific location, and all of this was possible thanks to our enthusiasm and to some of the people in Cinco Casas. What else could we ask for? After all, the exchange, the interaction, although brief, is what matters and what probably makes any public art event flexible.

Ultimately, as Constant advocated for culture (urban in his case, of a New Babylon), we had achieved a creative exchange between artists and village; Constant said: “Every creative initiative, even if individual, becomes […] an intervention in the collective vital environment and produces, in consequence, the opposite immediate reaction of others. And each and every reactive act can become the origin of other reactions. A chain reaction of creative acts is thus created, that can only end when the climax has been reached. The climax point represents, then, an environmental moment, susceptible of being conceived as a collective creation”.

Our exhibition and our intentions had maybe reached that climax. The exhibition had lasted as much as the brake of a car in the highway, but something had happened, and that’s what matters, and all thanks to individual and collective enthusiasm, the energy of which remains alive with us today.