Tag Archives: Art

Madrid dabbles in citizen-led culture

If you visit the Tabacalera, a decrepit old tobacco factory in the center of Madrid, you might find artists painting in one basement room, hear muffled drums thumping from another, or catch a teenage video DJ performing in the courtyard next to the bike workshop. [To skip to the audio: mp3]

There’s no tobacco processing done here anymore. And nobody charges at the door. In fact, it looks, sounds and feels like an anarchic arts squat. Until you bump into a security guard.

Otherwise, the Tabacalera is like many abandoned buildings occupied by Madrid’s politically active social groups. Those buildings often have street art on their interiors and host boisterous meetings. Banners on their balconies proclaim the politics of the squatters inside.

The Tabacalera has a lot of those things, but thanks to a contract with its owner, Spain’s Ministry of Culture, the building also has running water, working electricity, and salaried security guards. In return, nobody sleeps in the building and citizens do the curating and manage the building.

The subsidized squat

“These social centers are public, non-commercial spaces,” Miguel Martinez, a sociologist at the Complutense University in Madrid, told DW. “They are buildings with a multi-purpose aim, where collectives, groups, bands, artists, and individuals can gather and develop their activities. These are organized by assemblies.”

The defining factor, added Martinez, is the communal nature of the facility: “Everything must be free, everything must be shared, and everything is self-managed by the assembly.”
La Tabacalera in Madrid 

Everything, that is, except the utilities, the rent, and the security. It’s a kind of subsidized squat. However, according to Martinez, the government presence does not have an impact on the kind of art that participants create.

“I think people feel free to perform the music, the painting, their concert, whatever,” he said.

There is a lot of music at the Tabacalera, even when the main event is something else. At the Rave Market, Tabacalera regulars set up their own stands and sell used goods while a DJ spins tunes in the background.

Mario Serrano, who is unemployed, sells shirts, but is also a kind of all-rounder. “I come to Tabacalera to help my friends fix their skateboards, I give them a hand, take care of the Tabacalera a bit, and above all, when there’s a Rave Market, I come here with my friends,” he said, referring to the bazaar that takes place sometimes.

Flexible, not ideological

The Tabacalera, which opened as a tobacco factory in 1792, occupies a whole city block. The part managed by the squat is almost a third of that. “In the Tabacalera there are always more people, there are always more young people and, well, there are more sales,” Serrano said.

Mio Garcia says she’s used the Tabacalera for many things: “Here they tend to do concerts. I’ve gone to art events, because they do workshops on drawing and screen printing. I’ve also gone to a bike workshop where you can, for no money, learn to fix your bike yourself. There are great people who help you.”

“I think this is a space that is more open to whatever, I mean, it’s not as ideological,” Garcia added.

But it still isn’t easy for so many people to get along all the time. Last fall, the Tabacalera’s citizen-curators closed the doors for a round of planning meetings they said would take two weeks. They said they wanted a period of reflection and debate about how best to relaunch the Tabacalera. It was slow going.

At one four-hour assembly, attendees argued so much that the speakers made it through less than half the agenda. The regular activities didn’t begin again for three months. For a while, it seemed like the subsidized squatters had evicted themselves from the building.

But not long after the Tabacalera was finally relaunched, Serrano was enthusiastic: “It goes perfectly, really, it goes perfectly. It’s a real joy to have a public space like this and be able to use it so everyone enjoys it.”

Audio package first appeared in Deutsche Welle’s Pulse show: [mp3] [html]

Boniface Mwangi - by Mike Elkin

Nairobi photographer inspires political action

Boniface Mwangi – by Mike Elkin

Nairobi photographer Boniface Mwangi is fed up with his country’s politicians. To raise awareness, he’s taking an in-your-face approach with a graffiti campaign, political art show and online newspaper.

This audio package first appeared in Deutsche Welle’s Generation Change podcast and blog: [mp3] [html].

Photos and additional reporting by Mike Elkin.

Vulture grafitti – by Mike Elkin



The power of money

HIGH-SPEED currency trading uses oodles of computing power to exploit short-lived price differences in international foreign-exchange markets. Jonathon Keats proposes an alternative: exploit the electrical differences between currencies to power a low-speed computer. In an exhibit which opens on April 12th at the Rockefeller Centre in New York Mr Keats, a concept artist (or, as he likes to call himself, an experimental philosopher), introduces the notion “electro-chemical arbitrage”. An engineer might call it a battery.

Read the rest of this post at The Economist’s Babbage blog: [html] [pdf]


Ocean exploration, from empire to empirical

Creatures in chloroform, musty maps, and navigation by brass instruments. That was ocean exploration 18th-century style. Nowadays it’s satellite links, mandatory life vests on deck, and flow cytometers measuring minute lifeforms from the murk below – a very different kettle of fish.

The España Explora. Malaspina 2010 exhibition juxtaposes two Spanish expeditions launched over 200 years apart: between 1789 and 1794, commander Alessandro Malaspina led Spain’s imperial survey of its global holdings. In 2010, the Spanish government launched the high-tech Malaspina expedition, an oceanographic venture far removed from anything the commander would be able to recognise.

Tucked into a pavilion at the Royal Botanical Garden in Madrid, the exhibit offers visitors a choice between immersing themselves in Spain’s imperial past, or its oceanographic present.

Malaspina would be familiar with the paintings and sketches of the indigenous people encountered by his two-ship expedition, which are exhibited in the historic exhibition. He might nod in recognition at the exquisite charts his surveyors drew of the coastlines and harbours, which served as Spain’s nautical highways and rest stops. And he would have reason to be pleased that some of the plants and animals collected by his hard-working naturalists, unpublicised during his lifetime thanks to political intrigue, are now before the public.

The artefacts are a kind of unintentional art, the by-product of busy empire-building. That empire was more concerned with politics than scientific legacy, however, as was Malaspina. His missives on the political structure of the empire and his ambitions for ministerial office offended prime minister Manuel de Godoy. The exhibit narrates Malaspina’s fall from grace  with fairness and illustrates his island imprisonment with a near-contemporary painting of the fortress where the scheming minister shackled him for years.

The exhibition’s modern displays focus on Spain’s 20th and 21st-century oceanographic research efforts. Videos at the exhibition reveal Spain’s modern research vessels at work on their ambitious tasks: studying climate change, Antarctic biodiversity, and the global reach of atmospheric pollutants.

One display case contains leftover sampling bottles and the label “The Treasure of the Malaspina Expedition: A Collection for the Future.” The genetic material the team collected sampled from as deep as 4 kilometres below the ocean’s surface are indeed a treasure. Few research vessels are equipped to send sampling bottles so deep, and scientists know little of what lives there. While Spain’s researchers and their partners are already analysing the data collected last year, they are also storing some of the samples in the hope that future technologies will unlock even more secrets. It’s a shame that such fascinating details are not mentioned in the exhibition.

The videos and photos are, however, an intimate glimpse at how dozens of scientists and technicians cruised the world for seven months last year gathering evidence of biological change. One stop-motion video from above the helicopter deck of the B.I.O. Hespérides is particularly gripping, showing sailors and scientists as they wander the ship on its travels. It makes the mundane mesmerising. Malaspina, with all his leadership experience, would likely respect biological oceanographer Carlos Duarte, of the CSIC’s Mediterranean Institute for Advanced Studies in Mallorca, for coordinating such a spectacular effort.

España Explora. Malaspina 2010 opened 2 February and runs until 31 March at the Royal Botanical Garden in Madrid, Spain.

This review first appeared in New Scientist’s Culture Lab blog: [html] [pdf]