Barcelona is undergoing a sometimes intriguing, sometimes frustrating tug of war between spontaneous urban culture and a very deliberate remaking of the city. Most of its graffiti has been whitewashed thanks to a 2006 law that lumped public urination, public drinking, and street art together, outlawing them all; this is the most recent in a series of reforms that began with the 1992 Olympics intended to leave the city safer, cleaner, and tamer.
Recent changes aside, Barcelona is also one of the most culturally vibrant cities in Europe — a city defined by architecture and design, where when meeting someone new, you ask not “what do you do?” but, “what do you design?” This past weekend offered carefully curated culture, with a twist, as the Center of Contemporary Culture (CCCB) hosted the fifth annual Influencers extravaganza, providing doses of “art, guerilla communication, and radical entertainment” in a series of eight free presentations. Images and commentary from our globetrotting correspondent Rebecca Blum after the jump.
As students, artists, bearded-once-disaffected-artists-turned-designers, press (both fledgling and official), and the curious flooded the cultural center, BLU appeared. The Italian muralist walked into the auditorium looking distinctly like Groucho Marx with fake glasses, mustache and eyebrows, and a black wig splaying off his head. Things got off to a somewhat scrambled, multilingual start, but after making disclaimers (“I am used to painting walls, not speaking like this.”) and hopscotching between Italian and Spanish, he shared his thoughts on everything from why it’s easier to paint in Buenos Aires than Europe (“In my experience [Buenos Aires] is the best city for this kind of thing. Like other South American cities, the politicians have other things to think about.”) to why he was wearing the wig (“Why the wig? Three reasons. One, You can be a drug trafficker, or a criminal, but the worst is to be a painter of walls. Two, it’s cool, well, fairly cool. Three, it’s almost carnival, so that’s why the wig.”). Our sketch of BLU below.
With his newest mural, which was commissioned by the festival, BLU has left his giant green and white mark on Barcelona: a block-long shark streaming 100 euro (or are those dollar?) bills, devouring the preexisting traces of leftist political slogans and bearing down on a stenciled cluster of people cluttered around a shopping cart filled with the remains of buildings. The remnants of the pre-Olympics city perhaps? Direct, but occasionally mysterious (like his work), BLU avoided giving a straight answer to superficial questions from the audience: “What’s your academic background?” “My academic background?…I’m a chef.”
He also provided a stark contrast to another highlight of the festival, Charlie Todd, founder of New York-based Improv Everywhere. Todd looked like family we’ve never met from upstate, but it turns out he’s from the South. Beneath his unassuming collared shirt lurked a polished public speaker and the mastermind behind more than 80 projects or “missions” in New York: a spontaneous musical in a food court, the invasion by a 100 shirtless guys of the Abercrombie flagship store, the five-minute freeze in Grand Central Station, and the thousands-strong No Pants subway ride.
Todd embraced the absence of explanation behind these missions, explaining that his group is not motivated by a subversive agenda, but by a commitment to bringing comedy and surprise into public space. When talking about the nearly 100 blue polo shirt/khaki pant clad agents who flooded a Best Buy one afternoon (an idea suggested in an email from a high schooler in Texas), he said, “I could choose to explain it as an examination of the uniform and contemporary culture… how it homogenizes and demoralizes the worker, but for me it’s more about the fact that we put on a bunch of blue polo shirts and went and did something that was hilarious.”
While we got the feeling we could talk to BLU in a bar, or Todd at a family reunion, The Fulgurator, the third highlight of the festival, came directly from the Dali school of otherworldly brilliance and extreme facial hair. Julius von Bismarck, aka The Fulgurator, began the second night of presentations, and the Hansel-meets-Moses hair is in fact permanent, lending him an odd ingénue-sage air. He kept his jacket on and his German accent thick as he began to explain his invention, The Fulgurator. When triggered by a camera flash, it projects the image of his choice.
Like BLU, he has an appreciation for a city’s past — registered or erased from its walls — and his projects oscillate between referencing that history (fire projected onto a window of the Reichstag), reinventing it (the Google logo projected onto the Brandenburg gate), or doing both (a white dove projected onto the picture of Mao in Tiananmen Square). When he received supportive shouts and echoing claps for turning down millions offered by advertisers, he seemed surprised and almost childishly delighted. He grabbed the Fulgurator and said, “I want to show you all how it works,” and asked for volunteers. A dreadlocked girl in the front jumped up. A press photographer volunteered her ever-ready flash. POP. The picture was taken and the audience saw nothing. The picture was downloaded to von Bismarck’s laptop and appeared on a screen behind him: The girl, larger than life, dreadlocks running down into a yellow cross that projected the length of her purple dress. The audience emitted a collective celebratory “ahhh” and applauded, converts every one.
Whether they’re projecting onto public spaces, painting on them, or performing within them, whether it lasts the millisecond of a flash, offers the permanence of paint and concrete, or the half hour until Abercrombie kicks them out, all three men influence the way the everyday is experienced. And there was no more fitting place to see them than a free festival, in a city such as Barcelona, whose walls and identity change in the flash of a tourist’s camera.