An Impossible View: Madrid

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A two week research on independently run initiatives in Madrid

The very first thing I am confronted with on my trip to Madrid is that spending two weeks talking to people (even if I talk to as many people as possible) will not put me in a position from which I can speak intimately of, or present, what is happening (and what has been happening) in relation to independently run spaces and initiatives in Madrid. The unavoidable position that I have is one of an outsider – someone who briefly dips in to see what is up – and in doing so speaks not so much out of experience but through reportage: gaining a perspective through the words of others. While the people I speak to can summon memories from events, exhibitions, moments in time in which they have actively engaged, my perspective comes from a collection of sentences that string together into a narrative line. My perspective becomes much closer to fiction than a report, as I use the abstracted words of others to find a story. But perhaps the value of my position can be found precisely in that inevitable distance - the perspective that I hold gaining potential through its inescapable position of being rudimentary and blunt. 

Over the course of this trip, my research accidentally turned away from independently run initiatives and towards the people who take initiative instead. Starting with the intention to visit spaces similar to Plǝt- (an exhibition space I run with Diego Diez in my living room in Amsterdam) this trip has, despite my very best intentions, almost entirely evaded physical encounters with such spaces. Funnily enough, I have had many discussions about the spaces I aimed to identify. But these talks – mostly conducted at bars, at institutes, parties, private houses, offices, bakeries - seem to occur at such places because the spaces we speak of no longer exist, or because independent organizations of Madrid are not based in space.

The spaces I do manage to visit during these two weeks are mostly between shows, or are momentarily inactive due to their founders focusing on other projects (and practices) instead. Predominantly built through personal relationships and subjective taste, they are mostly motored by opportunity and the energy of those who run them, rather than by following predetermined structures. This often leaves them ‘inactive’, or closed, for periods of time and it is because of this characteristic that I only manage to visit three exhibitions in independently run spaces in my two-week trip, while the total number of initiatives that I engage with is fourteen (with eleven of those currently identifying as ‘active’).

The result of this way of structuring activity means that, as a whole, the circuit of independently run initiatives has an undulating presence that is unable to be experienced in a condensed moment in time. Unlike the commercial galleries, who group together in contained areas of the city, synchronize their openings and have constant programs, each independent initiative operates in its own rhythm, space (location) and form. It is only collectively that independent initiatives have constant visibility within the city, with only one or two of them being open or active at any given point in time. But this mode of activity makes a lot of sense, reflecting the reality of how they work: during their individual periods of being ‘closed’, each space tends to its other functions - transforming back into living rooms and studios; nomadic initiatives disappearing completely until they re-emerge in another space or form. Far from signifying inactivity, these publically dormant moments of independent initiatives are merely times in which these spaces host different (private) modes of activity.

But the intermittent publicity does create doubt, and many of the people with whom I spoke voiced a disappointment in the scarcity of spaces; locating the economic crisis of 2007/08 and the subsequent budget cuts of 2013 as the unquestionable cause. 2013 brought a 25% budget cut to cultural funds, leaving a large amount of initiatives completely unsupported. And while this new economical landscape had a severely negative effect on the cultural scene, understanding the activity in the city does not seem to be entirely reducible to such a singular term. Perhaps this is an optimism only possible from this distant position (note the first paragraph) but I would propose that it is not necessarily the lack of spaces in Madrid – but rather the undulating program between spaces that makes them less visible than the commercial and institutional circuits. Secondly, it appears that the money (and time) that is available for independent initiatives is not necessarily being invested in space, but rather on things such as residencies, publications and ‘fucking great workshops’ instead. Following the paths of previous projects such as Domestico, or the metamorphosis of Ojo Atómico into Antimuseo – in which space has been abandoned and become an element to constantly (re)source instead – the nomadic format poses itself as a preferable, and viable, form. When asking further about changes the budget cuts of 2013 brought, it seems that those who survived the sudden withdrawal of support were those who were not tied to space - the absence of rent being the crucial factor that allowed them to live on. So while lack of public support became the dominant antagonist in the recent history of Madrid, I would propose these two points – nomadic initiatives and undulating programs – as being the protagonists that continue to cultivate Madrid’s cultural landscape.

Thinking of Madrid’s independent initiatives in relation to the commercial and institutional circuits provoked me to think of art, or cultural scenes, as ecosystems whose health relies on a diverse range of institutes, organizations and individuals. Each acting in different scales, structures and forms, together they create a sustainable and supportive environment in which art and culture can form. When thinking of an art scene from this perspective, the acknowledgment of large and mid scale institutes becomes just as important as supporting the small, independent ones that are so easy to (morally, personally) support. And this is a point in which Madrid feels strong. Often (self) proclaimed as an institutionalized society by those with whom I spoke, the institutional infrastructure of Madrid – and the contentment with what these infrastructures bring - is relatively strong. Mid and large scale institutes offer consistent international and locally focused programs which take care of the immediate need (or desire) for smaller organizations to create opportunity in exhibition form: La Casa Encendida offers opportunity to young artists and cultural agents via consistent open calls; CA2M, activating Madrid’s periphery, engages with both local and international contemporary art; Reina Sofia (though slightly ossified by its Modern collection) also offers space to active artists. Albeit catering to those already established in art, the space Reina Sofia offers does close the gap between active and collected artists. Not to forget Matadero, Tabacalera, Centro Centro, (etc.) who also offer space to both local and international artists and cultural agents in varying forms. Though institutions can (and perhaps should) always be encouraged to reach out and engage more, to close the gap between ‘established’ and ‘emerging’ artists, the general attitude I have encountered in Madrid is that due to this amiable relationship with the institutions, creating more opportunity to exhibit through independent initiatives has - for some time at least - not been the community’s greatest concern.

The support infrastructures, however – such as residencies, discussions, workshops – have; and this is reflected in the independent circuits. Rampa, Hablar en Arte, Nadie Nunca Nada, No all have (or had) strong focuses on programs around the exhibition and production of art. And while they all vary in what they do, what they have in common is the re-use space: Rampa hosted a variety of events and organizations within their studio as a lab-like study of what a studio practice could be; Hablar en Arte reactivates domestic space through their residency program Sweet Home; Nadie Nunca Nada, No uses the studio as an ‘exhibition’ space by introducing artists’ practices through workshops. But rather than this use of space being a point of focus - it seems rather to be a required form – (economic and spatial) circumstance pushing these initiatives into the form they take. And again we come back to the economic crisis – with doubled space, or no space, becoming the only form in which low (or no) budget initiatives can operate.

Reading an interview with curators Manuela Pedrón Nicolau and Jaime González Cela about the Spanish cultural scene, they say that it cannot be thought of as a whole unit. And I completely agree. Perhaps like any other scene of art, as soon as one tries to pin down a generality, an unignorable detail makes the conclusion slip. Just as I come to the conclusion that everyone doing workshops runs from a re-used space, La Colmena comes back to mind and pulls the conclusion into a premature stop; and just as I’m about to conclude that the majority of Madrid’s independent initiatives run without spaces, a number of studio-based spaces suddenly appear. And thank goodness for it. If everyone was, for example, making living room exhibition programs, what would be the interest in that? Or if everyone was, for example, a nomadic entity, we would most probably become blind to its vigilance and loose all our enamour for it as a creative form.

Perhaps it is precisely this slippery nature of independent initiatives that makes them so attractive – their dispersed organization a required characteristic for them to continue to act in the way that they do; their ephemeral nature a necessary condition for the need they fulfill – creating the almost invisible moments that feel so necessary, so important, that our natural instinct is to ask, ‘why can this not be more visible? Why does this not get the attention it deserves?’

Momentary plans of building networks conspire, and conversations led to musings of how (and how great it would be!) if we could become more collected. But for a moment I would like to counter this desire. I identify the impulse to share, to connect and expand as essential, and as necessarily human: it ensures our physical and psychological survival; and it is precisely this inclination to socialize which enriches our lives. But I would argue that the quality of collectivity is not held through exponential growth or increasing visibility. Projecting myself back into the conversation I had with Flavia Introzzi from Hablar en Arte about organizing and overseeing the Sweet Home residency, she identified the impossibility of keeping track: Even as one of the people most intimately involved, for Flavia the residency ebbed in and out of focus. With the location of the residency in six private homes, the program dispersed into the folds of the city - emerging momentarily in grouped, organized events - only to fade back into the fabric of Madrid. Although she was actively involved, the full scale of the project was never in her reach, its existence only apparent in her knowledge of its construction, and through details the participants would (choose to) reveal.

Perhaps this impossibility of having an overview could also be said for independently organized scenes. Yet gaining an overview is exactly what I aimed to do in my trip to Madrid; and in a way that’s exactly what I knew I would fail to do because seeing and experiencing these spaces and initiatives in two weeks is an impossible feat. Even if it was a possibility, the history of each of these initiatives stretches far beyond the scope that any one individual could hope to see. But while it dawned on me that experiencing these initiatives was impossible, encountering them was not. And as I filled my days with meetings and discussions – trekking from café to rooftop to peripheral studio space – hearing about countless exhibitions, workshops, residencies, moments in time recounted by questions and memories and looking back - I realized that the closest way to see the invisible, was to speak.

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