Becoming Bilbao


Becoming Bilbao is just what declined cities wish for. Today's Bilbao can be taken as an en example of miraculous regeneration. In the Basque country now, art institutions are growing like mushrooms ( Vitoria, Artium, Bilbao Guggenheim …)

How is this regeneration influencing contemporary art from Bilbao?

Before the regeneration when my friends -foreingners to Bilbao- used to go to its old part, the strongest memory that they would bring back home, would be the smell of piss on the streets. Now that has changed and tourists enjoy the polish and cleanliness that one can find in other european citys. This is partly the result of the Ria 2000 project of urban regeneration in the city. Bilbao, a Postmodern city, might well have been created by the it's governments desire to profit from the sense of renewal brought in with the new millenium.

"History is a proccess of decay and ruin - this is the quintessential perspective that emerges from Bilbao´s fin-de´millenium. Were it not for the spectacular ruins of its metropolitan area of about a million people, would be atypical European provincial city that exudes bourgeois life stile. But it is the aesthetics of the "tough city" that sets Bilbao apart."1

In the 1980's in Bilbao there was not a consciousness of a tough city; it just was. The city was at the peak of its decadence. The industrial city had once driven the Basque economy; now people where struggling to keep their jobs. The city was marginal, people were emigrating and there was an strong counter culture (strikes, demos Punk rock, gaztetxes….).

This counter culture is now being recuperated by some of the city's young artists. This can lead to once subversive forms being stripped of their meaning. This is something that postmodernism has been characterised by, but we should be careful not to fall into naivity. What happens if these forms are used in a systematic way, knowing already the tricks that contemporary art uses while recuperating history? How could you distinguish unique approaches from such familiar strategies?

Work that would once have been presented in aternative spaces such as Gaztetxes (squatted cultural centres) now has the chance to be presented in one of the multiple insitutions. For Example Inaki Garmendia has a video called Rock RadicalVasco in which he shows some young people rehearsing in a punk rock bar, this can bring the idea of young people genereting alternative, self-sufficient culture, but this not the case when this video is seen ( as I did) in a pre selection stand for the " Gure Artea Exhibition"

( Equivalent of a Young British Artist prize).

 " Leisure activities and so-called "cultural industries" become most relevant in regenerating urban centre. The distinction between "art", communication, "culture", and entertainment" disappears".2



If we could use the metaphor of the city as a text, we could be able to see clearly how Bilbao is becoming another example of a post-industrial city making many references to post-modernism. Are this references put in a certain way or is there a different way in which Bilbao is Becoming post-industrial city, as opposed to, for eample, Birminghan? As Peet says (1996) when we read the city as a text we fall into an idealist interpretation that is detached from the Physical reality of things. If the Basque artists are taking references from the past in order to put them into their own narratives (here again we have to assess how unique their own narratives are), how can they be subversive? The material or language that they are using is in a way fictitious. What I mean is that the aesthetic aspect of the sign is never going to be able to be recharged with the same amount of agitation as it was for the fist time. From the distance of history we can see those events as naïve, but at least they were politically engaged; to reuse them now, stripped of their context, is a retreat from commitment.

Now, inevitably detached from the socio-cultural context in which these events took place, we are not able to go back to the roots of the city in order apply an alternative practise in the light of its regeneration. And now that the Basque government is taking Bilbao in to the future by importing post-modern practices from other places, the artist is required to respond to this by coming with a foreign perspective in order to create new relationships or criteria. The way the local part of their work is used is transported to the perspective of contemporary art. As Jon Mikel Euba says to Peio Aguirre:


 " The American system of production of images is imposing a landscape to the world, I try to do the same with a context that I now well and I think is not completely exploited in iconic way".3

Another aspect That Peio Aguirre draws on is that the art that is practised now in the Basque country is not positioned into one side or another within the Basque problem, it is not ideologically political, but from my point of view it is obviously dogmatic in the use of deconstruction; the only uniqueness that we find here is the signs (or subjects) that are being played with and recontextualised. How can artistic practise become 'minor' if there is certain a paranoia of being read as political; and an equal anxiety about being closed to the everyday debate of the Basque Country? It seems that even those artists that get close to the heat of the debate are still scared of getting burnt; always returning to postmodernism to cool them down when they get too hot. It seems that they want to evade the Basque cliché, but in doing this become unable to directly adress the subject, always moving in the periphery of meaning without dealing with physical realities or social possibilities. As Txomin Badiola puts it:

If there is something that characterised these practices, it is their ambiguity. I would like to understand this aspect in its more radical and transformative way, taking away from what it could be and act of hiding but the contrary: in the act of revelation.4

What is this positive view of the Basque artists' practice trying to show us? That we know our position within the times that we are living? That we are able to deal culturally at the level of western art discourse, and even add an exciting local factor in order to sell ourselves more exotically? But what does this change in Local terms, is this locality exposed just to see it through global eyes? In taking the local factor into the detorritorialed language of contemporary art it, we are forgetting the local; we are leaving it aside. As Deleuze says, in order to become Minor you should refuse the major language (in its imperative way.) The art produced in the Basque country is not refusing nor questioning the current trends in contemporary art practices, it is just making a subtle dialect out of it, which is not of practical or intellectual use in the everyday life of the Basques. There is scepticism in trying to draw a critique on everyday debate, as it is always filtered through the art institution.

What happens here is that the counter-culture does not function at all levels, when it is always alternating between the underground and the institution in order to avoid sinking into normativity or anonymity. Could it be able to produce what Deleuze defines as "becoming" ? These artists cannot become "strangers in their own language" when they are trying to actually find a territory to match in the establishment. It is not themselves who are producing it; it is the establishment, which is happy to have a bit of this rough aesthetics to promote as a city in conflict while keeping a critical detachment. This way, the government does not even need to translate the work for exportation. They show a need for Basque Culture to be exported to Europe as characteristic of its origin without digging in the place where it hurts.


"It is a question of becoming that includes the maximum of difference as a difference of intensity, the crossing of a barrier, a rising or a falling, a bending or an erecting, an accent on the word."5

In a way we can say that these practices are minor within the major language of contemporary art practice, but I think there is not an awareness of "becoming Minor". Rather, there is the demand that exists for the juicy subjects of minority cultures and terrorism to be included in the institution.

Here we can reverse the question: could this artist do something else, produce artefacts whose origin cannot be traced?

What I am arguing here is that the 'Basqueness' is inscribed without the possibility to escape totally from it - partly because its Basqueness is profitable, and partly because it is impossible to become completely detached from the Basque identity.

So, how can this detachment can be judged from a political perceptive? One of the most important things in becoming minor is to be always political. In the Basque Country there is a strong movement of resistance in politics, actions, demos, talks…… They are taking place all the time, usually just on the left.

This is something that you can easily get saturated in. This might well be the reason why Basque artists don’t throw themselves completely into "becoming political", they are afraid of being read as part of that side that is always present in the Basque everyday life, of becoming vulgar.

We get caught between a rock and a hard place, which is not necessarily a difficult situation; but it is important to escape from the institutional landscape, otherwise you are being absorbed into the Basque government’s exportation of contemporary Basque Culture.


J. Zulaika in " Postindustrial Bilbao: The reinvention of a new city. Basque Culutral Studies Program Newsletter, no 57 April.1998.


2 J. Zulaika in " Postindustrial Bilbao: The reinvention of a new city. Basque Culutral Studies Program Newsletter, no 57 April.1998.


3 P. Aguirre, "Basque Report"


4 P. Aguirre, "Basque Report"


5 G.Deleuze and F.Guattari, 'What is a Minor Literature', in "Kafka: Towrads a Minor Literature', Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1986 p20





























P. Aguirre, "Basque Report"

G.Deleuze and F.Guattari,'Rhizomes', in 'A Thousand Plateaus', trans.Brian Massumi, London Althone Press 1998

G.Deleuze and F.Guattari, 'What is a Minor Literature', in 'Kafka: Towrads a Minor Literature', Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1986 p20

J. Zulaika in 'Postindustrial Bilbao: The reinvention of a new city', Basque Culutral Studies Program Newsletter, no 57 April.1998.

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