“Disrupt the dominant narrative, create our own; that’s the politics that interests us.”
Dissatisfied with the lack of connections between art and political action, Campa, Leo, Mario and Oriana, along with four others, set up the collective Enmedio (Barcelona), which explores the transformative potential of images and stories. This week they hacked the statue of Christopher Columbus in Barcelona and they are also behind the striking graphic campaign for the ‘escraches’ organised by the PAH, among many other initiatives. We talked to them about the real and potential power of this thing we call ‘art’ to have a political effect on the crisis.
A physical space in Barcelona, an artists’ collective, an action group…? What exactly is Enmedio?
Leo: The name says a lot (“En medio” means “in the midst of” in Spanish). Enmedio is the result of a rupture. All of us are professional image-makers (designers, filmmakers, artists, etc) who broke away from our usual field of work. We failed to find meaning in the places that were set aside for us: art academies, advertising agencies, production companies… So we left and decided to start a new space of our own, where we could do whatever we wanted. A slightly awkward, difficult space, in a no-man’s land.
Campa: Art centres tend to stay away from politics (at most they engage in politicking!), and political spaces are uninterested in aesthetics, so we found ourselves in a situation that drove us to invent a third space. To get into the midst of art and politics.
Mario: Images have a power that we want to continue to explore, because images are our field. It’s what we’re good at, it’s how we interact with the world. But we need to take them into new ground and mix them with other things. Enmedio evokes that mysterious place that we want to work from, which has to do with photography and video but isn’t just that, although it is that, if you get my drift.
Oriana: We’ve been exploring this territory for ten or twelve years. Some of us were previously in collectives such as Las Agencias, Yomango, V de Vivienda, etc. Some of us were in squatters, anti-globalisation or Latin American movements such as Zapatismo, while others don’t have a political background or have started out with recent movements such as 15-M. This mix of different creative and political backgrounds allows us to shed our roles when we work together, and leads to unpredictable effects. That may be the key to the power of what we do.
What’s the use of political intervention in the symbolic sphere at a time like this, in the midst of a crisis that touches on and affects the most physical, real aspects of our lives (housing, wages, and so on)?
Campa: Capitalism uses images and stories to lead us into this poverty, these evictions and this suffering. It is a great storyteller, with an enormous capacity to seduce. Many people took out mortgages because they believed the story that the banks and ads told us on a daily basis, through discourse and images. Advertising creates images of desirable worlds, and this imaginary then generates financial paradigms and social situations.
Leo: It’s not as we have fiction on one side, and reality on the other: fiction is the very core of reality. Everything from a demonstration (theatrical action on the streets) to the writing of a political speech (drawing on images and the imaginary), all of it is fiction. What matters are the effects of the fictions, whether or not we are able to reappropriate them, whether or not we believe them, whether they make us feel empowered or impotent. The basis for social change is cultural: the stories that give meaning to our lives and to the world we live in.
Mario: This is why we work along two lines. On one hand, we disrupt the dominant narrative – the official explanation of the world – by means of guerrilla communication tactics: posters, slogans, messages and so on. And on the other, we contribute to the autonomous production of imaginaries. Not by dismantling existing narratives, but by creating alternative ones. This is the most important and most difficult task: self-representation, creating our own story, our own explanation of what is happening. A narrative that we can live in.
Let’s go into this in detail by looking at the actions you’ve been carrying out. If you like, we can start with the INEM (unemployment office) party that you organised in 2009.
Oriana: The most interesting thing about this action may have been the timing: the crisis strikes, but nothing is happening on the streets. People are afraid, incapable of acting. So we decided to find a place that encapsulated and represented this fear. We chose an unemployment office, and what better way to fight fear than by holding a party!
Campa: Enmedio works through self-representation. In other words, it wasn’t a party for the unemployed. We’re also unemployed, we live precariously, etc. We’re not out to teach lessons: we begin with ourselves and invite everybody else to join in. In the video you can see people smiling, participating, clapping, telling us “you’ve brightened up my day”. We reach out to others in this way based on our own concerns, problems and malaise.
Leo: That video got an amazing number of hits when we posted it online. I think we touched on a kind of shared affect: if you start with something that affects you personally, you can communicate with others. The most intimate things are also the most common.
Mario: We try to make our actions inspiring and catchy. We conceive and design them like seeds, which can scatter and germinate elsewhere. After the 15-M mobilisations there was a party in an unemployment office in the Canary Islands and other similar actions. First we define a framework (aesthetic, political, theoretical) and from there we seek participation and reappropriation.
What are “The Reflectors”?
Leo: The Reflectors is an action group that emerged from a creative activism conference that we called “How to End Evil”, which revolved around the idea of transmitting creative activism practices and experiences to younger people who were being politicised by the 15-M and similar movements at the time. It ties into a long history of fictional characters who become active in spaces of protest, from Prêt a Revolter to the New Kids on the Black Block, which offer different ways of being on the streets, brimming with joy, colour and creativity.
Mario: The Reflectors have a lot to do with the moment when they arose, around the first anniversary of the 15-M mobilisations. By then, governments and police had activated channels for repression and criminalisation in order to put an end to street protests. Once these kinds of dynamics come into play, the streets lose their plurality and protest is “de-democratised”. All that remains are small, highly homogenous groups that can be easily codified and identified. That’s where The Reflectors came in, declaring: “We’re not going to play this game. We’re going to blow open the codes”
Campa: The Reflectors play with the imaginary of superheroes and fan culture. They are ordinary people with a series of tools that allow them to fight Evil: blow-up cubes to stop police charging, mirrors to confuse the surveillance helicopters, costumes to break the expected codes, etc. They add drama, but at the same time they make the protest less dramatic: through humour, by generating other affects, by making it desirable to be on the streets again and at the same time, bringing real elements into play so as to redirect the moments of tension and violence.
Oriana: Many people joined The Reflectors block at the demonstration for the first anniversary of the 15-M movement, including people who we’d never met but had seen the costumes on the Internet. Now The Reflectors are an autonomous group, very close to Enmedio but independent of us. This aspect is also very interesting.
What about the Bankia Party?
Mario: The very same week that the Spanish government announced cutbacks of 20 billion euros to health and education funding, we found out that Bankia was to be bailed out with 23 million euros of public money. Like most people, we were outraged. And then we decided to do something about it.
Leo: We rounded up a series of like-minded people and brainstormed ways of damaging Bankia’s image. We thought that the only way to affect a bank, and to show that we were against the bailout, was by encouraging people to close their bank accounts. And that the best way to do this was… to organise a party (as you see, we love organising parties).
Campa: So one day, a group of us went to a Bankia branch and crouched down, hiding, until a customer walked in and closed her account. Then we ran inside and celebrated it with a party. She couldn’t believe her eyes. We were in the bank for about 4 minutes, the duration of the song we played. We picked up the customer and carried her out the way we had come. We edited the action into a video that had 100,000 hits within 24 hours, and the numbers are still rising. The Youtube page is full of comments. The video was shown on several television stations and more “Close Bankia” parties were held in other cities around Spain.
Oriana: The idea was to show that something as personal and private as a bank account can be used politically, and that closing it can be a public action, and – above all – great fun!
What was the “Discongreso”?
Mario: As Enmedio, we joined the 25-S mobilisation: the “Occupy Congress” campaign, which was totally in line with what we were discussing in our internal meetings: we thought that the 15-M movement had fallen into certain repetitive inertias, and that 25-S could be an opportunity to break away from them. The problem was that it was being organised as a closed call for participation, it was exclusive and highly codified. We set ourselves the task of using communication to open it up and make it more inclusive. We designed posters, a graphic campaign and a proposal for occupying the space in a different way, in order to generate an alternative narrative, to reappropriate the call for action and make it desirable and open to participation.
Oriana: The campaign we designed was very simple. We swapped “occupy congress” for “surround congress”, because we didn’t see the mobilisation as an attempt to seize power, but rather to depose power. We also added: “On 25-S we will surround congress until they stand down from office. Period”. The poster consisted of many multicoloured dots, representing the diversity of society, arranged around a central point.
Campa: Those dots later became photographs. We organised a Photocall, inviting people to have their photographs taken holding a sign that set out their own reasons for attending the 25-S action. We took the Photocall out onto the streets, and used social networks to encourage people to take photographs of themselves showing their reasons for being there. The idea was to boost diversity and open up an event that had originally been uninclusive.
Leo: And the dots ended up becoming flying Frisbees, on which people wrote down their demands, and which we then sent flying into Congress, sailing over the police barrier that was stationed there on September 25. There was no way to get into congress by land and make ourselves heard, so we took the option of trying by air!
Tell me a bit about the “We are not numbers” TAF! workshop.
Oriana: We worked with photography, in collaboration with the PAH, to reverse the usual media representations that dehumanise people affected by the mortgage crisis and portray them as powerless victims. We took photographs of people who were about to be evicted, or who had already been evicted, and pasted blow-ups of these portraits on the façades of the banks responsible for their plight, showing that they are not simply statistics, but people with faces and lives. We also used these portraits on a series of postcards that tell the stories of the people being evicted, and sent them first to the banks, and then (during the escraches), to politicians.
Campa: These photographic interventions work in two ways. On one hand, they empower the people who are being evicted. They come to the workshops, pose for a portrait, paste photographs of their faces on the banks, and break through the shame barrier, claiming their presence in public space. On the other, the images are used as a guerrilla tactic in the war between competing narratives of the crisis – the struggle that takes place every day on the walls of the city –, by linking individual faces to the entities that are responsible for the evictions (the Spanish media talk about evictions, but the banks are never named). Disrupt the dominant narrative, create our own: that’s the politics that interests us.
Leo: We’re not too concerned about the quality of the portraits or the videos, the important thing is the way they work in conjunction with powerful social processes such us the PAH. But nevertheless, we do pay a lot of attention to the formal aspects. We don’t agree with those who neglect form, and think that only the content of a photo or a poster is important. We’re interested in the aesthetic, not for its own sake, but precisely because of the politics that lie within aesthetics: how things are told, what is shown, how it makes people feel. If you take form away, you are left with naked rage, not communication.
You also designed the popular red and green signs that were used at the escraches organised by the PAH. After an escrache, a friend said to me: “those simple posters made such a big difference; without them we’d just seem like an enraged multitude.”
Leo: Housing has always been a key issue for us. Some of us had already worked on the graphic commission of V de Vivienda-Barcelona, which came up with the famous slogan “You’ll never own a house in your fucking life”. During the “We are not Numbers” workshop we worked closely with the PAH and they asked us to develop the visual side of the escraches campaign. It was a very important and also very sensitive project for us.
Mario: The idea was to sum up the conflict at a glance. On one side, there was the PAH’s “yes we can” (a million signatures, broad social support, etc.) On the other, the “but they don’t want to” coming from a political elite that is totally deaf to society. Green and red: go and stop. A multitude of green posters and a single red one: 99% and 1%. The main aim of the posters and the stickers isn’t to point the finger at one particular politician or another, but mainly to reflect and express society’s support for the PAH.
Oriana: In the original escraches in Argentina, local neighbourhoods played a key role. The idea in this case was the same: we wanted to surround the Member of Parliament that had been targeted in each case with green signs, in his or her own local area. We wanted the owners of small businesses (the bakery, the hardware shop, the newsstand) to put up the posters or stickers in their shops. That is, we wanted the local area to do the escrache, to point out the MP, urging him or her to choose the green option. The important thing about the escraches is the participation of local residents, of people passing through, so that everybody can join the PAH’s “green tide”. This is the effect we were aiming for with the posters.
Campa: Here again, the production aspects were very important: how the campaign is put into action. The materials are cheap and simple, the design can be downloaded from the PAH website, anybody with a printer, a few sheets of paper and some sticky tape can make their own posters. The concept (“what”) is just as important to us as the production (“how”).
And lastly, can you name an influence or a point of reference for this work that you do at the intersection of images and the social, art and politics?
Oriana: Zapatismo, because I experienced it first-hand, and because of all that it stands for: after the frivolity and disenchantment of the 90s, it was a new way of doing politics and communicating. The weight of words and symbols, in the harshest living conditions. Drawing on the real imaginaries of the people you work with, the people you want to reach. The key role of processes, not just results.
Mario: Pop music. I see my work from the perspective of pop, popular culture. The desire to communicate with the whole of society, to reach people through emotions and desires, to generate pleasurable representations that you can see yourself reflected in, that make you want to participate, that move you in both senses of the word.
Leo: The Youth International Party or Yippies, a countercultural offshoot in 1960s America that tired to politically radicalise the hippy movement. Yippies saw social change as a war of symbols, and put most of their activist energy into creating myths, rumours and fictions that would short-circuit the dominant narratives and introduce autonomous images into the flow of images. In a very different context, I think like them.
Campa: In my case, given that Zapatismo has already been mentioned, I’d say punk. Not so much at the musical or aesthetic level, but from the point of view of attitude: the nerve, the freshness, the immediacy, the non-conformist, Do It Yourself attitude, the intensity of the 3-minute song. I think this is a perfect fit with what we do at Enmedio.