Potosí and us

Now that global capitalism has crashed once again, it may help order the mind to look back on how it all began. This is one of the multiple agendas of the complex, exhausting, sometimes exhilarating exhibition at the Museo Reina Sofía, Principio Potosí / ¿Cómo podemos cantar el canto del Señor en tierra ajena?

It is the premise of this multimedia, multinational, multiartist, intensively interactive show—it comes with a roadmap inviting the conscientious viewer to cross and recross the big exhibition space many times, to pause before videos or graphics or installations, and even to climb platforms and ladders to view everything in proper sequence—that it was the silver of the Cerro Rico ("Rich Mountain") of Potosí in the Bolivian Andes that made it all possible. That's the mountain, disguised as the Virgin Mary, or rather fused with her (silver made sacred) in an anonymous 1720 painting reproduced in the show. This high Andean mountain with its seam of silver (now in Bolivia) was sacred to the community there, but to the Spanish conquerors all that was sacred was the wealth they could extract from it, and raping and ravaging the mountain was of no concern.

The Reina Sofía show traces how the rich silver lodes of Potosí financed the global spread of the then new "system in which goods and services, down to the most basic necessities of life, are produced for profitable exchange, where even human labor power is a commodity for sale in the market, and where, because all economic actors are dependent on the market, the requirements of competition and profit maximization are the fundamental rules of life"—as Marxist scholar Ellen Meiksins Wood defines capitalism in her indispensable little book, The Origin of Capitalism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1999).

This was radical break from pre-capitalist market, trade or pillage economies, which were often brutal and violent but did not buy and sell human labor (there were lots of slaves, but not organized slave markets) nor regard profit as the highest goal. Those pre-capitalist exploiters were far more intent on glory and immortality (as a tour of the ruins of ancient Egypt recently reminded us).

For Wood, the shift began with the enclosures in England in the 15th century or earlier, and she doesn't mention Potosí. But what gave it a big boost, and expanded London's force as a market vortex, was the wealth sucked out of new colonies in América, especially Potosí.  As the curators of the Reina Sofía show (Alice Creisher, Max Jorge Hinderer, Andreas Siekmann) write in the exhibition guide, the king of Spain had so many debts that as soon as the treasure galleons reached the Port of Cádiz, bags of silver were transferred directly to the ships belonging to his creditors elsewhere in Europe—England chiefly.

But the museum show is not only about Bolivia and the careless, more or less accidental genocide in the Americas (the conquerors didn't set out deliberately to wipe out the native population, and sometimes even lamented the suffering they had caused, but they had to have that silver!). It also wants us to see the parallels to the grinding down of humans in other parts of the world to feed the insatiable monster of profit and luxury for the few. A group of Russian performing artists have contributed a powerful video of a theater piece, about the collusion of political bosses, the Orthodox church, the arts establishment, criminal gangs and a consortium from  the Arab emirates to build a huge Gazprom Tower in St. Petersburg (illustration), over the opposition of conservationists and others. The link takes you to the architects' page. But here you can see the theater piece itself without even traveling to Madrid; whatever the merits of the argument, we loved it as proof that there are still Marxists (and Brechtians) in Russia. Chto Delat: Songspiel (The Tower).

Another narrative strain is about the superexploitation of Chinese workers, and their communal resistance efforts, including songs and workshops with artifacts made by children. And there are videos of performance pieces by indigenous women in La Paz, subverting the whole colonial concept of Christian submission in a dance by a rebellious virgin and the stripping naked of the colonial rulers in familiar old portraits. And graphs and documents on workers in Dubai, along with a heavy critique of Seville's Dubai-financed art biennial.

And repeated denunciations of the Catholic Church's complicity in exploitation, not only in colonial America, but in the Spanish civil war and the Franco regime. And let's not forget The Karl Marx School of the English Language, another Chto Delat production from Russia, where you can hear Russians trying to enunciate in English Karl Marx's famous description of "the rosy dawn of capital"—the primitive accumulation from places like Potosí. It's a strange thing to hear in an art museum in Madrid, where you can't expect everyone to follow Russian-accented English, but in the complex context of the whole show, for those of us who can follow the text, it was a welcome reminder of a powerful and extremely relevant text.


Barcelona or Madrid?

Back to Spain (Madrid right now) and a familiar Spanish keyboard. We left Paris (Beauvais, the little airport an hour's busride from Porte Maillot), for Barcelona on Saturday. Our Ryanair flight to Reus (another little airport for low-cost airlines about an hour and a half from the city) was so long delayed that we were too late for the bus and had to wait 3 hours, until after midnight, for a trip to the city. Plaça de Catalunya was still hopping at 2 in the morning, mostly noisily drunk young foreigners.

We like Barcelona, and even thought of buying a little apartment there for when we need a dose of urban life. But we didn't. One reason was that the prices for what we thought were attractive spots, in the Ciutat Vella and the Born, were prohibitive, and most required long climbs up flights of narrow stairs. The other reason was that, as charming as the city is to visit, you wouldn't want to live there. Not if want to be more than a tourist, but a participant in the society. That at least was our impression, from the tone of political debates and what we could learn of cultural events. So we opted for Madrid, a much bigger city (3,256,000 pop. vs. Barcelona's 1,621,537), less charming but lots more active.

Our impression was confirmed by friends, none of them Catalan-born but all long-time residents of Barcelona (20 years or more) and fluent in Catalan. (Fortunately they were also fluent in "Spanish", i.e., Castilian, so we could communicate.) As they could tell us from their own experience, cultural and professional opportunities (a stage for your theater production, a publisher for your magazine or book, advancement in a government office or private company) are (with rare exceptions) tightly controlled by networks of old boys (and maybe some old girls) from established Catalan families. It's so bad that some of the most creative Catalan artists have chosen to make their careers in other parts of Spain and/or in that other language—most noisily, the irreverent playwright and producer Albert Boadella (that's he, sitting on the toilet). And if a Catalan artist such as Joan Manuel Serrat or writer (Javier Cercas, Ana María Matute, Carlos Ruiz-Zafón and many, many others) wants to perform/publish in Spanish (the only way to reach a far larger and international audience), he or she must be prepared to face hostility from the Barcelona intellectual elite.

As Susana points out, all cities are run by coteries of little clans or "mafias" (in Argentina we call them camadas) trying to advance only their own. But in bigger, more diverse cities, like Madrid or New York, their are too many of them for any one to hold a monopoly. Beautiful Barcelona has a lot to offer, but there's an awful lot it withholds.

Boadella photo from Don't Disturb Magazine
Catalan writers in Spanish (article in Spanish)