“The 15-M movement: formed by and formative of counter-mapping and spatial activism”

In a reply to my article for the Journal of Spanish Cultural Studies, Eugenia Afinoguévona, Associate Professor of Spanish at Marquette University, writes:

Vilaseca […] goes beyond a straightforward quest for sources of the 15-M mindset, focusing on the ideas that unite it to two creative practices of questioning space through art: counter-mapping and memory-writing. By doing so, this article allows for a biography of 15-M to be written that depicts it as a thread of thought engaging with the most fundamental dilemmas of capitalist space and their contradictory solutions in Western democracies. Vilaseca’s reading thus reveals the relevance of 15-M as a phenomenon whose cultural and intellectual importance far surpasses its immediate
political outcomes.



This article examines 15-M as a movement that has made manifest the claims that have been on-going since the 1970s in much less prominent participatory urban interventions and art about space, memory and democracy under neoliberalism in Spain. The practice of counter-mapping and 15-M are both interested in Henri Lefebvre’s “lived space” and are equally concerned with making political action possible again. Artistic space-related activism is becoming an important form of political struggle not only in Spain, but worldwide. Drawing on the meaningful connections between the practice of counter-mapping, the still-developing story of indignation, participatory democracy, and the favored role of historical memory in the Spanish context, this article explores and compares the participatory mapping of a neighborhood in Barcelona known as la Barceloneta (2009) and the mapping of subjectivities in various interventions by Spanish artists Patricia Gómez and María Jesús González (2005-2012) in order to better gauge the relevance of the 15-M movement for spatial activism in the future.



counter-mapping; memory; la Barceloneta; Patricia Gómez and María Jesús González; participatory democracy


The 15-M movement did not mark the beginning of the culture of Spanish indignation, but, rather, was simply the most visible interaction recorded by international media. For more than 40 years, since the 1970s, neighborhood associations along with activists and artists have been sharing creative experiences of protest against urban renewal plans, specifically, and official governmental discourses, more generally (“Barcelona-Madrid”). The practice of counter-mapping has been an integral part of these participatory interventions since the beginning of the twenty-first century. Critical cartographers Sebastian Cobarrubias defines counter-mapping as “a form of social movement-based knowledge deploying the traditional research tool of cartography to new ends” (Mapping Machines 1-2), and Toret and Sguiglia emphasize that counter-mapping “has allowed for a re-signification/re-definition of the territory focusing on the conflicts faced by the local population” (“Cartography and War Machines”). The Argentine counter-mapping group Iconoclasistas adds to the discussion by expanding the notion of territory: “Cuando hablamos de territorio estamos aludiendo no sólo al espacio donde estamos asentados sino también al cuerpo social y a las subjetividades rebeldes” (“Reflexiones cartográficas II”). The mapped alternate reality may be, but is not limited to, a map-story, like the one created in 2009 of a neighborhood in Barcelona known as la Barceloneta, or a layer of paint-thoughts ripped from an abandoned building by Spanish artists Patricia Gómez and María Jesús González, hereafter Gómez + González. [i] Every instance of counter-mapping reinserts subjectivity back into territory, be it represented space (like a city map), actual built environment, or digital landscape. By plugging in to the counter-map, one is plugging in to possible points of creativity, change and resistance in both space and self.[ii] A deeper understanding of the on-going practice of counter-mapping, and the related artistic projects that both pre-date and follow the occupation of public squares in various major cities across Spain on 15 May 2011, is necessary in order to make better sense of the demands and the impact of the 15-M movement on Spanish society and beyond.[iii]



Three commonalities link the 15-M movement, Gómez + González’s interventions, and those of la Barceloneta known as La Geografía Esborrada and la Carteloneta: 1) an interest in French theorist Henri Lefebvre’s lived space; 2) a focus on the rethinking of what it means to be political; and 3) the practice of remembering and forgetting that rejects any totalizing closure and wholeness. According to Lefebvre, lived space is “the space of the everyday activities of users” as opposed to “the abstract space of the experts (architects, urbanists, planners)” (The Production of Space 362). The materiality of lived space is absent in city maps, statistics, measurement, ideology, and capitalism. They are signs that hide the material reality caused by privatization, gentrification, and austerity measures, to name a few. Members of the 15-M movement known as indignados [the indignant ones] want to make political action possible again in lived space. They desire what the name of one of the better-articulated platforms within the indignados movement espouses—¡Democracia real YA! For the indignados, real democracy entails a way of making decisions based on the method of social cooperation and consensus in the public sphere. It is produced when the impacts of neoliberal capital are given spatial form. The ill-effects of capitalism on space are visually more powerful and persuasive, and have a greater probability of being leveraged into real changes, some examples of which are the blocking of urban renewal plans by neighborhood associations and the prevention of evictions by platforms within the 15-M movement. In order for policy change to be a possibility, spatial activism must be linked to specific demands and disseminated through social media. The squatting of abandoned buildings is an important form of spatial activism, but, historically, Spanish squatters have not lobbied for amendments to specific housing laws like the Mortgage Law. That is not to say that Spanish squatters known as okupas do not contribute to social transformation. They are hugely influential in changing the conceptions of property and capitalism at the ideological level.[iv] Both policy change and transformations in thought are needed for true social revolution.

Artistic space-related activism is relevant for voicing the need for both participatory democracy (the form of self-governed assemblies that reach decisions through unanimity and not majority) as well as for the confrontation of neoliberalism, a political philosophy that believes in the free market and, hence, in reduced economic State-interventions except to bail out failed corporations and banks. According to cultural critic Brian Holmes, in a neoliberal society “what we face is not so much soldiers with guns as cognitive capital” (Escape the Overcode 14). As sociologist and philosopher Maurizio Lazzarato astutely observes, cognitive capitalism is obsessed, not with the production of the commodity, but with the creation of the “world where the commodity exists” (“Créer des mondes”, my translation). Autonomist Marxist Paolo Virno describes the post-Fordist experience of cognitive capitalism as one in which the communication industry (he interchanges the term “communication industry” with “spectacle” and “culture industry”) “plays the role of industry of the means of production” (61). When creativity and the production of knowledge, technology, and advertising become the primary sources of the production of wealth, voicing dissent becomes more and more difficult because collective speech ends up serving the corporate and state form. In fact, autonomist Marxists refer to our present situation as post-political (e.g., Lotringer, Marazzi and Bowman). Within this post-political context, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Barcelona Santiago López Petit argues that the often repeated question “who has the right to the city?” (Lefebvre 1968: reformulated in Mitchell 2003) no longer makes sense. The urban movements that attempt to fight for certain rights in the public space of cognitive capitalism, like the fight for the right to decent housing, no longer are able to give their collective speech public meaning because their speech constantly passes through mediating institutions (state and corporate forms). Therefore, finding new ways of doing politics that are able to minimize the reach of neoliberal states and the influence of corporations is paramount. As the 15-M movement has found out, social media is a powerful tool that facilitates social communication and cooperation outside state and corporate forms, and heightens the interplay of scales. The practice of occupying a square can be easily multiplied on the local and national scales, and magnified into the global arena via Twitter and other social media.

Of all of 15-M’s demands (the right to housing, the elimination of special privileges for politicians, improving the labor market, high quality public services, tighter controls on banks, the prevention of fiscal fraud, free access to culture, and participatory democracy), the fight for decent housing has had the most traction (¡Democracia real ya!). A worsening Spanish economy with the unemployment rate hovering around 25% for the general population and as high as 50% for young adults has led to the eviction of 400,000 Spaniards from their homes since 2008. Many attribute the recent suicides related to foreclosures to Spain’s unforgiving Mortgage Law [Ley Hipotecaria] (Fontevecchia). In Spain, as in many countries, if one is unable to continue paying one’s mortgage and is forced into foreclosure, the bank repossesses the house and sells it in order to recuperate the original loan. However, once the bank evicts the homeowner and takes the property, the debt is not automatically cleared in Spain as it is in the U.S. and in other EU member nations. If the home has lost market value and the bank is unable to sell it for the original purchase price, it is still the responsibility of the homeowner to pay off the difference. A platform of the 15-M movement known as Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH) has stopped 1,011 evictions and relocated 1,049 people (Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca). It gained national and international attention for having obtained the necessary signatures to present a Popular Legislative Initiative [Iniciativa Legislativa Popular] to the Spanish Congress of Representatives [Congreso de los Diputados] in order to modify the Mortgage Law. It also presented a motion that has been accepted by 75 city councils in Catalonia that requires banks to pay fines of up to 500,000 euros for keeping empty apartments off the rental or buyers’ market for more than two years (Sanz Paratcha).

In addition to their shared concern for lived space and political agency, the 15-M movement, la Geografía Esborrada, la Carteloneta, and Gómez + González actively use creativity in order to, as Spanish historian Santos Juliá would say, voluntarily forget formal knowledge, be it a city map or an official governmental discourse (“Echar al olvido”). If knowledge is the codification of the desiring subject, if it is the relations which have been formed along certain strata like capitalism and urban plans, then, in order to open up desire to multiple connections, one must actively forget these formalized relations. According to literary critic Jo Labanyi, the term “historical memory” is generally “used in Spain to refer to the memory of the Republic and Francoist repression” (“Memory and Modernity” 95). However, I define historical memory as the official governmental discourses that reduce memory to a historical form in Foucault’s sense, as a thing (like a city map) instead of a practice (like counter-mapping). Foucault’s “Archive” is precisely where historical memory as a material thing is collected and housed. Those who have political power are the ones who sift, rank and separate memory. They decide what will be housed in the Archive and what will be voided. Therefore, the organization of this Archive is completely arbitrary, dependent solely on who has political power and what type of discourse they value. Foucault explains in The Archaeology of Knowledge that “the Archive is first the law of what can be said, the system that governs the appearance of statements and unique events” (129). However, he makes clear that the definition of what can be said is found in what cannot be said (130-131). Likewise, what is remembered is found in what cannot be remembered—what is forgotten. In Foucault’s dialectical thinking, as Deleuze illuminates, “the history of forms, the archive, is doubled by an evolution of forces, the diagram” (Foucault 43). Fixed relational forms are continually opposed to constantly evolving forces. Whether these forces are referred to as diagrams, as is the case with Foucault, or maps, as exemplified in Deleuze and Guattari’s version, both make a connection with a practice of writing, namely protest writing. “To write is to draw a map,” Deleuze declares (Foucault 44). With Guattari, he continues that “writing has nothing to do with signifying” but rather “has to do with surveying, mapping, even realms that are yet to come” (A Thousand Plateaus 4-5). This type of writing or mapping does not simply reproduce or signify the dominant discourse, but constructs its own reality. German philosopher and critical theorist Walter Benjamin, through the use of the metaphor of photography, explains the dialectic between fixed relational forms—an example of which is habits, both self-imposed and institutionalized—and forces as it relates to the process of memory. He posits that in order for an image to appear on the negative, a sufficient amount of light is required. Habits may impede the light needed for proper memory formation:

It is not, therefore, due to insufficient exposure time if no image appears on the plate of remembrance. More frequent, perhaps, are the cases when the half-light of habit denies the plate the necessary light for years until one day from an alien source it flashes as if from burning magnesium powder, and now a snapshot transfixes the room’s image on the plate. (Reflections 56-57)

According to Benjamin, habit is dulling and saps the brightness of the source of light. That is to say, the image is always in memory, it is always projected, but it may be ill-defined. In the Spanish context, oftentimes the “alien source” of light that permits memory to suddenly appear is the creativity of neighborhood associations, artists, and social movements like the 15-M movement. Spanish indignation, the anger aroused by the ineffectiveness of the two-party political system (the PP versus the PSOE), urban renewal plans, and precarious living, is the “burning magnesium powder” that conducts the creative energy generated by the “alien source.”[v] A creativity fueled by anger is being unleashed in Spain with the potential to take hold of bodies and make them act in new ways that defy old habits.



In a traditionally working-class neighborhood of fishermen and dock workers known as la Barceloneta, two neighborhood associations, la Plataforma en Defensa de la Barceloneta and Associació de veïns i veïnes de l’Òstia [Association of the Neighbors of l’ Òstia], have unleashed the creativity of counter-mapping. On 13 February 2010, these two neighborhood associations organized a presentation of two projects which produced counter-maps, La Geografía Esborrada [The Erased Geography] and la Carteloneta, a fusion of the name of the neighborhood (la Barceloneta) and the Spanish word for poster, cartel. The first project, La Geografía Esborrada, inaugurated in March 2009, is an audio walking tour through la Barceloneta that, as its name indicates, makes visible the neighborhood’s erased and forgotten physical and narrative geography.[vi] To participate, one first prints a color map and downloads the audio content to a mobile device from a website.[vii] Then, with map in hand and earphones donned, one experiences a different type of movement through the built environment. One imagines the voided presences of the past (a much needed and now absent public school and soccer field that used to be in the center of the neighborhood near the Plaza Poeta Bosca, the abandoned building El Segle XX that once housed a thriving working-class food cooperative, and the empty lot where Miles de Viviendas, a squatted social center, stood at one time, to name a few) and hears stories recounted by various neighbors about these very places. Both map and audio content overlay the physical space of la Barceloneta with forgotten information not found on an official city map. Lev Manovich, Professor of Computer Science at The Graduate Center-CUNY, affirms that the power of audio walking tours “lies in the interactions between the two spaces—between vision and hearing […] and between present and past” (“The Poetics of Augmented Space” 226). The discrepancy between lived experience, the informal knowledge gained by walking through the city, and the official representation of that urban experience, which oftentimes ignores the realities of city living, causes a self-reflexivity. The Zapatistas argue that “preguntando caminamos” [Walking we ask questions] (Sitrin). Deleuze suggests that it is precisely a differentiation, in this case, the differentiation between lived experience and representation, “that leads to a folding, a reflection” (Foucault 100). For Deleuze, “to think [critically] is to fold, to double the outside with a coextensive inside” (Foucault 118). That is, folding is self-reflexivity. It is a doubling back on oneself which entails continual questioning. La Geografía Esborrada folds the city map back on itself. This process of transforming formal knowledge (statistics, measurement, and city maps, to name a few) into informal knowledge (a walking-narrative) is a process of transforming a self previously subjected to a fixed relation into a subject. According to Deleuze, “the folds subjectivize knowledge and bend each power” (Foucault 105, my emphasis).

KRAX, the Barcelona-based offshoot of City Mine(d), a Belgian NGO concerned with promoting creative activism against property speculation and harmful urban renewal plans, invited Iconoclasistas, two activists from Argentina who specialize in coordinating counter-mapping seminars, to work with the neighbors of la Barceloneta and other participants (including myself) during an eleven-day workshop (18-29 May 2009) to develop a map that would highlight the neighborhood’s problems. La Carteloneta, the map that grew out of the collaborative encounter, was really a measure of something much more than a map. It was an excuse to tell stories about la Barceloneta. Mapping became a catalyst for storytelling. The city map as static, geographical marker drafted by urban designers was reimagined as constantly evolving narrative. Various groups of workshop-participants were given an oversized city map of la Barceloneta, colored markers to be able to write directly on the map, and a set of color-coordinated stickers designed to identify certain problems in the neighborhood like gentrification and the lack of social services and buildings (See Figure 1).

Figure 1



Figure 1: Icons that identify problems in la Barceloneta. Source: Stephen Luis Vilaseca (2009).

Each group spontaneously expanded and modified the map-story, providing an alternate reality to that projected by the Barcelona City Council (See Figures 2 and 3). The collaborative exchange linked the representation of la Barceloneta (the city map) with the lived experiences of the neighbors. One of the map-stories that was repeatedly told was that of the quarts de casa and the Pla d’Ascensors [the Elevator Plan.]

Figure 2


Figure 3








Figures 2 and 3: Group Work. Source: Stephen Luis Vilaseca (2009).


The majority of the approximately 5,000 houses in la Barceloneta were constructed in 1753. These dwellings were only two stories so that the cannon balls shot from the nearby military fortress, the Ciutadella, toward any oncoming attackers from the sea would easily clear the buildings (Domènech; Roca). The ground floor and first floor, each 70.56 square meters totaling 141.12 square meters, provided ample space for a family (Tatjer). However, as the neighborhood’s population grew, so did the need for housing. To accommodate the growing number of people, these buildings were split in two. That is to say, the ground floor was separated from the first floor, and each became a single home known as a mitja casa [a half of a house]. In 1839, the military allowed property owners to build upwards and add a second floor creating a third level. This practice of building upwards to alleviate the housing problem escalated after 1857 when the military ceded the jurisdiction of la Barceloneta to the Barcelona City Council (Cia; Roca; Vidal). Under municipal leadership, three more floors would be added to the original two-story buildings resulting in six-story structures. With the establishment of two manufacturing companies, Nuevo Vulcano (1834), dedicated to shipbuilding, and Maquinista Terrestre y Marítima (1861), to heavy machinery, and the subsequent attraction of many more workers to la Barceloneta, not only were more floors added to the buildings, the new and existing floors were divided in two. The division of the mitja casa created living spaces a quarter of the size of the initial, whole house which consisted of a ground floor and a first floor. These tiny spaces of 35.28 square meters, known as quarts de casa [quarters of a house], make up 80% of the housing in la Barceloneta today.

On 23 February 2007 the Barcelona City Council modified the Plan General Municipal in order to permit structural changes in the quarts de casa in la Barceloneta. The new urban renewal plan was known as the Pla d’Ascensors [the Elevator Plan] because elevators would be placed in the quarts de casa. The improvement was deemed necessary by the Barcelona City Council because approximately 4,500 of the 15,000 neighbors are more than 65 years old, and of these older residents, 1,485 live alone without an elevator. However, only 7% of the buildings have room for an elevator. As a result, in a lot of three buildings with quarts de casa, the middle building would be eliminated in order to create space for an elevator that would serve the two outer structures (See Figure 4). This means that 20% of the 1, 485 neighbors, or 297, would be forced to leave la Barceloneta. In addition, over 50% of the housing is rented and not owned. The typical monthly rent for a quart de casa is between 400 and 800 euros. However, the same quarts de casa rented by tourists fetch from 1,800 to 3,000 euros. Many of the property owners are deciding not to renew rental contracts with the locals. The residents question whether the improvements are really for them or for the tourists and real estate owners (Gréaume; Gubern; Jacobson).

Figure 4

Figure 4: Quarts de casa. Source: Stephen Luis Vilaseca (2009).

It is not that the neighbors do not want to improve the life of older people in the Barceloneta. They do, but not in the way that the Barcelona City Council has proposed. They have many ideas but were never consulted by the municipal government. This is what angers them most. During the part of the counter-mapping workshop in which the individual groups gathered together to share what each had discussed, many lamented the politicians’ lack of consideration for proposals made by the neighbors themselves (See Figures 5 and 6).

Figure 5Figure 6

Figures 5 and 6: Socialization of Group Work. Source: Stephen Luis Vilaseca (2009).

Pepa Picas, president of Plataforma en Defensa de la Barceloneta, ridiculed the farce that is the democratic process in Spain today:

Es peor (que Franco) porque un gobierno democrático no tenía que consentir todo esto porque con las derechas sabemos lo que hay, cuál es nuestro enemigo, pero con un gobierno democrático que pretende en el Ayuntamiento de Barcelona es mucho peor porque te la meten doblada. Te dan el proceso de participación y que todo se consulta y al final unos toman el pelo y, para mí, es mucho más humillante que pelearme con uno que sé que está contra mí. (Taller Mapeo Colectivo: Barceloneta)

The democracy that Picas defends is not, as Mark Purcell, Associate Professor in the Department of Urban Design & Planning at the University of Washington, explains, “the liberal-democratic State with its elected representatives, parties, and laws” but “radical democracy, a democracy in which people directly manage their own affairs for themselves” (“For Urban Democracy”). A key element of radical democracy, a term first coined by C. Douglas Lummis in 1996, is this struggle for autonomy from the State in which people reclaim “the power of Leviathan” and are “free to speak, to choose, to act” (Radical Democracy 27). Instead of citizens who simply agree to policy made for them and not by them, a situation of truly participatory democracy requires a particular way of thinking open to continual questioning and a decision-making process based on the method of social cooperation and consensus in the public sphere.

From all of the individual map-stories shared, one common counter-map known as la Carteloneta was created (See Figures 7 and 8). This counter-map was disseminated during various public protests against the Pla d’Ascensors within la Barceloneta and distributed to the media. Two years later, on 27 January 2011, the Barcelona City Council voted to halt the Pla d’Ascensors.

Figure 7Figure 8

Figures 7 and 8: One printed common map to disseminate the problems. Source: Iconoclasistas CC-BY-NC-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.5/).



Like the neighbors of la Barceloneta, Spanish artists Gómez + González are grounded in a critique of urban planning. The urban renewal plan that triggered their indignation, however, was not the Pla d’Ascensors, but the Blasco Ibáñez Avenue highway extension project in Valencia that, if not stopped, would have led to the destruction of 1,651 homes in the historic Cabanyal neighborhood.[viii] Gómez + González also, like the residents of la Barceloneta, practice a form of counter-mapping in order to mobilize public opinion against not only urban renewal plans but official governmental discourses upholding mechanisms like the disciplinary prison system. Nevertheless, their counter-mapping is different. Using the strappo technique, a procedure associated with the restoration of frescoes, they affix fabric with special glue to the walls of buildings. The colors and images on the surface layer transfer to the fabric when ripped from the sides of a room or the sides of a building. As a result, Gómez + González are able to make large-scale prints of the walls of structures scheduled to be demolished or repurposed. Their ability to re-energize static representation with lived experience, or, in Deleuze’s terms, to “subjectivize knowledge” (Foucault 105), does not come through reimagining a piece of paper (the official city map), but through tearing away the actual, physical place already imbued with lived experience. Guattari argues that “the phenomenological approach to space and the lived body makes appear their inseparable nature” (“Space and Corporeity” 123G6). French phenomenological philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty adds that the “body is the fabric into which all objects are woven” (Phenomenology of Perception 229). By expanding the notion of territory as interaction of built environment, body, and mind, when Gómez + González remove layers of paint, they are not only taking away part of the building, they are also carrying off the thoughts and imaginations of the people who lived there.

Their practice is a type of creative destruction. They destroy the integrity of buildings when they strip the walls. However, theirs is not a creative destruction that feeds capitalism of which David Harvey, the Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and Geography at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, speaks.[ix] Harvey points out that “the effect of continuous innovation […] is to devalue, if not destroy, past investments and labour skills” and, as a result, “creative destruction is embedded within the circulation of capital itself” (The Condition of Postmodernity 105-106). Rather, Gómez + González’s creative destruction is one that directly critiques the capitalist employment. Theirs is not a rupture from the past caused by property speculation, but a movement toward self-reflective memory. Their creative destruction is closer to American artist Gordon Matta-Clark’s (1943-1978) way of “creating spatial complexity” through his concept of “completion through removal” (Moure 89). To think about space not as a money-making product, but as something outside the trappings of the market, Matta-Clark cuts shapes out of the walls and floors of abandoned buildings. By removing pieces of the structure, the different elements of the space (the ceiling, the floor, the corners) relate to each other in unforeseen ways. However, more importantly, the removal of material makes possible a new, critical discourse about property speculation, urban renewal plans, and gentrification.

For their project series A la memoria del lugar, Gómez + González entered many abandoned homes slated for demolition in the Cabanyal neighborhood, and extracted large-scale prints of their rooms and façades. Similar to Matta-Clark, who cut out fragments of buildings and later displayed them in museums, Gómez + González sewed together approximately one hundred individual, printed pieces of fabric ripped from different homes, wound them up to create a big roll weighing more than 300 kilograms (See Figure 9), and displayed it in two group exhibitions; the Becas de Arte Generación 2007 at ARCO 2008, the Contemporary Art Fair in Madrid (February14-20, 2008), and the Generación Joven 2007: Premios de Arte Caja de Madrid at the Centro del Carmen in Valencia (April-May, 2008).

Figure 9

Figure 9: Roll of printed cloth pulled from houses in the Cabanyal neighborhood. Source: Gómez + González.

Because the cloth is rolled, one can only see, at most, two rooms. Several critics have offered their interpretations. Jennie Hirsh, Professor of Art History, Theory and Criticism at Maryland Institute College of Art, believes the structure of the roll reflects the depth and extent of the multiple, fragmentary layers of history buried, but nonetheless present, in the walls of the abandoned buildings (“Borderlines”). Virginia Villaplana Ruiz of la Universidad de Murcia argues that “los restos yuxtapuestos en el rollo de telas que supone Archivo Cabanyal señalan los lugares más allá aquello que es representable, más allá de lo representacional” (“Effet de réel”). The “más allá” to which Villaplana Ruiz refers is what Paula Santiago of la Universidad Politécnica de Valencia views as self-reflexivity. She explains that “las piezas elaboradas por María Jesús y Patricia abandonan sus estatus objetual—en el sentido más expandido el término—para convertirse en una reflexión” (“Algo ha sido”). Gómez + González’s art has nothing to do with signifying. It is an art that seeks to go beyond itself as mere object and to serve as an entry point in to a greater discussion about capitalism and property speculation. The folds that frustrate what is seen (a fragment of the rooms and façades) actually stimulate one to think about what is not seen (official governmental discourse concerning urban renewal plans). That is, the point is not to focus on forms but on forces.

Gómez + González print the walls not to remember or reconstruct fixed power relations between such discursive sets as the rich and the poor, politicians and neighbors, and real estate companies and neighbors, but to voluntarily forget them. The cloth is rolled and folded in order to move beyond historical memory inscribed in archives. Gómez + González’s rolled cloth is an anti-archive. It is not memory as a thing, but a self-reflective memory as process. It is critical thought. The roll doubles back on itself, continually folding at the same time that it is unfolding (unraveling and revealing) the hidden aspects of society; in this case, the gentrification process.

Painter and printmaker Patricia Robertson has astutely observed that “their installations are self-consciously not recreations of their original source spaces” (“Printing the Past”). In other words, Gómez + González rarely hang their prints directly on gallery walls, but rather opt for alternate installations like the giant roll. Gómez in a personal interview with me in 2009 explains that “[…] lo que harías es volver a poner la tela […] la pondrías reconstruyendo el espacio. Pero, no se trata de eso.” Gómez + González are not interested in re-creating a direct experience of an abandoned house. Instead, they, like Susan Sontag, as described by Labanyi, see the importance in creating “a response in which emotion is tempered by a reflective distance, thus permitting political analysis” (“Memory and Modernity” 112). Self-reflective memory does not represent the past directly, but, rather, through a fragmentary narrative.

In their second project series Proyecto para cárcel abandonada, Gómez + González move from a critique of urban renewal plans to the disciplinary prison system. Between the months of July and October 2008 as well as between April and August 2009, they made large-scale prints of the interior halls, cell doors, and individual cells of the Cárcel Modelo, a prison in Valencia that had been abandoned since 1992 and was soon to be remodeled into administrative offices for the local government. By all accounts, this was a horrifying prison that Spanish dictator Francisco Franco used extensively after the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) to repress and discipline captured Republican soldiers and sympathizers. It continued to be a favorite destination of Franco for anti-franquistas up until his death in 1975. From the 1980s to its closing in 1992, the Cárcel Modelo’s reputation for being a tough prison endured. Its solitary confinement cells, known as celdas negras, recorded the most suicides in the Spanish penitentiary system (Muñoz). In a personal interview with me, Gómez laments that “este sistema no es el adecuado porque piensas que cualquier persona que entre aquí, sale peor.” Gómez + González believe, much like the Spanish anarchists of the early twentieth century as described by historian Murray Bookchin, “in a ‘natural man,’” that is to say, in a humanity that is generally good, but that is later “corrupted by propertied society and the state” (The Spanish Anarchists 58).

The installation for La celda 108 of the Proyecto para cárcel abandonada series includes a folded cloth on a wood pallet (see Figure 10) and a video showing the process of extraction.

Figure 10

Figure 10: Folded cloth on wood pallet and video. Source: Stephen Luis Vilaseca (2009).

It was displayed as part of the traveling group exhibition Generación 2009: Premios y Becas de Arte Caja Madrid at three venues; La Casa Encendida in Madrid (February – March 25, 2009), Centro del Carmen in Valencia (March 26-April 26, 2009), and La Capella in Barcelona (May-June, 2009). The folded cloth on a wood pallet, like the giant roll, does not allow the viewer full access to the complete print. Just as the giant roll blocks a direct experience of the prints pulled from the abandoned homes in the Cabanyal neighborhood, the folded cloth impedes an unmediated exposure to the murals ripped from the prison. In both cases, in order for a critique to be made, the folding must be accompanied by an unfolding. Otherwise, the installation becomes just a fixed object to be contemplated and referred to. Without unfolding prior knowledge of the hidden aspects of society that one wants to reveal like property speculation or the prison system and upon which one wants to reflect, the distance created by the fold that enables critical reflection is irrelevant. As a result, a necessary component of the installations for A la memoria del lugar and Proyecto para cárcel abandonada is the video which functions as the corresponding unfolding. The video for A la memoria del lugar permits the viewer to see the approximately one hundred individual, printed pieces of fabric ripped from the homes in the Cabanyal neighborhood, the process of extraction, and the actual neighborhood. The video for La celda 108 shows the interior halls and central gallery of the Cárcel Modelo, the cell in question with its writings and drawings on the walls, and the procedure that Gómez + González used to transfer the inscriptions to cloth. The dynamic between folding and unfolding is so central to their installations that they send specific instructions to the museums explaining how they want their artwork to be displayed. When I showed Gómez + González the pictures I had taken of the exhibition at La Capella in Barcelona, they were both surprised and disappointed. La Capella had mistakenly removed the cloth from the pallet, unfolded it, and spread it on the floor (See Figures 11 and 12).

Figure 11Figure 12

Figures 11 and 12: La Capella. Source: Stephen Luis Vilaseca (2009).


Instead of an infinite moment of tension between folding and unfolding, between the folded cloth and the video, the repetition of the unfolded fabric on the floor of the museum and the unfolding of the video on the gallery’s wall diffused any possibility of critique. The point of the folded cloth is that it is a fragment of the whole and thus rejects totalizing narratives like the unquestioned social benefits of a disciplinary prison system.[x]

In two solo exhibitions of the Proyecto para cárcel abandonada at Domus Artium-DA2 in Salamanca (October 1, 2010-January 16, 2011), and the Fundació Pilar i Joan Miró in Palma de Mallorca (February – April 25, 2011), Gómez + González experimented with a new way to display the prison cells as not only mappings of the space of the cells, but also of the subjectivities of the prisoners. They transformed seven prison cells into books that they call Libros-celda (see Figures 13 and 14). The front and back covers of the books measuring 110 cm by 70 cm (3.5 feet by 2.25 feet) are fragments of the actual cell doors. The content of each book is divided into three chapters: the first is made up of three photographs of the cell and a text written by the artists explaining to the reader that the body matter of the book consists of details that only a few have seen before; the second contains nine prints on transparent fabric of various drawings and texts made by the prisoners on the walls of the cell; and the third holds fourteen prints on black cloth of the architectural elements of the space.

Figure 13Figure 14

Figures 13 and 14: Libros-celda. Source: Gómez + González.

Much like the Spanish novel of memory of the 1960s and 1970s that explores the historical past of the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s regime through the consciousness of an “I” as opposed to a set of fixed tenets proposed by Franco himself, these libros-celda traverse the historical past of the disciplinary prison system through the first-person narration of the prisoners. Referring to the narrative of the novel of memory, but equally applicable to the libros-celda, David K. Herzberger, Professor of Hispanic Studies at University of California – Riverside, emphasizes two points:

(1) Its fragmented composition compels the reader to reconfigure the design of followability through the evocation of a past that is not static, but dynamic and ever changing; (2) the external referent of the narrative, the history of Spain, is now an internal component of the self, and is thus open to re-formation as the individual claims authority not over truth but against myth. (Narrating the Past 69)

The memory of passing time as retold in the first-person is subject to a remembering self that constantly acquires new experiences, and these new experiences oftentimes force the self to rewrite the past in order to make sense of the present. It emphasizes the fact that the past is a human construct and is thus determined by who structures it. In other words, there is not one story, but many stories. The walls of the prison cells in the Cárcel Modelo tell a version of the past, one not unlike the narratives of the novel of memory that continually question a totalized vision. The difference is that the narration of the libros-celda is not related by fictional characters but by the cell itself, at once the body of the prisoner [“We think that a cell is the second skin of the inmates” because “it both isolated and enveloped them for so many years” (Rochester)] and his/her thoughts and imagination. Gómez + González’s libros-celda not only connect memory and writing, what Herzberger argues that the novel of memory does, but also link both memory and writing to space. Fragments of the actual prison cell are the medium through which the prisoners’ memories are transmitted. If Foucault’s Archive is the archive of political power (historical memory), González+Gómez’s libros-celda are the spaces that fill all of the gaps produced in the Archive. They unleash a ghostly procession of prisoners.

In the exhibitions, the libros-celda are placed on the floor of the museums. Some of the cover-doors of the books are completely removed, some are partially opened, and some not at all. As in the cases of the roll and the folded cloth on wood pallet, the viewer of the libros-celda can only see a fragment of the contents emphasizing yet again that the point is not to represent the jail experience directly, but, rather, to force a critical reimagining of an alternate reality in which such a prison sentence would no longer be necessary. The corresponding unfolding to the fold (the fragmentary narrative of the libros-celda on the floor) is the hanging of the drawings and texts of the books on the walls of the museum.

González + Gómez’s art is critical of the disciplinary prison system, and is explicitly anti-capitalist because it condemns property speculation and urban renewal plans that lead to gentrification. However, their art is funded by Caja Madrid, a financial institution involved in precisely property speculation as well as in other financial endeavors. Holmes points out that “in the age of corporate patronage and the neoliberal state, art is becoming a field of extreme hypocrisy” (Unleashing the Collective Phantoms 92). Many questions come to mind: Should González + Gómez accept money from bankers? Are museums the right venue in which to display their oppositional art? Does their art contribute to social change or is the message being diluted by its connection to capital? There are no easy answers. Holmes suggests that artists who create oppositional art should seek out and hold extra-institutional debates and exhibitions in the local community. That is, at the same time that their work is being shown in a museum, artists should organize parallel discussions and events outside of the museum. In González + Gómez’s case, they should display their work in squatted social centers, neighborhood associations, and independent art spaces. Gómez + González have not orchestrated parallel exhibitions in the past (they have participated in the Portes Obertes Exhibition organized by the Salvem El Cabanyal Platform), but they have exhibited in several museums like Arts Santa Mónica (Barcelona), La Capella (Barcelona), Centro del Carmen (Valencia), and Domus Artium-DA2 (Salamanca) that are more open to establishing connections between different spaces—museums, streets, and universities—and different people—curators, artists, activists, the general public, and academics. Nevertheless, to completely escape hypocrisy and not just partially, González + Gómez would have to reject all institutional funding and collaborate more directly with a particular social movement like the 15-M movement. I am not so sure that such a move would extend the reach of their art or enhance the impact of their message. Their art will not lead to policy change, but may contribute to changing conservative ideas about property and the prison system. Change cannot potentially take hold of a wealthy, conservative museum-goer if González + Gómez’s art is not placed in front of them.



The related artistic practices of the long-standing spatial contestation of neighborhood associations, activists, and artists in Spain since the 1970s together with the 15-M movement and its subsequent related platforms demonstrate that visualizing the negative spatial ramifications of neoliberal capital for working-class neighborhoods located near city-centers in particular and public space in general awakens complacent neighbors and citizens, and pushes them to come together, share, discuss, and act in ways that question the status quo. The images of razed buildings and displaced neighbors as well as related protests, amplified and multiplied through social media, are very compelling. When not linked to specific demands, the photos, videos and interconnected artwork are powerful catalysts of ideological change in individuals. The initial occupation of squares in 2011 and González + Gómez’s creativity are defiant more generally of social norms that facilitate the unfair distribution and use of space. When the photos, videos and artwork are tied to detailed petitions, they provide added leverage for policy change. The successful blocking of harmful urban renewal plans in la Barceloneta and the Cabanyal neighborhoods as well as the passing of an amendment to the banking laws in several Catalonian municipalities initiated by the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca are examples of what can be achieved when spatial activism is linked to specific policy demands.

The recent protesters in Gamonal, a working class neighborhood in Burgos, have learned these lessons well, and offer an excellent sequel to the relevant questions addressed in this article. The Burgos City Council’s plan to invest 8 million euros of tax payer dollars to renovate a section of Vitoria Street instead of redirecting that money to help stem the rising rate of unemployment in the city caused a popular outcry. Within days, a spatial confrontation with specific demands leveraged on Twitter with the hashtags #Gamonal and #EfectoGamonal resulted in the eventual undoing of the plan (Belli). As the Gamonal protests illustrate, the impact of the 15-M movement on Spanish society is its spatial dynamism that is continually being remembered and reactivated to create both social and policy changes.



[i] Previous articles written in English about the artists have referred to them as Gómez + González. With the artists’ approval given to me in a personal email, I am continuing that tradition.

[ii] For an extended analysis of Guattari’s mapping of subjectivity, see my article “Félix Guattari and urban cultural studies.”

[iii] The 15-M movement recognizes the debt owed to neighborhood associations on one of many websites linked to it (www.acampadabarcelona.org) in which a list of assemblees de barris de Barcelona appears.

[iv] For a more in-depth study of squatters in Barcelona, see my book Barcelonan Okupas: Squatter Power!

[v] The goals of expressing indignation in Spain, according to one representative of 15-M, are the following: “We want to change how people think and then we want to change the way in which we live together” (Hedgecoe).

[vi] Other examples of walking tours and counter-mapping: 1) 9 June 2012 – Tour of Co-operatives in Barcelona (Gràcia, l’Eixample-esquerra, el Raval and la Barceloneta). See “9 de juny”; and 2) 29 September 2012 – Co-operative Memory of la Barceloneta. See “Memòria Cooperativa.”

[vii] The website http://www.geografiaesborada.net no longer exists. Digital territory, a layer that can accompany physical space, can also be erased and forgotten. However, a black and white version of the map can be found here: http://issuu.com/multiplefronts/docs/geografiaesborradamapa. The audio is lost.

[viii] In 2012, Cabanyal was put on the World Monuments Watch list. In July 2012, the project to extend the avenue was halted and the neighborhood saved.

[ix] Manuel Delgado also addresses “destrucciones creadoras” in La ciudad mentirosa (55).

[x] At the same time that the group exhibition was taking place in La Capella located in the northern part of the Raval neighborhood, Gómez + González had a solo exhibition at the Arts Santa Mónica in the same neighborhood but closer to the port. In this show, fabric was unfolded and hung on the museum walls. However, the draped murals were juxtaposed with folded cloth on wood pallets, thus maintaining the dialectic between folding and unfolding.


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