The Challenges of a Cultural Policy for the City

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Interview with Joan Subirats [1], May 2018

Alain Ambrosi
Translated from Spanish by Nancy Thede Interview with Joan Subirats, May 2018

Joan Subirats (2013)Source : Directa (youtube) [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Alain Ambrosi -- In your recent article in La Vanguardia[2], you set out a framework for a cultural policy, you refer to putting into practice the key community values that should underpin that policy... Maybe we could start there?

Joan Subirats -- For me, whereas in the 20th century the defining conflict was between freedom and equality - and this marked the tension between right and left throughout the 20th century because in a way this is the frame in which capitalism and the need for social protection evolved together with the commodification of life while at the same time the market called for freedom - ie: no rules, no submission. But the need for protection demanded equality. But in the 21st century there is rejection of the notion of protection linked to statism: Nancy Fraser published an article in the New Left Review[3], it is a re-reading of Polanyi and she claims that this double movement between commodification and protection is still valid, but that the State-based protection typical of the 20th century, where equality is guaranteed by the State, clashes since the end of the 20th century with the growing importance of heterogeneity, diversity and personal autonomy. Therefore, if in order to obtain equality, we have to be dependent on what the State does, this is going to be a contradiction.... So we could translate those values that informed the definition of policies in the 20th century, in 21st century terms they would be the idea of freedom (or personal autonomy, the idea of empowerment, not subjection, non-dependence) and at the same time equality, but no longer simply equality of opportunities but also equality of condition because we have to compensate for what is not the same (equal) in society. If you say "equal opportunities", that everyone has access to cultural facilities, to libraries, you are disregarding the fact that the starting conditions of people are not the same, this is the great contribution of Amartya Sen, no? You have to compensate for unequal starting situations because otherwise you depoliticize inequality and consider that inequality is the result of people's lack of effort to get out of poverty. So equality yes, but the approach is different. And we must incorporate the idea of diversity as a key element in the recognition of people and groups on the basis of their specific dignity. That seems easy to say, but in reality it is complicated, especially if you relate it to culture, because culture has to do with all these things: it has to do with the construction of your personality, it has to do with equal access to culture just as cultural rights and culture have to do with the recognition of different forms of knowledge and culture - canonical culture, high culture, popular culture, everyday culture, neighbourhood culture...

So for me, a cultural policy should be framed within the triple focus of personal autonomy, equality and diversity. And this is contradictory, in part, with the cultural policies developed in the past, where there is usually confusion between equality and homogeneity. In other words, the left has tended to consider that equality meant the same thing for everyone and that is wrong, isn't it?, because you are confusing equality with homogeneity. The opposite of equality is inequality, the opposite of homogeneity is diversity. So you have to work with equality and diversity as values that are not antagonistic, but can be complementary. And this is a challenge for public institutions because they do not like heterogeneity, they find it complicated because it is simpler to treat everyone the same, as the administrative law manual used to prescribe `indifferent efficiency': it is a way of understanding inequality as indifference, right?

AA -- In your article you also talk about the opposition between investing in infrastructures versus creating spaces and environments that are attractive to creators and you put an emphasis on the generation of spaces. What is being done, what has been done, what could be done about this?

JS -- In Barcelona we want to ensure that the city's cultural policies do not imply producing culture itself, but rather to try to influence the values in the production processes that already exist, in the facilities, in the cultural and artistic infrastructures: the role of the city council, of the municipality, is not so much to produce culture as to contribute to the production of culture. Which is different, helping to produce culture.... Obviously, the city council will give priority to those initiatives that coincide with the values, with the normative approach that we promote. There are some exceptions, for example, the Grec festival[4] in Barcelona in July, or the Mercé[5], which is the Festa Mayor, where the city council does in fact subsidize the production of culture, so some productions are subsidised but generally what we have is a policy of aid to creators. What is being done is that 11 creative factories (fablabs) have been built, these are factories with collectives that manage them chosen through public tenders. There are now 3 factories of circus and visual arts, 2 factories of dance creation, one factory of more global creation housed at Fabra & Coats, 3 theatre factories and 2 visual arts and technology sites. So there are 11 factories of different sorts and there are plans to create others, for example in the field of feminist culture where we are in discussion with a very well consolidated group : normally all these creative factories have their management entrusted to collectives that already become highly consolidated in the process of creation and that need a space to ensure their continuity. Often the city council will cede municipal spaces to these collectives, sometimes through public competitions where the creators are asked to present their project for directing a factory. This is one aspect. Another aspect is what is called living culture, which is a programme for the promotion of cultural activities that arise from the community or from collectives in the form of cooperatives and this is a process of aid to collectives that are already functioning, or occasionally to highlight cultural activities and cultural dynamics that have existed for a long time but have not been dignified, that have not been valued, for example the Catalan rumba of the Gypsies, which is a very important movement in Barcelona that emerged from the gypsy community of El Raval, where there were some very famous artists like Peret. There we invested in creating a group to work on the historical memory of the rumba, looking for the roots of this movement, where it came from and why. Then some signposts were set up in streets where this took place, such as La Cera in El Raval, where there are two murals that symbolise the history of the Catalan rumba and the gypsy community in this area so that this type of thing is publicly visible. That is the key issue for culture: a recognition that there are many different cultures.

Then there is the area of civic centres: approximately 15% of the civic centres in the city are managed by civic entities as citizen heritage, and those civic centres also have cultural activities that they decide on, and the city council, the municipality helps them develop the ideas put forward by the entities that manage those centres.

So, if we put all those things together, we could talk about a culture of the urban commons. It is still early stages, this is still more of a concept than a reality, but the underlying idea is that in the end the density and the autonomous cultural-social fabric will be strong enough to be resilient to political changes. In other words, that you have helped to build cultural practices and communities that are strong and autonomous enough that they are not dependent on the political conjuncture. This would be ideal. A bit like the example I often cite about the housing co-operatives in Copenhagen, that there was 50% public housing in Copenhagen, and a right-wing government privatised 17% of that public housing, but it couldn't touch the 33% of housing that was in the hands of co-operatives. Collective social capital has been more resilient than state assets: the latter is more vulnerable to changes in political majorities.

AA -- You also speak of situated culture which I think is very important: setting it in time and space. Now Facebook has announced it is coming to Barcelona so the Barcelona brand is going to be a brand that includes Facebook and its allies. But your conception of a situated culture is more about a culture where social innovation, participation, popular creativity in the community are very important...

JS -- Yes, it seems contradictory. In fact what you're asking is the extent to which it makes sense to talk about situated culture in an increasingly globalized environment which is more and more dependent on global platforms. I believe that tension exists and conflict exists, this is undeniable, the city is a zone of conflict, therefore, the first thing we have to accept is that the city is a battleground between political alternatives with different cultural models. It is very difficult for a city council to set out univocal views of a cultural reality that is intrinsically plural. Talking about situated culture is an attempt to highlight the significance of the distinguishing factors that Barcelona possesses in its cultural production. This does not mean that this situated culture should be a strictly localist culture - a situated culture does not mean a culture that cuts off global links - it is a culture that relates to the global on the basis of its own specificity. What is most reprehensible from my point of view are cultural dynamics that have a global logic but that can just as well be here or anywhere else. And it's true that the platforms generate this. An example: the other day the former minister of culture of Brazil, Lluca Ferreira, was here and talked about a program of living culture they developed, and they posted a photograph of some indigenous people where the man wore something that covered his pubic parts but the woman's breasts were naked. So Facebook took the photograph off the site, and when the Minister called Facebook Brazil to say 'what is going on?', they told him that they didn't have any duty towards the Brazilian government, that the only control over them was from a judge in San Francisco and that, therefore, if the judge in San Francisco forced them to put the photograph back, they would put it back, otherwise they wouldn't have to listen to any minister from Brazil or anywhere else. In the end, there was a public movement of protest, and they put the photo back. The same thing happened here a few days ago, a group from a municipal theatre creation factory put up a poster with a man's ass advertising a play by Virginia Wolff and Facebook took their entire account off the net - not just the photograph, they totally removed them from Facebook. And here too Facebook said that they are independent and that only the judge from San Francisco and so on. I believe that this is the opposite of situated culture because it is a global cultural logic, but at the same time it allows itself to be censored in Saudi Arabia, in China, that is to say it has different codes in each place. So to speak of situated culture means to speak of social transformation, of the relationship between culture and social transformation situated in the context in which you are working. But at the same time to have the will to dialogue with similar processes that exist in any other part of the world and that is the strength of a situated culture. And those processes of mutuality, of hybridization, that can happen when you have a Pakistani community here, you have a Filipino community, you have a Chinese community, you have a Gypsy community, you have an Italian community, you have an Argentinean community: they can be treated as typical folkloric elements in a theme park, or you can try to generate hybridization processes. Now at the Festival Grec this year there will be poetry in Urdu from the Pakistanis, there will be a Filipino theatre coming and a Filipino film fest at the Filmoteca - and this means mixing, situating, the cultural debate in the space where it is happening and trying to steep it in issues of cultural diversity. What I understand is that we need to strive for a local that is increasingly global, that this dialogue between the local and the global is very important.

AA -- Returning to social innovation and popular creativity, social innovation is also a concept taken up pretty much everywhere: how is it understood here? Taking into account that in the world of the commons, Catalonia, and especially Barcelona, is very well known for its fablabs, which are also situated in this new era. How then do you understand social innovation and how do you see the relationship between education and social innovation?

JS -- What I am trying to convey is that the traditional education system is doing little to prepare people and to enhance inclusive logics in our changing and transforming society, so in very broad lines I would say that if health and education were the basic redistributive policies of the 20th century, in the 21st century we must incorporate culture as a basic redistributive policy. Because before, the job market had very specific demands for the education sector: it knew very well what types of job profiles it needed because there was a very Taylorist logic to the world of work - what is the profile of a baker, of a plumber, of a miller? How many years you have to study for this kind of work. There is now a great deal of uncertainty about the future of the labour market, about how people will be able to work in the future and the key words that appear are innovation, creativity, entrepreneurship, flexibility, ability to understand a diverse world, teamwork , being open to new ideas: this has little to do with traditional educational profiles, but it has much to do with culture, with things that allow you to acquire that backpack of basic tools that will help you navigate in a much more uncertain environment. And for me, to find the right connection between culture and education is very important because it allows the educational system to constantly transform itself by taking advantage of the creative potential of an environment that is much more accessible now than before because of new technologies, and therefore to make the transition from a deductive system where there is a teacher who knows and tells people what they need to know - to an inductive system: how do we explore what we need to know in order to be able to act. And that more inductive, more experimental logic has to do with creativity whereas the traditional education system didn't postulate creativity, it postulated your ability to learn what someone else had decided you needed to study. It's art, it is culture that allows you to play in that field much more easily...


  1. Joan Subirats is Commissioner for culture in the city government of Barcelona led by the group Barcelona en comu. He is also professor of political science at the Universitat autonoma de Barcelona and founder of the Institute on Governance and Public Policy.
  2. "Salvara la cultura a las ciudades?", La Vanguardia (Barcelona), Culturals supplement, 12 May 2018, pp. 20-21.
  3. Nancy Fraser, "A Triple Movement", New Left Review 81, May-June 2013. Published in Spanish in Jean-Louis Laville and José Luis Coraggio (Eds.), La izquierda del siglo XXI. Ideas y diálogo Norte-Sur para un proyecto necesario, Icaria, Madrid 2018.
  4. Festival Grec, an annual multidisciplinary festival in Barcelona, now in its 42nd year. It is named for the Greek Theatre built for the 1929 Universal Exhibition in Barcelona:
  5. Barcelona's annual 'Festival of Festivals' begins on Sept 24, day of Our Lady of Mercy, a city holiday in Barcelona. It especially highlights catalan and barcelonian cultural traditions and in recent years has especially featured neighbourhood cultural activities like street theatre. Seeè.

Barcelone en commun - Barcelona en Comú