LABORATORY OF RESISTANCE SPARKS ANEW
POBLE NOU "JA NO ÉS XAUXA!"
A few streets from the Torre Agbar and Media-ICT buildings, glimmering beacons of Poble Nou’s 22@ project, there is a little-known vacío of space that appears locked in stasis. Wire fences slice through squares of land inhabited by solemn factory carcasses and tall grass. Nature is reclaiming the territory once destined for luxury apartments.
Text Natasha Drewnicki
Photography Stefan Jermann
I stand on the pavement of a crumbling boulevard, opposite an old church. It strikes half past the hour. Somewhere in the distance, a dog barks. Above the iron door, an antique sign spells »LA ESCOCESA«. I knock and wait for almost ten minutes before hearing the clink of keys. The door opens to a bearded man in overalls.“Have you been waiting long? It takes a while to get here – I was on the other side of the building!” Meet Juan Francisco Segura, one of the longest standing artists at La Escocesa, a sprawling 2400m² factory complex and one of the last surviving naves in Poble Nou. La Escocesa originally produced chemicals for the textiles industry and today it most emblematically represents Poble Nou’s turbulent journey from abandoned industrial zone to international creation hub, alongside other notable factories such as Can Ricart (now Hangar) and Can Felipa (since transformed into a cultural centre).
Juan Francisco guides me through a graffitied arch and into a mint-green studio with spectacularly high ceilings. In contrast to the drowsy scene outside, studios are abuzz with productivity, the air thick with turpentine and aerosols. A woman crouches to spray Perspex acid blue while others chatter in the communal kitchen at the back.
We continue through a warren of stairs and studios until we reach his space, an inviting and lived-in area that bears the familiar hallmarks of an artist’s life. Rothko-esque oil paintings pile high on a shelf and paint pots scatter across a central table where we sit down as if at an office desk.
In 1999, Juan Francisco was part of the original community who rented La Escocesa from a distant relative of the original industrialist owner. Since shutting down operations in the eighties, it had become a dilapidated time capsule, the intrepid group of artists set about transforming it. “We made the building safe. We excavated entire sacks of material, chemicals, dead rats, crochet…we put everything into this place,” he tells me.
Driven by the success of the Olympics in 2000, the government spearheaded a $180million “22@ District of Innovation” program. Through economic and social initiatives, Poble Nou would become “a new space of urban innovation that will comprise businesses, institutions, universities and technology centers”, then Barcelona Mayor, Xavier Trias, told La Vanguardia newspaper. In the words of 22@, the area would “represent a living lab”, a catalyst to attract highly specialist, skilled workers and transform Poble Nou into a digitized, private zone for an altogether new type of industry.
Almost overnight it sprinted from dormant working-class neighbourhood to the site of prime real estate potential. With floor space at a premium elsewhere in Barcelona, the abandoned, open-plan factory compounds were available at rock-bottom market prices, making them an attractive investment that would pay dividends tenfold.
Poble Nou’s self-sustaining art industry clearly didn’t fit 22@’s criteria of profitability and artists were among the first to feel the pressure of encroaching developers. A private company, Renta Corporación, lured the owner into selling La Escocesa for a healthy sum, with the intention of razing it to the ground and replacing it with luxury apartments. Overnight, they threatened eviction.
“I don’t think they understood - or cared - that we were serious, self-organized workers who needed a space to create that simply didn’t exist elsewhere. The developers treated us like squatters,” explains Juan Francisco.“It might as well have been the Wild West - they made the rules up as they went along. They just wanted offices, hotels and expensive apartments, and to leave one factory chimney.” 22@ was - on the surface at least - an initiative to promote and defend innovation and culture, yet here was a flourishing grassroots association in a building of national patrimony that was about to be trampled.
Not surprisingly, the tug of war descended into a physical lucha. The heavy-handed approach of speculators ignited furious debate that reverberated across the city and violent protests echoed the discontent. Building a space by demolishing its existing heritage was a mistaken approach to urban planning, argued locals. When artists demanded an explanation, Renta Corporación barricaded La Escocesa’s factory doors and even removed a staircase, forcing them to saw a hole in the floorboards and scramble up to first floor studios. In the face of danger (and a potential PR nightmare), the council intervened.
In agreement to tick the right boxes for the sake of official administration La Escocesa founded the EMA Ideas Association, a platform to link the community’s professional interests with those of the council. In 2006, amid mounting pressure, the council implemented The 'Factories for Artistic Creation' program and recognized La Escocesa as a site of local interest, safeguarding it against demolition along with 113 others in the area. And in a bizarre twist of fate, 2008’s economic crash was soon to send hundreds of real-estate companies spiralling into bankruptcy, owing to the frozen scene outside.
Aside from a small handful of original residents, today most of the 20 artists that work at La Escocesa are invited by open call, judged externally by industry pros based on previous work. Javier Mariscal, design star of the Barcelona Olympics and one of the founders of the Palo Alto studios nearby, has overseen the process on several occasions.
La Escocesa participates in the bi-annual Tallers Oberts (Open Workshops) initiative that encourages collaboration and networking between workshops across the district, promoted by the Poblenou Urban Districtmap. The complex also holds its own events, such as the wildly successful mural festival last September, when artists were invited to breathe new life into the crumbling factory walls, resulting in a series of vast painted murals, pictured.
Rina Ota, a Japanese mixed-media artist, consolidates and strengthens her knowledge of art at the centre, where she has worked for the past three years. I find her balancing precariously on a ladder while reaching to tweak an installation piece in the form of delicate, dangling shards of glass. It’s designed to evoke the participation of onlookers through the creation of sound.
Like many artists in the city centre, space was an issue for Rina. La Escocesa was well respected in the community, so she gave it a try. Working at the complex has radically changed her perception of the arts industry.
“When I arrived, I had a very ‘classic’ understanding of art. I expected to follow the traditional route by selling work in a gallery, but it doesn’t work that way anymore – it’s all about forging new connections. In this economy, you have to be pro-active. There’s a strong network of artists and we all help each other out, but I do worry about the constant changes that affect Poble Nou. La Escocesa might risk losing its spirit and become gentrified, but for the moment we’re safe. Either way, I’m not sure I want to stay around to see that.”
In a landscape of ruins, the collective built new foundations, but the council might still reclaim the complex and convert it into much more sophisticated studios in a similar way to Hangar, just blocks away.
After guiding me through the studios, Juan Francisco shows me another perspective. We stand on the roof of the building against a landscape of skyscrapers and tired factories, a post-apocalyptic scene if it weren’t for psychedelic Mandala paint-strokes swirling all over the floor beneath our feet. “We work within our own micro-worlds, but there is so much diversity and variety in Poble Nou that I’d never leave the neighbourhood. I’ve created my best work here,” he says.
It’s such unique environment that I have to wonder whether La Escocesa would be so vibrant today had the complex not endured its difficult past.
I ask Juan Francisco if he’d fight again to keep the space but his laugh echoes across the brick walls surrounding us. “I can’t say ‘La Escocesa is mine!’ and stay for the sake of it. It’s not about fighting; it’s about having established who we are. I’m proud to have participated in its conservation, to turn it into the fabrica de creación that you see here, but it’s a project far greater than I am and one day we might have to leave. It’s bittersweet, but that’s life.”
WHAT'S IT LIKE TO WORK AT LA ESCOCESA?
I feel very fortunate to have my space here because it’s very difficult to find an affordable studio in Barcelona.La Escocesa also offers exposure and networks within the artistic context of the city. Sharing experiences with other fellow artists is enriching. There are always new shared opportunities and projects arising - exhibitions, exchanges and publications. The council allows us to use the factory but it doesn’t invest in its maintenance and upkeep. Unfortunately [in Spain], the cultural and artistic industry has become very politicized and bureaucratic which makes it difficult to self-manage without lots of red-tape, but we try to be as self-sufficient as possible.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR WORK AND HOW HAS IT EVOLVED SINCE STARTING AT LA ESCOCESA?
I use a broad range of mediums, from painting and sculpture to drawing/illustration and experimental animation. I explore human emotions, identity and the relationship dynamics of power and powerlessness. I use emotional anaesthesia as a starting point to question the unspoken and the quotidian, bringing to light subtle and perverse relationships that connect us. Many of my images represent human bodies or faces that interact with space, lacking any type of scenography.
Being at La Escocesa has enriched my work and I’ve already enjoyed three residence exchange grants abroad. I’ve been to Bulgaria and Manchester as part of the exchange program and last November I spent time in Zurich.
All of these intercambios have been extraordinary experiences, both on a human and on an artistic level. Even though they were short (six weeks) the allowed me to establish contact with very different art scenes and cultural contexts. The residencies allowed me to develop projects ranging from performance, drawing and animation and, in the case of Zurich, to work with an element completely unknown to me until then: The Baugespan.
WHAT OPPORTUNITIES DO YOU SEE IN BARCELONA NOW?
Artistic production and design centres are springing up everyday. The neighbourhood is being equipped with cultural spaces and many new striking places have appeared related to creativity and innovation. Unfortunately, the abundance of new spaces for art creation hasn’t resulted in collaboration as in other countries where I’ve been, like the UK, Germany, Switzerland, etc where both private and public entities network with each other, communicate and manage joint initiatives. My impression is that in other countries there is more funding and, even more importantly, they encourage an environment more open to artistic initiatives and/or self-management.
Or the last two years we’ve become established as part of the Poblenou Urban District, an association managed by the gallery La Plataforma, attempting to unify different activities in Poble Nou, both in terms of creativity and culture as well as leisure and gastronomy.