I know nothing save for what I feel in my gut as I watch events unfold around me thousands of miles from my home in languages I do not speak. So I make images and reflect upon the words they inspire.
This photo I have shown before. I made it early this summer in Spain, during a time of great anticipation. The terror of Las Ramblas was fresh in everyone’s hearts, the commonality of finding strength against evil contrasted with the looming referendum to separate Cataluña from Spain — then an event more than one month away.
What does it say, in its thousand words? It is a woman, eyes full of hope. I followed her as she walked quickly across a square in Gracia, a neighborhood where anti-gentrification issues abound. She is draped in a flag, but not the typical Catalan or Spanish colors. She carried no black ribbon, at the time a popular rejoinder against terrorism. I had not yet seen anyone fly these colors in the streets of Barcelona. Hers is the flag of the European Union; the great project, once a signifier of hope for a better future. She moved toward a squat plastered in repurposed ‘for sale’ signs — real-estate billboards, now branded ‘occupied’ and affixed among the anarchist graffiti and anti-tourist slogans. Was she going to a party there? It appeared so, from the muted sounds coming from the second floor windows. She seemed to pause, gather her thoughts, and take in the site of this three-story building that spoke its mind. I asked - could I photograph. She agreed without much attention to me, still intrigued by the language of the structure. And then she darted inside.
The photo has haunted me with its unasked questions. What if I had followed her in? Where was she going? Why that flag? And yet those questions have been echoed on the streets these past few weeks, or perhaps they’ve simply been asked in other ways. Who is following whom? Where is this all headed? And what does it mean for Europe?
The answers are not coming from the international mainstream media. And they will not come from bullheaded politicians, whose public argument is mere performance. The elected officials partake in a great spectacle, never rationally engaged with their constituents except to fan the flames of passion through gossip, innuendo and slogans. The theorist Lauren Berlant teaches that freedom includes the freedom from an obligation to pay attention. We have no obligation to consciousness, no obligation to be socially active in our belonging. Our willful ignorance allows noise to replace signal, almost every time. The public square of modernity is dominated by feelings, not reasoned discourse. As it is for my gut interpretations, so goes the public sphere, affected and emotional.
Perhaps the answers, like poems, drift in the streets. Occasionally, the people of the square are asked to tell their stories, but we must remember that heightened emotion distorts and disrupts the production and exchange of rational debate. The Catalan people do not want their taxes used for war. Not to line the pockets of corrupt officials. Not to feed and clothe the monarchy. Relatable desires, but very few can carry the conversation when the next question posed is ‘how will this work’ or ‘what does this independence look like to you’. Some resent the historic put-down of the Catalan culture- the 2006 removal of Cava from the shelves, the disavowing of their language and years of being classified as ‘other’. Emotional triggers lead to the foolishness of organizing according to the logic of identity. Perhaps in this can be found a lesson too. The doomed belief that we must repeatedly seek redemption for the mistakes of our ancestors. History, the great tale of the victors, prompts us into this loop of desperate struggle in which we continuously replay old losses. The present is discarded in favor of reproducing dominant relationships. We tend to return to old evils, finding them more comforting in their familiarity than an uncertain future in which participation might effect change. Because despite the volume of current buzz there exist concerted efforts for real dialog and for sustainable economic change within the communities who live in Cataluña, not all of whom are Catalan. Migrant energies are ignored at the peril of the movement. Those marginalized voices must be amplified, now more than ever.
Recently the Serbian documentarian Mila Turajlic screened a new project “The Other Side of Everything”. In it we learn the arc of her mother’s life, a professor/activist turned into a leader of the October 5th overthrow of Slobadan Milosevic’s regime at the start of the 21st century. But the hard won victory had costs; the leaders of the fight were not suited to lead a new political system. Seventeen years later, she watches on TV as a recent election puts a man into power who was once the information minister for the tyrant Milosevic. She is summoned to court, under charges of sedition and threat of death. The fight for freedom can win in the short term only to be usurped by the next generation’s impatience with the task of teasing out signals from all the noise.
No obligation to pay attention, as played out beyond Eastern Europe so that now Western and Northern and Southern Europeans have been awakened to the tragicomedy of debt policies imposed over the past two decades. Spain, Portugal, Greece have seen this discontent fester and boil for some time now. No small matter that the lessons available through observing the rapid collapse of economies in Latin America under the same policies have been ignored for years. England appears to be positioning itself as some form of defacto haven for the wealthy by way of the doomed Brexit movement. Austria and Germany are facing -yet again- the divisive hostility of dangerous racial politics. Europe, Africa, the Americas — we are all enthralled by the perpetually unfulfilled promise of an ever-coming democracy, one which we are consistently told is just out of reach. Ironic that democracy as the Greeks saw it insists that civic equality is not an aspiration postponed, but the actualized equality of the participants. The present is political and in the political space of the global public sphere we would do well to recognize our similarities. Being different should not devalue, debase, create anxiety, precipitate harm, or inspire fear. Rather, it should be that sameness in our differences that bonds us to a greater collective presence.
And so in Spain we see this collision course, with its messy blend of identity and economic drivers playing out in slow motion. The Catalan leaders refuse to budge, and speak in riddles. The Federal government announces they will take over the television network. Control the message. Create noise. Bury the signal. They will not arrest the Catalan government (for now), but they arrest the movement’s civilian leaders, creating space for the language of political imprisonment and fueling the streets toward hostility. How long before the hundreds of thousands marching peacefully become the violent mobs seen in old newsreels of other movements? I hope never. I hope the brink is not reached. Spain has the capacity for rational solutions, but it is enthralled with the emotional tumult of an untimely present.
Hope, as my friend Quinn Norton has said, is a discipline. It takes concentrated effort, willful intention, and methodical practice. It is not enough to merely have hope or to write and speak of hope. It must be of our collective culture — our collective effort to improve upon human nature. There are lessons here, not only for Cataluña, not expressly for Spain, nor even solely for Europe. There are lessons here. That is all. Other is a construct of those who wish to suppress and control. Other is a symptom of colonialism. Racism and authoritarianism are patterns recognizable in the empty rhetoric of ‘freedom and equality’. In our intentions, in our desires, in our frustrations, in our fears and yes in our differences, we are same. We are same.