Forum the Bell Tolls

from New Partisan, June 26, 2004 

A potato omelet on a hard roll is the portable comfort food of choice for some 46 million Spaniards. But do they have the right to fry up their own, wrap it in aluminum foil and nibble at it wherever they damn well please? Or should they submit to fairground gougers and franchise-holders, especially if they are already shelling out bigtime for entrance to a purpose-built theme park where they are blitzed with exhibits, panel pow-wows and performances pushing an “agenda of principles and values” that includes multiculturalism, sustainable development, and immigration is good for you.

The ill feeling generated by the tempest in a tortilla pan has cast a pall over the first month of the Barcelona Forum, or Universal Forum of Cultures 2004, as it prefers to be known. It opened on May 9th in the Catalonian capital and was expected to draw five or six million attendees before it wraps on September 26th. They’ve been averaging 16,000 per day, about half the anticipated turnout, and so are bussing in school children to make up the difference. Paying customers, however, complained about not being allowed to bring in their own food and drink. Organizers hastily backed down and promised to compensate vendors. There were gripes, too, about a lack of shaded areas to stave off sunstroke, and what some consider an abusive ($25, adults) daily admission fee.

But the real grumbling is over the way the whole thing is being stage-managed by its hosts and sponsors, the municipal (Barcelona), regional (Catalonian) and national (Spanish) governments, and the cynicism with which they trumpet how the Forum will generate money and big-ticket infrastructure projects, invoking by way of precedent the wildly successful makeover that the city received for hosting the 1992 Olympic Games. 

We can cut to the payoff, then, since nobody is pretending there isn’t going to be one. It involves the transformation of the mouth of the Besòs river, where effluent is treated before its discharge into the sea, and garbage from a city of 2.1 million is incinerated. Not that these facilities are to be bulldozed off the map. They are to continue their malodorous but necessary functions under a thick overlay of new construction deployed along the rim of an open plaza covering 30 acres. Barcelona gets a much-needed convention center already booked through 2005, a 3,200-seat auditorium designed by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, a yacht basin and other urban goodies. “If taking a sewage plant and transforming it for public use is not a cultural paradigm of the 21st century, then let’s have somebody come up here and explain to me what culture is all about,” says Barcelona Mayor Joan Clos.

The Forum is structured around 45 “dialogues”; panel talkabouts in which designated worthies muse on the issues of the day, including bio-diversity, cultural pluralism, Gandhian non-violence and other assets that constitute the “ethical wealth of nations”. In theory, anyone who can establish relevant credentials will be able to grab at the mike in the manner of espontáneos, the bullfighter wannabes who vault uninvited into the ring just to teach a thing or two to the clown with the cape.

UNESCO has granted its solemn seal of approval. Corporate sponsorship is coming from Spain’s big banks, its largest department store chain, and the utility companies that manage the nuclear plants that pump 28% of the energy in the Spanish grid and whom one would sooner expect to find pilloried as perpetrators of ecological outrages. Yes, Coca Cola is on the list, too. 

Odd to see their logos on the podiums on which some 1,500 speakers — some fresh from the anti-globalization clambake that wrapped in January in Bombay, India, such as economist Joseph Stiglitz — will trash everything their sponsors do and stand for. Since it takes two to make a dialogue, some high-end speakers have been signed, along with more sunfaded ex-somebodies including former UN boss Butrous Butrous-Ghali and European Union chief Jacques Delors. Other draws originally hyped in the press kits, namely, Bill Clinton, Helmut Kohl and Europe’s favorite communist curmudgeon, Nobel-winner José Saramago of Portugal, have had to, or seen fit to, send last-minute regrets.

Somebody thought it worth mentioning that the political correctness of “Water: A Strategic Resource” has been ratcheted up to “Water: A Resource for Life, Security and Peace”. Nor has it gone unnoticed that T-shirts worn by guides proclaim the wearer’s function in Catalan, Arabic, Russian, and Chinese — but not in English, the language of Bush and Blair, or Spanish, spoken by the peninsular neighbors the Catalonians affect to despise.

But you shouldn’t imagine that it all comes down to leveraging the leftovers of Porto Alegre. Barcelona is too cosmopolitan and fun-minded to embrace the dour earnestness of the anti-Davos crowd without lightening up the proceedings. There’s a pseudo-traditional Catalan “fire festival” on midsummer’s eve, including a center-court seat at an akelarre, “a traditional Basque coven of witches and sorcerers”. In charge of catering is superchef Ferrán Adriá, whose name on the check would make a meal for two exceed Botswana’s GDP. A sub-conclave exists to preview a new board game in which players counter ecological disasters and ethnic conflict through negotiation and mediation, and “if they don’t cooperate, there’s no winner at the end.”

All of this may sound dismally familiar to anyone who experienced Britain’s Millennium Dome a couple years back, and is prepared to admit to it. The Forum’s earnestness is in the direct line of descent from the solenoid-driven sentiment of the Kewpie dolls lip-synching “It’s a small world after all” with spring-loaded jaws, at the Disneyland of the 1960s.

It would, however, be misleading to trash the execution along with the pretense that drives it; there are indeed things well worth seeing at the Barcelona Forum. A handful of the famous Xi’an terra-cotta warriors on loan by the Chinese government are impressively displayed. A multi-media environment called Voices, about human communication, is very well done and to hear Rostropovich conducting Britten’s “War Requiem” is, of course, so much more than endorsing a political statement.

One can’t help wondering, though, if the good people of Barcelona are a mite over-confident about repeating the successes of 1992 with a new type of recyclable and renewable mega-event. They probably figure you can’t go wrong with “encounters in search of new ideas” though it remains to be seen if the crowd they’re hoping to attract are great believers in dialogue as a Good Thing. In Bombay, you had novelist Arundhati Ray coming out with “Debating imperialism is like debating the pros and cons of rape. What can we say? That we really miss it?” No wonder Clinton cancelled.

What are the chances it will all backfire and six million malcontents start tearing up the paving stones and torching all the double-parked BMWs? Given that the industrialization of early 20th-century Catalonia gave rise to one of Europe’s most violent anarchist movements, I think maybe it’s a case of better wait-and-see before making plans for a mid-summer stroll up the Rambla to the Boquería market to pick up some late strawberries and a bottle of sparkling cava to uncork on the grass in Antoni Gaudi’s great and goofy masterpiece, the Parque Guell. Spaniard may be almost a dirty word in Catalonia, but let’s face it, who else would go all out to throw a great party and not care all that much about who shows up?

No hay comentarios:

Publicar un comentario