Interview with Pedro G. Romero — The New Babylonians: Crossing the Border
On the first floor of Galeria Municipal do Porto, the exhibition by Spanish artist, curator and researcher Pedro G. Romero questions and analyses nomadic ways of life, particularly gipsy, flamenco, and libertarian exile peoples.
In an extensive research effort on the concept of the new Babylonians, developed by the Situationist International, Romero explores ideas such as psychogeography, the dérive, or the unitary urbanism, in their relationship with nomadic groups. A project whose exhibition design presents us with fifteen moments.
About the exhibition The New Babylonians: Crossing the Border, at the Galeria Municipal do Porto until November 21, we talked to Pedro G. Romero in the interview below.
Mafalda Teixeira – I want to start with the title The New Babylonians: Crossing the Border. On one hand, there is a direct allusion to the New Babylon project, developed by the Situationist International. On the other hand, there is a reference to the border. Currently, we see artistic approaches to the border that have justified the creation of the term border art. Given the exhibition you created and the current circumstances, is the title a provocation to border politics?
Pedro G. Romero – Well, I think the research has three themes: the Spanish exile – especially the one with libertarian or libertarian communist roots; the gipsies and all the forms of life that have ever been dubbed with that name, the merchants, or moinantes for example, that we cannot think of as Rrom; the flamenco, that is, that human group or hobby in a certain art, aesthetic, written in small letters, more or less autonomous, associated to flamenco, to the music and dance that we know as flamenco and its cultural and symbolic world, an artistic field that in other geographies is related to fado, samba, tango, the blues, etc. Some Situationists, especially in the artist phase of the Situationist International; then, after the dissolution of the group, Constant, Debord (who was the one who ascribed the name New Babylon); and later New Babylonians, Michael Bernstein or Alice Becker-Ho, all recognised with this name human communities or groups whose experiences or ways of life marked them. The aim was to understand things like the dérive, psychogeography or unitary urbanism. Debord explicitly refers to “Kabila savages”. In a sense, he refers to the North African comrades of the Letterist International, the first to move around the city under that new awareness of the dérive. There are Algerian and Tunisian immigrants in Paris, the students, the emancipated “young girls” or the literary bohemians. Many human groups fit into the “new Babylonians”. But I was interested in these three: gipsies, flamenco and libertarians. They have always interested me.
I wanted to show a new geography: the geography of these human groups, an Iberian geography in this case. The phrase “crossing the border” comes from some bulerías by Porrina de Badajoz, a gipsy singer from Extremadura, close friend of Amália Rodrigues, who adapted the fado Ai Mouraria in different cantinas, which she sometimes called bastarda and incorrectly Portuguese cantinas.
MT – Talk about how you conceived, together with the architect María García Ruíz, this exhibition space, which you define as overflowing, in a curvilinear path similar to the Douro line?
PGR – This research needed to be housed in a suitable container. The exhibition is not the device, but it should be. It is the work I try to do with the visible, finding ways of presentation and not of representation of that visible. Ways of showing the devices worked and inhabited. In a previous exhibition, where I was curator together with María García Ruiz, in the research Máquinas de viver, flamenco e arquitetura na ocupação e desocupação dos espaços, there was already an important work on this adaptation between exhibition and device. In The New Babylonians, I wanted the roles of artist, researcher, curator, commissioner or designer to be dissolved, to be unclear, to always hesitate. For me, “making exhibitions” is what defines my work with the visible, beyond academic categories like “conceptual art” or “relational art”, etc. Categories only allowed by the laziness of the art world. For this work at Galeria Municipal do Porto, I sought a model space that would fit as closely as possible with my model research. In many ways, the city itself ordered the 15 different surveys presented here to be about urban space. The ideas of the labyrinth existed as a gnoseological model, but also because of the essays that Constant and the Situationists had quickly tested for the Stedelijk in the late 1950s. There was a model of the labyrinth – Porto, a vertical city. It is a city that is distributed at different heights, that is socially distributed and also vertically distributes the regimes of the visible. But the Douro line is horizontal. We thought that it has not only a spatial meaning but also a temporal one. I even thought of a sci-fi city, exploring the city’s transport and communication hubs or centres, from the old bridges to the new hubs. In short, all this is an attempt to make the exhibition and the device coincide.
MT – In addition to the exhibition’s multidisciplinary nature, we encounter an intense research effort, covering different moments in Portuguese political and cultural history. When you conceived the exhibition, were the chronological extension and the different fragments already defined?
PGR – These temporalities and anachronisms have been marked by the objects and subjects that interact in the research. Suddenly, a text like Auto das Ciganas by Gil Vicente has become quite relevant, one of the first in Europe to refer to gipsies through fiction and allegory. Its presentation is unprecedented and, at the same time, it contains all the clichés produced in the Iberian Peninsula about the representation of the Gypsies: the Gypsy Giralda, to the detriment of Romani or Caló, the Gypsies expressing themselves in the dialect spoken by the Sevillians in 1526, etc. As I said, the times have been marked by the different case studies. But there has been an anachronistic conception of history, where several times can coexist. This has always interested me in terms of the conception of history. A history written in small letters that always confronts, for example, the linearity of the great and capital History.
MT – The interest in popular culture, the flamenco imaginary and the notion of the archive are materialized in the 8th moment/Fado-Flamenco, where you state that fado and flamenco are the same things but, beyond that, they are two totally different genres. Talk about this dialectic.
PGR – The 8th situation, entitled Fado Flamenco, was one of the first working hypotheses, but it didn’t progress for several reasons. It’s a glorious failure. Fado and flamenco as what they are: symbolic pop forms on specific music and dances, with a similar genesis, identical social origins and almost identical forms of identity construction. For some reason, they are also different, giving rise to different indices and marks. I’m not referring to musical differences, but formal differences. While fado embraced the formula of cuplé, of singing in the face of rhythmic latency, as in the Argentinean tango, in flamenco these forms are divided into the copla or, later, the Andalusian copla. They are different aflamencamentos of the cuplé influence. For me, the moment of this bifurcation is the “gipsy” factor. I’m not talking about musical traits or cultural essences. In the popular classes, in the lumpenproletariat, to continue using Marxist terminology, where fado and flamenco are constructed – prostitution, gipsies, bohemia, drug addicts, delinquent classes, etc. – things work differently. As Alice Becker-Ho showed in the case of the French language, the use of words and ways of speaking of these classes does not follow the rules because, among other things, it is against them. It is in this social milieu that “the gipsy” exists and, in the case of fado, that’s blatant in Maria Severa, its mythical gipsy founder. But, from this point on, fado became “un-gipsy”, it lost its basic form of resistance to the identity equalization imposed by the popular republics – be it the Salazarist Estado Novo or the new republic after the Carnation Revolution. In flamenco, something similar happened with the republic of 1931. First, there were the forty years of Franco’s dictatorship and the 1975-born democracy. The gipsy factor, in the face of attempts to “Spanishise” or “Andalusise” flamenco, has always been a factor of resistance. The “gipsy” continues to be a factor of resistance to the attempt to “gipsyize” flamenco. As I often say: flamenco and gipsy are the same thing, gipsy and Rrom are also the same thing, but flamenco and Rrom are quite different. Fado, identified essentially with the feeling of the Portuguese people, loses frictions, remnants, resistances, antagonisms. But in flamenco these remain, I think. I speak also in political terms. Although we can look to Maria Severa, to flamenco and to the fado of Amália Rodrigues; or to the many “gipsy” exceptions, of fadistas like José Maia or Cidália; although we can recognise in Maria Sabino’s studies the role of gipsies in the construction of the African-American rhythms that give rise to fado, I feel that this erasure of the “gipsy” is an important difference.
MT – In this exhibition, the city of Porto is a starting point for the fluxes of these “new Babylonians”. What influence did the city have on your way of thinking about the project?
PGR – I think I have already answered above. But, in a more symbolic way, the whole project was marked by the signifier of port as port, which in the Portuguese language can be redundant. The project follows this vocation of port, a place from where we depart, a place from where we leave, a place we cross, the one that takes and brings things, a place of exchanges, something that lies in the Indo-European root of port. Balibar’s take is very important, where he claims that the community, society, is built on exchange value, while the subject, in a certain idea of subjectivity, is associated with use-value. It is a careful reading, which inverts the traditional equivalences of Marxism. Capitalism, emerging as a model resulting from the operations of exchange value, expropriates our idea of society, of community, day after day. It is an economic and political struggle, but there is also the symbolic regime of the visible. Socializing the idea of port, de-privatizing it, giving it back its first community condition. The port, the place of passage, the place of transportation and arrival – directly related to the way of making of the gipsies, flamenco and exiles – marked the whole project. Porto in Spanish; Porto and port redundantly in Portuguese.