return to nº42

by Karles Torra

Be realistic, ask for the impossible !". Thirty years after the May 68 events in France, the outskirts of Barcelona were turned for four whole days into the European epicentre of art and cross-racial fraternity. Having made camp close to the "Ateneu Popular" in the Nou Barris district, the big top of the Caravan of Cultures - an itinerant, nomadic festival - provided shelter and an open stage for the rule-transgressing Paris-based "Caravane des Quartiers", next to the "Setena Festa del Circ" (Seventh Circus Festival) and its outstanding equestrian attractions, a number of cross-racial concerts by the excellent "Galicia Tropical" band, in addition of the traditional activities organized under the "La Cultura va de festa" label (the most complete sample of the endeavours of local associations in the Nou Barris district). The result was an unwonted, festive event that achieved a high public participation rate and succeeded in crossing the different planes of cultural reality while starting from an entirely horizontal perspective, doing quite well without professional structures or public administration directioning.

However, in all truth, that little miracle accomplished by the Caravan of Cultures is only the tip of an iceberg which is no other than a prodigy factory called "Ateneu Popular de Nou Barris" (Nou Barris Popular Athenaeum). "The "Ateneu" is one of those projects which are normally doomed to meet with failure - the Ateneu's managing director, Xavi Perez, points out - but, in our neighbourhood, there is still a stubborn resolve to prevent the flame of the "spirit of the sixies" from dying out. And there are very few places in Europe where this flame is still burning : the flame of permanent utopia and genuine love for the work being carried on".
Commitment to the local community has also been one of the constants in the activities conducted by this institution since its creation. "Everything actually started - recalls Xavi Perez - with the neighbours' campaign to force the closure of a highly contaminating asphalt plant. The local residents occupied the factory building and demanded that the place be used to house an "Ateneu Popular", given that there was an appalling lack of cultural facilities in that section of the city. A give-and-take round of discussions with the City Council authorities made the latter decide to close their eyes to what was happening, on the assumption that the neighbours would eventually tire of it. But, as you can see, we have been working at the Ateneu for more than twenty years now".
Historically speaking, the activity of the "Ateneu Popular de Nou Barris" started in June 1997 with the "30 Hores" event, a veritable artistic marathon open to all kind of art forms and genres which was advertised through announcements in the streets, among queues at bus stops, or during intermissions at film showings. Many thousands of people responded to the convening and attended the show which included performances by Mayte Martin - who was then the child prodigy of flamenco singing -, Lluís Cabrera - who would establish the "Taller de Músics" workshop but a short time later - acting as master of ceremonies, and Arnau Vilardebó - the future instigator of the "Marató de l'espectacle" event - who played the part of "high agitator". According to the current manager of the Ateneu : "The "30 Hores" event proved to be a revulsive and a starting point. Later, the first circus workshops were set up and we could say that the Ateneu struggled on, subsisting precariously throughout the eighties, cold rooms and leaking pipes notwithstanding, thanks to small contributions and absolutely devoted volunteer work". (...)
You only have to look at the numerous posters and notices stuck on the walls of the Ateneu, showing quite a wide range of activities (circus, theatre, flamenco singing, dancing, poetry, rock music, art exhibitions, debates, workshops, cinema, etc...) to realize how hard pushed they must be to find ways to optimize the use of their scarce funds. (...)
Another important feature of the Ateneu's cultural activity is the emphasis placed on training : "We have very clear views about it and that is one of the most engaging aspects of the Ateneu project. We have set up a circus school for children which, for the time being, is the only one operating in Catalonia." (...)
1998 has been the year of international immersion for the Ateneu : "Just think that, with the arrival of the Caravan of Cultures, we have provided accomodation for more than two hundred people from the outskirts of Paris. And that we have issued some seven hundred accreditation cards. We've somehow become a point of reference in Europe. If you look out of this window, you'll see artists and bohemians from foreign countries who have made camp and parked their vans in the immediate neighbourhood of the Ateneu." ... Once satisfied that I could bear witness to the truth of his statement after taking a glance at the surrounding landscape peopled by dreamlike personages hanging out their washing and riding round the grounds on monocycles, Xavi Pérez proceeded to talk about the Trans Europe Halles - a Europe-wide network of alternative, independant cultural centres - and of the great event they are preparing for in this connection. It will take place this autumn and they expect participants from thirty different countries, and not only from Europe but also from such faraway places as India and Brazil. (...)