The Name of the City in Vain

Book On difference #3. Raumpolitiken / Politics of Space. On the Expropriation and Re-appropriation of Social, Political, and Cultural Spaces of Action. Ed.: Iris Dressler, Hans D. Christ, at Württembergischer Kunstverein Stuttgart, 2007.

‘Valencia’s traditional link with the sea will be strengthened by the water sports event par excellence: the America’s Cup. Both the city and its inhabitants are fully behind this world event.’ On

On a billboard advertising the forthcoming 32nd America’s Cup, which will be held in Valencia in 2007, a photograph shows a perspective of the organizers’ mirror-clad pavilion. Reflected in the pristine surface of one of its two visible faces is a port building with Art Nouveau elements, and printed over this is the phrase: ‘Immerse yourself in our history’. The deliberately ambivalent composition conflates the novelty of the coming sports event —closely associated with the latest technology, not for nothing is it known as ‘the Formula 1 of sailing’— with the reflected image of the local architectural tradition, here symbolized by one of the old quayside warehouses. However, the history in which we are invited to immerse ourselves by going there has nothing to do with Valencia, unless this is understood in terms of its increasing readiness to make itself a prime contender for ceasing to have a history of its own. The message refers, in fact, to the history of the sailing event itself, a gesture toward the thirty-one previous competitions over the course of more than 125 years.

Various aspects of this publicity image attract the attention. (It will be apparent that the present analysis is a desperate attempt to reduce the speed of the facts and figures, struggling to prevent the much-abused remnants of identity from being buried alive, between the imbalance of the things that happen and the words that narrate these, despite the impossibility of doing so.) In this present instance, then, there are a number of aspects whose credibility asks to be taken as read, a desire that their concepts penetrate public opinion in order that, by virtue of their being articulated, the people embrace them as their own. And believe them. ‘Immerse yourself in our history’ is tantamount, once it is understood that the history in question is that of the competition which originated in the USA, to obliging people to support the event unconditionally, and therefore to leaving no place for doubt, for unhurried thought, for any criticism of or disagreement with the staging of the event or even of the way in which it is done and at what cost. By comparing it with something as decisive and inescapable as the actual history of a city, a region or a nation… the intention is that this new history is interrelated and mixed with the other history, our own history, in such a way that not only do the two appear to form a homogeneous unity, but the status of tradition attaches to what is no more than a recent and, most importantly, transient event.

On another level, this slogan-with-image can also be read as follows: it would seem that the weakness of an identity, so often confused with hospitality and the associated intercultural influxes, requires to be compensated with external events, with extra doses of spectacle and political eccentricities in order to give significance to the plain and simple lives of the local people. It is a well-known fact that the excesses of advertising, in any of its forms, results in an increase in consumption, and this is borne out by the data on house prices, rents or the performance of the tertiary sector, all of which reflect a disproportionate and alarming rise. Meanwhile, all of these interest-led changes shelter behind a false notion of progress and the generation of wealth. The celebration of events of this kind goes hand in hand with a puerile vision of the added value bestowed by overheated propaganda, as if it were the goose that laid the golden egg. If the city is capable of staging this, of organizing that, of transforming physically and assuming a new identity to host the other… how can it fail to turn a profit on the effort thereby expended?
From this first particularity a second can be deduced. An editorial in the newspaper El País on the morning after Valencia’s designation as host city for the America’s Cup claimed that this honour had put the city on the map. Where was it before? the sceptics and ironists might well have asked. Since nothing so important has happened to Valencia in all its recent fruitless waiting at the gates of the Society of the Spectacle to make it known beyond its own metropolitan boundary, it must follow that all those who do not support the event are opposed not only to its celebration but also to the very fact of being, of feeling, Valencian! This takes us into the volatile lava field of nationalisms and false nationalisms, of ambiguous tradition and pragmatic progressivism, since nothing exists without the possibility of its opposite, before finally falling in the fallacy of generalization. Generalizing also entails creating models, inducing certain codes of conduct, expecting something to change, even if some mere auspicious statistic. To insinuate, to say, to insist that a given event is, without reservation, positive for a city, seeks to forge a positive collective opinion in which there is no place for dissent, or the dissident is universally reviled from all sides.

But when, then, are we to say that the utilization of our cities as a brand, a trademark or a commercial image goes beyond the bounds of the ethically permissible? And on the basis of what ethical principles are we to analyse it? How far can public institutional information about an event go without it turning into propaganda, or without the propaganda proving counterproductive to the general interest and productive for the specific interests of those who finally obtain material benefit from it?
Design and advertising have engaged without demur in too many acts of political and economic courtesanship, and so too have art and, of course, architecture. In a State where the institutionalization of culture is so high and so patently evident, adopting almost any independent ideological or ethical position is viewed as a risky adventure, if not an act of insanity not likely to be countenanced, still less given the chance to occur a second time. This courtesanship, it seems to me, has to do not so much with the fact of accepting certain projects or campaigns as with the way they are carried out, wilfully twisting, changing or distorting aesthetic aspects (both in theory and in practice) that were initially envisaged with a different, even antithetical intention. Television advertising, a large part of institutional publicity campaigns and the like are a clear example of how the words and the images (as a derivation of the huge gulf between what is said and what is done) exist side by side but with a complete lack of respect or comprehension. In other words, they are not understood in a scrupulous literal sense; they speak to one another, but in different languages. They let themselves be carried along by the interested sugariness of a cloying harmony, pleasant retouched images, with voices off and slogans that always seem to be trying to glorify of their own faults, a sarcastic form of defence by attack. A clear, albeit tangential example is to be found in the image adopted by the Partido Popular after they lost the general election on 14M (14 March 2004). A few months after their electoral defeat they replaced the red, white and blue of their corporate image with a paler blue and a far from vigorous orange. The typography used for their slogans is clearly reminiscent of an SMS text message, a prophetically literal take on ‘what killed me will give me life’. They even use underlines in messages as crystalline and populist as ‘populares_’ or ‘pass it on_’, phrases that also accompanied a change of conduct with the decision to take to the street and call a demonstration in protest against almost every measure adopted by the Government. Here once again is a return to the scene of the crime of their defeat, to recount the losses and the gains and, above all, to patch up their damaged self-confidence. Ultimately, however, what these changes are trying to do is imitate the campaign that won José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (ZP) his unexpected election victory. Perhaps the most striking difference is that ZP loaded himself with a brand name that was associated not with discursive transparency but with a clear lightening of the very concept of the political man, assuming the role of a character in an advertising campaign rather than perpetuating the worn-out image of the leader of a people.

Behind these campaigns are the so-called creative copywriters. And the mercurial, fast-changing way many of these copywriters work is well known: everything is approached as a personal challenge in an ‘and-for-my-next-trick’ display of bravado. This attitude represents a schizophrenic fusion of making sure the client is happy with the final product, however complicated their intentions, and the aspiration to produce a personal, creative, intelligent piece of work that will make a good impression on peers and competitors.
Even though the utilization of the city as a brand is a global phenomenon,(1) let us continue with another example that shows just how far Valencia is prepared to go in this crazy pursuit of the unattainable, shamelessly turning itself into a belated brand-city. Another poster put up by the organizers of the sailing event celebrates the second anniversary of the city’s designation as headquarters of the America’s Cup. On the dark surface of the sea at night we see the flames of two birthday candles in the form of sails, further confirmed by their reflection in the water. The slogan on the poster boasts that ‘The best is yet to come’. No one can doubt this claim. That is to say, given the facility with which publicists and politicians can always manage to put a new spin on their raids on our already depleted public coffers, we are in their hands, waiting for them to put our capacity for surprise to the test once again. ‘The best is yet to come.’ But in what sense? And even more important, for whom?

(1) Perhaps it is Barcelona that has most tightly drawn back the bow of its potential as a brand-city. To set against the amply positive results of the Barcelona Olympics there is its widely criticized performance as host of the Universal Forum of Cultures. The Seville of Expo’92, Salamanca as European City of Culture and almost-Olympic Madrid are clear examples, albeit on different levels, of this voracious exploitation of the city’s external image.

Translated from Spanish by: Graham Thompson