Madrid has a creative spirit at play, fuelled by artists, designers and architects looking for a more collaborative way to live and work
There is nothing like hitting rock bottom economically, and losing faith in your elected representatives, to make you rethink the way things are done. ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ is the accepted truism. By the same token, if it is broke, you are surely free to reinvent the way you work and create and educate and live.
While this adage was surely tested to its limits last year in the north of Spain, with a worryingly violent tug-of-war between Catalan separatists and the Spanish government, Madrid has been finding its own route to economic revival, via the collective endeavour and creativity of its own citizens.
Street art is evident all over the city; not the stark, aggressive yelps of youthful outrage that UK graffiti usually channels, but playful, often skilful and hugely colourful spray-painted spectaculars. Every kind of art – delicate portraits, ambitious geometric landscapes, funky neon logos – is liable to pop out at you from street corners, along any decent stretch of wall, down the sides of apartment blocks and across many of the city’s reclaimed factories.
One such building – a former tobacco factory, now called Tabacalera – has been converted into two cultural venues: the left flank has been tidied up and turned into a contemporary art gallery, whose gloomy, cellular layout works perfectly for video art exhibitions, while the right flank has been left in all its picturesque near-dereliction to be run as a community-led cultural resource, free of charge to all who wish to take part in its activities, whether artistic, musical, or theatrical. The basement studio walls are festooned with street art, provided by the studio’s current occupants and visitors, with work also spilling out into its back yard (see case study).
If Madrid has more than the average would-be street-art stars, it is also home to one of Spain’s most prominent: Okuda (his surname is San Miguel, but he’s known around the world by just his first name, like all legends-in-the-making). His creative efforts started out on the streets, then got him into art college and now he travels the world performing live transformations of walls, floors and ceilings at festivals and major cultural events. He recently appeared in Las Vegas, in a show that brought a 9m-high bear covered in his customary prismatic rainbow hues. He also painted a trampoline for Paris’s recent Olympic bid spectacle, and decorated a 20 storey-high building whose completion was attended by France’s minister of culture.
‘That would never happen in Madrid,’ says Alejandra Kreisler, one of Okuda’s management team, at street art agency Ink and Movement. While it has some globally recognised talent on its roster, she feels the Spanish capital is behind those of the UK, France or Holland. Even if Madrid seems richly decorated in street art, Kreisler says: ‘There are huge restrictions on where you can paint. Most of our artists’ work is outside of Spain.’
However, if the canvas is restricted in Spain, the Ink and Movement team’s desire to support and nurture their artist clearly isn’t, having recently converted an old call centre into artist studios, production and office space (see case study).
Barbara Vidal, an art curator, writer and event producer, confirms this spirit of collective ‘can-do’ that currently prevails. She says: ‘For the past eight years, out of the economic crisis something good has happened. There is a new generation of people accustomed to making things without resources, involving different alternative spaces and projects. There are a lot of self-managed projects and self-managed spaces and the artists have taken advantage of this new situation. They are now partners in this scenario, sharing studios, making residencies, making their own awards. They don’t depend on galleries so much and art institutions. They have their own agenda.’
The ease of promoting and accessing space, support, events and talent online has made all the difference, says Vidal. She feels the older, more established galleries are often stuck in the 20th century, hampered by the time-honoured cliques and networks of privilege that are woven between collectors, gallerists, institutions and a few chosen (that is, bankable) artists. Now, a much wider, more diverse and accessible range of artists can communicate directly with their public.
The old system is out of touch with the way people want to make – and purchase – art Vidal says: ‘If you are with the new scenario and the artist doesn’t need you, your strategy has to change. You have to be closer to them or make another kind of publicity or introduce social networks or have an online market.’
One of the most dynamic of Madrid’s self-generated artist studio and event spaces is La Neomudéjar. Calling itself the ‘Avant-garde Art centre and International Artist Residency’, it is in the former offices of the state railway company, next to Madrid’s central Atocha station and just a stone’s throw away from the city’s leading art institutions: the Reina Sofia, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, and the inimitable Prado. It favours video-art in its exhibitions, talks and installations, a medium which Spanish artists embraced early on, in the Eighties and Nineties; which means Spain now has a really strong, established video art scene.
The city actually has quite a track record for converting unlikely buildings into cultural hubs. It was kicked off by the emergence of Conde Duque, an 18th-century military barracks reborn as a contemporary arts centre in 1983, which proved so popular that a huge architectural renovation programme was initiated in 2005, and completed, with 58,777 sq m of usable space, in 2011. It offers cinema, concert and exhibition venues, and houses a number of the city’s key museums and archives – including Madrid’s LGBT archive.
It sees itself as ‘an essential pillar of Madrid’s cultural activity,’ and is run by Madrid city council’s department of art, sports and tourism, along with two other major arts spaces, Matadero Madrid Contemporary Arts (set in a former slaughterhouse, see Culture Factory case study) and CentroCentro, a multidisciplinary arts venue set in the historic Palacio de Cibeles, which also houses the local government offices.
From the sound of these initiatives, you would think that Madrid’s populace has always been richly served when it comes to contemporary culture and the arts, but Vidal disagrees. If Conde Duque was born of a more free-spirited, rebellious arts scene in the Eighties and Nineties, the Noughties were less about enabling and more about elitism. For more than two decades, Madrid was governed by the conservative Popular party, whose senior management became mired in accusations of corruption which are still simmering (Spain as a whole is deemed one the EU’s most corrupt countries, according to anti-corruption campaign group Transparency International).
But two years ago, there was a massive vote of no confidence in the city’s governors when the Ahora Madrid (Madrid Now) party, an alliance of leftist groups including the anti-austerity Podemos, emerged victorious in the mayoral elections of 2015, putting Manuela Carmena, a 73-year-old retired judge, into the governing seat. She has promised to ‘manage Madrid in a different way’, pledging herself to ‘the politics of the small’, and putting the city’s €5bn budget and 30,000 staff to work to solve the real issues that afflict its citizens – like housing shortages and evictions. She has abolished many of the senior civil servants’ perks, and attempted to sever the more invidious links between politics and business that helped to fuel corruption. And she rides to work on Madrid’s Metro, just like any other commuter.
Says Vidal: ‘During the past two years we are trying to show the whole [design and art] picture in an active space.’ This idea of different arts disciplines working together is inherent in Madrid’s emerging scene. It is also evident in the thriving cultural webzine Cultura Inquieta, started up by music impresario Juan Yuste after his summer festival of the same name started gathering a huge critical mass on social media. It is now a global influencer, produced by a staff of 11, with 200,000 regular readers and a fanbase of two million on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram (see case study). This spirit is also evident in the new, self-generated educational ‘lab’ that has evolved at one of Madrid’s new art schools.
As for architecture, resilience and resourcefulness are the new bywords – after decades of the city (and Spain in general) bankrupting itself with huge, EU-funded, expensive ‘flagship’ initiatives. It is a mood that Diego Barajas and Camilo Garcia relish. Garcia initially came to Madrid to set up Dutch architects MVRDV’s Spanish office. Now, these two Columbian architects run their own ‘socio-bioclimatic’ practice, Husos, and combine teaching and research with socially and environmentally intelligent projects. They enjoy the sense of interdisciplinarity that permeates the city. Says Barajas: ‘It’s a very interesting time, not only for architecture but other disciplines like sociology.’ He cites the ambitious cross-disciplinary cultural programme of talks and events run by the Media Lab at the Prado (the city’s iconic institutions are keen to be a part of this new scene).
Garcia adds: ‘Many initiatives are happening outside of academia, in forms that are more flexible, because academia is so regulated.’ Barajas continues: ‘Seven years ago our field was more on the margins. Now, there is a growing visibility of other ways of doing architecture. It’s not only us but other studios, too, that are looking at new architectural processes.’ He concludes: ‘The economic crisis was terrible, but it brings another rhythm, it vitalised other ways of working.’