Overflowing cities: too much mass tourism in Barcelona?

Overflowing cities: too much mass tourism in Barcelona?

Who hasn’t flown to another European city on a budget flight and then stayed in an AirBnB? Who has never done “acritical tourism” or “place consumption” for a couple of days?

It is not easy to raise the debate about the excess of tourism without falling into contradictions.

Assemblea de Barris per un Turisme Sostenible (ABTS),  Foundational video manifesto of the SET network.

Under the title Turistització/Decreixement turístic the La Virreina Centre de la Imatge in Barcelona presents an exhibition in the line promoted by the Neighbourhood Assembly for Sustainable Tourism. Sixteen audio-visual pieces are presented, which you can see here. The works are by artists, theorists and groups such as Javier Camarasa, Jorge Luis Marzo, Irati Gorostidi, Jonander Agirre Mikelez, Ana Aitana Fernández Moreno, Valeriano López, Rogelio López Cuenca, José M. Palmeiro, Óscar Pérez, Pedro Ortuño and the Assembly itself.

This is an irregular series of pieces, some of which last just a couple of minutes and others almost a full hour, produced from the 1990s to the present day and all focussed on mass tourism. Some of them are small visual essays, others micro-advertising stories and yet more are documentary works, whether is the form of video manifestoes or  a collection of group and neighbourhood actions on tourism carried out in recent years in Barcelona. But more than pieces in isolation they work together as a joint composition. More than art pieces, they are videos that invite dialogue by showing what is involved in the simple, one-way logic of mass tourism.

Assemblea de Barris per un Turisme Sostenible (ABTS), Debunking Airbnb.

The seemingly unquestionable benefits of this type of tourism have long demonstrated over time the class interests that they harboured. Those of us living in coastal areas away from the Catalan capital know very well the devastating consequences of the mass arrival of our summer “visitors”. We know how in the false name of progress they have destroyed our landscape, the per capita income of the sun and beach economy, the house prices that result from a ‘floating’ population and how public space is saturated along with the ensuing environmental problems. This is a problem which until recently was restricted to “rural” areas but which has reached the cities through social and neighbourhood movements. Whereas the ABTS movement was established in Barcelona in 2015, now the SET (Southern Europe against Touristization) has become firmly established in another twenty cities.

So, short and sweet, this is capitalism.

This exhibition is situated within this dialectic context. What tourism? At what cost? The open debate on the mega cruise ships in Barcelona emphasises the invasive logic of a model of tourism which prioritises certain behaviours and income from the few over the quality of life of those who live in the city. In short, the price of capitalism. You only have to look at the prefixes of words like the “Des-turistització”, “de-creixement turístic”, “des-urbanització”… the reduction of tourism, the reduction of the growth of tourism, the reduction of urbanistic growth, which serve to reject the words which they describe and revoke the totality of the situation. These prefixes serve to break down a  lifestyle which, while reflecting uniform behaviours, also perpetuate social differences.

Assemblea de Barris per un Turisme Sostenible (ABTS), Action on a tourist bus.

It is good to remember the disarming simplicity with which the debates of basic texts about the city, such as Aristotle’s l’Ètica a Nicòmac stress the idea that that the city only makes sense when it refers to the “good life”. What is the “good life”? Does it refer to places in our metropolis where we can live well? Are our metropolises good places in which to live? And how does our need to ‘live well’ mean that we need to travel? What kind of journey do we take? And so I return to the original question – are we (all) happy to change our way of travelling? Without considering this question the debate makes little sense.

First Scan of an Illegal Abortion

First Scan of an Illegal Abortion

Nowadays, when the danger of regressing to the past is so great, when any woman who stands up even minimally for women’s rights might be accuse of being a feminazi or goodness knows what else, the exhibition by Laia Abril at the Foto Colectania Foundation is especially timely.

Abril was born in 1986. In Spain, just one year previously, abortion had been partially decriminalised based on three basic conditions: danger to the mother, rape and malformation of the fetus. Abortion was not unconditionally decriminalised in Spain until 2010.

Laia Abril’s exhibition view.

Laia Abril has made the problem of illegal abortion universal and contemporary through her artistic project On Abortion, which is currently being shown in Barcelona, after being exhibited for the first time and awarded a prize at the Recontres d’Arles in 2016, and then travelling around countries like Brazil and Turkey, both as an exhibition and as a photobook.

Despite her young age, Laia Abril is already a revered name in the world of documentary photography. But her work goes beyond the purely visual to encompass projects with a methodology which is closer to investigative journalism and documentary art practices. In fact, On Abortion is the first chapter in an ambitious project that deals with misogyny, and is followed by the subject of rape. She could have a lifelong work ahead of her.  

Laia Abril, Kit de instrumentos ilegal. © Cortesía Laia Abril / Les Filles du Calvaire.

In On Abortion Abril brings together powerful testimonies from women who have aborted illegally in Poland, Peru and Chile, and these are reflected in the photographs and the texts. For example, the relaxing photograph of a bath of steaming water in this context becomes a very sinister image. And so, of course, do the images of everyday objects which have come to symbolise the fight for abortion, such as coat hangers.

You hear a woman confessing her abortion to a priest.

Her desire to present atemporal nature of illegal abortion means that the exhibition has a whiff of the cabinet of curiosities, with pieces such as an old gynecological chair and other medical instruments, loaned by the Museum of the History of Medicine of Catalonia. Abril has also made sepia shots of objects such as the condoms used at the end of the nineteenth century, made of fish or sheep gut, and other historical artefacts belonging to the Museum of Abortion and Contraception of Vienna. There is also a room in which you can hear the horrifying confession by a woman of her abortion to a priest in Italy.  

Laia Abril, Boiling Bath. © Cortesia Laia Abril / Les Filles du Calvaire.

Without renouncing the aim of pricking consciences for so many unnecessary deaths and so much pain, the lucidity with which Laia Abril sees things is, by design, that of a kind of butterfly collector. Perhaps for that reason, in this departure from easy sentimentality, the apparent coldness means that whatever their ideology, visitors are not going to feel indifferent  as they leave this exhibition.

The exhibition Laia Abril. On Abortion can be seen at the Foto Colectania Foundation in Barcelona until 9 June.