From Travelling Museums to Travelling Art. Notes for a local genealogy of portability. Martí Peran
The array of portable museums offered by This is not a Museum. Mobile Devices Lurking, regarded as a series of alternatives to conventional museums, in the context of their stagnation as a tool capable of feeding processes of autonomy. Thus the emphasis of interpreting the building of portable devices as a possible action of cutting edge institutional critique is now able to operate from outside the framework of a museum. In this situation, our job was more political than historical. On the one hand, in today’s context of an art system enlarged within some global logics, this array of devices purposely mixes examples from a host of different origins. However, if we strictly regard the phenomenon of portable museums as devices for cultural and political action, then the portability of these modern day mobile museums, far from appearing to be something situational, legitimized by various imperatives belonging to the present, must be acknowledged as bearing a historical genealogy that informs and encourages it. These notes intend to shed some light on information that will allow a reconstruction of the historical genealogy of portable museums in Spain.
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In April 1931 when Spain proclaimed the Second Republic, the level of illiteracy stood at around forty-four per cent. From the late 19th century the Free Education Institution (Institución Libre de Enseñanza), aware of the size of the problem, began considering the possibility of organizing Travelling Missions to guarantee educational and cultural assistance in the most underprivileged areas of the peninsula. This old yearning, first thought of by Francisco Gíner de los Ríos, finally came true just one month after the Republic was proclaimed. The Pedagogical Missions Trust, headed by the Ministry of Public Education and Fine Arts, was set up in May 1931 to carry out its first mission in December that same year in the town of Ayllón in Segovia.
The aim of the Pedagogical Missions was quite ambitious. First, they aimed to disseminate general culture by setting up libraries, presenting recordings, projections and conferences, as well as exhibitions with the use of the Travelling Museum (Fig. 1). This museum consisted of two collections of fourteen copies of historical paintings exhibited in El Prado Museum. Reproductions of El Greco, Velázquez, Ribera, Murillo and Goya, by Ramon Gaya, Eduardo Vicente and Juan Bonafé, were exhibited at Town Halls (Fig. 2), schools or workers’ centres after being hauled by truck and mules to the remotest parts. The second action front of the Missions was to spread pedagogical renovation which would allow local teachers to carry on the work of the missions. Lastly, the Missions also organized “public meetings where the democratic principles postulated by modern countries were taught”1.
The theatre activity conducted by the Pedagogical Missions was one of the most prolific since, together with the Theatre of the Missions headed by Alejandro Casona, Federico García Lorca and Eduardo Ugarte set up La Barraca University Theatre (Fig. 3) in 1932. Both initiatives shared the same pedagogical aim despite the former being obliged to create its own repertoire, specifically designed for illiterate peasants without any theatrical tradition, Lorca concentrated on addressing the kind of audience “who wore roughly woven shirts and stood before Hamlet, Esquilo and all things great”2.
The fascist uprising in 1936 put a stop to the work by the Pedagogical Missions; yet the situation of war, far from causing the disappearance of portable devices as a way to spread cultural activities and political subjectivation, actually increased their presence. The format used in these circumstances was, above all, the war library which was to sustain, even on the front, this commitment to free access to culture and information as the cornerstone of the revolutionary illusions.
The first library-truck was built in 1937 by the Madrid Writers’ Group (Agrupación de Escritores Madrileños). In that same year, the regional government of Catalonia’s Department of Culture set up the Library Service on the Front (SBF) which was to approach the issue in a quite rigorous and systemized way. This Service represented an institutional takeover of the initiative by the Catalan Writers’ Group (Agrupació d’Escritors Catalans) to provide soldiers on the front in Aragón with a collection of books, similar to the one proposed by Juan Vicens, the former library inspector in the Pedagogical Missions, who found ways to distribute them to different war zones. The SBF was organized with two sub-headquarters which distributed the material to the command centres, hospitals and trenches. The first worry for SBF, besides obtaining material3 and struggling with the problems of moving it, was the setting up of strict protocols to organize the service and design the most suitable devices for travelling.
To organize the front line library service accordingly, a rigorous guide was published which distingushed Simple Libraries from Travelling Libraries4 according to were they were placed. In any case, both required suitable devices able to be hauled easily and quickly as the circumstances required. To find a solution for the portability in their design, an excellent reference point existed in modern architecture which before the war was applied to research of mobile, flexible solutions for recreational use and which could now be used in situations of war. This is how the SBF, under the guidance of the architects of the GATCPAC, fomented a specific design for portable devices for the war libraries: a bookshop-library for hospitals (Fig. 4); a wardrobe-writing desk for the sub command centres on the battle front and a box-library (Fig.5) for those garrisons on the front line5. Of all these, designed with an impeccable rationalist style, the box was the widest used, with some thirty units built.
The experience of the American and British war libraries was so successful that they became an important reference point for SBF’s activity. Following these models, in 1938 a solution was sought for the problem of transporting books using a device called the Bibliobus (Fig.6), a truck that was adapted to work as a mobile library with a collection of three thousand books. The truck, which became a model of the philosophy of spontaneity applied to infrastructures, after providing a service along fourteen routes throughout Catalonia, was used in January 1939 to carry to exile a number of distinguished intellectuals6.
The darkest period of the post war, despite providing all the right conditions to carry out emergency architecture, barely enabled any initiative to unfold. We had to wait for the years of desarrollismo or development to once again find, with the obvious ties to technological optimism which was thriving in the western world, new projects that were to swell this genealogy of portable museums in Spain. The reappearance of this account began in 1961, when the young Emilio Pérez Piñero won a students’ contest held in London in the context of the 7th Congress of the International Union of Architecture. The jury – headed by no other than Buckminster Fuller – was amazed by the Transportable Theatre project presented by the young student from Murcia, a foldable structure of modular trusses (Fig. 7).
The Transportable Theatre was just a model, but it helped Pérez Piñero to begin a prestigious career as a creator of foldable structures. The central feature of his invention was a module, formed by a group of three or four bars which swivelled on a central nucleus. The advantage this offered compared to other traditional modules with spokes is that the structures of trusses were much lighter, guaranteed easy unfolding and were geometrically easy to design7 (Fig.8). With the potential of these solutions, Pérez Piñero performed his first important work when he designed the Transportable Pavilion for Exhibitions (1964) which was commissioned by Franco’s government to house the exhibition 25 Years of Peace. Portability placed at the disposal of the most tendentious propaganda. Following this, Pérez Piñero continued working on foldable theatres formed by woven domes made with bars; he built the acclaimed Cinerama (1967) and was in charge of building the dome at the Dalí Museum in Figueres following his failure to strike a deal with NASA to study building greenhouses on the surface of the Moon.
The same year Emilio Pérez Piñero passed away, the Art Meetings in Pamplona8 were held. In 1972, the presentation in public of the most radical art works came up against many problems with political repression and internal disputes. Yet they represented a fundamental exercise to conquer public space for battle. Around that time, even the inexperienced Juan Manuel Bonet did not miss the fact that the street “is a way to understand the new works as another aspect of renovating language; it is the audience or the relationship between audiences and works that determine the ideological connotations of art”9. Yet these Meetings also provided a quite singular covered area to house many of the works: inflatable pneumatic structures designed by José Miguel de Prada Poole. These consisted of ten semi-spheres measuring twenty-five metres in diameter and linked by cylindrical tunnels (Fig.9). These huge marquees became an ephemeral museum where works were presented by some of the best known international artists, in addition to various structures to project sound and experimental poetry recitals. In sum, this was a giant portable museum which the inventor described as a work of action art in that its use as a multifunctional container, available for various operations and due to its simple construction, could be set up anywhere10.
The inflatable pavilions had already been used by Prada Poole in Estructura Neumática Límite en Elipsoide de Revolución (1970) (Fig. 10) and above all in Instant City (1971) an ephemeral city built in the context of the International Design Congress held in Ibiza. In this pneumatic city, each visitor could build his own refuge by following a simple list of instructions11. This low intensity technical architecture has however, huge environmental and above all political potential. The very idea of portability is the key concept to sight this breach: “What would happen if we could change a neighbourhood from one place to another in a matter of hours? How would this affect the mentality of those who live in these cities? What would happen if houses could be where they are needed and not where they are? This same lack of dynamism, this heavy weight, this immobility of cities, this lack of physical relationships with the space, turns the problem of localization into a problem of speculation. Something which is found close to another special something will still be close to this privileged place decades from now. Yet, what if we were able to prove that this statement is false?”12.
Among the most recent projects by Prada Poole, there is still room for another singular project for portable museums: the feverish project entitled The Gate (Fig. 11), invented for Ellis Island in New York consisted of a museum composed of a huge transparent structure installed at the end of a corridor over the river, around which the architect imagined various floating containers which transport museum activities all over the world, while receiving all sorts of products from faraway. The work swells the enormous chapter of the architect’s unachieved projects; yet, bearing in mind the recent spectacle represented by the grandiloquent fantasies of portable museums such as the Chanel Contemporary Art Container, one could rightly think that there is still a future for this kind of radical imagination.
Among the young Spanish artists who presented their works in the Meetings in Pamplona, were Isidoro Valcárcel Medina and Antoni Muntadas. Both were soon to present a number of specific projects which, due to their mood and formalization, constituted the beginning of the following episode of this local genealogy of portable museums. The former was then involved in studying movements and spaces in the city; a job that would keep him occupied for the following years and resulted in such emblematic works as the Advertising Men (1976) (Fig. 12). A leaflet used to invite citizens to participate in the project described the job to a tee: “We offer you the chance to appear in the Madrid street of your choice carrying upon your shoulders one of our billboards which you have previously prepared with the message you wish to convey”13. Indeed, this was a call to participate directly using a transportable blackboard measuring 40×80 cm with which the bearer walks around urban spaces. The artist himself was a billboard man, taking advantage of the situation to launch a new denunciation of the need to identify art with life; a simple equation by which, any inscription upon the board became a sort of mobile poem which, by extension, turned the board into a portable museum.
In Pamplona Antoni Muntadas was now working on the use of audiovisual devices, but it was not until 1974 when he specifically channelled these media towards the public sphere. It was then that he presented the famous Cadaqués Canal Local, a television broadcasting circuit which was placed at the disposal of the community for four days to broadcast and discuss common issues. With this antecedent – and its immediate predecessor Barcelona Districte I (1976) –a young group of Catalans from different backgrounds and training decided to set up Video-Nou in 1977.14 The aim of this group was to promote and disseminate the use of videos as a medium of communication and social dynamism. Inspired by the tradition of Vertov’s Kinopravda and cinema vérité, their idea consisted of crossing the boundary between producer and consumer, promoting recordings in situ and live participation by the characters appearing. With this in mind, they first obtained elemental portable video equipment (the portapak manufactured by Sony in 1968) to travel to the location where the film was to be shot. With support from the Serveis de Cultura Popular Foundation they began an ambitious Initial Project to Study the Forms of Life and Popular Culture in the Neighbourhoods of Barcelona (1977), of which the Intervention Video at Can Serra (1978) (Fig. 13) was notable. Can Serra was an area on the outskirts of the city affected by great problems of urban planning speculation. Besides documenting the problem in Can Serra by allowing all those involved to speak out, Video-Nou taught workshops and organized discussions to instruct in the use of audiovisual tools, converting this peculiar, elemental portable museum into an effective pedagogical device.
The members of Video-Nou set up the Community Video Service (SVC) in 1980, a documentary base and platform to disseminate their works which, in turn, was provided with a video-bus (Fig. 14), a mobile unit built inside an old bus15, equipped with a complete recording studio, and production and editing facilities which enabled users to manage the whole process of producing their own documentaries. Unlike the precarious conditions and disinformation suffered by the republican missions, the time that elapsed up to the years of so-called “democratic transition” at least enabled us to ensure a more dynamic encounter with the public. Yet, despite all these improvements, as the project entitled This is not a Museum tries to highlight, nothing seems to argue the need for these devices to be just as indispensable today as they were back then.