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PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 27.1 (2005) 22-31

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Barcelona Contemporary

Barcelona holds a special charm in my dreamlife of cities. It was the starting point for a first grand tour on the European continent, in 1969, when I had arrived there after my semester at the University of Copenhagen. I went to Barcelona alone that June, by ship from Majorca, having left behind there a college friend who was supposed to travel with me for the summer. Even though the island was filled with Scandinavians practicing what was then fancifully called "free love," she had fallen for an Algerian guy and went off with him to his country. Those were the days.

Indeed, the world was such a different place when I began my travels abroad. Another country I went to that year, Greece, was under a military dictatorship. Ironically, during this era the Middle East was a popular student destination, and I recall many advertisements then for overland bus trips across Europe to Afghanistan. By the following decade, after I had made it all the way to Kathmandu, now the scene of a Maoist insurgency, there were so many Europeans and Americans there, dropped out, drugged out—and it wasn't on yak butter—that one of the roads in the center of the city was called "Freak Street."

The Barcelona I first encountered was existing as less than itself, rhetorically impoverished under Franco, its inhabitants forbidden to use Catalan in schools, publishing, or any official capacity. Even the Catalan national dance, the Sardana, was banned, though now in the square facing the Cathedral older inhabitants of the city form several large circles to perform it on weekends to the delight of onlookers who often join in. Today one of the most cosmopolitan of European cities, its visitors can enjoy an all-night life in the shadows of free verse architecture along its splendid boulevards, or dine by the sea on the new cuisine its chefs are inventing.

Like many people who have suffered under repressive governments, the Spanish are fiercely demonstrative of their new standing in the world, coming from near Third World conditions three decades ago to the economic and cultural miracle that is contemporary Spain. They have been among the most vociferous citizens in the world exercising their democratic rights, in previous years demonstrating in public [End Page 22] squares against the Basque killings, and, more recently, the country's involvement in the Iraq war which, urged on by the March bombings at Atocha station in Madrid, brought down the conservative government of Aznar. The Catalans, especially, take pride in their modernity. More than once, I heard it said—by a Catalan—that Barcelona is really "Europe," and the rest of the country is, well, Spain.

The age- and Fascist-blackened buildings of Barcelona I remember have by now given way to a well-tended city that has grown enormously in size and reputation since the Olympics were held there, in 1992. This summer it was host to the Universal Forum of Cultures Barcelona 2004, a four-month program of performances, public dialogues, congresses, and exhibitions, organized by the Barcelona City Council, the Catalan autonomous government and the Spanish government, and with the support of UNESCO, reaffirming this city's pride and the urban renewal plans jumpstarted by the Olympics. Like Paris, which has turned dilapidated and often outlying parts of the city into parks and cultural centers, Barcelona's local government has also taken the opportunity to transform the run-down facilities of an industrial zone on the Mediterranean, a few miles from Port Olimpic, into state of the art water treatment and incinerator plants, including a solar panel that brings power to the Forum. Exhibition grounds and parks, hotels, a convention center, congress hall, and apartment buildings have paved the way for the economic and ecological revival of this peripheral area of the city.

While a diverse assortment of exhibits, spectacles, and public dialogues took place on the Forum site, cultural institutions throughout the city sponsored hundreds of theatre, dance, music...


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