Most international tourists to Spain who make the detour to Bilbao—or Bilbo as it is spelt in Euskara, the Basque language—do so in order to visit the Guggenheim Museum, the Frank Gehry-designed titanium shipwreck that has loomed over the left bank of the Nervión estuary for the past twenty-one years.
For those on Instagram safari, as most foreign visitors to Bilbao seem to be, it’s a brilliant choice. Not only does the Guggenheim feature some of Gehry’s most elegant curves and swoons, the grounds offer photogenic statuary, including a giant metal arachnid named Maman by Louise Bourgeois, as well as several works by Jeff Koons: a bouquet of multicoloured, balloon-ish Tulips, and Puppy, the museum’s guard dog, an 11.5-meter high West Highland terrier covered in a manicured carpet of flowers.
Nor can one imagine an amateur photographer’s paradise of backdrops to surpass the Snake and ellipses of Richard Serra’s massive ironwork installation The Matter of Time, inside the museum’s enormous Arcelor Gallery, permitting visitors to wander through it freely. Officially, photography of artworks is prohibited inside most of the museum. But a glimpse at the relevant hashtags reveals this rule is widely flouted in the Serra labyrinth. And it’s easy to see why: on film, the narrow, rust-coloured passageways look like otherworldly box canyons. During our visit, my partner, a more-than-amateur photographer who proclaimed an irresistible attraction to the “liney-lines” in abundance at the Guggenheim, was scolded multiple times by a handsome docent policing Serra’s installation. Alerted by the shutter of my partner’s camera, which the exotic acoustics of the installation transmitted unexpected distances, the docent tracked us into the core of the exhibition’s deepest iron coil. Inside a work titled Blind Spot Reversed, he appeared without warning and uttered a third, exasperated “Please!” My partner apologized again. She put her camera away, again. We may or may not have left the exhibit with sixty-four shots.
The museum’s remaining galleries are staggered around the perimeter of a soaring atrium. For this reason, most visitors experience the institution in the same order, progressively climbing stairways together through floors of exhibits. Along one of the atrium’s flanks, Jenny Holzer’s Installation for Bilbao presents tall electronic columns of rising text, displaying expressions of interpersonal affection in Euskara, Spanish, and English. The text — including statements such as “I say your name” and “I save your clothes” — were originally written for an AIDS memorial. Holzer has been known for decades for placing expressive snatches of emotive text where viewers do not expect to find them, in cities and in public spaces. In the museum, the vertical text streams are less surprising, but here their staging strongly evokes the lines of code that appear throughout The Matrix.
This is an impression the museum has capitalized upon. A video advertisement for a recent visiting exhibition features the Holzer piece prominently, clearly playing off the Wachowskis’ 1999 film, complete with a recast Neo and Trinity and melodramatic warnings that there is “no turning back” (“Atención: Después de sentir esto ya no hay vuelta altrás”), that the exhibition will make you see the world differently (“Atención: Este trabajo puede hacerte ver las cosas de otra manera”).
As one passes through the space of the atrium, with its staircases and elevators, it can be hard to avoid thinking of Baudrillard, although the specific echoes oscillate between the writer’s discussions of the Bonaventure and the Pompidou. It seems appropriate that the museum’s finale exhibit should be a spectacular Warhol mural of One Hundred and Fifty Multicolored Marilyns—most of the Marilyns in scarlet red, fading to teal and pink in the centre of the piece. Yet Guggenheim Bilbao resists easy categorization within any postmodern affect of play, or for that matter of exhaustion. If Baudrillard or The Matrix have some kind of presence here, they are but limited tropes.
Of course, if it might also be said that a major goal of modern art institutions is to lift visitors above the commercial infrastructure of modern urbanity, transforming them into Foucauldian “heterotopias” from which one can return to the life of the street rejuvenated. This, too, is not so simple in Bilbao, despite the fact that the museum has been widely cited for its gentrifying “Bilbao effect.” The Bilbao effect is code for how architects and urban-planners describe revitalization catalyzed by a landmark building designed by a “Starchitect,” such as Gehry. The museum’s sweeping vistas of the Basque Country’s largest city may offer some clues about the complexity of the situation here. As Mark Kurlansky, author of The Basque History of the World, explains, Bilbao, situated in its dramatic valley, has always been visually arresting for its contrasts. “The most striking feature of modern industrial Bilbao,” Kurlansky writes, “is at the end of most any downtown street: the green, steep slopes of the Basque countryside can be seen with shepherds tending grazing flocks. Bilbao is an urban population surrounded by a rural one.” During my weeklong visit, I neglected to pick out any pastoral scenes, but the lush slopes indeed loom as reminders of the nearness of rural life and nature.
Today, this proximity complements a local ecological situation that is healing. But Bilbao, like similar capitals of production worldwide, only entered post-industrialism recently. Quarries scarring the mountainsides serve as further reminders of the region’s mineral resources: the iron deposits, long in decline, that helped to make the area the second most important industrial region of modern Spain, after Catalonia. As in other European industrial centres, the city’s steel mills and shipyards devastated the environment. The industrial revolution also opened Bilbao to foreign capital and influence, mainly from Britain and Germany, including exploitative management. This created an underclass of labour migrants from elsewhere in Spain, who were cruelly disparaged by locals, and whose presence became a key factor in the original rise of Basque nationalism.
The Basques are an ancient people, who speak an ancient, isolated language. They saw themselves as the keepers of a rugged border region, rather than as a “nation” in any modern sense, until the arrival of large numbers of Spanish-speaking immigrants. Industry also brought wealth and cosmopolitanism to the region, the most significant factor in preventing Bilbao from experiencing nearby Guernica’s awful fate during the Spanish Civil War. When Franco and his generals sought German council on their plans to destroy the city as part of a campaign to terrorize the Basques of Vizcaya, Hitler’s commanders encouraged them to capture and make use of Bilbao’s factories instead. Guernica, a historic centre of Basque life, was chosen for destruction. Its bombing became the prototype for the traumatic aerial raids on civilians that would come to define both German and Allied strategy during the Second World War.
Industrial Bilbao survived. The Guggenheim emblematizes this survival, but at the same time represents the more recent ecological and aesthetic rebirth of Bilbao. The “Bilbao effect” thus operates amid a number of lingering historical paradoxes. Not surprisingly, the story of the museum’s construction, which Kurlansky recounts in detail in his comprehensive history, was a source of considerable acrimony in local politics. In the early 1990s the Guggenheim Foundation, in financial crisis, approached several cities with the prospect of a new museum. Tokyo, Osaka, Moscow, Vienna, Graz, and Salzburg all ultimately declined proposals from the American foundation, which demanded a considerable local contribution from the city that would become the site. The Basque Nationalist Party, however, successfully lobbied for Bilbao to become the museum’s home because they saw an opportunity to raise the stature of the city, and to bring world-renowned art, as well as tourists, to the Basque Country. Taxpayers wound up paying $100 million for the structure and were required to pay a further fee for rights to use the Guggenheim name, even though the Guggenheim Foundation curates the art.
Ultimately, the investment has yielded significant economic and cultural returns. Today, over one million people visit the museum annually. Yet it’s not hard to understand why Bilbainos, and especially Basques, still look at the museum with conflicted feelings. For instance, many Basques expressed considerable disappointment during the museum’s opening, when attempts to lease Picasso’s Guernica from the Reina Sofia in Madrid failed. To date, the Basque Country’s internationally prominent museum of modern art — located a mere twenty-five miles from the firebombed city — has never become stage for Picasso’s famous antiwar painting, even temporarily. And if, for better and worse, Bilbao was for a century a Pittsburgh of Western Europe, saved because of its iron and industrial production from German-led destruction during the Civil War, it is now deeply ironic that the wide sheets of “weathered steel” in the permanent Serra installation were rolled in a special facility in Germany.
The visitor’s delight in Serra’s work becomes further complicated as soon as one exits the museum and crosses the estuary, where Jorge Oteiza’s massive deconstructed sphere stands in front of the Bilbao ayuntamiento, placed there in 2002. Why should the work of Serra, a native Californian, take pride of place in the museum when Oteiza and his sometimes rival Eduardo Chillida, both Basque sculptors, were instrumental in rethinking modern sculpture’s ability to transform place into experience, a notion on which Serra’s own work obviously depends? Works by both artists have some representation in the museum’s collections, and there are occasional focus exhibitions, but the placement of a few representative pieces by the sculptors in the museum’s permanent “masterworks” offerings feels like tokenism. Visitors encounter a final Chillida sculpture in a small gallery space just behind the massive Marilyns, where it seems decidedly like an afterthought, waiting to be noticed behind the Warhol simulacra.
Regardless of these locally grounded concerns, the museum remains a delight for aficionados of global art, thus fulfilling one of the primary functions that prompted the Basque government to bid for it in the first place: a desire to bring “world-class” cultural opportunities to the region. The museum has most certainly accomplished this, with its famous building — itself an artwork — its photogenic permanent statuary; its blockbuster rotating exhibits; not to mention its willingness to entangle itself in the controversies of the art world. During my visit in June 2018, the Bilbao museum was hosting an impressive Chagall retrospective, but it had also entered one of the most contentious ethical storms to rock the art world in recent memory. When “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World” arrived at the Guggenheim mothership in New York City in Fall 2017, three works that exploit animals were withdrawn because of protests and threats of violence by activist groups. Guggenheim Bilbao chose to show two of these censored works, including a modified version of Huang Yong Ping’s installation, also titled “Theater of the World,” which features live reptiles and insects fighting for survival in a wood and wire cage. (This was, incidentally, the exhibition advertised with the Matrix spoof mentioned above.)
“Theater of the world” indeed. It’s tempting to wonder how the experience of the landmark museum and its cutting-edge exhibitions might intersect with the Basque Country’s other world-famous aesthetic offering, its cuisine, defined by regional delicacies as well as cosmopolitan sophistication. Nearby Donostia-San Sebastián is home to more Michelin-star rated restaurants than any other place in the world, and the region has long been known for its elite gastronomic societies. What does it mean that a member of one of these institutions might relish a lunch of angulas — baby eels, a traditional and threatened Basque delicacy — and then spend the afternoon contemplating primordial survival as metaphor for humanity inside the Guggenheim?
The success of the Bilbao effect, like all twenty-first-century urban revitalization movements, might be measured by how well the opportunities presented by global capitalism can stretch and enhance a region’s existing culture without destroying it. Yet despite attempts by cities around the world to replicate Bilbao’s success, the results here are in fact mixed. Bilbao is beautiful, and gentrification has made it increasingly so. The city is cleaner and more livable, and it features a busy, growing metro system with forty-eight stations, as well as a network of modern streetcars.
The estuary’s waterfront, formerly an industrial wasteland, now boasts miles of well-utilized parkland. The Guggenheim’s distinctive architecture indeed created a lasting boom in design; the district surrounding the museum boasts a number of innovative high-rise structures that complement and play on the Gehry masterpiece. Renewed interest in urban aesthetics has also prompted appreciation for Bilbao’s architectural past. Many of the city’s nineteenth-century apartment buildings possess distinctive window-box balconies, which provide residents sheltered lookouts overhanging Bilbao’s rainy, labyrinthine streets. Previously stained black from soot, many of these buildings have been or are in the process of being renovated. Scaffolding hangs everywhere.
Yet a mile or two down the estuary from the Guggenheim, an artist named SpY recently painted a giant mural reading Soñar on the flank of a warehouse [photo]. The Spanish verb for “to dream” rises over the river like a slogan, a little like the giant concrete “HACK” spelt out in the courtyard of the Facebook campus. How does it read to Bilbao Basques, who universally speak Spanish, but who may perhaps prefer to “dream” in their ancestral language? And, of course, rents are rising each year, in Bilbao and across Spain. Airbnbs and other short-term rentals are proliferating, ensuring that they will further exacerbate the cost of living, as they do everywhere, and propagate tourist infiltration and the “hipster aesthetic” that accompanies it: reclaimed wood and Edison bulbs, to the mass-produced tune of IKEA or Zara Home depending upon the operator’s budget. Warhol permeates here as well. Anyone who has stayed in an Airbnb anywhere knows that Marilyn Monroe’s image is an all-too-common choice for wall décor.
And how does SpY’s Soñar¸ not to mention the Guggenheim, look to Bilbao’s most vulnerable residents, in particular, its immigrant communities, which are growing? Spain has attracted increasing numbers of immigrants since the turn of the century. Today, immigrants make up over 10% of the population. Many of these newcomers left Latin America, but in recent years, migration trends from Africa and the Middle East, which have tested resources and triggered xenophobia elsewhere in Europe, have been shifting increasingly toward Spain. A series of migrant landings in the vicinity of Mediterranean beach resorts have been exploited by paranoid right-wing media outlets. But it’s nevertheless the case that illegal immigration to the Iberian Peninsula is undeniably changing in frequency and magnitude. Over 30,000 migrants have arrived in Spain so far in 2018. During my visit, a ship carrying 600 people across the Mediterranean created considerable humanitarian concern when it was turned away from Italy and Malta until the brand-new Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez welcomed the immigrants in Valencia.
The Basque Country has seen lower amounts of immigration than other regions of Spain, but this is changing. Following the tightening of security in Calais, camps of migrants headed for Britain have increasingly appeared near the busy Bilbao port, a gateway for ferries and cargo between Southern Europe and the UK. During the past year, stowaways from Bilbao have been the subject of several high-profile reports in the British and Irish media. Anti-immigrant sentiment in Spain has not, for now at least, reached the level it has in some other Western European countries. This appears to be the case even as Spain has experienced in its recent history considerable Islamist terror, including last summer’s truck attack on La Rambla in Barcelona, which killed fourteen people, as well as Western Europe’s worst-ever terrorist attack, the 2004 Madrid Atocha railway bombing, which left 193 dead at the hands of Al-Qaeda.
Indeed, Spain may be the only country in Western Europe, if not the world, where major Islamist terror events have influenced a populace to reconsider the root causes of violence, and not simply to retreat into xenophobia or militant reaction. Both of these events had the political effect of swaying opinion in favour of Spain’s disentanglement from American-led involvement in the Middle East, particularly the Madrid bombing, which cost the government of Bush-administration ally José María Aznar an election, leading to Spain’s withdrawal of troops from the Iraq war. It is not, however, difficult to imagine a change in sentiment should a further instance of terror take place, or should there be further shifts in migration trends or their representation in the media.
The white metal scales of Gehry’s building refract the fraught history and changing present of Bilbao, as well as its layered position, first in Euskal Herria (the “land where Basque is spoken”), then in Spain, then Europe, and finally the world at large. On the occasion of the museum’s twentieth anniversary last year, a number of writers and critics sought to weigh in on the Guggenheim, but several recent political developments make it even more pertinent to reevaluate the “Bilbao effect” in 2018.
One is the status of regional independence movements in Spain. Bilbao has long been the seat of the Basque Nationalist Party (although the capital of the Basque Autonomous Region actually lies in Vitoria-Gasteiz), and a site of regionalist resistance and protest. In recent years, the epicentre of Spanish regional independence movements has shifted dramatically from the Basque Country to Catalonia. The most important development to cite here, of course, is the successful October 2017 Catalan independence plebiscite, the outcome of which Madrid has not recognized. Madrid’s snub remains unresolved. Many of the movement’s organizers remain in prison or exile, although the situation is evolving with new leadership in Madrid; the new socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has expressed more openness to an autonomy dialogue with Catalonia.
A Basque milestone transpired more quietly on May 2, 2018, when ETA, the militant group responsible for 829 deaths since its inception in 1959, finally disbanded. ETA began as an anti-fascist instrument, even killing Franco’s probable successor Luis Carrero Blanco with a bomb. After Franco’s death in 1975, ETA became a fringe movement because of its continued commitment to violence, yet continually rattled the nerves of Spain’s post-fascist democracy. A final straw for many was the bombing of a parking garage at Madrid’s Barajas Airport in 2006, which broke a ceasefire and killed two Ecuadorian immigrants sleeping in their cars. Many Basques and Spaniards alike breathed a sigh of relief at the news of ETA’s dissolution, which had been cautiously anticipated during the decade since the Barajas attack.
The Basque and Catalan independence movements have long held anti-colonialist orientations, seeing themselves, in many ways, as instruments against the lingering hegemony of the Spanish empire on the Iberian Peninsula. The politics of Catalan and Basque autonomy remain complex, yet today, it seems a positive development that the estelada and the ikurriña —the Catalan and Basque flags, respectively—can be spotted not only in their home regions but sometimes, especially in Bilbao and across the Basque Country, together in solidarity.
Both movements, as well as the complex Bilbao effect, are also worth reconsidering in the context of another recent movement that has gained special traction in Spain, the city-level political orientation known as municipalism.
A little like the “sanctuary cities” movement in the United States, which resists the Trump administration’s immigration policy with local laws and protocols designed to help people who actually live in a city or region (regardless of legal status), Spanish municipalism attempts to build productive, local coalitions between people alienated by traditional institutions, many of which operate at the state level: immigration protocols, officially sanctioned channels of protest, the banking and lending system, and even the nation-state itself.
Rather than risk reproducing the problematic structures of the nation-state as it presently exists, municipalism aspires to create functional democratic systems at the civic level through direct democracy and action. Originally theorized by the American philosopher Murray Bookchin, in Spain, the movement has roots in Indignados, the Spanish equivalent of Occupy Wall Street, as well as contemporary feminist movements. As Masha Gessen recently reported in The New Yorker, municipalism has achieved considerable success in Barcelona under the leadership of Mayor Ada Colau, where the movement has taken up the moniker “Barcelona en Comú” or “Barcelona in Common.” Colau, notably, is against Catalan independence. Her program has been especially supportive of immigrants, women, and other marginalized people in a city that is rapidly becoming one of Europe’s most expensive.
Although the long-term power of municipalist movements is a work in progress, in many ways it stands as a refreshingly positive, pragmatist current amid the nationalist, anti-immigrant wave sweeping Europe. The functional formula here has to do with rethinking the scale of useful government. At the municipal level, the proximity of one’s neighbours, their benign differences, and the abundant visibility of local problems to residents who encounter them on a regular basis are converted into a political resource. Eventually, the idea is that local, municipal level coalitions could, through tangible, real-world achievements, build enough clout to leapfrog over national governments to negotiate directly with larger bodies, such as the European Union, on issues such as immigration and the environment.
Bilbao’s gentrification pattern of the past two decades, which has been catalyzed but not entirely defined by the Guggenheim Museum, is not exactly a municipalist movement. In the context of municipalism, however, the so-called “Bilbao effect” might be rethought, not as a goal in and of itself, but as an enabling background condition to lay the foundation for a more functional, fair municipality that interfaces more directly with the world at large on behalf of its actual citizens. The failures of Basque and Catalan independence in the face of consolidated Spanish power in Madrid is disappointing insofar as these movements both attempt to honour marginalized regional identities, languages, as well as to rectify imperialist history. But if the cat of international capitalism is already out of the bag, so to speak, the most productive work may be taking stock of local resources — aware of, but also in spite of the complex and sometimes exploitative histories that created them — and putting them to better use for the people who actually rely upon them.
The Guggenheim was built as a far-flung tentacle of American wealth and influence. As Gehry himself joked in a recent interview, when he first drove over the hill and saw the completed museum, he said to himself, “What the fuck have I done to these people.” Its presence and meaning in Bilbao is the product of a series of coincidences and overlapping interests, of localism, nationalism, and globalism. Yet it is important to recognize that it also constitutes lasting infrastructure, connecting Bilbao directly to the larger “theatre of the world”: its presence has encouraged the creation of further infrastructure. Perhaps the “Bilbao effect” is best considered a transitional state? Perhaps the real work begins now, with a municipalist project in which its opportunities are distributed more equally?
One helpful rubric for rethinking the role of infrastructure in contemporary politics comes from Judith Butler, in her most recent book Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly. Against Hannah Arendt, Butler argues that we cannot take it for granted that the spaces where meaningful politics can occur — what Arendt called “the space of appearance” — will simply materialize. In fact, the street itself, and other forms of infrastructure are essential co-creators of the possibility for further action: “the task is actually to let the infrastructure become part of the new action, even a collaborative actor…if politics is oriented toward the making and preserving of the conditions that allow for livability, then it seems that the space of appearance is not ever fully separable from questions of infrastructure and architecture and that they not only condition the action but take part in the making of the space of politics.”
But — and this is key — infrastructure is not always a good thing. Some forms may serve the “decimation of livable life.” In cities where a “Bilbao effect” has been experienced, perhaps the preliminary task — for municipalists, as well as for other progressive activists — is to identify which infrastructural elements are “collaborative actors” that might afford improved “livability,” and what elements are problematic.
Surely the answer to this question depends upon competent local leadership, as well as tolerance for shifting demographics. Future infrastructure will need to contain space for reflection and protest for those who have a special historical tie to a region — the Basque people, in the case of Bilbao — and just as importantly for vulnerable newcomers. The problem is that profound contradictions often inhabit the same infrastructural site, especially when major investment is involved. In Bilbao, the Guggenheim is the prime example of this. The recently remodelled Mercado de la Ribera, one of the Bilbao effect’s jewels, is another.
Online tourism guides advise that everyone who visits Bilbao should visit Ribera. Inside, you will find excellent fresh ingredients in one of the largest and most vibrant markets in Europe. The renovated art deco structure has retained much of its historical charm; its meat, seafood, and produce stalls thrive beneath stunning blue and yellow stained glass. A diverse range of vendors and clients use the facility, which appears to serve the city at large. You can arrive by way of a sleek, modern streetcar, which stops just outside the main entrance. If you are staying in an Airbnb, as I did, your host will insist that you buy your groceries there: the quality and prices are excellent. Downstairs, on the new “Gastroplaza” floor, there are classic pintxos—Basque Country tapas—some even garnished with a few angulas. I can attest that snapshots of the Gastroplaza’s culinary offerings earn record levels of Instagram affection. One spectacular counter called La Bodeguilla sells a dozen varieties of the gilda, perhaps the quintessential Basque pinxto, and a wonderfully simple one. Named for Rita Hayworth’s classic femme fatale, they traditionally consist of two skewered olives, a guindilla pepper, and a Cantabrian anchovy: the shape of a woman’s body, according to my Basque friend Iker. La Bodeguilla modifies them with smoked mussels, quail eggs, and other delights. [photo]
Yet the danger of over-gentrification, at Ribera, is acute. The hipster aesthetic of the Gastroplaza has spilt across a footbridge to the other side of the Nervión, where new restaurants and apartments are climbing the hill toward the city’s main immigrant neighbourhood. For now, the area’s vibrant main drag still hosts halal butchers, African and latinoamericano groceries, leather shops, and tea and kebab houses, which flourish side-by-side with traditional Spanish bakeries and tiendas. But energized by Ribera’s success, the scaffolding of redevelopment encroaches. I know this because it’s where my Airbnb was located.
For all of its pleasures, the pitfalls of postmodern self-replication — which can be a kind of excess or even abandon, depending upon how it is managed — are coded into Mercado de la Ribera’s very design. The food hall’s modern style and communal tables resemble other twenty-first-century urban cafeteria projects that are changing traditional neighbourhoods across the world: the Mercado San Miguel in Madrid, for instance, or the Ferry Building in San Francisco. Or, for that matter the new Santa Barbara Public Market in my own Southern Californian corner of the former Spanish empire — explicitly designed in the spirit of San Miguel and the Ferry Building — which the food hall at Ribera also resembles. Where I now go when I want to feel nostalgic for time spent in Bilbao, or Madrid, or San Francisco.
If one were to encounter angulas in any of these uncanny settings, one might want to double-check to make sure they have eyes. The eels are so prized, not only in the Basque Country but also in Asia, that their numbers in the rivers feeding into the Bay of Biscay have been dwindling for some time: unsurprising that harvesting en masse the fragile young of a species would negatively disrupt its lifecycle. A kilogram of angulas can cost 1000 €, which has created a considerable market for imitation baby eels called “gulas,” made from fish paste. Fake angulas don’t have faces.
“You’ve got to be pretty immune to the world to not see the obvious metaphor here,” remarked Anthony Bourdain, the late chef and documentarian, when confronted with his own experience of seafood deception in Sicily (a friend of Bourdain’s deviously tried to pass off frozen supermarket seafood for the live catch during a spearfishing expedition). The sentiment fits here as well, and not just because it’s about fish. Although Bourdain never made an episode for any of his series in Bilbao, he knew the Basque Country and its cuisine well—he was a frequent visitor to San Sebastián—and his work, especially in Parts Unknown, revelled in precisely the kinds of paradoxes presented by the Bilbao effect. Bourdain hanged himself in a hotel room in Alsace on 8 June, 2018, the day I left for Spain.
Photographs by Erika Carlos, except the SOÑAR image, courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.