The installation “Roma non si vende” (2016) created by Spanish artist Jorge Conde as part of Encuentros de Arte Contemporáneo (EAC 2017) at the University of Alicante Museum (MUA) closed last July. This installation consisted of a series of unseen works created in 2016 as resident artist at the Royal Academy of Spain in Rome (Italy).

"Roma non si vende borrows its name from a series of billboards and propaganda flyers that were distributed in Rome a few weeks prior to Saturday March 19th 2016, when a huge demonstration was scheduled in order to protest against several economic and social policies promoted by the Italian government. In addition to that, at that time the city of Rome itself had been suffering from a long-term lack of municipal government which ended up causing an even deeper institutional crisis” said the artist. “Conceptually, this installation must be understood as part of the project "A World-Size House", an artistic investigation on the social, architectural and urban impact derived from the recuperation and transformation of previously abandoned buildings and degraded urban areas in Italy's capital city. To do so, I explored up to seventeen obsolete, disused urban areas or abandoned buildings that in the past three decades were rescued from oblivion and given a second life as cultural institutions”.

Born in 1968 in Barcelona (Spain), Jorge Conde has developed a unique style focusing on consumerism, market society and its future, as well as the importance of power relations in contemporary societies. Really interesting in his practice is the interest not only for taking a critical approach but for cultural practices being useful for social transformation. I met Conde on the occasion of his residency at the Spanish Academy in Rome last year and from then we are in contact since I am interested in his practice. For this reason I am pleased to meet him again for a short interview.

Could you tell us how did you conceive and develop your project A World-Size House? In your opinion why a “renovatio urbis” process based on culture is better than other processes based on different transformation factors?

In 2008 most of us were officially informed by the media of the start of an unprecedented financial crisis sped up by the default of a large number of subprime home loans in the US and the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers. Being myself an artist, I soon realized this announcement was to have a huge impact on culture and cultural institutions. It was then when a decided to launch a project called “Any Place Is Another Place”, an investigation on some apparently utopian city planning models and the paradigms that at that time prevailed in contemporary culture. To do so, I searched for and explored obsolete, disused buildings that since the late 1980s had been recuperated and transformed into cultural facilities or cutting-edge spaces for the arts, mainly in European and American cities.

From that long-term analysis followed the will to start a new project, “A World-Size House”, conceived as a more locally-oriented research aiming at exploring the said subject and its social impact in the city of Rome. Consequently, I devised a taylor-made, in-depth methodology consisting of site inspections, interviews, photo and video shootings, sound recordings, and the engagement in a series of activities having to do with architecture, urban planning and other socially-relevant trends. I selected Rome because of its rich, stratified history, the large number and diversity of such regeneration-transformation projects, and its bold, often times chaotic urban planning, and also given that for the field work and the creative processes, as well as for the production of works, I could rely on the Spanish Academy’s logistic and institutional support.

Today’s cities are complex, multicultural, constantly-evolving environments where a myriad of urban experiments are implemented and many social tensions take place. Provided that urban areas will be home to most of the world’s population in the near future, it is fair to say contemporary cities are being renovated on a daily basis, at an extremely fast pace and hence creating economic, social, cultural and environmental conflicts along the way. See, for instance, such phenomena as expanded mobility, real estate speculation, social dispersion, ghettoization and gentrification. From my experience, I do believe culture in general is to play a valuable counter-balancing role in this historical period –quite often defined as a time of great uncertainty-, as a means to preserve the memory of each territory while helping cities move forward into the future in a more inclusive, egalitarian, dignified manner. In addition to that, it is important to highlight that culture, just as formal education does, helps us think critically and has the power to set intellectual and behavioural trends, and ultimately transform the world through action.

If I am right your previous project was #esegalloquieremaìz, can you tell us something about this project and if it was linked to the project you developed in Rome?

This project was the result of an intense, thought-provoking collaboration with the Curatorial Studies Department at the Rovira i Virgili University (URV), in Tarragona (Spain). #esegalloquieremaìz (“That Rooster Wants Some Corn”) is an artistic reflection on the events that occurred in Iguala (Mexico) the night of September 26th, 2014 and the morning after: the brutal murders of 6 people and the disappearance of 43 students from the historical Ayotzinapa Rural Normal School, also known as "normalistas".

As a matter of fact, from the very beginning I intended to use these atrocious events, together with my previous experience as a foreigner living in Mexico for several years, as a departing point from which to ignite a reflection on some problems common to most contemporary societies: inequality, corruption, impunity, abuse of power, organized crime, crisis of values, human rights violations, etc.

Although the Mexican and Roman projects do not share a triggering concept nor the same methodology, since the former involved a lot of media research, archival work and history manipulation, while the latter prioritized field work instead, they do share a constructive spirit and a strong determination to provide people with a selection of hopefully-inspirational artistic tools that can be used to unveil some of our society’s inner workings, and, most importantly, to perhaps challenge the status quo by rethinking some of our beliefs and paradigms, who knows… Similarly, both projects need to be understood as artistic artifacts concerned with the social function of art, its ability to raise awareness, advance dignity, and promote useful debates for the public at large.

In your opinion can art help us to rethink our society and our point of view on society and generally life really based on an economic view? Is this only an utopia?

Absolutely. And I don´t think this is a form of utopia or wishful thinking. As I mentioned, art and culture stimulate critical thinking and can therefore help us challenge the status quo by adopting a more comprehensive, socially-balanced perspective. They also have the potential to promote useful debates for society, especially regarding those topics that seldomly appear in the media or are included in the economic and political leaders’ agenda. Likewise, art often becomes a means for social groups lacking visibility to “occupy” the public realm, meaning the streets, institutions or social networks, where they can more freely express their thoughts, feelings and concerns.

Nevertheless, my words are to be understood neither as a call out to revolution nor as a denial of consumer society’s positive aspects, but rather as a way of pointing out its enormous complexity and achieving higher-level consciousness. From there, it is crucial to engage people in a morally robust debate that leads us to identify and rethink what is not working properly, introduce thoughtful changes, and fix some of its most potentially dangerous flaws. In that sense, art and culture can become extremely powerful tools in order to spread ethical values, empower people, encourage participation, and eventually transform our collective understanding of market society. It is thus crucial to influence those who have the power to decide how social policies are organized, funded, prioritized and implemented. Aside from that, it is clear that ours is a declining system that needs to be reformed, or that at least in some aspects requires major adjustments. A purely economic approach to this challenge is undoubtedly insufficient. A new, improved ethos is needed. Art and artists, together with cultural institutions of all kinds, public and private ones, have to take an active role and become part of the solution.

You lived in Italy last year, from the point of view we are talking about which are the main differences between Italy and Spain and which are the factors in common?

My residency in Italy last year allowed me to experience in more depth some traits of Italian society, especially within the cultural sector. To be honest, I found far more similarities than differences between what nowadays happens in Italy and Spain. Needless to say that there is quite a number of artists and collectives whose practice deals with social conflicts and even consider themselves activists. The same applies to public institutions, which in recent years tend to be more open to socially-responsible projects and do not hesitate to include critical reflection, interdisciplinary practices, collaborative processes, and quite countercultural, controversial topics in their discourse and educational programs.

Generally speaking, both countries suffer from a growing sense of detachment from traditional politics and institutions. Wherever you go and whoever you talk to, leaders are viewed with great mistrust, and that either stimulates individualism or collaboration, isolating hedonism or activism, depending on various factors. They just don’t seem to care for the public good, and that undoubtedly creates deep feelings of uncertainty and frustration, hopelessness perhaps.

Information and misinformation are all around us. Even in remote areas, we all have instant access to uncountable stimuli, more or less truthful contents and ideas, and this creates a labyrinth of confusion. In such a saturated context, more and more people speak out against the fact market society’s values have come to dominate all aspects of life, and how our democracy is gradually deteriorating into a pool of power politics and ferocious competition. This happens in Italy and in Spain too. There are, however, some domestic factors –or priorities- that make both societies focus on different things. I would dare to say Italians have greater concern for organizational matters, bureaucracy, institutional weakness and the migration-to-Europe crisis (migrants and refugees) Italy has been facing for several years now, and this is indeed a huge problem that affects us all to some extent, requires global agreements and coordinated action. Even though it is a challenge shared by all EU countries, I do think Spaniards are generally more focused on issues such as political instability, inequality, housing, unemployment, and the possibility of the whole welfare system collapsing. But let me insist, all of these concerns are general and common to most European societies.

Could you anticipate something about your future projects? Is there something up?

Fortunately, I am quite busy these days. Regarding “A World-Size House”, I am looking forward to exhibiting its entire body of works in Rome and in some other major Italian cities. Assuming that this project elaborates on the social and urban implications of a worldwide trend, Rome is unarguably the city where it makes the most sense and the whole of Italy its most natural context. The field work was entirely done in Rome’s metropolitan area and it is referred to several of its flagship cultural institutions and most popular “quartieri”. It is thus crucial to share this investigation with Italian audiences and propose an on-site, thought-provoking dialogue. At this stage I am exploring partnerships with adequate institutions and professionals with whom to establish mutually enriching collaborations and develop a series of activities on this subject matter.

To round up this project, increase awareness and reach wider audiences, I do believe it is fundamental to compile its most relevant contents and summarize its creative processes in the form of a more compact publication, an artist’s book of sorts. This work shall include a thoughtful selection of all materials that were collected during the documentation and field work phases, including photographic works, making-of visuals, exhibition views and interview transcripts.

Lastly a brief mention to a new video work I am currently editing included in “The Scarred Transporter”, another of my long-term projects. This video installation deals with the notion of technological utopia, our behaviour as consumers, and its “inevitable” environmental consequences. In this particular piece, I present the automobile as a source of endless emotions and experiences, a scarred and yet sexy machine which still incarnates technological utopia and confirms the supremacy of a global socioeconomic model. Conceptually, this project focuses on how the lure of technology can potentially jeopardize ethics, suppress critical thinking and spirituality, seriously damage nature, and even speed up the retreat of those disciplines belonging to the realm of humanities.