3 April – 26 August 2019
State of exception. In isolation. No contact with the exterior except through the screens we have surrounded ourselves with. Your emotions, fear, perplexity, affective expression, it is all reduced to fodder for big data. The unnerving sense of being white rats in a planet-sized laboratory in which the limits of consent and the conditions of surrender are being tested.
Windows, balconies and terraces have suddenly revealed themselves as spaces of hitherto unimagined symbolic intensity. On our balcony—as on so many others—seeds, sprouts, seedlings have become the most resilient metaphor for the strength of life, of all that came before these days of vigilance, of all that remains impervious to the menacing clamor of the media and persists, to the rhythm of the silent streets. A metaphor for our will to resist getting dragged along by the suicidal inertia of the promised return to a “normalcy” of inequality and precarity, of immediate and frenzied extractivism.
The future awaits these plants, as it awaits us, out there. They will be distributed as gifts, eventually becoming trees that aspire to be a forest in the containers we have made using newspaper pages from these dark days, pages that reflect the hackneyed professional gestures and vainglorious proclamations of the élite but also the voices and faces that are usually ignored that have proven so indispensable in defending our vulnerability. The images and texts will gradually yellow until they become illegible and disappear. While this is happening, these plants will find their places. In the balconies and the windows we have found a way to look backwards in order to glimpse the future, such that we may — as Walter Benjamin foretold — collectively pull the emergency brake.
Nerja (Malaga), Spain. March 14th, 2020. Due to the expansion of the coronavirus COVID-19, the central government decrees a state of alarm that places limits upon free circulation in public space, effectively constituting a confinement of the population in their places of residence.
In this context, the reactivation of an agreement signed between the City Council of Nerja and the Larios Sugar Company (Salsa Real Estate Company) is made public. The agreement authorises a change of use of some two million square meters of terrain. The goal is the construction of a golf course, various hotels and 680 luxury homes. Until now this terrain has enjoyed special protection as agricultural land; development has not been permitted.
The proposal — a surprising one, given its legal impossibility — begins to make sense in light of the Andalusian regional government’s approval of a macro-decree (during the period of exception and confinement) that serves to modify six previously existing laws and 21 decrees. In the name of “cleaning up bureaucratic hitches” this decree simplifies or directly eliminates up to one hundred administrative processes. Officials justify the decree as a means to provide the agility and flexibility required by free enterprise “when things return to normal.”
Despite physical isolation, we are in contact with family, friends, neighbors and colleagues. We share news, indignation, and rage against the opportunism and baseness of these actions. And we debate what measures can be taken in response. The state of alarm prevents any action beyond the virtual world of the network. Through the network we spread the word about these acts that the general public — in a state of shock due to the pandemia and reclusion— may not be aware of. We discuss and argue: data, information, dates, names. In these conversations the need inevitably arises to read the story backwards: only by looking back in time can we begin to understand the logic of these plans that aim to design our future, and decide how to confront them.
The Andalusian economy — in Malaga, in Nerja — is enormously based upon the third sector: the provision of services connected to the tourism industry, or else construction, also linked to tourism. Economic activity is presently operating at bare minimum levels, inert due to the commotion caused by a microscopic virus, as unexpected as it is deadly.
This is not the first time. In the mid 19th Century a parasitic insect affecting grapevines spread in less than a decade around the world, giving rise to an unprecedented crisis. Phylloxera (phylloxera vaxtratrix) appeared in Malaga in 1877, provoking the irreversible collapse of the then-buoyant economy based upon viticulture and its derivatives, principally wine.
The plague was especially damaging to the oriental part of the province, where grapevines were completely wiped out. All along the coast of this area, called the Axarquía (“Orient” in Arabic), sugar cane had been so predominant since times of Al Andalus that it shaped social relations and power. The industrialization of sugar in the early 19th Century turned the coastal area into a monoculture and turned one notable family of the Malaga plutocracy, the Larios, into the area’s largest landowner.
Through an aggressive policy of high-interest loans to small companies and farmers — who ultimately turned into tenant farmers — the Sociedad Azucarera Larios (Larios Sugar Company), founded in 1890, came to own fourteen sugar and alcohol factories and accumulate over 10 thousand hectares of land devoted to sugarcane production.
The gradual decline of the sugar industry in the second half of the 20th Century led the Larios family to abandon it in 1976, reorienting the company’s activity towards real estate. To exploit the over 10 million square meters of land it owned, Salsa Real Estate Company was formed in 1994. One of its subsidiary firms, Salsa Agricultural Company, is devoted to agribusiness, with nearly 80 thousand hectares under intensive tropical fruit (avocado) cultivation and rural tenancy.
Agroindustry and its use of fertilizers and pesticides is the principle source of soil and water pollution, and the principal consumer of water. Tourism, in turn, quadruples the average consumption of the resident population. This explains why Andalusia has the highest rate of water consumption in Spain, and the coastal area of Malaga has the highest rate in Andalusia. The exponential growth of “low cost” tourism, from airlines to lodging to car rental, has led to unprecedented levels of overcrowding. In 2019 Spain received over 83 million tourists, breaking its own record for the seventh year in a row.
This kind of massive tourism (currently on hold around the world) is showing signs of exhaustion, in part because other more competitive destinations have reappeared on the Southern and Eastern shores of the Mediterranean, and in part due to the over-exploitation of resources this tourism has brought on, forcing the territory to the very limit of its carrying capacity.
Lately the word “tourism” is always accompanied with some qualifying tag, “quality” or the unpardonable buzzword of the moment, “sustainable”, which in neoliberal parlance has been completely gutted of meaning, twisted to signify: continue on the same path of promoting “growth” through construction, accelerating towards collapse.
The present crisis does not have one obvious exit. We will not go back, seamlessly, to that senseless drifting we called “normalcy”. Together with the authoritarian elements within the institutions that this experiment is serving to reveal, what is at risk is our own survival. Everything will depend upon us having learned what is truly essential, in contrast with the idiocy that would push for constant development, endless mobility, ever-unsatisfied consumerism and profit as the only imperative, even at the cost of growing inequality.
Our survival depends upon us having come to understand — with the same clarity with which we have come to recognize the essential value of things formerly distained — that there are no ‘natural’ catastrophes, that they arise from the abusive exploitation of resources, the pillage of biodiversity. The only way out is to defend the fragile and precarious balance of nature, of which we ourselves form part, and which is the only thing that can protect us.
Rogelio López Cuenca (Nerja, Spain, 1959) and Elo Vega (Huelva, Spain, 1967) visual artists and researchers, they focus their artistic practice on the analysis of the mass media and the construction of identities. They collaborate in artistic projects that are at the same time devices of criticism of culture as a political instrument. Through audiovisual productions, exhibitions, publications, interventions in public spaces and on the networks, his work pays close attention to its procedural nature, their main objective is not the specific production of objects, but rather its aspiration to dissolve itself in longer-term processes, frequently overflowing the field of artistic practices to spread in other directions, other territories and other utilities.