Barcelona’s Sonar Festival: From Party City To Arty City

Is Barcelona the new capital for culture in Europe? These last years, talk about Spain was mainly about economic crisis, skyrocketing unemployment rates and Spanish youth fleeing the country, to try to find an economic eldorado elsewhere. As usual in many cases, the youth of Europe were flying to the UK to try to find a more prosperous situation to utilise their 5 years + study and their hard earned college degrees. But just how many young Spanish graduates have you encountered working in London, lately?

It seems that the wind is starting to turn and now more and more people see Spain as the new frontier, to start over, with its recent 4% economic growth per year and its sunny weather all year round. Every year in June the Sonar Festival, attracts Europeans to Barcelona to celebrate a week of holidays in the sun, while London still has trouble launching its summer season. Like Florida, Spain has slowly started to focus on its own cultural and heritage order to build up its identity and attract people which creates investment. Sure, everyone’s heard of Gaudi, Picasso, Miro and Dali and the different museums built to celebrate this magnificient and long-appreciated heritage, but beyond this, Spain has finally decided to build new cultural point of references using contemporary culture to create and foster long-term interest and influence in Europe.

Last May, the local elections in Barcelona saw the left party come into power, and as a consequence, new measures using culture and the arts as a way to create economic and social value were voted and implemented. Before this, the last years have seen Barcelona transform in that sense, with the inauguration of the Factorial – cultural centres implemented in each district of the city celebrating and valorising Barcelona urban culture in its whole. This decision has been influenced by other European cultural policies, notably France’s and its Maisons Folies or Maisons de Quartiers, where culture was finally seen and apprehended as a mean to create social value and foster democratic and peaceful relationships in the social and political sphere while working on city-branding by catapulting the city into an European cultural scheme. 2014 was the date of the International Meeting of Art Factories for the Factorial, the vocation of which was to provide and international platform for debate and reflection on culture, studying how cultural institutions like the Factorial can develop and strenghten existing or new cultural, social and political networks among the population focusing on topics as large as creative development and economy, proximity and excellence or the role of cultural institutions in a city’s creative identity. Other institutions have completed the picture of Barcelona as the next artsy city : MACBA, CCCB Barcelona, Eat Meat are as many institutions playing a role in the new cultural identity of the city. Barcelona is becoming the next London or Berlin : In Spain, Madrid is corporate, Barcelona is artsy.

This new cultural identity has also been made possible by a cultural entity of its own : Sonar Festival. Every year since 1994, Sonar Festival attracts not far from 200,000 persons from all over Europe. From a sole music festival, Sonar has changed into a cross-cultural events, celebrating music of course but also the arts, technology and business, honouring creativity in general. Today, the full name of the festival falls under « International Festival of Advances Music and New Media Art ». Sonar has always been committed to being something more than just a music festival, and several activities and platforms focusing on different art forms are running parallel to the concerts. 

This year, Sonar+D and Sonar Planta are the two platforms that focused on visual arts and new media art, mixing technology and art and turning the festival into a real laboratory for creative innovation while creating space to insert culture into our new digital era. Sonar +D is a space for interaction between the creative and technology communities, studying how art and creativity can play a role into our interconnected societies. It focuses on the role of the creators in the context of technological innovation and the rise of digital platforms as new tools for the development of creative contents. Visual curators (Rutger Wolfson), creative entrepreneurs (Kickstater founder Yancey Strickler) or directors (SXSW Film Festival founder Jim Kolmar) gathered to present the current state of creativity in its many forms, bringing together representatives from across the digital culture spectrum.

One of these representatives is the artist. Sonar is a giant space for exchange and dialogue among the creators of new technology : the artist who uses it for his creations and the entrepreneurs and companies which add value to his work through their new business models. Sonar aims at repositioning the role and value of the artist and his work in today’s society. For that matter Sonar worked with The Sorigue Foundation for Sonar Planta to present the work of German art group ART+COM. « RGB/CMY Kinetic » is a multimedia installation based on light choreography suspended in the air, inspired by kinetic art and light air. The piece consists in five reflective discs soaring over the space, reflecting the light from three bulbs that projects primary colours on a large screen displayed on the floor. Through a system of motors and cables, the disks decompose the light in multiple tones of coulours. The sound is another element of the artwork, composed by Olafur Arnalds, the music is triggered by the position of the disks at any given time, offering the audience a meditative and transcendental total art experience where technology explores the poetic dimensions of nature’s principles.

Each year Sonar is changing the atmosphere and dynamics of the whole city, modifying its economy in boosting tourism and cultural consumption : in 2004, Sonar contributed 47 million euros to the region GDP and 52 million euros three years after. Moreover, Sonar leads to the implementation of hundreds other cultural events in relation to the festival itself, making of Barcelona a kind of cultural bubble during this period. This phenomenon comes directly from what we call « festivalism » where the feeling of effervescence allows the construction of  a situation totally separated from the aleas of daily-life. The imagination and participation of the audience helps create a collective identity by a phenomenon Simmel called « sociation ». Indeed, festival like Sonar fosters a unique and isolated moment and space where the audience is able to experience the same stimuli creating a sentiment of collective identity generated through aesthetic coherence. In other words, Sonar aims at becoming a platform for democratic practice and union in a multicultural city still affected by regionalisms, working at opening the city to Europe and the world with the help of culture instead of secluding it in old traditions.

Next autumn’s general elections in Spain will mark a turning point – will culture and the arts still be a main factor of growth for the next years or will cuts affect what Spain has succedeed to build with the help of its cultural heritage and identity in the past few years ?

The Next Sonar Festival Runs from 16-18 June 2016

 Words: Lea Bourgeteau © artlyst 2015

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