The Universal Forum of Cultures in Barcelona-
By Jennifer L. Cross
Where can you go to find Mikael Gorbachev, levitating Indians, flying Mexicans, and a 40 foot mechanical hybrid of an ocean monster and goat?
Maybe during a peyote ritual with the lost Tsohon-Djapa tribe in the Javari region of the Amazon. But they might be difficult to find. You can encounter all these peculiarities and save yourself the time and trouble by visiting The Universal Forum of Cultures in Barcelona.
Moving the World One Theme at a Time
Forum Barcelona 2004 has been marketed as "a gathering that will move the world.” It will last from May 9 to September 26 and is being held in a massive new complex that was built specifically for this unprecedented event, costing over 300 million euros.
In addition to the events at the Forum site, the whole city has been transFORUMized. During the 141 days and nights of the Forum the city will host 20 exhibitions, 1,500 performances, 10,000 performers, 180 music, theatre, dance and street shows, a city carnival and the largest gathering of tall ships ever seen in one harbor.
You can imagine Forum Barcelona 2004 as an event that aims to combine the fun of a theme park with the social and environmental awareness of Greenpeace. It hopes to bring together people from all over the world in a revolutionary collective project based around three core "themes": "sustainable development", "cultural diversity", and "conditions for peace".
Building a Forum
Constructing the Forum site was no small feat. It involved literally rebuilding a highly residential part of the city where a great many of Barcelona´s working class reside. The site is about 74 acres worth of plazas, parks and ports and the largest convention center in Southern Europe. Most notably are five main areas, Peace Park, the Port, the Plaza, the Forum Building and the Convention Center.
Within each of these areas exists a wide range of exhibits. For example, the Port contains 12 exhibits and performance sites ranging from an authentic small top Romanian circus and an urban graffiti space to a symbolic and strange production called " Move the World" . Throughout the site you can find "Cubes of Good Ideas" -- large glass cubes featuring ecologic inventions that you may not think to pick up on your next trip to Home Depot, such as a biodegradable coffin and chairs made of decomposing mulch.
For´um or Against?
Perhaps in reading this you have a feeling of hope that a massive event like Forum Barcelona 2004 is indicative of the fact that we are becoming aware that we need to become aware. Instead of spending your day meandering on Las Ramblas, stopping in McDonalds for patatas fritas and spending your hard earned, recently exchanged euros at Nike Barcelona, you can spend the day enriching yourself culturally while having a ton of fun. As with everything in Barcelona, there are two sides to the spectrum and not everyone sees the Forum as a utopian jubilee.
A considerable amount of Barcelona's citizens have put their time and energy into protesting the Forum. They believe the Forum is an excuse to spend tax payers money to build a world class convention center in an effort to help drive commerce in Barcelona. They argue that it has very little to do with helping the world become a better place.
Forum critics have staged a number of protests over the past few months. Most notably, on July 18, a group of Barcelona's malcontent sailed into the private Forum Beach on small rafts and climbed ashore to speak their minds without their clothes on.
In addition, antiforumers have linked some of the Forum´s revered sponsors to questionable Forum-friendly practices. They claim that sponsors Nestlé and El Corte Inglés utilize not-so-fare trade practices. Also, they have connected sponsors Telefónica Soluciones and BBVA´s client Boeing to the production of nuclear weapons. The exclusive Forum soft drink sponsor, Coca-Cola, is a known perpetrator in leading America's capitalist crusade across the planet. When visitng Coca-Cola headquarters use our listings to find Atlanta budget hotels.
They find it questionable at best that while one of the Forum's core themes, "cultural diversity,” aspires tocreate cultural awareness in the face of an ever-increasing global melting pot, the Forum sponsor, Iberia Airlines, is known to deport illegal refugees from Barcelona back to their politically unstable countries of origin.
After several months of waffling over spending €35.70 for a three-day Forum pass, I concluded that I would have to go and see for myself. Is the Forum just a green PR smokescreen to ultimately increase Barcelona´s commerce or is it an event capable of moving the world?
Following two trips and a total of over 20 hours at the Forum, I concluded that to describe in detail one day at the Forum would take longer then the 141 days that it will be open. The following are aspects of the Forum that, in the humble opinion of this observer, truly aspire to "move the world.”
The Forum entrance is called Access and it is here that the Forum Building is located. In a city that is world renowned for its non-conformist architecture, the Forum Building has been met with both architectural praise and criticism. The blue triangular shaped structure is covered with large shard-like windows and houses a 3,200 seat auditorium. The Forum Building is next to the Convention Center which can fit up to 15,000 people. It is here where those willing to shell out the additional 30+€ can participate in dialogues focusing on topics ranging from “The Role of Education and Culture in Development” to “Cultural Diversity and the Media.”
Following the Access you enter Haima, an immense tent-like structure that houses 15 displays that have been created with different NGOs and UN agencies to raise awareness of various issues, such as refugees and fair trade. Here there are shops which sell such fair-trade products as well as handicraft demonstrations.
The displays use real-life examples to show viewers some of the inadequacies resulting from unfair trade practices. For example, among the multitudes red carnations in one display, resides a solitary white one. It represents the price that the migrant worker is paid for all the others that are picked. These kind of visual representations are good because it puts into perspective the basics of fair trade practices and allows the viewer to see the devastating effects that low-cost globalized labor has on the individual.
At the Giant of the 7 Seas Performance in The Park, you are accosted by a 40 foot mechanical sea monster (from a safe distance). He was found during the construction of the Forum site and he is part ocean beast and part goat (we will not speculate on the circumstances that made this genetically possible here). He was created as a result of marine pollution, and he has aggressive mood swings which vacillate between anger and tenderness. This is supposed to make us think about our role in the conservation of the natural environment. The monster's bipolar tendency to spew water on spectators is accompanied by industrially frightening music, the impressive acrobatics of a theatre troupe and an emulative Evel Knievel motorcyclist.
Other things you can find in The Park are "Sea Neighbors,” "Sustainable Vehicles” and "Recyclable Houses.” Sea Neighbors includes rescued sea turtles and other marine life. The sea turtles are in recovery after being tormented by things such as hooks, nets and toxic ingestants like transparent plastic bags which were mistaken for jellyfish. Once they have recovered they will return to their marine environment.
Sustainable vehicles is an exhibit brought to you by Toyota. Coincidentally, upon exiting the Forum metro stop you are greeted by a comprehensive ecological Toyota advertising campaign. All of the cars on exhibit use alternative energies such as hydrogen. You get a shiny brochure upon entering the site that touts Toyota's commitment to the environment and creating cars that run on sustainable forms of energy.
In light of recent developments in the depletion of oil reserves, let’s hope that Toyota is working overtime to mainstream these alternative energies and get these Back to the Future DeLoreanesque cars on the road -- perhaps complete with a "Mr. Fusion Home Energy Converter" like the one found in Marty McFly´s time traveler.
If you are a city dweller, then you have probably at one time or another marveled at the resourcefulness of your city's homeless population when it comes to constructing shelter. As such, the Forum applauds alternative construction. This can be seen at the Recyclable Housing exhibit were homes are made of empty water bottles, soda cans and recycled cardboard.
Here you can watch and participate as Forum workers build a house out of the above mentioned materials. You can also participate in the building of an igloo-shaped structure which is made primarily of leftover milk boxes (milk in Spain is unpasteurized and served in cardboard boxes). Though it may be difficult to imagine actually living in one of these houses unless you were in fact homeless or living in Spain where it never rains (or homeless and living in Spain), they show that eco-friendly forms of housing are possible.
So you can see Mikael Gorbachev in the Convention Center, the sheep/Kraken at the Park but what about the flying Mexican warriors and levitating Indians? To find these, head to the Port where you will also find the exhibit "Inhabiting the World" and the production "Move the World.”
The Flying Mexicans are the "Voladores de Papantla" ("Flying Men of Papantla"). According to Totonaca legend, when the gods asked man to dance, the voladores were not about to argue with them. Not only did they avow to dance, but they decided to do it from a 98-foot pole. They don't exactly dance though. Rather, they climb up the pole, tie ropes to their feet and then slowly -- and in a unified graceful movement -- launch themselves into the air and wind their way down to the ground. Each "volador" goes around the pole 13 times and together they circle the pole 52 times. There are 52 weeks in a Mayan calendar year and 52 years to a solar circle. The whole time they are falling, enchanting flute music is accompanying them on their decent.
Inhabiting the World is described as "a major exhibition that revolves around humanity's occupation of the planet and the socio-environmental impacts and problems that this generates.” In this exhibit, you enter a large,lowly lit space (which is noted will be totally reused for future building projects) to find illustrations and frightening facts about the havoc we are imposing on the natural world. It is accompanied by foreboding music.
You may think twice the next time you are pumping gas into your SUV or running out of the house with your AC on high after being confronted with statistics like "in one year, we will consume a quantity of oil that took the earth 1 million years to produce" and "more than half the energy we produce is lost as a result of inefficiency and squandering.” At least that is what the exhibition hopes. Utilizing the visual tactic again, in this exhibit you can find 25,000 empty liters of water -- the amount of water an average western family uses in one month. And if you ever wondered how much trash you produce in one year, it is about 1,800 kg or 22,046 pounds -- all of which is displayed in thousands of trash bags.
Moving right along: If you find yourself at a production that utilizes a giant steel globe structure located in the middle of a harbor marina and huge amount of fireworks, you may assume that Kiss would be involved somehow. Not necessarily. "Omkarakala," or "Move the World," is an intensely symbolic large-scale production that happens every evening at 10 p.m. and is supposed to be a dynamic interpretation of the ability to reach resolution through dialogue.
In the beginning, the globe is disassembled and several steel platforms come together to the beat of really prolific doomsday, techno music. This completed sphere represents the world in conflict. Large-scale images are projected on the sphere, which indicate global problems such as hunger, pollution and war. Suddenly hundreds of chairs emerge from the waters of the Sant Adrià del Besòs and people in white body suits swim to them. This symbolizes the need to sit down, talk and create a forum. When they take their seats, the imagesin the globe are suddenly gone and the pyrotechnics take over. The sphere opens again and is transformed into a giant water Lilly.
Space Mountain it Ain´t - Thankfully
Now the big question: After spending the better part of two days at the Forum site as well as some of the city exhibits, did I feel the world move? Not quite. Some would argue it is a bit presumptuous to market an event as being able to move the world when people outside of the host city are completely unaware of its existence. It was fun and I certainly learned some things, but I don't think the Forum has had the same impact on the world as its originators had envisioned back in 1999 when the idea was conceived. This event cost over 300 million euros and the ambitious goal for over 9 million people to attend is far from being met as it draws to a close. Perhaps in retrospect, they should have decided on more realistic, smaller goals for the initial Forum.
But the ideals set forth by the Forum have merit. This unique event recognizes the need to create awareness on a massive scale and to offer this awareness to the common citizen. This idea must have some credibility or the next Universal Forum of Cultures wouldn't be scheduled for 2007 in Monterrey. In addition, when you look at the alternative theme park-like options, culture and awareness is not at the forefront of things offered. (No, Epcot Center's World Showcase doesn't count.)
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