Ravelejar: The Art of Neighborhood Branding (4/4)

Part 4: Defining Ravalejar, Redefining El Raval

Public art and monuments function to institutionalize the memories of a city. It has been argued that certain monuments in Barcelona seek to maintain  social order by imposing a historical logic over space: one that is imperialist, masculine, and fixed. However, the public art project and branding campaign known as “Ravalejar”, which took place in the neighborhood of El Raval, can be understood as an art object, a concept, and campaign that institutionalizes fluid and intersubjective histories of the city, empowering narratives that are often unheard and overlooked.

Image 1: Ravelejar public art installation

The Barrio Xino myth (see our earlier piece “Constructing the Mythology of Barrio Xino”) used the image of an ethnic other to mythologize the neighborhood’s precariousness.  To counter this negative history, Tot Raval, a coalition of public, private, and non-profit community groups, led a neighborhood branding campaign titled “Ravalejar” (see earlier piece, “Balancing Neighborhood Character and Tourism”). By bringing together disparate groups for community events, such as communal meals, art and music workshops, and festivals, Ravalejar sought to elevate the voices of the diverse immigrant populations that live in the area. The centerpiece for this campaign was a large public art installation, located in the main public square of the neighborhood (see Image 1). As shown, the work  inserted the diverse faces of residents, alongside a conjugation of the invented word “Ravalejar”.  

In the same tradition as Dolores Hayden’s urban history projects, Ravalejar elevates the experiences of marginalized groups in order to showcase how they have shaped the culture of the neighborhood. In The Power of Place1, Dolores Hayden demonstrates how, by embedding the urban landscape with social histories, public art projects can reorient the public’s gaze to the struggles and experiences of marginalized groups (see Image 2). Her projects around the US helped place the agency in the hands of the community, using socio-cultural practices to build new coalitions and construct a collective identity. The Ravalejar piece has inspired a similar process of identity construction.

Image 2: The Biddy Mason Project, a work completed by Hayden’s organization The Power of Place

During interviews with local residents about the meaning of Ravalejar, their responses all pointed to shared understanding that the culture of the neighborhood is not singular. With so many different ethnic groups in the same area, they were  quick to acknowledge that to “ravalejar” means to recognize the existence of multiple communities and identities. As one resident put it:

“We are like the world here: we may not all get along, but we coexist, and that’s all we want.”2

In addition to reappropriating the damaging mythology of the neighborhood, a second aspect of the Ravalejar campaign is how, as a concept, it allows itself to be reappropriated. Like other forms of textual art, Ravalejar creates an ambiguous relationship between the audience and the artwork, allowing the public to extract their own meaning based on the nature of their identification with the it. The work of Barbara Kruger best exemplifies this:

“Kruger encourages the possibility of seeing another as a subject (like me) rather than an object among other objects. The capacity to experience another body/person as a subject rather than an object, to imaginatively take up another subject position as one’s own instead of being repelled by it, is the basis of empathy…”.3

HB/Fichner/859350 Figure: 859350_04-15 customer supplied tkw 3/13/00 JS 06/14/00
Image 3: Sample of Kruger’s artwork

Like Ravalejar, Kruger’s work also plays with the witty semiotics of advertising, which can shock or seduce the viewer. However, through the textual information she provides, the viewer is forced to interrogate the work further, thus breaking their complicit engagement with the dominant representations of our spectacle-driven society. Ultimately, the viewer is left to decide whether or not they are the subject or object. This fluidity of identity inspires empathy in the viewer by forcing them to embody the intersubjectivity of the work.4 To ravalejar, therefore, can be many different things for many different people.

It is this very subjective nature of Ravalejar as a concept that has led to its success as a campaign. Having raised the question of what it means to Ravalejar, or to be a resident of El Raval, various neighborhood groups and cultural associations that belong to Tot Raval have embarked on a collective process of identity construction and community building. For example, Xamfra5, a center for music and performance, has designed a special curriculum that focuses on exposing children to musical styles from around the world. During classroom sessions, students are encouraged to play with the contrasts and mixes between elements of music from different cultures. According to the instructor, this is meant to inspire empathy, to “mirar desde otra lado” (“see from another perspective”).

Image 4: Intercultural music workshop at Xamfra

The campaign and the larger efforts of Tot Raval have also encouraged the creation of “associaciones de comerciantes” (“Business Associations”), which are organized on individual streets. These associations create a collective fund to which all businesses on the street contribute on a monthly basis. These funds help pay for street decorations during festivals, but more importantly, assist those businesses that are struggling financially. Such collaborative endeavors are part of a greater effort to build local pride in a neighborhood where it never existed. As the editor of a local newspaper said:

“If there is a collective motivation to help one another, we won’t have to focus so much on the negative. You can see the change happening in the way people, organizations, are working together.”6

As an art object, the Ravalejar piece represents global population flows  and the creation of new cultural hybridities, without fetishizing or exoticizing them to the tourist gaze.  As a concept, it forces spectators, whether they are outsiders or members of the community, to question their role in the neighborhood: What am I doing here? How am I affecting others who live here? Who lives here? Who doesn’t live here anymore?

And, as a campaign, Ravalejar demonstrates that neighborhood branding has the power to foster collaboration between community groups in order to improve the quality of life of residents.

Ultimately, Ravalejar asks that we reimagine the relationship between urban planning and public art. Rather than view community-based art as a static object, Ravalejar’s branding campaign, has succeeded through a constant and open engagement with the various community groups, attaching new narratives to productive modes of cultural activity. What new forms of authorship and artistic production can similarly engage with diverse identities? What does it mean for public art to have a campaign? These are inevitably questions that the art world must answer itself. The implications for urban planning, however, are profound. As our cities become increasingly diverse, engaging with multiple publics will require that planners—like community-based artists—think of their project’s “site” as not only a geographic area, but also a network of overlapping histories and local identities. Whether in master plans, neighborhood revitalization projects, or infrastructural works, planners should consider the ways in which different cultures may use, interpret, and appropriate urban space.

1 Hayden, Dolores. (1997). The Power of Place: Urban Landscape as Public History. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

2 Interview with author

3  Kwon, M. (2010) “A Message from Barbara Kruger: Empathy Can Change the World” in B. Kruger Barbara Kruger, US: Rizzoli

4 ibid

5 “Xamfra” is derived from the name of the intersections in Barcelona designed by Ildefons Cerdá, which are meant to create more open space and room for social interaction.

6 Interview with author

About the Author: Brady Collins is a Doctoral Candidate at UCLA’s Department of Urban Planning, specializing in spatial justice and cultural planning. A strong believer in the power of ethnographic methods, his work not only aims to provide insight to urban planners and designers, but also community organizations and social movements. Brady is also a member of the Urban Humanities Initiative at UCLA, and thus draws from multiple disciplines in his work, including history, sociology, and architecture. His current research examines neighborhood branding in multi-ethnic, multi-racial urban areas.