Celebrating: Bilbao and Pabilioia by Asier Mendizabal

What are Bilbao and Pabilioia photographic series about?
They are the result of a documenting process that took place, on a yearly basis, from 2002 to 2007. It is the documentation process of the building up of makeshift open air bars, txoznas, for the summer fiesta (Bilbao), and the preparation of the parade for the carnival festivities (Pabilioia), both in Bilbao. In both cases, the subject of these activities is a collective entity called comparsa, a constituted group of individuals, often with a previous common interest, which takes part in the organisation and dynamisation of the popular celebrations.
The carnivalesque, transgressive time of exception that takes place in the streets of towns and cities in Spain is a tradition that was almost totally erased, in its whole popular dimension, during the morally strict dictatorship years. It is in the transitional lapse of political enthusiasm that built up in the late seventies that the emancipatory aspect of these festivities is reclaimed in a context where it was necessarily influenced by political, often radical, representations. In this case, the basque context built a whole secular ritual around fiesta and political claim of the streets, of which the history of the Bilbao case is the most paradigmatic. As a response to the stiff, unpopular festivities associated with the bullfighting calendar that marked the Bilbao festivity during francoism, local institutions understood the need, in 1979, for a renewal of the Semana Grande in which social movements, neighborhood associations and political actors would propose a model for the fiesta. The proposal that gained consensus was a creative model of collective participation and self organisation designed by some of the most radically leftist social agents of the city at that time. The central figure of this self organisation of the party space was the comparsa, collectives founded specifically for the participation and dynamisation of the fiesta, which gathered around preexistent points of convergence, from neighborhood associations, to political groups of different ideologies. The model has subsequently gone through a steady process of normalisation in which a fragile balance between an official, organised aspect of the event and its original spontaneously popular and political side of it have to be constantly negotiated.
How would you describe your working method?
A constant motif in my work has been the identification and isolation of the symbolic codes and signs around which collective identity configures itself. The group that acquires its self-conscious definition, its form, through the very actions and codes it employs. It has been a way to insist on an awareness of how the signifier, in its material condition, configures the very content of these identities, operating with the excess inherent to its logic of enjoyment and desire.The case of the specific codes of the fiesta and the carnival as transitory spaces of transgression, in the shaping of the collectives, was double in this case: It refers, fundamentally, to the shaping of the collective subject of the group, the comparsa, built around its actions and rituals (the bricolage set at work in the building of the bars being the epitome of this notion of action). But it also refers to a broather sense of collective identification with a cultural behaviour, which is made to coincide, ideologically, with a more essentialist, totalising notion of cultural identity: that of the basque nationalist project. The series are part of my ongoing project of analysis of these signs with the intention of problematising these ideological givens. Another factor that has been important throughout my practice and which is implied here alludes to the very nature of the documentary itself. The ideologically determined assumption that it is in the veracity and pedagogic quality of documentary where political representation becomes more plausible and pertinent. The problem of realism and political efficacy. In this case, a very formal approach to the actions represented, and an unsettling ambiguity as to what exactly is the nature of the practices documented, would intend to problematize the status of documentary in its ideological dimension.
Interview with Yann Chateigné Tytelman, August 2009