EFFE Laureate - Asalto International Festival of Public Art
For much of September the capital of the old Kingdom of Aragon, Zaragoza, becomes an outdoor exhibition space. Spain's fifth largest city plays host to the country's most established urban art festival, transforming the roads, changing walls, and installing new obstacles. “For the first few years,” says Alfredo Martinez, one of its founders, “people found it very strange. They couldn't find their way around because the landmarks had changed.”
The festival began a dozen years ago with a group of young graphic artists who used to “do some 'vandalism' in the streets,” but who were more ambitious for their art and surroundings. “We wanted to change the reality of the city – open it to completely different experiences. At first people used to confront the artists, telling them that what they were doing was not allowed, was against the law, but after a few years they realised that we were legal and that the interventions were interesting – turning their streets from grey to colour.” The festival still makes sure it is at the artistic cutting edge, though, by describing its genres as guerrilla, hacking and muralism.
“We started in the city centre,” says Alfredo, “but four years ago we expanded and moved it to new areas, really because it was democratising cultural access – all the districts of Zaragoza were contributing money for us, so we wanted to make sure the money covered the whole city.” In each district the whole process of gaining trust and inquisitiveness has to start all over again. “When we go into new neighbourhoods the local people feel possessive; we have to work hard to avoid seeming like aliens.” The festival augments the art that is installed by holding workshops and finding ways for people to participate and connect with the artists.
The festival is not only about redefining the city's spaces for those who live close by, however. It enables “people to rediscover their city by going to neighbourhoods they never normally enter”. Alfredo admits that, “we finish the festival very tired but in the last weekend we try to get everyone's attention with a fair where they can buy pieces that show the other side of the artists' work.”
Unlike most festivals where the work disappears once it is over, by its nature the transformation of Zaragoza by Asalto remains – just for a while in some cases, permanently in others. “We leave a lot of the work in place. It accumulates – in a way we are generating a new sense of the city by recreating its spaces as an open air museum.”
By Simon Mundy for EFA