BEGOÑA’S HOUSE IN GUERNICA
12.2019 SPECIAL EDITION
In 2016 William wrote his dissertation ‘Reconstructing a Memery of Guernica’, a study that reveals what lies hidden behind the façades of Guernica, a village that lives in the shadow of Picasso’s eponymous painting. Despite its symbolic status in Basque and Spanish history, the town is a simultaneously forgotten and strangely forgetful place. Yet it sits at the centre of a multidimensional history that encompasses politics, history and art, as well as memories of a country, region, town and personal tragedy.
Behind the layers of relative opacity in Guernica, whether concealed in the Gernikazarra archives, glimpsed in the permanent exhibition of the Museum of Peace or part of the Begoña House installation, exists a collection of objects that are both testimony to a forgotten past and, in a Latourian sense, potential actors in a renewed effort to initiate a different, more energetic, collective memorialisation: objects able to bring together inhabitants, spaces, and stories.
The study shows that the interplay between concealed and revealed histories occurs at multiple levels and seeks to reconstruct a memory of Guernica before the tragic events of 1937, something that is not reflected in the streets of the reconstructed village, and furthermore revealing the ‘back of history’ which has gone unnoticed for such an influential event. William’s dissertation went on to be nominated for the prestigious RIBA President’s Medal Awards in 2016, and received funding for a successful conference and exhibition which took place at Sociedad “El Sitio” in Bilbao, on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the tragedy, the following year. Here is a piece about one of the most fascinating actors in this play, Begoña’s house.
In their essay entitled ‘Give me a gun and I will make all buildings move. An ANT’s view of architecture’, Bruno Latour and Albena Yaneva apply the Actor Network Theory, developed by Latour, to architecture as a way of moving beyond the long standing conception of viewing a building as a static object. By treating objects, both human and non-human as part of social networks, Latour and Yaneva claim “we should finally be able to picture a building as a moving modulator regulating different intensities of engagement, redirecting users’ attention, mixing and putting people together, concentrating flows of actors and distributing them so as to compose a productive force in time-space.” This alternative way of understanding architecture as a social construction through tracing lines of connectivity and collaborations between different actors may be helpful in realising the potential and workings of the daily management of the Casa de Begoña, a private dwelling space re-constructed in a room located on the second floor in Guernica’s Museum of Peace.
The visitor enters a space through an electric door that swings 90 degrees outwards from the wall, remotely controlled by a person sitting behind the reception desk on the ground floor, who monitors and regulates the flow of people in and out of the room through a series of CCTV cameras. Once inside, the door closes, leaving the viewer trapped in a room which has been designed exactly like the inside of a private dwelling from the old Guernica.
A collection of other objects, once stored in the rented apartment, then donated to the Museum of Peace by Gernikazarra Historia Taldea form part of the rooms’ decoration (from right to left); a framed photograph of Begoña with her husband, a set of curtains hanging from ceiling to floor covering a false window, a bookshelf with ornaments and an old radio, two little photos either side of the entrance door of a small boy and girl respectively, a large image of the ‘last supper’ cast in metal, a false door left slightly ajar, a small wall calendar, and finally a large pendulum clock, before arriving at the sliding electric exit door in the far corner of the room.
On closer inspection something isn’t right about one of these decorative elements. The calendar shows the date 26th April 1937 backwards, something that along with the direction of the wooden floor panelling helps the viewer focus on what appears to be a large mirror wall spanning the full length of the room. Positioned in the centre of this wall is what appears to be half of a table and a chandelier hanging above it. Once the viewer finally takes a seat on the long bench directly facing the mirror wall, they see themselves reflected back in time, in a traditionally decorated room of Begoña’s house, a resident of the old Guernica town.
Mark Dorrian in his essay ‘Thoughts on millennial urban spectacle’ sees Latour’s approach as more than a way of recognising a building as a moving project but rather as a way of understanding the spectacle as a relation between the viewer and what is viewed through making visible hidden connections and thought processes. Dorrian claims “Latour’s work is also useful in sensitising us to the complex network of agencies and relations within which cultural phenomena are sustained.” Therefore, and in parallel with Dorrian’s understanding of Latour’s Actor-Network-Theory in constructing spectacle; the backwards calendar, the direction of the timber floor boards, the positioning of the other decorative elements, the orientation of the bench, and the mirror wall, all play a key role in the relationship between the viewer and what is being viewed.
The lights in the room fade slowly and a woman’s voice fills it, in either Basque, Spanish, English or French, pre-selected by the person in the Museum’s reception, in accordance to the visitors. The relationship between the CCTV, the person at the reception desk, the language options, and the controlled access through remotely controlled electric doors are the hidden connections which make this space function on a daily basis. A view that is also shared by Tim Ingold who talks about understanding relations in a network as “a connection between one entity and another.” Ariane Harrison takes this one step further and claims that “ANT helps to reveal the specificities of the architectural object by means of its connectivity to and function as an actor.”
An understanding of these human and non-human actors work together starts to reveal Begoña’s house not as a static object but rather as a constantly moving project, as pointed out by Latour and Yaneva in their essay, and more importantly a spectacle. During the performance, different objects to the ones revealed earlier found in the Gernikazarra apartment and in the permanent exhibition of the museum, are located around the room and artificially lit up depending on their relevance to Begoña’s descriptions in the audio, therefore creating an atmosphere in order to direct the viewer’s attention towards what is more important.
At one point, the lights flicker and turn off completely as the sound of fighter planes fills the room, shortly followed by a sequence of explosions before everything goes silent. In the pitch black the voice of a small boy appears singing “Iparraguirre’s Ara Nun Diran” and slowly, from behind the mirror wall appears a video-montage of photographs showing the extent of the damage of the town suffered from the bombings. Artificial lights start increasing intensity focusing on an enormous pile of rubble hidden on the other side of the glass-mirror wall. In this small space two opposing situations are confronted, on the one side of the glass wall, a memory of life in the old town of Guernica, and on the other the destruction caused by the bombings at the hands of Franco’s military uprising and his allies.
It is here in this room, tucked away on the second floor of the Museum of Peace, concealed behind one of Manuel María Smith Ibarra’s façades, in a village lost in the shadows of Picasso’s painting, where the most complete memory of the old town of Guernica and the tragic events it suffered on the 26th April 1937, become visible. Curated by the Guernica Museum of Peace Foundation, Begoña’s graphic audio description of life before the bombings, the objects in the room recovered by the Gernikazarra investigators, the artificial lighting, the person behind the Museum of Peace’s reception desk controlling visitors’ access and language options, the video-montage of photographs showing the town’s destruction, the collection of rubble revealed from behind the glass-mirror wall, and the sound of a little boy singing, are all actors that work together in this ‘Casa de Begoña theatre’ with the combined aim of reconstructing a memory of Guernica.
Despite it not being as effective as it could be, in many people’s eyes, this mainly being due to its hidden nature behind Guernica’s multiple layers of concealment, Begoña’s house is the one place where the social role of the objects and their involvement in a wider, performative context starts to become apparent. In a carefully curated manner the objects do something more than sit in a museum as material culture as they become active and reveal memory through a more intricate network…