Festa Major de Gràcia
It's like Alice in Wonderland. One day you're heading off to the market in the heat of the afternoon, dragging your shopping cart along the grey, abandoned streets of your neighbourhood and the next morning you wake to the sound of three brief explosions in the distance and find your street is filled with flying monkeys and baobab trees. Or a papier-mâché volcano. Down the road, hundreds of tiny plastic flowers drape like vines from one balcony to the next. And then you remember - it's August 15th and the Festa Major de Gràcia has begun. But the apparition of all this colour is not so sudden. Neighbourhood groups have been working on the planning and execution of these designs for months.
Josep Contel i Ruiz is a historian and the director of communications for the Fundació Festa Major de Gràcia. He has been participating in one capacity or another in the festa for over 30 years. As a boy he helped make the decorations alongside his father. In those days, all of the work was done by men. It wasn't until the Eighties when women were included in the preparation of the decorations and, Josep notes, "If it weren't for the women, the festa wouldn't have continued up until this day." These days, everyone is able to contribute, each to their ability and interest, from trained artists and crafts people to those with no connection to the art world, from the young to the most senior." There are many anonymous artists who are responsible for the decorations," says Josep, referring to each person who contributes their time and energy to the creation of large and often technically complex designs.
I ask him how the decorations have developed over the past hundred years and he shows me photos taken from the early part of the 20th century of streets decorated with palm leaves and other natural materials. He explains how, with the introduction of plastics and other synthetics and with the availability of electric tools and items such as glue guns, the design possibilities have opened up. For example, where previously wire was used as a binding material, its replacement by plastic zip ties has made construction quicker and easier. What tools are not available are often designed specifically for the work by one of the neighbours in order to achieve the desired effect. Examples of such tools are an electrically charged wire that constricts plastic and a long handled awl made for punching holes in plastic bottle tops, both of which are easy and safe enough for a child to use.
To my surprise, there is no environmental motivation for the use of recycled materials. The only prerequisite is keeping costs low. Materials are collected by each street organisation, donated or, when not freely available, purchased. It is important to maximise the utility of each object. "With a plastic bottle you can do a thousand things." Josep explains the function of each part of an ordinary plastic bottle, its adaptability in the manifestation of artistic expression. He punctuates the idea with the Catalan refrain 'del porc, se aprofita tot'; loosely translated, 'every part of the pig can be used'.