Human statues have stood proudly (and nearly motionless) on Barcelona’s Rambla for more than 40 years. Over time, the costumes have become more elaborate as each artist endeavours to make their act stand out from the rest, and they’ve perfected that anticipated moment when a willing tourist tosses a coin into their box and they break their stillness with a movement in tune with their character.
However, new city council regulations are making these street performers’ situations precarious, compelling them to stand up for more than just their art. In response to the proposed changes, the Rambla’s statues have united and formed a collective to make their voices heard.
The current regulations regarding street theatre came into effect in 2012 under the previous government. The statues were relocated from their position between Plaça Reial and Plaça Catalunya to the bottom of the Rambla. “They put us in the culo of the Rambla,” lamented Walter San Joaquín, president of the human statues’ association, the Asociación República de las Estatuas Humanas de la Rambla de Barcelona, and Don Quixote when he’s at work. Their current position is on the Rambla de Santa Mónica which, although the widest part of the famous thoroughfare, is also the part with the least foot traffic. This is a problem for the human statues. “We don’t receive government subsidies,” explained San Joaquín. “We live off the voluntary collaboration of the public.” On top of this, there is talk of forbidding the statues from putting images of money on their collection boxes to encourage passers-by to contribute, said the secretary of the association, Luís Alberto Silva Almeida—better known as ‘the bronze cowboy’.
But perhaps the biggest problem isn’t the regulations themselves but the council’s inability to keep to them. Auditions to give licences to new performers haven’t been held since 2012—those that were scheduled for 2014 did not go ahead. In addition, some of the existing performers come on an ad hoc basis or not at all, explained Silva, and with no measures to replace these artists, the numbers are dwindling. San Joaquín regrets that the “intangible cultural heritage” that attracts many to the Rambla is being lost. Images of street theatre are used by the tourist office to “sell the Rambla to the world”, but this is a Rambla that no longer exists. The artists that create this sense of ‘bohemia’ are being disregarded by the local government and becoming disheartened. Fermín Villar, president of the association Amics de la Rambla (Friends of the Rambla), is sympathetic to the statues’ plight. In his eyes, the human statues are in keeping with “the spirit of the Rambla” and are part of what people come to see. He said that the bureaucracy needs to be more agile so that artists waiting for a licence can replace those who fail to show up regularly.
The local government is currently reviewing the rules, and the statues’ association, keen to be involved, has presented its own self-management plan for street theatre. Their demands include being allowed to return to their previous location and that the conditions of their licences be changed. Currently, each of the 30 licensed artists has a designated spot that no one else can use. If a performer fails to turn up, not only does their spot go empty but other willing artists are denied the opportunity to work. The association proposes three different licenses: full, supplant and visitor. Auditions—overseen by a panel of artists and representatives from cultural institutions, theatre companies and local associations—would be held to recruit new performers. The 30 artists with the highest scores would be awarded a full licence, allowing them to perform every day. There would then be 200 more artists with a supplant licence who would be selected by a daily lottery to replace any absent performers. The visitor licence would be awarded to visiting artists, creating a cultural exchange that would increase the diversity on the Rambla.
This system aims to ensure that the designated spaces are “constantly occupied by artists”, breathing life back into the Rambla’s theatre scene and creating more work for performers. Under the association’s proposals, all licensed performers would have to join a self-managed collective. The members of this organisation would be in charge of those tasks that the Ajuntament is failing to carry out, such as ensuring artists turn up for work and replacing those who don’t. The association is also proposing programmes to get local schoolchildren involved with street theatre.
The human statues’ struggle highlights a wider conflict about ownership of public spaces in Barcelona. “Anything you place on the Rambla is worth gold,” explained San Joaquín, and with so many groups holding a vested interest, no regulation is ever going to satisfy everyone. San Joaquín believes that the Rambla is being “privatised”, with historical landmarks such as buildings, drinking fountains and lampposts obscured by increasing amounts of advertising and private terraces which, in turn, leave little space for artistic activities. He feels that the government has given into businesses, giving them priority over local people and artists.
Responses to the proposal
So far, the government’s response has been disappointing. “It’s a huge battle,” said San Joaquín, “because they simply aren’t considering our proposals.” He accused Barcelona’s mayor Ada Colau, of positing her Barcelona en Comú government as “participatory and democratic”, but in reality not listening to the input of others while preparing to enact regulations which are an imitation of those of the previous government. On the other hand, the city council claims that they are indeed “analysing all the demands” made by the human statues. The sticking point, however, is the question of location. The council has said that under no circumstances will they consider the relocation of the statues to their previous position, something unacceptable to the statues themselves.
Despite being in favour of the presence of human statues, Fermín Villar agrees that there’s no other option than for the statues to stay where they are, “as the Rambla is already saturated with activity”. Encouragingly for the statues’ cause, however, the Eix de Cultura de Barcelona En Comú (the cultural arm of Ada Colau’s government) has advocated for the “relocation of the statues along the Rambla, as long as the circulation, mobility and safety of pedestrians is taken into account”. One thing is for sure, as the struggle persists, Barcelona’s human statues will not give up until their voices are heard.
The history of human statues
Human statues can trace the history of their art back to medieval times when the tableau vivant, or living picture—in which costumed actors would pose to depict a scene—was popular at royal occasions. More recently, tableaux vivants enjoyed a heyday in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when they were a central part of erotic theatre. Due to censorship laws of the time, nude or semi-nude actresses weren’t allowed to move on stage. This was circumvented by including immobile nude performers in the acts. Today’s human statues rarely perform naked so passers-by have to be content with simply admiring the artists’ costumes.