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Freedom was an island that wasn’t on the maps (or quite the opposite)

14.07.2015 by Marta Peirano

Photo by Julio Albarrán (cc)

Report of Rubén Martínez’s Audiovisual Source Code: «We are all contingent, but you are necessary». Original language: spanish («La libertad era una isla que no sale en los mapas -o todo lo contrario-»). This text was originally published at

After an introduction by the co-director of ZEMOS98 Felipe G. Gil, which added up to «an Audiovisual Source Code of our friendship» and seemed aimed both at honouring as well as trolling him, cultural researcher Rubén Martínez performed what will be the last Audiovisual Source Code of the Sevillian Festival showing great assurance and responsibility. Martínez, co-founder of YProductions and a Barcelona resident, is a member of La Hidra Cooperative as well as of the Observatorio Metropolitano de Barcelona (Barcelona Metropolitan Observatory), two political intervention devices placed within the Fundación de los Comunes (Commons Foundation). Whether it was conceived in coordination with Belén Gopegui’s or not, his Audiovisual Source Code had the concept of Freedom as its main subject.

The Japanese say that speeches should be started by apologising, but Rubén started with Spanish director Jose Luis Cuerda’s film Amanece que no es poco («Dawn breaks, which is no small thing») and a quote from it that named the talk: We are all contingent, but you are necessary . This plea to the mayor of a village in the Albacete mountain range by its devoted citizens is used by him to explain the implications of delegating power. This is followed by Jack Nicholson’s brutal statement in defence of violence from A Few Good Men in which he declares the need of an absolute and opaque executive power as the only guarantee to keep citizenry safe from chaos, all of this constituting a prologue for a long and fun reflection on the trace of that power, embodied by the crew of the Bounty.

I. The swamp of freedom

Excerpt from the film «Munity on the Bounty» screened at the Rubén Martínez’s Audiovisual Source Code

Mutiny on the Bounty , popularly considered as the worst of Marlon Brando’s films, is the story of a British frigate on its way to Tahiti seeking the Breadfruit, referred to by Rubén as a ficus, which was a prolific tree with a meaty and nourishing fruit thought to be good to feed the workers in the colonies. The captain and his second officer in command clash relentlessly from the start due both to their origin and their methods. Soon, the severe and brutal policy of the first, who represents the power of the State, drains the patience of the latter, Fletcher Christian, who ends up leading the mutiny of the title and theoretically throwing off the imperial yoke.

The rebel crew put their ex-captain on a lifeboat facing England and they themselves end up on an island that isn’t on the maps but is conveniently out of reach from British law and happily inhabited by peaceful islanders and singing women. And all of them but one live there happily, because for the sailors, freedom is living outside the law on the Homeric island. However, for their commander, as for Ulysses, the island is just a prison because it is no more than a hiding place, whereas freedom means going back to England to defend the legitimacy of their actions.

The paradox represented by that island and the tragedy that solves it is, for Rubén, a perfect example of how the Panopticon and the mechanisms that interiorise the power of the State work, referred to by him as the microphysics of power. From that point of view, Rubén reflects on the origins of black music, prison and cotton plantation music, and he asks himself if that music liberates those individuals or oppresses them even further. Or whether on that January 13th, 1968, when Johnny Cash sang about killing a man «just to watch him die» for the 2,000 inmates in Folsom Prison, California, those men were a bit more or a bit less free.

II. The collective rebel against individual freedom

Excerpt from the film «Braveheart» screened at the Rubén Martínez’s Audiovisual Source Code

From the Bounty to the green Scottish meadows via Mel Gibson comes the idea of power as sovereign –that of the King of England- that seeks to dominate a single rebel subject –William Wallace- in order to subdue all Scottish people, in an absurd rave for independence titled Braveheart . Rejecting its usual method of repression through murder, here the regal power senses that the rebel leader is more useful kept alive and forced to yield than dying for his people, as it fears that by chopping off that head it will only encourage seven more to come and replace it in the task.

Mel Gibson understands the problem and is therefore determined to not beg for mercy at the scaffold and to cry out for «freedom» instead, after which he is chopped to pieces. «Paradoxically» Rubén explains «the subject will die, but the rebellious body will remain as alive as ever». And the sovereign power is at a loss because the strength of a rebellious body of people «is not only in its capacity of resistance or liberation, but in its ability to imagine and activate a different kind of freedom».

Mel Gibson, by the way, had played Fletcher Christian ten years before in a remake of Mutiny on the Bounty, and went on to direct The Passion of the Christ . In this film, in case the idea hadn’t been stated clearly enough yet, the rebellious body is crucified and stabbed with nails and spears for the liberation of all Christians, with the consequences we all know.

Excerpt from the film «The Fountainhead» screened at the Rubén Martínez’s Audiovisual Source Code

To the rebel as body of the collective, Rubén opposes Ayn Rand and the idea of freedom as individual integrity against the pressures of the mob. He chooses, from the fine screen adaptation of The Fountainhead -apparently the most influential book in United States- the most ridiculous part: when Howard Roark, a brilliant architect as well as tall, handsome and poor, defends an act of terrorism on the argument of intellectual property.

Roark has agreed to design a residential compound for the State, requesting as his only reward that it be built exactly like he has designed it, without a single change. The compound is finally constructed with changes that alter the original design, which makes Roark destroy it with the help of his girlfriend and a few sticks of dynamite. Roark considers that by modifying the project his intellectual property has been stolen and defends his right to destroy what is his. Roark thus represents the freedom of the individual to be oneself against the influence, need or demand of others. A struggle in which a commitment means asking the imperial axe for mercy.

Before we could ask ourselves what Howard Roark would do with the Bologna Plan for the reform of European University studies, Rubén confronts Roark’s rational selfishness with John Rawls’s Theory of Justice, summed up in a statement by Marina Garcés: one does not need to commit, as we already live in engagement. And he sadistically rounds off the matter with a delirious video by the Catalan artist Carles Congost called Un Mystique determinado («A Particular Mystique»).

III. The usual: working makes you free, buying even more so

Video discussion between Noam Chomsky y Michel Foucault screened at the Rubén Martínez’s Audiovisual Source Code

Between collectiveness and individualism, Rubén fits in Michel Foucault explaining to Chomsky how normality (today we say hegemony) is imposed precisely by institutions which, though considered by us as guarantors of the critical spirit, really exert political violence in a subtle but persistent way: University, Psychiatry and Justice. Rubén follows it up with a video from Sesame Street titled We’re Five in order to add to the list the normalising institution par excellence: family.

From the illusion of individualism and the imposition of normality, we now go on to a fragment of The Century of the Self (2002), in which our favourite documentary maker Adam Curtis explains the transition from freedom seen as the person’s integrity into the freedom to choose and consume. An example of this power as a sum of liberation and capitalism is the creation of the smoking woman as a symbol of freedom, an icon which was invented by an advertising executive for a cigarette brand. Regarding the impact of this formula on the working environment, Rubén hops to another high-up Mad Men example, our generation’s icon a-la-Howard-Roark: Steve Jobs.

Pirates of Silicon Valley is a mediocre film, though interesting as a portrait of the transition of workers from the working to the «creative» class. Here Jobs proves to pimply Bill Gates that working for Apple is not the same as working for Microsoft. With the pride of a Southern plantation foreman, he asks a programmer: «Are you a pirate?» And the kid answers him with bloodshot eyes: «Yes, of course, Steve. I’ve been up straight for the last 52 hours». Which is like the joke of the guy who falls to the underground rails and says «I didn’t fall, I jumped»; but combined with a sign that said Arbeit macht frei.

Rubén ends this section with a fragment of the History of Cinema that should be screened on the walls of every university in the world, at least until it ceases to be true. It is the speech of Sidney Lumet’s masterpiece Network (1976) in which the president of the network explains how the world works to ousted Howard Beale. This scene should be seen, but we should also learn to see it without committing suicide afterwards. This moment is the exact opposite from the house that never gives up from Belén Gopegui’s Audiovisual Source Code, which should also be seen.

Excerpt from the film «Network» screened at the Rubén Martínez’s Audiovisual Source Code

IV. You can’t on your own, but you can with friends

The art of lecturing usually contains a circumference, and our illustrious conductor unearthed the director of The Fountainhead on quite the opposite thesis to the productive selfishness of Ayn Rand. In Our Daily Bread (King Vidor, 1934), a young couple in dire straits during the Great Depression decide to move to the countryside and set up a cooperative. Rubén himself describes the film as «a good film to see how the gender-based division of labour settles in within communitarian utopias». The climatic moments are when they manage to save the lands from the drought by building a structure to irrigate the crops; and when they manage to fool the landowner and purchase the property of the lands in an auction for literally peanuts.

The mix between civil disobedience and a strict knowledge of the law, says Rubén, is the combination that distinguishes the Spanish Anti-Eviction Platform (PAH). The reason why this reflection ends with a scene from The Lego Movie and a song in which creative classes are encouraged to follow instructions is still out of reach for this reporter (The enemy is aware of the system?), who nevertheless sang obediently the catchy Rules and Regulations song that closed the last Audiovisual Source Code of the last ZEMOS98 Festival, and that kept on appearing and dominating during what was left of the event.

«Rules and Regulations» song, it was screened at the Rubén Martínez’s Audiovisual Source Code

The full-length Rubén Martínez’s Audiovisual Source Code

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