An Interview with Joseba Zulaika

You recently participated in the 1st international Congress on Art, Memory and Democracy: From Picasso's Guernica to the Present Day at the University of the Basque Country in Bilbao. This year the congress set out to review the current significance of Picasso's Guernica as well as reflect on the deep-rooted links between creativity, remembrance and the permanent institution of the democratic project in the Basque and European contexts in the present time. The theme honored the 75th anniversary of Guernica's first presentation in 1937 as well as its political and historical significance. Your presentation was entitled, "Guernica and the Minotaur: Between Picasso and Bilbao Guggenheim." Can you tell us a little bit about your talk and your experience at the congress?

Picasso's painting, Guernica, is the emblematic painting of the century and is one that is based on the bombing of the town of Guernica. In this conference dealing with the memory of Guernica as art and tragedy, this painting becomes central. Picasso, previous to that painting, did several Minotauromachies, with the myth of the Minotaur. The Minotaur is in a labyrinth and is killed by Theseus with the help of Ariadne. This myth of the Minotaur is a great metaphor that has been used by many artists and writers. I take this myth to apply to the Basque generation that endured the tragedy of Guernica and the post-Guernica generation that lived under the shadow of Guernica. It is from this shadow that ETA emerged. In a way, our generation is 100 percent affected by this myth of the labyrinth and by the myth of the blind Minotaur who doesn't know how to escape this labyrinth; the labyrinth being politics, desire, and the contemporary world. I see the presence of these labyrinths in the architecture of the Guggenheim and in Richard Serra's sculpture group at the Guggenheim being a labyrinth type of sculpture. I connected Picasso's Guernica and the Minotaur that underlies it (the bull, the horse) and Picasso's depiction of Ariadne raising the candle in his Minotauromachies which is repeated in Guernica. I used this myth as a way to talk about my generations struggle with freedom, with the drama of political violence, the deadlock of political impasses, and how these issues are reflected in Basque art and can be seen in the current artistic explosion of architecture and sculpture in Bilbao.
You have researched extensively the Bilbao Guggenheim, could you tell us a little about how you feel it has altered the city?

It is called the Bilbao Effect and it has become a paradigm of a city transformed by architecture. Bilbao was a post-industrial city going through an enormous economic and urban crisis and this one building had an almost miraculous effect (according to The New York Times who titled their article about the Bilbao Effect "The Miracle in Bilbao"). The Guggenheim had this incredible effect of renewing an entire city, and changing the psychology, outlook, and image of the city. It has become worldwide a paradigm for the role of architecture in rebuilding cities and recreating a new economic view. So, the effect of this building (the Guggenheim) has been astonishing in that regard and it's one that has put Bilbao, and the Basques, on the cultural map of architecture that has to be visited, has to be seen, as well as on the map for art and tourism. In that regard, the Guggenheim is an extraordinary piece of art, one that goes beyond the economy and has a lot to do with emblematic images, with the power of architecture, and with creating a new artistic form about how different parts of the world are interrelated. This is the kind of architecture and art that is not confined to the Basque Country; it is one that is international. It is a placeless piece of art and architecture in a place that is very defined by the Basques, but, at the same time, it can be enjoyed by anyone coming from anywhere. It is an architecture that is transnational, that belongs to the world of art, and to the viewers that appreciate it.
On November 17th you presented a paper at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, in San Francisco, entitled "Drones versus Suicide Bombers: The Fantasies of U.S. Counterterrorism" at the Symposium "New Forms of State Terror." You have widely researched the international discourse of terrorism. Please tell us a little about that research?

I have been writing on the issue of terrorism and counter terrorism for a couple of decades now, stemming from my own work on Basque political violence. I continued working on what I saw as American counter terrorism and the role of terrorism discourse in American politics, which has become the dominant discourse since 9/11. I have written a couple of books on that discourse and on the phenomenon of terrorism as a self-fulfilling phenomenon, something that reproduces itself by the kind of action you use against terrorists. The latest in counter terrorism is the drones, pilotless airplanes that are used to fire missiles against terrorist targets in foreign countries. Many of these drones are directed from an airbase near Las Vegas. It is something that has to do with Nevada and I feel that I need to look at this phenomenon, just like when I was in the Basque Country I had to look at the Basque violence; this is the kind of violence that we produce in this country. I am critical of the drone phenomenon because I believe that it is based on this image of the terrorist, a lot of which is imbued in fantasy in the sense that we don't know a lot about these terrorists. We imagine them more than we know them. Again, I know these fantasies regarding terrorists from my own Basque experience. I feel that fantasy plays a key role in the application of a robotic technology that developed in close association with science fiction, and I try to understand this science fiction becoming reality through the drones and through this type of warfare. Using pilotless drones means that there are no casualties on our side, and in a way, it distances us from the terrorists who are seen as almost inhuman, killed by these machines from the sky, piloted from thousands of miles away. I feel there is this depersonalization of killing that explains to me how the public buys into this disturbing development so easily. The fact is that they are targeted assassinations, many of whom are civilians who are not engaging in any terrorist activity. It is this fantasy of the terrorist that I try to unmask in what I write. In the Basque Country, there is the same concept of the terrorist. This produces the same discourse where the terrorist is totally dehumanized in any sense, politically or morally, and seen as a formless being that respects nothing. As a discourse, the Basque and American view of terrorists is pretty much the same, but obviously the post 9/11 view of counter terrorism is a far more lethal phenomenon than anything in the case of the smaller groups, like ETA, in the Basque Country. The reason that terrorism became such a central reality in American politics after 9/11 is because of this connection between terrorism and nuclear weapons and the fear that terrorists could get ahold of nuclear weapons. It is very symbiotic with our own nuclear imaginings that a terrorist could become so apocalyptic, whereas in the case of the Basque terrorists, they are small nationalist groups that don't present a nuclear threat. But, in some way, it is all under the umbrella of the concept of the terrorist.
Much of your research may seem a little shocking to average Americans, could you tell us why you think it is important for Americans to think about these topics and how they are important?

I think societies tend to be blind to the mythical aspects in their thinking about themselves. I am coming from a place, the Basque Country, where I have known terrorism first-hand. For me, it is more difficult to turn the terrorist, which to me is a side-show figure, into this apocalyptic, all powerful monster. For me, it is far easier to see that this is a mythic figure. If we buy into the lure of terrorists as ultra-powerful people, then in a way we end up granting power to this figure and become blind to the actual reality, which might be quiet different than the one we imagine. As a nation, our reaction to terrorism may end up undermining our own rule of law as well as our own economy. America has already spent three to four trillion dollars in fighting terrorism, much more than we spent fighting the nuclear power of the Soviet Union. So, the fact that a phenomenon, embodied by Osama Bin Laden who used to be living in the caves of Afghanistan, is seen as far more dangerous than the Soviet Union, with all its thousands of nuclear weapons, for me can only be understood as the work of fantasy, and as the collective fear that we have with these fantasies of nuclear war and terrorism.