A series of interrelated artistic interventions and works reflecting on the Madrid train bombings of 2004.
On the 11th of March 2004 (11-M), a terrorist group successfully launched a coordinated bomb attack on the Cercanías (commuter train system) of Madrid, Spain. During the peak of morning rush hour, a series of ten improvised explosive devices (IEDs) hidden onboard four separate passenger trains travelling between Alcalá de Henares and Madrid's Atocha station detonated as the carriages approached their destinations. In the space of three minutes, 191 civilians from 17 countries were killed and over 1,800 people injured. The massacre was, and remains to date, the bloodiest single act of terrorism in the country's modern history.
The bombings occurred three days before Spain's general election was scheduled to take place, and as a consequence, numerous conflicting theories surrounding the political motives and implications of the attack were proposed by various media organisations, interest groups and government agencies. The nation's two main opposing political parties, the incumbent Partido Popular (PP) and the soon-to-be-elected Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE), expressed different views and contradictory opinions concerning details of the event, and each side accused the other of attempting to use the tragedy as a means to manipulate public opinion and sentiment in order to achieve their own political objectives.
In contrast, the reaction of the Spanish people was not divided, and the nation declared three days of official mourning. Impromptu gatherings coalesced into street demonstrations and candlelight vigils, and massive protests were organised in numerous cities across the country. On the day immediately following the attack, despite heavy rain and the weight of collective shock, some two million people filled the streets of Madrid in a unified display of outrage and sorrow. The Madrileños' expression of solidarity was mirrored throughout the nation that day, and it is estimated that over eleven million people, more than a quarter of Spain's population, came together to honour the departed in an unprecedented public act of defiance against terrorism and violence.
The condemnation of the terrorists' actions was echoed by the wider international community as world leaders offered their condolences to the people of Spain and pledged their support to help bring the perpetrators to justice. Within weeks of the bombings, an intensive criminal investigation had led authorities to an apartment complex in the Madrid suburb of Leganes. On the 3rd of April 2004, police forces from the Grupo Especial de Operaciones (GEO: Special Operations Group) attempted to enter the building, but the occupants – in an apparent act of suicide – detonated explosives which destroyed the flat killing themselves and a GEO officer. The inquiry continued, and during its course over 70 individuals were arrested in connection with the 11-M bombings.
After a two-year period of investigation spanning six countries, 29 individuals were indicted by the Spanish judiciary on charges ranging from forgery and explosives trafficking to terrorism and murder. The trial began in February 2007 and on the 31st of October that same year, Spain's Audiencia Nacional (National High Court) returned guilty verdicts for 21 of the accused. Although the judicial process drew many conclusions and provided insights into the timeline of events, key questions of who, why and how the bombings were masterminded remained unclear. These issues would continue to be the subject of speculation and various conspiracy theories, and to this day, many details surrounding the 11-M attacks are still unknown.
I remember awakening to news of the bombings in Madrid, and like many others that morning, tuned in to watch the world's media attempt to reconstruct the sequence of events leading to those fateful three minutes. Amidst ever-changing speculation about the motives of the perpetrators and the political ramifications of the attacks, I listened with a sense of sadness and disdain, but no fear or apprehension. I was neither a resident of Madrid nor a citizen of Spain; there was no need for me to grab the nearest phone and place a distressed call to someone who might have been travelling on one of the trains when the bombs exploded. I was an outsider observing a terrible story unfold without the burden of personal connections.
My vantage point was not, however, devoid of emotional understanding as my own country and loved-ones had faced similar horrors in recent times. Memories of 9/11 – my anxious wait to hear if my mother was aboard one of the hijacked planes, and watching the towers fall not knowing if close friends had been evacuated in time – resurfaced in my mind that morning. Madrid and its people had been forcefully subscribed to an infamous list of tragedies which unfortunately, would not be a finished chapter outlining a regrettable period of our history. A year later, London would experience 7/7 and previous targets, like the island nation of Bali, would again be subjected to the indiscriminate wrath of the terrorist machine.
In the prevailing geo/socio/eco/political landscape, too few degrees now separate us from these unfortunate points in time. Events like 11-M exist within wider contexts unbound from issues of race, creed and nationality. The threat of terrorism is firmly embedded within our everyday lives; we are all at risk, and we all have lost.
It is impossible to fully comprehend, much less attempt to communicate, the exact experiences of those directly affected by such tragedies. Given this position, what 'truth' can the artist relate that the journalist cannot? Even if there is another 'story' to tell which exists outside the realm of historical 'fact' and reportage, what unwritten ethical contracts bind the artist in their journey through such emotionally charged territory? In an age where media sensationalism and government propaganda are constant threats to informed dialogue, how can the artist negotiate such obstacles and create spaces for critical observation and personal reflection that run alongside, but are distinct from those of journalistic and political commentary?
These are the thoughts that have guided my intentions throughout this project. With this in mind, the work presented within these pages is not an attempt to convey a particular retelling of the history of 11-M or support one of the numerous theories concerning the terrorist attacks; it is merely a journey, traversed through time and at a respectful distance, that seeks to construct an alternative, contemplative view of the events in question.
Chamber of Public Secrets (Alfredo Cramerotti & Khaled Ramadan with Rían Lozano) and AGM 10 (Hannah Conroy & Yesomi Umolu)
Fernando López & Tatiana Tarragó [ exhibition production ] . Emma Puente [ media production ] . Nikolaus Schletterer [ photographic documentation ] . Hugh Denard [ discourse ]
(in)Remembrance [11-M] v1.0 was a 2010 commission for Manifesta 8: the European Biennial of Contemporary Art, Region of Murcia (Spain) in dialogue with Northern Africa. It was made possible with funding from the Manifesta Foundation and generous support from King's Visualisation Lab, Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London.