Purple Magazine
— The Island Issue #35

the ibiza myth


interview with philosopher YVES MICHAUD

OLIVIER ZAHM — What inspired a French philosopher and aesthetic theorist to publish a book titled Ibiza Mon Amour, Enquête sur l’Industrialisation du Plaisir (Ibiza My Love, Investigation on the Industrialization of Pleasure)?
YVES MICHAUD — I am interested in the aestheticization of our digital and capitalist societies, but I didn’t want to do yet another book about aesthetic capitalism, so I thought I would explore the subject in my own way, a descriptive way, by taking a specific example. Hence this book on Ibiza. Being an island, it’s a perfect case study for the aestheticization of the world. Because I’m a university professor, as academic as it gets, I did some very serious research into the workings of this aestheticization of the world as it applies to the tourist industry, and the mechanisms linked to manufactured pleasure.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How did this little Balearic island become a global archetype of insular hedonism and the industrialization of pleasure?
YVES MICHAUD — The myth of Ibiza goes back to the 1930s, when artists from Berlin came to stay on the island, in particular the German writer Walter Benjamin and the Berlin artist Raoul Hausmann. They discovered the island’s frugal beauty. The place was very poor in those days, and artists could live there for almost nothing. It was also difficult to get to, which made it good protection when you were escaping Nazism, as Hausmann was. There was a period of about three or four years in the early 1930s when the island started to open up, then the Spanish Civil War came in 1936, followed by the Second World War, and Ibiza closed up again. In the 1940s, there wasn’t even a direct connection with Barcelona, then things started to pick up again in the 1950s. It was a place of extreme poverty, verging on famine. It was an island of agricultural self-sufficiency that worked without money — it’s really quite fascinating. There’s still something of this in the very elderly inhabitants. Everything was done by barter, the exchange of services and solidarity. The year 1951 was the first year when tourists came in, and they counted them — 14,000. This was tourism for people in the know.

OLIVIER ZAHM — After that wave of tourists, didn’t it then stop for decades?
YVES MICHAUD — Development was exponential. The 1970s, drugs and free love built the Ibiza myth. The film More by Barbet Schroeder, with music by Pink Floyd, the start of the big clubs… One million tourists per year in the 1980s and ’90s; two million in the 2010s; and 2.8 million visitors in 2019. In 2020, that fell to 650,000, the same figure as in the late 1950s.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What made the island so attractive, especially to artists?
YVES MICHAUD — Its fantastic beauty, for sure. Its relative permissiveness; it’s a pirates’ island, kind of out of the way. But really, the fact you could live there for almost nothing. The cost of living was ridiculously cheap and the climate ideal, not far from Africa. That’s also one of the reasons why the hippies were happy to meet up in Ibiza because in general they tended to be kids from good families, prodigals of a sort who, from time to time, received little payments. Compared to the inhabitants, though, they had a luxurious life. And in fact, I think it was the hippies who first got money circulating at the end of the 1950s. Before that, there was no money.

OLIVIER ZAHM — That was pretty amazing, because bartering had pretty much died out in mainland Europe.
YVES MICHAUD — Yes, there was something utopian about it. Nowadays it’s hard to imagine a society where finance doesn’t circulate. But the reality was very tough. You had the extreme poverty of the islands and the threat of famine. As the island wasn’t agriculturally self-sufficient, the population depended on climatic variations, and those were very up and down, especially as regards to rainfall. So, when there wasn’t enough rain — like three years ago or again this year — it meant that the next year there would be famine since what little wheat they did harvest had to be kept for sowing. Because people didn’t buy their seeds from Monsanto! I still know peasants — they’re about to retire — who prepare their own seeds. That’s why on Ibiza you could find onions native to the island, for example. Ibiza, you could say, was paradise, but the paradise of poverty. In fact, that’s the theme of Vicente Valero’s book on Walter Benjamin.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So how did this little island — it is a minuscule rock — come to symbolize sun-drenched hedonism, permissiveness and tolerance?
YVES MICHAUD — It’s because the island was, very early, even before the Beat Generation got going in San Francisco, a place of exile for the European hippie dream, for people from Germany, Holland, and France who were looking for drugs, etc. But there’s another aspect that isn’t emphasized enough, which is that in the 1950s, Ibiza became a place of secret pleasures for Spanish high society, including Franco supporters and people from Madrid. The paradox is that the island was completely abandoned by the authorities. It was a kind of Saint-Tropez outside Francoist control. As a result, wealthy Europeans started gathering in Ibiza to party, to take drugs, and to fuck, while in Spain the sexual repression was terrible. So, it became a pleasure island for the wealthy ruling class.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Ibiza was where the privileged class from Madrid could get away from Francoism?
YVES MICHAUD — Yes, a social class that was still linked to Francoism, and which, at the same time, took advantage of this island which was relatively uncontrolled. Nobody gave a damn about Ibiza, you see. It wasn’t really part of the Iberian Peninsula. Hence the fact that Ibiza has always had an extremely complicated relationship with Majorca. Ibiza is in the province of the Balearic Islands, but the island is not at all Catalan and has always looked toward Madrid and, paradoxically therefore, Francoism. And the old godfather of the island, the great promoter of tourism, the man who had all the power, Abel Matutes, is a political leader who for years was close to Franco in the 1970s. He was even mayor of Ibiza for 25 years, appointed by Franco.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So it was a pleasure enclave within Francoism.
YVES MICHAUD — But that was before the rise of the hedonist, festive Ibiza, which happened in the 1970s.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Yet you say in your book that there have always been drugs in Ibiza because it was a smugglers’ island.
YVES MICHAUD — Right. It was always a place for contraband activities, including the money that could bring because the resources of the Ibicencos [Ibizans] came down, roughly speaking, to dried fruit — apricots, some almonds — there was never any industry, and piracy. There’s a monument to pirates, and a few boats on Ibiza were given a license to privateer in the waters of the Mediterranean, and then maybe do some trafficking. But you also had poppies on Ibiza. Looking at local medicines — people didn’t have the money to buy them — there are a lot of products made using poppies. If you’ve got toothache, they’ll offer you a “quiet tea” to soothe you.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How did you come to fall in love with Ibiza?
YVES MICHAUD — I discovered Ibiza through the film More by Barbet Schroeder. Actually, it kind of put me off the place because it’s quite a gloomy film, with the suicide of that young German guy who’s in love with the American junkie. My own attachment to Ibiza dates back to 1987. We are 150 miles from Algeria here, and a lot of pieds noirs have second homes in Ibiza because it looks like Algeria, and a lot of poor Ibicencos emigrated to Oran.

OLIVIER ZAHM — When did the club culture start in Ibiza?
YVES MICHAUD — In the 1970s. There again, you find Spanish high society because the two founders of Amnesia, a little bar where they had music, were Antonio Escohotado, a young philosopher who had done time for drug trafficking and wrote A Brief History of Drugs: From the Stone Age to the Stoned Age but who now is even more reactionary than a Francoist, and his associate, a Spanish aristocrat [Maria Fuencisla Martínez de Campos y Muñoz]. That was the beginning of the drug culture, the free love, and the music. DJ Alfredo [Fiorito] did nights spinning vinyl on decks. And in those days both Amnesia and Pacha were these little traditional houses away from everything else, bars that had music where people got together. In 1971, there were about 10,000 hippies in Ibiza, and there were three or four thousand in Formentera, including Pink Floyd.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Then the 1980s marked the beginning of techno and industrial tourism?
YVES MICHAUD — Things really took off in 1985-86, like in England, with Ecstasy, raves, and techno music. And there, too, you had drugs on a massive scale, particularly ecstasy. This was when Amnesia, Privilege (then called the Ku Klub), and Pacha upped their scale and started doing music in the open air, as there were no regulations. The Ku Klub had a capacity of 8,000 at the time, in the early 1990s, and was said to be the biggest nightclub in the world. They had that famous concert by Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballé. When they tried to put a roof over it, the place collapsed because it really wasn’t made for that. It’s covered now, but it’s really ugly. Things hit the buffers in 1991, due to both the economic crisis — two big devaluations of the peseta brought things to a standstill — and the introduction of administrative requirements to cover discotheques. They slapped an order on clubs to add roofs to soundproof them.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What about Ibiza in the 2000s?
YVES MICHAUD — Hell! Mass tourism gone wild. It developed exponentially in a game of hide and seek with the authorities who were trying to contain the explosion of tourism and mafioso exploitation of the island. In order to combat this industry, which was becoming too much for the island, they set stricter hours for the clubs, so they were forced to close at five or six in the morning. And they opened quite late, too. Given Spanish hours, they never opened before one in the morning. That means you got these after parties with day clubs that were open from eight in the morning through to the evening. So, in a sense, you could party 24/24. So next they banned the afters, but the club owners got around the rules by creating beach clubs and buying chiringuitos [small bars] on the beach. It was the same investors who bought concessions on the beaches and who started creating day clubs. That being said, the year 2020 and its problems settled the issue by closing them. The problem was already there, anyway, because they’d reached the limits of the festive tourist model: 2.8 million people and nightclubs everywhere. Even in terms of business, it was no longer viable.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So the economic model wasn’t working.
YVES MICHAUD — Exactly. Too much supply. I know the economic infrastructure very
well. I happen to know the brothers who run Ushuaïa very well. They have 12,000 people a night at the height of summer. Depending on its size, a nightclub employs between 300 and 500 people. This is seasonal labor that usually comes from the peninsula, and most of them are South Americans. They’re badly paid but still you have to pay them, and then there’s rocketing DJ fees, with superstars like David Guetta and others demanding €300,000 for a tiny little set. Ushuaïa at full capacity can hold 12,000 people. That may pull in crazy amounts of cash, but what with the personnel and the rates for DJs, it really is very, very expensive to keep it all turning over, and it’s getting more and more fragile. On top of that, you’ve got the beach clubs open in the day. For me, the Ibiza model reached its limits in 2019, so 2020 wasn’t such a catastrophe, in a way, because it meant that the nightclubs didn’t crash into that financial wall that they’d been plowing into every summer.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, now Ibiza is breathing a bit easier?
YVES MICHAUD — The island has been breathing. During the summer months, from June 15 to September 15, it was hell. The traffic, the beachside parking lots, were overflowing. All the rented boats made the creeks a nightmare.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I hear that turtles have been spotted again on the southern beaches.
YVES MICHAUD — Yes, turtles and dolphins are back. Above all, the fish population has been revived. This year, the fish spawned, came back. Locals have started fishing again. And because the restaurants closed, fishermen had a moratorium on lobsters. So that means there are lobsters again.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, there you have it, the history of Ibiza is starting over. There’s another dimension to the island that you describe very well. I love that description you use, that it’s “an island with folds.” An island where artists can hide and work away from the tourist masses. The first fold is the difference between the island’s north and south.
YVES MICHAUD — The difference between the north and the south of this very small island is very great because of the coastal relief: the north has cliffs so offers virtually no access to the sea for swimming. That means the north is quiet and hasn’t changed much over the years. The south, where I live, and the southwest, which has access to the beaches and to the sea, are a tourist hell in summer.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes, but in the north you can find ways of getting to the sea. By walking, going to the creeks.
YVES MICHAUD — You can, if you walk, but you need to be a very good walker and to know the place. It can be dangerous. I mean, every year three or four people fall. Some places are extremely steep. The peasants knew their way around, but your sat nav won’t help you. Also, you can end up in places you can’t get back from. Yes, you made it down here, but you won’t make it back up unless you know a bit about mountain climbing.

OLIVIER ZAHM — This contrast between the north and the south means that intellectuals like you and musicians and artists can come and live in these folds and find the possibility of living the creative life.
YVES MICHAUD — In terms of the visual arts, there were lots of artists in the 1930s and the ’50s, then musicians in the 1970s. It was a bit like a distant Côte d’Azur, if you like. And of course, it was cheap. Since the ’90s, it has really thinned out, mind you. But the situation is changing again with Covid-19. Artists are coming from all over to live here because they’re leaving the cities.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes, like the Mexican conceptual artist Stefan Brüggemann, the musician Stephan Crasneanscki, and a whole bunch of musicians who are setting up their studios. But let’s come back to your hyper-aesthetic idea. How exactly would you define that?
YVES MICHAUD — I’ve been working for nearly 10 years on a book that will come out in October and that will be called Hyper-esthétique et Atmosphère. It’s a book of aesthetic theory, but in relation to the current situation. In particular, I talk about art and its disappearance. I don’t think you’re going to agree with me on this because my judgment on this point is devastating. Art as art, the art world, is a tiny little world in relation to the hyper-aestheticization of the atmospheres.

OLIVIER ZAHM — The art world, you say, is fated to disappear?
YVES MICHAUD — That’s one of the book’s themes. Art now exists only in what I call ZEPs — [Zones d’Esthétiques Protégées, or Protected Aesthetics Zones], museums, associations, galleries, auction houses, etc. Art exists only when it is “protected” in ZEPs and its highly commercial system, its market, which extends to the big collectors’ foundations and the increasing interlocking of private institutions with industrial capitalism. The art milieu is a kind of bulb of Air de Paris by Marcel Duchamp. A little island protected by its market.

OLIVIER ZAHM — An island of resistance, perhaps?
YVES MICHAUD — Oh no. It is totally linked to the current development of capitalism, as an investment and as inspiration. The change of atmosphere, the new forms of aesthetic perception, do not come from art but from technology. The fundamental dimension, in the end, is technology and industrialization. What is driving our societies is the frenzied, autonomous development of digital technology. For me, the turning point was 2005, with the increase of bandwidth, the creation of Face­book, Google, YouPorn. That’s when it all changed.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And now, with artificial intelligence, Deep Learning…
YVES MICHAUD — Realtime Big Data management and algorithms controlling the transmission of information, images, and videos. They produce information, communication, pleasure, and, in the end, they are new sources of aesthetic experience. As I see it, this is not an artistic aesthetic in the real sense.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So that is hyper-aestheticization?
YVES MICHAUD — Yes. Hyper-aesthetic experience transits through a screen. These are our new islands. Because, as Jean Baudrillard saw, this is not the virtual world but the real world. Reality is all digital appearance and aesthetic atmosphere.


[Table of contents]

The Island Issue #35

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