Can Europe Make It?

Pep Subiros, kind guardian spirit for good causes: in memoriam

Pep Subirós, who died in early May, was an important political and cultural figure of post-Franco Spain: philosopher, editor, author, cultural organizer. 

openDemocracy Opendemocracy
7 June 2016
1.Foto Pep.jpeg

Pep Subiros. writer and philosopher

These tributes to Pep’s extraordinary personality trace the features of a public intellectual who our world will sorely miss:


Pep was a friend and admired colleague. We met about a decade ago in a Woodrow Wilson international venture on cities. We immediately took to each other and knew that we would work together. For me, the first draw was Pep's smile, light laugh, and his quiet but formidable intellect. Next was his resolute commitment to inquiry, social justice and real democracy. Every time we met, we talked for ages, rarely disagreed, looked for ways of developing a language of hope out of our turbulent present. 

We worked together on various projects. One high point for me was him bringing the South African sculptor Jane Alexander's magical exhibition, Bom Boys to the magnificent Durham Cathedral.  One of our annual themes at the Institute of Advanced Study was ‘Being Human’ and Jane's human-animal sculptures gave a powerful insight into that. The exhibition was a great public success and with Pep we put together a beautiful catalogue. Then, we met on many occasions at the Centre for Contemporary Culture in Barcelona (CCCB), to work on the contemporary city, on a Europe of the migrant, on a plural future. We co-presented, we talked, and we wrote together, including for openDemocracy. Any joint project was easy - we could sit at the computer and simply type away, as thinking and expressing together did not require much labor. It is rare to find someone with whom you can write so effortlessly. At root lay our friendship, of course. At times, I sought his advice on how best to deal with turbulent teenage children. He knew; he had a dear, precious, close family. The loss we all feel now is political, intellectual, and personal. 

Pep indicated a solution of how we can negotiate our near totalitarian times. That it is not enough to persevere steadfastly with critical writing, but that we must also work at making a fairer future tangible and desired. That we also need a profound ethical commitment to others and to the world at large. These qualities shone through Pep's personality and his work - his novels, philosophical reflections, art exhibitions, books on Apartheid, essays on the open city and on open Europe. They will linger through indelible memories, and indelible words scripted by a fine mind.


When someone dear to you passes away, your thoughts inevitably tend to bring him back. Or at least so it happens to me. And it is so with Pep. My souvenirs of Pep inexorably highlight his deeply civic commitment in life. When I arrived at Barcelona, my hometown for almost two decades now, Pep was among the first persons I met. In fact, my arrival was largely made possible thanks to him. I was hosted by the Asylum Cities Network of the International Parliament of Writers. Pep played a key role to making Barcelona part of that network and I was the first writer they received. We frequently met at that time. Then, for several years, life took us to different paths. Our meetings became less frequent, but I was surrounded by things created by him, by cultural institutions he had founded and then he went on his way looking for new things, leaving them as a precious legacy for our city.

Then, at a certain moment, our paths met again. Pep had the leading role in launching the Forum of Concerned Citizens of Europe and its webzine Living in diversity, and I started to collaborate with this project. The last stage was an event in Tirana, my hometown prior to Barcelona.

Shortly afterwards, Pep’s health deteriorated. And now I cannot meet him. However, for me he is always here somewhere in Barcelona, and although we cannot meet as we almost didn’t for several years after I came here, time will come when I will see him again. Our paths will meet again somewhere as they did in the past. I feel this and so my memory tells me. Pasternak was right when he said that you are always in the life of those who keep remembering you.


Pep Subiros was a bright force of nature streaming through the universe lighting up everyone and everything he touched.  He remained in numerous profound ways a man of his time and place. Yet, his insatiable curiosity and boundless imagination propelled him across all political, social and intellectual boundaries. No single concept can communicate who Pep was. He became a philosopher, a writer, a scholar, a politically-engaged administrator, a curator, an urbanist, a husband, a father, a colleague, a friend; and so much more; roles in life which he defined but never let define him. 

No one who came in contact with his thinking about cities, as I did, ever approached the urban condition quite the same way again.  Most of all, Pep was a humanist who was deeply devoted to the dignity of every human being; a commitment that was reflected in everything that he did. Unsurprisingly, he touched the lives of people from Johannesburg to Perm, from Quito to New York and many places in between. Pep Subiros, in short, defined the meaning of human being.


Pep Subirós made it possible to create and present art in rare and valuable ways, allowing artwork an interdisciplinary and engaged 'social life' it cannot have in the art world of successful commerce. 
I am most privileged and grateful to have had the exceptional opportunities he made possible for the preparation, exhibition and consideration of my work, always with consultation and respect, and for the insight I gained from his understanding of the social and political world through conversation, writing and the many significant individuals and their work that he introduced me to.
His passing is a great loss, not only for those of us who miss him, but for the impossibility of the projects he had in mind not yet realised. 


Pep Subirós has always been a kind of activist. An activist of life, I could say, who expressed himself primarily through various forms of culture. Through his origins, he had anarchist impulses that explained his difficulties in fitting in to suffocating structures. And, undoubtedly, he carried the marks of his left-wing political activism of the 1970s that were like a superego, pushing him towards the public and the collective, even against the spontaneous leanings of his character (..)

(…) he constructed his wide-ranging intellectual personality on three pillars: insatiable curiosity that manifested itself among others in his travels - hence his discovery of Africa; engagement with artists and intellectuals with whom he felt affinity, like Miquel Barceló or Jane Alexander; and a capacity to create links with people and institutions of different countries to launch projects that had the virtue (some would say, weakness) of lasting as long as they had a soul and ending before they became ossified. The last one, that his illness stopped, was creating the European group of Concerned Citizens that anticipated our continent’s current crisis. (..) he was always anxious about the world closing in again.


Pep has been a “colleague”, a dear friend also. The first time we met I was in Barcelona for a conference, in 2005. Someone told him that we shared experiences and interests. He came to meet me: it was the beginning of several encounters. He suggested we organize an international event at the CCCB to build a project with participants from different parts of Europe to share and discuss our contexts and experiences. To look at the future not as citizens in different social and political backgrounds, but from a “shared” European perspective. In March 2010 the Conference “Living with Diversity. For a Politics of Hope in Europe” took place. He had built these opportunities.  We never had the opportunity to work together again.


According to the calendar, I first met Pep in 2012, at a symposium about the demise of democracy in Europe that turned out to be the last event he organized at the CCCB, the extraordinary cultural institution he helped to establish. But according to my internal calendar that measures subjective time, I met him in the mid1970s, during my first trips to a Spain that was slowly awakening from the long decades of dictatorship. Practically every person I visited read El Viejo Topo, a leftist politico-cultural journal, edited by Pep Subirós. Those people today are all over the political spectrum, but Pep used to be their companion of route during a crucial period of their life.

I came from behind the Iron Curtain; I understood right away the importance of that publication. So decades later, when I met Pep, it felt like finding a long not-seen close friend.

Pep was the kind of intellectual our world badly needs, a rare species on the way to extinction. Deeply rooted in the local context of his beloved Catalonia, he had a universal sensibility and was always looking for global solutions. A man with a big culture and solid theoretical knowledge, he was also able to act, to organize, to create networks and to talk to people from every possible corner of life. His curiosity, his eagerness to learn and share, his deep conviction that we are here to make this planet a better place, took him to diverse activities from university lecturer to political actor who shaped his city’s cultural profile, from a writer to a humble reporter who gave voice to the voiceless marginal. He went to Africa to understand where many of his country’s immigrants came from and returned as an ambassador of that world, writing about it and curating major exhibitions to show its treasures. He was a modest, generous, open-minded person, a wonderful, warm human being, with a good dose of often self-derisory humor. His premature death is a huge, painful loss. 


On the gloomy May morning when I learned of Pep’s passing, I was already in a melancholic mood.  And earlier that week, I had been thinking of Pep as I prepared a lecture on immigration and the European refugee crisis. I had only met him a handful of times - in Barcelona and, for the last time, in Cairo six years ago. In Cairo, for the first time, we were able to have some long conversations.  In the midst of those distinguished scholars with long commitments to Africa, brought together by Edgar Pieterse of the African Center for Cities at the University of Cape Town, I was definitely an outsider and an interloper. But the conversations with Pep helped ease my way into the event. That is how I remember him, gentle, patient and caring. But above all, kind. While talking about our families, I discovered that his partner was Lali Bosch. I imagined some of the conversations they may have had, joined by their mutual, cosmopolitan interest in the world beyond Europe and its essential contributions to European culture. 

At the time I met him in Cairo, Pep was completing his essay on belonging and immigration. When he later sent it to me I understood what a rare voice he represented amongst European public intellectuals. Like an anthropologist, he based his work on direct contact with those he was writing about, discovering facets of immigrant life in Barcelona and other places that may not have come to light otherwise. Above all, he framed the issue, allowing the reader to view the question of belonging from the migrant’s point of view rather than the host’s.  Asking "who am I?" and "how am I treated?” rather than “who are you?” and “do you belong?”  turned the debate that has been increasingly focused on encroachment and discrimination into one about cosmopolitanism and exile.     

Even as I regret that this voice has now fallen silent, my hope is that his work will become ever more relevant. I’d been thinking of Pep during the week he passed away while I was working on a book on the Rio Olympics and their potential legacy. And I really wish Pep were here to read the book, make suggestions and offer insights from his own experiences from another Olympic city, connecting near and far as always. RIP, dear friend.


Miquel Barceló. Homage to Pep. Courtesy of the artist.

Miquel Barceló. Homage to Pep. Courtesy of the artist.Pep Subirós (1947-2016) was a Spanish philosopher and author. He taught philosophy at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, the University of Glasgow and New York University. He was the editor of two key political journals of the post-Franco period, El Viejo Topo and Transición. Between 1985 and 1997 he was in charge of cultural affairs of the city of Barcelona, launching such important cultural projects as the Cultural Olimpics, the Centre for Contemporary Culture of Barcelona and the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art. As an independent curator, he organized major exhibitions in Spain, England and Japan. He wrote several volumes of essays, novels and travel diaries.  



Ash Amin, Professor of Geography, Cambridge

Bashkim Shehu, Writer, Tirana/Barcelona

Blair A. Ruble, Political scientist, Washington, D.C.

Jane Alexander, Sculptor, South Africa

Josep Ramoneda, Philosopher and author, Barcelona

Laura Balbo, Professor of Sociology and politician; Italy

Miquel Barceló, Painter, Spain

Yudit Kiss, Economist and author, Budapest / Geneva

Vyjayanthi Rao, Professor of Anthropology, Mumbai/ New York


Thanks go to Yudit Kiss for gathering these testimonies.

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