Through the prism of his personal experience at Ateliers de la Cité in Marseille, Léo Guy-Denarcy chronicles the last three decades of artist actions in public housing environments. Between profound naivety, total failure, and the occasional success, the relationship between art and the masses is wrought with pitfalls, due for the most ( Mostly due to ) misleading stereotypes.
Project Unité (June 1 – September 30, 1993) ABR Stuttgart, T. Arefin, F. Armaly, Art Orienté Objet, J. Barry, C. Von Bonin, T. Burr, Clegg & Guttmann, N. Coates, J. Currin, S. Dillemuth, M. Dion, P. Doig, K. Ericson & M. Ziegler, A. Frémy, C. Geoffroy, D. Gonzalez-Foerster, R. Green, S. Helm, J. Isermann, M. Krebber, C. Lévêque, T. Locher, E. Miralles, R. Möller, J. Morrisson, T. Mouraud, C. P. Müller, P. Parreno, R. Petitbon, P. Ditta, F. Roche, M. Rosler, K. Saylor, R. Schöttle, J. Simon, O.Védrine, H. Zobernig
Esthétique relationnelle, Les presses du réel, 1998.
Interview “Project Unité à Firminy, entretien avec Yves Aupetitallot”, May n°12, 2014.
Created in collaboration with philosopher Uwe Fleckner.
Conceived in collaboration with French writer Christophe Fiat.
The artists involved at La Bricarde are Yazid Oulab, Jean-Marc Munerelle, Charlie Jeffery, Stefan Eichhorn, Guillaume Louot and Nathanaël Abeille. Marielle Chabal, Dejode&Lacombe, Bertille Bak, Ishem Rouaï and Estelle Fonseca were the artists working at Cité de Fonscolombes.
City on the outskirts of Paris.
City on the outskirts of Paris.
City on the outskirts of Marseille.
I first entered the La Bricarde public housing blocks in the 15th district of Marseille in early June 2014, armed with a part-time, work-insertion program position and a background as a curator and art critic. Back then, I was working for an organization and foundation started by a consortium of social housing landlords in the south of France. Perhaps they thought the cultural Lumpenproletariat (German subcategory of the proletariat) I embodied would dovetail marvelously with the underclass of Marseille’s northern neighborhoods. On paper, my job was to oversee and coordinate several studios allocated to artists at the heart of the city’s social housing complex, intending to create a series of permanent works to be integrated into the buildings.
That day, I was welcomed by a young man half-sprawled over a club chair beneath the beating sun. Not a bead of sweat could be seen on him, unlike me, the Parisian, doused after having lost his way in search of building F. He asked for my ID card. I handed over my passport. He gave it back to me. The scene, which seemed straight out of Theatre of Cruelty, intrigued and amused me for a long while until a colleague explained it to me later that year when school resumed in September. The young man was checking for signs that I belonged to the police Anti-Crime Brigade (ACB). For the next four years of this enriching experience, many residents would stick on calling me the “ACB guy”, a nickname that stuck and was uttered with affection.
Two or three things I know about her
It’s big. The tower complexes are not on a human scale. You wander through them like a mouse, often getting lost. One reason why I find it interesting to insist on these “revolting diplodocus” and their visual history is that they remain so irrevocably and continuously relevant in terms of contemporary critique.
It’s still hard to define what constitutes a “grand ensemble” (a French term for public housing blocks and tower complexes). The term appeared in the 1950s, written by French engineer and urbanist Maurice Rotival. But the urban project it encompasses has poorly defined contours. Still, today, the visual history of this object, its implicit image or imagination, is a legend itself within society. We have gone from the symbol of modernity to architectural monster. From this vague definition, these two aspects evolve in tandem with a surprising and rich artistic productivity. One influenced by a fascination for Bauhaus and its concern with “standardization” at first, followed by a rejection of template spaces, nourished by a sometimes melancholic, often idealistic vision.
So between fascination and disgust, we attempt to analyze the actions and representations operating in these spaces separating the poor or working classes. Those are ungraspable spaces that since their beginning are an expression of a group dispersed into slums and fortifications.
Jean-Luc Godard’s Two or Three Things I know About Her shows, in 1967, how hard it is to represent and film these ‘grand ensembles’. “Learn in silence two or three things I know about her. Her, the cruelty of neo-capitalism. Her, the prostitution. Her, the Paris metropolitan area. Her, the bathroom that 70% of French people do not have. Her, the terrible law of Grands Ensembles. Her, the physique of love. Her, life today,” is what the film’s voice-over tells us. It reveals the difficulty encountered in talking about it, showing and illustrating it. As in the scene where a model-sized version of the complex made of detergent packets and cookie tins is placed on the lawn just a few meters from the actual buildings.
A place apart
Some artists have managed to seize onto public housing, both its real-life dimension and its troubled, degraded imaginary. They try to understand the multiple issues arising from this social reality and its representation, specifically when it comes to collective housing, empty lots, or the urban outskirts, which artists approach in as many ways as there are theoretical paradigms. And so the last three decades have seen a shift toward the participatory, perhaps signifying the return of social-mindedness in terms of this observation: that artistic discourse blames social discourse for staying so stubbornly attached to existing categories, for focusing on political micro-gestures at the expense of art’s sensorial immediacy as a potential place of de-alienation. Due to which two things become one: either social conscience dominates, or the individual right to question the social conscience. The relationship of art to social causes is either upheld by social morality or implies underlying creative liberty. And so the late 1980s and early 1990s mark a pivotal moment in representing public housing and approaching it through art. New York artist Martha Rosler’s approach touches on a new process born from the neo-liberal redirection of American public policy. In 1990, there were about 70 000 to 80 000 homeless people in New York and 250 000 people at risk of losing their homes to the real estate market. Drastic reductions in public spending for social housing, combined with rising inflation due to the late 1980s global financial crisis and massive layoffs, resulted in the rapid pauperization of the middle and lower classes.
Addressing this new context, Rosler’s exhibition series If You Lived Here… (1990) not only ties the politics of the 1970s to the more hermetic policies of new institutionalism, but it also situates it at the dawn of artistic exploration centered on producing concrete and abstract elements. If You Lived Here… manifests itself as a kind of pathway with multiple entry points. The artist mixes public discussion zones, reading rooms and even a publication conceived as a project lab. Her theoretical contribution is compounded by several thematic exhibitions that bring visual weight to her proposition. She works transversally in a way that extends the art field. In exchange, she offers a practice nourished by field research and critical thinking that involves her in a cultural and social diagnostics, tied together in a political and singular artistic practice.
New ways of considering the ‘grands ensemble’ territory can be sensed early in 1999, in Marseille, with the series Grand Littoral (1999-2003) by Valérie Jouve. The European equivalent of Martha Rosler’s works on appreciating a changing terrain, the series involves the artist’s characteristically sociological and anthropological perspective. In response to the building’s monumentality, Jouve turns to the resident’s faces, how they get around and move through the buildings, the territory of the housing complex and its environs. Grand Littoral consists of a film and a photo series that show the construction site of the shopping center that bears the same name, and the surrounding residents.
As coincidence would have it, Valérie Jouve also photographed La Bricarde on this occasion. Indeed, the public housing project where I had the chance to work has nothing to do today with the reality depicted in her photo. La Bricarde, entirely neglected by the public authorities, has steadily deteriorated, even though it stands next to one of Europe’s largest shopping centers. The man in the video who must cross a four-lane highway to get back to his home, is he not an omen of the isolation to come?
Pierre Huyghe (1994-2001) responds to this lively representation with Les Grands ensembles, a piece conceived as dioramas reconstructing the urban landscape of the late 1970s. In a permanent sunset, two towers seem to dialogue using a strange light code emitted by TV monitors blinking behind windows. Huyghe is thinking here of the isolation produced by housing policies and the residents’ lack of a social universe, made even more palpable by the deserted streets. In this video, the artist aims to create “the hallucinatory image of a moment without representation, that of the ‘grands ensembles’, a weak hallucination like those televised interludes programmed to fill in a lull”. He seeks to create a portrait and sketch the contours of public policy, and of the process of rebuilding a territory.
A unique experience
In 1993, exhibition curator Yves Aupetitallot organizes Project Unité at Firminy, inside a disinherited building at Le Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse1. An encounter with institutional criticism, that is, the desire to think and create art off the well-trodden paths of museums and art centers. He continues to remain a kind of UFO in politics and art. The exhibition “rooms” are, in some cases, occupied apartments, whereas the artworks echo, and not accidentally, emerging contextual practices. For the exhibit, Yves Aupetitallot unites a group of artists from Cologne that is all associated with Galerie Nagel and pioneers in relational aesthetics as conceptualized by Nicolas Bourriaud in 20012.
“Cologne is the ideal place for combining the New York Whitney Program scene with the teachings of American theoretician Craig Owens. Hit by the market crisis and abandoned by different public programs in the USA, these artists, Renée Green, Mark Dion, and Andrea Fraser, among others continue their careers under more favorable auspices in Europe. Amongst them, Fareed Armaly has played a major role in building up this scene, such as with the Firminy project3.” Yves Aupetitallot used these terms to recount the planetary alignment necessary for the project, of which there is unfortunately little documentation.
Some critics quickly pushed a hypothesis linking Project Unité to the thinking of Kontext Kunst, which in the 1990s, looked above all at the formal, social and ideological conditions for any creation. According to Yves Aupetitallot, “its closest neighbor would probably be the French model of ‘metaphorical space’, one that engraves cultural fact into the public sphere, notably by looking at the political avant-garde.” In these projects, there is also a need to cover a curatorial and theoretical spectrum spanning institutional critique to a possible perspective on the increasing commercialization of the art world. This could be presented as the in-between, a curatorial stance that pushes an organizer to be midway between different fields of research, different generations of artists, and different exhibition typologies.
A limited community
Thomas Hirschhorn’s Bataille Monument conceived in 2002 for Documenta XI in Kassel is probably, with its Avignon alter ego Deleuze Monument (2000), one of the ‘grands ensembles’ participatory works to have received the most media coverage. The installation is dedicated to French thinker Georges Bataille and consists of eight interconnected elements: a wooden sculpture, a library4, an exhibition5, workshops, a TV studio, a concessions stand, and a transportation system to bring visitors and neighborhood residents to Documenta. The project was archived on a website with photos taken by webcams disseminated throughout the installation.
More than an art object, the goal was to create “space and time dedicated to dialogue”, as Hirschhorn puts it. A precarious monument designed for visitors to inhabit it, animating it before demolition. Because it was scheduled to be destroyed, and despite its global intention (it was addressed to everyone), Monument ultimately only touched a limited community and rather seemed to dialogue in contrast with the monumental quality of the buildings. If in the long run, Hirschhorn was looking to create an open community and considered the works as “co-signed” by residents, or at least co-constructed, in his statements he paradoxically insists on the “I”, on himself as the artist or author.
The piece acts more like a time for restoration rather than construction, with a concept submitted to residents before being carried out: create a monument dedicated to Georges Bataille. The few remaining images from Hirschhorn’s project selectively relegate the buildings to the background to focus on the collective and participatory aspects of the work, depicting a group busy building, consulting and discussing instead.
In total, Thomas Hirschhorn composed four pieces for the Monuments series: Spinoza Monument (Amsterdam, Midnight Walkers, and City Sleepers, 1999); Deleuze Monument created in 2000 for the La Beauté exhibition in Avignon in the Cité Champfleury housing project; Bataille Monument (Documenta, Kassel, 2002) and Gramsci Monument (New York, 2013). During each of their respective installation periods, these projects were discussed at length considering their intentions and ability to be integrated into their territories on the urban periphery. In this sense, Thomas Hirschhorn’s oeuvre operates in the early stages of “community” experience within a social housing project but also in the inherent artistic and political debate, notably following La Beauté, when an entire panel of artists were seized or rejected by a social reality of which they believed themselves to be a part.
Deleuze Monument was dismantled before its completion, a target of vandalism and due to the abysmal relationship with neighbors. And so, in its guise as a failed project, it takes on a certain contemporary art legend status that Anna Dezeuze describes as A missed encounter. Despite all this, Hirschhorn sees himself as a social worker. A stance that allows him to promote his work as locally engaged, fieldwork done within a network of local organizations and residents. He “fully” participates in social housing life and the places invested by his Monuments. So we see him on location talking with young people, participating in moments of both presentation and restitution. The projects in these four countries showcase a participatory and societal “formula”: three installations out of four were created in public housing blocks.
From participation to collaboration
In 2000, Danish artists Rasmus Nielsen, Bjørnstjerne Reuter Christiansen and Jakob Fenger, working under the banner Superflex, launched the United Kingdom’s first Web TV (The Superchannel), from inside Coronation Court, Liverpool’s oldest public housing blocks. Against a backdrop of pitifully neglected buildings, guests and journalists use the “studio” to produce interviews with residents. More than half the channel’s programs are dedicated to the housing project’s history, as well as to daily problems encountered by residents and topics related to the city’s social housing, all on the eve of major renovations. The chroniclers were trained in camera and interviewing techniques.
The Superchannel is the fruit of a collaboration between Foundation for Art and Creative Technology (FACT) and Housing Action Trust (HAT) which manages the site. The artists talk in terms of an “agency”, a word frequently used in Anglo-Saxon art circles at the time, and which takes on a particular meaning in this context. Since the start, the project scope was long term, with salaries, a sustainable team, and a scheduled set for the following few years. It is the second Web TV experience initiated by the collective; the first took place at Artspace 1% in Copenhagen. The Danish artist project is designed, here and elsewhere, to take into account the participants’ autonomy: it is through their self-organization that it can exist. Superchannel stopped its activities in 2005, but the program Tenantspin is still broadcasted today.
What is unique about the Superflex project embedded in the Coronation Court housing complex is that it could grow from participatory to collaborative, thanks to professional training and experience that enabled them to write and think the site’s contemporaneity and history. The project is, therefore, an exception to what historian and art critic Claire Bishop calls the “artificial hells” of participatory art and rather succeeds in promoting collaboration and inclusivity. And so the inevitable conflict stages of the project, the differences in strategy and how each person is involved, are collectively managed so the project can remain viable.
Ateliers de la Cité
Ateliers de la Cité are artist residencies organized by the Fondation d’Entreprise Logirem (the corporate foundation of a French employment agency) and the organization Sextant et Plus within the La Bricarde and Fonscolombes housing complexes in Marseille. The initial project was launched in 2009 in the city’s 15th district before being “lumped” together in the 3rd. In Marseille, La Bricarde is seen as a no-go area. The complex has seen years of drug trafficking and score-settling, just next door to the legendary housing complex Castellane (which brought us Zinédine Zidane), and bordered by the Grand Littoral shopping center and CRS (French riot police) trucks that regularly carry out operations there. Ateliers de la Cité residencies were offered at La Bricarde from 2009 to 2016 and at Fonscolombes from 2014 to 2017, hosting 12 artists in studios allocated by the foundation6. Ten pieces were produced by the artists, nine installed on-site amongst the two housing complexes, and a book of fiction was published by Marielle Chabal (Alter Zeitgeist, Sextant et plus, 2014).
Three pieces created at La Bricarde were particularly well received by both art critics and residents. The first was by the duo gethan&myles in 2012, which included a book (Time Machine), a sculpture in public space (Fin) and a video (L’arrêt), each dealing with the history of the residents and the buildings. Fin (l’aileron) contains 366 resident birthdates engraved in the plexiglass of a solar panel. In 2014, the piece Le Parlement by Stefan Eichhorn replaced an old dilapidated arbor in La Bricarde’s shared garden area. This construction allowed residents to meet and talk. And in 2016, Nathanaël Abeille’s piece Réflexion was made to reflect the light of the setting sun onto the eastern and northern facades of the building, which are usually unexposed.
Social housing is also dying
The political history of ‘grands ensembles’ as told by these artworks is one that, it seems, responds to the monstrous and disorganized city with purely functional urbanism that is planned from beginning to end, and sections off greenery, habitats, commerce, and transportation. This fiction evolved unchecked to the point of revealing the “hellish décor” of a deconstructed scenario turned reality and episodically retold by a handful of artists. Most artistic projects that look at (deteriorating) social housing come to a head with the difficult meeting point between two stakes for the viewer: confronting oneself with social violence to which he is an outsider, or else observing how an author has viewed said violence. A new chapter in this unpredictable history began in the wake of the first urban riots sparked in 1981 at the Minguettes housing complex in Lyon. Mohamed Bourouissa’s Périphériques series, created in the direct aftermath of the urban upheavals in France in 2005, and ongoing until 2009, takes us into the daily life of so-called “project” youth. He starts a dialogue between his work’s social base and what he calls “emotional geometry” which seems, once again, to come from the building’s configuration. “There’s an emphasis on how tension is placed and organized in space. It’s a way of staging this neglected urban area as a conceptual, artistic object, in situations that ordinarily would be the stuff of photojournalism. By dismantling the clichés surrounding this subject, I deal with the problem of power relationships and ask about the power mechanisms at play.”
The ‘grands ensembles’ are monumental but difficult to perceive as monuments. While at La Bricarde, I was constantly lost, turned around, forced to retrace my steps. The places are intricate and much more different to live in than the standardization thought and dreamed up by their architects. Now that a policy of destruction has begun at Minguettes, followed by Courneuve7 and Vitry8, today this standardization has a new face, like at Plan d’Aou9 and soon at Castellane. In sum, housing projects are dying too. There is a new page in visual history, one where a smoke cloud gradually fills the screen after a series of detonations. Like me, many artists undoubtedly adhere to this image, perhaps underestimating the attachment of several generations of residents to a housing complex that nevertheless remains condemned.
One of the art’s social functions might be to crystallize an image or an answer to a blurry social situation and bring attention to its contours by establishing a collective memory of buildings.
The emergence of social connection around artistic practices is particularly striking in zones that are spaces where nearly all association of any kind is disregarded. My personal experience in Marseille encompassed responsibilities as an artist, social actor, teacher, and organizer; a mission that, on top of being political, is a cultural enterprise that unwittingly mitigates the effects of the public authorities’ absence as landlords. The artists are therefore condemned to observing the lack or reduction in financing needed to rehabilitate these monumental buildings, these spaces that artists are meant to engage with.
No matter what, as the young man at the entrance to La Bricarde said to me upon my arrival: “It’s all good”.
Translation by Maya Dalinsky
Cover: Cité Marseilleveyre, Marseille, France. © RR