May 22, 2008

The exodus begins at the street corner

Filed under: Multilingualism / Territories / Migration — Multitudes @ 00:39


When you live in the city, how can you reach a free world? Where can you gaze at the stars and where do you find the room to breathe ? How do you resist the grey oppression, the merging into the identical, the squashing of difference, suffocation in a house or a flat. You go down to the street, go as far as the corner, and you wait. Others do much the same. As W.F. White has shown in relation to the Italians of Boston in 1943, the society of the street corner inspires fear, it belongs to the immigrant neigbourhood. Ordinary people do not have a need for a gathering point; on the street corner, they will turn or cross over, they have nothing unknown to wait for, they know where they are going. Immigrants go there to wait for an opportunity to present itself, to regroup, to guage this moment together, to pass on hints, or to leave the group to pursue a more personal adventure. The street corner is where you find ‘the gang’, literally, those who wait for nothing, the band. The modernist architectural movement suppressed the street and its corners in the city. The foot of the building block became the new place as a rallying point, limiting the gang to the stairwell. A new path in repression made it necessary to return indoors, Since 2003 even halls are forbidden to the ‘aggressive presence’ of youth. Home or riot has become the only choice. Immigrant society has been reduced to the space of housing.

Urban space is fragmented, residentialised, codified ; it no longer communicates, instead it barricades itself in against fear. Space becomes smoothed-over. Outdoors it is possible only to circulate, but there is nothing to see, new buildings show their backs to the street, or surround themselves with walls or hedges. Housing, denied to a great number, is well-guarded by all. These functional cells have definite contours. In this way, comfort is delivered by exact measurement, precise references; space is divided into squares. It oozes boredom. The petit-bourgeois interior is equipped with all the instruments that are needed for doing everything alone. But what is the use of being the technician of your own house? Can you still talk for no reason, for pleasure?

The local organisations who go from door to door in the neighbourhood demand subscriptions, a certain loyalty, but they always have an objective that is precise and limited, limits which you are always at risk of going beyond. Stopping rents and charges from rising, drawing attention to necessary works, these are good claims. Every 4 years you vote for housing representatives. Just as every 5 years you vote for a president, deputy, every six years for the mayor. For a couple of months of campaigning you can talk about everything that is bothering you, but never about what you desire. You don’t think of that, your personal problems are not thought to be diginified by the Mayor ; fill out his questionnaire, instead. Since consultation has been introduced in the neighbourhood; it is necessary to participate. A president is elected. The order of the day is fixed. Dog fouling forbidden, parking not allowed, the neighbourhood is policed more and more and conversations are rare in protected alleyways.

Spaces of common breath

To go out into the serialised city is deceptive. Space is squared off, regulated, domesticated, untouchable. Terrains vagues, building sites, holes, demolition works catch the eye. Something happens over there. Another world is pressing in from behind these palissades. Is there a possibility for play in the city? Can the world of tagging and graffiti open up to others?

‘Urban actions’ occupy emptyin buildings. Some families are housed in order to remind the public conscience of the need for housing for all; activities are eventually organised in exchange for militant information, to improve information about political problems. Space functions in such a way that it is no longer a question of coming here to present yourself, unless you consider yourself completely legitimate, because already there are militant members present. Open-air, leftover spaces do not have this same central role, they are interesting to ‘street corner society’ and to a number professionals in search of a ground on which to exercise their talents. Usually these two types of interest exclude one another.

Activate space rather than submit it, configure a place while you are waiting, instead of responding to a command, mobilise an artist-inhabitant competence. A corner is subjected to the process of degradation or renovation of a neighbourhood, via the city’s planning process. Do you want to participate? We will organise you but in our way, with our tools. A rallying point for goodwill around the desire to make collectively, a garden, meals, encounters. You enter a space and negotiate its use, for a while. Which can be spectacular, a festival. Something visible, tangible, a thing, around which to rally, to create a waiting point. A sigh, of ease, of joy, a place for breathing together.

Spaces for setting down dreams

To make art in a space together, to begin by setting down intentions and desires, in a material form that can be shared between people not speaking the same languages, demands sophisticated and cautious approaches. Everywhere artists of a new kind are making use of this opportunity of spaces where you take your place, enter into dialogue, persuade, feel pressure, experience the possibility of democracy. Not a ‘representative democracy’, as there is no election of a representative of any sort, nor participative, as it is not about participating in a decision to be taken by a superior, but a democracy in which each one encounters the other in their sameness and difference. The garden is the best place for this particular, new urban game: a material pleasure, circumscribed, tangible.
There are several community gardens that have developed in Paris over the years, with the endorsement of the city, which organises access to its undeveloped ‘friches’. A ‘shared garden’ (jardin partagé) is ‘an open space for the neighbourhood which favours encounters between cultures and generations’. It also enables the tying of relations from different lifestyles in the local district: schools, retirement homes, and hospitals. In this garden, respect for the environment and for the development of biodiversity are compulsory. Such a garden is handed over to an association by a contract for the duration of a year, renewable up to 5 years (see All precautions are taken so that there is no regrouping of people expecting to do something else. Functionalism has once again fashioned its own leaden language.

The forms like the process of political interventions among artists in urban spaces are different. The canonical form, the model to be repeated, is not their concern, on the contrary. According to artistic logic continual invention is obvious. Every opportunity, every place ought to bring out an original realisation. These realisations do not need to have beauty as their aim, but they do need to respond in the most economical way possible to the desire that brings them into existence. For these experiences, public money, mobilised effectively, is poor. Form does not need to create distance from its users. Materials are recycled or cheap. Their construction is solid. The objects need to be able to pass through the hands of anyone, even the poorest. And to tempt their replication. One thinks of a form of Arte Povera which, different to the movement that carries this name, does not stop at the production of objects but concentrates on the continued process that makes them see the light of day. In effect, the project develops through time, as a growing number of people start to frequent this street corner. 200 people have joined Ecobox, on Rue Pajol, in Paris 18th district, to become keyholders to the gate that gives access to the « friche », to gain access to their public space. The mobile kitchen, fitted with wheels, is an example of these situated objects which gather together energy and difference: recipes of migrant populations are exchanged and tasted here. Open debates about the world by artists and their friends surprise the inhabitants, who find themselves taking part in conversations that they would otherwise have thought confined to the world of Art. One space then another, and then others emerge on the initiative of others elsewhere. Living in the interstitial spaces of neighbourhood enclaves, promises renovation once again. Artistic interventions with inhabitants, open up urban spaces where you can stop without having to consume anything more than friendship. The difference of this action to those which flourished in the 1970s, is that it is no longer about conceiving a plan of social development for a neighbourhood, it is not about creating a totality that will replace an oppressive structure. It is not about making things better or about being the best professional of the moment. It is simply about making a discrepancy, a blank as described by Felix Guattari, a place where you can share ideas freely, casually like on the sofa of a salon.

Research in multiple languages

In these interventions the research, which one could say is ‘anthropological’, is carried out on the ground, in the thick of action. It is about evaluating the capacity of inhabitants to take control of their own lives, at the moment when a proposal is put to them not verbally but in acts carried out together. The basic hypothesis is that it is not possible to deduce from a simple observation of rubbish strewn streets, that this population is resistant to sustainable governance and to its main feature, the waste management. As Colette Petonnet has written, in relation to deprived populations, living in slums or in ‘sensitive neighbourhoods’ it is necessary to account for the ecological interest which exists amongst all human beings, and which constitutes what it is to be human: growing, cutting back, making culture out of nature. To make a garden is one of the first gestures of humanity, a gesture that is spoken in all languages, a gesture which recognises whether or not we are talking in the same language.

In La Chapelle garden experience it is mostly the women who have reclaim the land ; a little further the male society of the street corner is still very present. The women are as much in search as these men are for a part of the world, for a world of the land and for a world of encounter. But they live in these interstices, slightly protected, collective spaces that are privately controlled where they are less exposed. Spaces which existed in the city, in the village, around the wash-house, or in the proximity of the courtyard. In Sweden, in Switzerland, the collective laundries in the blocks are conducive to conversations between immigrants. Everywhere there is this dreaming of ‘beautiful laundrettes’.

In the communal space of the ‘friche’, of the garden, of the interstice, languages present themselves like the women and children languages of all the immigrants from the neighbourhood. These languages, with such different graphics, are evoked in a festival or inthe artistic performance « Flyng carpet » where phrases are exchanged with all the great difficulties of reciprocal writing, but with all the pleasure of shared effort. In the schools of deprived neighbourhoods’ there are 25 languages, or 52, or 33, the exact number is not important, but something, in any case, that makes living together an impossibility. And all these languages are brought in those performances by women and children singing in their own languages, without understanding anything except that it is all very beautiful. Getting to know one another as different creates a common space. Making a garden, indifferent to languages, if not to traditions, creates a ‘plan of consistency’ (Felix Guattari) of the neighbourhood, where people come to project and share differences, to feel solidarity.

Writing the public

The apprenticeship is constant, an apprenticeship in the abundance of this population of the neighbourhood, a sort of improvised sociology, a kind of participant observation. An apprenticeship of the others in all their dimensions, and notably in the madnesses, the anxieties and other difficulties of living together, to which this space is not exempt, but to which it offers a space for direction and handling. A certain form of institutional psychoptherapy is practiced there, without mandate, like several social movements that do not favour exclusion.

How can the street corner meet the dimensions of the world? Its frequency draws attention to small things. Putting this into perspective follows the professional bias, research of other efforts which are inscribed in a site as a way of transforming it, to put it at the disposal of inhabitants or the public. To bring to inhabitants’ attention that it is about seizing the world through language, through the body, through difference in perception. The public implies totalisation, an opening for sameness. The public is relieved of its duties by its anonymity, by the renunciation of linguisitc diversity, by the asbence of interest in the diversity of faces. The public, is the way out of the world of art, of sculpture, of material fashioning, and a way into the world of writing.

Writing must remain present, or rather become present, but only in part, as one art amongst others. As an art that produces books. Parked in the grounds of Ecobox there is a mobile library, inspired in its form by the war machine described by Deleuze and Guattari in Thousand Plateaus. A reading cabinet mounted on wheels. This nomadic library is the reincarnated version of the library of Lozère where artists from the world over select its books telling the world. People send an e-mail recommending a book. These e-mails formed a collection: the bibliomail. The delights of the garden are savoured through reading. Here we can love urban life as a localised dilation of the life of the whole world. In that space every action gives freedom because it is built with others.

Translated from an article published in Multitudes n°31, 2007. Translation by the author and Sophie Handler. All rights reserved.

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