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Mettler, Yves and Thévenot, Laurent, 2021, "Bancbigny 2013-", in Mettler, Y., Atlas Europe Square, Urbanomic, MIT Press, pp.120-145.

Chapter

Mettler, Yves and Thévenot, Laurent, 2021, "Bancbigny 2013-", in Mettler, Y., Atlas Europe Square, Urbanomic, MIT Press, pp.120-145.

Abstract

The scene is set in the heart of the ‘garden city’ of l’Abreuvoir designed by the modernist architect Émile Aillaud—one of those Parisian ‘banlieues’ known as a ‘sensitive neighbourhood. The action begins with the arrival of the artist, hoping to stage an intervention involving the inhabitants, and unfolds over five acts around the construction of a crude bench made of rammed earth. After the successful completion of the construction, a storm devastates the scene. In order to take stock of the drama and explore the contested issue of participation, the artist teams up with Thévenot, sociologist of engagement. Surely, some unsuspected truth can be found amid the debris of the wreckage?
BANCBIGNY,
2013
PROGRAMME: The scene is set in the heart of the ‘garden city’ of l’Abreuvoir
designed by the modernist architect Émile Aillaud—one of those Parisian ‘banlieues’
known as a ‘sensitive neighbourhood. The action begins with the arrival of the artist,
hoping to stage an intervention involving the inhabitants, and unfolds over ve acts
around the construction of a crude bench made of rammed earth.
) THE CLASH. In which Mettler gets a harsh reception.
) BONDING. In which our hero attempts to get back on track with a hand from
Michèle and her theatre company.
) THE CIRCLE OF PARTICIPATION. Showing how the residents take part in the
construction, more or less.
) THE RADIANCE OF THE CHARACTERS. How the boulistes get stuck in….
) THE POSE. Where everyone poses for posterity in front of the nished work.
After the successful completion of the construction, a storm devastates the
scene. In order to take stock of the drama and explore the contested issue of
participation, the artist teams up with Thévenot, sociologist of engagement.
Surely, some unsuspected truth can be
found amid the debris of the wreckage?
153152
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Mettler, Yves et Thévenot, Laurent, 2021, "Bancbigny 2013-",
in Mettler, Y., Atlas Europe Square, Urbanomic, MIT Press,
pp.120-145.
Texte
IT BEGINS WITH
DISCOMFORT
When Yves Mettler arrived in Paris in 2010, he had
two things on his mind: nding a place to develop
and think through his project on Europe Squares,
and meeting with the aaa (atelier d’architecture au-
togéré, studio for self-managed architecture), who
had done some exemplary work in the eld of art at
the intersection of participative urbanism and civic
and cultural activism. The transdisciplinary CCC
(critical curatorial cybermedia) course at the École
Supérieure des Beaux-arts in Geneva had alerted
Mettler to their work during his studies there (com-
pleted in 2002).
At the time, the aaa’s agship project was ECObox—
their participative management of temporary
gardens and community spaces on plots of land left
vacant by RATP in the 18th arrondissement neigh-
bourhood of La Chapelle. Mettler was interested in
nding out more about the methods the studio had
used to make participation eective, since he him-
self was looking to move his work in the direction of
artistic interventions that would assemble an audi-
ence to participate in the construction of the city
and of Europe.
At the meeting with the aaa, he went straight ahead
and oered his services to the studio to take part in
one of their projects. At the end of the meeting,
Doina Petrescu and Constantin Petcou suggested
that Mettler go to see their most recent project, a
community garden at Passage 56, opposite one of
the capital’s few cités built within the capital itself,
in the 20th arrondissement.
In parallel with this, with the help of curator Nataša
Petrešin-Bachelez, who had just been appointed as
co-director of the experimental arts centre Les
Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers in the Nord banlieue,
Mettler was admitted into the Masters in Theory and
Practice of Languages and Arts programme at
EHESS. This led him to situate his work in the con-
text of academic research, joining the lineage of
those artist-researchers who emerge out of the mul-
tiple intersections between the social sciences and
the development of research through art practice.
A course on urban anthropology, directly linked to
his interest in urban space and his artistic practice
of writing and narration, completed the curriculum,
for which he also had to choose two external
Masters’ seminars to attend. Having followed Marc
Abélès’s seminar on the anthropology of globalisa-
tion, Mettler turned, for the second, to Laurent
Thévenot’s sociology of action. Abélès’s seminar
had introduced some powerful tools for thinking
about globalisation and constructing a theory of
how cultures react to this process. But Thévenot’s
pragmatic sociology, attentive to the engagements
of the individual ranging from the intimate to the
public, seemed to respond directly to the questions
Mettler was posing as to how a person’s modes of
participation could be evaluated. It was the remark-
ably ne-grained attention to the attachments in-
volved in very different contexts (advertising,
WWF round tables, urban parks) and the pursuit of a
relation to specic ‘Europe Squares’, through a
participative intervention. He had planned for it
to take place on the Place de l’Europe in the sub-
urb of l’Abreuvoir, a working-class area with pro-
gressive architecture which has, over time, be-
come one of Paris’s so-called ‘sensitive’ banlieues.
He and his architect friend Pierre, together with
the participation of local residents, would install
something common—a new, shared meeting place
to promote conviviality. At the same time, he would
subject the project to scrutiny through a twofold
criticalperspective: his own on participatory art,
and Thévenot’s on participation in general.
During a [previous] stay in Copenhagen,
Thévenot had visited one particular realisation of
participative ‘social art’ instigated by the artist
Kenneth Balfelt. Brett Bloom celebrated this
work in his contribution to the book Art as Social
Practice, a chapter ironically entitled ‘You’re So
Vain, You Probably Think the Art is About You,
Don’t You?’. Balfelt’s project ‘The City as Your
Living Room? Urban Renewal with Room for
Socially Marginalized People’ brought the neigh-
bourhood residents committee together with an
architect, an urban sociologist, and the neigh-
bourhood’s heavy drinkers. It resulted in the con-
struction of a public space (with a long curved
bench) and an open-air shelter, the whole intend-
ed to serve as a ‘rehousing’ of the many socially
marginalized people who, during recent works on
the Métro, had been displaced from the public
square and garden they had used as a community
‘social welfare oce’ to help one another.
2 Danish Association of Architectural
Firms (DANSKEARK), ‘Accommodating
Outdoor Living Space’, <https://www.dan-
skeark.com/content/enghave-minipark>.
3 Bloom contrasts Balfelt’s work, which ‘allows
for embodied experience and empathy’, to ‘the
supercial trappings of other facile representa-
tional constructs like “relational aesthetics” or
“participation”’(B. Bloom, ‘You’re So Vain, You
Probably Think the Art is About You, Don’t You?’,
in M.H. Borello (ed.), Art as Social Practice: A
Critical Investigation of Works by Kenneth A.
Balfelt (Berlin: Revolver Press, 2015, 171–97).
As Kenneth Balfelt pointed out:
[P]eople with their own context of understanding
can contribute just as much as professionals. The
beer drinkers are ‘super users’ of this type of ur-
ban space. They sit there most of the day, year
round. No urban planner, anthropologist, archi-
tect or local ocer has the same experience in
the public space. Our job was therefore to articu-
late this knowledge and translate it into physical
and process-related solutions—and making them
aware that they possessed this knowledge.
4 Quoted in (DANSKEARK), ‘Accommo-
dating Outdoor Living Space’.
Paving, painting, casting concrete, carving, cut-
ting, digging and planting, they gained a sense of
belonging and pride in the place. The whole pro-
ject was set out temporarily in a small public
language capable of speaking about such
attach-
ments, that made Mettler listen keenly to Thévenot’s
seminar at EHESS.
With these experiences helping him to consolidate
his research, Mettler set out to visit Passage 56.
This empty plot between two rental buildings, like a
gap-toothed grin, is located in a working-class
neighbourhood opposite a cité that is home to an
immigrant population living in conditions of precar-
ity. The aaa had created a community garden—a
form that was in vogue at the time in many large
Western cities—on the plot, within the framework of
a project of urban regeneration managed by the ar-
rondissement authorities, Work began in 2006 with
a series of consultative meetings called LUPs (labo-
ratoires urbains participatifs, participative urban
laboratories), on the basis of which architects had
then designed a plan for the garden along with the
participants. By the time Mettler arrived in 2010, the
garden and its associated structures were complet-
ed, and management of the site had been passed
onto an association constituted around the garden.
Over the next few months Mettler edged closer,
wandering the neighbourhood surrounding the gar-
den, and lingering among the squares of cultivated
earth and compost toilets at the end of the plot.
Although moved by the air of hospitality and the at-
tention that had been paid to the details of the
Passage 56 garden, he found himself in the grip of a
vague malaise resulting from his inability to nd any
way in—to establish contact with the residents of
the site. This discomfort was accentuated by a pub-
lic event, part of a programme organised for classes
from the local primary school in the context of the
Fête de la Musique. A play, was put on by the most
active older members of the association, based on
the artist’s book ‘Ouverture pour un inventaire’ by
Anne-Lise Déhée, herself also a member . Mettler
felt an irrepressible sense of discomfort at the dis-
tance that separated the amateur actors on the
stage from the schoolchildren and their families
from the passage. A distance that was further ac-
centuated by another event Mettler had coinciden-
tally been invited to by the international artist
Marietica Potrč, who he had met at laboratoires
d’Aubervilliers where she was artist in residence
working on the creation of a community garden.
The event in question was an LUP. Doina Petrescu
had invited Potrč to give a presentation on her par-
ticipative interventions. Under a marquee that had
been cleverly integrated into the garden, with a pro-
jector set up in the vegetable patch, Potrč spoke in
English to a handful of artists and other intellectu-
als about her intervention in the Amsterdam sub-
urbs, while the residents tended the garden. Taking
this discomfort seriously, Mettler decided to explore
the myth of participation. Thévenot and his tools
would help guide him on a foray into the attach-
ments specic to Passage 56.
PARTICIPATION:
AN ART
UNTO ITSELF
In his work as a sociologist, Laurent Thévenot is
wary of the notion of ‘participation’. Not of the
need for democracy or the idea of participation in
itself—after all, isn’t our task here on earth to
participate in a commonality that makes us hu-
man so that we can dier politically, we who are
so diverse and dicult to hold together? No, it is
the illusion of participation that he warns
against. Isn’t it something that is often imposed
upon ‘participants’? At what price for them, and
subject to what kinds of deception as to the ‘part’
they will actually be able to ‘take’? These doubts
are at their most acute in the case of art, with the
notion of ‘participation’ being just as trendy
among artists as it is in the social sciences and
politics. Thévenot’s dialogue with Yves Mettler,
who attended his seminar at the École des Hautes
Études en Sciences Sociales for a year, sprang up
around this shared perplexity. For Mettler too had
his doubts about the ways in which artists prompt
people to participate. Extending Mettler’s essay
on his experience as an artist in a community gar-
den—‘community’ in the double sense of ‘com-
mon’ and ‘divided up’ between various users—
Thévenot used the sociology of engagement he
has developed to analyse the tensions generated
by participatory art interventions.
1 Y. Mettler, ‘Un cheminement engagé
dans l’art’, report written for the seminar
‘Sociologie pragmatique de la politique et de
la morale’, Masters in Sociology, Ecole des
Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris,
2011, <http://www.theselection.net/thela-
bel/EHESS/cheminement-56-2011.pdf>;
L. Thévenot, L’action au pluriel. Sociologie
des régimes d’engagement (Paris: La
Découverte, 2006), and ‘Engaging in the
Politics of Participative Art in Practice’, in T.
Zembylas (ed.), Artistic Practices (London:
Routledge, 2014), 132–50.
Thévenot’s brand of sociology lends itself natu-
rally to dialogue with artists because of the im-
portance it accords to the surrounding world,
whether natural or articial, and because it takes
into account the plurality of ways of ‘engaging’
with it. Departing from the conventional under-
standing of the ‘social’, the cover of Thévenot’s
L’action au pluriel, the book in which he introduc-
es his work, features a snapshot of the chaotic
mess inside someone’s desk drawer. From the
greatest intimacy of bodies to the universality of
standards of measurement and gestures of civic
solidarity, by way of personal eects, functional
utensils, and the currencies and ocial forms of
nation-states, the various objects it contains in-
dicate the diverse modes of engagement entered
into by a person involved in various commonali-
ties, each with its own geometry.
Thévenot was understandably attracted and in-
trigued by Mettler’s plans for Bobigny. The artist
was looking to extend an art project he had been
pursuing for many years on the ‘place of Europe’
within the city, both in the broad sense and in
garden used by families and children which also
contains a skateboarding area.
The exchanges Thévenot had with parents who
were present conrmed the requirement, speci-
ed in the presentation of the project, that the di-
verse group of users of the urban park all felt safe
and welcome. Thévenot himself, however, did not
receive a warm welcome at rst, because he was
seen taking photographs. Were the users afraid
that he might have bad intentions? That he was
taking ‘dirty photos’?
Superkilen, another park in Copenhagen, also
caught Thévenot’s attention as a participatory
art project. Here, an initial consultation had
gathered suggestions from residents of the mul-
ti-ethnic district of Nørrebro, home to inhabit-
ants of more than sixty nationalities. Supported
by the municipality and nanced by the private
philanthropic association Realdania, artists from
the Superex collective designed the project to-
gether with the renowned architectural firm
Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), who named it
‘Participatory Park Extreme’. The idea was to
bring together, for the purposes of sport and lei-
sure activities, street furniture collected from
cities of multiple nations. Understood in this way,
the multicultural model consists not in the polit-
ical representation of plural voices, but in the ob-
jectication of plural cultures on the basis of or-
dinary public space facilities made available to
the multicultural users of the park.
Seats—and especially benches—are principal
among the objects that had been brought in. Not
only do they comprise a variety of decorative
styles, they also demonstrate dierent urban
seating arrangements, and therefore, varying
models of urbanity. A ‘bench’ from Valladolid,
Mexico, bears the title ‘condentes,its label-
specifying its origin as if in a museum. This par-
ticular piece of street furniture, which appeared
during the reign of Napoleon III, consists of two
seats arranged in an S shape and goes by various
names that reveal its dierent uses—‘love seat’,
‘tête-à-tête’, ‘courting bench’, ‘kissing bench’,
‘gossip’s chair’, and ‘conversation bench’. In con-
trast, far from favouring an urbanity open tointi-
macy, an example from Miami, Florida, whose la-
bel curiously refers to it as a ‘bench’ even though
it is made up of separate seats, objecties a
powerfully individualistic and possessive liberal
politics.
Brett Bloom had also written about Superkilen in
an article which, this time, is rather cutting. He
reinforces his criticism of the (red) asphalt pave-
ment with a testimony from a representative of
the community who had been involved in the
consultation process and according to whom the
BIG architects had refused the community’s de-
mands for green space, belittling such requests
as too ‘clichéd’ for a park. The architects insisted
that the design of this urban space had to be in
continuity with the paved ground of the city.
Referring to Foucault’s notion of governmentali-
ty, Bloom enumerates everything in the park that
manifests control and self-policing, noting that a
private rm has been contracted to remove graf-
ti within twenty-four hours of its appearance.
He reports that in the park you experience an ‘un-
comfortable sense that you are walking through
a warehouse of recycled urbanity. […] You end up
using a bench in this space in the same way you
would a park just meters away that does not en-
joy the same levels of branding and ideological
mystication.
5 B. Bloom, ‘Superkilen: Participatory
Park Extreme!’, initially published in 2013 in
the Danish magazine Kritik, April 2014.
An English version of the text is available on
Bloom’s website: <https://mythological-
quarter.net/s/SUPERKILEN_Brett_
Bloom_2013.pdf>.
6 Ibid.
155154
THE LOUDMOUTH
is on duty on the Place des Nations Unies. There he
is, often with a group of hangers-on, in front of the
neighbourhood grocery store, bottle in hand. It’s he
who calls out to me when I arrive on the square with
my camera, ‘What the hell you up to there? What you
doing taking dirty photos?!’, ‘You from the town
hall?’, ‘We’re family here, and you’re not part of it’,
‘You’re lucky you don’t end up scraping yer face o
the pavement’, ‘Fuck o over to the Place de l’Eu-
rope, you’ll see…’ We bond over a drink. As I leave,
the cheerful cry comes after me: ‘You ain’t even got
no butt.’ A year later, after the bench has been built,
he sits on it next to two older women. They call him
‘Uncle,’ he’s an alcoholic. They look out for him, the
Place de Nations Unies looks out for him.
MICHÈLE
runs Fox, a street theatre company. The company
has had its oce and rehearsal space in the cité for
a long time, under an arrangement with the munici-
pal authority. She is incredibly energetic, though
she sometimes gets tired, often due to dealing with
administrative matters. When she arrived in the
neighbourhood, she would sit with the women and
listen to them. She made a play with them, built
around their stories. She led workshops with the
children, among other things to paint on the walls of
the cité. She’s well-known all over the neighbour-
hood. During our walk she asks questions, and re-
members a mother with children and a stroller who
said: ‘At last we’ll be able to walk in the park, before
we couldn’t because there was no bench to stop at,
we had to go all the way to Bondy.’ It is she who in-
troduced me a group who meet to play boules on the
mail. When we nd these boulistes, she asks ques-
tions about the bench they made, the role of the
bench in the cité, and the boules terrain. Michèle
leads the benches project along with Pierre and my-
self, and in the le for the grant application she
names the project ‘Bench of Earth, Bench of Life. On
the day the benches are built, she gets hands-on,
while at the same time playing a pastoral role, gen-
tly bringing in those who hang back at a distance
from the action.
BRICE THE TEACHER
is one of the boulistes. During the rst meeting with
Michèle around their bench, he explains the situation
THE LOCAL
is a must. He’s been here for ages. He was born here,
a child of the cité, a leftover from the rst generation
of workers who moved into the newly built tower
blocks. A large blond moustache, thinning medium-
length hair, a beer can resting on his large belly, he’s
like a retired Viking. He insists on his seniority as a
sort of elder statesman, but that’s about it.
He doesn’t say what he does, or what he has done.
He’s just there. When the work begins he is there
too, from the very beginning, sceptical and indeci-
sive. Neither for nor against, he doesn’t know.
But once construction begins, once the gang gets to
work, he does too. He carries a few paving stones to
make the bottom of the bench—and leaves it at that.
His arms withdraw, his body seems sti. But he
stays right until the end, talking with everyone,
passers-by and participants alike.
RED JACKET
is an early riser, he can’t help it, it’s habit. He knows
the building site well enough, and he’d like to get out
of it. Yet this morning he is there, lending a hand be-
fore going to the market, strolling along the boule-
vard in his cheerful red jacket, looking for a change
of scene—to watch the horizon somewhere on the
shores of the Mediterranean. Under the baseball
cap, his hair turned grey long ago.
SWOLLENFOOT
is injured. We can see that he won’t be able to do
anything. You can’t help but notice his heavily band-
aged ankles and his swollen knees. Not that this
stops him from arguing. He makes his disagreement
known, right enough. With his big glasses he looks
like an intellectual, and he takes up the wise man
pose in his chair. You have to go to him, it’s not up to
him to come to you. The group spreads out, people
come and go between the building site and the
group of chairs a little further away where he sits,
right in the centre.
to us. He becomes a spokesperson, while the others
observe us. A black man in a tracksuit, a bottle of
vodka in his hand, Brice shows us what is missing:
more benches, more boules terrains, more lights so
they can play at night. The idea of building a bench
motivates him, but he doesn’t really believe in it.
But he’s there two years later when we come back to
build the bench, and puts his heart into the work.
During the construction process he tells us that he
is a teacher. Seeing that I only half believe him, he
insists with a smile that it’s true. He gives his all,
helping to organise the job with the other boulistes.
He is the most involved (along with Eric). Toward the
end of construction, cracking open a can of beer,
he tells us that it has made him want to work again.
The next day he radiates pride, posing behind the
bench in white trousers with his blue boules bag.
You can see the happiness when he poses with his
hands on Eric’s shoulders.
PIERRE THE ARCHITECT
is an all-terrain architect. He can intervene any-
where, and he believes that you can make architec-
ture, and therefore meaning, everywhere. He is an
enthusiast, online he goes by the name of ‘rolling-
stone’. An ingenious thinker, it is he who, when he
saw the site, suggested rammed earth as a material,
as a technique, as a process. Bobigny intrigues him,
it’s an experience, the perfect context, an opportu-
nity to go and see, and to try this technique that has
long interested him. On the spot, surrounded by his
tools and his formworks, he is in his element. He
manages the construction site while also exploring,
talking about masonry with the boulistes, and show
-
ing us how to compact the earth with the rammer.
ERIC & FAMILY
arrived in the cité a short time ago. They had been in
Clermont-Ferrand, but came back to Paris because
Eric got a job as a roofer. It was through Eric’s wife,
Magali, that Michèle let Eric know when the building
would take place. He joined the building site at
around midday. He has short hair and wears a black
Nike T-shirt. He is broad in his gestures but doesn’t
speak much, he has an ecient air, he talks with
Pierre, and devotes himself wholeheartedly to the
various dierent tasks: preparing the earth, pack-
ing, washing the formwork, sawing, sanding. He is
every inch the building site guy. Sometimes he takes
a smoke break, chats with the boulistes, standing to
one side of them, not quite sure of himself. The
building process brings him in and places him
squarely within the group.
LA ROSE
Eric’s daughter, a slightly cheeky teenager, who
promptly gets to work stamping down the earth,
showing o to impress the boys and the whole troupe.
FISTON
And then there’s his boy, a little kid who drags us
about, plays with the tools, enjoys being with the
grown-ups, and ddles with everything.
MAGALI
checks in from time to time, talks with the President,
avoids looking at the camera.
THE BOSS
only shows up once the building site is nished, ob-
viously. We know exactly who he is. When he arrives,
his gaze takes in the whole scene in one fell swoop,
and everyone notices him. Eric goes up to him and
tells him all about it. It looks good, he has to admit:
We’ve done a nice job.
JOKER USA
glides into the group, wearing a cap emblazoned
with the colours of the USA. He comes out of no-
where and suddenly he’s everywhere. Neither young
nor old, his long arms brandish tools: he packs,
screws, waters, brushes, his sunglasses always on,
always a happy smile. He follows the process non-
chalantly, and thanks to him the construction moves
along without our even noticing it. A beer is never far
away, somewhere near the bench.
THE EXPERT WITH THE SHOPPING BAG
can tell right away that all of this is totally pointless.
First of all, she can see that we know nothing about
the place, and that this is not what should be done.
And she should know, because she’s been living
here for a long time. At rst we listen, but since it’s
not very constructive, it doesn’t make any dier-
ence to the plan. A little upset, she leaves, but then
comes back. She trots around the action, dispens-
ing her advice to her closest friends when they are
away from the site. When she is tired she sits down.
Later she also sits on the bench.
THE POSER
is resplendent in his polo shirt, clean-shaven. It’s
Saturday today, no work. He comes to the building
site in the afternoon with his two boys and gives a
running commentary on the construction. He does
have a try, grabbing the mallet, but soon gives up, it’s
not really his thing. He oers some words of support
and then chuckles, waiting to seewhat happens next.
Encouraged by Michèle, his boys take over, climbing
into the formwork and packing it down. Now he’s
proud! Look at them, great little workers, aren’t
they? Looking good, right? The work continues.
BROKEN BACK
is rather introverted. While his mind is elsewhere,
his hands work, his back bowing as he reaches
down for the bucket of earth, a tape measure xed
to his belt. It hurts, he remembers. He tells us about
the pain: ‘We all have broken backs here. It’s the
construction sites in Paris. Lugging a sheet of plas-
terboard on foot up a tiny staircase to the fourth
oor.’ Leaning in heavily, he uses all his weight to
drill through the concrete slab.
PRESIDENT
aso called because of Chirac. Even though he’s short-
er, they have a physical resemblance, but it’s not only
that. Under his cap, President has a piercing gaze.
All day he observes the construction process and lis-
tens to everyone—Magali, especially, talks to him.
In his own way, he presides over the group. From time
to time he moves away a little, sizing it up from a dis-
tance. You’d think he was a shepherd. He checks out
the truck that brings the earth, gazing into the empty
space around the two pallets left in the bottom of the
tray, one eye still on the building site, never without a
beer in his hand, his plastic bag seemingly bottom-
less. For the group photo with the bench, he joins the
pose and takes o his cap. Beneath a few sparse
hairs, a mischievous face peers out at us.
DOG HANDLER
has arms covered with old tattoos. His moustache is
already grey, his hair short. During construction he
ends up talking with one of Michèle’s colleagues, an
actor who that has come to help out. He’s delighted
to learn that hey have both worked as cash couriers,
and he shares stories about his adventures.
Nowadays he has a dog and works as a security
guard. When he wields the trowel it looks like it’s a
familiar gesture, there’s vitality and experience
there, he doesn’t even need to take o his bag. The
day after, we see him dressed in shorts, bag of
boules in hand.
157156
‘Cités du soleil’ Jean-Claude Sée,
1958, 20’
Place des Nations Unies,
1961–2013
I am spotted by The Loudmouth, on
duty outside the grocery store… along with his followers
As I photograph the premises of the
Women’s Advocacy Association,
Google Maps wrongly indicates Place de l’Europe; in fact
it is the Place des Nations Unies that I am photographing.
The trace of the name of the cité, also
known as ‘L’Abreu’, used in a tag.
‘La misère de Paris’
Charlotte Perriand, 1936
Passage through the lobby has been blocked
to make things dicult for the dealers’ runners.
) THE CLASH
159158
) BONDING
Michèle in her premises and on her
home turf—she is our link with the
boulistes on their bench.
The real Place de l’Europe, a pseudo
village square occupied by a gang,
most of its retail spaces now vacant.
Pierre Zvenigorodsky, Le glaive et le fruit
(1991). Abstract art in public space. Written
iron solder on the steel it says: ‘Happiness
is a new idea in Europe—Saint-Just’
161160
) THE CIRCLE OF PARTICIPATION
Michèle explaining things to
the sociologist, o to the side.
In the distance, the suits
from the housing oce show up
to take a look.
And who’s going to
pay for the petrol?
163162
The Poser and his kids:
nothing to be done here.
With a wry smile, The President
watches over it all.
The Local, one foot in,
one foot out
The Expert with the Shopping Bag:
she will have her say, and she knows
what she’s talking about.
The Dog-Handler: once he gets
started, it all comes back to him.
Eric, hard at work.
Joker USA—always there
with a smile on his face.
Brice, the teacher,
gives it his all.
) THE BOULISTES The Boss surveys
the scene.
165164
The camera comes out of its bag and directs its eye toward the construction in progress,
then toward the completed site. We celebrate, preserving this inaugural moment to
prove that we were there—look, it was us. We pose with the moment, the thing, the
others. The camera moves around, and through it we see all sorts of relationships
played out. They are composed of all kinds of postures, expressing scepticism, un-
certainty, sympathy, armation, or challenging the lens. The panorama is made up
of a range of photographic clichés, from the touching world of a UNICEF photo to the
somewhat heroic pose of a
family on their weekly outing,the aectation of
a gang goading their view-ers, a heart-warming photo of a family reun-
ion, a funny motley crowd,
caught o-guard and looking surprised, not
quite sure what has just happened, the impromptu portrait of a
management team af-
ter a successful event.
Among these familiar genres there are a few small instances where distance has
returned. While the son shyly smiles, nestled against his mother, she looks away, over
the camera, her elbow thrust out forward like a barrier. There is also the elegant old
North African man who agrees to be shot by the camera with dignity, but whose smirk
reveals a certain weariness—he’s seen it all before, he knows very well that a bench
and a photo aren’t going to change anything. And then in the midst of all of this, a little
further down, in shadow, Eric poses next to a mate of his. Eric says nothing, but his foot
is twisted, so is his mouth, and his look is a little deant. He seems to be communicat-
ing through the other, telepathically. His mate stares at the camera through his glass-
es. His double victory sign is ambiguous, a little sarcastic: they know that this is only
for a moment, that the curtain will fall, that we will leave, and that they will stay there.
) THE POSE
167166
CLOSURE:
THE
COMPLETION
OF
THE ARTIST’S
PROJECT
My hypothesis is that I can find Europe in any
Europe Square, since each Square carries some
fragment, some spark, some reection of the dif-
fuse and plural desire for Europe. In the project
‘Situated Heterogeneities’, I wanted to bring togeth-
er three Europe Squares with three art institutions
in three cities. The idea was to circulate the frag-
ments I found from one place to the other and, in do-
ing so, make these desires for Europe glimmer in the
in-between of the three sites. The objective was to
make an intervention in the public spaceof each city
in connection with its Europe Square, and to set up
an exhibition in the city’s art institution.
After Berlin and Lausanne, two squares that I knew
in two cities where I had lived, I chose to complete
the triangle with Bobigny. The square in Bobigny
had caught my attention during my exhaustive cat-
aloguing of all the Places de l’Europe in France.
Firstly because of the extraordinary layout of the
cité at the heart of which the Place de l’Europe is
set, and secondly because the list of names of the
surrounding streets is quite unique: there is no oth-
er Place de l’Europe surrounded by the names of cit-
ies that are neither European capitals nor those of
former empires.
Moreover, following a research project carried out
in response to a request by an association that sup-
ports drug users in the Parisian banlieue of Seine-
Saint-Denis, I wanted to nd a way to include this
stigmatised world in my mapping of Europe. I had in
mind that, in the early 2000s, the tense disparity
between the capital and the suburbs had escalated
into violent social unrest, which led to the realloca-
tion of European Union structural funds originally
intended to ease the integration of new EU member
states on the margins of Europe to the redevelop-
ment of this northern suburb of Paris. In this way,
the margin and its disparity would be placed at the
very heart of Europe.
1 As a part of Bruno Latour’s Experimental
Program in Political Arts (SPEAP) at
Sciences-Po during 2011.
Choosing the Place de l’Europe in Bobigny posed a
challenge: What kind of Europe would I nd in the
middle of one of these famously troubled ‘cités’? How
could I compare it to the square in Berlin, a historic
European capital whose economic and cultural ex-
pansion was in full swing, or to the one in Lausanne,
tangible for the participant-residents, the construc-
tion of the bench would have to involve a large
amount of unskilled work, and be carried out in one
day. This is where I called on my childhood friend,
the architect Pierre Cauderay, who is involved in
tactical urban planning and has often talked to me
about building with rammed earth. The technique,
which goes back a long way in Europe, has for some
years now been in vogue in ecological architecture.
Since all you need is earth, a formwork, and a ‘ram-
mer’ (a kind of hammer), and since it takes a great
deal of work to pack the earth in tightly, the tech-
nique seemed ideally suited to the project. In addi-
tion, the idea of building a bench from the earth of
the cité spoke for itself. The construction would also
(unlike concrete) require some maintenance after-
ward, so that participants would have to take care of
their work, otherwise the bench would come apart
and return to the earth from whence it came.
In June 2014, in parallel with the third and last exhi-
bition of the project at Khiasma, we built two bench-
es over two days just a few steps away from the mu-
ral painting workshop taking place on the balcony of
the Fox Theatre Company premises, not far from the
Place de Nations Unies. At the end of the second
day, The Loudmouth reappeared and, without rec-
ognising me, sat down on the bench next to two
women who knew him well and looked out for him:
the success of the intervention was complete.
An article in the Bobigny city newspaper, entitled
‘Bench Test’, was the icing on the cake—and en-
couraged us to continue, although the original pro-
ject ‘Situated Heterogeneities’ had now come to an
end. A spark of Europe shining in this little piece of
public space, ignited by the bench.
Michèle, Pierre, and I then decided to launch a pro-
posal for bench workshops throughout the whole
cité. Disappointingly, six months on, none of our re-
quests had been successful and all we had was a
vague promise of co-production from the regional
authority. From this point on we concentrated on
just one bench, to be made with the boulistes, the
only stable group we had been able to identify, while
keeping in touch with the OPHLM and still hoping,
via a contact made by Pierre, to develop the project
further by demonstrating the success of the proto-
type. After even the pledges of the regional author-
ity went up in smoke, Pierre and I managed to
scrape together a few pennies from our friends,
in exchange for a future limited edition silkscreen
print, to nance our second ‘campaign’. So it was
that, with stubborn conviction, we left Switzerland
in June 2015 with our rental van full of materials.
On her side, Michèle organised our accommodation,
liaised with the park-keeper to ensure access to the
site and water, and prepared the boulistes for our
building project.
And there they were, waiting for us on a sunny
Saturday morning. We debated a little about the lo-
cation of the bench, neither too close nor too far
from the boules lanes—as we explained to them, it
couldn’t be completely ‘their’ bench. The formwork
was put down and the building site organised. Even
the suits from the OPHLM, who happened to be con-
ducting an evaluation of the cité that day, came by.
Over the course of the day about thirty inhabitants
circled around the building site, with just a dozen or
so remaining there all day long. Brice, one of the
boulistes we had met during the very rst visit,
announced that he had got back his taste for work.
During construction, Pierre suggested doubling the
a comfortable little town in Switzerland whose Place
de l’Europe, located on the edge of a new shopping
district, was designed by Bernard Tschumi, a master
of deconstructivist architecture?
The project took place over two years, but since
I didn’t live in Paris I had just over a year to get to
know the site and plan an intervention there. In col-
laboration with the Khiasma arts centre located at
the Porte des Lilas, largely dedicated to presenting
dierent perspectives on the residents of the ban-
lieues and their origins, I had planned about ten vis-
its to Bobigny. On the rst trip to the cité archives in
the basement of the municipal administration build-
ing, I was welcomed with interest and kindness by
Bénédicte Penn. She guided me through the history
of the Cité de l’Abreuvoir, which is managed by the
OPHLM) (a social housing oce), and informed me
of current developments.
1 Today known as Seine-Saint-Denis
Habitat, the Oce Public d’Habitations à
Loyers Modérés served as a state landlord of
the region’s real estate, <https://www.
seinesaintdenishabitat.fr>.
Among the documents, I found an analysis of the
prospective renovation of the cite—the rst since
its construction—which was to take place as a part
of the GPRU II. The analysis concluded, among oth-
er things, that the population was living in a precar-
ious condition of ‘disaliation’, meaning that resi-
dents were turning away from the state and its
services. As I would later learn, the residents of the
cité had heard rumours of this plan and were wor-
ried about whether they would be allowed to stay.
3 The GPRU (Grand projet de renouvelle-
ment urbain, Nationwide Project for Urban
Renewal) was rst launched in 2002. Since
2017, le NPNRU (Nouveau Programme
National de Renouvellement Urbain, New
National Project for Urban Renewal,
launched in 2014) has envisaged the partial
demolition of the cité, with a reduction in
available housing: <https://www.seinesaint-
denishabitat.fr/npnru-bobigny-abreuvoir>.
Despite my preparations, my arrival on-site was
tense. I walked along streets lined with small family
houses from before the cité’s development to reach
the neighbourhood accompanied by an artist friend
who had grown up in a cité, equipped with an unob-
trusive camera and a map, which, curiously, indicat-
ed two dierent locations for the Place de l’Europe.
Seduced by the architecture and the pleasant spac-
es around me, I forgot where I was. Arriving at a
large square that I thought was the Place de l’Eu-
rope and taking some photographs of the premises
of a women’s association there, I was accosted by a
man with a bottle in his hand, followed by two com-
panions: ‘What the hell you up to there? What you
doing taking dirty photos?!’ The tone of this intro-
duction demonstrated the discrepancy well enough.
Answering that my photos were part of an art pro-
ject about the Place de l’Europe, I managed to gen-
erate enough incongruity to allow us to enter into a
dialogue. Reassured that we posed no threat, the
companions went back to their business. But The
Loudmouth wasn’t nished with us yet: ‘First of all,
you’re not allowed to take pictures, you have to ask,
and you have to be family. And anyway you’re talking
shit, this is the Place des Nations Unies, the Place
de l’Europe is over there, two hundred metres away,
on the other side of the mail, so just fuck o and get
going…cuz they’re much worse over there. In the
end, we were lucky that we didn’t end up ‘scraping
our faces o the pavement’, and he let me go with
my camera intact. The suspicion that I was some
kind of council ocial had only nally been allayed
once I shared the bottle with him. I left with trem-
bling legs in the direction of the terrifying Place de
l’Europe. After crossing the deserted mail—it was
November—we arrived at the real Place de l’Europe,
where there was a pharmacy, a bakery, and the
OPHLM office, along with a dozen commercial
premises, all with their shutters down. We didn’t
stay for very long. On the way back, I noticed an ab-
stract metal sculpture on a traffic roundabout.
Spray-painted, on its base it bore the slogan of the
French revolutionary Saint-Just: ‘Happiness is a new
idea in Europe’.
4 A ‘mail’ is a specic type of leisure park
often found in the urban context in France,
dedicated to strolling and playing jeu de
mail, a croquet-like game using balls and
hammers (maillets). Mails were popular in
the late nineteenth century, and it was
somewhat anachronistic for a modernist ar-
chitect to use this form as part of his plan for
the cité.
In the visits that followed, my aim was to get over
this altercation and nd some way into the place by
going to meet the residents. Michèle Renard, direc-
tor of the cité’s Rue Fox Theatre Company for thirty
years, was to be our bridgehead. Based in a at
close to the ground oorwhere she was the ‘artist in
residence’, Michèle had been working with the resi-
dents since her arrival, recording their stories to
stage them in two or threeproductions per year, pre-
sented in the community hall attached to the cité.
Michèle was delighted by my idea to intervene with
art in the public space of the cité. For the previous
two years she herself had led an open-air children’s
workshop at the end of the school year to decorate
the cité. She agreed to be my ‘godmother’ for the
project, and we started visiting the residents pres-
ent in the public space. Since the Place de l’Europe
had been occupied since 2009 by a gang, probably
active in drug dealing—something that worried
everyone, especially the besieged employee in the
OPHLM oce—we decided to extend the perimeter
of the intervention a little wider.
As we walked around, I observed the space while
Michèle spoke with the residents. In the whole of
the mail—a pedestrianized public park dedicated to
walking and games for young and old—there were
no public benches except for one concrete slab cov-
ered with paint. There was a group of people who
played boules every day while drinking together.
Near their spot they had set up a bench made of four
car tires and some planks, along with a basket
hanging from a tree for their empty cans. During the
conversation, led by Michèle, we learned that all the
equipment in the mail, including the wooden beams
used to mark the boules lanes, had been removed by
the OPHLM after their condition had deteriorated,
and never replaced. We had discovered the object of
our intervention: the public bench. With our limited
means, we were obviously not going to re-equip the
whole cité. The plan was to make a prototype, with-
in the framework of an artistic action that included
the residents. In order for there to be a chance that
the residents would actually get involved in the pro-
ject, we decided to launch the intervention in paral-
lel with the children’s workshop at the end of the
year. To produce a result that would be immediately
length of the bench, and everyone went for it. By the
end of the day the bench was nished and the whole
peculiar troupe of builders posed for a photo. On the
second day we made a second bench, closer to the
playground. At the end of the afternoon the place
was lled with children who haddiscovered the
bench, climbing over it and playing on it. On the third
day we spent some time doing minor repairs to the
2014 bench. Pierre had a plan to add a joint between
the slabsthat were covering it so as to limit erosion.
During the day we walked around, saying hi to
everyone. We were now part of the cité. The bench-
es had been adopted. The boulistes arranged their
portable seats around the new bench.
OVERTURE:
THE
INHABITANTS
GET TRULY
HANDSON
WITH
THE BENCH
I see that the art installation is in place, com-
pleted according to Yves’s plan, as perfect as
a museum piece. The work of art, well-execut-
ed, terminated, done. Executed? Terminated?
Done(in)? These terms suggest an atmos-
phere more sinister than the one presented at
the inaugural festivities. And indeed, within a
few months, the picture is quite dierent.
A scene of desolation: the benches have in-
deed been executed, terminated, done in,
destroyed. One has been levelled to its stone
base, which, obviously, put up more resist-
ance. The rammed earth, deprived of the shel-
ter of the protective top, has been washed
away by the rain. The top slab of another
bench has been fractured and its fragments
lie on the ground, scattered at the foot of the
remaining heap of earth. A third has been
counteracted in a dierent way: with a con-
certed action against the square angles of the
friable corners of the rammed earth. In their
plans for the project, the artists had chosen a
concrete-free building material that allowed
for reversibility. But the speed of this destruc-
tion of the work, fully participated in by the
residents, hit the creators hard.
And yet… to resist, to remain, to counteract:
these words reveal another story that is not
one of annihilation, of the vandalism so often
associated with these banlieue cités. From my
more distanced position, since I did not work
on the bench myself, I try to comfort Yves by
indicating this other plot which, far from hav-
ing ended dramatically, is ongoing. Don’t ‘nor-
mal’ artworks present a rigorous closure that
prevents all further handling? Like the abso-
lute of a new, impeccable object that must not
bear any marks of use, or some sacred object?
Isn’t this closure the condition that makes
possible a radiant artistic aura, in this case ex-
tended to the collective process of construc-
tion that xed the art object? Like the mono-
lith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, whose frozen
abstraction radiates its inuence throughout
the lm, the art object is supposed to radiate
an inspiring energy forever. But some resi-
dents didn’t see it that way. They reacted by
taking hold of the object and breaking into it,
opening it up to their lives and that of the com-
munity. They resisted the hold exerted by this
foreign object dropped into the middle of their
territory. The inhabitants took the matter into
their own hands, and got truly hands-on with
it. A manual movement, like the manumission
by which one seizes and takes hold, like a serf
emancipating himself from bondage.
From this there emerged the idea for a new
artwork to be made after the closure of the
rst one, this time featuring a more original
conception of artistic participation, involving
not the bench, but what it did to the communi-
ty in the midst of which it had appeared out of
nowhere. The story no longer ends tragically.
What looked like destruction was in fact main-
tenance. The drama has a new act, opening
with this process of maintenance that es-
capes the initial plan as it falls to the hands of
the residents. [In it,] Yves examines the varie-
ty of interventions made by the participants
who have taken hold of the bench, the decora-
tions on the tops and edges of the slabs, the
drawings, the grati, and the reconstruction
of a new seat from the remains. As it spreads
out, the bench loses its integrity but becomes
more integrated. It has become exible, em-
bracing commonalities as well as dierences.
The question is now: How should this meta-
morphosis be addressed?
168 169
Some residents take it upon themselves
to also ‘intervene’ in the work of art,
using whatever means are at hand,
writing or scratching, as if gratiing
their school desks, in a personal
construction site that never ends.
Rows of stickers on the top slab have
been removed, probably by the ladies
who live in the building where Michèle
has her workshop, the guardians of
the bench. All that remains are the marks
of this intervention, as an ornament.
The planned bench has long gone. But it lives on
as a seat, taking on a new life alongside reclaimed
chairs, done up and ready for conversation.
The small bench
has been razed
to the ground, but its
foundation remains,
covered in writings.
171170
SITTING
The art bench didn’t land just any-
where. It was built in the middle of a
grassy, tree-lled area that the archi-
tect Aillaud had designed as a mail for
games and leisurely promenades,
protected from any incursion by traf-
c. This mail is not only intended for
games played with the mallet (mail-
let), it sets aside a space for strolling,
in the heart of the cité, with an area
for pétanque—a public space in
which the cité can manifest itself, to
itself. As a proto-political living and
meeting space, it is dedicated to ther-
esidents’ leisure hours, outside of
work—work that the artist’s project
had brought back into it. It presents a
great contrast to those modernist
projects that plan tower blocks with
green spaces with no specic func-
tion assigned to them. Unknowingly
sited in a public space designated as
a common area, whose imprint it
would come to bear, the artist’s inter-
vention takes part in it, as do the ac-
tions and reactions of the residents.
In this sense, the benches have been
fully appropriated, even in their de-
struction. In this way, the proto-polit-
ical space planned by Aillaud is still
alive, unlike the village square re-
named Place de l’Europe, or the Place
des Nations Unies whose shops are
subsidised by the city but are out of
operation. In the mail, the facilities
may have been removed, but some-
thing still functions.
Beneath the art benches, whose in-
tegrity has been dispersed, the foun-
dation remains. This foundation is not
just a matter of the earth to whichthe
bench has returned. Neither does the
basis of the residents’ community, in
its continual reconstruction, depend
upon the architect’s plans or their
original symbolic foundation. It is
consolidated quite simply by those
who sit together, fully taking part in
the community. This is the primary
way of taking part—of participating.
The art bench in all of its states joins
a whole genealogy ofways in which
seating imparts commonality to plac-
es. It hasn’t broken with this lineage,,
even though its rather sudden instal-
lation (albeitnot without consultation)
might suggest this. It perpetuates it..
The construction of the art bench had
triggered shock waves. Concentric
circles of participation appeared,
moving outward from the fervent ker-
nal of those—mostly male—residents
who had rolled up their sleeves and
got their hands dirty, to encompass —
through varying degrees of detach-
ment from the thing and the task—
even those who remained noticeably
aloof, expressed in their distracted
bodies and ironic smiles.
Once ‘done’, the bench, in its state of
conformity and in its deconstructed
condition, attracted the residents as
intended. It became a place, a com-
mon place, for successive waves of
various uses.
In the rst wave, things go on as usu-
al: a father watches his son play; there
are girls in pink and boys in blue sit-
ting on a bench that doesn’t prevent
anyone from sleeping on it either. In
the next wave, the new artist’s seat is
totally enveloped, and not only by La
Rose who, dressed in blue,drapes
herself lazily across it, For, being xed
to the ground, the bench has attract-
ed a company of portable chairs: one
improvised out of a crate, one retired
from someone’s apartment, now tak-
ing on a new lease of life outdoors,
and a fold-up chair, specically de-
signed for portability. Later on, there’s
a guy rolling himself a cigarette, star-
ing serenely at the photographer, en-
throned upon what has been recon-
structed from the debris of the
embattled bench. Assembled in
groups, with motorbikes, bicycles,
and shishas, the ‘noisy youth’ of the
cité meet at their latest spot, a new
common place for them too.
Next comes a wave of women. A pas-
toral scene of young mothers with
their little ones. And then others, old-
er, gossiping, standing guard, watch-
ing over—the benches in particular.
The last wave is one of extremes: The
Loudmouth, seen from behind, sits at
one end, and another guy, also with
his back to the camera, is perched at
the other. Between the two, in con-
versation, are the women who run this
little society, keeping everything in
check.
At one point Eric, La Rose’s dad, told
her to get o her motorbike because
the cops weren’t far away. And sure
enough, once the benches had been
set up and the kids started hanging
around them, law enforcement turned
upon their own motorbikes for a po-
lice raid.
Because the cité has a bad rep.
173172
OCCUPYING
The art benches occupy a terrain that is already oc-
cupied. In their plural and conicting engagements
with the territory, the occupants do not participate in
just one commonality. Multiple commonalities with
diverse geometries confront one another, giving rise
to dierences that are expressed in various ways, in-
cluding violence, and sometimes even murder.
On the ground, like archaeologists, Yves and Laurent
search out the traces of successive settlements and
occupations, clashes of words and gestures.
Although elegantly curved to follow the undulating
pattern of the buildings of the cité, the only remain-
ing original bench looks more like a bunker, with its
menacing concrete and the numerous paint jobs it
has suered over the years. The others have been
destroyed. The state replaced them only once, say
the pétanque players. Which is why they made their
own bench out of boards placed on top of four car
tires: ‘It’s practical, because you can move it to stay
in the sun’. Other facilities have been set up nearby
so they can drink in peace. There are the baskets
they have xed to the trees, high enough so that
children aren’t at risk of injury from a sharp can or a
broken bottle. A certied child-safe occupancy of
the site. Later, when their home-made bench got
burned down, they would comment sardonically:
‘That’s how things go around here.’ Just a faint wea-
riness: ‘We’ll nd another one.’ New benches have
indeed appeared, remnants of furniture abandoned
at the foot of buildings. ‘Who burned it? We know
who….’ The evening before the re there had been
some trouble. But they say no more: no denuncia-
tion, no dramatization. Some charred wreckage was
also found near the unharmed bench: ‘They brought
a scooter over and set it alight. Might not have been
stolen, just an old one at the end of its life.’ The
bench that remains intact is still in use as a service
station. Youths park their bicycles and motorbikes
nearby, and hang out, pung on a shisha pipe.
The loose slabs of the disintegrated bench have
been given a new foundation, placed back on top of
the pile of rammed earth ruined by the rain. Like the
remains of an archaic banquette bearing witness to
a past culture, they have found a new lease of life
alongside chairs brought out from apartments to
continue their career as outdoor furniture.
Meanwhile, the old top slab, now spewing out loos-
ened earth after the attack, has been smashed to
pieces. Our two archaeologists piece it together
from scattered fragments in order to decipher its in-
scriptions. Vigorous and oensive invective: ‘gonna
make you sit on it’ under a drawing of a Kalashnikov
together with its deafening sound: ‘KALACH’
‘RATATATATA’ ‘Bang Bang’. There are geometric
decorations ornamenting its edge, and on its top the
slab has become a site for small ads, and declara-
tions of aection or war: ‘this is the street!!!’, ‘this is
our hood!!! here!!!’ The pseudonym ‘JazMax’ sits
alongside ‘FedMax D’Labreu’, from the name of the
city (L’Abreuvoir: the Trough).
Cattle no longer drink here on the way to the slaugh-
terhouse, but the name still harbours a latent vio-
lence, concealed under the greenery of the garden
city. Tracking and violence are kept in the shad-
ows, away from the prying eyes and ears of passing
strangers like us. Yet they are evident enough in the
harsh light of the archives, in traces, and in testimo-
nies. The name of the cité, then, changes its aspect.
In the rst act, The Clash, the tag ‘L’ABREUVOIR’
wasspotted, like a warning, on the barred and
boarded-up window of the pharmacy in the desert-
ed Place des Nations Unies.
At the other end of the mail, on the sinister Place de
l’Europe, the diminutive ‘L’ABREU’ covers the dark
side of the cité. The drug-dealing that irrigates a
certain relational economy has progressively elimi-
nated the spaces set aside by the architect for shops
on the ground oor of the buildings around this
square planted with plane trees. The gang has taken
over a maintenance room, where they practice box-
ing while planning their biz. The opaque window of
the room is surrounded by drawings of skulls along-
side the tags ‘LEUROP’, ‘L’ABREU’, ‘MAFIA’ and nick-
names—KEKETE, ISMA. In 2009–2010 the ‘Blog de
93labreu’ on the Skyrock radio website published a
more extensive list of the players in this troupe: ‘For
all labreu mandem gettin up early to go hustle in
192. The rst image is a bird’s-eye view of the cité
outlined in red, entitled ‘L’abreuvoir my balls’ and
captioned: ‘If mans brave enough to run On These
Roads you got Balls.’ About twenty young people of
African (2/3) and North African (1/3) descent intro-
duce themselves with photos and nicknames to-
gether with placenames, proclaiming them to be
‘from Place de L’europe’ (10), ‘from the Place des
Nation’ (3), ‘from the Mail’ (2) and other adjacent
streets in the cité. Some are shown wielding guns,
and Ismail has posted a sele taken in his prison cell
(‘Isma From the Mail in the Pen’) as well as a photo
taken on his release, in charming company (‘Ismael
just come out the Pen With his boo Alexia’).
A group photo on the Place de l’Europe is cap-
tioned: ‘Getting ready Plottin On Place De
L’europe’. On the square, between the metal
shutters of the abandoned shops, a female em-
ployee is the sole occupant of the OPHLM oce,
whose ocial signage reads ‘Reception Point’.
She has had a secure entrance installed—a two-
door system. After ringing the bell with Michèle,
then tapping at the window so she could recog-
nise us, we get to hear all about her fears and
grievances: the inhabitants are always complain-
ing, they are confrontational, the Place de l’Eu-
rope is a no-go area….
1 Département 92 as opposed to 93: In the
social and ethnic Parisian topography, the
west-side 92 contains all the rich white sub-
urbs, while the colony of ‘93labreu’ boasts of
‘hustling’ (‘chiner’) in their own way….
The terrorist attacks in Paris on 13 November 2015
marked a climax in public violence. That day, Pierre
the architect sent Yves news footage of L’Abreuvoir
that he had just seen on Swiss TV. The report used
the images as an introduction to the dangers gener-
ally associated with banlieue cités, before moving
on to the real object of the police investigation, less
readily evocative of violence. Just a stone’s throw
from the Place de l’Europe, in an adjacent street,
a small suburban house had been rented by two of
the perpetrators of the shootings on the streets of
the 11th arrondissement, who also drove the suicide
bombers to the Stade de France—two attacks for
which ‘Islamic State’ had claimed responsibility.
A woman who lives in the same street and works at
the town hall told the press: ‘Nowadays the whole
neighbourhood is run by drugs and weapons deal-
ers, everyone knows it.’ A few steps away in the rue
de Varsovie, a wall is riddled with bullets, traces of a
shoot-out three years ago between ve young peo-
ple, following ‘a lover’s quarrel’ according to the po-
lice. Another inhabitant of the street said that he had
seen the terrorists’ car shortly before the attacks:
‘Round here nobody goes anywhere, everyone
knows everyone, so a rented black Polo with Belgian
plates sticks out a mile.’ The house the terrorists oc-
cupied stands opposite the Robespierre nursery
school in rue Georges Tarral, named after a hero of
the French Resistance who died at the age of 25,
a married father of two, and who is also honoured on
a commemorative plaque in the town hall dedicated
to nineteen Resistance ghters. The municipality
has been naming streets after such heroes since the
end of the Second World War. Breaking with this
practice, without consulting the town hall, the pub-
lic HLM oce, project manager of the cité of l’Abreu-
voir, chose to name its new streets after foreign na-
tions, and then supra-national entities: ‘Place des
NATIONS UNIES’ and ‘Place de l’EUROPE’.
175174
RECOMPOSITION :
THE COUNTERPART
Attacked on the fake Place de l’Eu-
rope and the real Place des Nations
Unies, it feels like the project is al-
most done. This leaves our two pro-
tagonists upset, downcast. The
whole enterprise seems to be en-
capsulated in these two benches
juxtaposed before them, one in
conformity to the intended project;
the other totally wrecked. The pho-
tograph shows the puzzled sociolo-
gist alongside the artist—a mere
shadow of himself, and yet, the au-
thor of the whole image. What had
they learned from this experience?
The experience had demonstrated
that the art object, when it is
opened up to participation in order
to become social, critical, and polit-
ical, gets jolted loose from the orig-
inal objectives of the art project.
The object had escaped the as-
sumptions of the project, and evad-
ed the future planned out for it,
in which it would be justied by its
engagement with the common
good of civic solidarity in the cité,
this little localised piece of Europe.
Designed to be used by all, the ob-
ject passed personally through the
hands of the residentsduring its
making (and not just contempla-
tion)—and then through various
uses and episodes of manhandling.
And in being handled in this way,
it was jolted loose.
As for Laurent the sociologist, at-
tentive to the pressures brought to
bear by the imperative of participa-
tion, and not only to its democratic
sociology of engagement and con-
structions of commonality in the
plural, altered the initial topic of the
investigation: the construction of a
participative artwork in the cité.
While working on the masterpiece,
Yves observed on the spot and cap-
tured in photos what was happen-
ing. Scrutinising the abundant im-
ages led to this artwork-book. The
tête-à-tête with Laurent, from con-
versation to confrontation, pro-
duced analyses, interpretations,
graphic choices, and writings. From
this bench placed in the cité, an
original combination of the two col-
laborators’ respective arts ended
up generating the unexpected, in
terms of both art and sociology.
The lessons of the experience go
beyond the particular case. They
virtues, he tirelessly nagged his
colleague Yves about his participa-
tory art. After everything that had
happened, he could well have said
‘I told you so’, but his mind was
elsewhere. He too had learnt a
self-critical lesson from the adven-
ture about the sociologist’s craft.
Doesn’t sociological investigation
also demand types of participation
that make it more dicult to grasp
what it is that people are attached
to? He now recognised the compar-
ative advantage enjoyed by artists,
whose interventions are not made
of words alone. It was all quite dif-
ferent from a ‘sociological inter-
vention’, limited to discursive en-
gagements in public debate or to
‘participant observation’ which re-
quires sociologists or anthropolo-
gists to participate alongside the
people they observe in their activi-
ties, but without otherwise inter-
vening. The abrupt and concrete
irruption of the artwork, whose
creation challenged the residents,
jolted the community by setting
people, in their multiple engage-
ments, in motion. This jolting loose
made possible by the work caused
an upheaval, triggering processes
of making common and diering.
Doesn’t this revealing disturbance
deserve to be examined as another
part, a counterpart, of the original
work of art? The installation of the
bench took place, but also made a
place for something else.
The ve acts of the plot outline a
mode of intervention that is valid
more generally, and not just in the
case of the bench. (I) THE CLASH
with a community calls for the rec-
ognition that the artist is a stranger,
and brings with him implications of
external violence, rather than at-
tempting to deny this under the soft
cover of an ambiguous participa-
tion. (II) BONDING implies paying
attention to the ways in which the
stranger can be domesticated, so
that he may get closer to the com-
munity, through intermediaries
who are already involved because
of their local engagements. The
project is anchored to the commu-
nity through a variety of communi-
cations mediated in this way, rath-
er than through formal survey and
public debate. (III) THE CIRCLE OF
PARTICIPATION needs to be ex-
plored in order to understand the
composition of the community on
the basis of members’ attitudes to
the construction of the art object,
according to concentric circles of
participation around the common
place under construction. (IV) THE
RADIANCE OF THE CHARACTERS
highlights personalities not in the
psychological sense, but in terms
of their combination of engage-
ments, as inferred from the pos-
tures and gestures that express the
plurality of their personal engage-
ments in the place and the resulting
internal tensions which impact on
the construction of commonality.
(V) THE POSE around the object
that has been made together oers
a new opportunity to identify the
dispositions and compositions of
communities and personalities.
With the appearance of the art
bench, what new work did our two
companions produce, and accord-
ing to which arts of making?
Beyond the dialogues it involved—
rather than questionnaires or inter-
views—the art bench gave rise to
observations, and photographic
and video recordings of the resi-
dents, and of their expressions in
relation to the object. The analysis
of this rich material, aided by a
give us the outlines of an artistic
and sociological gesture that es-
capes the confusion present in the
slogans of ‘participation’, ‘social’,
‘practical’, and ‘critical’. Yet there is
no reason to renounce the spirit of
intervening in the heart of the cité,
a spirit which these words inspire.
The design of this intervention
should however embrace the plu-
rality of ways of doing things in
common and of diering, from gos-
siping to ghting to playing boules,
as well as the plurality of ways of
becoming engaged, from the most
intimate attachments to the most
public stances.
What the destiny of the projected
object revealed is now part of the
history of the community, which in
various ways has appropriated it as
a new common place. As for the
artist, he did not just vanish into so-
cial work, because the artwork did
not stop here. Generated by the vi-
cissitudes of being the rst art ob-
ject placed in the community, the
artwork was split in two, with a
counterpart continuing its exist-
ence in these pages. More than a
simple report on the project, the
saga of the object is depicted in an
epic figuration that tells of the
deeds of colourful characters in-
volved in various ways, in agree-
ment or not, giving us a singularly
animated portrait of the communi-
ty. In this double aesthetics of the
counterpart, the new work is en-
gendered from the object installed
in the community, while being
clearly distinguished from the fate
of that object, which is no longer
under the control of the artist.
177176
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