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  • Art Against Riots

    Cité Pierre Sémard is the largest all-wood city in France. Not a feudal remnant, it is a housing project in the high-risk town of Le Blanc-Mesnil in the area northeast of Paris, where riots started in November 2005 and spread throughout France. Crowds of young men torched cars and overturned buses in several small towns in the department of Seine-Saint-Denis, destabilizing the government and influencing public opinion on the upcoming French presidential election.

    On a gray and rainy mid-October day, Cité Pierre Sémard, with its steep, pointed roofs and labyrinthine paths, reminded me of a medieval town—perhaps emptied by a plague. (See Fig. 1). Architect Iwona Buczkowska designed Cité Pierre Sémard as a series of small, semi-attached houses, organically springing one from another, winding through a pleasant landscape. The ensemble of 223 apartments, constructed between 1986–92, was designed in conscious opposition to high-rise towers, which had become crime-ridden housing projects. And indeed the Cité, with its jaunty rooftops, pointed gables and steep stairs seems made for happy village life.

    Seine-Saint-Denis has organized eight biennial exhibitions of contemporary art since 1993, and this year aimed to engage residents of its troubled towns by dubbing the expo ‘Mutations Urbaines’, challenging them to see their environment differently, reviving the heritage of the towns—their inhabitants and history—while acknowledging industrial and social changes. They encouraged experiences outside gallery walls. They felt artistic production could be directed to a larger public, and especially to the young.

    For its participation, the Forum of Le Blanc-Mesnil proposed a stroll through its little wooden city to encounter new art in a new way. I followed this meander. We stopped first for a visit to the artist in resident, Georges Rousse, who works in installations and photographs (of his installations, mostly). A large photomural of this work is high on a wooden gable, though the artist was not visible. (See Fig. 2). More unusual are three graphically loaded round metal tables, placed at intersections of the winding brick footpaths. Pierre di Sciullo is a graphic artist with social obsessions, hoping to affect society, as so many French artists feel they can, sometimes through typography, or here, through information read on tabletops. On the surface of one table, he has carved maps of a distorted globe, with incised lines connecting residents’ continents of origin to France, wavy lines for a grandparent, straight lines for a parent. On another, there is carved text reporting the incident that incited last year’s first riot—the electrocution of two boys who were being chased by police and ran into a power center. Residents have scratched out lines reporting this incident, which the artist at first thought “fascistic,” but later reconsidered as “participatory.” The third table has on its surface a kind of pie chart, with areas of information about the history of Le Blanc-Mesnil: the town was involved in the WWII fighting and resistance, the first French air hostess came from the town, and recommended baptisms in flight; the town at one time had 3,000 inhabitants and 1,000 dogs. Digging has scarred the tables. (See Fig. 3).

    No voices or sounds came from the 223 units as we walked through the rambling project to the next commissioned art object, a spruce tree rotating on a machine, artist Daniel Firman’s response to the omnipresence of wood in the small cite’s landscape and houses. Near it, a half dozen teens lingered at an entry and watched our group. “Is it live?” the teens asked. When our guide laughed, “Yes, of course”, the teens walked away.

    Back in Paris, contemporary galleries consider the unforgettable imagery of the riots. A charred car, by Adel Abdessemed, titled “Practice Zero Tolerance” installed in the avant garde gallery of Le Plateau, marks the first Parisian exhibition of this Algerian-born artist. He is known in Europe for his animated film “God is Design” of 2005, which connects Islamic and Jewish cultural symbols with biological and geometric images in what has been called “a collision of codes and styles,” set to a special musical score. Here at Le Plateau the life-size, burned-out car, made of terra cotta and colored black, shares a room with a photo of wild boars in a street. Does the Nigerian artist advise against car torching, or is it an ironical reference to Interior Minister Nicholas Sarkozy’s threats of punishing delinquents?

    Since last November’s riots there have been over 6,000 arrests, most from the banlieus (which used to mean “suburbs,” but has come almost exclusively to mean “housing projects for minorities”). Most of those arrested have been French nationals aged 17–24 years, of foreign parentage. While over half were released, about three quarters of those convicted served jail time. Recently an independent organization of volunteers spent several months traveling in vans around France, interviewing citizens about their unhappiness. They recently delivered their “summary of complaints” report to the Legislature. French citizens ranked their malcontent as: unemployment/2283, discrimination/1993, housing/1334, and police and justice/1185.

    Certainly not relying heavily on art, public or private, the government took other measures during the past year in anticipation of November’s anniversary. Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin announced results of job and training contracts for those under 25 in high-risk areas. Thousands applied, and 2,000 young people from the projects acquired contracts. Counselors gave regular, free job counseling to the unemployed. Police partnered with athletic clubs in difficult areas, recruiting young men from judo groups for two-day training programs, with an eye to recruiting them into the police.

    As November approached, France waited. On October 27, teens torched two buses in Le Blanc-Mesnil, home of the art-filled little wooden village. More torching followed in Nanterre, a different suburb of Paris. Though the Council of Seine-Saint-Denis has offered a range of art—architecture, sculpture and language, in a range of styles —abstract, realist, mock-realist, narrative—it’s the homely local bus used for expression.

    About the Author: Virginia Smith's book, Forms in Modernism: A Visual Set (Watson-Guptill) places typography in the theoretical context of other design of the Modern period, especially architecture, with examples from couture and furnishings. She is a Professor Emerita of Baruch College of CUNY and a practitioner and observer of graphic design and design history.
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