Access to the English translation of the text by Guigou Chenevier : Break Down the Walls
Access to the French texts : a) Entretien ; b) Faire tomber les murs.
Encounter with Guigou Chenevier
Jean-Charles François, Gilles Laval et Nicolas Sidoroff
September 2019, Rillieux-la-Pape
Part I : Art Resists Time
Prelude over a cup of coffee
Art Resists Time – General Presentation
Art Resists Time – Diversity of Actions
Art Resists Time – Writing Workshops
Art Resists Time – Echanging Roles
A place of resistance: time
Part II : Helping Migrants
The Association Rosmerta
The Relationships between Artistic and Political Acts
Part I : Art Resists Time
Prelude over a cup of coffee
Les Allumés du jazz, does that ring a bell ? They organized three days of meetings in Avignon, last November, with a lot of guests to talk about the issue(s) of resistance to business, of how to create musical networks, etc. As I couldn’t take part in it because I was in the middle of working on Ubu Roi, I handed the baby over to Cyril Darmedru, who did a really judicious contribution there, I think. After that, Les Allumés edited a document with all the written contributions of this meeting, as well as complementary texts, and even a vinyl with music from all the musicians present. There are a lot of interesting articles in this document, I think. This is for your information.
Les allumés du jazz
In fact, I was initially approached because I know Jean Rochard, the head of the Nato label who’s also in charge of Les Allumés. I really like this guy… He was invited to take part in what was called at the time “the Counter Forum of Culture”, because we were lucky enough to have in Avignon, the “Forum of Culture”. That was at the time of Sarkozy. There have been several Forums like this in Avignon with the European Ministers of Culture under high police protection, etc. With Sud Culture [a trade union organization in the cultural daomain] (of which I’m a member), we decided to organize a counter-forum: we organized three or four editions, with many exciting guests each time. And so, one year we invited Rochard. I thought his contribution was really cool. In addition, since we were (we are or we were, I don’t really know if I should say it in the present or in the past tense since I’m not there anymore) on the Hauts Plateaux above the AJMi Jazz Club and Les Allumés du Jazz are obviously very close to the AJMi. So there you go, they asked me if I wanted to do something, but it was too complicated for me at the time.
He founded the Nato record company in the early 1980s and has been recording American musicians. Notably Michel Portal in Minneapolis with musicians from Prince. He’s stubborn, it’s an incredible label.
Nato, it’s a great label! They’re one of the first ones to produce for example Jean-François Pauvros and a lot of other musicians like that.
I often play his records in Villeurbanne for my students, especially News from the Jungle.
Should we begin the interview?
Are we going to have coffee or should we begin?
Yes, there is coffee, I forgot! [laughter]
Shall we begin after we have coffee or before we have coffee… during coffee… ?
[from far] Do you want sugar?
No, not me. Do you want sugar?
No thank you.
Really? Well, so much the better. [noise of pouring coffee]
I believe it’s very hot, be careful. [Noises, the coffee is served. Very long silence with a loud noise of a machine far away]
Oh! We are lucky! Do you know him? [He shows the book by Serge Loupien, La France Underground 1965/1979 Free Jazz et Rock Pop, Le Temps des Utopies] There’s a lot of things I’ve learned. There’s talk of Etron Fou Leloublan but… that’s anecdotal, sorry. There are a lot of super interesting things that I didn’t know and that I discovered. Still, it was a rather prolific era… Notably, he tells, I mean, he quotes this story that I think is absolutely great, it’s one of the first Sun Ra concerts in France in 1970, at the Pavillon Baltard in Paris, before it was the Cité de la Villette, and so there’s a big hall, a big hangar, which holds 3000 people, there are 5000 guys who come to see Sun Ra, I don’t know if you can imagine that today. And so they can’t all get in, obviously, because it’s too small. So some of them start screaming at the exit: “Yeah, it’s an outrage!” They yell at Sun Ra and all that: “Say, you’re not going to play like this in these conditions, leaving half the people outside”. So you’ve got Sun Ra with his golden cape and the badge of the Sun, coming out of the hall with the whole orchestra behind him playing. They’re going right under the nose of the CRS. And the cops, they say, “Oh, it’s not going to be like in ’68 again” [laughter] And then he comes back with everyone behind him, the 5,000 guys in the hall, it’s huge, that’s it [laughter]. It’s an incredible story!
I understood 5000 busses! [bus instead of gus (guys)]
Busses? It would have been even more people. [laughter] Well then? At some point you have to begin, right?
Voilà! So, there is this project “L’Art résiste au temps” [“Art resists time”].
I still remember it.
Gilles, if you want to intervene you may do so, since you were part of it…
You have the right to do it.
Well, I will let you explain…
Art Resists Time – General Presentation
Well, how to explain…? How did I come up with that particular storyline? First was to tell myself at a certain point that I felt a bit like making the connection between my supposedly artistic and my supposedly militant commitments. Having lived through this on many occasions, I have very often – I think you have too – met either extremely cutting-edge artists, interesting in their artistic practice, but totally useless at the political level, completely disconnected from reality, I would say, in my opinion; and conversely, hyper-acute militants who just listen to shitty music… There’s no way we can get the two things to come together. So that’s where we started from, actually, the whole reason for it, anyway. So, from there I read and reread Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. This is an ultimate reference book on the state of the world today. And then I started to think about how we could work, which meant, among other things, finding times for work and reflection, for creation, different from the usual times. It meant settling down in places and staying there, and trying to do things with people, and then also breaking down barriers in terms of artistic practices. Hence the desire to form a team where there would not only be musicians, but also a visual artist, an actress / stage director, a philosopher, etc. And so that’s what we did. And then came one of the first work residencies at 3bisf, which is a contemporary art center inside the Montperrin psychiatric hospital in Aix-en-Provence.
Didn’t we do the Thor residency before? A week of research work, workshops, role-playing proposed by the various people you had brought together, most of whom did not know each other. The main idea was to do research, but not specifically to find.
But the first real public residence, if I dare say so, happened at the 3bisf. Well, then, I had started talking with Sylvie Gerbault who was the director, now she has retired. It’s true that we musicians rarely have the opportunity and the habit of working on long residencies. And she actually forced us to stay for about three weeks or something like that. Which for us was a long time. Three weeks? What are we going to do for three weeks? Why three weeks? And in fact, by being there, I’m talking under Gilles’ control, it’s true that we realized that, in relation to the patients, the people who live there, after a while you don’t know who’s a patient, who’s a doctor.
Yes, the doctors are not dressed in their usual uniform.
No, they’re not in white coats, and they also invite an outside audience, since we had in fact taken it as a principle to make times that were open to the public in the broadest sense; that is to say, in the morning, there were some sort of writing workshops, and from there we would take up bits of texts that we set to music. In short, this is what the actress Agnès Régolo would undertake. So, there were times at the table, so to speak, and we didn’t know who was who, in fact. We knew pretty much who we were, although not always. But there were also patients, well, people who were being interned in this hospital, doctors and nurses, and then people from outside. It was quite funny because after a while you didn’t really know who was who!
We didn’t know who the insane ones were!
On the notion of madness, it was really interesting. And then, I became aware of this towards the end of that residency, effectively there were some people who were very shy or who had difficulty coming to us, and who ended up improvising some sort of flashes at times at the end of our residency, because they had time to acclimatize to us and to understand a little bit of the stuff. At first, they didn’t dare come, they came to the door of our working space, they took a look, then they left, then little by little they came. And at the time that was really interesting. We were almost totally immersed in it during all that time. And, well, after we got out of the hospital, we had three or four residencies, one in Rillieux-la-Pape, when it was still Maguy Marin who was at the Centre Chorégraphique National, and then two near Nancy, one in Frouard and a second one in Vandœuvre.
Art Resists Time – Diversity of Actions
And so, the participants at the hospital at 3bisf, were they mostly writing texts?
I don’t know, it was quite surprising.
He gave a jewel, just like that, to a member of the team, because he was happy… He wanted to show his interest, his gratitude, for our presence, and all that. But without going too far, without monopolizing what was going on. And then he went back to his seat. So, it was quite an astonishing thing! I remember, in the workshop – I don’t know if you remember? – one morning, we were around the table and may be the writing assignment was something like: “Do or write something that you’ve never done or written before”. At one point somebody got up, climbed up on the table, walked across the table and went back to sit down and said, “I’ve never done that!”
We seemed to understand then that he was a patient, but sometimes we were wrong. There were a couple of people, I was sure that they had been there for at least three or four years and in fact, they were just people who lived in town and who came to take part in the workshops.
Yes, I remember we did a little game with inflated balloons. It was just to have sound, very easily to make, with balloons. The assignment was: use the balloon. One of them makes it squeak, and then you have a guy next to him – and I was sure it was a guy from the outside – he starts… he was laughing his head off. And then you think: “Phew!” [laughter] Maybe he’s been living here for a few years. No, but there are some incredible things! Really amazing!
So, there was a visual artist, what was her role?
Our friend Suzanne Stern, she has a somewhat marginal practice as a visual artist, if I dare say so. Initially she was a painter, and then she got fed up with it, after dealing for quite a long time with all the galleries network, etc., etc. So, she did her own stuff, at home, often in her house in the middle of the countryside. In the workshops at 3bisf, how can I explain, she used all the materials that were produced, the little pieces of paper with bits of text that she scattered all over the place… And then she used the material that was produced to make something out of it. She also had an overhead projector, she projected things on the wall, she hung things everywhere. The idea was to invade the space and transform it a little bit in her own way, and then sometimes she would also come and disturb us. [laughter] It’s good to do that.
Disturb in doing what?
It could have been, I don’t know, maybe we were playing, doing a musical improvisation and then she would come and stick a little piece of stuff on your instrument with a little phrase written on it with I don’t know what, and then it would have meant: just cope with that! A lot of things like that.
And the philosopher, then?
The idea for me was that he could really produce thought, because I think we’re in a period where there’s a serious lack of thinking. And so, he really used the time of the residency to write a text around Hannah Arendt, about culture, about what it meant to be engaged. Because these are the three main themes of this project: resistance, art and time. Vast subjects. So, he took off on that. I really wanted that, that at some point in the thing we were going to do, there would be a little bit of suspended time where you stop and that’s what we did. He was at his table and he read his text. It took I don’t know how long, ten minutes, but I liked it. It was also about breaking the format of a concert. That’s what it was all about. Afterwards, it’s like all the projects that we can carry out, it could have gone much further than it did, if we could have kept it going longer and dug even deeper.
Because during the whole first part anyway the audience was on stage, especially in Aix and Rillieux.
And also, in Frouard, near Nancy. People were very friendly. We held writing workshops with retired women, little ladies who were knitting. They gave us knitwear as gifts afterwards, etc. They wrote great things that we used a lot. And each time it got more fulfilling. In the end we had a lot of material. That allowed us to draw from it and not necessarily do the same thing every time.
And some of the participants did music too?
Yes, it happened. It was really interesting, but a lot, a lot of work actually. When we were at the Montperrin Psychiatric Hospital in Aix, we divided the time into two parts: in the morning, it was the open workshop with people, but this workshop always gave rise to a time of public encounter. So, well, in the public, there could be one person, like two, ten or twenty, but it didn’t matter, something was presented. In those days, people, patients or others could intervene as they wished. So, it happened that some people tried Karine Hahn’s harp, for example, an instrument that was a rather fascinating instrument for non-musicians. And in the afternoon we concentrated more on the overall artistic construction of the project. This meant that a lot had to be done. The days were really busy.
And precisely, in the team of musicians, then, there was Karine Hahn, who is a rather classical harpist.
But she has experimented a lot of things.
Was she a disturbing element?
Oh, I think she was as disturbed as everybody else, she disturbed us too, but I think she enjoyed it, I think, well, she should talk about it herself. We amplified her harp, she did a lot of experiments.
Art Resists Time – Writing Worskhops
And so, everything was improvised?
Not everything. I had also written pieces, even some of them fully written. For example, I gave Nicolas [Sidoroff] the score of a piece based on time. I had composed it using the times of sunrise and sunset, since it was a question of time. I had fun finding some kind of rule to transpose the sunrise and sunset times into musical notes – everybody had fun doing that kind of thing, right? [laughs] It was quite fun, but very hard for people to play [laughs]: “Oh, that’s great! However, wait a minute…”. We still managed to play that piece pretty well.
Where is the CD?
To go into the details of the length of your immersion: was everyone on the team there for the three weeks?
Yes, because the hospital Montperrin in Aix is a bit in the middle of nowhere. There were a lot of people who came from far away and Mathias [the philosopher Matthias Youchencko] also had to continue his studies, so he came when he could. So, there you have it, we stayed almost all the time.
Then, in fact, the project continued even when one person was not there?
Yes, we all had enough work in progress to do each time, so that even if one of us was leaving for two days, it didn’t stop the project from moving forward. On the contrary, sometimes it was nice to have someone who could get out of the way a little so that you could step back to get some perspective on things.
At the hospital, I understood that there were several workshops happening at the same time?
Yes, because there were so many of us, we divided the group into several working sub-groups – which we did the very first times, before going to the hospital, when we had worked on the time, we divided into small groups, among ourselves. But at the hospital, I don’t remember if we did that, but I think it’s quite possible that we worked in at least two groups at the same time. One group that was more focused on writing, and one more focused on improvisation. In any case, we experimented a little everything we could experiment, that was the idea.
And if we take a look at the schedule for the three weeks, what happens on the first morning? Do you arrive the day before?
In fact, when Sylvie Gerbault had suggested that we stay there for three weeks, I panicked a little: “Oh! hell! what are we going to do?” In the first place we will have different people that we don’t know, we’ve never worked with (in quotes) “crazy” people. And so, I had gone scouting with Agnès, one morning at the psychiatric hospital of Montfavet near Avignon, where a writing workshop existed for a very long time. They’ve done a lot of publications. It’s called “Papiers de soi”, it’s a play on words [papiers de soi = papers of self; papiers de soie = silk papers]. And so, we went there a little bit as outsiders, but we also took part in the writing games they were doing that day. We immediately understood that it could be an easy meeting point to put in place, without needing to have a musical instrumental technique, for example. It allowed people to meet and talk to each other and so on. And so the writing seemed to me to be a possible source of inspiration for the whole team. [Gilles puts the CD of Art résiste au temps (Art resists time) in the background.] Which seems good to me, beyond our own concerns, I find that the writing and the reflection were very much in tune. In fact, in tune with what we wanted to do, from philosophical thought to completely wacky remarks on any subject. [To Gilles:] “Did you find the CD?”
When you arrive, who came the first time?
I don’t remember who came, but anyway we also spent some time with the 3bisf team. I had met them before, the team of animators, nurses, etc. We had the advantage that this is a place dedicated to this type of experimentation in a certain way. In fact to say, they are used to welcoming “artists” (in quotes) in residency, and they are used to mixing people, artists, hospital staff and the outside public.
This is quite specific to them. It’s one of the few hospitals to have that.
They took us to different pavilions to meet different types of patients more or less afflicted, the goal being to explain to them why we were there and what we wanted to do. And then afterwards, everyone decided whether or not to take part in the project. So, some people came, others didn’t. The problem with this type of project is that you can’t count on the regular attendance of participants. When people are on medication, it’s difficult. You have some who come regularly, you have some who are there all the time, and then there are those who come once and you don’t see them anymore – and it’s a real shame they didn’t come back, because it was good – but well, that’s how it is. [music continues]
And the idea of operating with a workshop in the morning, with a public presentation, therefore a public workshop and made public from the public… [laughter] That was in the initial contract specification?
We thought about it with the team and decided that it could be good. It was also a means of making room for the patients in a way. We knew that we also wanted on our side to come up with a product of our own, even if I don’t like that word very much, a finished product that was only in the process of being developed. The idea was that it would be in constant evolution, but we had nevertheless planned a real public presentation at the end. The idea was that we could take the necessary time to mature and that we too could be shaken up, depending on what the external participants could do. Some things we kept, others we didn’t, because we said to ourselves “Well, she did something incredible for us, it would be good to integrate her at that time”. Then, of course, we could have gone much further in this process, but the notion of perturbation and perturbators and being perturbed ourselves by outsiders, was the central idea.
The music on the CD we’re listening to is going to make the transcription of the recording of the encounter even more difficult! [laughter]
Yes, it might be the case.
There is a chance.
But you want to copy France-Culture where every time someone speaks, there has to be music behind it. [laughter]
No, no, it was for me to remember.
Yes, I listen to the CD again with pleasure.
We will include excerpts of the music, yes, for sure. Forgive me. [Some extracts of L’art résiste au temps can be found in the Grand Collage: follow the paths and click on the river.]
What happened between the morning and afternoon? The afternoon was more between you but with open doors, were there still people watching?
Yes, always, that’s the rule of how the place works, is that you are never locked up, people can see you, come in at any time. Which is pretty cool. It puts you in a different mindset towards your work, that’s what I liked.
Art Resists Time – Exchanging Roles
Several times I’ve heard you talk about exchanges of role among team members. Can we go into a little more detail about what this meant for you?
I remember, at the very beginning, at Le Thor, we tried to interchange the roles of philosopher, stage directress, visual artist, and between musicians. We were a bit lost at first, but we made videos of that; we said to ourselves: “Well, we’re searching, but we are not obliged to find!”. We were wandering a bit sometimes.
Well, we did some experiments, like any group, but then, they were not necessarily converted tries… That is to say, well, it’s always funny and interesting to say: “I’m not a stage director or an actor, but I’m going to take over the text, and you’re a musician and you’re going to take on another role”. After a while, you reach the limits of this exercise: the one who’s better at making music is the musician, and so on. But we searched a lot at the beginning, and I think that this time, the time before going to the psychiatric hospital, all the time we spent together at Le Thor, for example, was also very important. Well, there were no mentally ill people, but it was very interesting because we hadn’t set any specific goals, except to try all the things that came through our minds. It was a time that contributed a lot to the shape the project took afterwards. I am comfortable with my contradictions, but I had prepared a certain number of pieces that were relatively all written, because I like to write pieces. And in retrospect, if I had to do it again now, maybe I wouldn’t do it like that. Maybe I would write a lot less, because it was a bit paradoxical with the idea that everything should be made on the spot. At the same time, well, I wanted to come up with a pretty coherent result with a certain thread, and in particular to be able to use certain texts that I had specifically identified in Naomi Klein’s book, these were things that I really wanted people to say. So, one of the contradictions for me in the project was surely the fact of having extremely determined things in writing that I had brought with me, when the idea was really to do something very, very, collective, with nothing predetermined at the beginning. Well, that was true up to a certain point, but not really completely. It’s the exercise of democracy: you’re free, but not completely.
It was also your texts?
These were texts found mostly in Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, but not exclusively.
And what were these texts about?
On a kind of assessment of what is happening in the world. And this Shock Doctrine that she described very well. There was this idea of resistance in every sense of the word.
There is a film about Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine, which we watched together with the whole team.
It’s a documentary, which is obviously less interesting than the book, because in this case when you try to illustrate a 500-page book in an hour and a half, there are a lot of things that you just skip over. There are some gems in the documentary, like little interviews with Margaret Thatcher, things like that, which are still pretty mind-boggling, but otherwise the book is a hundred times more interesting.
When she thanks Pinochet for example.
Voilà! There is also the passage where Milton Friedman receives his Nobel Prize in Economics, in Oslo. There are a few troublemakers who have managed to get into the hall and try to prevent the ceremony from taking place, and then, well, they are quickly evacuated, and Friedman has a little smile on his face and says to the journalists: “Considering what I wrote, it could have been much worse than that!” [laughter] It’s absolutely cynical [laughs]. [silence]
Good! [silence, noise of pouring some liquid]
Hello? Any more questions?
[to Gilles:] Do you have anything to add?
As Guigou said, the choice was made to exchange the roles over one or two sessions. I think it was also a way to meet and then react if the situation allowed it. In fact, it was more a time of meeting each other where we tried things. In the end, it created bonds and trust between us. Since we let go and allowed ourselves to go anywhere with others without being afraid of being in uncomfortable situations. So, there’s something that reminds me of what we do with PaaLabRes in the improvisation workshops, with the dance-music meetings at the Ramdam, or what we did this weekend with CEPI.
We had also experimented a lot when I had worked with Maguy Marin and Volapük. We had done all kinds of improvisations. It was a great period when we had three months of rehearsals to put on a show. That helps!
But what you describe is essential, even if it is difficult to tell or describe. On the one hand, we have the impression that this exchange of roles allows above all a meeting between you to make the work go well, in fact it is just experimentation without any particular objective. But on the other hand, and this is what is very interesting for me, it allows a certain number of things: a way of “mixing up our incompetencies” or “mixing up our discomforts”, etc., a form of equality in discomfort. All this allows other things to emerge, very different from those produced, for example, by a musician who a priori knows how to play his/her instrument. And so, it allows forms of encounters, which no longer exist afterwards, when each person actually takes up the role to which she/he is most accustomed. In any case, it’s very interesting to try to explain it, to describe it and to go into a little more detail. Because when you have a creative time of three weeks, it’s easier. Conversely, when you have less time, how is it possible that this kind of thing happens anyway? And as you said, looking without having to find seems to me an absolute necessity.
A Place of Resistance: Time
I think that was one of the reasons that made the link between time and resistance. In this regard, I remember something that struck me: a discussion about art that I had with a friend of mine, an Italian painter, Enrico Lombardi, from the Area Sismica gang in Meldola. He said to me: “In any case, the only place of resistance that is still possible today is time.” Time to take the time, time to do things, and I thought it was super accurate. That is to say, we know very well that there aren’t many possible spaces left where you can still resist something, except for refusing the time constraints that are imposed on you all the time. That doesn’t mean it’s always easy to do, but… And then, I experienced it in a much more extreme and important way than in Art résiste au temps, when I had set up the Figures project. We worked for six months – in fact, it lasted much longer than six months – with a group of unemployed people who were on the RMI [Revenu Minimum d’Insertion – Minimum income of insertion], and whom we had recruited just to make music for six months, a bit like what Fred Frith did with Helter Skelter in Marseille. When you work every day for six months with fifteen guys who have nothing else to do but experiment things, eight hours a day, it becomes an amazing mad thing. And, in this case, we did take some time, it was great. Then, the small events that we produced for a public around this project were almost like epiphenomena of an incredible laboratory work. I think that it made an impression on a lot of people – well, on those who took part in it in any case – it was an incredible amount of time. It’s an insane luxury to be able to do that. I really enjoyed it.
This is one of the great frustrations at the moment: the inability to have long enough time slots. I went to work at the university (in 1972) for these reasons. I was able to run projects there for over fifteen years.
After that, the Cefedem was a project that I ran for over seventeen years, and without this length of time we could not have done anything. But in the artistic field, there was a whole period between 70-80 where there were a lot more possibilities than today to take the time to do things. So, well, it’s a double-edged sword, because in the time taken, there can be a very marked elitist aspect, the exclusivity of small groups. But at the same time, to break down the boundaries, there is no other way out.
But, I think it also depends on the artistic domains, because in music, the fact is that we are used to working in an incredible urgency, to prepare concerts or things like that. I was talking to Camel Zekri who works with circus artists, I think it’s two or three times over periods of two months of residency, before the creation. So it’s already over a year and a half and he would say to me: “But that’s crazy! We really have time, even time to waste. We have the time to do nothing, to go and listen to others, and at the same time to compose with an incredible calmness.” He tells me “That changes everything.” We are so little used to that. And then, with companies like Maguy Marin’s, it’s often the same thing: three months minimum for preparing a creation.
Well, that’s what Bastien and Thomas told me, did you know?
I know two young super musicians, Bastien Pelenc and Thomas Barrière. They work with the circus company Trottola (https://cirque-trottola.org). Each show takes a year to set up. I saw their last show, which is superb by the way, I recommend it to you. So, they melted down a church bell just for the show: incredible! There’s a whole set of machinery under the stage and at one point they hoist this bell from under the stage with a winch system to the top of the tent. It is magnificent. Well, the musicians spent the first three or four months of the creation without making a single musical note. They were only working on building the device, and obviously it changes everything at the end, you don’t have the same result.
So how do you do that with a project that is only musical?
In the 1960s, I was a percussionist in contemporary music ensembles, it was four rehearsals for a concert of creations. So, it was awful! It was frustrating. But we also had a group at the American Center [Le Centre de Musique] where we did as many rehearsals as we could possibly do, but we were not paid.
But yes, without being paid, you can create a lot of things. There when they work for a year, I don’t know if they get paid all the time, but, in any case, they can make a living from it. In music we are used to rehearsing for free.
And there was this fundamental difference, it was the situation at the university, paid time to experiment.
But I don’t think the criterion is necessarily whether you get paid or not. I don’t have any specific examples that come to mind, but the number of rock bands I’ve seen, especially a long time ago: you get a slap in the face, because you can see that they’ve been working like crazy for all their Saturday-Sunday for years, and when they get on stage, they play! It’s not an approximate thing because you’ve only done two rehearsals. There’s a great side to this way of doing things. A way that we, we lost a little bit, because we’re also too much in survival stories, well I speak for myself. So we have to get paid, we don’t have time to lose, and that’s it. [silence]
Yes, absolutely. There is a lack of funding for this kind of research situation. Whereas it seems to me that in the 70s and 80s, there was much more support from public institutions in the cultural sector.
For me, I remember that in recent times, what has really brought the question of time to light is the movement of the intermittents du spectacle in 2003. I remember some fascinating debates on this issue, that is, the question of the whole invisible part of the work that is produced and not taken into account, you see? It’s really the hidden part of the iceberg, as they say. The spectators just see the emerged part of the work, and all our dear politicians don’t even want to hear about it. It has to be profitable, it has to be fast, and then they don’t really care anyway.
Part II : Helping Migrants
The Association Rosmerta
Perhaps we can move on to the more recent projects you have carried out, for example your work with migrants?
Yeah, that’s not a musical project, but it’s exciting. Actually, it’s simple: it’s the militant part of my activity. In Avignon, we’ve been wondering for a while about the welcoming of migrants in the city. It was becoming more and more of a problem. I remember, it’s quite crazy, I was a bit of an activist at RESF [Réseau éducation sans frontières – Education without borders network] when this network was created at least fifteen or twenty years ago. If I exaggerate the line a bit, at the time, it was just a matter of fighting to find two migrants who arrived in Avignon, because there were very few of them! Now, all this has been totally reversed, for a few years now we can no longer cope. And we can no longer endure the inertia, the incompetence, the bad will of the institutions. This inertia is also the result of a political project, we should not have any delusions. That is to say, if there are so many problems, it is because there is a fierce will not to welcome these people. So, to cut a long story short: for more than a year and a half, a small group of people had been negotiating with the city, the diocese and the prefecture. We were trying to tell them, “Wait, there’s a real problem, every week, there are fifteen, twenty, thirty people sleeping in the street, who are not being accommodated, etc.” The answers varied according to the interlocutors: for example, the city of Avignon said “Ah, yes, we know!” This is not a really rich municipality, but socialist, so not left-wing, it’s socialism à la Valls! In short, they would tell us: “Yes, yes, we know there are problems, but you have to understand that we don’t have any buildings, etc.” At the prefecture, they completely denied it: “There is no problem, besides, people just have to call 115 and they will be immediately be housed.” At the diocese, they told us the same thing. The archbishop of Avignon has inclination to the extreme right. So, after a year of discussions – we have kept traces of all this mess – we said to ourselves last fall: “We are not going to spend another winter like that, now we have to take action.” We identified a number of possible buildings, including this former school belonging to the diocese. And we heard that they wanted to sell the building in question for 800,000€. Well, there you have it, very good, wonderful: an old school, with everything you need. It was in activity until 2016 and was therefore in relatively good condition, the closure was due to management problems. And then at the end of December 2018, we occupied the place and squatted it.
We got help from people who know how to do this kind of things, it’s a bit complicated at the beginning when you’ve never done it before. You have to consider the risks. So, we created an association called “Rosmerta”, we’re a collegiate of persons who signed its statutes. That means that seven of us are legally responsible in case of problems. We are currently housing 50 people. We have determined the criteria for taking in people, to protect ourselves from a certain number of people that we would not have been able to take care of. To be clear: all adult male drug addicts, sometimes violent. We clearly determined that we would only take in isolated minors or families. A lot of minors or just over 18 have been taken in, but as in many cases they don’t have papers, it is impossible to know if they are 16 or 18 years old. And we take in families, there are currently six of them. Most of them are Africans, but not only: there is a family of Georgians whose husband was a political opponent who was killed; so his wife and kids left from there and arrived in France, I don’t know how. Personally, I take care of a family of Indians from Punjab, whose wife was in a forced marriage; they arrived in Paris at the end of 2017 in a refugee center and then they were told, “Well no, you can’t stay, there is no more room. Well, let’s have a look on the map… Ah! Avignon, there seems to be some room!” They went there and stayed in a center for a few months. And they were kicked out just as we opened the place, so they ended up there. These are absolutely incredible life stories in most cases. So now we have 1200 adherents. Since December 2018, we have been holding a public event in the site every month, and each time we ask the people who come to join the association for a symbolic €1. And we have about 300 relatively active volunteers. We have the support of part of the population. And then there is a lawsuit in progress…
Concerning the place or helping migrants?
So, we have two things in parallel: we have a lawsuit following the archbishop’s complaint of squatting; and parallel to that, the departmental services accuse us of having welcomed the public in a place without having passed the security commission first – which is tantamount to saying that we are squatting. Of course, it’s normal, it’s a squat! We were auditioned by the cops. The good side is that we are still in Avignon, so we still took advantage of the media coverage in July for the Festival. We had the visit of Emmanuelle Béart in July 2018, who used her networks, which made it possible to avoid the immediate expulsion, and gave us a little time. Parallel to all this, three working groups were formed, following the General Assemblies. One group is more concerned with resistance whatever the situation in the place; one group is looking into the idea of pushing the city to pre-empt the place; and another is working on the purchase of the building (800.000€), well, with all kinds of questions about this last issue. As far as I’m concerned, I’m completely against the idea of buying it for many reasons. First of all, because I don’t want to give 800.000€ to an extreme right archbishop, but on top of that this 800.000€ could be used for something else. Moreover, if you buy and you become an owner… Initially, the idea for us was to point out the negligence of the institutions and not to replace them, but on the contrary to tell them: “We did it because you don’t do it, but now it’s up to you to assume your political responsibilities.” To become professionals in the welcoming of migrants, I think, is not the goal and that it is not to do anyone a service to supplant the city or the prefecture. So, there is a lot of internal debate on these issues. But I would still say that overall, it’s a hell of a story. It’s pretty awesome. We encountered almost no problems, except sometimes a little tension on the management. What really struck me recently is to see how young people are gradually becoming autonomous: when we opened, obviously all the people who arrived there were completely lost, and little by little – some of them have been living there since December, not all of them because there are also many people who come and go – there are some who take things into their own hands: housekeeping, all sorts of things, formalities, as accompanying their friends to the ASE (Aide Sociale à l’Enfance – Child welfare) or to the department. Two were invited by Olivier Py, the director of the Avignon Festival, to take part in readings around the Odyssey, etc. Well, we did a lot of stuff. So, it’s a great project, extremely strong on one side, and extremely fragile on the other. So that’s it.
Are there any artistic aspects to this project?
Yes, workshops have been set up by a whole bunch of people who are close to Rosemerta: puppet workshop, Beatbox workshop. Lots of stuff happens in the place. I admit that, personally, I haven’t done anything on this level, because I don’t want to mix things up too much, I find it a bit complicated. So, when I go there, I’m on duty or I take care of my Indian family or other things, but I haven’t done any musical things.
What are the public events every month that you were talking about?
Well, mostly concerts with people who are close to us, let’s say, and also not too far away geographically, because that’s the easiest thing to do.
And the workshops are aimed internally, within the setting of the people who are in the place or are they also open to the outside world?
There is a strong desire to organize meetings with the outside world, yes, and then a willingness to provide tools for people to be integrated. So, we also offer French courses, artistic or cultural workshops and many other things. It’s clearly a desire on our part that this dimension be present.
Relationships between arts and politics
There’s one aspect I haven’t talked about that is quite interesting from a political point of view. This place was used in the summer by a company of comedians called Del Arte, who made their nest egg by having a large percentage of amateurs perform with them – they did what all the other theatre rental places practice in Avignon. The first meeting was rather interesting and then we had no more news, except for extremely nasty letters against us that they sent to the Prefect. Maybe they were expecting that we would be evicted sooner? And as there are a number of people from the live performing arts with us, we have been accused by some people from the Festival of just wanting to get our hands on this place for purely artistic and cultural reasons, and not to take care of the migrants! We were caught between the sympathies of the diocese for the extreme right and the merchants of the temple of the theater, it was a bit complicated! And it still is.
In our reflections on the history of walls, there is also this idea of a kind of necessity to go against the wind or against a certain number of things: the wall as a form of shelter and also as a form of intolerable barrier. In what you were saying, there seems to be a will not to mix artistic and political activity. And I tend to consider this as a kind of wall that you put up… How would you characterize it? How do you live with it more or less comfortably?
It’s just that, if you want, when you play in a marching band or with a street theater group, it’s extremely simple to come and play in a place where there are zero comforts. And it’s not that simple in most of my musical projects. So the only thing I could imagine doing, which I haven’t done yet but could do, is my little solo Musiques Minuscules [tiny music]. For that I don’t need anything in broad terms, so I could do it, but otherwise it’s not always the right kind of form. And on top of that, I think that culturally, it’s not always easy. The audience is very varied, and of course I could come with my stuff completely out of whack, but it can make things untidy among left-wing Catholics! If I make a small parallel: I’m quite involved in the anti-nuclear collective in Avignon, and I’ve been trying to hook them up a number of times so that we could play with the Mutants Maha, a project on Fukushima. Two or three years ago we did a piece of our repertoire for two people in a lighter version, and we took the little text that went with it. I told them that it would be nice to do the whole concert with the trio and everything that comes with it: “Well, okay! Do you agree to do this on April 26, the day of the commemoration of Chernobyl on Piazza Pio?” I said, “No, it’s just not possible.” I mean, first of all, not to mention whether or not we’re going to have electricity, you still need a little time to set up; you need a little bit of attention so that what you’re trying to get through will bear some fruit, and not to have the passers-by with shopping bags coming in the middle… Eventually, there’s a moment when it just doesn’t work, it’s not suitable for the mess to do it in that place under those conditions. It’s a real question what you’re asking, especially in relation to the place of the event. Then, it also happens that most of my projects are done with people who are not based in Avignon, so that means bringing people from far away to do a concert where they’re not paid, and so on. No, it’s often just a little bit complicated on so many levels, so I don’t necessarily want to get into that.
In the case of slavery, slavers made sure that people who lived in the same place had to come from very different places so that they did not have common cultural references. This seemed more conducive to being able to impose artistic forms, like the quadrille in Martinique, for example. It’s very interesting to see how the slaves managed to recreate artistic forms that both respected the imposed rules and at the same time recreated or created their own culture. In what you’re describing, do we find this same phenomenon, that is, people coming from very different places, with the great danger of imposing ready-made artistic forms on them and the need to give them time to develop things of their own?
I’m not sure I’m super clear on this issue, which I think is very important. But what is also very clear is that it is quite impressive to see what some of these young people have experienced. I’ve spoken with some of them, I know a little bit about their backgrounds. They’ve been through some crazy stuff. But they’re still eighteen-year-olds or sixteen-year-olds living in 2019 with a cell phone, and they’re listening to rap like everyone else, or reggae or whatever. There’s this double thing going on all the time that’s very disturbing. There is a complexity that exists in everything anyway, especially in their situation, which goes beyond the caricatures people are drawing on their own. For example, one Sunday we distributed leaflets at all the exits from Mass to try to explain our point of view in relation to that of the Archbishop. In the church next to where we are, some people told us: “But anyway they are not real migrants because they are too well dressed.” They would have to be in rags to be considered real migrants. And that’s interesting to see too. I think you have to do things in a way… I don’t know if “subtle” is the right word, or… is not too much [laughs], come on, let’s go: subtle. For example, I brought the Indian family to the “100 guitares sur un bateau ivre” [Guitars on a Drunk Boat] concert in June 2018. They thought it was great, and then I invited them to what I did in Avignon. There I find that when you get to build a relationship, you can start sharing stuff. When it’s people you don’t know at all, whose history you know nothing about, imposing something on them, I find it a bit difficult.
Through the notion of encounter and of the long time – already mentioned – you describe a way of overcoming the kind of separation, between professional artistic activity in the sense of a show presented on stage and the almost daily militant acts. For my part, I find myself in forms of edges (or fringes) where things get mixed up when one suggests trying to do things together. I find it hard to detach myself from being in, doing or thinking about music making: I love playing music and experimenting with it, it’s something that keeps me alive. So even when I was teaching math or French – I did a lot of it, for example, in an educational outreach program – I couldn’t ignore all the musical resonances that came up, whether I was using it or not. With kids coming from all over the place, I often had proposals to do things that were eminently artistic, for me, but above all not recognized by the authorities. These proposals didn’t even exist on their radar. I’m trying to describe this kind of somewhat vague thing in which, in fact, you act as a musician, but not necessarily by making music as it is recognized and labeled by the Institutional forms with a capital I. I’m trying to describe this kind of thing. You talked about puppet or Beatbox workshops, how do you work with them?
I didn’t take care of them, I can’t tell you. But again, the basic thing here is that even in the two hundred or three hundred volunteers who work there, you have extremely different people, which is one of the aspects of complexity.
And a richness…
It goes from the most radical, politically speaking, to the softest. So sometimes it’s complicated: at the moment we’re in a period of great tension, I think, between those who think, of which I am one, that there is a deficit of democracy, that we should involve the inhabitants – that is, the people we shelter – much more in the decisions than they actually are, and not consider them as children to whom we give charity, basically. And then those who are more in a process – how can I put it? – catho, machin, you know? [laughter] I can’t find the word.
Yes, so there are these things… Well, it turns out that many people in the Rosmerta association immediately seized the cultural aspect. Personally, I feel more useful to do other things, such as papers so that the kids can go to school, than to come and do my je-ne-sais-quoi show, which is not necessarily going to interest anyone, at least not right away in these conditions. I could be wrong. Maybe it would have been useful, I don’t know. But in any case, I didn’t feel doing it at the time.
I think it’s time.
It’s time! !
Well, thank you.
Well, you are welcome. Thank you for stopping by.
1. AJMi Jazz Club (Association pour le Jazz et la Musique improvisée) is in Avignon a place devoted to jazz and improvisation in existence since 1978. AJMi
2. Here is the list of participants to the project « L’art résiste au temps » :
Guigou Chenevier / drums, machines, compositions, Laurent Frick / voicet, keyboards and sampler, Karine Hahn / harp, Serge Innocent / drums, percussions, trumpet, Gilles Laval / guitare, Franck Testut / bass, Agnès Régolo /theatrical disturbances, Suzanne Stern / visual arts disturbances, Matthias Youchencko / philosophical disturbances, Emmanuel Gilot / sound.
With the participation of : Fred Giulinai / keyboards, sampler, Fabrice Caravaca, Philippe Corcuff / written, spoken, declaimed, gesticulated texts.
3. In 2012-13 took place monthly encounters of members of the PaaLabRes Collective to experiment with improvisation protocoles (Jean-Charles François, Laurent Grappe, Karine Hahn, Gilles Laval, Pascal Pariaud, Gérald Venturi). Many members of the collective lead improvisation workshops on a regular basis (for example, this is the case with Gilles Laval and Pascal Pariaud at the National Music School in Villeurbanne).
4. During 2016-17, at the Ramdam – a Center for artistic practices near Lyon – took place experimental encounters between dancers from the Compagnie Maguy Marin and musicians from the PaaLabRes collective, with the objective to develop common practices (dance/music) in the improvisation domain. Ramdam
5. Founded in 2014 by Enrico Fagnoni and Barre Phillips, CEPI (Centre Européen Pour l’Improvisation) organizes nomadic encounters in the improvisation domain. In August 2018, these took place in Valcivières in Haute-Loire (Auvergne). Jean-Charles François and Gilles Laval participated in these encounters. CEPI
6. Between 1975 and 1990, the experimentalgroup KIVA, founded by the trombonist John Silber and the percussionist Jean-Charles François was in residence at the University of California San Diego.
7. Musiques Minuscules, Guigou Chenevier.
8. Les Mutants Maha, Guigou Chenevier : drums, compositions / Takumi Fukushima : violin, voice / Lionel Malric : keyboards.
« Zizeeria Maha » is the scientific name of a butterfly. A very special butterfly, since it is found especially in the Fukushima region of Japan. Since the terrible nuclear accident of March 11, 2011, this butterfly mutated. Many malformations on its legs, wings and antennae have been detected by Japanese scientists. These malformations make this butterfly look more like an unsightly snail than the elegant insect it was originally. From this horrible news item read in the press, Guigou Chenevier thought about the idea of mutant compositions. Minimalist musical compositions at first almost drifting little by little towards strange and monstrous forms. Embarking Takumi Fukushima in this adventure was the obvious choice. Adding the two hands of Lionel Malric, an expert in keyboard tinkering, quickly sank in. Les Mutants Maha is a project of musical creation, at the heart of which writing and architecture dominate. No (or few) improvisations in this post-atomic universe where cows, useless producers of a noxious milk, are slaughtered in the open field, but rather this search for mutations and ionizations. A small tribute to Edgar Varèse can never do any harm…
9. Reference to the performance of « 100 Guitares Sur Un Bateau Ivre » by Gilles Laval. See Bateau Ivre.