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<nettime> Interview with Isabelle Massu
N Bookchin on Tue, 18 Mar 2003 20:50:50 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> Interview with Isabelle Massu


Hi nettimers,

I know its hard to think about much right now except for the actions of
the axis of evil: Blair, Bush and Aznar, but for a diversion, here is an
interview I did with freedom I mean french artist and activist Isabelle
Massu in the fall for 2002 for a spanish journal Red Digital You can read
it in spanish with illustrations here:
http://reddigital.cnice.mecd.es/3/entrevista_comp_2.html

best,
natalie


Isabelle Massu: Between Two Worlds: An Interview with Natalie Bookchin

Isabelle Massu (isa {AT} aux2mondes.org ) is an artist currently working on a
Net art project called aux2mondes. She has a longstanding involvement with
public art and alternative media. In 1995, she collaborated with Margaret
Tedesco on a year-long collaboration with a group of homeless people from
San Francisco's Coalition on Homelessness. Parlor Game: a Popular Version
was a series of board games depicting the city rules and regulations San
Francisco's homeless had to bypass or confront in order to survive. Six
different board games represented the different issues and branches of the
association such as Housing - Not Borders and Shelter Outreach. The games
were displayed as posters on Market Street in downtown San =46rancisco,
and as an insert in the coalition's newspaper "Street Sheet"
(www.sf-homeless-coalition.org).

In 1996 Massu joined the French feminist association Les P=E9n=E9lopes
(www.penelopes.org) which had, at the time, the only significant Internet
presence representing the feminist movement in France. They produced a
newsletter and a Web TV program offering world news on women's issues and
feminist analyses of neo-liberal globalization.  Les P=E9n=E9lopes is more
than a media outlet; Massu traveled throughout Africa, Europe, and Latin
America giving workshops to women on media literacy and the strategic use
of new technologies.

In 1999 Massu became a member of La Compagnie, (www.la-compagnie.org), an
artist collective and an exhibition space in the heart of downtown
Marseille, in a neighborhood called Belsunce. The majority of Marseille's
substantial North African residents live and work in Belsunce, which has,
since the nineteenth century, received immigrants from across the
Mediterranean. Belsunce and Marseille are both currently the targets of
local and European Union funded "rehabilitation" initiatives, the latter
known as the Eurom=E9diterran=E9e Project. Approximately one and a half
billion Euros are being invested in Marseille with the hopes of
transforming the city into a booming commercial center and a tourist
attraction. This is the largest amount ever given to a European city by
the EU, and the funds are being allocated for downtown real estate
development and restoration projects, aimed at attracting international
investors and businesses. Downtown is being "cleaned up," pricing out its
current occupants to make room for a new population of professionals,
businesses, and tourists. A new high-speed train linking Paris to
Marseille has been installed.

Marseille's considerable immigrant population and its rampant unemployment
and poverty are an aftermath of another era's commercial (and more overtly
racist) enterprise, French colonialism. During the height of colonialism
in the nineteenth century, Marseille, nicknamed `Porte de l'Orient,'
flourished as the main port for travel and trade to the French colonies.
Throughout the twentieth century, immigrants, primarily from the Maghreb
countries of Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco, were recruited to France as
"guest" workers. Men were shipped over without their families and offered
deplorable living conditions to discourage settlement when the work ran
out.  Recruitment and immigration accelerated in the 1960s during France's
economic boom and into the 1970s, when an estimated two million North
Africans immigrated to France, many remaining in Marseille.

With the end of colonialism, activities around the port of Marseille began
to dwindle, ushering in widespread unemployment. The end of the Algerian
war in 1962 brought massive migration from the newly independent country,
including about 150,000 pieds-noirs, French citizens who had settled in
Algeria, returning to their homeland.  Many of the guest workers who had
stayed on after their work had finished were permitted by the French
government to send for their families. With the sudden increase in the
population, unemployment and poverty, already a problem in Marseille,
became endemic. The middle class began to abandon the city, leaving the
poor and the immigrant population to deal with its crumbling
infrastructure.

In 1999, Massu her current collaborators inherited La Compagnie from a
collective of artists who had previously run the organization for five
years. The new collective began to put considerable effort into defining
their role and position in relation to the uneasy situation in Belsunce.
Their goal has been to bring diverse cultural activities to the
neighborhood, but they are also very cautious of the role their existence
can play in accelerating the gentrification process.  They have initiated,
supported and developed a variety of projects including aux2mondes.With
aux2mondes Massu and her collaborators are developing an on-line game and
archive exposing the gentrification strategies of the city and the current
situation in Belsunce.The rules of the game will be inspired by city and
state political rules and regulations. They are planning the release date
to coincide with the inauguration of a new public library in Belsunce, a
major event and symbol of the "rehabilitation" project.

Natalie Bookchin: What brought you to live and work in Marseille?

Isabelle Massu: I lived in San Francisco for 10 years. In 1996, I decided
it was time to return home, and spent a year looking for places to live. I
am originally from Paris and didn't want to go back to a place that felt
so familiar. I visited a friend in Marseille and fell in love with the
city. Part of my attraction was that, like San =46rancisco, Marseille is a
cosmopolitan port city, and although it is =46rance, it doesn't look and
feel like the rest of the country.  Mediterranean culture is very present.
It is a very intense city, partly due to its geographical positioning at
the edge of the continent. After all the orderliness and quaintness of San
Francisco, I was looking for a city with more of an edge. Marseille is the
second biggest city in France, yet had been generally disregarded by the
French government until recently. It is the only city left in =46rance
where the downtown is poor and the immigrant population, the majority of
which is Algerian, lives in the center of the city. The two other large
French cities, Paris and Lyon, have already "rehabilitated" and gentrified
their centers, which are now richer and whiter, and the immigrants have
been pushed to the suburbs.

When I came to Marseille I moved to Belsunce, a small neighborhood
sandwiched between the main train station, the entrance to the city's
freeway, and the port. Belsunce brought back familiar feelings and
sensations of growing up in the suburbs of Paris. When I was six years
old, my stepfather decided to move to the projects, which was typical of a
French proletarian family in need of a bargain apartment. The projects had
just been constructed, and were being sold as attractive, new, and modern.
This was the 1970s and the projects were also being used for temporarily
relocating some of the newly arriving Algerian population. We were in the
minority as so called Fran=E7ais de souche, (roughly translated as "old
stock or native French). This was the first time I encountered immigrants,
and I witnessed a lot of racism. The immigrants were seen as intruders.  
Their religious practices, which were completely unfamiliar to us, were
seen as evil and barbarian.  From the dead lamb in the cellar to the henna
on my friend's hands and feet, I had a lot of questions that were never
answered by my family or school. France's role in Algeria was not
discussed. We learned about World War II, but never a word was mentioned
about what amounted to almost a century of French colonization. No one
talked about the protectorates, yet the schools were suddenly filled with
kids from these places. Returning to Belsunce in France in 1996 reminded
me of the confusion I felt as a child, and I began to think about the
situation as an adult. I felt very comfortable in Marseille, feeling that
I simultaneously belonged and didn't belong. I knew there was something in
this that I wanted to investigate, but I didn't know exactly what form
that investigation would take.

NB: You left France when you were twenty-two and spent ten years, much of
your adult life, as an immigrant in San Francisco. Now you are back in
France, and carry an American and a French passport. You have worked in
activist organizations as an artist, and in artist collectives as an
activist. You are attracted to Marseille as a city located between the
north and the south, between France and North Africa. Your project
aux2mondes resides between physical and virtual spaces. It seems that you
value the "in-between" not as a transitional space, but a place to locate
oneself and one's work. Can you talk about your interest in the
"in-between?"

IM: I don't know if it's an interest as much as a way of being in the
world, something that I have had to be all my life. I don't want to be too
psychoanalytical, but I will say that the first "in-between"  was between
my mother and my father, who divorced when I was very young and lived in
different places. It was between the two of them that I really found
myself, and still do. I have always been drawn to the interstices, whether
it is between places or identities. To be "in-between" is to not have a
closed-in, secure, or fixed position.  Maybe it's not a very determined
way of being in the world, but for me, any other position is too
constraining. Being fixed in one position does not allow you to see the
other side, whereas being "in-between" allows for movement and insight.

And of course one can talk about the strategy of the "in-between" in
aux2mondes. The project is based in Belsunce, where most people are
between two worlds, between Algeria and Marseille, between the secular
state of France and the religious state of Algeria, between being welcomed
as a citizen and being an illegal alien. But the in-between aspect of the
project really lies in how it structures and defines public space.
aux2mondes looks at both the limits and possibilities of physical spaces
and the virtual spaces. We are using the Net as a public space to reinvent
situations, propose alternatives, and denounce the progress of
gentrification. aux2mondes needs both spaces: the physical space of La
Compagnie is a direct and critical link with the people who are threatened
by the gentrification.

NB: Marseille seems to be trying to erase Belsunce. If the local
population is made invisible, there is no need to address them. Can you
talk about how aux2mondes works against this process?

IM: The city, the state, and the newspapers praise the expansion of urban
renewal plans. The process is said to be socially, economically, and
culturally enriching, but for whom? The rhetoric is always addressed to a
privileged population, as if the population being displaced did not exist.
Politicians describe this center as the "throbbing heart that it once was"
before the arrival of the immigrants. The politician's goal is revealed
through their vocabulary: rehabilitation, restitution, reanimation,
reorientation, reinforcement, resurrection, and above all re-conquest. We
intend to give a more realistic picture of the so-called "enhancement" of
a city. By collectively writing another story, we reiterate the universal
droit de cit=E9.

This is in some respects how we are depicting the situation as a game in
aux2mondes: like most popular games, we are recreating a real situation.
Think of Monopoly, Sim City, Europa, games involving commerce, city
planning, colonization. In aux2mondes, the city and state political rules
and regulations are our sources of inspiration.  We are inventing another
site, inventing a "counter" Belsunce,another Belsunce, another public
space, one where we could strategically play with equal opportunities to
win or lose, one where voices could be heard, a public space where one
could interfere, exchange, network, a non-static net within the net. It is
the Net, and it is fluid, not fixed in space or time, allowing us to
continue the story we are experiencing here, and to invent other stories,
strategies, and challenges, as the gentrification process continues here
and everywhere.

"the population in downtown is for the most part people with a very low
income; we need to crush this phenomena."
  la Marseillaise (local newspaper) 24.05.96

NB:You are now in your second year of working on your project, yet do not
seem to be in any hurry to publish anything on the Net. Can you talk a bit
about your work process?

IM: The whole first year we did extensive research into the historical,
social, and political situation in Belsunce. We have been conducting
workshops and interviewing people who are or have lived in the
neighborhood. For a year, Martine Derain and I have been working with a
group of local women.  Other members of the collective are working on
other projects and workshops, such as Johanne Larrouz=E9 who organizes
workshops for kids and adults that relate to the events taking place in
our space. She and David Bouvard, another member of the collective, are
working on a mini festival of Scopitone films for next year. Scopitone
films were the 1960s precursor to today's music videos. They were
distributed on 16 mm film with sound and shown on a Scopitone film
jukebox, found in bars across France. Joanne and David are focusing on
scopitones made for immigrants. Most of them were about working hard in
France, leaving the country, wanting to go back or wanting to remain. A
lot of them had strong sexual connotations, perhaps in an attempt to
entertain lonely male workers who were brought over without wives and
families.

Debates and lectures at La Compagnie often address problems in the
neighborhood, such as the local economy, as well as national and
international issues such as rehabilitation projects in other cities and
how other collectives and associations work with immigrants. We also have
an artist residency program, which tries to introduce an outside
perspective on the situation.  Martine and Dalila Madjhoub, two members of
La Compagnie, are currently working on a proposal for a public art piece
in Belsunce in collaboration with two French architects. Their extensive
research on city politics will be added to the database of aux2mondes, as
will the work of the others mentioned above. We are calling the archive
and database of aux2mondes "The Library." It will mirror the "real"
library currently under construction, which is viewed as a major symbol of
the gentrification process in Belsunce. Its strategic geographical
position is supposed to placate the local population. However, it will
also attract students from nearby and newly constructed universities,
which are attracting a younger generation to the area.  They will probably
be among the first new settlers in Belsunce.  Therefore, as most locals
would agree, this library is not really for them.

"When you go to Aix Street, they give you low income housing for around
3000frs. What does it mean? It's not the poor people who are going to live
there, especially with "Marseille-habitat". If you want an apartment
they'll know where to find you one, a one room in Belsunce or a 6 room
apartment in the north of Marseille. The choice of course is quickly
made!"

"La Cit=E9 de La Musique, they did not build it for us. The minimum you
need to pay for classes for your kid is 400frs!! I'm telling you, this is
not for us=8A The library, I don't think it's gonna be for us either, I
really don't think so!"

Fatima Rhazi, resident of Belsunce, 2001

NB:Can you talk about the workshops you have been running with the women
from the neighborhood?

IM: The workshops came partly out of my feminist experience, and from
working in a neighborhood where public space is mainly inhabited and
controlled by men. Women appear primarily in private spaces, mostly at
home. What really stood out for me is their invisibility. Muslim and
Algerian women are doubly invisible: they are invisible as Muslims and
Algerians in France, and invisible as women in Muslim culture.

The women would come to La Compagnie with their kids. The men from the
neighborhood would come and go, but some women kept on coming back. We
began to develop friendships, while simultaneously developing a series of
workshops. They wanted to learn how to use the Internet. It seemed that
after one year what was most important to them had to do with
communication: email and forums. The Net became a way for them to have a
voice and to access information on their own, without having to rely
solely on television or reports of the outside world by the men.

For some, the interest was to feel closer to their home country, and they
would participate in online forums dedicated to Mzabite culture (a group
well known for its puritanism in Algeria). The anonymity in this context
allowed "feminist" voices to come out. These were forums where it appeared
that only men were chatting, but, as would happen in an ideal public
space, they were suddenly filled with women's voices, challenging
misogynist beliefs in a very direct manner.

Later on, as they became more at ease with the use of computers, the women
started to write their own stories of their arrival in Belsunce. They
trusted that their voices would be heard but their identities never
revealed-some of them are illegal aliens in France.  We will make audio
and text material from the workshops available in aux2monde's Library.

NB: Tell me about the funding of aux2mondes. Are your funders aware of
your intentions?

IM: We have been given fairly substantial funds from the city and the
Ministry of Culture despite the fact that Marseille doesn't have much
money for culture and the arts. I believe that this has to do, in part,
with our strategic location in Belsunce and our potential as artists in
the neighborhood to placate the population. Politicians believe that if
people are distracted by culture they wont need to dwell on the
unpleasantness of their situation.  The cultural events are supposed to
act as a crutch, to compensate for what the city is not offering them-a
decent education, parks, and playgrounds. None of this exists in Belsunce.

In a neighborhood which has been labeled as disreputable, La Compagnie
bridges the different populations throughout the various events we
organize in Belsunce. As artists, we have to be very diligent about what
we are offering in this context. We need to constantly look very
critically at our own position and the one placed on us by the government,
which believes it is useful to have a public art space in this "targeted"
neighborhood. We are not fooling ourselves into thinking that we can
restrain gentrification that has been happening for over ten years. But at
the same time, we are not willing to fully satisfy our funder's
expectations, and we refuse to permanently occupy the position they
outline for us, though at times this position is unavoidable. For the most
part we have been free to do as we please, but I suppose aux2mondes will
trigger a lot of political debate once it is online.

NB: Why do you assume that gentrification is inevitable? Is there any
attempt, from your group or others, to resist the rehabilitation project,
which could prove to be disastrous to the hundreds of immigrants living
and working in the neighborhood?

This rehabilitation project has been studied by sociologists, urban
planners, and the city for quite some time now, and has convinced much of
the population that it is being done in their interest. And some of it
probably is, but lies and promises are being used successfully as
strategic weapons. For example, the city is offering families the same
rent to move into the projects on the edge of the city as they now pay to
live in Belsunce. This could be seen as a good opportunity for some, but
others, like old and single men living in cheap hotels (a substantial
portion of Belsunce's population), do not want to be displaced or isolated
one from one another. The working population does not want to have to
commute long distances to work in downtown Marseille. Why should they have
to be the ones to move to the projects?

Resisting an underhanded, tricky government is more challenging then one
that is blatantly violent. Some groups are organizing to inform people of
their rights as citizens and tenants, but there is not much being done for
the illegal immigrants. It is difficult to fight for people's right to
stay here when technically they do not have such rights. Our form of
resistance is at times made up of small daily gestures. We are offering a
critical perspective, and that is in itself an act of resistance.
aux2mondes has no pretenses about changing the world, and locates itself
in between activism and art.  But from both perspectives the intention
remains the same: making its participants visible. That is our plot in the
game.

www.aux2mondes.org
The first part of the project will be on-line October 2003.

Edited by Claire Barliant and Natalie Bookchin


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