The CELSA event last week was interesting particularly because François Allard-Huver, a media-studies PhD candidate at Sorbonne – CELSA, presented a critical analysis he’d prepared of my writing after the talk. He is allowing me to steal/excerpt from this English/French presentation below. He discussed Barthes on Abbé Pierre iconography in Mythologies, and how this myth resembles media portrayal of squatters or housing-rights activists such as Augustin Legrand, leader of the well-known red-tents protest along Canal St. Martin. He discussed squats as communicative objects and as graffiti-like signs within the city, requiring certain fantasies about the city to survive. He cited the Situationalist International movement, a group of thinkers that influenced the May 1968 student riots in Paris with ideas about participation in the city and fears of a “society of the spectacle” that reduces citizens to passive consumership, including of the spaces they inhabit.
From Barthes on l’Abbé Pierre:
I am only wondering about the enormous consumption of such signs by the public. I see it reassured by the spectacular identity of a morphology and a vocation, in no doubt about the latter because it knows about the former, no longer having access to the real experience of apostleship except through the bric-a-brac associated with it, and getting used to acquiring a clear conscience by merely looking at the shop-window of saintliness; and I get worried about a society which consumes with such avidity the display of charity that it forgets to ask itself questions about its consequences, its uses and its limits. And I then start to wonder whether the fine and touching iconography of the Abbé Pierre is not the alibi which a sizeable part of the nation uses in order, once more, to substitute with impunity the signs of charity for the reality of justice.
But the squat itself carries a message. It is a living organism and a communicating one…
In an interesting essay “Kool killer or the insurrection of signs”… Baudrillard described graffiti and other forms of street art in New York, and the social, cultural, and symbolic reality of urban space.
But tags and graffiti are also a way to affirm something, to affirm your liberty and to affirm your right to be a part of the city, so the wall of the squat becomes a medium for this message:
“[From Baudrillard]…Under these conditions, radical revolt effectively consists in saying, ‘I exist, I am so and so, I live on such and such street, I am alive here and now.’
“[Graffitists] do not confine themselves to the ghetto, they export the ghetto through all the arteries of the city, they invade the white city and reveal that it is the real ghetto of the Western world.
“A linguistic ghetto erupts into the city with graffiti, a kind of riot of signs…”
But the squat is also something more poetic; it is an attempt to enchant the city and to criticize the separation of life, art, living-together, a representation of the limits of the living-together (the polis) that is both fascinating and disturbing: as it expresses the legitimate right of a place to live and disturbs the legitimate process to access such a space. The squat is putting order in a social disorder that causes disorder in the social order.
Finally, squats refer to a sort of violence and poetry of the city, the fantasy that the city is a monster, and as Balzac said: Ô Paris ! Qui n’a pas admiré tes sombres paysages, tes échappés de lumières, tes culs de sacs profonds et silencieux ; qui n’a pas entendu tes murmures, entre minuit et deux heures du matin, ne connait encore rien de ta vraie poésie, ni de tes bizarres et large contrastes. Il est un petit nombre d’amateurs, de gens qui ne marchent jamais en écervelés, qui dégustent leur Paris, qui en possèdent si bien la physionomie qu’ils y voient une verrue, un bouton, une rougeur. Pour les autres, Paris est toujours cette monstrueuse merveille, étonnant assemblage de mouvements, de machines et de pensées, la ville aux cent-mille romans, la tête du monde. Mais pour ceux-là, Paris est triste ou gai, laid ou beau, vivant ou mort ; pour eux, Paris est une créature ; chaque homme, chaque fraction de maison est un lobe du tissu cellulaire de cette grande courtisane de laquelle ils connaissent parfaitement le cœur, la tête et les mœurs fantasques. Aussi ceux-là sont ils les amants de Paris.
Here, I think that not only the tradition of the Boheme or of May 1968 are inspiring squats and artist squatting, but also Situationism and the work of the International Situationist around intellectuals and artists like Guy Debord, especially with concepts such as “derive” and “psychogéographie.”
Dérive is : « Mode de comportement expérimental lié aux conditions de la société urbaine : technique du passage hâtif à travers des ambiances variées. »
[The mode of experimental behavior related to the conditions of the urban society: a technique of rapid passage through varying environments.]
Psychogeographie is : « Étude des effets précis du milieu géographique, consciemment aménagé ou non, agissant directement sur le comportement affectif des individus. »
[The study of the precise effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, directly affecting the behavior of individuals.]
The squat can be seen as an attempt to criticize the social context and a representation of its inherent alienation. It is also a way to be against utilitarism in urbanism, to negate functionalism in a very dialogical way: one the one side, the squat is the affirmation of a need (a space to live, to sleep) and on the other side, it is the affirmation of the fact that the human needs more than a space to live.