In 2012 you began your audio portrait of the Fougère area (in the XXth arrondissement of Paris). It’s a rather isolated working-class neighborhood, partially constructed along the périphérique (the peripheral highway that circles Paris), in the frontier zone between Paris and its suburb. What was your approach to this territory and what were your directives for work?
As I walked in the area I remembered a few remarks heard in my childhood about the “zone”: my grandmother lived in the Pré-Saint-Gervais in the 1930’s, she worked at the post office at Gambetta. “You had to cross through the zone”, “there were Portuguese, (Gypsies? Armenians?), they wore strange colors”, “at the time this area had a bad reputation.” (I think she was talking about the HLM block at 140, rue de Ménilmontant.)
Then I had to find a way to approach the residents and encourage them to talk with me. I participated in local events (street sales, community suppers at the Maison des Fougères). I collected lists of phone numbers and then I called people; I had to incite them to recount their neighborhood. Without forcing them, I had to obtain rendezvous.
The principal axis of my work was recording interviews. I thought that the intersections of different voices might constitute a neighborhood portrait. Then I recorded different ambiances, in the streets, in parks, at the edge of the périphérique, «sound effects» (the creaking of the park gate, for example). The ambiances set the scene, but they could also function as voices: moving into the forefront, they can perhaps speak « in the name of the neighborhood. » The rumble of the highway often played this role.
You explored several paths during your residency: the collection of accounts, archival exploration, but also work on fantasy and anticipation. Whereas over the last several years there has been a great deal of work organized around the question of the collective memory of working-class neighborhoods, the ensemble of sound effects you amassed composes more of a play between memory and imagination, an arrow of time where past, present and future have an equal importance.
That’s probably because the starting point is a vague souvenir, it’s closer to a dream. I think research on memory is more intimidating for people being recorded and there was the risk of excluding children and people newly arrived in the area. I asked myself: should the stories of residents be backed up with “historic information”? I wanted to consult documents, but it was mostly the images of the “zone”, the films and songs that inspired and amused me at the beginning.
The first person I recorded had been living in the area since the 1940’s, she was a child at the time, there were goats living in the zone—it’s true, even though it seems incredible today. At the same time at Khiasma, there was a workshop on “monsters” with the neighborhood children. I decided to take the plunge, the tone was set: the real animals of yesterday and the fantasy animals of today, it was immediately very joyous!
I have the impression this demonstrates rather well one of the paradoxes of the urban mutation in progress in the area: in many respects the transformation is radical and rapid—the landscape in particular—but it is conjugated with other scales, other and slower rhythms, the rhythms of the lives of the residents which compose, as it were, another city: mental, emotional, a minuscule city, a constellation of details and emotions.
I didn’t really know how to encourage people to talk to me about their neighborhood, I was very afraid of hearing banal discourse “it’s convivial here” or “there’s nothing to do here”. I did not talk with experts (historians, architects, city planners). I would have liked to, but I also thought the residents had their own neighborhood “expertise”, practical, historical, sensible. There is the city plan, the documents and then there is a whole other matter: voices, words, ambiances.
In the workshop, the children played with plans and maps from different periods, they compared their neighborhood in 1860 to today’s map and then they imagined a future (that they set in 2012, 3050, 1980).
I think I implemented what I had proposed to do: I looked at plans, photos of fortifications, I fed my imagination and the people talked to me.
I didn’t have fixed interviews, I tried to steer people towards their sensations, their souvenirs. I tried to obtain descriptions.
When I began to edit, I was full of doubt. How should I organize all these words that people had spoken? And then as I listened to them, I discovered that the answers to my questions were already there in all the interviews. At the edge of the périphérique are people a bit “on the edge”? The périphérique? Is it a nuisance? A character? The square, the trees—what place do they occupy? The school seemed very important. Who was Léon Frapié (the name of the square situated at the heart of the neighborhood)? The frontiers (tramway, périph), the passages (how far out does the neighborhood go, how far do people go, on foot, or by public transport)? Where are people from? A far off country? Do people feel Parisian ?
In the end, it was a matter of sharing moments of rich encounter with the audience and of course this generated a great deal of emotion.
As far as concerns working-class Paris I was very touched to meet people, sometime quite elderly people, who were strongly engaged politically. People fought here to better their living conditions, they acted together and won battles with the public powers.
In the meetings for the pre-figuration of the Maison des Fougères, people of all ages expressed themselves on the wish for living well together. I believe this is a richness of Eastern Paris, Paris and the suburbs. Questions are asked, attempts are made to live well together in the city.
Very lively young girls expressed themselves in these meetings: one of them spoke with me (7- «Échos des Fougères 1» in walks in the Fougères http://snd.sc/1ckcIPl). It seemed to me that even implicitly, she explained much about her condition.
Finally, people shared with me their access to poetry, the poetry of daily life and literary souvenirs. It’s very precious that some people manage to share their inner richness with a confounding degree of naturalness.
You also had the opportunity during your residency to work with Frédéric Mathevet and Célio Paillard, two artists with a very different approach than yours to the extent that they are interested in sound as a matter and a performative experiment in the city.
How did this encounter affect your own work process, which from the beginning has always been in the realm of the documentary?
What I like about the documentary process is improvisation. I don’t really know how the encounter with Frédéric and Célio influenced my writing, it’s mostly that an encounter with sound fanatics (do-it-yourselfers, performers, improvisers) was a great adventure. I believe our work at the Le Vau school was very complementary, coherent, joyous and improvised. This engendered a wonderful creativity between the three of us. Our exchanges helped me to strengthen my work on ambiances, our discussions were frequently about the “monster périf’”; it is never silent, it sometimes fades, but then resurfaces: air vents afforded some wonderful musical interludes of rumblings and harmonies.
The moments of discouragement, wandering, missed rendezvous are all part of the process. It rained, it was very cold, the square was empty, people I was supposed to meet backed out…It was cheering to know that I would be seeing Frédéric and Célio for our Friday workshop. The support of the Khiasma team was also precious, thanks especially to Delphine Verron for her ingeniosity, her availability and her good humor!
Whereas in the past you have often worked by collecting songs, I noticed that there was not much singing in your portrait of the Fougères. And then I thought that it was perhaps the city, the neighborhood that gave us an underlying polyphonic song through the ensemble of accounts and sounds.
During the ‘Journées du Patrimoine 2012’ (‘Patrimony Days’), I saw a film about the neighborhood, called “My zone”. “Sur la zone” by Fréhel was part of the sound track. I kept hearing the song in my head. I listened to five or six cds in a loop, on Paris, the suburbs, the zone, the Apaches, hits from the thirties to the sixties. I planned on using them when I edited, but it would have leaned too much in the direction of nostalgia. And no one in the interviews made reference to this repertory.
Sometimes I asked the residents if there were any songs they linked with neighborhood places or events, but no one could recall any.
When my work involves collecting songs, I know what I will obtain: people will sing and talk about the songs. Here it was different; I didn’t really know what I was looking for.
But it’s true, when I was editing, I had to find a way to make the macadam, the buildings and timbers of voices sing, with the périph acting as sousaphone!
« Les balades de la Fougère » for listening and downloading : http://snd.sc/LD7xw6