Righting the wrongs: artists and the suburbs

Righting the wrongs: artists and the suburbs
Bertrand Lamarche, Le Haut-du-Lièvre, 2012, © galerie Jérôme Poggi

In second-hand shops one is still likely to find postcards that depict the advent of large housing developments. These postcards, which display bright colours even though the buildings they display are made of concrete and steel, seem indicative of the feeling of optimism that had accompanied post-war reconstruction. Yet not all the inhabitants of these communities moved there voluntarily, some came from uninhabitable neighbourhoods which the state destroyed in a policy of resorption (a word which refers to pathologies in the context of medicine). They often spent time in transitional cities whose purpose was to teach them how to live in their future lodgings. Thus, there was no need for control in the 1960s with what was once referred to as decolonization; the first tenants in these communities were already thought of as different from the mainstream population. It’s this “separate” quality inherent in large housing developments that modern artists have attempted to describe, question and denounce.

Mathieu Pernot, Les témoins”, 2006, © Mathieu Pernot.


Accordingly, the video called Les grands ensembles (The Housing Projects) produced by Pierre Huygues in 2001, examines two towers in a desolate landscape. The thick fog that covers them reinforces this concept of isolation. The windows then light up one after another against an electronic musical background. The two buildings seem to respond harshly but the language they form is incomprehensible. Beyond the spatial isolation, the codes that interact in this case fall outside the norm. The housing development’s neutral, sleek and minimal design sought, but failed, to standardize lifestyles.

Mathieu Pernot, “Fenêtres”, 2007, © Mathieu Pernot.


This kind of housing also seems to relate to a particular kind of consumption, which can still be found on old postcards that often featured conveniences and therefore the first supermarkets. This uniformity in consumption can be seen in Kader Attia’s work, particularly in a piece entitled Fridges which is an installation of abandoned refrigerators on which he had painted black squares that together took the shape of a suburb of high-rise developments that could be seen individually. The decision to distort this standardized object is obviously not trivial. An old refrigerator is the product of a western society that discards what its no longer needs and manipulating it in this way acts not only as a criticism of this style of consumption but also as a reproach of the way that the tenants of these high-rises, many of whom came to respond to a need for labour, were treated and whom are now being threatened with displacement.

This aspect is also what Mathieu Pernot emphasized with his series called Les témoins (The Witnesses), 2006 in which he magnified the details of postcards from the heyday of housing developments. The temporal distance between when the postcards of that period were published and the when the artist manipulated them establishes a critical dimension. Mathieu Pernot chose to draw attention to the space allocated for human beings by framing the few tenants depicted in these settings. Although they appear miniscule on the original images, they lose all physicality when magnified. Spanning the image’s frame, they scatter in small dots of soft colours.

Postcards are not the only images to support the existence of housing developments; a certain iconography of deterioration which developed in the 1980s through reports commissioned in the context of local politics. While the tenants complained about bad acoustics, the lack of equipment and the isolation, the press was mainly concerned with the lack of safety. While in 1962 they were concerned about Black Jackets, gangs of violent young people, they now speak of “underprivileged neighbourhoods” or “problem neighbourhoods” uniting all of the residents. This media criticism is found in the series Périphérique, 2007-2008 by Mohamed Bourouissa which portrayed the residents in their environment by using actors. In a series of photos each image repurposed the media’s codes by magnifying them. The choice of setting and the position of the actors creates an exaggerated tension that highlights the staging, thereby critiquing the media’s position.

Martine Feipel et Jean Bechameil, “Sans titre”, 2012, © Martine Feipel et Jean Bechameil.


This widely disseminated negative discourse opened the door to policies of destruction that are prevalent today. While in 1980, the “policy of urban development” sought to promote residents’ growth in their environment, the “urban policies” of the 1990s shifted people’s actions to places with a single question; whether to rebuild or demolish? Mathieu Pernot examines this issue of destruction in his series of photos called Fenêtres,(Windows), 2007. The artist framed windows by placing them inside the buildings before they were destroyed. Once freed from their panes and door frames, these damaged windows clashed with the greenery that was visible through the openings. They represented the final perspective of a certain social class. This piece addresses the issue of the attitudes of the residents whose reality was disappearing.

The destruction process was known as “implosion by complete caving”, which refers to weakening the building in such a way that it collapses vertically. The choice of the word implosion remains very suggestive as it implies that the collapse is related to internal problems. As for the word implosion, in the context of medicine it refers to a sudden death. Cyprien Gaillard focused on the legitimacy of this process with his piece La grande allée du château d’Oiron, (The Great Walk at the Château d’Oiron) 2008. For this installation, the artist had converted an alley leading to the Oiron renaissance castle in the Deux Sèvres district. He produced it by adding 10 tonnes of debris from the demolition of a tower in Issy les Moulineaux, which questioned the way of determining what is or isn’t of historical value.

Demolishing large housings developments has now been transformed into an event of real showmanship. Key figures in the political life of cities that chose this option are invited to witness the implosion from the best vantage point while the residents of the neighbourhood further away crowd together to commemorate the moment. This staging of the demolition process is found Jean-Daniel Berclaz’s work when he invites people to go to his opening which actually a spot where the public can attend an implosion. Cyprien Gaillard also challenged the culture of spectacle inherent in these demolitions with his piece entitled Pruitt Igoe falls created in 2009. This video shows two fixed shots that compare the collapse of a building in Glasgow at night with the artificially illuminated Niagara Falls; it exposes the excesses of a society that transforms reality into a theme park spectacle.

While the images that accompany the existence of large housing developments have always been distorted and exaggerated regardless of the time period that they depict (old postcards as well as current reports), images produced by artists are primarily critical. They are not only critical of the location but also critical of the perception of that location and the treatment imposed on it. This feeling of empathy motivates artists to attempt to right the wrongs inflicted as indicated by Cyprien Gaillard’s piece entitled Cenotaph to 12 Riverford road, Pollokshaw, Glasgow, 2008. This monument erected “in memory” as its name suggests, was created with the debris of social housing demolished during a restructuring plan. This solemn and ceremonial sculpture is part of a fictional archeology and reflects the artist’s desire to preserve whatever traces they can of these spaces. This is a desire that can be found in all artists who continue to create work that focuses on large housing when political will is only concerned with tearing down and nothing more.

This is an original Art Critique article by Orianne Castel, first published on July 24th, which can be found here.