|Ne Pas Plier - Déplier
Do Not Bend - Unfold
It's on the top of an eight-story building overlooking Ivry-sur-Seine, in the "red suburbs" south of Paris. Inside the space is large, light and open, full of posters, banners and photographs, with tables and chairs here and there, page layouts stuck on the wall next to computers used mainly for graphic design. Outside under the sun and rain is a roof garden with green grass, surrounded by low concrete walls dotted with signs: blue enamel plaques reading Place aux Jeunes (Make Room for Kids) or Regarder c'est choisir (Looking is Choosing). A black-and-white freeway-like panel in the center announces CIEL/TERRE on the horizon, with arrows pointing you earthwards and skywards. Bon voyage! Here on this roof terrace, called l'Observatoire de la Ville, thousands of schoolchildren have come to discover a bird's eye view of the city and its environs, which they sketch in the company of adults (a postwoman, a painter, a man from the social housing office ).
For a long time, this "Observatory of the City" launched by Isabel du Bary was considered by other members of the association as somehow secondary, inessential, a bit like Gilles Paté's idea of the Chemins de randonnée urbains or Urban Hiking Trails, artistic and informative strolls through the city that "put history back into geography." Inessential because unpolitical. But now both activities have become part of a daily life in the city where the politics cuts through dramatically or filters out gradually, in a conversation, a group dinner, a meeting to organize an action or a visit to show someone around. Another mode of distribution
Ne pas plier (Do Not Bend) is an association for the production and above all the distribution of political images. It was founded in 1991, at the outset of the long French recession and continuing slide into social decay, by Gérard Paris-Clavel (graphic designer) and Marc Pataut (photographer), "so that the signs of misery not be doubled by the misery of signs." The goal from the start was not just to make socially engaged images, but to use them, to get them out on the street, to unfold their meanings in public confrontations, with the idea that art is political not in its frame but in its distribution. One of the first inventions in this direction was the tactical use of scotch packing tape to take over public squares during the Gulf War, stretching the scotch to define a cordoned-off space that could be immediately made visible with images hanging in the air. A transit space gets slowed-down into a public place. Now we make a special scotch for that kind of action, printed with the words RESISTANCEXISTENCE.
But the image that really counted in the early history of Ne pas plier, and the one that's somehow behind this idea of resistance-existence, was URGENT-CHOMAGE (Urgent-Unemployment), a banner showing two blazing heads in dialogue. It's still used in demonstrations today. It came directly out of the experience of an unemployed person: "It's like a fire in your head, then an explosion." That private distress became a public dialogue, a new chance to say "liberté-égalité-fraternité." Marc and Gérard realized that the only way to give this image to the unemployed people was to go out and demonstrate with them, again and again and again, to accompany the image and the struggle it signifies, to stand with and not just for the people whom the public powers ignore. This was the beginning of the ongoing collaboration with the Apeis (Association for employment, information and solidarity of unemployed and casual workers), where the role of Ne pas plier was to help these people regain a public visibility, a face above the crowd, a speaking subjectivity. A place in the political and social dialogues.
Nous ne sommes pas en trop, nous sommes en plus, reads one of the best slogans. "We're not a surplus, we're a plus." It's all there in a phrase: when society counts you out, reduces you to a statistic and designates you with a misnomer, then the only choice is to demonstrate that logic of inequality, to make it visible for everybody and to give yourself back your real name, the name of a human being with a right to share in human society. This is the struggle of the unemployed, the unhoused, the undocumented, all the "sans-" as they say in French: the "sans-culottes" of today, the people excluded by our neoliberal governments and ideologies whose misnomer for society and culture is the word "economy." And that story's far from over
The slogan I just quoted was coined by a sociologist, Yves Clot, printed in various forms by a graphic artist, Gérard Paris-Clavel, taken up by an association, the Apeis, and distributed in demonstrations from hand to hand through the crowds; I just explained one of its many meanings with ideas borrowed from a philosopher, Jacques Rancière. This is the way Ne pas plier works best: bringing together all kinds of skills, all kinds of passions, all kinds of information, giving them forms, then letting them slip away again and diffuse through society. All the little stickers like UTOPISTE DEBOUT (Upstanding Utopian) or the postcards like ATTENTION UN SENS peut en cacher un autre (Warning: One Meaning Can Hide Another) are ways to multiply these kinds of exchanges, to give as many people as possible the chance to create meaning with signs that are specifically oriented and yet open, unmanipulative - the opposite of advertising signs that seek to channel vital energy into unconscious behavior. Culture as a way for human beings to express their solidarity with each another.
If people from the circles of contemporary art are interested in Ne pas plier today, it is undoubtedly because of the experimental, experiential nature of this hand-to-hand exchange - this personal, even intimate appropriation of collectively oriented signs. But the interest of the contemporary art people often fades away when they get closer to Ne pas plier, because while some of the signs are light, playful and paradoxical, others are much heavier and have to be carried over time, with all the difficulties of political organization in struggles where the individual can't win, and where even the group most often doesn't. Trying to maintain the expression of solidarity over the long term and to make it effective in society without getting bogged down in institutional ruts or party politics is something you need a special taste for, I guess - it doesn't seem to fit with the culture of galleries and museums.
So the thrust of this activity is very different from the production of autonomous art. It tries to bring social workers, visual artists, intellectuals and ordinary people into collaborations which are facilitated by the association, but whose urgency lies elsewhere. Specific capacities of conception, organization and production make Ne pas plier into a meeting point, a place where ideas and emotions and visions can condense into visual signs, then go out again to stimulate more ideas, visions and emotions. And this is why we consider the center of the association to be the stock of images called the Epicerie d'art frais - the Fresh Art Mart, trading in political images with possibilities for all kinds of barter and credit, with deals being struck and coproductions put together for every worthwhile occasion.
Two basic principles are at work in all the images that go into and come out of the Epicerie: sharing the subject and coproduction. Sharing the subject means tackling a social issue with people who are directly part of it, making an image or coining a phrase by listening, bouncing ideas back and forth, then continuing to develop the image by use and interpretation once it's made. Coproduction means finding a way to pay for the things being done - because everything in the Epicerie is there for free, but the question that always comes up is, what's the price for giving things away? Beyond personal contributions fom the members, yearly donations by people in the support network, and all kinds of deals with printers - photoengraving 'cause we're friends, stickers and tracts printed on the tag ends of commercial jobs, posters silkscreened at night in cultural centers, and so forth and so on - what's mainly behind the production of Ne pas plier are grants from left-leaning people in the state, regional and municipal cultural bureacracies, and coproductions with various institutions which would like to promote the ideas and ideals being expressed. We don't see this as selling out, but as an attempt to go on transforming the institutions, making them more open to the public. But watch out - the only way to win at this game is to keep sharing the subjects with people outside the institutions, and to keep giving yourself the freedom and the resources to go all the way with your political conclusions. Otherwise you'll be formatted to fit into average mediocrity, which is the fate of most people whose only partners are in the social and cultural bureaucracies. We see a lot of that in France, some people call it "socialism"!
To keep the politicos honest, you've got to push harder (a lot harder than we're pushing today). To push harder you've got to have fun, you've got to enjoy this stuff, doing the work, creating your tools, going out on the street. The rewarding part is obviously the people. Strength comes from numbers, numbers come from finding pleasure in what consumer society tries to convince us is a bore: collective action! As a way to get things (and ourselves) moving here in the "French situation," we decided to start up an annual gig called Un festival pour ne pas plier. Something like an expo, a seminar, and an international activists get-together (rare in France). The first was held in 1999 in Echirolles, an old-communist town on the outskirts of Grenoble - OK, it worked out really well, but also could be more effective for sure. The best things were contacting a few groups (like Fiambrera Obrera and Reclaim the Streets) and using some of the money to start up new projects: a web site that needs a lot of work still and a really big effort, the monthly publication -Existence ! which is the newspaper of the unemployed people of the Apeis and is done entirely with them and for their cause. The not-so-good things were failing to get the institution into the spirit of our ideas and not really being able to debate publicly about actual practices, in a situation that was more of a show. So this year, rather than trying to launch another public event and getting caught in the spectacle society, we want to do a smaller workshop-festival, at home in Ivry. It'll be called l'Apprenti utopiste (Apprentice Utopian). The idea is get to know people for some actions in the future, and also to brainstorm for a big collaborative public spectacle in 2001. 'Cause we don't give up on the institutions, that'd be too convenient for them. We'd like to build up the taste for political involvement and push toward more public visibility of a little question we can't get off our minds. It goes like this: Are there alternatives to capitalism? And if there is, How do they work?
I think that's the best note to end on - or rather, to start with again. Unfold that if you really want to.