Lieux Publics has been dedicated since its foundation in 1983 to the support and production of art in public spaces. Originally based in the suburbs of Paris, it moved to the centre of Marseille in 1990 and, since 2012, has made its home in the north of the city, in the low-income vicinity Les Aygalades. Composer Pierre Sauvageot became its director in 2001, and in 2003 oversaw the creation of the IN SITU network, a collaboration of up to 25 festival, institution or organisation directors from 17 countries, again with a focus on art in public space. He leads a staff of 15 across both Lieux Publics and IN SITU; similarly the organisation and network share a budget of approximately €3m, of which (again, all figures approximate) €1m is received from the European Commission specifically for IN SITU activities, €800,000 is received from the Ministry of Culture, €200,000 from the City of Marseille, as well as annual project-specific funding from the City of Montpellier, and the rest earned income from Sauvageot’s own projects.
Mission: supporting art in public space
Lieux Publics has always been a national creation centre dedicated to art in public space, but its definition of what that means has shifted over time, expanding from a focus on street theatre to a more cross-disciplinary approach that includes music, choreography and visual art. Its director since 2001, Pierre Sauvageot, is himself a composer who specialises in creating symphonic work to be performed outdoors, sometimes with musicians, sometimes with audience-participants being led by a conductor.
It was the same spirit of expansiveness – a desire, as Sauvageot puts it, to “make work on a European scale” – that led Lieux Publics, in 2003, to establish the IN SITU network: a collaborative partnership, working across multiple projects simultaneously, of up to 25 performance festivals, art centres, and other organisations, from 17 countries including the UK, Hungary, Norway, Belgium, Austria and Moldova, with one US representative, the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia. “IN SITU is not only a good way to work together, to co-operate, to share: it’s also a way of changing the aesthetic of street performance,” says Sauvageot: whether by identifying and supporting emergent artists seeking to dedicate their practice to outdoors performance, or encouraging established artists to take their work into public space.
Sauvageot has overseen another major development in Lieux Publics’ history: its move in 2012 to the Cité des Arts de la Rue, a complex of converted warehouses offering rehearsal space, accommodation, and access to a construction workshop and sound laboratory. Its neighbours include several other organisations dedicated to outdoors arts, including FAIAR (the Advanced Itinerant Learning Programme for Street Arts), local cultural action group Lézarap’art, and street-theatre group Générik Vapeur – but also, across the road, Les Aygalades, a vast social-housing complex mostly comprising low-income households, many of migrant backgrounds. As Sauvageot puts it, Lieux Publics is “a rich part in a poor part of Marseille” – and this sharpens the political necessity of its mission to support art to be performed in public space.
A three-layered approach
Although participation and the potential of art in public space to change how people think about themselves and others are vital questions to Lieux Publics, Sauvageot argues that its first priority is “the artistic value of the project. We get a lot of proposals that say they are breaking new ground and trying to include a new audience, and that’s great – but then the artistic content is not really interesting. It’s important that that is our first goal, to think first about the artistic value of working in public space – and after that create a link with the audience, people who already know what Lieux Publics is and who come to our events, and with the wider population.”
“It’s important that that is our first goal, to think first about the artistic value of working in public space – and after that create a link with the audience.”
Lieux Publics supports artists to make more ambitious work for public space through a three-layered approach to neighbourliness: one local; one city- and region-wide; and, in the case of IN SITU, one stretching across the continent.
- Local accessibility
Although the Cité des Arts de la Rue is a gated community, guarded for added security, and therefore easily seen by inhabitants of Les Aygalades as “a foreign country”, Lieux Publics’ strategy since moving in has been “to have good relations with the neighbourhood”. This is a delicate task considering that “there are 5,000 people living here, they are quite poor, one of the main economies is drugs, a lot don’t speak good French and a lot are Muslim and might have complex relationships with the rest of society”. Lieux Publics’ connections with the area include working in collaboration with the community centre and local schools, but are strengthened through its programme of performance, which seeks to build a sense of exchange, for instance on the one hand inviting inhabitants of Les Aygalades in to the Cité des Arts to watch a performance by a parcour troupe, on the other sending XY Company, a group of circus artists specialising in human pyramids, into Les Aygalades, where they built a set of “human stairs up to the balconies to speak with people”. Since 2015, Lieux Publics has also programmed the Travellings festival across Marseille but particularly in and around Les Aygalades, weaving promenade performances between its blocks of flats, or staging work in its public courtyards, park and, in one case, suspended at a 90° angle on the side of a building (Rodrigo Pardo’s performance Flat).
“There are 5,000 people living here, they are quite poor, one of the main economies is drugs, a lot don’t speak good French and a lot are Muslim and might have complex relationships with the rest of society.”
- The Cité in the City
Sauvageot isn’t sentimental about what the programming of art in public space can achieve: the fact that Lieux Publics has been programming work across Marseille for several years doesn’t change the fact that “the extreme right still has about 25% of votes in this city”, and racial tensions have been rising with “growing Islamic radicalism”. But he is sure that “if we did not do this we’d be worse”, partly because one of the things art in public space can do effectively is reveal the “invisible walls – in the city you have a lot of invisible walls” that separate people: whether it’s the rarified atmosphere of concert halls and theatres that makes them seem inaccessible particularly to lower-income people, or the barriers of taste that make people less adventurous, or the isolation exacerbated by technology (“when you are on public transport you don’t speak to people around you, you’re just watching your smart phone”).
The three recent works he discusses all addressed this question of invisible walls in different ways: his own project Grand Ensemble, which premiered in 2017, positioned classical musicians on the balconies of apartment blocks, playing a score that live-mixed the sound of inhabitants walking, using the lift or listening to the radio, at once challenging the inherent conservatism of the classical orchestra, and the resistance of fans of contemporary music to classical idioms. The Fleeting City, a 2013 collaboration with Olivier Grossetête, invited passers-by to construct a new city from cardboard in the centre of Marseille; over the course of a week, 20 buildings were put up by some 2000 people, opening up a conversation about town planning and the ways in which civilisations rise and inevitably fall. And in 2014 Lieux Publics worked with UK company Station House Opera to build and knock down a 2km line of dominoes snaking through the city, “from the harbour to the museum through the poor neighbourhoods”, which to Sauvageot read as “an incredible sign of designing the new city”.
3: The European scale
The question of what art in public space can do that Lieux Publics addresses in a Marseille context is, says Sauvageot, “really an international question, because when you are in Johannesburg or Glasgow or Rio de Janeiro, public space has a different context.” But, he argues, there is a similarity of context across European cities – “the same problem of gentrification, the same problem of migration” – that makes collaboration across Europe “necessary”. Hence the IN SITU network, which invites programmers and artists alike to think at the scale not of their own venue, or country, but the entire continent. Initially that translated only as western Europe – the “rich countries” – but as the network has expanded eastwards to include less affluent countries it has required the partners to think about the “question of equity, and the question of solidarity”. (A solidarity to which all remain committed despite the result of the EU referendum.)
“When you are in Johannesburg or Glasgow or Rio de Janeiro, public space has a different context.”
Sauvageot uses equity rather than equality because “equality is a market question, but IN SITU is not a market: it’s also a human story”. Although the network members propose artists to each other for attention, no one is simply looking to programme or sell work: instead “everybody uses IN SITU as a laboratory. Each of us promotes very complex projects, making IN SITU more of an adventure place, a place to try things. The organisers really use the European scale to try new formats and new kinds of relation with the audience. It’s more interesting to work at this scale – that’s why the project is successful.”
Each of the contexts within which Lieux Publics works brings its own challenges, but for Sauvageot the most “heavy” is the necessity of “complicity” with city bureaucracy in order to be able to work in public space. “It’s very difficult to work out how to be supported financially by big money and stay independent. If you have public support there is always something you have to pay – but we don’t want to be a tool of the mayor, or of political policy.” Working in public space has also become “more and more complicated” since a string of terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015, Nice in 2016, and Marseille in 2017: it’s raised “security questions, financial questions – but it’s also a question of how we share public space”.
“If you have public support there is always something you have to pay – but we don’t want to be a tool of the mayor, or of political policy.”
Although encouraged by the number of building-based arts organisations who are interested in working in public space, Sauvageot wants more: for Lieux Publics to be “more visible and to find new partnerships with other cities”. In 35 years of focusing on art in public space, Lieux Publics has built up an expertise that it is looking to share, whether by working with “cultural institutions – like museums and theatres – who are interested in working in public space but don’t know how to do it”, or by rethinking the distribution of its funding to support more artists from Marseille to travel to other cities, and artists from elsewhere to come to Marseille.
Photo: FannyB. Courtesy of Lieux Publics