Desk — Marseille | February 2017


The word friche translates as “fallow place” in English. A place from which labor and productivity have been displaced. The spatial and architectural aftermath of industrialization. According to French art critic Jean-Loup Amselle, the word’s connotations have evolved over the last twenty years as artists and institutions have taken over these kinds of spaces in France and elsewhere.[ref]Jean-Loup Amselle, L'art De La Friche: Essai Sur L'art Africain Contemporain (Paris: Flammarion, 2005).[/ref] Friche has become a term for discarded infrastructure that can be used to the advantage of a counterculture in desperate need of an empty margin.

La Friche de la Belle de Mai in Marseille is one of Europe’s oldest and largest art-industrial conversion projects. In local mythology, the sprawling former tobacco factory stretching northwest of the city’s central train station was an anarchist squat that slowly evolved into the remarkably well-branded contemporary arts and culture multiplex it is today. In reality, however, in 1990, after decades of attrition, the formerly state-owned tobacco monopoly SEITA (Société d’exploitation industrielle des tabacs et des allumettes) decided to close its 6.4-acre manufacturing site at the Belle de Mai rather than renovate it. That same year, local theater directors Philippe Foulquié and Alain Fourneau founded an association named Système Friche Théâtre (SFT) precisely in order to lobby the city to support its bid to rent much-needed performance and rehearsal space from SEITA. Once a deal was established, the low rents and enormous lots available attracted other creative associations, including music and recording groups central to the Marseille hip-hop scene, visual artists, dance companies, and design studios.

Video still from Tell N’ Talk #3, with Benjamin Thorel and Maeve Connolly, by Labor Zero Labor, 2016.

La Friche is a disorienting space because, like the city it is lodged in, it obliges the visitor to cede to those who live and work there every day. What is special—indeed almost inconceivable in today’s art fair-driven landscape—is the fact that La Friche is composed of separate organizational actors focused on production rather than exclusively on display. There is no executive director for La Friche, although there is an advisory board that oversees common functions and the complex was shaped in particular by the vision of the architect Jean Nouvel, who served as its president between 1995 and 2002. “This is a space where time is spent,” argues Ferdinand Richard, one of La Friche’s founding members and director of the renowned avant-garde music festival MIMI.[ref]Comments made to the author during an interview at La Friche de la Belle to Mai, 24 November 2016.[/ref] Richard emphasizes that the occupation of such centers by those who produce culture is central to their political relevance in that quotidian use, and the feeling of ownership it produces, provides a bulwark against alienation in the Marxist sense of this term.

Today, in addition to the different exhibition and performances spaces for which La Friche is internationally renowned, the site has roughly seventy residents. They include: individual artists such as Etienne Rey and Hatem Akrout; hybrid visual culture and publishing initiatives like Le Dernier Cri, whose motto is “Vomiting Through Your Eyes”; the Goethe Institute liaison offices; a collective of social science researchers named Transverscité, who focus quite broadly on the “composition of urban forms, cultural practices and representations, social and spatial mobility, economies and markets, public, political frameworks, social networks in the region and heritage”;[ref]“Transverscité,” La Friche de la Belle de Mai website, (accessed 28 January 2017).[/ref] and the production offices of militant independent radio broadcasters Radio Galère 88.4 FM, among many others.

The impact of this chaotic diversity is a diffuse sense that the visitor is not the center of attention. Visitors are welcome but ancillary. This dislocation between the art event and its viewer was acutely mirrored by an artists’ TV project, LABOR ZERO LABOR, produced by Marseille-based artist Benjamin Valenza in collaboration with Triangle France, and shown and produced in the exhibition spaces on the fourth floor of La Friche from August to November 2016. Valenza invited over forty different participants throughout the late summer and into the fall to produce content for an online TV channel, some of it live streamed. While a full project description is elaborated by the coproducers here, its crux was in the relationships set up between those producing the content of the project and those watching it, whose vantage point remained unstable, contingent. LABOR ZERO LABOR was concerned with the relative placelessness of online content, and its manifesto asks whether this alienation can—like a friche—be used as a productive margin.

“Each broadcast directed by LABOR ZERO LABOR is semi-clandestine,” the project statement reads. “This entertainment comes close to an impossible venture within this virtual, accelerating, placeless place. But broadcast is there.” The project thus tries to picture a periphery from which content is continuously disseminated. LABOR ZERO LABOR takes seriously (and irreverently, at once) the idea that art needs to occupy the virtual margins, using them to produce culture. Its content is aimed at the ones who, like me, find themselves in the middle of this periphery, this margin—either in person or online—without any context.

Backstage view of talk show by Benjamin Thorel and Maeve Connolly in the context of Labor Zero Labor, 2016, at la Friche la Belle de Mai, Marseille, Triangle France. Photo credits: Emmanuelle Lainé.

I was a last-minute extra in artist Virgile Fraisse’s contribution to LABOR ZERO LABOR. Fraisse produced a series of mock TV programs entitled Pragmatic Chaos, about how executives of on-demand TV companies manage the impression that their algorithms enable users’ free will. I was told to show up at La Friche at 4pm and then call someone to get instructions. Arriving at the exhibition space, which is usually a large open-plan area flooded with light, I found all the windows boarded up and a shallow front room that had been created with drywall. Three flat-screen TVs were installed in front of three chest-high plinths on which flyers and empty plastic cups were scattered. The space felt like the promotional lobby of a self-improvement conference by some charismatic ideologue—a flat space, but one that seemed to buzz with static electricity. Almost imperceptible in the gloom of TV screens, a peephole and two small doors led to the rest of the exhibition space, which had been converted to a cavernous tripartite TV studio. Here the atmosphere was appropriately chaotic: everything was behind schedule and organizers were trying to solve some major technical problem. People were running for coffee, people were hunched over soundboards, people with cameras and extras were milling about.

Fraisse’s shooting sessions eventually resulted in a set of videos about the competition Netflix held for independent coders to try to improve the algorithm that recommends further viewing options to its consumers. It asked: Who or what structures the things we see online? What motivates these framing mechanisms? Like any production, the scenes were shot out of order, taken three or four or fives times, and then edited together to make a continuous narrative. I was there, in the production, but like any extra I do not recognize my experience of the project in the final video. I was an internal viewer only tangentially related to the object of the exhibition—like the experience visitors have with both the project’s external lobby space and La Friche overall.

The strength of LABOR ZERO LABOR was that it did not entirely rely on Pragmatic Chaos’ heavily rhetorical register. It veered all over the online TV genre, notably into the empty conflict of reality television. In New Noveta’s performance šansa for me (2016), two women in identical sheath dresses and heels threw themselves at each other for a little over half an hour. The set was strewn with suspended bamboo sticks and clear bags filled with water. Each woman wielded scissors. An inchoate drama ensued that involved cutting the bags of water down as onlookers watched and the TV cameras rolled. It was unclear if the conflict resulted from some tension between them or if it was in response to an invisible injunction. Like so much of the violence—both fiction and nonfiction—that viewers regularly consume on TV and online, the context was too thin. It was impossible to know who provoked the violence, or where justice was located. New Noveta’s performance addressed the lack of meta-narrative that governs conflict on mainstream platforms and, in a sense, balanced Fraisse’s hyper-articulation of the authorizing meta-narratives such platforms use.

šansa for me was live streamed from 50 feet away to the three screens in the project’s lobby on the fourth floor, where people were drifting in and out as they took in the opening of an exhibition in an adjacent space entitled “Interpretations at Work,” organized by another resident organization, Asterides. Also on view on the floors below LABOR ZERO LABOR was a retrospective exhibition of Raoul Reynolds’ work put on by Tank Art Space and a huge concert on the roof of La Friche, which was organized in part to celebrate the art fair Art-O-Rama. The comparison between spaces was stark: the organizers and the few people who knew or had the courage to walk through the door in the lobby to the set floated uneasily around the stage for New Noveta’s seductive violence, taking photographs and dodging TV cameras; those who stayed in the lobby glanced at the TV monitors installed there, perhaps were intrigued, and then left with their champagne glasses in hand, stepping into the August evening at the end of a Mediterranean summer. Each set of viewers was watching the same event at the same time in almost the same space, but the differences in their positions were profound, structuring.

Performance by David Perreard in the context of Labor Zero Labor, 2016, at la Friche la Belle de Mai, Marseille, Triangle France.

LABOR ZERO LABOR was originally commissioned by Triangle France, a residency with studio spaces and offices at La Friche, which programs the exhibition spaces in turn with other residents. Its current director Céline Kopp proposed the project because she is committed to maintaining the exhibition as a space for the process of the production of artwork, mirroring La Friche’s commitment to providing artists with more control over the space in which the value of their work is produced. LABOR ZERO LABOR mirrors this imperative in turn. Its aggregation of projects like Pragmatic Chaos and šansa for me also reflects the disjuncture between projects that is at the heart of La Friche’s working model, where very different organizations program adjacent spaces without necessarily adhering to the same mission, or operating with the same understanding of art making. The meta-narrative for project and exhibition space collided in the wasteland on the edges of older systems for production—industrial and wavelength broadcast.

I do not mean to suggest that LABOR ZERO LABOR was entirely coherent or symmetrical—it certainly was neither—just that at every level it insisted on using the margin, and on some partial collapse between production and exhibition spaces. I am also convinced by artists and art historians like Martha Rosler and Rosalyn Deutsche, who have put forth two of the more rigorous analyses of how municipal art initiatives have been used to support gentrification. La Friche is not innocent of this kind of instrumentalization by the state, but it is also unlike many of the correlative structures in the United States in that it is invested in educational programming and small-scale youth arts programs aimed at those who live in the neighborhood around it. The simplest and most obvious mark of this nature is the basketball court, climbing wall, skate park, and open-air amphitheater that take up much of La Friche’s entrance area. Effectively, a visitor’s first perspective on La Friche is a space used continuously by youth from all over the city. The visitor has to walk through their space to get to the elevators leading to the exhibition floors.

Further, the emptiness of this particular margin, a former tobacco factory, was not the result of tenants’ displacement (although this happened throughout Marseille in sometimes quite violent ways); it was the result of workers’ displacement. These workers were sometimes colonial subjects sending remittances back to their families in Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco. Yet part of the reason that tobacco factories folded was that France lost its colonies and the stable market for cigarettes and other consumer goods that such territories guaranteed for the country. Labor in France is always haunted by the specter of the colonized body laboring on France’s behalf both here and elsewhere, without access to socialist protectionism. La Friche’s emptiness is complex, in other words, and should be read through a post-colonial lens first and then through the French version of neoliberalism it has evolved into. What happens at La Friche is layered and internally contradictory—the kind of inchoate play made possible by the margin.

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