Photograph by André Adolphe Eugène Disdéri (1871)
On May 16th 1871, at the core of the Paris Commune, a ceremony is organized to demolish the Vendôme Column, symbol of the Napoleonian imperialism (as usual for La Commune, refer to Raspouteam’s website for more information). Although an important amount of buildings were burnt down (for various reasons) during La Commune, the destruction of the Vendôme Column is the most expressive symbol of what I would like to call architecture in negative, or to use an oxymoron, destructive construction. On the contrary of what was affirmed by the Versaillais press and officials, this act was very far from being motivated by a thoughtless barbarian will of destruction. Indeed, the ensemble of buildings being representative -we might say symptomatic- of a given scheme of relationships of power, it is necessary for a new form of governance to subvert or demolish the same ensemble in order to avoid to reproduce the same relationships of domination of one group over another.
In their Basic Program of the Bureau of Unitary Urbanism (Programme Elementaire du Bureau d’Urbanisme Unitaire) in the Internationale Situationniste #6 (Paris, August 1961), the Situationists, through the writings of Attila Kotányi and Raoul Vaneigem, affirms the following:
All space is already occupied by the enemy, which has even reshaped its basic laws, its geometry, to its own purposes. Authentic urbanism will appear when the absence of this occupation is created in certain zones. What we call construction starts there. It can be clarified by the positive void concept developed by modern physics. Materializing freedom means beginning by appropriating a few patches of the surface of a domesticated planet.
This notion of positive void is precisely what the demolition of the Vendôme Column was about: the suppression of the power of a paradigmatic artifact to allow the construction of something new.
DMZ is a comic book that I discovered in my research for references for the NY Commune Project. It constitutes a quite literal precedent indeed. Written by Brian Wood and drawn by Riccardo Burchielli between 2005 and 2012, it introduces the United States in a second civil war that opposes the “loyalist” states to the “free states” which declared secession from the rest of the country. The particularity of the plot which gives its title to the series can be found in the status of Manhattan within this story: a demilitarized zone (DMZ) between the two camps leaving its 400,000 inhabitants to a state of anarchy in which each has to find strategies of survival. The main character of the comic is Matthew Roth, a young journalist who find himself “lost” in this war zone and discovers the cogs of the city’s organization.
The scenario is close from the one developed in John Carpenter’s film Escape from New York which will probably be the subject of a forthcoming article, but at the difference of the latter, it tries to describe episode after episode how such a society, however violent it is, can actually holds together (one of the episode is even built around an election in Manhattan). It also presents the very interesting conditions of a city under siege whose rhythm of ceasefire and heavy attacks authorizes or not a certain form of daily life. One can think of Sarajevo between 1992 and 1995 as a reference for it (Governor Island is called “Sniper Heaven” in a probable reference to “sniper alley”) but also Gaza and its supposedly “surgical” air raids. The checkpoints at each access to the island, tunnels and bridges, help us to think of it that way.
The series is composed of 72 episodes. Such extensive narrative allows its authors to develop a piece of scenario for each district or building with their own each “psychogeography”. See a few excerpts below:
Le Cri du Peuple by Jacques Tardi (2001)
As I wrote earlier, the 1871 Paris Commune is the historical reference of this series of articles. Despite an institutional soft form of censorship, there has been many historical interpretation of this event that saw a new form of governance created. One of them, nevertheless, remains one of the sharpest analysis of La Commune despite (or thanks to) its quasi-immediacy. Indeed, in the end of May 1871, only several days after that the Communards got exterminated by the Thiers’ administration, Karl Marx addressed a documented narrative of the past few months in Paris to the Worker International Association.
Entitled The Civil War in France this document is a vindictive text against Thiers and the other responsible for the massacre that ended La Commune in order to save the Bourgeois order in France. It is also a precise testimony of the various actions and laws undertook by La Commune. Precision is important here as the revolution triggered by this event did not only consist in rethinking a territorialization of democracy but also in implementing a sum of very pragmatic and specific measures to empower the working class:
The great social measure of the Commune was its own working existence. Its special measures could but betoken the tendency of a government of the people by the people. Such were the abolition of the nightwork of journeymen bakers; the prohibition, under penalty, of the employers’ practice to reduce wages by levying upon their workpeople fines under manifold pretexts – a process in which the employer combines in his own person the parts of legislator, judge, and executor, and filches the money to boot. Another measure of this class was the surrender to associations of workmen, under reserve of compensation, of all closed workshops and factories, no matter whether the respective capitalists had absconded or preferred to strike work.
La Commune (de Paris, 1871)
by Peter Watkins
(see also an old article
about Punishment Park) filmed in 1999 is the absolute reference for the NY Commune project as it addresses the question of the Paris Commune through a cinematographic work being itself a democratic construction. This film is basing its plot on a historical event and its reconstitution in order to question the contemporaneity of the class struggle. In order to do so, it limits its setting to a warehouse in the North of Paris, films the action through an anachronistic documentary crew and construct itself in very long shots during which the (mostly non-professional) actors express themselves in a contemporary language while improvising for most of it. Using this method, the film, in its totality, almost reaches 6 hours long (see the full version on youtube below).
P. Watkins pushed the democratic process of making a film to the point of hiring actors opposed to the Paris Commune to play the Parisians who flew the capital city or remained hidden during the three months of its existence. It does not forget either the important faults of the Commune, the execution of the clerical hostages, the cowardice of some members of the Central Committee (elected group of decision in all districts of Paris and from every professions), the strong lack of organizations in front of the Versailles Army, the crowd syndromes etc. This antagonism of facts reflects the antagonism in the numerous debates showed on the screen with actors who reach a very high level of passion as they have no problem identifying with their character who has a lot of similitude with their own person. In this regard, the pseudo-documentary crew go as far as asking those same actors if they would also risk their lives today if confronted to the same situation while they act the fight on the barricade (see the 31st chapter on the video).
The film was badly received when it was released on TV, even by its own producer, Arte (probably the only channel that is worth watching in France) as P.Watkins himself explains on his website
. The reasons for that are probably numerous and the first one is of course the institutional form of censorship that never gave to the 1871 Commune the place in history that it deserves. However, another interesting reason for it can be seen in the very means of this film. We could think of an alternate film from a liberal filmmaker who would have the favors of the industry to gather an important budget in order to create a glorious aesthetic film that would narrate an individual (love) story within the history of the Commune (a grotesque example of this form an aesthetics can be seen in the videoclip No Church in the Wild as I wrote about
earlier) . The liberal media would applause this work and through it, self-congratulate for their open-mind.
Following the narrative I created around the question of the New York Commune as an interesting scenario to investigate what would be a contemporary equivalent of the 1871 Paris Commune, I am now starting to prepare a medium length film on this very same story. I will therefore regularly publish articles about useful references on that matter.
The two first ones that has been already published here could be found through the metaphorical map I drew during the last siege on Gaza as well as the short reportage done in post-Sandy powerless Brooklyn. Of course, I am definitely interested in any additional reference my readers would find useful in this exploration.
Red Hook (NYC) on November 18th 2012 /// Photo by Léopold Lambert
Right after the hurricane Sandy cut hundreds of thousand New Yorkers out of power, I wrote an article that insisted on the symbolical aspect of Manhattan cut in half between the non affected city and the ‘dark zone’. The ability for us to visualize two worlds separated by one line, was an easy metaphor of the world we live in. However, the efforts to bring back the power in the South of Manhattan were considerable and it took four days to go back a certain form of normality. The urgency that constituted the Manhattan situation does not seem to be applied with the same intensity when it comes to poorer neighborhoods like the Rockaways, Broad Channel, Coney Island or Red Hook. Many of those places still do not have power (nor subway system) and spent the last three weeks trying to survive while adjusting to the recovered New York’s rhythm of life’s frenzy in order not to fall into processes of pauperization.
To be fair, things are getting better little by little and the Rockaways and Coney Island, by their geographical situation (see the flood survey map on the NY Times’ site), were more likely to be severely hit than Manhattan. The relief adaptation of Occupy Wall Street into Occupy Sandy and its unanimously recognized organization was also very helpful to bring immediate help to people, who sometimes live in the 12th floor of project building without power nor running water.
map of the American military apparatuses on and around Manhattan as well as the strike records of the day / Map by Léopold Lambert
Two funerals, two faces of Manhattan. The first a display of strength and defiance, a jostling mass of thousands of conflict-hardened men, many brandishing weapons, pledging readiness to die for their cause over the bloodied corpse of the Commune resistance’s commander Louisa Davis.
The second consisted of a shattered family, incomprehension etched on their faces. A young father clutched the shrouded body of his 11-month-old son, a victim of the violence that is likely to cause more deaths in the days to come.
The thread connecting these two scenes could be found in the vapour trails hanging in the clear skies above Harlem, the black clouds of smoke rising from the ground and the thuds and booms punctuating the unsettling quiet of its usually bustling streets.
Beginning of the transcript…
It all started two weeks before the declaration of the Commune. Thousands of us invaded the incomplete structures of the World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan. We took action when most of us were getting evicted from our homes after the rents doubled in the last few years. The occupation started as a form of protest, but quickly evolved towards a real alternative-society model. We set up camps on the hundreds of slabs of the towers and started to live in them in a new form of urban living. Multitudes of hoists were insuring the vertical communication of food, essential goods and reclaimed construction material from the ground.
The first time that the NYPD attempted to take back control of the site, we were disorganized and managed to make them retreat only after having outnumbered them. When they came back a few days later, our defensive strategy was more responsive, and the hundreds of policemen did not even succeed in entering the site. Every day we were gathering in small assemblies to debate and construct the particulars of our small society. Many people were exhausted and discussions could quickly become harsh and long, but only a limited number of people left the movement during the occupation.
One night, after a bit less than two months of common life in the towers, we were suddenly awakened by the loud noise of a flock of helicopters that quickly invaded our space with their powerful spotlights. While Special Forces were landing on the roofs, hundreds of police officers in full riot gear were climbing up the structures, arresting all the people they encountered. The surprise of the attack led to a general panic that reached a dangerous level on some overcrowded floors. It was only after few hours of systematized and serial arrests, when the towers were almost emptied, that the event that would make history occurred. Even today, it remains unclear what really happened. A small number of us were still on the ground, ready to be brought away in the MTA buses requisitioned by the NYPD, when we heard a terrifying scream and made out in the darkness of the dawn the fall of a frail body from one of the highest floors of the main tower. Whether it was a suicide, an accident, or a murder was irrelevant to us. What we knew is that this tragic event would have never occurred without the police’s armed attack. Our rage was growing on the way to Rikers Island, where the thousand of us who had gotten arrested were eventually corralled in the central courtyard.