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From the Field

Industrial Wasteland and the Commons

Long considered places of experimentation, sharing and freedom, friches culturelles, or temporary cultural spaces, seem to have become tools of metropolitan attractiveness, resulting in gentrification and increased real-estate values. Jules Desgoutte looks at the reasons for this transformation and examines the strategies of resistance at play.

Long considered places of experimentation, sharing and freedom, friches culturelles, or temporary cultural spaces, seem to have become tools of metropolitan attractiveness, resulting in gentrification and increased real-estate values. Jules Desgoutte looks at the reasons for this transformation and examines the strategies of resistance at play.

Vacant lots are once again fashionable. There is reason to rejoice, after the long silence that accompanied their rise, that only the brief episode of the “New Territories of Art” [1] it is essentially a question of Parisian or metropolitan experiences. The esteemed success of Les Grands Voisins rubs shoulders with that of the Centquatre arts centre in the northeast of Paris and, if areas outside Paris are mentioned, the Darwin Écosystème, a private initiative linked to the development of the Bordeaux metropolis. Each time, it is about third places and transitory urbanism. But what do we mean by transitory? Are we talking about a social transition towards a fairer and more equitable future, or about a process of gentrification aimed at producing an increase in land value? One could see it as a development of territorial attractiveness, according to a metropolization dynamic driven by the desire of the developer and the logic of speculative accumulation. But how, in this context, do temporary cultural spaces still represent “commons”?

Temporary occupation of spaces: “quasi-wasteland”

Whether it is to praise or criticize them, the most talked about places are temporary cultural spaces only in appearance. Quickly occupied, well cleaned, well developed, they are the result of two distinct processes: one, private, whose general framework is that of a “transitional urbanism,” defined by “temporary occupations of spaces”; the other, public, which relies on the operative concept of “territorial marketing” (Correia 2018) and which seems to proceed from a hasty appropriation of the concept of “third place” by the public power.

Temporary cultural spaces, in the sense in which Philippe Henry, a socio-economist of culture, understands them, however, belong to a completely different reality. “Initially heir to the forms of social and political protest of the 1970s and influenced by the counter-culture movements associated with them, the first temporary cultural spaces are exemplary of a desire to base themselves on a cultural conception of artistic practices, distinct from that which dominates the art facilities and the instituted art worlds of the time” (Henry 2010). Emerging with the progressive deindustrialization of city centers in the 1980s, vacant lots constitute forms of occupation that move in geographical space as well as in that of cultural practices; they unfold in peri-urban or rural areas and bring together many societal issues concerning the appreciation of culture and nature (two highly polysemous terms). In this sense, the existence of the vacant lots testifies to a will of transformation of the relations between art and territory.

On the contrary, within the framework of the quasi-wastelands produced by transitional urbanism, the temporary and limited character of the experience, announced a priori by the developer, is integrated as a positive fact by its actors for whom it becomes a modality of enrolment. The artists occupying this type of space no longer exercise the right of management that allows them to decide collectively for themselves on the cost of occupation as close as possible to their economic reality; rather, they become one of the “public” to whom a “cheap price” is offered—at an average of 15% of the real-estate value per square foot. No more conflicts between right of use and right of ownership. As soon as the temporary nature of the occupation of space has been integrated as a given a priori of the experience by its occupants, any antagonistic dimension disappears in favor of the securing and valorization of land by the promoter and the developer. In this new world, where the temporary cultural space has been revisited in the light of the so-called “creative” industries, we come across Les Grands Voisins, a third-party space backed by a heavyweight in social entrepreneurship, Aurore, whose president and first vice-president are respectively the deputy managing director and the chairman and CEO of the Vinci group [2]; there is talk of Sinny & Ooko, which has built a veritable little economic empire in the Paris region around the creation of very business-oriented “third places”—La Recyclerie in northern Paris, Le Comptoir Général in eastern Paris, La Cité Fertile in the eastern inner suburb of Pantin, etc.; there are also people who set up consultancy firms, training courses, cooperative real-estate development agencies or eco-participatory architecture.

According to this logic of counterfeiting specific to cultural industries (Adorno 1964), the relationship to space is counterfeited, at the same time as it is reified in the image of the deckchair, the craft beer and the ping-pong table (Correia 2018). This industry sells the by-products of an occupation practice that does not take place, since its political content - its oppositional dimension (Nicolas-Le Strat 2015) - has been converted into economic value. It is in this movement from the political to the economic that we can recognize the real stake in the falsification of the relationship to space: not only is it a matter of producing economic value, but this value is also the direct record of the control exercised over the environments that make up these practices. Thus, at the very place of its potential contestation, a social and spatial sorting of bodies is exercised, which is the very movement of metropolization. In this more general process, discriminations of class, race and gender are inscribed and replayed, so that all that remains of the vaunted hybridity of these places, once embalmed in their own image, is a bland and risk-free simulacrum - the butterfly pinned to the board.

Intermediate places and common environments

We can oppose to the attempts of falsehood that constitute the quasi-wastelands the emergence of a new figure: that of the “intermediate and independent places,” at the same time for the intermedialities that they explore in the artistic field (displacement of the supports, crossing between the practices, hybridity of the media), for the experiments that they allow in the political field and by the new modalities of production that they explore in the field of the economy of the culture. They have the three essential characteristics of what Elinor Ostrom calls “common-pool resources”: a spatial resource—available space; a community built around the sharing of this resource and exercising a right of management over it; rules produced by this community in order to ensure its preservation and to guarantee access to all, from the uses and in a logic of self-organization. This exercise of a common management right over the resource, constitutive to the use of a common environment, distinguishes these practices of occupation of spaces from the products of appeal for actors in the development of the territory that we have discussed. Let us take a few examples to convince ourselves of this.

At Mains d’Œuvres [3] that run through these experiences. Temporary cultural spaces, art factories, artists’ collectives, residents’ collectives, squats, shared workshops: all these practices of spaces have effects not only in terms of artistic and cultural life, but also in terms of territorial development, social innovation, political experimentation and economic alternatives.

Today, the number of intermediate places is increasing on the ground despite the difficulties that are accumulating. These places, which have lost the support of the State, do not find that of the metropolises, captives of the discourse on “creative industries.” The singular yet random character of these places, their way of blending into a context, keeps them in a form of invisibility that is reinforced by the flashy nature of the imagery of the creative industries, which captures the attention of decision-makers. At the same time, a new generation is arriving, for whom the practice of these spaces is becoming commonplace, with an imaginary and well-shared uses. Experiences range from the “squat culture,” as during the occupation of the former prefecture of Toulouse by the Mixart Myrys collective, from 2001 to 2005, to the dynamics of cultural and social entrepreneurship of which Zutiques Production and the Coursive Boutaric, in Dijon, are an example. An intermediate field is then constituted which oscillates from political action to artistic practice, from the relationship to the work to the relationship to work, from amateur practices to professional practices. These evolutions translate a paradoxical situation: the places and the experiences, in spite of their fragility, show a remarkable faculty of persistence. As intermediate spaces, they have been able to maintain themselves between the public thing and the private initiative.

Through the charter of the CNLII (Coordination Nationale des Lieux Intermédiaires et Indépendants, a national body that coordinates intermediate and independent spaces in France) [4] and the second national forum, in 2016, in Lyon (Gazeau 2016), the intermediate places have undertaken to self-determine, according to a process characteristic of the constitution of a common: autonomy of initiative and management in the places, collaborative logic outside, aesthetics of experience and process, social and solidarity economy, and so forth. The continuous and intertwined character of the relationships that these experiences aggregate around them, as field of intermediations, distinguishes them from the logic of the cultural industries, which is based on the segmentation between production, creation and diffusion. In a logic close to that which Gilles Clément lends to the third landscape and which confirms the accuracy of the image of the vacant lot, [5] these experiences do not proceed from a logic of production, but of engendering: they multiply while diversifying themselves.

On June 19 and 20, 2019, in Rennes, at the Ateliers du Vent workshops, the third national forum of intermediate and independent places was held. The event is titled: “Faire commun(s), comment faire?” (“How to create common(s) spaces”). This represents an opportunity for these places to assert themselves as transformational commons. They would then join the logic of social transformation in which more and more actors are involved, whether they defend the freedom of knowledge, the right to live, the right to the city—a family of initiatives carrying a “strong preference for the future” (Fontaine 2017), where the concrete forms of an ecological and social transition are invented. In any case, it is from this promise that these experiments challenge public power, reminding it of its duty of foresight, because they anticipate the necessary changes on a collective scale of the relationship to work, the relationship to the built environment and the relationship to action (Arendt 1958).


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Further reading

  • Artfactories/Autresparts.
  • Artfactories/Autresparts, 2018. “La friche, la norme et l’usage”, Atelier de réflexion, no. 23, La Briquetterie, Amiens.
  • CNLII.
  • CNLII charter.
  • Florida, R. 2005. Cities and the Creative Class, New York/London: Routledge.
  • Glass, R. 1964. London: Aspects of Change, London: MacGibbon & Kee.
  • Grésillon, B. 2004. “Le Tacheles, histoire d’un “SquArt” berlinois”, Multitudes, no. 17, pp. 147–155.
  • Latour, B. 2018. Où atterrir ? Comment s’orienter en politique, Paris: La Découverte.
  • Méchoulan, É. 2003. “Intermédialités : le temps des illusions perdues”, Intermédialités, vol. 1, pp. 9–27.
  • Nicolas-Le Strat, P. 2011. “Faire politique latéralement”, Multitudes, no. 45, p. 45.
  • Trans Europ Halles.
  • Trans Europ Halles and Bordage, F. (eds.). 2001. Les Fabriques, lieux imprévus, Paris: Éditions de l’Imprimeur.

To cite this article:

Jules Desgoutte & translated by Oliver Waine, “Industrial Wasteland and the Commons”, Metropolitics, 26 February 2021. URL :

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