Atelier Populaire in the North East

In 1968, as Paris reeled from the greatest national strike in its history and barricades still lined the streets, a group of radicalised art students travelled to London to meet with eclectic independent publisher Dennis Dobson.

The students were members of the Atelier Populaire, a political art collective whose posters would give May ’68 its visual language and who would go on to become one of the most influential movements ever to produce agitprop posters. Their pared back visual and linguistic aesthetic mean that their work resonates forcefully with anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist and resistive movements of the twenty-first century.

Photo by Phil Spencer

This is a small side project that came about as part of BBC programme ‘Inside Out: North East and Cumbria’. The BBC team were making a programme on Brancepeth Castle‘s link to publisher Dennis Dobson. Dobson worked alongside the agitprop poster collective, the Atelier Populaire, to publish in book form their posters which had lined the walls of streets and factories across Paris over the heady revolutionary days of summer ’68. 

So, who were the Atelier Populaire, how have they influenced agit-prop and street art, and how did the posters from one of the most radical political art movements of the twentieth century end up in a damp castle in County Durham?

The Atelier Populaire, or, the disappearance of art

Originating with students who had occupied their elite school, the École des Beaux Arts, at the height of the ‘events’ in mid-May ’68, the Atelier Populaire’s name already gives an indication as to the values of the collective. These values consisted in seeing art as a social tool, a weapon in the fight against a repressive established order, and a means to forge bonds of solidarity between the students’ and the workers’ respective causes. Shifting the signifier from ‘Ecole’ to ‘Atelier’, marked their symbolic refusal of art’s ‘bourgeois’ status, and testified to the Atelier Populaire’s attempt to reformulate art’s spatial and social identity. The gallery’s white walls were swapped for the walls of the streets and factories, the aura and value attached to the artist’s signature was eviscerated through anonymity. Collective decision-making as regards the themes and selection of the posters to be printed placed the message and its political necessity before copyright. Similarly, the term ‘populaire’ emphasised their affinity with the struggles of immigrants, the working classes and their sympathies with anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist and anti-Gaullist ideas. The name alone then weaves conceptual threads linking the group to French Revolutionary ideologies of ‘le peuple’, and the righteous romanticism inherent in revolutionary mythologies that placed the ‘people’ at the heart of the nation.

In a sense then, the Atelier Populaire willed something like the disappearance of Art—‘Art’ as it was understood by the mid-century establishment. Liberating it from the white cube and placing it in the service of popular political action. The manifesto of the opening pages of the book published by Dennis Dobson, states that art is now a tool in the arsenal of popular struggle against repression. More than this, the Atelier Populaire demonstrated a hyper-awareness of the tendency for capitalism to absorb the figures of its refusal, and to reproduce its assailants as commodities. In their manifesto, the Atelier Populaire expressly stated that their posters should not be read by ‘experts’ for their aesthetic or historical significance—these being the narratives of the ruling classes. Rather, they wished for this material to persist in its resistive visual activity, to promote, provoke and support political action on the part of everyday men and women.

Why the Riot?

The events of May 1968, commonly labelled student revolts, were actually far more than the concern of a few hundred radical students. By the end of May over 9 million people were out on strike across France, de Gaulle was preparing for a potential coup d’état, two people had been killed during police repression of street demonstrations, and the country was at a standstill. No TV, no mail, no transport, the government in crisis, and industrial production stalled.

This revolt did not occur in isolation or emerge out of nowhere, the Sixties were important for the ways in which politics became part of people’s everyday lives. Protests against the Vietnam War across the world, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the Cuban Missile Crisis and allure of Castro and Che Guevara had politicised student groups in France but also in the US, Europe and the UK. Moreover, the Sixties were a contradictory time in France. On the one hand, the decade is remembered as being the height of the ‘Trente glorieuses’ — the thirty glorious years or the economic boom following the end of WWII — the dawn of popular consumerism, the development of tertiary industries and a rise in spending power. But beneath the veneer, dangerous, monotonous working conditions and long hours persisted in factories, high unemployment remained, and workers wages had not risen along with the rest of the country. And while the markets were being liberalised, the authoritarian and nationalist, De Gaulle held the majority of mainstream media organs under his thumb.

Further, France’s empire was crumbling. Algeria had achieved independence, and the fallout from the bloody Algerian war saw the arrival on mainland France of over half a million North African men and women from the former colonies. Housing conditions in Paris made visible the gap between rich and poor. The growth of shanty slums around the outskirts of the city and at the university at Nanterre made palpable the divisions in society. Urbanisation resulted in the emergence of the new towns and high-rise blocks that were to become emblematic of the social fracture identified by Jacques Chirac in the 1990s. These questions and conditions were all factors in igniting the spontaneous popular uprising of May ’68. And their anti-capitalist, anti-repressive and anti-imperialist messages as articulated by the Atelier Populaire still resonate with issues in the contemporary West.

Signifying ’68

The Atelier Populaire emerged then out of a tense crucible of political turmoil and nationwide strikes happening in Paris in May 1968. On 13 May 1968, after days of street fighting, police brutality, and a march of over million people through Paris, art students at the illustrious Ecole des Beaux Arts in central Paris, occupied their school and set up poster printing presses on its second floor.

Philippe Vermès, a photographer and member of the Atelier Populaire, has described these posters as ‘weapons’ in the popular struggle against state authoritarianism and oppression, capitalism, imperialism, to be pasted on the walls in streets and factories all over Paris. Some of the key features of the Atelier Populaire was the anonymity of the posters produced, their methods of production—cheap silkscreen rather than more expensive and slower lithographic processes, and their consideration of function (as a communication tool) over form (although the form of these posters tells us much about their effectiveness and their relevance today).

Atelier Populaire rendered art as action. And this legacy has endured. Theirs remains a powerful aesthetic that crosses historical and geographical boundaries. In its contemporary evocation, the language of Atelier Populaire creates memory knots, linking popular uprising today with revolts of the past. In our increasingly privatised cities, these calls to think otherwise than the media would have us do, are reassuring signs that dissidence is still alive and possible.

Inventing Grand Paris

Inventing Grand Paris: Visual Culture, Regeneration and the Right to the Global City is a project that analyses the role which visual culture has to play in urban regeneration. This project was funded by the AHRC Fellowship in 2018-2019 and its outputs are ongoing.

Over 2018 and 2019, I met with a variety of artists and arts organizations in Seine-Saint-Denis, interviewing them with the aim of understanding better the cultural politics of urban regeneration in this Parisian suburb. One of the central concerns of the project is to examine the antagonism between the French state’s place-making agendas of the Grand Paris redevelopment of the île-de-France region — a large-scale strategy aimed at transforming Paris into a global megalopolis — and artistic practices that potentially assert the voice and visibility in public of socially and ecologically marginalized actants. Its lines of enquiry re-visit the ‘Right to the City’ for the 21st Century, and draw Lefebvre’s concerns for social justice into dialogue with our contemporary environmental realities, which call into question the anthropocentric notion of the ‘urban’, and cast doubt on the viability of mega-scale infrastructural development and unlimited growth.

Launched in 2007 by Nicolas Sarkozy, the Grand Paris programme is in the process of transforming the French capital on a scale unseen since Haussmann, with a core aim being to reassert Paris’s hegemony on the global city index by 2025. Central to the programme is the integration, through high-profile infrastructural projects, of suburban satellites or banlieues with the historical centre.

In this context, Seine-Saint-Denis represents a challenge: the suburb became internationally infamous in 2005 following the outbreak of widespread urban violence in response to the death of two teenage inhabitants who were being chased down by armed police; it is the most heavily surveilled territory in France; it constitutes the poorest department in the country despite being part of Europe’s richest region, the Ile de France; finally high unemployment, racism and police brutality have contributed to produce an image of the suburb as space of ‘threat’ to the coherence of the Republic.

The site on mainland France most emblematic of the consequences of decolonization and deindustrialization for urban communities, Seine-Saint-Denis constitutes this project’s locus as it here that issues of visibility, visual culture and spatial justice tangibly intersect. Firstly, the rehabilitation of this suburb is crucial to the success of the Grand Paris project, and secondly recent urban policy, seeking to counter Paris’s reputation as a ‘museum city’, has identified the ethnic diversity and subcultural capital of this ‘badland’ as central to rebranding a globalized Paris.

Given the interlinked drivers of neoliberal growth, mobility and creativity, culture is at the forefront of state-led regeneration. However, the promotion of ‘creativity’ raises significant questions around whose culture and in whose interests art and creativity operate. One of this project’s arguments is that analysis of visual cultural interventions in urban spaces reveals the agonism at stake in remaking left-behind places in the twenty-first century. On the one hand, design, architectural and cultural exhibitions are at the heart of the neoliberal agenda to remake the image of the suburbs, the city, and the nation. They work to curate an internationally competitive, socio-ecologically-just speculation of the emerging city. On the other hand, many independent and community-driven artists draw attention to localized struggles to make places that promote socio-ecological agendas beyond the social cleansing or greenwashing of legislative discourse and public-private partnerships.

Where analyses of urban regeneration typically focus on high-profile rebranding enterprises, this project innovates on current scholarship in two primary ways: firstly, in theorizing the relationship between urban policy, visual culture and community action, it positions Seine-Saint-Denis as a contested symbolic space. Secondly, the project’s critical impetus lies in reframing the question ‘what do images say’ to ask ‘what can images do?’ and how do visual practices engage in constituting and contesting urban democracy within the context of large-scale regeneration and socio-ecological crises?

Setting a new research agenda, its value lies in its ‘ground-up’ approach to understanding the monumental regeneration currently underway in Paris, and art’s role in highlighting the agonism that attends to our contemporary ‘sense of place’ (Agnew 1987), while raising the question as to how we might foster the new, if fragile, solidarities emergent in the urban ecosphere.