SOWING STORIES (sustainability)

17 March 2023

Today is the first day of a programme dedicated to fostering Sustainability Champions amongst the volunteers of The Comfrey Project. Cal, the lead horticulturalist, has set up the room so that it feels like an intimate classroom; the whiteboard ready with questions, and notepads and pencils for everyone around a single desk. There are six volunteers along with myself and Nicola (Session Coordinator at TCP). The knowledge being brought to this table comes from Chile, Syria, El Salvador, Congo, Argentina and Pakistan.

Our first task is to define ‘sustainability’. I find this activity useful in the way Cal approaches it. The insistence that there is no single definition opens the ground for discussion, inviting the volunteers to consider what it means for them today. Colette is unsure of the word in French. We translate it as ‘durabilité’, and already there is something interesting here. The word’s temporalities are more vitally tangible in French than in English. ‘Sustain’ seems to place emphasis on the notion of resistance and brings ideas of ‘effort’ and maintenance’ to the fore. I am reminded of Bergson’s distinction between ‘temps’ and ‘durée’. ‘Time’ made distinct from ‘duration’ by Bergson to refer to the mechanistic ticking of minutes on an objective device, the fiction of immobility contained in stations of the clock, the spatial line. Bergson’s distinction tried to account for the difference between this time, and the human being’s experience of temporality. ‘Duration’ refers to the subject’s experience of time’s progressive quality, its movement and incompletion. There is something to think with here as regards ‘sustainability’ and what we might emphasise when it comes to growing practices and attitudes to land. The temporalities of it, the mobilities and progressions that define life (from soil microbes to fungi, and magpies to humans) in the garden. The incompleteness of ‘death’ when considered ecologically, one thing becoming another thing and elements returning to life in loops. Entangled life spans and body masses moving and changing together. These kinds of conceptual trajectories are imminent but not openly teased out today though. For us, now, the question of practice and the sharing of practices is more pressing. There is a desire for applications, and to share stories from our respective countries of best and worst practices in terms of sustainable industry, farming, conservation and everyday attitudes to waste.

The various definitions of ‘sustainability’ that emerge from our brainstorming activities speak to values. For Priscilla, sustainability is ‘something that meets your need without compromising future capabilities’. Geovani emphasises conservation and the protection of the planet’s resources, using recycling as an example. Assadoula talks about not compromising future generations’ ability to meet their needs. Colette speaks of the time of things in the ground and how long it takes for waste like plastics to disintegrate. For Estefania the accent is on attitudes — a responsibility to think sustainably, to think about resources. And from this kind of awareness, towards acting ethically so that systems can work with as little human interference with nature’s thrifty loops as possible. The principles we share are teased out and these include: future thinking around resources, compromise and and understanding of limits. Cal translates this to the scientific language of the closed circle system, where things are created, used and returned to the earth, from the which the process of creation can begin again.

We think about these eternal returns, of nothing being wasted or lost. We think about the ways in which we break this loop over and over again. Nicola’s session on the time it takes for various items that proliferate in our shops and homes to break down is remembered. The endless search for new markets, inventions and customisable lifestyles lauded by the economies of the global north is recognised in its profound dissonance with the ecological rhythms necessary for healthy habitats and biodiversity.

So we ‘stay with the trouble’ (Haraway) and resist overwhelm and outrage to instead think about the question of what we can do to alleviate anxieties around all of the systems we cannot control, and how to take ownership of our everyday activities so that they correspond with these values. So that we don’t break the loop, or break them as little as we can. We think of all of the decisions we make everyday and this kind of thinking brings into our awareness the life of things beyond our immediate experience of them. Simple questions really:

  • Where does the thing come from?
  • How will I use the thing?
  • Where will it go?

How can we prevent the loop from ending? The volunteers give examples from their countries of origin of ways that people have tried to balance need and preserve the circle. Clothes in Chile are recycled to make yarn. But, Estefanfia points out, this requires a lot of water. Bottle tops in Argentina are used to make toys. In El Salvador car tyres are converted into flower planters in gardens. We talk about the need for education, how in El Salvador water is sold in plastic pouches that are then thrown away. We talk of punitive justice — the need to tax people according to how much or little they recycle. And of the need to enforce these laws; regulation in Chile is inconsistent. We discuss the hierarchy of needs and this brings us to the ways in which social and environmental justice are entwined.

Assadoula tells us about Mirpur Khas. This place is known as the ‘City of Mangoes’. When I research the city, I find it has a population of about a quarter of a million people, and the city claims to have 252 varieties of mangoes, with the most famous variety being the Sindhri Amb, which means the mango from the Sindh. There is an annual harvest festival which showcases the renowned produce and which takes place in June. This is an industry which seems to work to sustainable principles. Farmers take the long stems of the mango plants and transport them to cattle farms to feed the cows, and the cow manure then feeds the soil. Nicola tells us of the brewing industry and how the grains from breweries were spread on farmers’ fields to feed the earth and the grass which grew there fed the sheep. Thus we identify the circle — the plant material is used to feed the dairy industry and the industries, to greater or lesser degrees are sustainable. But, we acknowledge that this circle is more like a web as there are so many off-shoots to these circles that they soon become entangled in ways that we at our small table are ill-equipped to trace.

The remainder of the session is dedicated to thinking about sustainable actions that we can take around The Comfrey centre, both indoors and out. I will write more on each of these as they are practiced and in other blog posts.

At this point, while inspired to rethink some aspects of consumer choice, I am aware of the fact that I have a choice. There is a nagging anxiety and I am concerned about the structural differences in agency that are present as we undertake activities. Given the trauma that many of these volunteers have experienced, given the complexities of the situation they face here in relation to the the UK Home Office, how can we find ways to valorise the life experience, breadth of knowledge, expertise (ecological and otherwise) and creativity present in this room? I am writing late in the evening, and ineffectually, but it is important to be wary of the ‘academic voice’.

I am interested to see how The Comfrey Project creates room for the volunteers to contribute, to change minds, for voices to be heard and for knowledge to be shared. My project, the project I am searching for, is how to create platforms—political, cultural— where that knowledge can be heard and can matter. How to use conceptual and material tools to do this, and how to bring the knowledge and experience of community gardens to bear on planning processes. For now, I am simply gathering a trace of these myriad intersections that occur on this site in Gateshead. This place that brings into contact vast durations, diverse generational histories, wounds from complex neocolonial exploitations, children with three and four languages, people with professions, skills, knowledge and expertise waiting on a letter from a system that proliferates anxiety through delay; the suspension of a ground on which to settle. This place offers an interim ground perhaps. A fragile site for bridging cultures that works because we engage from our cultural positions with nature, such as it is moulded in this small plot of land in Bensham.

Sowing Stories (Meeting E.R.I.C.-NE)

09 March 2023

Today, working with The Comfrey Project meant being able to take part in the Bees of Bensham ‘Go and See Visits’. This visit is to the Great North Museum, Hancock and an introduction to ERIC – the Environmental Records Information Centre of the North East. The session was hosted by Fiona Greenwold, engagement officer for ERIC, NE, aimed at residents of Bensham and Saltwell, and focussed on wildlife and biodiversity surveying: Why surveying wildlife is important and how anyone can survey.

This kind of grassroots education is exciting, fun, and empowering. It suggests a way of looking differently at patches of the city that legislation labels ‘brownfield’ and that we’re encouraged to think of as ‘wasteland’. Listening to Fiona opens these spaces out; they become whole vistas. Seemingly empty, we learn how to look, and discover they have been teeming with life all along. Not only that, this visit prioritises amateur, voluntary action—each person’s ability to respond to global biodiversity loss in meaningful, local ways by contributing to the project of wildlife and biodiversity surveying.

The March snow means I arrive a little late but still in time for introductions and chats over packed lunch. E’s friendly face from The Comfrey Project greets me first, and there are some familiar faces from Dingy Butterflies whom we met at the ‘Best of Bensham’ event at the Windmill Hills garden last summer. We introduce ourselves, coffee is proffered, apples unwanted by some are shared with those who want them. The informality means the atmosphere is welcoming. Nowhere a sense of one person having more reason to be there than another. No intellectual strutting. No nonsense. What is palpable is a concern to share stories, experiences, and opinions in a room where values and concerns intersect. It feels enlivening to realise that this is not the end of it either—beyond cups of tea and cosy chats, we are going to learn how to take action and get involved easily in connecting our observations of local places to wider national data networks and political apparatus. We learn that individuals—amateur, professional, everyone from my granny to your 5-year old—are vital to tracking wild things and enriching awareness around biodiversity.

The first part of the visit is to the library and archives of the museum. It’s like being let into a secret to gain access to the more tucked away parts of a museum space. Even better to know that that secret is not jealousy protected by any kind of paywall: the library and archives of the Great North Museum: Hancock are fully open to the public. The reading room is a revelation. Bright with natural light, the room is compact but spacious enough to house hundreds of books. Titles on butterflies, The Natural History of Flies, and some volume called A Dipterist’s Handbook — I have no idea what a ‘dipterist‘ might be! This is a space for curiosity and the sense of expansion that comes from looking at a bookshelf: the feeling we get knowing each volume sitting there quietly holds an entire world and all it takes is for the reader to unleash it. We’re introduced to L, the newly appointed librarian, who has kindly taken out from the archive some botanical drawings by Margaret Dickenson for us to look at. Given it was women’s day yesterday, there are books on display about female naturalists and women writing on nature.

Botanical drawing by Margaret Rebecca Dickenson (1821—1918)

I spend most of the visit talking with the brilliant artist and beekeeper Barbara Keating. She explores aloud her concept of ‘bee washing’ in different contexts, from Paris to the North East, and shares her thoughts about colony collapse, and why she refused to bring hives into Newcastle city centre until they were needed in the pollen studies being undertaken by Northumbria University researchers. She tells me about her fascinating artistic project, ‘Bee Banquet‘, where she feeds guests on foods that form the diet of bees while footage of bees in the hive is projected over the human diners. Barbara is a passionate advocate for community action and education around biodiversity and pollinators. From our brief conversation, I come away with a richer understanding of the various species of bees, the dangers of species dominance if we flood certain areas with only honeybees and the needs of pollinators. What will urban bees eat? How many other honeybee hives are in the surrounding areas? Thinking with bees… She has given me a framework for thinking through a piece I’m writing on the political ecologies of community gardens in Grand Paris, and I am now looking forward to citing her work in article.

Presentation on ERIC, NE by Fiona Greenwold

We return to the common room, where Fiona presents ERIC, their work, and how we can and why we should get involved with wildlife surveying. ERIC works with professional wildlife recording groups, but also with individuals and amateur community groups. She explains to us how we can all be involved in collating environmental data which is then used to help inform policy and actions taken around nature conservation. ERIC is based in the Great North Museum: Hancock and operated by the Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums.

Fiona’s presentation is informal, accessible, and enabling. She tells us that the free app., iNaturalist, is the best way for amateurs to get involved in mapping biodiversity and wildlife in their local area. It works like this—see something wild (let’s say some kind of flower, bird, beetle, a hedgehog, frog, rabbit etc.), photograph it, upload the photo to the app which scans it and tells you the name, location (if you grant permissions) and time of sighting. The iNaturalist data is fed into ERIC’s databases and others. The data is used in various ways, and is significant in making planning decisions for example. Over time, it also allows us to understand the impact of habitat loss and climate change on specific populations in specific ways.

iNaturalist app is available free on all smart phone platforms

Beyond this, this app might be one positive tool for fostering a sense of belonging with, and connections to our local landscapes. Important in urban communities that still live the traumas of deindustrialisation, where being ‘left behind’ often leaves people feeling powerless and, later, disconnected from their local places. Might simple networks that enable us to take some kind of action constitute a small tool (in what needs to be a much bigger arsenal) for restoring people’s sense of agency and worth? Can the ability to respond in modest ways like these help reduce the sense of overwhelm that media assaults tend to produce? An overwhelm that leads to disengagement—that knee-jerk urge to curl up in the foetal position and leave it all to someone else. Does media saturation create the sense that it’s all beyond our power, and can small actions help us up off the floor to push back against that kind of mass media inoculation? Beyond the political (is there such a thing as ‘beyond the political’?) what I know is that when I open the app and start photographing my street, I hear the thought, ‘Fuck whatever government plan is cutting up neighbourhoods and ecosystems today, I belong to this world too and I can act for it’. It’s a relief to know that I’m not at all original with that thought.

Doing a wildlife survey of The Comfrey Project garden at Windmill Hills is something Cal and I talked about. After today’s talk, I feel less dependent on expert advice before doing something. I turn on iNaturalist’s easy geolocation map and find the Windmill Hills site and am delighted to be able to see what kinds photos have already been uploaded and registered. They form the image at the top of this post. I’m hopeful that Fiona’s visit to The Comfrey Project in the coming weeks will be fun, that people will be as enthused about ERIC-NE’s work as me, and get us out looking closely at the ground—down with interest, curiosity and wonder—identifying plants, insects, and reframing old wives tales about ‘weeds’. We’re talking about when to schedule her visit.

The past few weeks have give me some insight into how interconnected a lot of non-profit and values-driven community organisations are in the North East. There is a sense of solidarity and shared purpose. It makes the overwhelm easier to confront and put in its place. The people come to the work from all different kinds of backgrounds, different experiences, but there is a shared energy that looks outwards, knots of understanding and values that chime. There’s a comfort in this that is invigorating, inspiring and makes you stand straighter.

Sowing Stories (Thinking with Soil)

February 2023

“We—all of us on Terra—live in disturbing times, mixed-up times, troubling and turbid times. The task is to become capable, with each other in all of our bumptious kinds, of response” – D. Haraway (2016, 1)

Thinking with Soil

The weather was biting cold today at Windmill Hills, but we trooped out to the garden and began work on reactivating the compost heap. This sits behind the polytunnel in a large wooden box, divided into three parts. There are four of us to begin with and more join in later. We are all swaddled in winter coats, sporting wellies and gloves. Cal, the horticulturalist and head gardener at The Comfrey Project, gave us instructions on how to categorise the different organic matter. We place thick, woody materials in one pile, seedlings and looser, more flimsy matter in another, and stalky palm materials in another. We remove any couch grass we find as its rhizomatic structures means it can seed in the heap and regenerate. Resilience 101. The pile had gone cold and the system needed rebalancing so as to get the composting action started again.

Cal talks to us about aerobic and anaerobic bacteria. How the soil is alive and how the matter we put in our compost heap encourages these different kinds of bacteria. A compost heap can stink to high heaven if there is too much ‘green’ matter (your kitchen scraps and soft, mulchy waste). The trick (and the skill) is to try and get the balance between green and brown (the woodier kind of matter). Our piles are the first step in this process.

We get on with cutting the longer stalks and branches into smaller twigs. The smaller the better. Mine and T’s hands begin to ache from the repetitive action of the secateurs. Cal sharpens them for us and the action becomes easier. Z and A are at work sifting the bottom of the old heap for any useful compost. They use old veggie boxes to sieve the matter through. We come across ‘secondary decomposers’— pink earth worms, unused to daylight, wood louse and spiders. I remember the brown mouse I startled while turning my compost box last winter. He is a ‘tertiary decomposer’ I am told. I felt very sorry to have disturbed his sleep. My own composting had been unscientific, undisciplined and, stinky. Now I learn that cultivating aerobic bacteria is key; these life forms are the primary decomposers. They’re the gold of the soil and their work brings dead matter back to life.

When we are called for lunch, we gather inside. S has prepared some spicy pasta and this is just what we need to warm us from the inside out. We sit around the table and the volunteers discuss what vegetables from their home countries they’d like to see growing in the garden this year. Chickpeas, Avocados, Spinach, Lemons, Okra… some of these are doable. Others not likely given the climate in the North East and despite the magic microclimates of the polytunnel. It is hard to imagine eating okra from the garden as it is today, all bracing wind and bare beds. But the seeds are lady’s fingers in waiting, the taste coded in, immanence if ever it was. The soil is warming up with each week. The compost heap will heat up soon. The sun will heat the polytunnel and it will become balmy inside, beneath the cardboard sheaths covering the earth, the bacteria are feasting away and preparing the ground for this year’s seedlings. There is so much happening in what we call ‘waiting’ or ‘interim’. So much activity and energy that we don’t always think about when we pick the vegetables off the shelf in our supermarkets.

‘A vegetable or fruit from my country’ – Cal’s brainstorming activity with volunteers

I am looking at soil differently. Realising that words like ‘dirt’ and ‘brownfield’ are not only inaccurate, but political. Thinking with soil involves recognising all the life, all the teeming critters, visible and invisible, that make the ground grow. Thinking with soil means reframing labels like ‘brownfield’, and understanding how such a label works to make invisible this life, and its significance to all other life. The question emerging for the research project now is: How to rethink the city with soil in mind?

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.