Article written by Ezgi Bakçay (Karşı Sanat collective) and İmge Haliloğlu for Bir+Bir magazine. 1+1 Express is a news, review and commentary network of the Bir+Bir Culture and Art Association, founded in 2017 by the 1+1 collective, operating since 1994. 1+1 Express magazine is published quarterly in print and available in bookstores. You can read the Turkish version of this article here. English version by Tobias Logan, Next Planning.
As time and social space become more and more claustrophobic and civil society more stifled, we decided to take to the mountain air to look to other horizons. We crossed paths with old friends from urban social movements who continue to search, trace, and walk on “common wander lines” to trigger our collective imagination. We found ourselves in the inspiring ecosystem of citizen-run associations and locations in the Grenoble area. From the heart of the Alps, we are immersed in the ideas and practices of a network which spreads throughout France and beyond.
During our visit to the Assembly of the Commons and of Possibilities in Grenoble, France, we interviewed David Gabriel Bodinier, an artist-activist involved for many years in urban social movements taking place in working class neighborhoods. We talked about the commons, the right to the city, municipalism, and the trajectories of “commoning” in a historical context. We talked together about the past, the present, and some ideas for the future.
You have been active for several years in the emblematic neighborhood of The Villeneuve, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and in the Assembly of the Commons of Grenoble. Can you tell us a bit about the history of your city and the Villeneuve neighborhood?
Grenoble is a medium-sized city located about 100 kilometers south of Lyon, in the heart of the French Alps. It is often called the capital of the Alps, as it is located in the heart of the mountains and at the confluence of two major rivers. It is a small town but has a specific history of social movements. It is sometimes said that the French Revolution started in Grenoble with the “Journée des Tuiles”on June 7th 1788! Throughout the 19th century, the city was marked by industrialization resulting in the creation of several working class neighborhoods, particularly St. Bruno, where a culture of political organization among the working class still exists today. During World War II Grenoble was an important place for resistance movements that took shelter in the mountains surrounding the city, particularly in the Vercors region. From the middle of the 20th century the city became a major university center with many research institutions. All this history has created a very specific atmosphere for a city of this size.
Since the 1960s, Grenoble has become a political laboratory for the new left. The Municipal Action Groups (GAM in French) won the elections in 1965 with the idea of a civilian reappropriation of municipal institutions. They wanted the inhabitants to participate in the management of the city, as a counterforce against the will of the state. This political strategy helped to pass on the tradition of municipalism, in which social movements sought to challenge the power of the state with the power of the cities. Municipal action groups sought first to improve the daily lives of residents through new urban policies. In particular, they were inspired by the theories of Henri Lefebvre to create a vast urban project located south of Grenoble called the Villeneuve.
The Villeneuve is the result of a meeting between the Municipal Action Groups, an architecture and urban planning cooperative (AUA in French), and citizens of the city. Together, they tried to realize a utopia on a large scale: several thousand social housing units, condominiums, numerous schools around an alternative education project, community health centers, cultural centers, a 14-hectare park, a neighborhood television station, a school of architecture — The Villeneuve has become an emblematic place that has left its mark on urban history in France and on urban social movements.
You are the founder of an association calledNext Planning, that was created at the Villeneuve in Grenoble. In what context was the association created? What is your link to the history of the Villeneuve?
Next Planning was created amidst a vast organizing movement in the working class neighborhoods of Grenoble that began in 2010. With a team of activists, we began discussing the need to create new organizations in working-class neighborhoods following the urban revolts happening between 2005 and 2010. We were inspired by the methods of an American sociologist Saul Alinsky—who created the tradition of community organizing in Chicago—to create an organization called the Citizen’s Alliance in cooperation with several hundred residents.
We created Next Planning as a result, with the idea of building a tool for transforming urban and municipal policies. Our objective is to increase the capacities of inhabitants to intervene in urban planning processes. As in the days of the Municipal Action Groups, we aim for a reappropriation of the city by the citizens and to succeed in change based on the proposals of inhabitants and social movements.
Starting in 2012, we began meeting with a group of residents who were fighting against an urban renewal project that imposed the demolition of several buildings in the Villeneuve. This group was gathered around a former teacher named André Béranger who had participated in the pedagogical project of the Villeneuve from the beginning. It was then that we learned about the history of the Villeneuve, which had been somewhat forgotten. We then delved into the memory of this district in order to envisage how it might be possible to fight against its demolition. We created a Popular Urban Planning Workshop (APU) bringing together residents, associations, architects, and researchers to develop an alternative project to the demolition of the Villeneuve. Our proposals were taken up during the 2014 municipal elections, as a new gathering of ecologists and citizens of the left played an important part in the election of Eric Piolle.
It is in these years that we begin to talk about “new municipalism” in cities across the world, especially following the Occupy movement. What is the link between the Occupy movement and the municipalist experiences that emerged, for example, in Catalonia and Spain?
We have been very much influenced by the Occupy movement of the Los Indignados in Spain, the Tahrir Square and the Arab revolutions, the Occupy movement in the United States, and the occupation of Gezi Park in Taksim. From our perspective, these movements were an extension of the French anti-globalist movement along with social forums. In France, we had to wait until spring 2016 to see the emergence of the Nuit Debout movement. In Grenoble, for two months we occupied the square of the Maison de la Culture (MC2), which is a public space in between the city center and working class neighborhoods, including the Villeneuve.
During the two months of the occupation, we had a lot of time to discuss our political strategies. During the assemblies, in the commissions, and at night under the tents we discussed the importance of continuing to support the struggle for housing, self-organization in working class neighborhoods, the defense of the commons, and strategies for reappropriating municipal institutions. It was as a result of this occupation that we created the Assembly of the Commons of Grenoble.
In 2017, we had the opportunity to participate in the first Fearless Cities municipalist summit in Barcelona at the initiative of the “Barcelona en Commun” platform. In an era marked by the return of authoritarianism, this gathering of “Fearless Cities” aimed to transform the way politics is done from the bottom up. The movement was inspired by the philosopher and ecologist Murray Bookchin and was part of the movement of “new municipalism”. We began to share our respective experiences and discuss in depth strategies for reclaiming municipal institutions. A number of participants continued these conversations at the European Assembly of the Commons in Madrid, which took place several months later. All these meetings contributed to creating an alliance between the right-to-the-city residents’ movements, the commons movements, and municipalism across Europe. Our transnational exchanges made it possible to secure municipalist strategies in the long term. This was important to do seeing as the reappropriation of municipal institutions in the face of state power is a phenomenon that has been repeated throughout history in many countries.
In Turkey, the social opposition, which has become much more fragile in the anti-democratic period after the Gezi Park occupation, is discussing prospects opened up by the Istanbul 2019 municipal elections, which could go further if there is a political change in 2023. This is why the exchange of experiments between countries like Spain, France, Italy, and elsewhere are important on the eve of presidential elections. You mentioned the Assemblies of the Commons, where we were invited. Can you tell us more about them? How are these assemblies organized and what are their methods?
The Assemblies of the Commons bring together people and organizations who wish to exchange practices and defend a political agenda. It is a political tool that tries to create new political practices locally. In the beginning we started to discuss our practices of occupying squares, alternative spaces, and neighborhoods, such as supporting the inhabitants of the Villeneuve in the face of the demolition of their neighborhood. Then we broadened the discussion to the defense of the natural commons – rivers, forests, mountains, fields (…) and the immaterial commons – cultural practices, digital, knowledge, memories…
The assemblies aim to strengthen our common-ing practices by organizing horizontally in local contexts. We try to promote forms of organization that allow us to manage our resources in a democratic way, including trying to question power relationships that may exist within our communities. We want to make sure that everyone can participate in these assemblies and learn from the different practices of self-organization. For example, at the last assembly we learned a lot from the practices of “neighborhood tables,” which are forms of organization for inhabitants in working-class neighborhoods.
One of the specificities of the Assembly of the Commons of Grenoble is that the municipality of Grenoble itself participates in the assembly. This has led to a lot of debate, but we find the results interesting. In the assembly, the municipality has a voice like any other political organization. No more, no less. So we have to be clear: it is not the city of Grenoble that runs the Assembly of the Commons, and the local organizations keep their autonomy. For the people who work for the municipality it’s not always easy! We try to change the dynamic between the municipal institutions and the social movements, all in an open and friendly framework. In our meetings we discuss, eat together, and party! (laughs).
It was a meeting that was not discussed in advance but was organized in-situ based on the presence and demands of the participants. We noticed that with the successive attendance over the years, the meeting had created a community. The participants are already working together on their local problems. Who were the participants of the last Assembly of the Commons and the Possible and what were the themes of discussion?
The assembly forms a constellation of very different groups of activists, associations, artists, researchers … for example there are representatives of an alternative space called “Le Lieu” that is dedicated to providing homeless people with a place in the city to sit down, discuss, organize to defend their rights … Other participants are involved in neighborhood tables, which are self-organized groups of inhabitants in working class neighborhoods. There are also associations that protect the local river, people involved in the land commons who participate in the management of natural resources, researchers, lawyers who are interested in the commons, and artists, who together open each other up to new sensibilities and imagined futures through the commons.
During the Assembly of the Commons and the Possible, we talked about the idea of the Anthropocene, even if it isn’t obvious to build a common language between all the scientific, political and artistic efforts related to the fight against climate change. We are trying to create new places of understanding between the urban commons and the commons in natural spaces. In Grenoble, we have many mountains and land spaces that are commons, such as the “sections de commune” which are not managed by the state or private owners but are managed as commons.
We also discussed the commons in a transnational context, such as the connections we can make with artists and activists in Italy, Spain, Turkey … there have always been many translocal exchanges in history but today the scale and speed of communications are increasingly important and contain multiple reciprocal influences.
Our generation is in the process of expressing new political and democratic radicalism. Movements have become very demanding in the way they organize themselves at the sub-political level. There is a profound influence of feminist movements that have challenged the status quo of power, ways of speaking, and attitudes. There are new knowledge and new practices that are developing with more sensitivity and openness, including to non-humans. We feel more consideration for plants, animals, and the climate. For example, we talked a lot during the last assembly about the rivers in our region. How can they defend themselves? Can the river speak? Writers and artists have a lot to teach us because a number of them can restate what the river itself expresses.
To be able to concretize your practices during the pandemic, what actions of solidarity were created by these movements and associations?
Our first strategy is always to strengthen our social bases. In France, after the revolts in the working class neighborhoods, we started to support the organization processes of inhabitants in such neighborhoods. We started by creating relationships with people who were not at all activists and who were just trying to defend themselves in the face of daily problems, housing, economic problems, educational difficulties, [etc].
These practices were reinforced during the pandemic, when there were many acts of mutual aid and solidarity around subjects such as food, the defense of housing conditions, support to the elderly or to children. We have tried to reimagine our political practices from very concrete dimensions of daily life in order not to remain at the level of the great conceptual theories of the relationship to the State, to the multinationals and to capitalism, even if those are also important.
In order to come together, we try to create organizations with all layers of society to be as close as possible to society and to avoid creating small isolated groups. We need to be numerous in order to face the forces that face society, in particular the extreme right. For several years European countries have been faced with far-right movements, and we have a very important challenge in avoiding their taking power. The far right recently came to power in Italy, and this situation can happen anywhere.
Down the line, our strategy is to take over the municipal institutions in order to challenge the power of the state.
We have reached a crucial point in our interview. How do you manage to work with the municipalities? Here it’s a big question because we have to make communication more effective and the processes more participatory. What is your experience?
Relations with municipalities are always difficult because they are institutions that inherit a hierarchical way of functioning that is often quite far from the practices of social movements. Municipalities have a centralized operation which revolves around the figure of the mayor, with a small system that gravitates around numerous municipal services, technicians, various interests, [etc]. It is precisely this way of functioning that we are trying to transform with new municipalism. In Spain, the “Barcelona en Commun” platform has begun to develop a new political culture within municipalities by involving associations, citizens and social movements in defining new municipal policies. Our challenge is to succeed in transforming the municipalities from the practices we developed during the occupations movement with the democratic assemblies. After the occupation movement, there is a movement of occupation of the municipalities which will allow them to transform.
I can illustrate my point with an image. In Grenoble, the mayor Eric Piolle was present during the movement of occupation of the public space in front of the Maison de la Culture. He participated in an assembly like all the other citizens. He came to listen to what the residents who were gathered in the assembly had to say, including the criticisms of the policies he may lead. We want to reappropriate the municipal institutions while keeping our freedom of speech, our ways of doing things, our political autonomy, and our principles of self-organization, in order to decide the future of the city.
We’ve talked a lot about what’s happening in Grenoble, but there are similar movements in Marseille, Lyon and other French cities. Can you tell us about the links with communities in different cities?
We have built a network between different movements of inhabitants acting for the commons, for the right to the city and for municipalism. For example, in Marseille, there is a very important movement of inhabitants’ organizing—following the collapse of several buildings in the Noailles district, these inhabitants got together and organized demonstrations in order to defend the right to the city. During the last municipal elections, this movement eventually led to political changes. Residents began to reappropriate municipal institutions. In Lyon, Poitiers, Strasbourg and many smaller cities, there have also been changes in power at the municipal level. In each case there are local particularities, because the inhabitants’ movements are very much linked to the context and memory of each city. This is why we believe that it is very important to carry on history, because it has an impact on the present. The French municipalist network is quite important, even if it is not necessarily known abroad where one tends to focus only on national politics and the political dominance of Emmanuel Macron. Interestingly, there are also similar movements in other European countries, in Spain, Italy, the Balkans and across several continents. And we hope that the municipal changes that have taken place in Turkey, especially in Istanbul, are harbingers of statewide change! We support you strongly!
Speaking of memory, I remember that during the Assembly, one of the most important points was to talk about the past itself as a common. You had told us about the story of André Béranger at the Villeneuve, his farewell and the community there.
This story was told at the last Assembly of the Commons and the possible. As I mentioned before, I had the chance to meet André Béranger when he started to mobilize against the destruction of the Villeneuve. He was very attached to this neighborhood, where he had been involved in the educational project of the Villeneuve schools in the 1970s. Faced with the demolition project, we went door to door to alert the neighbors, organize public meetings, put up banners in the neighborhood, [etc.] When I went to his house, he explained to me at length the political project of the Villeneuve and the municipal action groups. Unfortunately, following an illness during the COVID19 crisis, his family sent us a message telling us that he was very ill and inviting us to gather downstairs. In spite of the confinement and the curfew, we found ourselves with more than 200 people with a batucada, a choir, and candles to pay tribute to him… André then came to greet us one last time from his window.
He passed away the next day. It was a very strong moment in which we formed a community. Throughout his life, André Béranger was involved in living together in a neighborhood, and in facing the hazards of life. The day before he died, the community was gathered around him. For me, this moment has profound meanings about what it means to be a community, especially after the COVID19 crisis. We continue to act because of the people who are no longer here. In a way, they are still present through us and they invite us to keep believing, not to get discouraged. This conversation about the connection between the community of the present and the absent was one of the strongest moments of the Assembly of the Commons.
Just to finish, in the title we talked about wander lines. What does the wandering line mean to you?
This is an expression of Fernand Deligny. He was an educator, writer, and director who worked with delinquent youth, especially in closed educational centers where he imagined ways to go beyond the setting, and he ended his life working with autistic children in the mountains of the Cevennes in France. He organized several villages where the children lived together in community. The children had the freedom to go wherever they wanted to do their daily activities. At the end of the day, the adults would draw the lines of their journey on large sheets of paper. For me, wandering lines are lines of freedom that allow one to go beyond the constraints of society to explore new horizons. Wandering is a way to get lost, off the beaten track, off the paths that have been traced by the powers that seek to constrain us, including by the technological powers. It is a question of finding crossroads to live differently, with the people we want to live with. The Assembly of the Commons and the possible is part of this research. We organized the last assembly in the mountains to explore new places, where we are not necessarily used to going. In these places we can create new spaces of freedom. These wandering lines will be able to take us all over the world and, I hope, to Turkey!
During the Assembly of the Commons and the Possible in Grenoble on November 10-13, 2022, we organized workshops on the commons in Marseille, Naples, Istanbul and finally in Mardin. We will try to pass these wandering lines onto Turkey also with different actors, other participants, widening the map of the community towards new social contexts. Thank you for sharing these experiences with us.
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