The report of Fabrice Lextrait

« Wastelands, laboratories, factories, squats, multi-discipline projects … a new era of cultural activity » by Fabrice Lextrait.

The text below is a summary report of the study conducted by Fabrice Lextrait, former administrator of la Friche La belle de mai. At the behest of the French State Secretariat for Heritage and Cultural Decentralisation, the study was conducted from October 2000 to April 2001.
The topic of the study was "those projects which establish, in particular and original ways, the conditions for production and, therefore, for reception of the artistic act" mostly in France.

This summary can also be downloaded on the website of the French Ministry of Culture

An empirical Approach

In order to best meet the requirements of the order, a "grass-roots" approach was adopted, which enabled meetings with a large number of people involved in this still badly-defined area.
Fifteen monographs and 17 experiment reports were produced which are representative of this new era of cultural activity.
In order to bring together the issues stemming from these projects, an internal Ministry of Culture working group was formed, plus a support group comprising 15 persons involved in the new cultural adventures.

The report submitted to Michel Dufour, Secretary of State for Heritage and Cultural Decentralisation, is divided into three sections:

- The first contains the monographs and experiment reports.
- The second provides a more global analysis of the issues involved in artistic, cultural social, economic, urban and political terms.
- The third section gives a transcription of the discussions of the support group.

Particular Experiences

The experiments studied are extremely diverse in terms of their origins, their organisation, the presence of different artistic disciplines, their relations with the productions, the population, the public authorities, the market and, of course, in terms of the size of each project.
This diversity is a feature and an essential element which must not only be preserved but, indeed, fostered.
All the experiments are the product of a local context, which provides their qualification. They are experimental and do not offer global alternative models.

A Question of Terminology

It is therefore extremely difficult to agree upon a common term to describe them. To assign one term or another smacks of a move towards standardisation which is alien to the spirit of these activities. There are many terms which exist and are used to describe them: place, space, project, wasteland, action, experiment, laboratory, adventure, factory, (new) approach, experimentation etc.
Of those involved whom we met, all paid great attention to the name of their project, combining the physical relation to the chosen place (previous occupation, method of appropriation of the premises or quarter), the type of action (squat, laboratory, experiment, innovation) the content (theatre, music, multi-discipline activity) and the type of organisation (system, collective).


- A new Approach to Artistic Production


In these projects, the approach to artistic production is based on a global concept which permeates the entire process, from the initial emergence of the work to its socialisation - a process where the collective dimension is evident, where the various actors, designers, performers and the public no longer come together in the conventional roles, but in a context of permanent interaction. This approach to production sees the overlapping of the notions of political, artistic and cultural projects.
Indeed, based on this definition, the métier of artistic producer takes on a new definition.

The relation between the Creative Product and the Creative Process

In this new artistic approach, the status of the creative work is called into question in the sense that it is no longer the sole objective, either in terms of creation or in distribution. If this question of creative work and process is raised, it is because the relationship with art is a multiple one and various attitudes coexist amongst the artistic community and throughout the public. The opening up of the work process is linked to a desire by the artist, the producer and the public to work together in a creative context.
These projects, by dint of their experiments, their laboratories, work sites and residency, bring about creative meetings between the artists themselves and create a new relationship with the public.<

The Question of Distribution

The encounter of the creative work with the public remains an essential factor, although the importance of other forms of interactivity between the artist and the public means that it is not the sole objective.
The conditions for distribution of artistic works is one of the issues in these projects. Playing longer runs with the appropriate number of spectators is thus a key factor. It is sometimes more important to maintain the relationship between a production and the public than distribute it in other towns. It is nevertheless true that these structures play a major role in the distribution of regional creative work and more globally in the distribution of young creative work.

Artistic Residency

Artistic residency places the artistic act in the local community - it places artists at the core of the local development process and provides the artists with social, economic and cultural visibility. The existence of structures to house and produce artistic projects, taking on board the tasks of management of the site and providing support to the artistic projects, is a key factor in the way residency is organised and regulated.

Exigency and Artistic Excellence

The notion of exigency refers to a commitment and a quest for rigour in a long-term enterprise whose dimensions and artistic issues can be recognised and identified. This differs radically from the notion of excellence, based on a scale of implicit aesthetic values. Exigency must apply to all processes of contemporary creation. "The best guarantee of artistic rigour is to provide the possibility of working in suitable and diverse places and to offer the conditions for encounters by encouraging long term work opportunities" (Michel Simonot, New Artistic Writing, Ministry of Culture Report).

Transversality and Multi-disciplinarity

The number of different disciplines and artistic spheres represented in these structures, together with the multi-disciplinary aspect of the creative work, artistic projects and the proximity of the source of encounters, meetings and discoveries all provide the opportunity for an interchange of heterogeneous methods. Cultural transversality is also fostered, which puts the artists in touch with social realities.

Creation of Spaces, Spaces of Creation

The spirit of these structures is such as to require progressive appropriation and use of the spaces which are "capable" in their own right of attracting artistic works. By their action, the artists help to preserve and transform these spaces, by exploiting their great versatility.

The Public, the Population, the Participants

These projects attempt to forge a new relationship with the public, less instrumental, more qualitative. The absence of the discriminatory character currently associated with theatres, contemporary arts centres and concert halls facilitates a more open dialogue between the artist and the public and amongst the public itself. Above all, these spaces propose new roads, new paths for the public to explore. The creation of these spaces has allowed all types of activities, including amateur activities, to exist simultaneously, brought together in a single space, a single place.

- Organisation of the Artistic Experiments

The basic principle of organisation in these structures is to establish an equivalence between equipment, the teams and the artistic projects. The essential point that these organisations have in common is that they explore the more collective methods decision-making, and allow all players to act autonomously within the system. Organisation is based on collegial management structures, collective management structures, along mutual society lines or according to the principles of self-management.


Programming begins as soon as artists meet to form a group, when squatters co-opt a premises, when residents chose some area of wasteland or when artistic producers are mobilised. The involvement, the rigour, the generosity of each person involved is more important in this type of programming than preconceived conceptual quality. Planning covers all activities and projects which are themselves artistic or cultural and which may in general affect other sectors. Very rarely is this responsibility in the hands of a single person.
Programming may:

- focus on an artistic theme by an artist or a group
- be organised by a director who produces artistic works
- be a combination of artistic works from partners in the project
- a mix, depending on artistic works and opportunities presented.
A combination of all four is frequently observed.

What are the Methods of Production?

The organisation of these initiatives metaphorically reflects the projects. The transformation is based on a rationale of mobility and reversibility. The method of production often depends upon the relationship between the user and the owner, on how the space available and the project are used by the owner/producer, who often have little experience in the field of architectural modifications.

What economy?

Few cultural experiments are able to combine social experimentation aimed at economic integration of the most underprivileged sectors of the population, with research in the area of a restrained economy, obliged to develop with digital technology. These projects fall into a new cultural economy which tends to preserve the specific nature of each artistic initiative, whereas any traditional economic structure is inclined to standardise production.
Analysis shows radically different financial structures, where self managed associations exist side by side with structured units (ranging from tens of thousand of francs to millions of francs).
These projects mobilise numerous sources of funding. Although the public purse provides the greater part of the funding, it takes a different form from funding of places with a label, and private funding also contributes to the solvability of the activities. The two major sources of funding are the state and the local authorities, each of which fund to an average level of 25% of the budget. In terms of budgetary load, staff costs amount to slightly less than 50% of the budget.

Functional Approach

"The relation between creation, distribution, training and raising awareness in the various institutions are so far apart today that the work of the artist consists in re-exploring each one of these functions and, from the standpoint of the artistic project, of questioning the links between them. When you work on this, it is interesting to see how the place, the position of the public and of the artists changes. You just have to work on the links which run between them to invent a new set of rules". (Loic Touzé, choreograph, Support Group).
If one can speak of a new function, it is because there has been recognition of the simultaneous existence of multiple functions. This new function revisits the links between the various steps in the production process and establishes the conditions for experimentation which applies across the board, appearing in the fields of research, of production/creation, distribution, training, animation and in the economic, urban, social and educational roles.

Economic, social, educational and urban Dimensions

Legitimate intervention by artists in the social field is born of the desire or even of an urgent need felt to establish a new contact with reality. It translates into participation in the political definition of a project in a given area, without being involved in the context of a public procedure.

Functions directly linked with the Artistic Process

Most functions are present in all these structures at least at the initial stages. However, they take on a new meaning because as they are based on the notion of artistic permanence.
We find:

- the research functions
- the production / creation function
- the distribution function
- the initiation, practice and training functions
- the debate / discussion function


Finding the Conditions for Production and Distribution appropriate to the Current Context

If artists, the public, the operators and politicians have decided to engage in these initiatives, it is because the conventional structures and practices have not provided the possibility of inventing new cultural adventures based on artistic permanence at city or regional level.
The creative dynamism of these new projects is often generated when artists and producers come together in an attempt to establish the essential conditions for working with a public willing to be involved in facilitating access to artistic and cultural spheres that are often neglected in traditional structures.
Thus, one of the major drivers of this movement is the involvement of amateurs to promote encounters with their preferred artistic and cultural activities.

Production requirements hinge on three main aspects:

- time: these initiatives work on constantly revisiting the nature of all artistic temporalities, artistic, neo-economic, social transformation. All temporal aspects must be included: training, transmission, research, construction, exhibition, performance and operation.

- space: in order to gain autonomy, the first means of production to be found is space. The use of wasteland brings the possibility of areas which are free, flexible, open and identified, providing a whole range of artistic, cultural, political and urban possibilities. These areas have been used simultaneously as spaces for scenographic investigation, as work spaces and as spaces for political relations with the population.

- means of relating with the public: in these experiments, what is important is that the artist is in the centre of the process, in direct contact with society, with reality. The public attending these events and participating in the workshops, the local residents are not consumers of culture; they are partners in art, themselves involved in the initiative and the creative process.

In seeking these methods of production, operators and artists have invented new approaches to culture which have grown in number because abandoned spaces were available not only areas hit by industrial or agricultural decline, but also in booming urban areas.

Thus, wastelands are the incarnation of the questioning by artists and the population as a whole of the transformation of our society, transformation, sometimes, of vast spaces that bear witness to the economic and political restructuring which has often plunged whole communities into despair.
Freed from the constraints of time (rehearsal time, length of run etc) and of space (stage, white exhibition hall, number of spectators), and despite precarious working conditions, operators and artists are opening up new fields which are favourable to the invention of new forms of creation, to a new relationship with the public, an unprecedented intermingling of artistic experts and experts of every-day life, of artists and public.

Historical Aspects

Three historical references can be cited:
- the first is the decentralisation of the theatre
- the second is those artists who created unique spaces in the 1970s, moving away from the national network set up by the Ministry of Culture and Communication and the local authorities
- the third is the alternative artists, who, at the end of the 1970s in France and a decade earlier in northern Europe initiated social and cultural experiments of contestation.

Different relations with regard to the Notion of Established Institutions and a quest for Legitimacy

In these experiments, the full range of positions can be found with regard to the established institutions, be they public or private, whether incarnated by public authorities or private operators.

Areas for social Renewal

As a result of the work of social renewal made possible by such initiatives, it is apparent to many people, particularly the young, that different social worlds are able to intermingle and, together, question the transformations taking place in our society. This right to the city is matched with a right to hesitate, both of which enable re-evaluation of identities often qualified or experienced as negative.

Local Bases and Structural Bases

Analysis of the local contexts allowed us to see that the local landscape plays a major role, although it was not possible to identify the conditions necessary for the emergence of these new practices.
Towns rich in cultural institutions and where cultural activity runs high appear to be just as inclined to generate intermediate projects or to reject them as those towns where cultural policy is not embedded in the institutions.
Although the majority of the projects which we viewed are located in urban areas, increasing numbers are emerging in rural areas. Slightly more than half owe their origins to artists.
One third are prompted by a single or several local authorities. Less than one fifth are launched by cultural operators or a company.

It is difficult to establish a typical profile of the teams which initiate projects of this type - many different structures exist side by side, almost all the artistic disciplines are represented, qualifications are extremely varied, the male / female ratio is uneven and professional experience, either creative or in the area of distribution, may have been gained within or outside the established institutions.


In order to carry through this new stage of cultural development, it is the local context which must first and foremost be considered, so as to best harness the aspirations of the people and the force of artists themselves. Therefore it is recommended not only to support this experimental work, but to experiment with another type of public policy.

Three type of intervention may be envisaged:

1. with respect to physical experimental areas:

- Support for the temporary use of buildings for cultural purposes could be achieved by making available empty areas for a period of more than 24 months. The aim would be to meet a social demand and at the same time deal with the problems associated with unused buildings.
- Re-establishment of culture at the core of issues relating to local development. These projects must be re-positioned to form part of government Development Policy (for example, Contrat de Plan Etat-Région, Contrat de Ville, Contrat d’Agglomération, de Pays etc), whereby the artistic processes permeate the regions in different ways, in this way imbuing culture with a true transversal function.

2. with respect to project support:
This support must take the form of:

- listening, follow up and increased administrative support
- direct financial support for operations and for development of the process of mutual collaboration, established by the teams themselves.

3. in favour of a new artistic production policy:
A method of supporting strong transversal production must be found, based on the very nature of the projects themselves, the vast majority of which mix different artistic disciplines and call into question the conventional forms of artistic production, from creation to distribution of the work.

The report therefore proposes that an ad-hoc mission is formed to encourage a high degree of mutual co-operation, an essential element of the success of this method.

The main task of the mission would be to support the projects by:

- support to local authorities
- support for decentralised management
- support for transversal reflection within the various ministries concerned
- negotiation of global partnerships.

Modified on Wednesday 29 November 2006