La Ville Lumière

(with Katja Stuke)

20 × 28 cm. 226 pages.
ISBN 979-10-94060-33-9.
A Boehm Kobayashi and Éditions GwinZegal Joint.

by Florian Ebner

Photogenic Barricades or the Absence of Social Dialogue:
Katja Stuke and Oliver Sieber’s Photographs of a Day of Demonstrations in Paris, December 8, 2018

One night, seven scooters parked side by side diagonally across from my office at 25 Rue du Renard were set on fire. The next morning, the scene of destruction was staggering: the burnt-out remnants of the frames lying on the ground, the glass of the shop window behind them shattered by the heat, the sidewalk’s blackened and warped bitumen. I have no idea if the perpetrators have been identified and their motives investigated. For days, the wrecked vehicles remained where they were, untouched. I can’t say exactly when this was, how many months ago it happened, but today the act of destruction is still evident—bits of broken glass have been burnt into the surface of the pavement by the heat of the fire. When the sun is at its height in the middle of the day and I walk toward it, the fragments glitter against the light with a singularly pleasing allure. As I walked past the spot again not long ago, in the company of a colleague of mine from the architecture department at the Centre Pompidou, he told me that these shards of glass burnt into the ground are an eloquent symbol of all that is wrong with Paris and the country as a whole. They are signs of a destructive frenzy that reveal nothing further about its causes.

I couldn’t help but think of these fragments of glass as I looked through the 113 photographs that Katja Stuke and Oliver Sieber took on the streets of Paris on Saturday, December 8, 2018. This symbol of powerless, externalized violence burnt into the tarmac has a visual echo in the patterning of the contre plaqué, the large plywood panels that completely cover the boarded-up display windows of the banks, brand-name stores, luxury boutiques, and shops lining the major axes along which the demonstration was due to run. Depending on the color of the façade and the signs outside, these frontages blend in or stand out, just like the bits of glass in the tarmac as they respond to how the light falls. Yet their chief effect is to visually seal off the space of the city, turning the streets into hermetic stage sets in front of which the protagonists in this drama take up their positions. The security forces on one side—the CRS and police in their dark uniforms, on which you can sometimes see the name of the unit, such as 2B—and, on the other, the demonstrators, wearing their hi-vis vests (des vestes à haute visibilité), who since mid-November 2018 have been known unceremoniously as the mouvement des gilets jaunes, the “yellow vest” movement. As noon comes around, the plywood panels are still bare, with just a few of them sprayed with graffiti or slogans: “PAS DE NOËL POUR LES BOURGES” (No Christmas for the bourgeoisie) or “NI PATRIE, NI PATRON” (No nation, no boss), but even the blankness of the plywood panels is an eloquent expression of the lack of any social dialogue based on something that was once called fraternité, but which today is known in more modern terms as solidarité. Yet the city’s state of emergency is evident not only in the barricaded shop fronts but also, more tellingly, in the disruption of normal traffic, which has been brought to a standstill. While the security forces initially has drawn back to the sidewalks, the growing tide of demonstrators has taken over the car-free streets. What began a few weeks earlier on the islands of roundabouts leading into French provincial towns has long since reached the capital.

The eighth of December 2018 will go down in history as Act IV of the yellow vest movement. According to some sources, 1,700 people across the country were put in police custody (placé en garde à vue), while others claimed that 2,000 people had been detained for questioning (interpellations), 1,082 of them in Paris alone. At the end of that day, over a thousand people had been hurt or suffered serious injury (including bullets in the eyes and a ripped-off hand)—with both demonstrators and security forces on the receiving end of the violence. According to the Ministry of the Interior, the number of demonstrators nationwide was 136,000, while the policiers en colère—the protest movement within the police—put the figure as high as 700,000. At the same time, France Info indicated that, all in all, this Saturday proceeded “more calmly” than the previous week. Within the yellow vest movement, demonstrators clashed with people who just wanted to “run riot” (les casseurs).
Popular sympathy for the protest was still high at the time; according to one poll, some 70 per cent of the French population supported the gilets jaunes movement.

The pictures from this sequence by Katja Stuke and Oliver Sieber present us with a counterpoint to the abstract numbers, the best-of selection of three-minute reports, and the live inserts on the news channels. The course of a day, a simple mode of narration, and an original take on the forms of classical tragedy—with a quick “cutaway” to Tensions au coeur de Paris, the headline appearing on the large television screen inside a bar. The silent flow of Sieber & Stuke’s images show us at the same time how fluid the groups of actors are these days. There are uniforms on both sides and caught between them are some very different social actors who happen to get between the fronts: the businessman in a tie hurrying home with a can of Perrier in his hand, the homeless man with a black beanie and his little home-made cart, the joggers among the young cadres (executives), always out to improve themselves, and a woman from the municipal cleaning service, her yellow hi-vis vest almost a perverse form of camouflage. In addition to a few members of the media with their cameras, Stuke & Sieber’s pictures repeatedly show people using their mobile phones to film or take photos of events or the messages on the walls. Picture 88 shows a couple sitting on an old couch that has been put in the middle of the street, next to an overturned garbage bin. The photo has captured the exact moment they are posing for a picture. It is a kind of barricade selfie taken in a setting whose function is more decorative than actual. Though the pose is not very heroic, their symbolic occupation of the big boulevard is indeed something for the photo album, or at least for its virtual equivalent, the Facebook or WhatsApp group. One key factor underlies the casual quality of this harmless scene: where once people would go out on the street armed with all kinds of banners, now the slogans can be downloaded as a PDF and printed out in A3 format before the demonstration starts. In the past, the photographs would track events on the streets of the physical city. Today, the pictures come first. The city’s physical space is just scenery, forming a backdrop for the images that circulate in the virtual avenues of our global cities.

The popularity of media dispositifs like Facebook and Twitter, which feeds on these kinds of images and data, is said to have been what made the process of organizing and bringing together a mixed bunch of discontents possible in the first place, entirely without the backing of the unions and the political parties, which were already compromised in the eyes of many French people. Underlying the use of the term “yellow vests” is a political semiotics that can be easily deciphered and has its origins in the occupation of the roundabout islands and toll booths in the fall of 2018. The neon-yellow waistcoat with its two horizontal reflective stripes originally indicated that the person wearing it was exposed to the dangers of traffic. As an expression of social protest, it still signifies a warning, serving as a symbol whose content is ill-defined, yet clearly perceptible. Red Alert is the title of a 2007 work by German artist Hito Steyerl, which she created from three Apple screens mounted vertically on the wall. According to Steyerl, we have already entered a post-historical phase. The thrill-packed scenarios peddled by the media that put us in a constant state of red alert have long since gained the upper hand. One of the more significant ways in which these new political affects have come to expression is in the “color revolutions” that took place between 2003 and 2007, precipitating regime change—for the most part, peaceful—in Eastern Europe. Would the yellow vest movement be another such “color-coded, media-based revolution,” one that on 3 December 2018 the Russian government reportedly saw—according to the Le Monde newspaper—as a revolutionary uprising coordinated by the USA? The yellow vest movement is an ideal projection surface for conspiracy theories and for people seeking to profit from this great social crisis. In order to discredit it, it was alleged that those taking part included an above-average number of Le Pen voters; that they took to the streets in pursuit of contradictory demands, calling at the same time for gas prices to be lowered and environmental safeguards to be implemented; that the movement provided a platform for anti-Semites; and that it could not articulate its political demands. Yet none of this is directed against the movement itself, but rather against a society that does not take these political issues seriously as real social problems and is incapable of properly discussing them.

Oliver Sieber and Katja Stuke, the photographers behind this visual narrative, are not permanent fixtures in this society: however, as resident artists at the Cité internationale des arts, they were confronted with the first “acts” of the yellow vest movement. In this sense, they are distanced observers and do not take sides, although they are not indifferent: they observe how the conflict writes itself into the city’s narrative. Their route follows and intersects with that of the actors involved that day, leading them along Rue de Rivoli, past the Louvre to La Madeleine, on to Gare Saint-Lazare, past the Métro Liège to the Galleries Lafayette, along Boulevard Haussmann to Place de la République, and at night back to the Bastille and the Cité des arts. Their perspectives keep shifting between the side of the road and the middle of the street, locating the actors—in the midst of all the activity on the street—in relation to the setting, recording the lesser defilements (the demonstrators urinating) as well as the greater devastation, individual passersby being checked by plainclothes police officers and the wholesale deployment of the security forces. Their 113 photographs depict nothing more and nothing less than six hours of a day of protest, one act in this social drama, one more dies irae for French society, of which there have been an abundance recently, from the Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan attacks to the general strike and the demonstrations against police brutality. They capture the visible configurations of a social protest, whose political rhetoric remains unclear, and are thus equally eloquent as an account of the social fault lines within society. Stucke and Sieber’s sequence of images establishes a flowing narrative, providing them with a suitable contemporary form with which to convey this unrest: the focus is no longer on the decisive moment, the one significant image that encapsulates all the complexity of what’s happening and is put at the beginning of a photo report, on the first double-page spread: Marc Riboud’s young woman with the flower confronting the soldiers’ bayonets in Washington in October 1967 or Gilles Caron’s Danny le rouge going face to face with the security forces of the CRS in the revolutionary ferment of May ’68. The photojournalism of those years is gone now and the printed page from its golden age is also consigned to the past. It is worth noting too that these days the reality of protest no longer imparts these images, it has long since taken its leave and moved into a space where it functions virtually. It is only in the darkness of the December day, on the Place de la République, at the foot of the allegory of the French state, that an image evoking a demonstration yields itself, with banners and placards used to articulate political demands. Yet this part of the demonstration has already been defined in any case by environmental activists. Act IV of the yellow vest movement is over. Early the next morning, municipal street cleaners, also clad in hi-vis vests, will erase all traces of it from the streetscape.

The Paris streets, as captured by Oliver Sieber and Katja Stuke on December 8, 2018 and entitled La Ville Lumière, are incorporated into an extended series of maps: “Cartographie dynamique” is a virtual network connecting cities in Japan, Germany, France, and China—and soon India as well—with the distinctive photographic works created in each location. Thematic filters are added into the mix, among them “Protest,” “Anarchists,” “Olympia,” “Expo,” “Love Parade,” “Z.U.S.” (Zones urbaines sensibles), and “Péripherique.” These specify some of the unique features of these cities as well as comparable structural elements that they share, which act, for the most part, as catalysts for revolutionary urbanistic developments. This network originated fifteen years ago, with Japanese Lesson (2005), a body of work drawn from a wide range of private and appropriated image sources that has been continually expanding ever since. Beginning as an exuberant visual grammar consisting of shots of the city, portraits, and manga, steeped in the melancholy of the already antiquated hypermodernity of Japanese “electric towns,” it afforded a more acute view of Europe’s urban structures and evolved via photographic peregrinations through the city into applied psychogeography. The organization of the “Cartographie dynamique” as a network gives the desultoriness of Sieber & Stuke’s photographic dérives new possibilities of comparison and grants their repeating structures a logical inevitability. The cartography even generates ideas for new ways of mapping urban spaces, as is evident in Sieber & Stuke’s Walk the Walk, which transposes the local route from their flat in Düsseldorf to their studio, mapping it street by street onto a new neighborhood in the twinned Chinese city of Chongqing. La Ville Lumière falls sequentially between other works that were made in Paris and the suburbs to the north of the city, such as Aulnay-sous-Bois and Aubervilliers. Caught between factory closures and imminent gentrification, these urban spaces have been turned into Zones urbaines sensibles, sensitive urban zones in which social conflicts have already vented themselves in overt violence. Even if today, in a globalized and automated world, the causes of social disruption can be attributed more and more to the invisible mechanisms of economic and political processes, they find visible expression in the physical world of our cities. La Ville Lumière is thus just one act in Katja Stuke and Oliver Sieber’s photographic fieldwork, another key in their cartographie dynamique, a glistening splinter of glass in the cities’ bitumen.