After following the “manifestations” through the main boulevards of the city yesterday, we headed out to one of the suburbs of Paris for the first of a series of collaborations with the community center in Argenteuil. Our collaborating artist Klaus Fruchtnis has worked with the community there in the past and we are interested in engaging with populations who are “off the map” so to speak. Built on a medieval town, this former respite of many famed French impressionist painters is now is home to many of new immigrants in Paris, primarily Muslims coming from Arabic-speaking countries. Anticipating that “queer” is not really a term that translates in French, we initially suggested our formal outreach to this community focus on the idea of inside/outside, as a starting point. Klaus brilliantly suggested the titled “Géographies Urbaines Singulières”, which suggests ‘unique perspectives’.
The French are wonderful hosts. We were received like dignitaries, offered coffee, toured around in a private mini-bus and then served lunch with some of the town’s officials – all at no request. I am always struck when traveling abroad at the generosity and curiosity of hosts from other countries, especially considering a group of Americans visiting must be quite ordinary event. Certainly this is how we casually greet visitors in NYC (hello, nice to meet you, have a great trip.) So, it is always a pleasure to feel sincerely welcomed, appreciated and attended.
Today was an important “ice-breaker” day, a chance for us to see who would be working with, how they have worked in the past, and for them to ask us questions. This being France, this took up at least half of the afternoon, as our large circle of introductions often gave way to other questions. What is design? What does it mean to be a designer? Do we make beautiful things or not? Klaus and Sara did a fantastic job alternating as on-the-spot translators, a very exhausting role.
Our polite introductions stumbled when someone from our team referred to “people of color”. The room went astir and soon we learned that there isn’t a non-offensive term for non-whites in France. Is this really so? Does this assume then that the word “immigrant” is the substitute, and if so, is race really talked about outside of an immigrant experience? I am curious to know if “whiteness” is a concept the French consider, or if this is somehow embedded in their own national identity, and if so, how that is changing. Questions from an American perspective, certainly.
Christopher led the afternoon workshop, which asked teams of two to share personal stories framed by the experience of traveling from one point to another, then collaborate to create a new narrative. Despite arriving after lunch, Christopher effectively tied the exercise to the morning discussions about community involvement, simply by introducing his own experience of expectation and newness in arriving to Paris. Each group seemed to positively connect and engage and afterwards the group reflected on their own ‘design process’ in how they work.
At the start of the day, someone had asked what services there are for LGBT communities in the town, and was told there were no such people seen in Argenteuil. We were off the “Queer Map” here. This raises the idea of how queer identity becomes transitional, masked into Paris, then shed before returning back. While a successful day of communication and connection, we will return tomorrow with an “un-closeted” project, introducing queer themes as framed by our project while remaining guests in this exchange. The meta-narrative for this project may indeed be a directional map itself: moving from biological anxieties of “manif pour tous” to LGBT invisibility in the suburbs to non-invisibility… and beyond.