Le Zone à Défendre (ZAD) is a large-scale protest movement against the building of a new airport close to the French city Nantes. It all began in 2007. Isa Fremeaux was teaching Media and Cultural Studies at the Birkbeck University in London, but she quit the job to escape from the academic world to look for other forms of teaching, storytelling and creative ways of resistance. John Jordan is an activist and co-founded the direct action groups Reclaim The Streets and The Clown Army. He worked as one of the cameramen for Naomi Klein’s The Take and collaborated on the 2004 book We are everywhere: the irresistible rise of global anti-capitalism. Together they founded the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination. They want to bring hope instead of indifference and to reach this goal they experiment collectively, bringing more creative forms of resistance and civil disobedience. However, they don’t want to make political art, what they do want is to make politics artistic. There is a big difference for them. Their way of working is not ‘showing’, but ‘transforming’. They also bring artists and activists together. On January 9 2018, during RITCS Winterschool, they presented an exposition on the workings of Le Zad and also reflected on the state with the provocative title The state of trouble: a handful of principals to rebuild the world despite the state.
“Disobedience in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.” – Oscar Wilde, 1891
“We are going to begin this exposition by travelling back three days, when we were trying to write what we were going to say here today and it’s not an easy thing to do. We are at home at a place called La Rolandière, which is our collective house on the edge of this forest of Roanne. This forest – if it hadn’t been for disobedient bodies – would now be an airport runway, another suicidal, climate-burning machine of capitalism. Just image a stretch of tarmac, 3,5 kilometres long, 60 meters wide. It was planned the year I was born, a kind of dystopian dream, which is now over a half a century old.
“Even the cows now are actually squatters, they are occupying the land illegally and like a lot of people, they like to be anonymous.”
Our home is an old farmhouse. We live there with eight other people and one child. It’s a squat like everything on the 4000 acres’ zone that we call Le ZAD. So Le ZAD is a liberated territory of forests, fields, wetlands and farmlands. Since 2007 resistant bodies have occupied it against an airport and its world. For us, that’s very important: we are also against everything that goes with an airport. The idea tied to the construction of infrastructure is a form of government, in the way that the state is shown more through building infrastructure than by law making. The state shows itself through the reconstruction of our territories. And so, on this territory, we try to step out of our set roles. On this territory squatters have become farmers, farmers have become squatters, artists become activists, activists become artists. Even the cows now are actually squatters, they are occupying the land illegally and like a lot of people, they like to be anonymous.
Le ZAD is a 30 minutes’ drive away from the city of Nantes. It’s the key wetland for the area and the building of an airport there already contravenes EU wetland laws. But those are just EU wetland laws that any state can tell to fuck off, so even the EU can’t stop these projects when states really wants them to happen. There is a second paradox about this land and in France we call them ‘bocage’, which is a patchwork of many small agricultural fields. In terms of ecology these are very important with their very thick hedgerows and it’s quite rare it still exists, since in the seventies and eighties the industrial agriculture took over in France and they cut down all the hedgerows to make way for big machines. But because the state decided to cover this area in concrete anyway back then, they never cut our hedgerows down. So ironically, because the state never came to build their airport, we were able to keep our bocage, this very rich and very rare kind of landscape.
“Capitalism is based on separating us from life, from everything. In Le ZAD we break these separations, we bring everyday life back into our own hands.”
If you came to the zone today, you would see about 70 different collectives with about 300 permanent residents living there. For us, Le ZAD is an incredible laboratory of commons. It’s us striving to work together without domination, without hierarchies, without violence and despite the state. In many ways, for Isa and I, coming to Le ZAD was just putting one of Lefèbvre’s 1968 ideas into practice: “Let everyday become a work of art.” Of course, this idea isn’t originally Lefèbvre’s, but found its origins in the avant-garde. The situation is said to “break all separations.” Capitalism is based on separating us from life, from everything. In Le ZAD we break these separations, we bring everyday life back into our own hands. You can build your own house, however you want, wherever you want. On the common fields we grow the wheat for the bread in the bakery. Nothing has a fixed price in the zone. We make our own cheese, we make ‘resistance Camembert’. We have honey and since 2013, no judge or policeman has ever come onto the 4000 acres. So we have to run justice ourselves. We have a whole system of communal justice, we have to deal with it ourselves. We also have a pirate radio station, which happens to squat the same FM range of Vinci motorway radio and the company that wants to build the airport is Vinci. So we’ve squatted both their land as well as their airways. And we even build a lighthouse last year, just where they want to build their control tower. We said: “We don’t want a control tower, we would like a lighthouse to welcome people to port, to show the dangers of capitalism and the rocks and the storms ahead.”
The last time the state tried to intervene, evacuate the people and start building the airport, was in the winter of 2012, when about 2500 police officers turned up in the zone. They were faced with an incredible and diverse resistance, an incredible alliance of the entire spectrum of radicals and reformists, defending this territory. So when the police turned up in 2012, they didn’t know whether they would be faced with villagers singing songs to them, or whether they had to face burning barricades and quite full-on conflicts. There were people who were living in trees, so they were trying to evict tree houses, which was a comical sight. It was called ‘Operation Caesar in the land of Astérix‘. So Le ZAD is located in wetland with a lot of mud in winter. This mud became an interesting weapon against the authorities and there was a lot of DIY defense. People put their disobedient bodies on the line, and some turned up naked to show their vulnerability to the police. We even had vikings come and help us. Despite the resistance, the police did manage to destroy twelve buildings and cabins on the zone and when they did, they actually took the remains away. The argument to do so was to not provide us with ammunition. We believe that it was to erase history.
“And we saw the most amazing human chains that we had ever seen, carrying all the materials to rebuild [the destroyed the buildings and cabins].”
But something else happened in the bocage during those weeks. Something that was really unexpected and that was the coming together of really different voices and a lot of determination. Some people talked years before the eviction that if the eviction ever happened, that they would organise a demonstration. The slogan was ‘If they come, we’ll come back!’. And so, when the eviction started, they said: “We are going to have to do it now”, so they started to organise the demonstration for reoccupation and called for people to come and rebuild what had been destroyed. We were some of the people who were not living on Le ZAD at the time and we were some of the people who were involved in helping organising that demonstration, pretty convinced that they would be, if lucky, a few thousand people turning up with a few planks, a hammer, build a symbolic hut and that it would be over. 40 000 people turned up! Some of them with pre-made huts that had been prepared more than a thousand kilometres away, bringing them on a plateau. There were 400 tractors that actually queued up full of materials to rebuild. And we saw the most amazing human chains that we had ever seen, carrying all the materials to rebuild. The sound of hammers never ever stopped during the whole weekend.
There were even magical moments, where during the night a band turned up to give courage to those who were building. So it was an extraordinary moment and a few days later, the police made their second strategic mistake. The first was to try to evict this incredible struggle, having not realised that they were actually on the land of resistance. The second strategic mistake was that they tried to attack the hamlets that had been build by 40 000 people just a few days prior, not realising that when something is built with such an energy, people are going to have some sort of attachment to it and are going to be ready to defend it. There were a few days where the tension was very high. More than 130 people were injured. A doctor actually published a public letter, saying “What I’ve seen this weekend are actual war injuries.” They were using flash grenades, rubber bullets, concussion grenades, the same grenade that would kill Rémi Fraisse a year later. The tension rose so much that the government realised that if they carried on like this, someone would probably die. It was far too early to take such a risk and so after about a week, they withdrew and stayed at a junction for a few months, but the very large majority of the police withdrew. And yet, the demonstration of solidarity didn’t stop. There was a collective of farmers that actually came and chained 50 tractors around the hamlet as a defense. They left their tractors chained there for several weeks and said: “You shall not touch this. We will organise ourselves, we will take turns on our own farms, because these are our work tools. But these people and their stuff are not to be touched.” Before the attempted evictions, there were a handful of local support committees, and after the evictions, there were more than 200 across France and some even abroad, in Europe. And so the police never came back on site.
So three days ago, we were trying to write this presentation and our emergency phone rings and people are leaving messages that rumour is going around the state is preparing to evict Le ZAD and that they will bring 40 000 officers and the army. There are also rumours that they will abandon the plans for the airport at last. So it’s been very unclear and unsure. During the last week we have had endless press moments, but also media trying to criminalise us. Because if you are going against the state and you provide a new working model, the state doesn’t really like it. So, of course, they have to call us terrorists, they have to prepare the ground and the public, to be able to use their violence. That’s what they’ve always done, because they need to control all their territory. The media are using the idea of death a lot, citing a gendarme report saying there will be at least three or four deaths. That was constantly put on TV. A newspaper said they had found secret photographs of Le ZAD, which the police had given them. Turns out the police had taken all of these photographs of our Facebook page, including a photograph which they said was a tunnel with weapon stocks and ammunition coming from all over Europe. In fact, the tunnel they’re talking about is a water well that was built by hand by incredible occupants of Le ZAD. As retaliation, we put in a lot of work to show the press that the photos came from Facebook and that it was a well, etcetera. The press did listen to us and took notice. So all this is for us the art of struggle, it’s the battle of the stories.
“Max Weber’s definition of the state is an appropriate one, he basically says that the stat is a group of people who gives themselves the right to be the only ones able to be violent. That they have the monopoly of violence.”
Travelling here, we stopped in Paris for a little while, so we go get some coffee in a café. The television was on and they were talking about Rémi Fraisse, the 21-year old activist from a kind of Le Zad in the south of France who got killed by a concussion grenade that hit his back. There was a trial to see if the gendarme was responsible and the news came that the justice department just dismissed the case. Basically, they didn’t think it was even an issue. The police officer is not even responsible and neither is the state, as if Rémi never even died. It’s a bit strange that this comes out during the week that they are preparing to evacuate Le ZAD. Max Weber‘s definition of the state is an appropriate one, he basically says that the state is a group of people who give themselves the right to be the only ones able to be violent. That they have the monopoly of violence. Another definition of the state that is important for us comes through a nice story Bill Mollison, one of the inventors of permaculture, talked about. He talked about Raffles, who was a coloniser in the 17th century. He was on his way to colonise a country in Asia and he passed this island, which turned out to be Indonesia, and he saw a lot of palm trees. He asked the people in the boat with him: “What is this island?” and the local guide explains that everything on the island is based on palm trees: their culture, their architecture, their clothing, food, their entire culture requires the palm trees. Raffles said: “Cut the fucking palm trees down, because we can’t govern anyone who doesn’t need us.” Another definition of the state is, it’s a group of people who destroy other people’s autonomy to force them to be dependent on the government. So we arrive here in Brussels, we left our home and we fear the return of the state to Le ZAD, we fear the return of this kind of theatre that acts as theatre.
“[W]e go to see a [theatre] show about the end of our civilisation and we return home to do business as usual.”
I (John) was trained in a theatre college, where I learned that one needs to separate the audience and the performance. Then, I went to art college and there I learned that actually art should never be useful and that if art was useful, that it was no longer art anymore. I got very inspired by body art. For a long time in my early twenties, I was doing body art. But what I really loved in the end was theatre. I was brought up in Brussels when I was little and my mum used to take me to the Monnaie, the opera house of Brussels. There I saw swirling bodies – it was the time of Béjart – in that time, it was quite a kind of radical way of moving and so I felt there could be other worlds. You should know that the Monnaie is one of the rare theatres where an insurrection started. It was 1830, there had already been an insurrection in Paris, the king had been disposed in Paris, so sparks for insurrection were everywhere. These things are at the same time deeply organised and very unexpected. The Mute Girl of Portici was playing in the Monnaie and in the middle of the play, one of the actors steps out of his role and puts his arms in the air and says “Long live the freedom”, they take to the streets and the insurrection begins. It ends with barricades, the houses of the rich being burnt down, the factories occupied and within a week Belgium is proclaimed independent for the first time in its history. So theatre had become an assembly, a spark for an insurrection, a platform from which to launch revolutionary actions.
Sadly, it is not like that anymore. It has become a hushed space, where we watch the impotent spectacle of the crisis, where people pretend to do politics. In 1758, philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, in his letter to Madame d’Alembert, had written about theatre and said “In giving our tears to these fictions, we have satisfied all the rights of humanity without having to give away anything more of ourselves.” What he was saying was that we were letting the audience experience a kind of public virtue and ignoring it in their everyday life. So they would cry over the unfolding drama and the theatre and the crisis that was on stage and then build all their emotional armour so that they could leave the theatre and go back to life as normal. We do the same, we go to see a show about the end of our civilisation and we return home to do business as usual.
“So climate change is a war of our economy against all forms of life, including human.”
There is phenomenon where American tourists, who pay 20 000 euros to go on a cruise, go and watch the glaciers melt. The advertising is quite poetic, it says “The storm doesn’t come just from the sky”, they actually talk about showing “one of the greatest shows on earth”, that’s what they call it. We want to remember that actually the 19 million inhabitants of the state of New York alone consume more energy than the 900 million inhabitants of the sub-Saharan in Africa. The latter are pushed of their land, however, by droughts and floods, there are already 13 million ecological refugees every year. By 2050, it is estimated that there will be about 200 ecological refugees of whom 150 million will be due to the climate catastrophe. So we believe that the climate catastrophe is a war on the poor. That is why we have to leave 80% of the fossil fuels in the ground and not burn them. There is a reason to report that shows that 90 companies, supported by the states, have actually caused 2/3 of all the global warming since the beginning of the 18th century. So climate change is a war of our economy against all forms of life, including human. If we go beyond 1.5 degrees of increased temperature, there is a chance that we would tip into, what many scientists are saying, a new state that could be inhospitable to humane life. So basically that’s the backdrop of our culture and we don’t believe that anyone who had made art, ever faced this prospect of the extinction of humanity. That’s a lot. We can’t make art as we used to do. Definitely, we believe that art is not enough.
“[I]nstead of writing to the politicians asking “Excuse me, could you not build this road?”, you put your body in the way of the problem.”
We think direct action is quite nice. Direct action is very simple. I learned it in the 90s in the anti-roads movement in the UK, instead of writing to the politicians asking “Excuse me, could you not build this road?”, you put your body in the way of the problem. I came out of performance art, where I had been doing these performances in rooms with about 50, 60 people in it and then realised it was always the same 500 people who were in the audience. The movements in the 90s against the roads in the UK won the war. 700 roads were cancelled because it cost too much money. In the end that’s how you have an effect on the state and corporations: you cost them money, it’s as simple as that. So I left what Suzi Gablik, the art critique, calls, ‘the prison of the art world’ and I spent a bit more time in the prison of the real world. In the real world, if you disobey the state, you become labelled a domestic extremist but the difference is that I am surrounded by my friends. That is also something that I saw in the activist world, I saw solidarity and friendship, not competition.
“People are rarely moved to action, support or even consent by realistic proposals, they are motivated by dreams of what could be.”
So another principal that is for us very important is ‘give up representation’. Don’t show the world to people, change it. So instead of making a painting against war, or during the climate summit 2015, putting bits of iceberg, like Olafur Eliasson, and watch them melt, we think that you need to act, you need to find leverage points and do something about it, don’t comment, don’t represent, act! The thing is that very often politics are boring, it counts upon ideas doing demonstrations, going from A to B, pretty much always the same A and always the same B, with the same itinerary, carrying placards saying “NO”. No to war, no to nuclear power and no to no. Whereas capitalism knows how to channel our desires, it knows how to look cool, it knows how to tap in our desires and phantasies in a way that actually makes them forever unsatisfied and in a way that is destructive. We very much agree with Steven Duncan who says politics is not primarily about reasonable thinking and rational choices, it’s an affair of fantasy and desire. People are rarely moved to action, support or even consent by realistic proposals, they are motivated by dreams of what could be. This is where we think that artists can have a real important role, in what are the dreams of what could be.
So another principal of us is ‘prefigurative politics’: enact your dreams in the present, create the world that you want, now and not later. I was lucky to be involved in a group called ‘Reclaim The Streets’, that saw the streets in 90s London as commons again, streets that were formerly privatised by cars. Now the idea of getting cars out of the city is fairly normal now, but in the 90s it wasn’t. The big idea behind the action group was that the car itself is a privatising machine. In fact, all the sociology shows that the more cars there are on the street, the less people talk to each other. So it’s a privatising machine as well a climate-destroying machine. So we decided to replace cars with people, parties and pleasure, so we launched street parties. We worked with the rave movement and we basically held big raves in the streets. It was a very simple idea and was replicated easily by people: bring a sound system, invite people to a secret location, and have a party. It’s spread all across the world in the nineties. We got a bit big-headed in London and we thought: “Why don’t we take a motorway?”. So in 1997 we decided to take a motorway, again totally illegal. We didn’t ask the state anything and 8000 people occupied the M21 motorway and during the occupation a beautiful thing happened: there were big carnival figures going up and down between the masses and underneath, hidden from sight and sound because the speakers were located really close to them, were people with big jackhammers, drilling into the motorway and planting trees. So this is prefigurative politics. This is showing the world now what you want. It’s also audacious, catching, and contaminating, so we started working with these old style Marxist dockworkers in Liverpool who would normally never work with ecologists, ravers, artists and anarchists. They worked with us because the story of these trees came to them and stories change things.
“We believe that, indeed sometimes, it is crucial to no longer be loyal to a system that oppresses and destroys.”
We believe that, indeed sometimes, it is crucial to no longer be loyal to a system that oppresses and destroys. It is crucial to withdraw consent and we experienced this from the lens that is denounced by our friend Brian Holmes, when he says: “When people talk about politics in an artist framework, they are lying.” That was our experience at the Tate.
We were invited by the Tate Modern, this big white cube that is also supposedly a public space. The entrance is free and it’s packed with people, especially families all year around but we are going to tell a story that shows it is actually very much a private space, masked as a public space. So we were invited to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall with a workshop in January 2010 titled Disobedience makes history. It was a two Saturday workshop and we agreed that there would be a public intervention on the end of the second day and that everything would be co-created by the participants. We received an e-mail a few days before the workshop started: they were very happy, there were 50 participants that had registered, but in the middle of the e-mail there was an interesting sentence that said “…ultimately it is also important to be aware that we cannot host any activism directed against Tate and its sponsors. However, we very much welcome debate and encourage debate and reflection on the relationship between art and activism.” Debate, reflect, so do not act…
So who are these sponsors of the Tate who are not to be touched? John Brown, who was the head of BP and who also, as it happens, is member of the board of the Tate. In London, like pretty much in all large cities in Europe, most of the cultural institutions are actually financed by the fossil fuel industry. So why does that happen? Why does the fossil fuel industry really wants to work with cultural institutions and vice versa? It is not because of publicity, it is not advertising, they don’t need people to buy their petrol, that is last century logic. The problem is what the wonderful organisation Platform calls “a social license to operate”: they need the support of the population, especially the elite. Those who work as diplomats in embassies and who work with this industry, to give these people the feeling that it’s actually okay to work for or with these companies. They basically want to remove the terrible truth that they are war-making genocidal enterprises. By making them finance beautiful art in beautiful places, they appear benevolent.
So we organised the workshop as we usually do and taught the participants how to make decisions by consensus, introduced our work and in some point in the workshop after we had their consensus, asked them whether they would obey or disobey this injunction. We did not say that the person from the Tate, who was in the workshop, had written the e-mail. The person from Tate who was in the room got very angry. Participants were quite shocked because all of a sudden, the veil was torn. One of the participants had called the Tate “the mothership”. It was also something that showed that the fossil fuel doesn’t need to actually say or do anything, that cultural institutions do it themselves. So there was a long discussion about obeying or disobeying and the participants decided to disobey by consensus and started having ideas about what the intervention would be. That was the end of first Saturday and in the week before the next workshop, we were summoned to the Tate. I was working full-time back then, so John had the honour to go by himself, facing off three curators, the head of security, the head of public relations, all these people who basically said “You can not take any action”. So John had this really interesting conversation saying “Well, that was the point anyway, we agreed that there would be a public intervention and I am not doing anything the participants aren’t deciding.” They basically said: “If you dare to take action against the sponsors, we’ll have to sabotage it.” There was one beautiful moment where John said: “Are you trying to censure us?”, and the answer was: “That is a very emotive word, mister Jordan.”
“Liberate Tate showed that we achieved [to terminate the sponsorship deal between BP and Tate] with art, it was through the collective practice.”
At the time we realised “we are already dead, therefor you can not kill us.” If you don’t care about your cultural capital, if you don’t buy into this logic that you need that, then they have no grab on you anymore. So at the second workshop there was a very small action at the end, that was just Art Not Oil in the windows, but what happened was that the participants where so outraged by the maneuvering of the Tate curators during the workshop, that they started a collective. A few weeks later, The Deepwater Horizon 3.2 million barrels’ oil spill happened and we actually did start a series of action. One of the actions that we did was to celebrate twenty years of BP Tate sponsorship, we spilled vials and molasses and spilled it both outside and inside the Tate. Some women had hidden molasses under their skirts and created a stain in the gallery. We immediately got a lot of media and from then on nineteen actions took place over the next seven years. After these seven years, on March 11th of 2016, Tate announced that the BP sponsorship would end, even though they said it had nothing to do with the protest… Liberate Tate showed that we achieved this with art, it was through the collective practice. This has spread through the UK, but also to France against the Louvre and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
‘[W]hat defines a rich and healthy ecosystem is primarily the richness of the connections within. And what the state and capitalism tries to do is to dismantle these connections, they atomise us with the notion of ‘the free individual’, with free speech and a free market.”
‘Act for friendship’, this is also a really important aspect of our work. For us, it is very important that what defines a rich and healthy ecosystem is primarily the richness of the connections within. And what the state and capitalism tries to do is to dismantle these connections, they atomise us with the notion of ‘the free individual’, with free speech and a free market. They forget that for example in English, ‘friend and free’ come from the same root, which supports the idea of the same power that grows. They say “I am free because I have ties, because I am linked to the reality, greater than me.” So with the Lab, we really like to co-create adventures and spaces and moments, where friends, connections, equality, mutual aid are key, to be able to face an order that is based on hierarchies.
“We keep in mind this beautiful quote: “Be careful with each other, so that we can be dangerous together.””
Friendship and solidarity is also what saves you when institutions let you down and we experienced this during the climate summit in 2009, the TOP15. It was in Copenhagen and like every time there is a TOP in a city, all the cultural institutions are taken by a passion for climate. During the year it is amazing, they really really care about climate change, so we were invited to take part in Rethink Cacotopia that was considering the possibility of a future with catastrophic climate change. The Arnolfini, which is a gallery in Bristol, also invited us and we decided to bridge the two. So we had spend time in Copenhagen, knew that in Copenhagen thousands of bikes are abandoned all the time on the streets and decided to organise a large action that was called ‘Put the fun between your legs, become the bike block‘, where basically these abandoned bikes would be recycled into tools of civil disobedience. We organised workshops in the Arnolfini and the Nikolaj in Copenhagen, where we brought together a whole team of bike engineers and artistic designers. The idea is to organise workshops where new bike designs are turned into machines of disobedience in Copenhagen. The design was done in Bristol and a few weeks before we were supposed to turn up in Copenhagen, the curator called and said “By the way, there are rules about what consists as a bicycle in Denmark: it has to be within a certain length and width and height and number of wheels, so if your designs are outside of these rules, can you please send them to us, we will send them to the police, normally within tree weeks, they will validate them or not.” That was really interesting, but we really didn’t care about the police validating, since it was about disobedience. The curator paused and said “You really are going to do it!” That again was an illustration of the incapacity of a large part of the art world. So we had to fight and this is where friendships helped. It is actually an activist social cultural centre that welcomed us in Copenhagen. We built machines of disobedience, but again realised that the real power doesn’t lie in big machines but in the swarm mentality, like small groups of people that can move quickly, compactly, being in tune with each other and totally surprising the authorities. We keep in mind this beautiful quote: Be careful with each other, so that we can be dangerous together.””
“We may see the overall meaning of art change profoundly from being an end to being a means, and holding out a promise of perfection and some other realm to demonstrating a way of living meaningfully in this one.” – Allan Kaprow, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life: Expanded Edition
Transcription and photo by Victoria Deluxe