The Paris-based, citizens’ initiative Concert-Urbain.org gives form to social debate through civic media, creative expression and innovative design. Concert-Urbain is comprised of a team of designers, technologists, artists, thespians, comedians, storytellers and citizens who are getting people to “think socially”. This is an artistic endeavor as much as a socio-political one. Artists play a crucial role in educating the public and empowering the voiceless both through the artifacts we create, and in the case of Concert-Urbain, through the community workshops we run. At the same time, the social dimension of this work and what comes out of our workshops informs our design process.
Talking in public is not easy. It requires courage and encouragement. It also involves taking on and defending an identity in the face of others who might disagree. Talking in public can also transgress social and personal boundaries. It can imply violence – as is often the case when youth at the margins of society speak up.
Below are three excerpts from a mock-interview during a workshop on “Mobile Journalism.” The young girl is from Saint Denis, known as “le 93” because of its zip-code, now associated with one of France’s highest crime rates. She was being questioned by a friend honing his interviewing skills. An adult, the actress Veronique Mavera, a trusted local figure, looked on:
Getting this young girl to feel “safe” enough to talk in front of the camera during our workshop was not easy. It took several visits to the Social Center where she and her friends often hang out after school. But once she decided to “play the game”, she spoke freely. She admitted to being afraid of situations in her neighborhood that turn violent at the drop of a hat. When asked about visiting Paris with her friends, she said that people can also be afraid of them as well, even if she doesn’t advertise that she comes from « le 93 ». Girls that age from poor suburban immigrant communities sometimes travel in “packs” and have a reputation for acting up in the streets of Paris. She said that she knows how to « act French » so as not to attract attention and intimidate people in the streets of the capital.
Once she’d said that, the interview came to a stop. There was nervous laughter from the other kids. She was embarrassed. For one, she’d unwittingly admitted that she doesn’t consider herself to be “French” (although born and raised in France and of course a French citizen). She said she regretted having grouped all “French” people in one over-simplified category, and that her words could be interpreted as being racist. She likened the expression “acting French” to calling people “Black” or “Arab.” Coached on by Veronique, she admitted that she meant that “she knew how to act like a Parisian” instead of “the French”. She asked that her friend begin the interview all over again, from scratch.
The emotions that surfaced during this particular workshop — ostensibly on “how to become a mobile journalist”— reveal the complex issues facing many young adolescents from immigrant communities, for the most part well-meaning. They are overwhelmed by the economic difficulties faced by their families and a rigid school system; both reinforce their marginality and sense of exclusion.
Yet France has a vibrant civic spirit, and thousands of grass roots and established associations are working to compensate for endemic inequalities in contemporary French society. It has become clear that digital technologies can help give shape and weight to marginalized opinions, and not just in the event of violent political uprisings when broadcast mobile videos seem to “speak for themselves”. How do citizens, armed with a mobile multimedia tool hooked up to a world-wide network, learn to give voice to their opinions? How does one centralize these voices so that they muster clout in a competitive media environment?
Concert-Urbain has a special niche in this process: getting kids to use their mobile phones to witness the difficult issues they face on a daily basis. The phones connect them to safe, online debating platforms. Here, with tools designed to reinforce their sense of identity and belonging, they test-out ways to express themselves publicly. Their reportages are archived and kept “live” on-line by letting new voices add to the old.
As evident in the mock-interview cited above, our on-line debating platforms are just the tip of the iceberg. Testing out also means “acting out”. The screen-capture below (fig. 1) is the home page of our most recent site, www.dring93.org.
To the right, a map of La Seine-Saint Denis. Front stage, the comedienne Veronique Mavera, whose particular brand of “theatre participatif” gets kids to laugh and open up. The phone she’s holding refers to the workshops set up with local youth centers.
Behind her, an interactive mosaic from our web-site, that not only provides a virtual stage for mobile reportages, but also an interactive décor for a live on-stage performance.
The reportages and media sent by kids via their phones or the website are answers to questions they formulated collaboratively – one question many answers. Each reportage is associated with a specific question. The collected questions and reportages form interactive mosaics. The examples below (fig. 2 and fig. 3), taken from two different websites, illustrate how they work:
Each reportage has an icon. Comments are made. A voting process ranks the reportage determining the placement of the icon on the screen. “Cool” reportages tend to float to the top, and are green; inversely, the least popular become redder with each negative vote “pas cool” (or “not cool”). In the middle: “ca se discute”,or “open to discussion”. The questions are phrased so that green or red don’t mean “yes” or “no” across the board, but reflect opinions about individual reportages.
Although Google has simplified our work, it has become obvious that participants need to draw their own maps! For urban planners willing to include citizen participation in the decision making process, variable scales and motifs in mapping can convey crucial information on how people view the space they live in. Representing geographical motifs is an aspect of “voicing” in emerging multimedia forms of governance.
The next step is working “the buzz”. This involves re-directing our media to social networks so that the kids can promote their views in a larger media environment.
A good part of our work, however, is confidential. Rehearsals such as the scene about “acting French” are not for public viewing. Raw footage of what happened during workshops is kept in a separate database, for study by sociologists associated with the Pompidou Center’s Institute for Research and Innovation (IRI).
We expect to launch a purely mobile application for the mosaics by May. We’ve anticipated this by experimenting with simplified interfaces, one of which is already on-line, associated with the web-sitewww.tour-a-tour.org. The debating platform is designed for a neighborhood called “Les Olympiades-Choisy”,where atypical high rises built in the 1970s have created a very distinct community in the thirteenth arrondissement of Paris.
We regularly ask ourselves, as do many arts organizations, if the Back Office we’ve developed for these multi-facetted projects is worthy of the market place. People are beginning to use our tools to set up initiatives of their own. The code, however, is made up of standard building blocks. Our work is hybrid, a mix of code, design and people.
We worked hard with federal and regional employees — the Region Ile de France is our main financial partner — to earn their trust and get them to gamble on the feasibility of our debating platforms. Forward-thinking regional employees provided us with our own “safe space” to experiment and mature politically. They lent a great deal of legitimacy to our work. This openness on the part of governmental agencies is an invaluable component of a fragile and increasingly threatened democratic process.
We also engaged in tacit and tense negotiations with “intermediary” associations who were vying for the same scarce subsidies. This much said, unlike many arts organizations, we have survived because we taught, working with continuing education students, young engineers and apprentices in the field of internet design.
Colleagues engaged in research also helped and we benefitted from two study grants from the Fondation Louis Leprince Ringuet (now Fondation Telecom).
Partnerships between private enterprise and subsidized citizen’s initiatives are very rare in France and often criticized. This much said, we owe our survival to two companies who provided server space, software packages and in-house expertise. The engineers at Timsoft (www.timsoft.com) lent us their “moteur d’interaction” for our first artists’ residency in the city of Troyes, where we set up an augmented chat space (basically, the idea was that conversation could serve as a kind of search-engine linked up to a community data-base). An American company, Dragonfly, also provided free video technology over a period of two years, at a time when we didn’t have an adequate Back Office.
We’ve gotten some recognition for our work, including last summer as finalists in the World e-Gov Forum 2010 e-democracy contest — out of ten French candidates, including the French Senate, the city of Paris, the city of Rennes, France’s ombudsman, among others, we made second place by popular vote! (seewww.blog-territorial.com/categorie-11550515.html and http://wegf.org/) Below, a mobile picture taken during the final dinner-bash on a boat along the Seine:
In 2010, the city of Paris launched a call on the subject of “La Metropolisation de Paris par le Numerique.” Concert-Urbain was selected, along with several other candidates. This lead to our work at Saint Denis, extended to 2012 with new local partners who have become true stakeholders in the project.
The French Ministry of Culture — once wary of socially minded art initiatives — has just launched a new call for projects under the heading of “Paroles-Partagees.org”, loosely translated as “Shared Voices”. We shall be among those providing websites for the project, which involves half a dozen national federations in “l’Education Populaire” (www.paroles-partagees.org and fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%89ducation_populaire).
It is clear that artists have essential and useful knowledge when it comes to the “how to” of networked representation(s). If we combine this with well-worded questions posed by the voting public, it looks like a good start to finding well-thought out answers, n’est ce pas?