the radical raccommodeuse

The Royal Danish Academy

This project reimagines Calais as a confederation of ‘Repairgrounds,’ buildings that potentialize social change, and possible system change. This new community is styled after the Raccommodeuses, the repair-women of the city’s once prosperous lace industry. Repair is an imperative to act, together, to rebuild empathy and solidarity, and empower the people in the politics of their city in crisis. Repair-work seeks to open up discourse on alternative political realities: instead of dreading the inevitable, the process of intervening into decay is one of imagining other futures.

The first half of this design project was a research titled Anarchy and Old Lace. You can also view the work on the Royal Danish Academy website.
Recent humanitarian crises in Calais coincide with the final stages of decline of its lace industry. In response to various anti-solidarity laws, this project subverts the current trajectory of the Calaisien community, instead imagining a network of people with a common project and a city that can become instrumental in refusing the oppressive border regime. This part of the project focuses on creating changes in the urban environment, while theorising about resultant social change, and possible system change.

The community moves towards an autonomy and bargaining power that can refuse the current border regime, including the treatment of refugees and the restriction of aid. This momentum is powered by the re-fusing of relations within Calaisien civil society via a collaborative repair of their decaying lace architectures. This is a culture that resists the corporate enclosure of the afterlife of products as well as its global geographies of waste and exploitation.

Five sites are chosen in Saint-Pierre, each consisting of an empty lace-era house and factory in close proximity and symbiosis. The factory is reimagined as a Repair-ground consisting of workshops and classrooms for investigation and speculation, while the house is reimagined under the name the Wardrobe as site of review and outwards communication. Here, repair pursuits that would usually be outsourced by manufacturers, or attempted in a gendered private sphere, are shared and exchanged within the community, where their value creation can be properly recognised.

For a while the old lace factories were used as shelter by displaced people and solidarity squatters before being violently outmanoeuvred by the municipality. For a while, these interiors provided a common project of repair-work for the squatters and displaced persons.

A bit like the trade union congresses, the confederation of Repairgrounds are autonomous in their domain of repair but in close alliance with each other. We imagine monthly reviews at each specific the Repairground (here Electronics), quarterly showcases in the Wardrobe, and regular assemblies and referendums to progress issues raised during these performances.

The focus site consists of two buildings from the early 20th century, this, a collective workers’ house, designed by Bourse du Travail architect Roger Poyé, and the Repairground, once a lace atelier and factory. The old communal house was known as La Chapelle in the neighbourhood, probably after the arched entrance, and because it was known as a lively place to gather.

The shared repair practice potentializes a repair praxis through which concerns in the community and the wider city can be addressed. It tests the city as a possible scale at which to generate progressive, post-nationalist politics. So, we take the neutral concept of the municipal and attempt to transform it into a radical unit for developing social solidarity, the commons and mechanisms of direct democracy, and explore opportunities for autonomy.
Before the Jungle, a migrant solidarity squatting movement successfully used Calais’ vacant factories as shelter and support to many displaced people. For several years, these ruins provided relatively stable living environments as well as a common project of maintenance and repair, requiring intimate knowledge of the interior nooks that proved useful in attempted eviction. Now outmanoeuvred by targeted legislative changes, these buildings have been bulldozed, or their skins stapled over with sheet metal, blocked up with breeze blocks, awaiting death or renewed strategy. Gradually, behind the gutted perimeter, apartment complexes have been contrived. When these ruins are renovated by developers their social memory is commodified, externalised, for their new middle class protagonists.

I take the semi-domestic spaces of Calais’ first workers cafes as one interruption of urban externalisation. In his paintings, labour unionist Ralph Fasanella uses the cut to open the city like ‘eviscerated animal,’ where nothing is interiority, all is exteriorised – the worker’s struggle is exposed and therefore shared. A key tenet of anarchist thought is the rejection of the state as protector of private property, and anarchism resists by occupying, taking up space and breaching the private. But public life in Calais has stagnated. Currently, both Calaisiens and the transient population are motivated towards isolationism, the displaced in order to avoid the authorities, and the locals affected by the securitisation of their city and the loss of their shared industry.

Democracy can be a protean process which resists the archic logics of sovereignty and capitalism. This kind of democracy defuses possible hostilities by transforming antagonism into agonism, in which confrontation ceases to be a competition between elites or enemies, but rather a dialogue between equal adversaries.

Fin de siècle cabarets were vessels for fierce social and political satire, visited by patrons across the social strata. To enter the cabaret was to subject oneself to critique, as well as participate in the critique of others. A cabaret conduct engenders a more organic terrain of brains engaged in processes of confusion, critique, clarification, contestation. In the cabaret, dissensus was expressed through dialogue between audience and performer. The response of those watching was the other half of the conversation, co-constitutive, so the show should never be didactic. The ‘10 Commandments of Cabaret Life’ illustrate the performance of the audience member, “no. 6. Time your noisy interjections so they erupt precisely where they don't fit. This contributes enormously to enlivening the program.”

The original disposition of cabaret was constructed through an appropriation of marginal or abandoned space, embellished with a bricolage of church candelabra, old clubhouse paintings and medieval weapons, thematic and scenographic in all of its zones, from the stage to the lavatory. There were already images attached to the idea of repair: from wastefulness, cracked screens, the mutated landscapes of the Anthropocene, the user-friendliness of consumption, a static freefall into undesirable future, but also patching-up, making-do, a kind of steam-punk, post-apocalyptic bricolage. Developing an aesthetic to activate caring for and repairing is useful if it remains somewhat fluid, evocative rather than reductive, or prescriptive.

In this enacting of interiority and exteriority, the donning of different roles, we understand the community as an unscripted production, of innumerable nested narratives where notes and cues are inscribed in space.

Tectonically lace-like, the existing fabric of the building (mesh tulle) is adorned with new motifs. I experiment with the role of ornament, interrupting its permanence by letting it unroll, move or fold away, exposing it to wear or breakage and inciting attentiveness and guardianship. Throughout these rooms there are hoists, screens, curtains, interactive elements for probing the environment, for mediating degrees of exposure to the community. These intermissions between seen and unseen, vast and miniature, emulate the way lace-making precision work could liberate the creative interior of the individual through its peculiar temporality. In this enacting of interiority and exteriority, the donning of different roles, we understand the community as an unscripted production, of innumerable nested narratives where notes and cues are inscribed in space.

The repair architecture attempts to demonstrate its transitionary character. It is dispositional in that it contains information which is shared with the user in order to gain feedback. Performativity is integral to the cabaret conduct, yet along with moments of reveal, it is possible to conceal, to veil, drape, to rest and regroup backstage. This gesturing is an articulation of peculiarities, of a community, an inscribing act whose ultimate meaning is infinitely deferred. The refusal of the definite demonstrates the political urgency of a community in momentum, and its need for continuous description of the peculiarities of that moment[um].
Electronics and computers become the focus of this particular Repairground. Victim to automation, the Calais lace community now addresses the computers that have become redundant. This extends to broader geo-solidarities, addressing injustices within the tech global supply chain e.g. mining and waste processing. Activities include research, advocacy and direct action, alongside learning the practical skills of mending broken devices.

Repairground: two internal streets for repair material and people / loom-like repair decks / oval performance space/ backstage trim / cafeteria / basement server room / studio towers / large scale workshop at the back / anteroom for tele-repair transmissions - repair support call centre.

The new structures re-use material from this building and other deconstructed factories. The blue rails and screen indicate movements when the stage is in and out of session. The longitudinal rails transport problematic repair material from the repair decks to the platform at the front of the building, between which they are analysed on-stage and backstage. The cross-rail is a sliding wall that opens the performance to the repair decks, while closing off the inwards passage of material. When there is no performance, it re-opens the passage and closes the portal to the repair decks.
The Wardrobe is where outwards communication happens, housing a printworks at the front, a performance space in the West wing, with the architect’s studio backstage, and exhibition, library and archive spaces in the east wing. The exhibition grove and the performance arena can be opened up to the street. There are embedded mechanisms of feedback and adaption: audience-controlled lighting, chimneys are passageways for people and written comments, a floor that become a roundtable, a stage flips to be a pinup, then returns this feedback to be the ceiling of the architect studio who undertake their city repair designs in reference to this feedback.

When iconography is freed from permanence, it can become active; visual signification is placed at locations of high maintenance, for example the frescoes we paint on our stages are repeatedly trodden, worn out and re-imagined. Ornament is rarely out of reach, and existing at an interface with the body means inciting care from the user, and care between its co-users. It is integrated into a mobile and practical architecture, where it builds a disposition, mediates faces and orientations, or nooks and exchanges at the junction of surface and structure. This attempts an economy oblique to the ruling one. This is of course challenging, but represents a general ambition. Ambition demonstrates both grandiosity and vulnerability, the cultivation of a complex, often chaotic, multi-scalar aesthetic, is purposeful, it is like a dare, where the rigidity of community becomes receptive again.

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Archival photographs from 'Bulletin historique et artistique du Calaisis' and 'Lacemakers of Calais' online.
Including images of: Ralph Fasanella's 1972 painting 'Dress Shop,' and a photo of a squat in Rue Massena courtesy Calais Migrant Solidarity.