Hosted by Le Grand Café, the exhibition Contre-vents [Countervailing Winds] opens up an undisclosed chapter in the social and political history of Brittany region and the West of France. It focuses on the countercultures and the forms of action that appeared during struggles around Saint-Nazaire from 1968 to the present day. Taking a range of graphic, filmic or literary documents – among other sources – as a starting point, the exhibition brings a new perspective on the connections between artistic gestures and militant actions.
The image of Parisian students throwing cobblestones in May ’68 has come to sum up a movement that brought the whole of France to a standstill. It overshadowed the repercussions of these events in geographies and social environments other than Paris. May 68 has infused forms of struggle and modes of solidarity within working class environments and in rural areas, inspiring political, cultural and artistic experiments that have remained overlooked histories to this day. In the West of France in particular, the industrialisation of agriculture, the impoverishment of the working class, large-scale environmental pollution and authoritarian State projects aiming at reshaping territories for the sake of a technocratic ‘modernisation’, were some of the enduring and pressing concerns of the 1970s. These grassroots struggles, where anger and hope converge, emerged with a claim for a regional identity linked to the struggles of decolonisation, as a systematic connection between the here and the elsewhere.
From the actions of land collectives from the beginning of the 1970s to the Zone to Defend of Notre-Dame-des-Landes, from Armand Gatti’s experiments in collective theatre to the self-managed experimental school in Saint-Nazaire, from the activist cinema of the Torr e Benn collective to the strike films of René Vautier: this project draws a new map and uncovers connections that manifest a certain spirit of place and time.
This exhibition is an extension of Guillaume Désanges and François Piron’s curatorial collaboration on L’esprit français. Contre-cultures 1969-1989 [The French Psyche. Counter-cultures 1969-1989], at La maison rouge in Paris, setting out a new stage in their joint research, re-reading a particular history of marginal France.
The original exhibition title is Contre-vents (Solidarités ouvrières, étudiantes et paysannes dans l’Ouest de la France : une généalogie).
An exhibition as local network
One of the starting points for this project was an exhibition organised in 2017 at the Maison rouge, Fondation Antoine de Galbert in Paris, entitled L’esprit français. Contre-cultures 1969-1989. It offered a new and speculative view of countercultures in France, and of their ‘French style’ whereby a critical, despairing, irreverent and dissenting humour emerges from the hundreds of artworks, films and documents, representing as many singular ideas and singular practices, that were brought together. There is a need to revisit the experiences of the sometimes forgotten past with the aim of informing and activating thoughts and energies in the present. One of the conscious limits of this project was its centralised (and in truth fairly Parisian) character, apart from a few engrossing regional elaborations . This ‘fatal’ centrality was down to certain limits in our research and our knowledge, but equally reflected the way this country sees itself. From then on, we promised ourselves that the logical sequel to this research would be to develop of a investigation into these countercultural movements that was ‘de-Parisianised’ but also less urban. The Grand Café’s invitation provided this opportunity, quickly taken and with a desire to work in priority with what we would find on site, spreading out from the town of Saint-Nazaire into Brittany and the Loire-Atlantique.
We began with a few intuitions, by revisiting some local stories and looking within them for the diverse forms which critical alternatives to the dominant models in this area since 1968 could take. This principle of an exhibition constructed as a ‘local network’, looking close to the exhibition site for the subjects that would be creating a proposition for the space, is an ecological stance that makes sense here. We have to say that it has worked even better than we hoped.
Genealogy of counter(agri)culture
Another motivation for this project was the wish to establish a genealogy of rural struggle in France, by tracing a temporal arc between the echo of May ’68 felt in the film La Parcelle by Jacques Loiseleux (1971), which documents a struggle for the collectivisation of lands, and the Zone to Defend (ZAD), one of the most emblematic tangible utopias of recent years. There are, geographically, just a few kilometres between the small towns of Avessac and Notre-Dame-des-Landes. A happy coincidence? It is more likely, as the research sociologist Elise Roullaud explains while discussing the constitution of a rural autonomy in a struggle against national political and professional structures, that “the Loire-Atlantique is at the head of this dissenting movement”. In fact, in this largely rural space, impoverished and disregarded by national policies, young politicised farmers contested the new industrial models being proposed at the time – or rather imposed, with the social and ecological consequences that we see today – while proposing concrete alternative models. The sociologist adds that this blend of ideological resistance and collective construction makes it that “[a]t this period, the Loire-Atlantique is the stage where workers, students and farmers come together”. Point taken.
Indeed, while strikes and social combats abound everywhere in France at this period, the most striking interconnections between these different social categories are in Brittany, linked by cultural identity and a profound territorial attachment. After the ephemeral peak that was the ’68 moment’ in France, but also in the world, here we can observe converging combats more tangibly anchored in minority experiences, more embodied than the mediatised ideological movements of the time. Grassroots micropolitics such as the struggles of decolonisation and the emergence of a multipolar world revalorising the notion of ‘minority’ re-localise changing global paradigms.
Forms of combat and the combat of forms
In this perspective, Les Canards qui volaient contre le vent project developed by Armand Gatti in Saint-Nazaire in 1976-1977 that is at the heart of the Contre-vents exhibition becomes an emblem of fusion and a utopian counter-sanctuary joining together wider history, current events and local reality. Invited by the director of the MJEP de Saint-Nazaire (Maison des Jeunes et de l’Education Permanente) Gilles Durupt, with the complicity of Gabriel Cohn-Bendit, teacher and future founder of the Saint-Nazaire experimental Lycée, the author and director Armand Gatti disembarked in the town to establish his ‘tribe’ (with Stéphane Gatti, Véronique de Bellefroid, Helene Châtelain, Jean-Jacques Hocquard, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Gilles Lacombe, Michel Séonnet, Jean-Pierre Duret, Gérard Raynal…) and work on the subject of the psychiatric internment of Soviet dissidents in the USSR. A subversive programme in a ‘socialist’ town, when the parties of the Left were looking at national union around the famous ‘common programme’. Theatre pieces, writing workshops, debates, interventions in schools and University Institutes of Technology, in the shipyards and with groups of farmers… a magnetic energy that naturally attracted numerous local initiatives and concerns: from the testimony of migrant workers in the shipyards to farmers writing a play about the disappearance of rural life in the surrounding countryside. All that remains of the several-month long project, which ended prematurely and not without causing a degree of disorder nor a lack of international echoes, are magnificent screen printed posters, as lyrical as they are political, some films and photographs, and above all the memory still very much alive of many witnesses and participants. And also, maybe, the premises of a municipal cultural policy stimulated by this overheated experiment.
Coincidence? During these years another libertarian figure, the anticolonial et antiracist filmmaker René Vautier, back in Brittany after his period in Algeria alongside the de-colonial revolution, lived in Saint-Nazaire working with the voices of the working class. A few kilometres away, together with Nicole Le Garrec, he made a film about the striking workers of a caravan factory in Trignac (Quand tu disais Valéry) and, with Soazig Chappedelaine, he collected the words of women workers during a strike in Couëron (Quand les femmes ont pris la colère). Two remarkable films of French political cinema, two opportunities to depict in close up the realities of a tormented but active social landscape unreconciled to a particular evolution in France and the world. A little earlier and a little further north two other young filmmakers engaged in the revolutionary Left, Jean-Louis Le Tacon and Patrick Prado, as part of the collective Torr e Benn, filmed the anger in Brittany’s factories and among its farmers, before coming across Jean Rouch or Chris Marker and producing Super 8 films that deal with political and ethnographic concerns, but are also poetic and formally experimental. Patrick Prado, notably, engaged with the figure of Anjela Duval, Breton peasant and poet who analysed, with a troubling mixture of severity and grace, the heralded end of a certain relationship to the land, forgotten in the progressive capitalist equation of the 1970s.
Enduring development of the field of combat
From the end of the 1960s we see how the cultural, the social and the political join up on these coastal agricultural lands around environmental and ecological preoccupations that anticipate the crises of the present. From the fight against the construction of a motorway on the salt marshes of the Guérande peninsula at the start of the 1970s, the mobilisation that follows the running aground of the Amoco Cadiz in 1978, up to the victory, two years later, of the village of Plogoff in Finistère in its battle against a project to install a nuclear power station; over time, a succession of hard-fought minority struggles against superior political and economic powers end up drawing the idealised portrait of resistance to a particular evolution of the world and its impacts on specific ways of life. Dots that connect and regularly reappear, very recently at Notre-Dame-des-Landes, which shows unsettling similarities in its content and in its forms with the historical struggles that have marked this region.
So the exhibition is concerned with these incandescent points from yesterday and from today, circumscribed in a radius of barely a few hundred kilometres. The accounts of the conditions of working class life – those of the women workers in the port of Lorient filmed by Carole Roussopoulos, or of the workers in the poultry slaughterhouse by Anne Caro, Danielle Jaeggi and Jean-Paul Fargier (the collective Cent Fleurs from Vincennes University), attest to the fact that combats in Brittany still attract the most militant fringe of French cinema. It is also true for the many artists, such as Bruno Serralongue, who regularly documented events at Notre-Dame-des-Landes. The exhibition also intends to demonstrate that these experiences go beyond social reportage and lead to an idea of emancipation that escapes regional boundaries. It is echoed in the creation of the Festival of National Minorities in Douarnenez or the unique pedagogical experience of the experimental Lycée in Saint-Nazaire.
This project refuses the idea of a hypothetical dissenting regional essentialism, and plans to show how specific and occasionally contingent conditions can, in time, create connections and solidarities between methods, forms, thoughts and actions that might not always be aware of each other. However, it will also draw on theories of micro-history to show how, in a fractal sense, transnational investigations emerge out of a localised study in a tangible way by being grasped within a limited area.
To share these disparate stories, that we think are particularly resonant today and of interest to a broad public, the scenography for the exhibition Contre-vents is rhizomatic, based on reproductions rather than original objects. The greater part of the elements presented to the public (photographs, posters, documents) are graphic reproductions and are edited and arranged to facilitate reading and manipulation, and to play with space in an original way. In parallel, a soundtrack created with the artist Dominique Petitgand, built and edited with precision from a good many sound archives, offers a poetic and anachronic tale of events: a sound creation that forms a meta-narrative where angers, hopes, defeats and victories are revitalised.
Guillaume Désanges and François Piron
1 – the term ‘countercultures’ designates popular, alternative, anti-establishment movements that question the values disseminated by official culture.
2 – Thanks notably to the research texts of Nathalie Quintane and Peggy Pierrot published in the exhibition catalogue (La Découverte, 2017)
3 – In her essay “Les Luttes paysannes dans les années 1968”, in the journal Agone, Marseille, 2013
With works and documents by:
Soazig Chappedelaine and René Vautier
Armand Gatti and « la tribu » : Stéphane Gatti, Véronique de Bellefroid, Helene Châtelain, Jean-Jacques Hocquard, Luc et Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Gilles Lacombe, Michel Séonnet, Jean-Pierre Duret, Gérard Raynal, Françoise Thyrion, etc.
Danielle Jaeggi, Jean-Paul Fargier and Anne Caro (collectif Cent Fleurs)
Nicole Le Garrec
Jean-Louis Le Tacon
Torr e Benn
Sound creation: Dominique Petitgand
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
– The years of ’68 in the west of France: women and men farmers, workers, students
– This is Breton fury
– These ducks that flew into the wind: Armand Gatti in Saint-Nazaire
– René Vautier and the Cinematic Production Unit of Brittany
– Self-management takes power: the Experimental School in Saint-Nazaire
– Rural struggle: women and men farmers, exploited, exploiters
– Torr e Benn: smash their heads in
– Breton identity: decolonise the west
– Out of the way, we’re taking charge here!: defences of the environment
– Notre-Dame-des-Landes, Zone to Defend, 1966 – …