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    Dreaming of Swimming: The artistic process takes on Parisian pollution

    Seattle-area artist Donald Fels is helping French middle schoolers imagine a different future for their polluted local river - and maybe themselves.
    Map of Neuilly sur Marne, with a river running through it.

    Map of Neuilly sur Marne, with a river running through it. Credit: Don Fels

    Editor's note: This is the second installment in an occasional series about the artistic process.

    For the past two years, the Conseil General of Seine Saint Denis has brought me to Paris to work as an artist, with 12-year-old kids in Neuilly sur Marne, a suburb in the banlieue, the city’s poorer periphery. Neuilly, as the name implies, is a town along the Marne river, home to a vibrant mélange of families, most of whom migrated to Paris from former French colonies, others from places such as Sri Lanka, Poland, Portugal, Russia, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Most of these immigrant families are people of color. Almost all their children were born in France. 

    The parents work a variety of jobs: cooks in restaurants, pharmacists and engineers, caregivers, nannies, delivery people, taxi drivers. The families are large. The school, the College Honore Balzac (a college in France is a middle school.) is large as well, and it is also shabby, raucous and loud. Some of the kids come from troubled home lives, but the for the most part the students are infectiously positive and upbeat. 

    I am the first foreign artist to participate in this decade-old French artist-in-middle-school program. But I have long worked with kids, in schools and out.

    The Conseil General is roughly akin to our County government. It is elected directly by the populace, with divisions that oversee such areas as education and culture (both relevant to my being here). Seine Saint Denis, the regional governing body is a French department, one of the smallest in the country, but it has a long illustrious fighting history of far left politics.

    The Seine Saint Denis leaders used to call themselves Communist, now they are Socialists. Either way, they see themselves as pugnacious and dedicated to providing resources for the disenfranchised people they represent. The people who run the two programs I’ve been involved with — In-Situ and culture au college, both administered under the aegis of Seine Saint-Denis — believe deeply in the power of culture to make a difference in the lives of immigrant kids and integrate them into French life. 

    Both programs target middle-schools because at that age the kids are old enough to understand and appreciate the conceptual underpinnings of art, but young enough to be less self-conscious about expressing themselves. The programs are part of a brash attempt to bring kids closer to the border of mainstream society. Artists of all disciplines participate: dancers, video artists, rappers, sculptors and cartoonists, as well as other visual artists like me. The artists spend time with the kids in classrooms and take them on field trips into Paris where they get to explore the world famous cultural institutions that few of them has ever stepped foot in. 

    Balzac College students visiting Malmaison, site of Empress Josephine's legendary rose garden. Credit: Don Fels

    Each year the In-Situ program, which I was part of last year, brings 10 artists to as many middle schools. The program I’m with this year is much larger; I am one of 300 participating artists. 

    When I arrived last year, the program’s suave, dignified and handsomely turned out director told me, as if against type, that I was there to “cause trouble,” to “shake things up.” The schools were far too rigid, he said. The art program was in place to create an “un-structure.”

    This is no insignificant task. The French school system is run from the national Education Ministry, which stresses memorization, lots of repetition, testing and numerical ranking. The Conseil General (though also a bureaucracy beholden to and funded by the French government) operates this guerilla art program entirely outside the national system, and uses no grades or testing. Under the current government of the Socialist Francois Hollande, it has become a national model.

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    Posted Wed, Jun 11, 7:58 a.m. Inappropriate

    This is wonderful and I hope we can encourage this creativity and cross-disciplinary activism here!

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