Jordanna Matlon sociology, culture, peripheries.

Culture, attack: art, identity and MP2013



While conducting research on multicultural expression in Marseille, particularly in relationship to its designation as 2013 European Capital of Culture (“MP2013”), I came across an event that addresses a confluence of issues concerning contemporary Marseille: the February stoppage of a train near a housing estate on Marseille’s outskirts by the local rap group “11.43,” a stunt later revealed to be intended as video footage for their rap video. 

This article explores issues of recognition and representation, and culture as a sanctioned activity versus as spontaneous expression. In particular I ask how during this year-long event Marseille will contend with its dual identity as a city of violence and culture. I draw on news covered in the local and international press, the official MP2013 program, and French cultural production more generally to complicate predominant accounts positioning MP2013 as a cultural fix for the city’s high crime rates and lack of integration for residents from the poorer northern neighborhoods. This informed analysis contributes to discussions of the challenges urban actors face when using official cultural production as a means of addressing urban blight and segregation.


I took this photo of Boucherot’s MP2013 “In Marseille, the culture is the attack” [À Marseille, la culture c’est l’attaque] car parked in the center of the action on the major thoroughfare La Canebière on the night of 12 January, the kick-off to the year-long event.

Marseille, capital of…?

Culture recently attacked Marseille. I am referring not to MP2013, Marseille’s turn as European Capital of Culture, but to a spectacle that struck far off the tourist grid: the 02 February halting of a Nice-bound train as it passed through the 16tharrondissement housing estate, or cité, of Bel Air. This was no ordinary attempted robbery. Accosted passengers described a well-organized mass of flare-wielding youths take the train like their personal trophy. Though unable to enter, they appeared content to film their exploit. Authorities later uncovered this ruse to have been a backdrop for the music video of the Bel Air rap group 11.43.

MP2013 publicly sanctioned, the train assault a public scandal. Together they highlight the messy polemic of who speaks for whom when we consider urban cultural production in large amalgamations like Marseille. This is especially the case for cultures “from below,” where, when violence overshadows difference, the latter is either denounced or sanitized. Spokespersons from marginal communities emerge by virtue of being the most subversive or articulate, but rarely does that make them the most representative.

Touting its history of Mediterranean exchange among European, North African and Middle Eastern peoples, MP2013 rides on the coattails of multiculturalism and indicates a turn from the typically uniform French identity. In doing so it opens the Pandora’s box of issues surrounding the incomplete integration of difference in Marseille. In particular, how does a city defamed for its violence metamorphose into a capital of culture?

During the 12-13 January opening weekend festivities, local artist Marc Boucherot adorned the city with a pastiche of MP2013 motif. His bright pink posters proclaimed above a large Kalashnikov, “In Marseille, the culture is the attack” [À Marseille, la culture c’est l’attaque]. Interviewed by Marseille’s daily La Provence, Boucherot explained that top-down cultural programs like MP2013 were simple covers for gentrification. He said, “I do my job as a citizen artist who takes the offensive for another kind of culture: independent, free, and open to all.

MP2013 comes after a particularly difficult year for Marseille. 2012 marked a record twenty-four murders, more than 10,000 armed robberies and just as many burglaries. Unrest is concentrated in the notorious northern quartiers (roughly the 12th-16th arrondissements), neighborhoods of dislocation, institutional abandonment and social unrest. In a September article from The Independent titled “Marseille: Europe’s most dangerous place to be young,” 40 percent of residents from the northern quartiers were reported to live below the poverty line and the risk of dying before the age of sixty-five was 30 percent higher than the national average; these figures were markedly worse than for Marseille as a whole. Local Senator Samia Ghali (who made international headlines entreating French military support to handle the mounting urban violence) has said that “the line that divides [the two Marseilles] has become a chasm.”

Composed largely of immigrants and minorities, the northern quartiers also constitute the multicultural Marseille. No surprise, then, in response to the opening weekend of MP2013, popular culture magazine Les InRocKuptibles asked, “Can culture save Marseille?”

Peppered among daily accounts of drug busts and violent assaults, a number of feel-good articles have surfaced in La Provence about MP2013’s potential to valorize the disenfranchised quartiers. Following is an excerpt from late January:

The mayor thanked “all those who have reflected, planned and implemented projects that testify to the dynamism, creativity, energy, love, joy and willpower carried into this work. It must help us to lay the foundations of a culture in the image of our mosaic well exemplified by these districts. Our quartiers are filled with wealth and artistic, cultural and human diversity and this year should be a positive reflection of this.”

Stirring the melting pot

From World Fairs to Olympic Games, grandiose events like MP2013 evoke hope that putting a city on the map will eradicate it of its ills. In doing so the emphasis on new architectural gems supplants deeper socioeconomic issues while sound bytes equate the former as a solution to the latter. So The New York Times, placing the city second for the year’s top travel destinations, writes, “A vibrant ethnic melting pot, Marseille is also home to an increasing number of contemporary art and avant-garde performances.” From this aerial view Marseille is a coherent unit free of rival constituencies. Event resources lift all boats.

Quickly trouble brewed in the melting pot. By early February a short La Provence article titled “Impossible gardens of Grand St-Barthélémy” described the fallout between planners and local coordinators over an MP2013 Possible gardens initiative. With a “bitter taste” in her mouth, Zora Berriche of the 14tharrondisement cried, “Don’t count on us to celebrate the capital!” The dispute lay in €400,000 designated for an ephemeral art project in neighborhoods desperate for investment of a more permanent nature. A more general reckoning followed the widely-publicized March “Guettagate,” where another €400,000 in state coffers had been offered to DJ David Guetta to perform in a paid venue. Suddenly the question of the public took hold, with 70,000 signatures toward a petition challenging the use of municipal funds and more generally asking for greater accountability in MP2013 expenditures.

“Crime-ridden Marseille ready for culture bonanza declared the French edition of The Local at the start of the year. In it Jean-Luc Gosse, the head of a neighborhood business association, expressed skepticism that MP2013 would nourish the poorer neighborhoods. But he hoped tourists might at least venture out of their comfort zones: We’re not just crooks! If we can show that the neighborhoods, the suburbs, are more than this image, then we can help everyone.” Towards this goal northern residents have established the Hôtel du Nord. Lodging curious visitors in private homes, it is the area’s sole accommodation listed in Le Routard’s official MP2013 guidebook. With trite optimism Le Routard affirms, “Far from the usual negative stereotypes, you will also find a history, thriving cultural venues and tens of thousands of people proud and happy to live there.” Nonetheless, the northern quartiers fall off its enclosed map.

A question of recognition

MP2013’s nod to urban popular multiculturalism is strongest in Urban Arts, a series of Spring events showcasing “street arts” and “alternative cultures,” exhibitions demonstrating affiliations between cities with “symbolic ties to rap” and meditations on “urban ghettos.” None of these events were for venues in the northern quartiers, and half were in the cushy neighboring towns of Aix-en-Provence and Arles.

In March French rapper/spoken word artist Abd Al-Malik performed Art and revolt [l’Art et la révolte] in Aix-en-Provence. Al-Malik raps about a new, more inclusive French identity. But despite his origins from the Strasbourg banlieues, his audience hails from another set. Redefining what is “heavy” in his 2008 That’s heavy [C’est du Lourd], he shuns the guys who think dealing crack is a lesson in the hard life. He lyricizes,

And then you have all these people who came to France because they had a dream and even though their daily lives seemed more like a nightmare, they have remained dignified, they never turned to resentment, that’s heavy, it’s violent.

While admonishing the thug life is certainly noble, the song glorifies sucking it up rather than standing up. The moment Al-Malik questions the structural inequities behind this nightmarish immigrant life he recoils in qualifications,

But you also the bourgeoisie, the borrowed type, but wait I don’t generalize, I’m not saying that all citizens are condescending, patronizing and totally full of themselves, I just want to say that there are people who don’t understand…

You, the bourgeoisie – at least he knows his audience. The same year That’s Heavy launched, the French government designated him a Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters.

Al-Malik’s rap offers a simplistic narrative of good and evil that ignores how illicit networks have come to supplant public goods in urban ghettos worldwide. In Marseille, the “French connection” of international drug trafficking, this narrative speaks little to those living in estates where jobs are scarce and the lure for easy money immense. Off topic in any case: Al-Malik’s performance rendered homage to Albert Camus, an example of a dissident voice firmly incorporated into France’s cultural canon. He is haute culture.

The Local piece about crime-ridden Marseille’s cultural bonanza concludes that “For some, the battle was already won when Marseille was awarded the 2013 Capital of Culture…” It quotes Marseille sociologist Jean Viard, saying, “The important thing was to win the title of Capital. Marseille is so much in search of recognition.” Recognition is right, but that only begs the question of whose culture and which Marseille we will see recognized in the months ahead.

As a Mediterranean crossroads, innumerable layers of cultural forms have been deposited in Marseille over millennium of successive migrations and conquests. In spotlighting this history of exchange MP2013 articulates a shifting consciousness on what constitutes local, national and European identity. But as hinted by the impossible gardens fiasco, recognition means something more than abstract declarations of the wealth of diversity. It entails visibility. If denied, those seeking recognition will do so by any means necessary. Still sore from the divisive 2005 riots that put the country under a three-month state of emergency, France knows this well.

Culture attacks

Composed of fifty buildings and around 6000 inhabitants, Bel Air is Marseille’s largest agglomeration of estates. In a 2007 Libération article a boxing instructor at the local Ring Club warned,

The quartier is at the margins. There is a gap between us and the rest of the population. There is a very difficult atmosphere with unemployment, dropouts, delinquency. It gets worse and worse, it’s violent. We need a Marshall Plan…Bel Air is a bomb. When will it explode…

The debut of MP2013, and 11.43’s train assaulthurls Bel Air onto the national stage with a bang. In the media flurry since, 11.43 producer Zam has certainly received his fifteen minutes of recognition. Dressed the part in slick leather and dark sunglasses, Zam swore to reporters that as artists 11.43 seek only to demonstrate the noble qualities of estate life toan uninformed public. He added, “We were overwhelmed, that’s sure. When there’s a mass effect that can derail things!” No pun intended.

Following the incident Jean-Jacques Fiorito wrote an opinion piece in La Provence, wanting to know why all the fuss for stopping a train full of Niçoises. He asked if Bel Air warranted such a “media avalanche” when residents from the northern quartiers are regularly subject to “forbidden barrages, non-authorized checkpoints.” Other times, he noted, the state is absent, such that public transportation only passes through. On point, days later another La Provence article surfaced with the title, “The stations where the travelers watch the trains…pass.” For the same St-Barthélémy residents of the impossible gardens, since December morning train service has either been cancelled or gone through their station without stopping.

While MP2013 surges ahead, the biggest affair to hit the northern quartiers has been the “ZSP” initiative, or Zone de Securité Prioritaire, aimed to root out drug traffic estate by estate. While local media celebrates the police effort to “reconquer” the estates, in one La Provence piece featuring the “view from the estates” one resident recounts being stopped and searched in this initiative that will treat all residents like potential suspects. Meanwhile the violence continues: in fifteen days that the Urban Arts program moved from final preparation to realization, a flurry of four murders occurred. The fourth, a boy named Nabil, was shot and his corpse burned in a car outside his estate. In a music video the year before Nabil played a drug dealer who was killed in the same way – prompting investigators to ask if this was a bizarre coincidence or something more sinister. They have called in Kalif Hardcore, the rapper who shot the video, for questioning. The “mothers” of Marseille’s estates organized a 23 March silent protest to draw awareness to the crisis of violence they face.


Five days later I found similar sentiments just around the corner. Reading like a post-celebratory hangover, this graffiti sprawled on an event poster proclaims, “Afterward they shut us up” [Après on ferme nos gueles].

Urban art: recognition or representation?

Introducing its section on Urban Arts, the MP2013 program reads

Behind “urban cultures,” a generic term born twenty-five years ago, hides forms of spontaneous expression that have developed in urban space – hybrid artistic practices, witnesses to the cultural diversity that were hatched in the heart of strong urban concentrations. These practices, the cultural heritage of tomorrow, are those that allow cities to reinvent their patrimony.

Spontaneity and sanctioned activity do not make cozy bedfellows. Cultural expression from below emerges out of subversion to rules from above. Once embraced it loses its bite, so yesterday’s graffiti vandalism is today’s street art commanding high prices at top auction houses. In the process the art is decontextualized and depoliticized. How “invasive” then (as described in the program), can the Urban Arts month-long graffiti project M+M Words and Marvels [M+M Mots et Merveilles] in Aix-en-Provence really be? Or how threatening is the Polyptych Bobby Seal, homage to the Black Panthers movement, set in Arles? These exhibitions are nods to movements that have gained notoriety as icons, but are safely distant from the troubles affecting contemporary Marseille. Anti-colonial thinker Frantz Fanon once wrote that “custom is always the deterioration of culture. The desire to attach oneself to tradition or bring abandoned traditions to life again does not only mean going against the current of history but also opposing one’s own people.” Camus, gallery graffiti, and Bobby Seale are preserved for museum tours; their era as cultural revolutionaries has passed. They are what Fanon would call “mummified fragments,” and certainly nowhere to look for the pulse of Marseille’s urban peripheries.

While patrimony brands tradition, vernacular cultures engage in novel articulation. Boucherot’s pastiche posters use local vernacular to parody the MP2013 brand; he plays with the concept of cultural assault to insinuate not only the contested identity of Marseille as a city of violence and culture, but also the powerful weapon that culture can be. Culture can elevate some while silencing others. This was alluded to in the angry graffiti scribble, “Afterward they shut us up” [Après on ferme nos gueles], which appeared like a bad hangover in central Marseille only days following opening weekend.

The subversive nature of street arts for contemporary urban cultures balances on issues of belonging, as having and being part. Who has the right to do what and where, what provisions are available to some people in some places but not others, and who is represented by or excluded from the civic “we” are fundamental concerns for the urban body politic. When we look at Le Routard’s map it is clear that Bel Air does not comprise the “we” of MP2013. Practically speaking it simply does not host the attractions or hotels for the well-heeled visitor, and it could do so only through displacement.

Holding a train hostage is no glamorous act. It is however highly illustrative of the confluence of issues surrounding MP2013 and the challenges Marseille faces as it attempts to resolve its conflicted identity. That 11.43 treated the train as a prop for their rap video may indicate that they saw themselves as outside a collective identity with access to a public good. Indeed it is worth questioning the resonance of the public in an estate of severe disinvestment. When paths toward legitimate ownership are scarce, what one has is too often what one has seized. But, as Boucherot warns, will a successful MP2013 leave the legacy of seizure on a grander scale?

In 2005, street artist (and 2011 TED Prize recipient) JR took France by storm by mounting massive portraits of residents from the Cité de la Forestière, a nucleus of that year’s riots, on the walls of a recently gentrified Parisian neighborhood. In an image titled Hold-up [Braquage] a young black man menacingly aims a camera like a rifle at the viewer. He threatens to launch a cultural assault. When I think of the men of Bel Air I envision this portrait of insurrection. With art imitating life and back again, the tracks became their set just as the streets are, as JR claims, the world’s largest gallery of art.

When we ask who speaks for whom it is worth distinguishing between recognition and representation. Was 11.43 making an artistic call on behalf of Bel Air to be heard, a metaphorical response to institutional disinvestment? Utopic rhetoric of collective representation has a wonderful appeal. But in the cacophony of voices that comprises Marseille’s urban mosaic, such acts more often reflect a highly personal yearning for self-recognition. In that sense the train assault indeed has much in common with MP2013.


Jordanna Matlon
Postdoctoral Fellow
Institute for Advanced Study of Toulouse


Update — @AngloinProvence justly questioned my assertion that Albert Camus is part of France’s cultural canon, given the cancellation of a large exhibition coinciding with what would have been his 100th birthday. 
She is correct; this deserved mention. Camus’s pied noir (Algerian-born French citizen) status, coupled with his humanist stance, has left an ambiguous legacy as to his position vis-à-vis Algerian independence
Marseille, a city dense with pied noir returnees and northern African migrants, has perhaps made him a particularly controversial figure for MP2013, thus prompting the exhibition’s cancellation. While this conflict is separate from the discussion above, to return to my general theme I will suggest that Al-Malik’s performance going ahead despite the polemic surrounding Camus may relate to the former being so safe in his otherness: he is figure that France may offer as proof of its counter-cultural embrace. Who better, then, to neutralize controversy?


Bonus: Keny Arkana’s Capitale de la rupture.