ECOUTE BIEN LA CAMPAGNE
Nature has a way of seeping into our cities. Not just through the cracks in the concrete, but through the cracks in our language too.
When, in 1850, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte described Paris as “le coeur de la France” he was not talking geographically. Three years later, Georges-Eugène Haussmann destroyed the city’s tangle of medieval alleys to impose wide boulevards and radial geometry. By improving the city’s circulation, he turned roads into arteries and made metaphors reality.
We have long sought to differentiate ourselves from nature. But our language always betray our confusion. Thomas Hobbes viewed the nation like the body of a man. René Descartes saw animals as machines. These days we think of the brain as a computer and attempt to read cities like organisms. A community is an ecosystem. Or is it the other way around?
Julie Henry and Debbie Bragg are fascinated by community – especially overlooked or endangered subcultures. They have pointed their lenses at football supporters and players of arcade games, at bingo nights and amateur talent shows. They have immersed themselves in the lives of refuse collectors, competitive gardeners, and middle-aged Cambridge mods.
During their residency at Château de Sacy, they sought to reconnect with the land. They planted cabbages, ate nettles, went exploring with a hand-drawn, eighteenth-century map, and, most importantly, organised the village’s annual pétanque tournament.
Once, such villages formed the basic unit of human existence. Today these communities are under threat. In the late 19th century, half of France lived off the land. Now nearly 80% are in cities. Urbanisation has long been associated with economic growth. But, unlike the growth of a plant, economic growth is measured in averages. Such averages conceal as much as they reveal.
Agriculture too is enslaved by efficiency. Automation hollows out the countryside. Yet, even as avowed city-dwellers, Henry/Bragg did not find Sacy-le-Petit a place of emptiness or silence. Their film takes its title from a children’s game: Ecoute Bien la Campagne. They made audio recordings of thunder, birds and the bells in the village church, ringing out a working day that has all but vanished. These sounds have been paired with footage from Paris’s urban fringes: factory chimneys, tower blocks painted like clouds, and the endless tunnels and intersections of the Boulevard Périphérique.
Architect Richard Rogers criticised the division created by the Périphérique. “I don’t know of any other city,” he said, “where the heart is as detached from its limbs.” In his 2015 Paris master plan, Rogers proposed “green arteries” as part of a “new metabolic approach”. The metaphors of Louis-Napoléon return: once again Paris is a beating heart – but of what?
Cars blur by as Henry/Bragg take us through the tunnels of the Périphérique. The buzzing of bees suggests the passing of a way of life. For industrialised agriculture has decimated global bee populations. The phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder sees workers simply disappear; the queen is left, alone.
The worker, the queen: human social roles imposed upon the natural world. Could we, in turn, be in danger of colony collapse? Rogers said that Paris needs to “attract a young, dynamic and international workforce”. After all, there’s no honey without worker bees – either in nature or in the city. But the division between the two is never pure or clear. Somehow our metaphors always muddy the waters.