Previously a key factory dating from 1912, it had been earmarked in 1991 for transformation into a small shopping centre before a group of artists decided to squat the building and eventually force the city council into a rethink. The artists were given permission to stay, this time as legal rent paying residents, on a rolling contract. The city of Paris was still the owner of the land, and paid for regular improvements to the buildings on site, and could still decide who or what could be installed here once the contract came to an end. As 2008 drew to a close and with the end of the contract nearing, the city decided to ask interested parties to bid for the new contract.
The group currently on site, known as la Forge de Belleville, strongly linked to the original artists who claim to have saved the buildings from demolition, was one of the bidders, but eventually lost out to a rival group of artists known as TRACES. This second association proposed to open the centre up to local residents, and to run regular events with community groups, something la Forge de Belleville had rarely involved itself in. Unhappy at losing the contract, la Forge de Belleville began a media campaign, bringing much of the debate down to one question; what is the role of an artist?
According to the Paris council, the artists on site had become more and more isolated, and little was clear in the way the association was being run. It was tempting therefore to make a clean change and plump for a new team, with artists who would be happy to run projects and integrate themselves in the surrounding community. A false debate for la Forge de Belleville, who believe that artists should be free to work how they please so long as they are paying rent.
The latest information is that they will finally be allowed to stay, but the debate continues. If a group of artists rents a property from the council at comparitively low rates, should they be encouraged, or even pushed towards social actions that may improve their local environment, especially in one judged to be difficult, as is the case here? Or, is the role of an artist simply to create and not be a social worker?