words John Thackara
The French - who, with their grands projets, have so long been focused on trophy buildings - have noted that "sociability" and "liveability" are now the key criteria for urban design and have gone off in a new direction: towards the development of live, participatory events as ways of adding value to a place. Formal cultural festivals have been booming in France for years, but the new craze is for "les arts de la rue".
Bad news for aspiring Frank Gehrys: buildings conceived as spectacles soon turn into white elephants. Mayors around the world are looking for alternative ways to develop their locality. Three developments are putting an end to the boom in landmark buildings. The first is over-supply. Precisely because they are conceived as spectacles, these signature buildings have started to cancel each other out. We accord them the same perceptual status as an Armani ad on a wall in New York or Milan. That's not a great return on all the time, work and money invested.
The second development is that buildings conceived as tourist destinations are hard to sustain in business terms. City-hopping tourists seldom re-visit the Guggenheim in Bilbao, for example.
These events that bring together street-level theatre, circus, music and dance, have spawned now well-known acts such as Royale Luxe, Iltopie and Generik Vapeur. And now these festivals are gaining mainstream acceptance. Eyebrows were raised this summer when the French minister of culture, Jean-Jacques Aillagon, usually the epitome of high culture, attended the Chalon event for the first time. Now, a professional association for street arts has been formed to represent the artists and producers, and festival organisers.
But some artists have mixed views about the growing attention. Caty Avram, founder of Generik Vapeur, warns: "These festivals are indispensable for bringing performers and programmers together - but we must take care that our street-level interventions do not evolve into spectacles observed by a passive public. We should always be looking for new locales, and for people not accustomed to our kind of actions."
"Street artists are rightly suspicious of passive spectacle," confirms another producer, Catherine Lemaire, director of a dynamic, Ganges-based agency, Eurekart. "The trend is away from set-piece performances towards smaller, more intimate interactions. The thinking now is that every spectator can also be an artist."
Lemaire observes that street theatre is becoming less aggressive and provocative. "Artists seem to have become less confrontational and more humane - less hard," she says. "We are seeing smaller, more intimate events - and the emergence of troupes of one, two or three people - in contrast to the 15 or 20 we'd have seen a year or two ago."
A second tendency, says Lemaire, is that street art is now finding new types of locations. "Performers seem to be moving away from decorative balconies in the town square, in favour of the workplace, the shopping centre, or the factory."
Every November, Lemaire organises the street art equivalent of the Cannes Film Festival in Montpellier - Label Rue - which brings together a selection of artists and commissioners of events from throughout France. Lemaire selects about 40 acts and invites city and festival programmers to come and view everything from jazz and yeti chanting to graffiti artists and fire breathers.
So do les arts de la rue represent a new method of urban regeneration, albeit in an organic, relatively unstructured way? Jean-Marie Songy, director of the Aurillac festival, thinks so, saying that these events exemplify what he calls the "open city - the utopian ideal of a city as an open stage that supports freedom of expression".
A version of this article was first published on www.doorsofperception.com