6 – Performing Utopia: life as art on the Z.A.D.

By John Jordan

It’s raining, no, that’s not the right word. It’s more like drizzle, perhaps half way between drizzle and mist. Let’s call it mizzel, a beautiful in-between state, between liquid and wind, vapor and fluid. My hands are wet; they slide on the handrails. I’m nearly at the top; there is a last little steel ladder to climb. But I don’t want to get electrocuted. I should dry my hands before I flip the switch.

The lighthouse lamp begins to turn, caught by its bright beam the mizzel begins to dance, white ghostly clouds of light swirling in the night, around and around. The beam turns faster than most lighthouses, perhaps three times as fast. But we are not on a normal lighthouse. In fact we are 50km away from the sea, 20m above an old stone farmhouse in the middle of 4000 acres of fields, forests and wetlands, in a place that French government calls, “the territory lost to the Republic … the outlaw zone.”

Those of us who inhabit this land call it the Zone A Défendre, the “Zone to Defend”: the ZAD. Last week, much to our surprise, the tabloid-like 24-hour French news channel BFMTV called it “a utopia that might be being realised”! To me it is home, a territory where I finally understood the force that comes when you dissolve the gaps between art, politics and everyday life. When you realise that the more you inhabit a place, the more it inhabits you.1

In the 1980s I deserted the theatre world for live art, because I wanted something more dirty, messy and free, closer to everyday life. But by the mid-90s I had deserted live art too, because I realised that despite all its claims, the art world felt equally enclosed. Of course, it claims to be risky, edgy, radical, but this felt like a posture, tThe discourse was of revolution, rebellion, even insurrection, and yet the reality was that it felt like a zoo: a place where life was put on show for a few but not lived to the full. It was a place to show the world not to change it. Suzi Gablik called the art world a ‘prison’,2 but a zoo is worse: at least in a prison there is a chance of parole.

I had spent my youth enthralled by 1970s body art: Gina Pane sticking rose thorns into her arms; Chris Burden risking life lying down on the freeway wrapped in a tarpaulin; Valie Export offering up her breasts to strangers; the orgiastic mass therapy sessions of the Viennese Actionists. I loved the drama, the risk, the ritual. I loved the fluid boundaries between performance and everyday-life. But in a time of extreme ecological and social crisis, where the very foundations of life on this planet were being undone by the cancer like logic of capitalism and economic growth, it felt that to act in the world was to apply our creativity to changing forms of life rather than to changing art.

Rather than live art I chose the art of life. I did not give up art. I simply decided to let it free by breaking down the walls that separate it from worlds. I did not give up making the beautiful; it was simply realising that the most beautiful thing was trying to protect life itself. Art is so much wilder than the art world, and all of us who have been able to free the beast of art into the world know this. When you free it, it forgets its name. It becomes a force, not a thing; a means, not an end. It becomes a way of being in the world that erases the divisions between witness and actor, between spectator and performer. It re-injects sense into everyday life.

The avant-gardes of the 20th century had also been my teachers. DADA: ‘abolish art, individual genius, all limits and the audience’. Surrealism: ‘We believe that the supreme task of art in our epoch is to take part actively and consciously in the preparation of the revolution.’. Situationism: ‘the suppression of art is its only realisation, don’t feed the spectacle with culture but create playful participatory situations that spark insurrectionary desires.’ From the mid-90s onwards I began applying creativity as an organiser and action designer within direct action movements, from Reclaim the Streets to the Clown Army, from the Global Anticapitalism movements to Climate Camp, and it enabled me to begin to realise Lefebvre’s dream: ‘Let everyday life become a work of art! Let every technical means be employed for the transformation of everyday life!’3

I was living in London and it began to seem impossible to lead a revolutionary life within the metropolis, where we are all held captive by the commodification of everything. As artists we inevitably become part of a violent process of gentrification evicting the poor and destroying the unique cultures of neighbourhoods. Seven years ago I moved to rural France and eventually ended up living on the ZAD. It was here that I realised what a world could look like when art becomes an ethos to be acted out in society, not something commodified by a museum or a gallery. Not the expression of a single atomised individual, but a way of living beautifully together, of paying attention, of crafting existence as if we were already free.

The beam sweeps across the forest of Rohanne, caressing the winter oaks whose naked black veins spread into the sky, the thick coat of needles on the Douglas Pines shimmer dark green against a bed of stars. The light makes me think of ghosts and the ghosts that I have felt in my life. You never see them, they are invisible, you simply feel them, sense them. This forest, like most, is haunted – or rather let’s say inhabited – by two types of ghosts – or maybe spirits, presences. One that gives life. Another that tried to take it away.

Since 1965, the year I was born, handfuls of men in government buildings and skyscraper headquarters have imagined an airport runway exactly here. With their bulldozers they thought that they could destroy the complex relationships between the millions of beings that share the forest. The links between the crested newts and the pond plants whose leaves they use to wrap and camouflage their eggs, between the oak tree and the mushrooms that share their minerals, between the woodpecker and the wood worms that help it dig its nest, between the clouds and the trees that form their vapour. They wanted to replace all that with a lifeless strip of tarmac, three and a half kilometres long and 60 meters wide, just one of the two runways for the so-called ‘green’ airport for the city of Nantes. Another climate wrecking infrastructure, planned for a bygone age in which mobility was more important than inhabiting, for a world where people believed that existence was defined by identities rather than relationships.

But in January 2017, France’s prime minister appears on live TV and announces the abandonment of the airport project. As the news comes in, the lighthouse becomes an improvised stage for TV cameras with their satellite trucks waiting in the mud below for the ZAD’s reaction. Dozens of bodies light up bright red flares. Someone slices open a bottle of champagne with a machete and whilst dancing wildly they let a hand-painted banner unroll down side of the structure. It reads ET TOC!, which in French means BAM ! There you go! Put that in your pipe and smoke it. That night the prime minister is interviewed on the eight o’clock news: behind him is a huge picture of the banner on the lighthouse.

Now when I cycle through the forest, I breath in the deep damp fungal smell of the place and begin to sense the presences of the other ghosts, the life-giving ones who have come to remind me of the resistance that took place here, and that ultimately led to the PM’s announcement. In 2012, thousands of disobedient bodies put themselves in the way of the machines and the police who had come to build their airport. I sense the ghosts of the 40,000 people from all over France that returned to rebuild the farmhouses that were knocked down during the first days of eviction attempts. There are the ghosts of the bodies hanging in the trees to stop them being felled, of the farmers blocking the roads with their tractors, of the dozens of barricades each one built as a work of rebellious art.

Since that failed eviction attempt the ZAD had managed to exist without police for over six years. It has built a laboratory of commoning involving 80 different living collectives and over 300 people, all squatting the land and buildings, trying to live without domination – without bosses, gurus or leaders, and free from the dictatorship of the economy. With its bakeries, pirate radio station, tractor repair workshop, brewery, banqueting hall, medicinal herb gardens, a rap studio, dairy, screen-printing atelier, vegetable plots, weekly newspaper, blacksmiths, flour mill, library and even its lighthouse, the ZAD has become a concrete experiment in taking back control of everyday life. When you no longer outsource your problems and needs, everyday life goes from being unthinking behaviour to being a question of technique: of art. For example, because we refused to let the police enter the zone, we had to design from scratch a system of communal justice to deal with conflicts. Experimenting new forms of life together is a messy difficult process, never easy but compelling in its intensity.

We need a technique of life, an ‘art of living’, claimed philosopher-activist Michel Foucault. Rather than ‘something which is specialized or which is done by experts,’ he asked, ‘couldn’t everyone’s life become a work of art? Why should the lamp or the house be an art object, but not our life?’4 For Foucault this was not about trying to be some kind of authentic, atomised self, but about pushing the boundaries of what that self can become in its interconnectedness with each other and worlds. During one of the many assemblies that organises life on the ZAD, one of the half a dozen farmers who refused the compulsory purchase of his farm for the airport said: “Whether we like it or not we have become more than ourselves.”

But this kind of attitude requires a certain mindfulness and presence to worlds. It means learning to inhabit one’s territory as much as one’s body, knowing its stories, sensing the texture of things. This discipline of attention, this deep sensibility to doing and being, is in itself a form of care-giving. It requires presence, here and now, working with what is at hand rather than waiting for some moment of perfection. It means letting go of fixed ideologies in favour of sensing situations. Such presence means that we know where our food comes from, where the nearest spring erupts, what species of mushroom spreads beneath our feet. It senses the weather changing on our skin; it feels the tidal pull of the full moon on our bloodstream. A deep presence means that we notice when the local song birds fall silent, we mourn when butterflies no longer pepper the prairies, and we cannot just watch the bodies of migrants washing up on the shores of the Mediterranean. Paying attention is the essential ingredient of the art of life.5

There was always a ritualistic essence in live art that moved me, but what was missing was the shared language of the ritual. On the ZAD, ritual and carnival are tools we reclaim and redesign for our dark times.

As the Autumn leaves began to fall in 2016, then Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared every week in Parliament that he was coming to try again to evict us, threatening that up to two-thirds of the French Gendarmerie would be mobilised. Every night we would go to bed wondering if we’d be woken up by heavily armed anti-terror cops breaking down our doors, and we memorised the places in the forest where we have hidden caches of food, water, and gas masks.

We responded with a ritual, co-designed during our assemblies and disguised as a demonstration. Just when the threat of evictions peaked, 40,000 people responded by converging from three points in the zone. They brought with them walking sticks and staffs, which they stuck in the ground making a pledge that they would return to defend the ZAD. ‘We are here, we will be here!’ they promised. As the tens of thousands of sticks were thrust into the soil, a cathedral-like medieval style oak barn, built during the summer by 80 traditional carpenters, was raised. The festivities continued late into the night. The magic worked. The government never came.

I began this piece up the lighthouse, switching the light on to mark the holding of the Assembly of the Uses, the entity where we organise the land as a commons outside of private property and the state institutions. Made from an abandoned electricity pylon that we moved 20km by tractor in a highly illegal convoy, we built a full-scale functioning lighthouse right on the site where the airport’s control tower should have been. When we were building it, we did not know whether a few weeks later the bulldozers might come, making everything a ruin. Putting energy, time, and attention into building something when you know that it might soon be destroyed is a powerful experience, and perhaps the perfect metaphor for living in this strange end-time of the Capitalocene. You build as if you will be there for ever, but you face the possibility of losing everything tomorrow.

As I look out at the forest of Rohanne, tomorrow is uncertain again. The government cancelled the airport — but in the same breath said that the rule of law would return to the outlaw zone, that all expropriated farmers could get their land back, and that the illegal occupiers of the ZAD would have to leave before 31 March 2018 or be evicted.

At 3.20am on the 9th of April, we were woken by the gut ripping roar of the police helicopter and 2500 gendarmes attacking the zone with armoured vehicles (APCs), bulldozers, rubber bullets, drones, 200 cameras and 11,000 tear gas and stun grenades, injuring over 300 of us in under a week . It was France’s biggest police operation since May 1968, all because as anthropologist David Graeber wrote “ the French state could not let an example of a place run without police, via bottom up forms of organising, against captitalism and the ravages of our natural world, continue.”6 After destroying over 40 of our living spaces a cease fire was negotiated, and all inhabitants are now being forced to ‘legalise’ our farms and lives as private individual property, we continue to resist so as to keep the land as a commons. 7

But even if we lose that battle for the commons, the forest remains a forest. The airport will only be a ghost. The ZAD is becoming an international icon of a Utopia in resistance. Countless people hold its picture in their minds, like one might carry the image of a great work of art: an image of hope in dark times. Holding back the monoculture machine, decolonising a place from capital, opening it up as somewhere that enables forms of life to connect and differentiate: that is what is beautiful. That is the aim of an art of life.8

1 The Invisible Committee, To Our Friends (New York: Autonomedia, 2014).
2 Suzi Gablik, The Reenchantment of Art (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1991).
3Henri Lefebvre, Everyday Life in the Modern World, trans. by Sacha Rabinovitch (New York and London: Continuum, 2002), p. 204.
4 Michel Foucault, The Foucault Reader, ed. by Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon, 1984), p. 350.
5 “What if I were to think art was just paying attention?” Allan Kaprow, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, ed. by Jeff Kelley, expanded ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), p. 202.
6Graeber David, in Éloge des mauvaises herbes, Ce que nous devons à la ZAD, Coordonated by Jade Lindgaard, (Paris, Les Liens qui Libérent, 2018)
7For updates in English on the situation at the ZAD see Zad for ever zadforever.blog.
8For a longer vision of the ZAD including writings by John Jordan, see Mauvaise Troupe and friends, LA ZAD / THE ZONE TO DEFEND: A Liberated Territory Against an Airport and Its World (Minneapolis: Canary Press, forthcoming).