There goes the neighborhood: Tabasco Video’s multi-platform media strategies against gentrification
Et Le Panier dans tout ça?

by Michelle Stewart

Marseille is France’s second most populous city, known for its diversity as well as its history of urban mismanagement and corruption made famous in fiction as old as The French Connection (William Friedkin, 1971) and as contemporary as the Netflix suspense series, Marseille (2016).[1][open notes in new page] Of course, Marseille’s pop cultural notoriety obscures a complex social make-up. As one of France’s most important port cities, Marseille has seen strong patterns of immigration, current and historic. Le Panier, the oldest neighborhood in Marseille, offers a window onto the diversity and character of the city as whole. In WWII, the Nazis and their Vichy collaborators declared Le Panier a hotbed of criminal activity, crimes understood to be both racial and political and squarely in support of the Resistance. In January 1943, the city’s Vichy regime evacuated Le Panier, deported almost 800 of its Jewish inhabitants, and bombed the section of Le Panier closest to the Old Port. Despite these efforts, the portion of Le Panier that was spared now attracts tourists with the quaint, labyrinthine streets that once sheltered resistance fighters. To this day, the neighborhood remains a diverse, working class neighborhood with a strong left-leaning and union-activist population, and, unfortunately, an unemployment rate that is almost three times the national average.

In 1995, Le Panier and neighboring Rue de la République were targeted for a colossal urban renewal project, Euroméditerranée, meant to make the neighborhood more livable, more sustainable, and more amenable to commercial and touristic development. As outlined in its mission statement, the goal of Euroméditerranée has been to “acceler[ate] the process of making Marseille an attractive and influential city between Europe and the Mediterranean.”[2] Billed originally as the largest urban renewal project in Europe, Euroméditerranée has meant a massive infusion of private and public funds for Marseille.[3] Yet it also represents a model of development aimed at raising tourist revenue and creating urban dwellers with more taxable income than Le Panier’s long-term residents (Rescan).[4] Amid official assurances that Euroméditerranée would benefit locals, residents of the Le Panier felt left without recourse or a voice.[5]

Tabasco Video entered this field in 1999, a field marked by the increasing privatization of both public airwaves and urban spaces. Situated in Le Panier, Tabasco is a community video group committed to creating alternative channels of communication and creative expression. This article examines the participative practices of Tabasco video as they move from video workshops and creative community distribution to web-based practices. How well are efforts to create meaningful social interaction supported by new interactive technologies and art forms? Via an analysis of Et Le Panier dans tout ça (And Le Panier in all that?, 2015), the group’s first foray into web documentary, we will consider how effectively the group has translated and transposed its carefully crafted ethos of “participative television” to the web.

Since its inception, Tabasco’s brand of participative television has brought filmmaking and instantaneous exhibition to the streets of Le Panier. The foundational goal of participative television is to bring community members into dialogue—intergenerationally and interculturally. In so doing, Tabasco displays its roots in the neighborhood video movement in France (The Federation of regional and neighborhood video groups, La Féderation des vidéos des pays et des quartiers or VDPQ for short). The Federation of VDPQ itself emerged in 1989 from a felt need for local networks for the exchange of information and experience. Federation Coordinator, Thierry Michel recounts that the public television network, France 3, wouldn’t take videos from local groups.[6] In response, local producers, who had trouble finding distributors banded together and founded the federation, which mobilized social “animators” (local activists and social workers), television, and video makers in the production of community media. Thus, the movement parallels the U.S. community cable-access television movement but with funding coming from local public sectors, both municipal and regional sources.[7] Tabasco, too, hoped to intervene at the local level, but always with an emphasis on process and “product.” Their mode of participative television is fundamentally activist and local, “inscribed in the territory,” as they put it. Yet rather than opposing politics to aesthetics, their method mobilizes the social force of local representation (“voice”) by fostering attractive, collaboratively-produced media and effectively distributing it locally.

In this sense, their model of community video creates forms of “living documentary” (Gaudenzi, “Living Documentaries”) that conscript old and new media into local transformation and the production of new social relations. Sandra Gaudenzi, in her original work defining interactive, “living documentary” resists fetishizing the medium as the motor of social change:

“Living Documentaries are not the simple evolution of linear documentaries through digital technology. Digitality is fundamental, but not enough. Their liveness and adaptivity is what permits them to change; it gives them a transformational power” (“Living Documentaries” 16-17).

Thus, Tabasco’s sense of interactivity pushes past the function of community media centers as sites for technical training alone. Tabasco views media interactivity and participation “’as a condition of being’ rather than just ‘delivery mechanism’” as the group aims to affect change by enacting meaningful forms of participation from pre-production to exhibition (Gaudenzi, “The Living Documentary” 29). Tabasco’s participative television practice, particularly in its move to the web, imagines that community media can be artistic, politically relevant, and socially effective – on the ground and online. In their own words, their aim is “to weave ties by means of video as an expressive tool.”

“The image as a tool of expression.” The graphic situates Tabasco Video firmly in the ongoing debate about the gentrification of Marseille’s Old Port.

To be meaningful, their conception of participation requires the production of media art that effects social transformation by inviting constant participation in the conception, creation, and distribution of the work. Each moment in the creative process holds out the potential for building community, creating social ties, and informing.

Seen in this light, participative television already contains a model of “interaction” in its philosophy, particularly if both interactivity and participation are always understood as social, creative, and technical. Yet, as many activist artists stress, real interactivity is always promise and a challenge. Interactive documentary scholar, Kate Nash draws attention to the fact that what we mean by interactivity is multivalent:

“interactivity as a feature of technology; interactivity as a communicative dynamic; and interactivity as a kind of participant experience” (Nash 53).

In the specific context of Le Panier, for Tabasco, this has always meant merging these three senses of interactivity by creating media that help community members intervene in the processes of development and gentrification overtaking the neighborhood. For Tabasco, meaningfully participative television keeps the life cycle of media in mind, from process to product, from the social work of producing media to the social work of enjoying, consuming, and distributing it. Interactive media seems to hold out the promise of intensifying the relational dimensions of community media, offering, perhaps, a richer “afterlife” to the community media process and media product. In this sense, a notion of relational media echoes Latour’s actor-network-theory and enriches the model of collaboration that we understand to be at the heart of community media.

As used by scholars of interactive media, relationality signals modes of interaction between media works (circulating DVD’s, webdocs), processes (making media together), institutions (community media associations, distribution networks), and people (producers, trainees, and audiences). The quality and longevity of the relations knitted together by collaborative, local production matter deeply to community video groups. To keep that ethos alive, the technical interactivity offered by webdocs must constitute something more than a limited set of commands for how to interact with a website. Nash notes that in interactive works, often users are “compelled” by the design of the site to relate to the information in prescribed ways: where to click, how to scroll, which personal information to enter (50-60).[80] To enact more meaningfully interactive and participative forms, then, means seeking media processes and aesthetic forms that foster open-ended and ongoing communication across online and social contexts.

A review of Tabasco’s historical engagement in Le Panier will illuminate Tabasco’s relational practice. Before the turn to web interactivity, the group’s method of participative television consisted of three central modes of interaction with residents of Le Panier, 100 Paroles (100 Words, video interviews and debates on the streets of Le Panier), video production workshops, and C’est pas joli, joli (Not a Pretty Picture, 2008-2010), a locally-produced soap opera.

“Proverb Stroll,” where residents were asked to recite their favorite proverb and explain its significance. The tags read: “Sidewalk Interview, words of a resident.”

100 Paroles was a multi-topic project for which residents conducted video interviews with other residents about issues of local concern: employment, housing, health, immigration, gentrification, current events (from the local to the national), in addition to “man on the street” reportage (micro-trottoir/spontaneous sidewalk-microphone interviews), or more formal documentaries. Neighbors were convened in the street, at local businesses and often engaged in pleasant on-camera debate (solo or in groups). Élodie Sylvain, director and then development officer for Tabasco, described the essential character of 100 Paroles:

“[It is]totally open. Interviewees can speak about whatever they want. They can reminisce about dead friends, contemporary politics, anything, right wing, leftwing, personal stuff, and the weather. We do not direct people. The point is to get them to express themselves, nothing more.”[9]

In all these endeavors, Tabasco worked from its deep roots in the community, via social service organizations, women’s centers, cultural groups, schools, and prisons to make sure that the largest cross-section of neighborhood residents has the opportunity to discover production.

Tabasco Video members are proud to have trained many local residents—of varying ages and education levels—encouraging them to go out into the street and interview other residents and, in the process, giving residents who might never have spoken the context to do so.

100 Paroles: Residents of Le Panier debate a local development project.

Tabasco also took their project, 100 Paroles, to the corner bar, a strategy that found people where they were comfortable socializing and debating politics, and one which, at the same time, actually reanimated neighborhood cultural life. Their modus operandi rests on the principal that community expression and debate, whatever the topic, work against forces of gentrification by strengthening ties and local awareness.

Video production workshops

Tabasco carefully designs its video workshops to ensure that participants choose the topics and guide the forms of expression. The workshops have produced straightforward documentaries, news style interviewing and reportage. On occasion, participants have imitated familiar televisual genres, like cooking shows, “Tabasco Invites Itself into Your Kitchen,” charting what locals are eating and how they make their food (a favorite topic in French Culture), as well as other popular forms, including rap and music videos, as well as mock promotional videos for local events (including a lively musical promotional video for the Sardine Festival, a celebration of Mediterranean cuisine and industry).

Local teens create their own rap video: 365 jours par an (365 Days a Year): The web caption reads: “100 Paroles wants to be a tool of expression and mediation in the neighborhood, addressing itself to the residents, elected officials, institutions, and private decision-makers potentially interested by the human, urban questions posed in this neighborhood.” [Click on title to see video]

Local teens convince a grandmother to make her own rap video about her experience of Le Panier. [Click to see video]

Tabasco produces a musical promotional video for the local sardine festival
(La Grande Sardinade). [Click to see video]

Exhibition and distribution

In addition to open-air projection and community screenings, Tabasco has been very inventive about forms of exhibition to maximize audience reach and to continue the conversations in all corners of the neighborhood. Older community media groups often emphasized the process of learning and making media together over the quality of the final work. Rapidly improving video quality has aided Tabasco in enhancing the creative success of the final work. Productions are edited in workshop and then literally pushed back out on the street via the “Télé-Poussette,” (or Tele-Stroller) a baby carriage outfitted with a monitor.

The “Télé-Poussette” or Tele-Stroller, pictured on the left.

The télé-poussette represents an elegantly simple solution to the age-old problem of community media: the videos produced seldom have much of an after-life and there are few venues for distribution. Tabasco’s télé-poussette re-embeds the videos in the communities that produced them, providing occasions for instant debate and appreciation and a particularly mobile form of distribution.

Collective viewing, as well, holds a central place in the group’s method. Tabasco maintains a lively website, http://www.tabascovideo.com/, that serves as both forum and archive for the community productions. Tabasco also organizes télé-plateaux (television sets), which typically feature live debates engaging both the opinions and newly-formed production expertise of workshop participants. Sylvain recounts the pride of three Le Panier residents, older Algerian women, Zara, Kadijda, and Fatna, who had never touched video equipment before. They were approached by Tabasco at a neighborhood social center (Centre Social Baussenque) and began one of Tabasco’s training workshops. As Sylvain recounts, the process of filming drew the women into places they had previously felt were closed to them, for example, a bakery that the women had assumed was “just for tourists.” The interview process gave the women and the shop owner a chance to get to know each other over pastry.

In addition to facilitating this kind of fundamental social interaction, the télé-plateaux provide the occasion for participants to demonstrate their technical expertise. At a June 2009 debate, by then veterans of the production workshops, Zara, Kadijda, and Fatna, volunteered on set (as interviewees and technical staff). Describing the social and personal power of technical training, a Tabasco intern on set that day noted,

“There’s a certain pride for these women to be here…. It’s also social to appear on a TV set, to be on camera. People look at you differently. Fatna was afraid to jump in, at first. I had to stay closer to her. But in the end, she did it and she did it on her own. It’s a powerful form of emancipation” (Michel 5).

Along with technical competence, the quality of the aesthetic works instill pride in their producers each time they are performed and rebroadcast. This is especially the case for some of Tabasco’s younger trainees, who have written and performed their own music. Tabasco’s websites, live events, and partnerships have created venues for the performance or re-broadcasting of rap songs created via workshops, re-inscribing collective creation in community life via local festivals and street fairs. While remaining local in scope, all of these initiatives have the effect of valorizing the works created, building confidence in their producers, and, at the same time, creating new occasions for conversation and socializing.

Fictional forms

In many of its workshops, the Tabasco team has emphasized reportage, documentary, dialogue and debate. Nonetheless, the group readily follows its workshop participants in the styles and content that speak most readily to them, from the music videos, and rap mentioned above, to political parody and fiction. For its largest and most ambitious project, Tabasco orchestrated the production of a neighborhood soap opera, C’est pas joli joli (Not a Pretty Picture), which brought together a cast of 40, including fishermen, taxi drivers, politicians, merchants, school children, and workers to write, direct, and act in a three-part soap opera. Tabasco conceived C’est pas joli, joli in response to Plus belle la vie, a torrid, nationally-broadcast soap opera that uses Marseille as mere backdrop. In contrast, C’est pas joli joli constituted a playful, locally-produced rejoinder that not only reflected the ethnic and economic realities of Le Panier and Marseille, but also served as a stinging critique of the destructive politics of gentrification that have plagued the city for over a decade.  

Part of the cast and crew of C’est pas joli joli (Not a Pretty Picture, 2008-2010) pictured in Le Panier neighborhood.

For Tabasco, community engaged docu-fiction offers a valuable political aesthetic. Database Documentary artist, Sharon Daniel holds that fictional forms, particularly the interactive fiction of database and online documentaries, are imaginative and collective means of “staging reality” and, in the process, “enabling political subjectivation” (Daniel 217). Tabasco’s model conceives of video training and production as facilitating social and political subjectivation in this manner. Put simply, all aspects of media production are treated as thoroughly social processes. In brainstorming and creating together, workshop participants draw from and recognize their shared experiences and identify ways in which they can intervene in shaping their worlds, much in the vein of Pablo Freire’s Theater of the Oppressed. By writing, acting, and directing fiction together, by “re-imagining and reconstructing the ‘fictions of the real,’” they “stage” the democratic forms in which they would like to participate.[10] For artists seeking rich notions of relational and interactive documentary, the challenge for web doc, then, is to transpose this political aesthetic to online forms.