Where the interior of anything of consequence meets its exterior lies a point of tension that is best understood by an examination of limits. In terms of social experience and urban dwelling, this is no different. Designs in 20th and 21st-century forms of living have made the urban experience a questionable experiment much to the chagrin of some and to the distinct profit of others. The periphery of a city has always signified a wall between that which governs its citizens and that which shelters the city from the chaos and offenses of the outer world. It is a point in which the familiar meets the alien and is held by an estimation of caution. Cities embrace the margin of life found at the periphery or its exterior at arm’s length. The periphery is where the dynamics of power offer a thin grey margin of potential disruption of hierarchy and are conscribed towards the potential labor of revolt. In essence, the periphery is neither here nor there, its people are neither accepted as city dwellers, nor outsiders. It is a zone of neutrality and marginalization. It requires uncertainty, both economic and social.
The periphery offers points of contradictory terms as the city wall or gate signifies the defense against the world, but also becomes the point of marginalization for inconvenient elements of the body politic of the city. The poor, the dead, and the mentally unstable and criminal have all found homes along the walls of a city or just on the outside of it. This has been noted by many philosophers and thinkers of the modern age such as Michel Foucault. Ostracization of the uncommon is a result of municipal planners whose efforts to redevelop a city often provide social dwellings at the edge of the city for economic undeisrables. In ancient and not-so-ancient Jerusalem, the city’s lepers were cast out of the interior of the city to live in the outside hinterland between the gates of the city and its interior, pledging neither citizenship nor antigen to the body politic of its center. The inconvenient occupy a non-entity status that is to be managed away from the central nervous system of the city and its preferred citizens, the manageable bourgeoisie who pay tithe to the throne and produce results that are in line with the city’s preoccupations with wealth and progress.
In the case of contemporary Paris and its périphérique with its 34 porte junctions, the area that exists between the inside and outside of the city signifies a hinterland where social housing and immigration meet in this grey zone of marginalization. Despite the utopian desires of the architects and municipal planners of social housing in the 1960s, the failure to recognize the enduring need and the costs associated with such ventures has left the areas atomized and enforced by territorial economic enclaves. These enclaves, instead of prospering as envisioned by the utopian planners of the past are instead left largely to their own devices and are removed from the main considerations of central government until a point in which their needs become an inconvenience as social disruption festers which encourages the citizens to rise and confront the historic impropriety that lies at the root of their economic reality. Job shortages, lack of amenities, and a refusal to garner hope of economic assimilation pervade the banlieues of Paris and create a nervous tension between the city and its post-colonial migrant community who occupy, under marginalized conditions, the periphery of the city.
Of course, this is not a new topic in general terms, nor is it a new topic when we consider the idea of the banlieue or the city’s periphery in the history of photography and arts in general. It is sadly a lasting discussion that has yet to be clarified with political, social, or economic repair. Perhaps the most obvious point of reference when examining the banlieue and its position in contemporary imagery is La Haine, a film from 1995 by French filmmaker Mathieu Kossovitz. It is a film that explores the extreme tension between the youth of the banlieue and the trauma of their economic and civic castigation by a contingent of racist and unscrupulous police. The film categorizes the explosive potential of civic disorder and the chaotic and unruly life found in the periphery of the city at the point of response to their continual oppression which results in clashes with the police. Throughout the film, allusions are made to the paralyzing nature of economic disparity, colonial history, and the widening chasm between central Paris as an ideal and banlieue Paris as an execrable territory of the unwanted peoples of the Real. These motifs also pervade contemporary literature obliquely in the work of Michel Houllebecq whose uncomfortable, if prophet-able observations of post-68 Paris, and France’s colonial history, combine to outline several competing histories and futures of Paris and France as an ideal. Houellebecq’s writing suggests that France as a country is unable or inevitably will be unable to compete with its own realities and histories regarding religion, territory, and the economy of its colonial second and third-generation residents that he suggests will usher in a point of civic, intellectual, and spiritual conflict in his books.
Photographically speaking, Mohamed Bourouissa’s Périphérique published by Loose Joints (2021) is probably the most well-known series of photographs on the topic in recent years and has rightly been lauded as a critical achievement in both photography and social observation. The work was made between 2005 and 2008 during a time of extreme tension between authorities and the youth of the banlieues and has only recently become a much-needed photobook. The book examines Algerian-born French artist Borouissa’s social landscape in his photographic imagery that reminds the viewer of the hopeful possibility found between the annexation of the social documentary tradition and the purview of artistic production. The work teems with energy and concern. The images remind one of 18th and 19th history paintings but from the perspective of the underprivileged creating a new social realism that borrows from the genre of history painting but denies its allegory by means of confrontation.
It is a committed and extended project that views the citizens of the banlieue with empathy and camaraderie which makes the production of the book increasingly important in a time when we are beginning to reexamine the role of civic and social function through the lens of economic disparity and blatant economic apartheid on a micro-scale within our cities. The book convincingly portrays the people of the banlieue less as victims of their own design and instead promotes a discussion about the failure of utopian social projects and the intended veracity of economic progressivism and the reality of its outcomes. It is a powerful book that reminds one that observations may not condition direct result in political change, but viewed in their aggregate can lead to a change of common opinion, and from there, the work towards political action can be meted out. I highly recommend this book, along with an adjacent purchase of Myr Muratet’s Paris Nord and Anne Immelé’s Ouble Ouble to begin the negotiation between what we are shown and what we are told to ignore. Périphérique is another important title from Loose Joints and is highly recommended.