Name: Anthony Martin
Occupation: Heritage Guide at Cité des Électriciens
Location: Bruay-la-Buissière, FranceBruay-la-Buissière, France
Involvement with Meet the Neighbours: Anthony worked with Comédie de Béthune to coordinate a residency with Polish choreographer Aleksandra Borys.
The area of northern France in which Comédie de Béthune is located has a long association with mining. From the mid-19th century, for close to 100 years, the local economy depended almost exclusively on coal mines. As firms discovered new seams, small towns of low-cost terraced housing designed for workers and their families proliferated across the region.
10km from Comédie de Béthune, Bruay-la-Buissière is an amalgamation of several of these old mining towns. Following the closure of the mines in the second half of the twentieth century, the area suffered mass unemployment which lingers till this day. The city is also characterised by social tensions and low levels of educational attainment. The region’s industrial past is still very important to local identity and many residents have deep ties to the old settlements where their families have lived for generations.
The Cité des Électriciens is a mining town that sits within the boundary of Bruay-la-Buissière. Built between 1852-61 and subsequently abandoned, Cité des Électriciens was reopened as a heritage site in May 2019 by an organisation set up in the same name. It has restored the houses, streets and grounds to their original condition, created a mining museum and interpretation centre, themed gardens, spaces for picnicking, and accommodation for tourists and visiting artists, as well as 10 units of social housing for Bruay residents. The Cité has a dual purpose: to document and represent the history of the region for a general audience; and to respond to the socially fragmented context of Bruay by providing a space in which residents’ family histories are recognised and celebrated, reframed as part of a common regional history.
Given the importance of mining to the area’s history as well as Bruay’s social struggles, Comédie de Béthune was keen to work in the area as part of Meet the Neigbours (read a case study with Comédie’s Manager of Regional Projects Nathalie Charpentier). The Cité was already using art and culture as a way of bringing people into the town and providing them with new ways to understand and take ownership over the site and the history it represents, and so a fruitful partnership was formed. Anthony said:
“The Cité was quite a no-mans-land – a place where no-one wants to go – so we try really hard to reconnect with the inhabitants of Bruay and we just thought that art and culture was a better way for doing that.”
On Comédie de Béthune’s invitation, Polish choreographer Aleksandra Borys was resident in the Cité for 15 days. During this time, she got to know residents and developed a physical practice in response to the environment, which she re-presented as a workshop for local groups. Anthony worked with her to help her understand and engage with the site. He helped her to communicate with the French speaking residents and drew on the Cité’s established relationships with local schools to bring in groups of young people to work with her. As part of their efforts to change attitudes towards the region’s industrial past, the Cité is particularly interested in working with young people whose views of the area might be less entrenched. As Anthony explained, “we want them to feel proud to be from this area”.
Anthony described Aleksandra’s workshop with children in this way:
“She asks them to be barefoot, and just to make a tour [walk] in the gardens, and after it’s just about the connection between all the children with the nature, and it was really good. They enjoyed it because they don’t have any occasion to do that…
“I was quite worried because Aleksandra wanted them to be quiet almost all of the time. The only word they were allowed to say was ‘bonjour’ – ‘hello’ to the nature – and in my head I was thinking: ‘It will not be possible; the children will just talk all the time.’ And they just stayed silent!”
Aleksandra’s residency helped encourage creative thinking about the Cité des Électriciens that looks beyond embedded local narratives about the decline of the mining industry and its negative effects on Bruay. As Anthony said, “how they feel about the place.” This was the first time that the Cité had worked with a choreographer and this collaboration allowed them to expand their offer to people in the area and supported the development of a new relationship with a local dance school.
The Cité’s intention is not just to document the history of the area, but to involve local people in how that history is remembered and the role it might play in the future of the city. Aleksandra’s residency helped address social barriers that restrict residents’ access to the site, using the infrastructure of local schools to bring in young people and invite them to stake their own claim on the kinds of knowledge, activities and experiences that are associated with the Cité and the region’s heritage.
Another outcome of the residency were new ideas for how to understand and engage with the heritage of the site. As Anthony explained: “Each artist has their own point of view and their own interaction with the Cité des Électriciens, and the city.” This is articulated through their work and informs how the people who participate in their practice engage with the site, but it also influences how the organisation itself understands the heritage it protects and its future relationship with visitors. As Anthony said of Aleksandra’s practice:
“It was interesting because you feel that it’s not about how you speak but how you interact with your body as another form of language… because you don’t have to speak with her, you just have to interact and speaking is not always necessary.”
Aleksandra’s residency drew attention to the role of the gardens and the natural parts of the Cité in providing new ways for local residents to engage with the region’s complicated heritage and provided a template for artist residencies that the organisation hopes to replicate in the future: “Meeting Aleksandra, it was amazing... Speaking with her changes a lot of things for me. It’s a relation to the world that is quite new for us.