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Translated by Anna Knight

Dead City

by Julie Portier

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“Lyon: 273 800 visitors for the 15th Contemporary Art Biennale” reads the headline on the website of the magazine Lyon Capitale under the image of a night grocery store in the neighbourhood of the Perrache train station. It was in this 7/7 Mini-Market that Thily Vossier and Fanny Lallart organised an exhibition cycle, the most recent of which was listed in the Résonance programme (the “off”) of the Biennale de Lyon, by the same token as a large number of temporary or very small-scale projects, lost among the mass of artistic proposals that must settle for this discreet mention every two years, in a city with no cultural vision.

Times Change

In 2018, the two students from the fine arts schools in Lyon and Cergy thus convinced Nabil Boussetta, the manager of the superette, who’d previously had little interest in contemporary art, concerning the question of exhibiting and the point of handling exhibitions outside of their conventional frameworks: Boussetta agreed, so long as it wouldn’t cost him anything and that the window display retain its commercial function! In setting his conditions, he was defining the terms of cooperation between the art and the life of his business, or we might say an ethics formulated like a licensing agreement – for a bit of space, time, and attention accorded to art, free of charge. Throughout the Biennale, the artworks presented in the shop window made room for a few grocery items (some in cubic form: fruit juice cartons, cub’or), suggesting, with a pinch of humour, their reciprocal showcasing. As for Nabil Boussetta, his perspective changed by reluctantly becoming the mediator of each exhibition among “very different audiences”, regulars, intrigued customers, or visitors armed with a map asking him if he knew where the exhibition was: “Well, it’s here. Look more closely, I tell them!” “It opens up lots of prospects!” he concluded, delighted, during a visit with the art students. His income did not increase, however, except perhaps on the night when the artists, professionals, and art lovers seemed to be in greater numbers drinking cans on the sidewalk in front of Nabil’s shop than at the official opening of the Biennale de Lyon (hence perhaps the origin of the iconographic confusion of Lyon Cap’). The exhibition Quelqu’un d’autre t’aimera [Someone Else Will Love You] in association with friends and teachers, brought together around twenty artists of different generations, including some renowned figures such as Joe Scanlan, Gabriel Kuri, or Victor Yudaev… At first stunned by this success, Thily Vossier analysed her experience with a confident tone: “I think that everyone is sick and tired of repeating their participation as part of massive machines, where all the projects look the same.” Although she only had a very lean budget to cover costs (thanks to support from her school and from an art enthusiast), all of the artists accepted the invitation. The young woman explains this in part by convoking the bonds of friendship that tie her to some of them, such as Kuri or Scanlan, for whom she’s worked in the past. The latter’s proposal could evoke this ‘emotive era’ with advertising images presenting fake tears to stick on our cheeks (Catalyst, 1999) – one of them was arranged on top of the self-service refrigerator where people can come to find their dose of alcohol until late at night. This is also the position of the artists brought together in the exhibition that Thily Vossier was involved in, recalling that Scanlan devised new means of dissemination and distribution for his work, on the fringes of the market and institutions who have disavowed him since the polemic triggered in 2014 at the Whitney Museum Biennial, regarding his project staging a fictive black artist, Donelle Woolford. In the shop window, the large swords by Matthieu Haberard (Gagna 3, 2019) are labelled “You better run for your life” – is it a war cry? “Yes,” Thily Vossier chuckles, “you have to run fast, but in the right direction!” For her, the race for recognition by the promotional systems of the art world no longer makes sense, first of all, owing to their exclusive character. “If we work differently, there’ll be room for everyone – that’s what the title of the exhibition implies […]. Times change,” she says with some gravitas, “our generation can no longer count on public frameworks: it is convinced of the need to take things into our own hands.” 

Micro-spaces and Nomadism

“People can wait ages for invitations to exhibit in existing structures!” Louise Porte exclaims in turn, a graduate of the Beaux-arts de Clermont-Ferrand (ESACM) who lives and works between Lyon and Paris. She also decided to create opportunities by initiating the XM2 project, which takes advantage of the vacation period of spaces (apartments, construction sites, bedrooms awaiting a new flatmate) where the exhibition project is constructed to suit the context and dimensions available. 9M2 created in association with graphic designer Clémence Rivalier, brought together the propositions of a dozen artists based in Lyon behind an evocative subtitle, with the phrase “On va partir” [We’re Going to Leave]. The dispositif suggested both the model of a vast sculpture park, a play mat, or the stall of a car boot sale. There too, the number of visitors – eighty within three days – surprised the organisers who had mainly communicated via flyers put up in the streets. Caroline Saves, a graduate from the Beaux-Arts de Lyon now based in Marseille, also remembers the unexpected audience of the exhibitions organised in the back pocket of her trousers, a “micro-space of contemporary art” baptised Jeu de reins/Jeu de vilains, which ended in 2018. “The pocket was both a mobile exhibition space, but one that could enable the artists to reappropriate the city and also existing exhibition sites,” she says, “exhibition openings were always taking place simultaneously at contemporary art spaces and without letting the hosts know […]. The funniest part is that, for some of the openings, more people were coming because they’d seen my advertising (online) than to visit the official inauguration we’d infiltrated.” The proof that there has been a genuine expectation on the part of artists and the public of Lyon for several years now, whereas the landscape of artist-run spaces appears unchanged since the late nineties, from which only the BF15 or the Salle de bains have subsisted, since Néon had to leave its space and end its activity. Among the numerous attempts to open up locations over the past decade, we could note the persistence of Bikini (cf. La belle revue 2019, Focus section) and the very recent and promising Kommet. But all of the artists questioned for this research deplored the absence of intermediary facilities and associative networks, which procure for all of them a genuine sense of ennui in a city nevertheless endowed with a biennale, a major contemporary art museum, and a major school.


The old Ford Escort converted into an artist-run space – Super F-97 – by Laura Ben Haïba and Rémi de Chiari also refers to a parasiting strategy. Since last May, it has been accommodated on the parking lot of the URDLA in Villeurbanne, before being towed to other art spaces for upcoming exhibitions. We could highlight the fact that these projects that manifest their economic conditions within their very form – a car that hasn’t passed its test of roadworthiness, a patched-up jean pocket – choose to self-fund.  All of the micro-structures that we’ve encountered periodically reconsider this choice, since it is always to be weighed up in comparison with the time and energy required to request funding and the guarantees that must be provided to obtain often insignificant sums.  Hence the free publication Broadcast Poster, with up to ten thousand copies distributed in and beyond the region – it could even be found at the Printed Matter bookstore in New York – saw its meagre funding accorded by the Région Rhône-Alpes and the Ville de Lyon dwindle over the years, between 2007 and 2017. The project initiated by Guillaume Perez and Amandine Ru also grew out of the observation of an underrepresentation of artists connected to the latest news in international art as well as artists from the emerging scene. “We soon realised that we would never have the means to open a space,” says Guillaume Perez, “which is why I had the idea of creating a recto-verso poster (one confirmed artist / one emerging artist), which is cheap to produce and could easily be distributed beyond the region and the borders of the art field. Also, the affirmation of an autonomy that we perceive in young people who are extending their artistic practice into a curatorial dimension also occurs through a ‘sustainable’ approach (as they say in agriculture) suited to the scale of the projects, their modes of dissemination, and working conditions.” These questions are central to the projects presented on the curatorial and editorial support baptised Exposé·e·s, currently undertaken by Guillaume Perez and Alex Chevalier; their magazine Post is a publication in the form of a postcard funded by its subscribers. 

 Where Are the Artists?

It is revealing that most of the artists behind curatorial projects highlight the term “exchanges” before that of “exhibition”, which attests to a need to reengage the collective dynamics that young generations believe in strongly and that is the ferment of all local scenes. “For there to be a scene, the artists have to get together around projects,” affirms Alain Barthélémy, who shares the Sumo studio with three other artists. Designed as a living, working, and festive space in the early 2000s, it has seen several generations of artists and musicians come and go, while preserving a spirit of cooperation and mutual support. During the Biennale, Lichen, humus & tissus migrateurs [Lichen, Humus & Migratory Tissue] was presented, bringing together presentations from around twenty artists who had passed through Sumo in recent years and via whom a package had been transported over the summer, like a portable studio throughout Europe. Reflecting the project, in the form of an announcement of the departure of Louise Porte, Lichen, which gave rise to a retrospective edition, offers a snapshot of a rather fugitive arts scene. As for Thily Vossier, she is already planning to leave the region after her studies. “If everyone leaves, nothing will happen!” says Guillaume Perez sarcastically. But, he admits that Lyon’s lack of artistic energy goes hand in hand with the difficulties of finding a studio space there in the absence of any political projects that might help with that, with the exception of the ADERA studios, dedicated to young graduates. There too, solutions are found through cooperation and the windfall of finding a conciliatory landlord. The artists who mounted the Vis À Vis (VAV) studio in Villeurbanne had this good fortune, which they completed with a considerable amount of renovation work. They have also measured the importance of making a space to show art and from which to initiate discussions with other artists and with the local residents. In 2019, the project entitled petites annonces [classifieds], gave rise to artistic experimentations that Mathieu Le Breton, one of the founders, enthusiastically relates: “Rather than talking about curatorial projects, we should be talking about discussions, invitations, encounters. Like those of Amandine Mohamed-Delaporte with the Thollot hardware store, which opened the doors of its back storeroom and drawers for her. It even provided a genuine little drugstore–museum alongside the artist’s installation. Similarly, the Russian grocery store ARBAT shared its best recipes with us and helped promote the work of Laura Pardini and Rémy Drouard, while Émilie Saccoccio, via voxpop, gathered everyone’s impressions and the bar L’Annexe provided an exhibition space…” To this incomplete panorama we can add the associative, autonomous, and fringe studios La Mezz in Pierre-Bénite where Frédéric Houvert and Simon Feydieu invite artists to intervene in their ZZ studio, occupying a corner of the studio; or Hôtel Triki, based in La Soie, that deploys temporary exhibitions under its name whose formats refer to the historic avant-gardes (maze or visit by torchlight).

In short, those artists who have not yet left for more accommodating cities do not lack the energy to organise themselves nor the will to ensure that art exists in public space. But can we hope that our future elected representatives for culture will pay attention to giving art more room for manoeuvre and trust in those that make it, if only to finally facilitate the access to studio spaces in Lyon and its outskirts? They can surely count on the artists’ and authors’ groups who are organising in Lyon as well, in the wake of the Art en Grève movement, to remind them of their missions.


  1. The article borrows its title from the cultural calendar: “Dead City – Basement Culture in Lyon and its Surrounds” instigated by concert organisers. This leaflet, featuring a new graphic experiment each month, is a symbol of the tangible vivacity and militancy of cultural associations in Lyon (particularly in the music field).

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