Text: Brendan Seibel
La Courneuve is a northern Parisian suburb, which, already tarnished by the legacy of 60’s immigrant exile and post-industrial depression, became even more notorious after photos of police dragging pregnant women from the condemned housing project “Balzac” were widely circulated, bringing simmering racial tensions and segregation to a public boiling point. The area’s reputation was that of an impoverished ghetto, a festering drug-den, the land of the lost – stereotypes that Monte Laster hoped to change with his assocation FACE.
Laster, himself an immigrant from Texas, has dedicated a quarter of his life to La Courneuve. The discovery of a crumbling, centuries-old mill led to a painstaking reconstruction. Moulin Fayvon became his home and gave birth to the arts association FACE French/American Creative Exchange. The project’s centerpiece is the transcendence of the individual above the proscribed traps of generalisation.
Hidden behind stone walls and nestled in a lovingly tended garden FACE could remain a bucolic utopia removed from its bleak surroundings. However, Laster has rejected privileged isolation to work with and through the community, marrying art, advocacy and sociological theory. The displaced residents of disappearing tower blocks, the maligned immigrants, the marginalised denizens of a stigmatized city are the very root of creation. Actions as diverse as cross-cultural potlucks, nature walks through demolition zones and fusions of Baroque choirs to hip-hop all draw inspiration from the life of the city.
Laster has always sought to integrate with the city of Courneuve, as he wants Moulin Fayvon to truly belong to the community as a space for anyone to come, learn, create and grow. By bringing together disparate groups and all forms of art he aims to empower the local, urban community and to help them reclaim and rediscover their identity.
A secondary benefit of becoming an integral part of the city is duration. As the landscape of La Courneuve changes to erase the mistakes of time, Laster and ecological architect Olivier Boucheron hope to resurrect the past. Moulin Fayvon was once powered by the Croult, a tributary of the Seine long since polluted and covered during industrialization. As he had carefully rehabilitated crumbling medieval ruins, Laster wishes to continue his stewardship by creating a self-sustaining environment mirroring the pastoral beauty of a lost era. If life is art and art is life, an arts center must breathe.