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The Off program of the European Capital of Culture in Marseille

This step shows how a grassroots initiative was able to challenge the official discourse of European Capitals of Culture.

The European Capital of Culture projects are often criticized for being too elitist and not rooted enough in their city. This step shows how a grassroots initiative was able to challenge the official discourse and set up an alternative project in a self-organized manner.

The City of Marseille in southern France has a strong legacy of social-oriented cultural policy. But by the early 2000, the Chamber of Commerce and Euroméditerranée (a public agency in charge of regenerating port areas), pushed forward initiatives aimed at using culture to change the city’s image to make it more attractive to high-skilled professionals. Marseille set up a great events strategy that started with a failed attempt to host the Americas Cup, but subsequently succeeded in winning the European Capital of Culture in 2013 and the European football cup in 2016.

Marseille’s cultural scene rose up to the reduction of culture to an urban marketing tool and created a parallel event to the European Capital of Culture, named, the “Off”. This initiative launched by three Marseille-based artists aimed “to put the Marseillais artist at the heart of the European Capital of Culture, by organizing off the wall and impertinent shows, based on paradoxes of the city”. They organized 30 events in 2011 and 2012, and one event every month during the year 2013.

One of the projects conducted as part of the Off program, named ‘Yes we camp’, consisted of building a city campground over the summer of 2013, promoting participatory, innovative, and ecological methods of construction. As its artistic director describes it: “‘Yes we camp’ is a collective utopic, human and work. It is both a small laboratory of city making and a performance.” A group of artists and architects launched this project one year ahead of the European Capital of Culture and was able to find financial support thanks to crowdfunding.

In 2012, they set up a team and started by collecting ideas and references, as well as sharing ideas on their project. They attended the 2012 UN Habitat conference in Naples and began promoting the project by hosting stands during cultural events in Marseille. In November 2012, they managed to raise 6290 euros through a crowdfunding campaign. A month later, they started to experiment in the self-construction of camping sites with original facilities, giving progressively concreteness to an initially ideal project. In April 2013, they raised 24,173 euros and started to build the camping site the following month. The construction process was based on the collaboration of about 50 volunteer architects and artists. It followed ecological modes of construction, from recycling materials such as containers or scaffoldings to the reuse of bathwater for plants.

The association that was created for this project conducted several other initiatives afterwards, not only in Marseille, but also in other cities, like Aubervilliers, on the periphery of Paris.

© European University Institute
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Cultural Heritage and the City

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