Université Paris 13 and cité St Leu, Villetaneuse
The affective domestication of a wasteland path, to address urban incivilities

Tendresse Radicale (Radical Tenderness) proposed a tender presence in a conflictual local space lacking a clear identity. It asked the question ‘Can we be tender towards those we do not know?’ Once a week artists ‘performed’ tender gestures towards passersby, holding the space for conversation: hot drinks from a small trolley, watermelon slices in a heatwave, little pots of jam made on site, or tiny bunches of flowers, or a lucky dip in which everyone was a winner.

Lying between a social housing-estate and a university campus, the wasteland, was once a vast orchard. Paths now criss-cross an open field punctuated with copses of dying fruit trees. Long grasses, ivy and brambles recolonise the land in different stages of succession, its potential beauty spoiled with litter and an unspoken conflict of use.

We proposed special-edition postcards of the wasteland, offering to stamp and post one for those who took the time to write a tender note to someone they cared for. We composed and typed poems to order on two old typewriters. Polaroid snapshots or hand-drawn portraits were offered to those ready to pose for five minutes, and we cooked a hundred tiny pots of quince jam on-site in deepest winter, to honour a dying quince tree, marking people's names on jars for collection later.

Our brief encounters with passers-by and the homely gifts or ‘services’ of care we offer, casually but consciously layered alternate, affective experiences onto the wasteland’s central pathway, our presence a catalyst for moments of vulnerability, intimate feelings or memories to emerge in this most public of spaces. With an aesthetic of repair and attention to everyday forms of inhabitation, of a site perceived as hostile, our acts of domestication took the form of repeated intimate exchanges aiming to rebuild a social imaginary for this in-between urban space to become again a valued ‘place’.

The eruption of Covid 19 during the project lent a particular focus to the presence or absence of tenderness towards others. Selected phrases from recorded interviews were woven into the landscape: pasted onto rocks, lamp-posts and walls, hung on trees, diffused on a sound-walk and on QR codes inserted into botanical panels installed onsite. Collaborating with the Association ICI, a botanical survey informed a series of panels punctuated the path, signalling a care and repair of the space, valorising endemic species through pruning and naming.

We collated neighbours’ stories and drawings were collated into a Carte de Tendre of the site’s emotional heritage, acknowledging the wasteland’s varied uses slipping between orchard, motocross rally-track, and jungle playground. Distributed at the end of the project, the carte, interwove these differing subjective experiences, as well as traces of our own presence.

Although offerings changed weekly, our essential act of domestication was simply being there regularly, over two years, standing on the path, becoming a familiar face, with time to spare and to share. Changes our ephemeral, micro-gestures of domestication might have provoked were difficult to perceive, but moments of inconsequential, sometimes hurried connection, slipped into a daily journey on a grey morning:  a woman, returning after two weeks said ‘I’ve thought of a poem I need’; an elderly resident commented, ‘You're the first, and probably the only person I will talk to today’. Another rushed by shouting ‘Excellent jam!’ six months later, confirming a certain longevity or ripple-effect.

    Creative Team & Partners

    Lead artist: Sarah Harper
    Technical collaboration and performance: Pascal Laurent
    Costumes and Performance: Claudia Verdejo
    Soundscapes: Erwan Quintin
    Landscape design and botanic inventory: Antoine Hibou-Cwancig
    Pedagogy and drawing: Frede Déthier
    Portraiture: Damien Roudeau
    Production: Pascal Laurent