In the 17th to the 19th centuries, a large part of Montreuil was divided into over one thousand long narrow plots of land surrounded by 600 kilometres of ‘living walls’ made of earth, plaster and gypsum and built to provide heat and humidity so that the espaliered peach trees could flourish. Many of these walls have fallen into disrepair, so the city has offered grants to projects, both agricultural and artistic, that increase knowledge about this unique aspect of the city’s history and lead to some form of restoration and reactivation.
Friches Théâtre Urbain has been granted artistic management of a few of these plots, now neglected (but protected) woodland (Parcel 343, 89, rue Saint-Antoine Est, Espace Boisé Classé) to develop a site-specific community-based theatre project inspired by this evocative heritage of food production. Many of the local inhabitants are Sinti gypsies who have lived in extended family groups in caravans in this area of Montreuil (often in the same plot bounded by the living walls) for forty years and a recently-arrived small group of Rom Kalderash, economic migrants from Romania who live in harsh conditions in a temporary campsite in a parking lot. Other neighbours are long-established French working class families and recent Russian and North African immigrants as well as upwardly mobile professionals who have a keen interest in ecological issues and new agricultural techniques. This project seeks both to interrogate and animate contemporary local experiences with the wood and its edible plants and to valorise biodiversity and cultural diversity around this section of the Murs à Pêches by creating a space for conflicting voices, opinions and memories of the neighbours to be heard and exchanged within an artistic context.
We have relied so far primarily on three tactics, all related to food in some way, for getting to know our neighbours. They include conversations (knocking on doors to say hello and offer a small basket of one of the edible plants harvested in the wood or setting up tables in the street outside the wooded plot for a party of conversations over a cup of tea or coffee and biscuits), conservation (cataloguing of flora and fauna in the abandoned parcel of land, cleaning the site of non-biodegradable trash and pollutants, consulting with local experts on the protection of the diversity of this type of environment, and collecting local stories, folk knowledge, recipes and traditions around food preparation and eating of edible foods found in the wood in recordings, photographs or filmed portraits), and art-oriented open days with guided walks.
In November 2012, we held an artistic/pedagogical open day in the wood. Audiences followed a marked path that led them to a range of aesthetic and informational installations. Mushrooms are abundant in the wood, so in one section, we set up a chair for contemplating the growing mushrooms (a few hidden beneath the undergrowth, but several ‘planted’ on wooden skewers). Around the chair dangling from the trees were sheets of parchment paper with hand-copied email correspondences between Harper and a mushroom expert about the woodland mushrooms. The lyrical exchange evoked love letters. In another section, a land art scarecrow with a hidden motion sensor speaker gave information about the surrounding plants in the voices of local inhabitants gathered in interviews. In a hollow, a tasting café offered foods made from edible crops that grow in the wood in various times of the year—mushroom patés, quince jam, hazelnut tarts. A ladder, a basket, and an old work shirt marked one surviving espaliered peach trees. This project will continue through 2013 with additional themed open days.