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Martine DERAIN 

From one threshold to another [Perspective of a room with its inhabitants]
Dalila Mahdjoub/Martine Derain | 2004-2007

This is a project initiated in 2003 while we were working at La Compagnie, an artists' workshop in Belsunce. We were interested in the construction of the Sonacotra council housing a few metres from there, something which seemed contradictory to the local authorities' policy in that district. In fact Belsunce, a district where workers from North Africa pass through or stay, had for the past ten years been under renovation in line with a project to «diversify the population» and «to bring back inhabitants who pay tax» [1]. The Sonacotra itself houses workers now retired and those called «the least fortunate» of any origin. For more than a year we researched then presented [2] our project to the Sonacotra which accepted it [3]. The construction, initially planned for early 2004, began in February 2006 and the building opened its doors in February 2007. 

The story of immigrant workers is immense, far too big for us who are not historians, and we simply looked at the dwellings that was destined for them, accomodation thought of as «a temporary lodging for temporary workers» [4].

«The only door open was to France», said one resident of the accomodation: in Marseilles, the question of the worker in the town and in the nation is traversed by the history of colonialism. After the war, near the port, was the Ministry of Work and Social Security [5]  where workers must be recorded: «The Ministry building represents, in turn, either the entrance or the exit point for all those North Africans seeking work in France and for whom employers in our three overseas departments can no longer guarantee employment» declares the caption to this image that appeared in the magazine, Detective, in the early 1950's.

The Sonacotra, originally the Sonacotral (Société nationale de construction pour les travailleurs algériens) was established under the aegis of the Ministry of the Interior in 1956. It was set up to work in three directions: the management of the work force, social control but also national solidarity [6]. It declared that it wanted to procure living conditions for Algerians that were similar to those for French continental workers. However the standards of accomodation were lowered and today approximately 8,000 bedrooms no larger than 4.5m2 still exist. The sleeping quarters built near to factories were spaces of political, social and spatial relegation: «... built far from town centres and  other citizens' routes. Immigrant workers and their places of residence were placed out of sight and thus far from the concern of government institutions» [7]. Since 1994, hotel-hostelries have become «council housing» and are sometimes set up in town centres. The director of the Interministerial Commission for Immigrant Housing evoked the difficulties that were met when creating these residencies: «As for the difficulties, I can see one that is paramount : eventual reluctance of councillors who are not always ready to grant building permits for immigrant workers' housing or sometimes not even for council housing...» [8]. Despite these difficulties, the Sonacotra owns 25 accomodation centres in Marseilles, 11 of which are in Belsunce. The construction of a residence right in the centre of the town «is an exceptional programme, the showcase of the company today.» [9]

Brief  description
From one threshold to another : lasting installations, as a marker of time

«I am in my own home in this room, I agree, but not in France, otherwise I am not at home here»  says another resident. We have burried on the threshold of the residence porch – there where hosts wish you welcome, where things are inverted according to a Kabyl proverb – then leave you just below the surface, the two bedroom doors of the first accomodation built in France: Le Parc, in Argenteuil [10].  They have been placed in a concrete casing, protected by a glass floor. Articulated on the axis of the new door to the residence, they form angles: the first, a large open angle – we call it «1956 door», wide open to unqualified workers. The second forms an acute angle, as if it is barely open: we call it «1974 door» the year when the immigration act came into being. The State Secretary for manual workers, Lionel Stoleru, later affirmed this about his measures «to assist the return» of immigrants: «We no longer turn people away on the treshold, but the door is not as wide open as it was before» [11]. 1974 door on closing, thus radically asks the question of «home», the workers must «choose» : to stay or to leave. «Neither did he leave, nor did he stay, neither did he stay, nor did he leave» sings Sliman Azzem... Two information tables (with symbolic dates, origins...) are placed on the edges of the doors. The entrance door is in glass, the installation is visible from the street.

[Perspective of a room with its inhabitants], a publication on the burying of doors or how to get out of the porch
This takes up the only information retained by the managers on the unique paper ledger of the Parc: long lists of room numbers and the trades of those who, arriving from M'Sila, Sétif, Ghardaia or Oujda when 20 years old, lived for a few days, or sometimes a whole lifetime, between these doors. Parc 2 – the name we proposed for the new building in Belsunce – contains the history of Parc, the first accomodation leads us to the last residence: a door opens and once again we find temporary housing, this time for those «who cannot obtain access to council or traditional housing» or who are «faced with unemployment or insecurity». The first accomodation was a form of «assignment to residence» [12],  where the workers were lodged while waiting to return but they became a trap due to the lack of alternative housing. What will happen to the current occupents ? Can temporary housing still provide a solution today when the number of ‘the beneficiairies’ of minimum benefits never ceases to increase? How long must the current residents wait for a house like everybody else's? No home for the unemployed, labourers and workers?
A few examples of the publication, open, are hung inside the entrance porch – an in-between space, neither inside nor outside – and show the lists and a few indications to explain the installation. When finally out of the porch, in the town, accessible to all, the publication is sold at cost price and distributed in bookshops and by Editions La courte échelle/transit. Every reader will thus, through his reading, bring to life the individual lives and the collective history: question the past to feed present desires, the desire for equality?

1- Quotation from a statement made by Jean-Claude Gaudin, La Tribune, 5-12-2001.

2- From one threshold to another was thus a period of encounters. During research, with Gilles Ascaride, a sociologist and writer (Gilles Ascaride and Salvator Condro, Précarité à tous les étages, essai d’analyse du traitement public d’une population particularisée: les « isolés » du centre-ville de Marseille, Insecurity on every level, an analysis of public treatment of a specific population: the isolated» in the town centre of Marseilles, Aix-Marseilles University I, 1999). Then for the future of the accomodation with members of the Committee based in Paris. During the construction of the residence with the workers rebuilding it. Finally, very recently, a meeting with Grégoire Keussayan and the «discovery» of archives containing extraordinary photographs. He had been photographing the workers in Belsunce since the 1950's. They «presented » themselves in European costume – fixing the staging of the pictures themselves too, the photographer was only there for the technical side. These pictures were used to inform the family, in their home countries, how they were. We informed the Town Archives of the existence of these, they then acquired 1,500 films now preserved and available for consultation.

3- Research was funded by a research grant given by the Department of Architecture and Heritage and carried out with the support of the DRAC-PACA, the Acsé and the Town of Marseilles. After initial agreement, the maintenance contract drawn up was signed with the National Board of the Sonacotra in February 2005.

4- Abdelmalek Sayad, L’immigration ou les paradoxes de l’altérité (Immigration or the paradoxes of the other) 1991. 1. L’illusion du provisoire (The illusion of the temporary), Raisons d’agir, 2006

5- No trace remains today.

6- Marc Bernardot, Une politique de logement : la Sonacotra (A policy for housing : the Sonacotra), 1956-1992. Thesis for a social science doctorate, Paris-Panthéon-Sorbonne University, 1997

7- Les foyers dans la ville, Foyers de travailleurs migrants et politique de la ville (Accomodation in the town, Immigrant workers' accomdation and town policy), DIV, FAS, CDC 1999

8- Review Horizon, Sonacotra. Must one be reminded that certain local inhabitants, far from disagreeing with their councillors, are also against this ?

9- M. Bourdelon, Sonacotra Marseilles, August 2003

10- The Parc accomodation, built in 1959, was refurbished in 2006. The hidden doors are the original ones and come from bedrooms of a ground floor appartment.

11- Journal des débats de l’Assemblée Nationale, 5 October 1977.

12- Michel Fiévet, Le livre blanc des travailleurs immigrés des foyers. Du non-droit au droit. (The white book of immigrant workers in accomodation. From no rights to rights), Ciemi, L’Harmattan, 1999

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