woensdag 24 augustus 2016

One of the First serious Documentations of the French Paris Mai/June 68 movement Graphic Design

1969; Haan, Tristan; Parijs , mei-juni ' 68 : tentoonstelling onder auspiciën van het Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis; one of the first serious documentations of the French Mai/June 68 movement, with explanations of the many organisations, groups and groupscules (taxonomie of a forest of acronyms); all material can be found in the archives of the IISG, though no concordance register has been made to my knowledge between the archives and the catlogue; a great pitty that all this information is only available in Dutch.

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The first exhibition on the French May June 1968 movement took place in the Museum Fodor in Amsterdam, an annex of the museum of modern art (Stedelijk Museum). At that time such a thing could not take place in France were people could still be persecuted for certain deeds during the rising and even having lots of protest documentation could make one a suspect. Through a collaboration between the Stedelijk Museum and the International Institute of Social History (IISG), both based in Amsterdam, this exhibition could take place. The IISG had been collecting historical documents from and about revolutionary, workers and social movement since 1935 (a Dutch initiative as a reaction on the take over of power by the Nazis in Germany and Austria and the endangered socialist archives). Also this time the IISG saw it as its task to actively collect materials of the French May movement on the spot. The Institute had already some collecting ’consultants’ in France and several staff members from Amsterdam went to France to add with this task. There were also many people related in some way to the Institute who did the same thing on their own initiative. From July onward with the movement going down several people in France feared strong repression and were looking for a safe place to store documentation they had gathered and donated it to the IISG. All this came together and already in the summer of 1968 a big collection of all kind of documents had been established in Amsterdam.

The most primary documents were the leaflets and handouts of thousands of different initiatives, often duplicated, or printed in a simple way. Next came the posters and handwritten manifestos of all kind of sizes and with a great variety of subjects. Though nowadays the strong graphic language of the silkscreened posters produced at ‘atelier de beaux arts’ in Paris are mostly remembered, these were certainly not the first ones, and in fact the text based mostly handwritten wall papers and manifestos with all kind of declarations and calls are much more typical for the May 68 movement. New newspapers, magazines, journals, and dispatches of all kind were brought forth by this movement, some with strong graphics like the paper ‘Action’. Comments, proposals, manifestos, programs and the like in the form of brochures (pamphlets) flooded the bookshops and news stalls, were handed out, or sold on the streets. Photographers, filmmakers and radio journalists made all kind of independent registrations, like an association of independent filmmakers that undertook newsreel productions, taking the name ‘Etats Géneraux du Cinéma”. Of course the movement also reflected on existing news media that often published special editions or issues. Already during the first month books started to come out, documenting specific events, discussing or reflecting.

All this material had to be ordered in some way to show it and make it understandable. The head of the French department of the IISG, Tristan Haan, who before that time had been sunk deep into the 18th century and the radical writings of ”le curé Meslier”, woke up to the present and made 244 short descriptions and commentaries of such time documents, adding an overview of 153 groups and their obscure acronyms and abbreviations, many of which only existed for a few weeks. This formed the basis for the catalogue that showed also 135 leaflets, handwritten manifestos and posters, all translated into Dutch. The catalogue was a low budget production, so only pure black and white reproduction could be afforded at that time (even making rasters pictures would have been too expensive; difficult to understand for new generation working with graphic computer systems). Still when I leaf through the catalogue now in 2005 it breathes a graphic atmosphere that relates well with the spirit of the 68 movement.

There were film showings with life translations during the exhibition. The catalogue had special sections on movies and gramophone record documents and an international documentation of the 68 movement in the world of art.

Maybe here should also be noted that the Stedelijk Museum direction was not all that happy about this initiative. They somewhat feared its revolutionary impact, so when we proposed to hang the reprints of some May 68 posters, like the one with the clubbing CRS riot policeman, on the official advertisement boards of the museum had, this was refused. It took a decade or so before all the simple handwritten and badly duplicated documents were forgotten and only the nice and artistic looking documents could get popular with the curators and were often selected in museum exhibitions as emblems of Mai 68.

After 25 years the French archival institutions had catched up and even did better than us foreign pioneering documentarists. The National Library of France undertook a serious project to catalogue all the leaflets they had been able to put their hands on and even initiated a microfilmed edition that has preserved all together 10.067 handouts/leaflets of the May/June 1968 movement.

“Mai 68” has become the shortest way to denote a whole complex of social movements in the spring of 1968 in France and elsewhere, with May as the hot spot and June as a month of cool down.

Ten years before general De Gaulle had been elected president and founded what is called the “Ve Republique” with new strong presidential powers. A technocrat policy was pursued, by a center-right majority government, to modernize France, an imperial power that had just lost its colonies and still was a half agricultural, half industrial country. While major efforts were made to push a new high tech industry that would provide both cheap energy and military nuclear power, changes in other domains lacked behind. Former agricultural workers and small farmers had been driven from the fields into the new factories, soon demanding better working conditions which were most often denied. The educational domain, that had to supply the cadre for the new industrial order, had grown in size but failed to adapt to the demands of the younger generation. It was not surprising that something stirred up here, at first with small groups of students criticizing their own living conditions and future prospects in Strasbourg in 1966 (with the pamphlet “De la misère dans le millieu étudiant”/about he misery of student life) and later in the new Parisian suburban university of Nanterre in January 1968. During the opening ceremony of a new swimming pool, students interrupted the French minister of sports Missoffe who proclaimed that this pool was a sign of how the government took good care of the health of the students. The interruption was about the repressive role of sport and the strict gender separation in the dormitories of the Nanterre university campus and the resulting “unhygienic mental situation” for students because of their frustrated sexuality (a way of arguing coming directly from the writings of Wilhelm Reich in the thirties, rediscovered by French youth at that time). This last incident was the beginning of a series of conflicts at the Nanterre campus and led to its closure in March. This only radicalized the student movement. At the same time there were all kind or worker’s protest and action outside the Paris region, like in Caen at the SAVIEM factory. It certainly was not only a student movement, though at first they did get most of the publicity.

During the first of May demonstration in Paris, that was for the first time since long officially allowed, students from Nanterre that tried to join in were chased from the march by Communist Party trade unionists(CGT). For a long time there had been frictions between the rather orthodox French Communist Party and other socialist parties, unions and groupings. A period of oscillating events starts: demonstrations, counter-demonstrations provocations: like an arson attack of a student office at the Sorbonne - possibly by a right wing group - and protests meeting against it in the University compound. When the protesters are chased out by the police, the movement spreads over the neighbouring quarter, the Quartier Latin. The student movement is out in the streets. More demonstrations and closures of Universities follow. The movement widens, involving also high school students. Hard confrontations between demonstrators and police, defense and storming of old fashioned barricades that block Parisian boulevards. More and more arrests, wounded and people troubled by what appears in some case to have been more than “just” tear gas (some say it was nerve gas). The student movement triggers more social unrest, in all parts of the country occupations of factories occur, like Sud Aviation in Nantes and Renault in Cléon. Journalists of the ORTF (French state radio and television) form a committee. In Paris the Odéon theater is occupied and functions as a permanent platform for debates on social issues. Solidarity demonstration of students and workers occur, railways and air traffic is blocked by strikes. Not all strikes are called by the trade unions, several are directly initiated by workers, wild-cat strikes. All kind of sectors of society start to express their grievances with the existing system, school teachers, parents of school kids, art students, journalists, neighbourhood committees, an action committee in the National Library, even sport professionals who issue a leaflet with the slogan “le football aux footballeurs (football to the football players). Several university buildings are occupied, not just in Paris but also in the province.

All this seems to have little effect on the level of official politics. A vote of censure in the national assembly on the 22. of May is repulsed. A proposal for amnesty for arrested students is accepted as an attempt to still the uproar. All kind of action committees are formed to discuss social issues of a specific segment of society and take practical action. A general assembly with representatives of over a hundred of such committees takes place in Paris. There are some television speeches of president De Gaulle, at first disavowing, later promising a national referendum on a change of social structures that would allow for more “participation” of French citizens. Behind doors negotiations between trade unions and government start, while the movement continues on the streets and in occupied educational institutions and factories. The workers of the Renault Billancourt factories in Paris refuse to accept the first negotiation results of their unions. Mass meetings follow, the government can not deny or ignore the movement anymore. At first the minister of education Perefitte is dismissed and soon after, on May 30, president De Gaulle dismisses the parliament, new elections are announced. A call is launched for the forming of ‘citizens militia’ to defend the Republic. A big demonstration of Gaullist supporters marches down the Champs Elysée.

Describing the aftermath in the same way will go beyond the purpose of this short overview. Slowly over the weeks the waves of social unrest calm down. The trade unions declare that they had no political intend with the strikes, just economic demands and start to force the striking workers to accept the agreement with the government (called the “accords of Grenelle”, after the street where the negotiations took place). The elections at the end of June do not alter the relations between the political parties. The left opposition is at that time too much divided to offer an alternative. It takes till 1981, when the newly formed French Socialist Party under Mitterand, succeeds in allying (however temporarily) most of the left political forces, getting both a parliamentary majority and the presidency, though only for a short while...

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