Thea Behrman shares a few highlights and thoughts following Creative Estuary’s delegation to Chiiting! Festival in Nantes with the Global Cultural Districts Network.
Chtiiing! What is it? It’s a magic power, a state of mind, an encounter, a momentum, an idea, a trigger. Boiling, eclectic, free, unusual, without complexity, fuss or ‘tralala’.
In our work on Estuary festival, Nantes has been referenced many times as a case study, with a geography similar in shape and scale to the Thames Estuary, and for the cultural programmes Estuaire and Voyage a Nantes enabled through close partnership between the City Council, the urban development agency and the cultural sector.
Over four days in April 2022 the inaugural Chtiing! Festival promised to offer an exploration of creativity in an urban context, with a mix of conferences, round tables, networking, and creative competitions for young people, as well as evening events and festival activities across the city.
Chtiing! was focused around the Île de Nantes. 350-hectares in size, nestled next to the historic city centre, connected by a series of bridges and embraced by the Loire Estuary. Since 2000, the Île de Nantes has been the focus for a ‘city that evolves with its inhabitants’. The delivery of this plan is delegated to SAMOA who lead on cultural programmes and urban development.
A ‘Sustainable Island Manifesto’ produced by SAMOA and codesigned with citizens, planners and stakeholders, drives the ambition for the transformation of the island of Nantes by 2037, and is underpinned by guiding principles including ‘The Island of the Commons’, ‘The island of well-being’ and the ‘resilient island’.
To initiate this work, SAMOA purchased sites across the island from the Port Authority and private sector. They then set about re-using these existing spaces to test ideas before the capital developments take place. Across the whole island abandoned spaces have been activated as spaces for culture and to test different approaches. With the freedom to take risks, ‘audacious’ is the word that underpins SAMOA’s work, and is clear to see both in the public artwork commissioning and urban regeneration.
A great example of this approach can be found on the former MIN (National Interest Market). L’Agronaute, is a ‘solidarity and recreational urban farm’ created by the association La SAUGE. The former industrial greenhouse now has a range of different activities occupying different areas of the space: a small scale plant nursery next to co-working spaces, a bar for relaxing and event spaces. These are surrounded by workshops for designer-makers and producers. The spaces are repurposed to try out different approaches, and a sensibility of reuse can be seen all around – nothing is wasted, all materials are kept, sorted and categorised for reuse elsewhere.
The character of the site has been preserved with minimal intervention. Along the island facing the city public artworks are sited within a landscape design that retains the heritage of the site. Traces of industry and manufacturing that once dominated the island can be seen at every step, from the tracks and path surfacing to warehouses, once factories for packing bananas, or for shipbuilding now repurposed as workshops, galleries, restaurants and bars, including a growing collection of attractions from theatre company La Machine’s Machines de l’Île based on the island.
An immense yellow crane dominates the horizon, a remnant of Nantes flourishing shipbuilding heritage, now exported as cartoon cranes adorning fridge magnets and tote bags in the tourist information centre. Facing the crane on the opposite side of the river is the Memorial to the abolition of slavery by visual artist Krzysztof Wodiczko and architect Julian Bonder acting as a permanent reminder of Nantes’ history as a slave-trading port.
To take in the Voyage a Nantes visitors are invited to follow the green line connecting the public realm artworks across the city. Playful and fun, you can take a walk (or bounce across) the surface of the moon (On va marcher sur la lune by Detroit Architects & Bruno Peinado); or play alternative basketball (L’Arbre à Basket by Agence a/LTA 2012). Even the conventional civic instruction is reimagined: Traverses by Aurélien Bory repaints a pedestrian crossing, scrapping the straight stripes in favour of curvaceous overlapping lines.
So what is my biggest takeaway from this visit to Nantes? It’s clear to see the immense benefits that significant sustained investment in culture can have, and that risk-taking and trying out different approaches is key to informing longer term projects. There is a sense that culture plays an essential role, not just in its own right, but that festivals, commissioning, and providing spaces for mixed cultural activity – hand-in-hand with urban planning – can create better places for everyone.
About the author
Thea thrives in superdiverse contexts, realising ambitious arts projects in collaboration with artists and communities. Thea joined Metal Southend in 2019 to work on Estuary festival. As Senior Project Manager for special projects, Thea continues on plans for future Estuary Festival; supporting the establishment of the Agency for Creative Production – a new social enterprise for skills and training, and the Netpark Wellbeing Project a service that combines creativity, technology and the outdoors to improve wellbeing for those living with mental health conditions. Thea is currently developing a cultural strategy for the Association of South Essex Local Authorities and SEEPARK (South Essex Estuary Park) to grow opportunities for creativity across the region. If you would like to be involved please contact Thea at firstname.lastname@example.org