Policing Exhibit B in St Denis and Paris : afterlives of the French Imperial state at the theatre doors

Mader McGuinness, Caoimhe (2022) Policing Exhibit B in St Denis and Paris : afterlives of the French Imperial state at the theatre doors. Performance Research, 27(3-4), pp. 98-104. ISSN (print) 1352-8165


This article will consider the protests against Brett Bailey’s 2014 performance installation Exhibit B at the Théâtre Gérard Philippe (TGP) in the Paris suburb of St Denis and at the Espace Centquatre within Paris itself. Rather than focusing on the ethical and political questions raised by the piece, I will analyse the modes by which the French state, via the deployment of police, made itself visible or ‘staged itself’ before the theatre – exemplifying the specific importance given to the theatre within French state cultural policy. Following this, I will analyse how this incident exemplified a distinct manifestation of an imperial ‘afterlife’ of the French state. Building on Kristin Ross’ work as well as Laura-Ann Stoller’s elaborations on French colonial aphasia (active forgetting), I aim to tease out how the heavy-handed deployment of the police at the specific location of the TGP and the softer strategy deploying an ‘exclusion zone’ around the Espace Centquatre exemplified the persistent continuation of France’s imperial policies as they are applied to racialised populations within its own ‘metropolitan’ territory. The opening night of the show at the TGP was rocked by confrontations between theatre staff and antiracist activists denouncing Bailey’s choice of recreating a human zoo, purportedly to denounce European imperial crimes, resulting in a broken window and the cancellation of that night’s show. Following from these events, the rest of the performance’s run was maintained through the deployment of extensive police presence at the theatre’s entrance. As the performance moved into Paris ‘proper’, a seemingly softer approach was deployed, making use of a de-facto curfew barring black individuals of approaching the Espace Centquatre’s area. Whilst seemingly less heavy-handed, this choice of policing also mimicked modes of policing deployed in the French capital against Arab populations at the height of the Algerian anti-imperial resistance of the early 1960s. Reflecting on Bailey’s own geographical distancing – presenting scenes of historical violence as they occurred on the African continent – will lead me to draw parallels with the aphasia operating in France with regards to colonial crimes committed within its present national boundaries. This will lead me to question some of the spatial and temporal assumptions underpinning some of the causal narratives regarding contemporary racism in France, in their focus on ‘waves of immigration’ and on the assumptions that the brutal facts of colonialism happened on far away continents, or to use Anne McClintock’s formulation, ‘over there’.

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