Cartes postales du bagne

Object of the game vs. game as object

Over the past month, the Postcards from the bagne team has been discussing different approaches to creating a boardgame as a way of engaging different audiences and telling alternative stories relating to the bagne that are often overlooked in favour of those which privilege a select few (see for example, Ayshka’s post on boardgames and agonistic memory). Within the wider context of the project, this is not simply about engaging more people in the general history of the penal colony but also to explore relationships between different sites relating to the bagne and the ongoing interconnectedness of these sites today. A boardgame seems to offer up the potential to emphasize these links both visually and textually.

One of the things which most appeals about creating a boardgame is its materiality – the opportunity to design counters, dice, cards, the board and so on using different materials. This is, of course, part of the wider appeal of boardgames and the reason they have over the past decade enjoyed a resurgence in popularity with adult gamers. However, if their materiality is part of what makes them a useful pedagogical tool (as witnessed in particular at museums in New Caledonia), designing a game not only as a means of engaging a wider audience with research but, potentially, as a research tool in itself raises questions about exclusivity and accessibility.

Somewhat creepy chess game intended to emphasize the complex political struggles in Nouméa at the end of the 19th Century. Musée de la ville de Nouméa.

Like the video game industry, the boardgames industry markets itself on exclusivity and novelty. New games as well as extension packs can be prohibitively expensive to casual players and a testament to the commitment of serious gamers. One of the things we have been discussing is how to appeal to different audiences all the way up to serious adult gamers via the combination of complex narratives and challenging game play. At the same time, we recognise the scope to explore the boardgame as a research methodology which suggests trying different formats and approaches. Of key importance here is the question of accessibility and how to reconcile this with the materiality of the boardgame which can be expensive and difficult to distribute? Another option is to design a ‘print and play’ game similar to other projects (see for example the Counter-Cartographies Collective project on counter-mapping Queen Mary) produced in and around the space of the university. A ‘print and play’ game has potential to be circulated widely and perhaps reach those less interested in the game as object in itself. At the same time, it places limitations on the type and amount of text and graphics that can be used. There are reasons why this can be both useful and restricting, something we shall hopefully reflect on in future posts.

Aerial Views of the Camp de la Transportation

Guest post by Ross Smith @gutterbal

Representations of space involve multiple approaches and perspectives. An approach might emphasize the individual, personal investment and significance of a particular space. Alternatively, space could be framed as exotic, casting a desirable light on far off places. Another perspective, as presented her, is the aerial view. 

The 2013 graphic novel, Cayenne, Matricule 51793 by Blanco and Perrin, tells the story of a bagnard dreaming of freedom and attempting to flee from prison, a similar story to many graphic novels coming from the Hexagon. When the protagonist finds himself at Saint-Laurent, we are given an aerial view of the camp, almost cartographic in its presentation. While the decision to present the camp from this perspective is not necessarily new or surprising, it does pose certain questions about how stories are being told.

Aerial view of the Camp de la Transportation in Blanco and Perrin, Cayenne (2013)

Whilst in the archive at the Camp du Transportation, I was lucky enough to find a document which detailed an archeological dig which took place at the site also in 2013. The file, as one would assume, detailed things found in the dig, the nature of soil, how deep they dug, and what their research entailed. The figure which was of interest however, was an aerial view plan of the site showing the location of barracks and buildings for their dig. The plan showed, in a scientific and detached way, the layout of the camp and some of its key characteristics. 

Inrap (2013)

The aerial view, used in these different contexts, raises some interesting questions. My first response was to see its use in Cayenne, not as an objective, quasi-scientific portrayal of the camp as a space in which history took place and events took place rather than in terms of the sensational events and encounters that are often fetishized in prison narratives. However, this almost Lévi-Straussian approach to the space feels to limit the importance of the space of the camp, and deny or gloss over what actually happened there. This then leads to my second reflection, which is that an aerial depiction of space much like a map or plan can also show all that a space encapsulates. In this sense, it zooms out from the story of the bagnard with the matricule 51793, and allows for an understanding of the space viewed at a remove. Much like that of the archeological document, it is necessary to see the space as a large colonial project, so while his story is important – it was not the only one which can be told from this space. 

A third reading of this space, is emphasised by the title of the novel. There is not a representation of the space of Cayenne in this manner in the graphic novel, and it is in Saint-Laurent that character lives, attempts escape, and ultimately dies, yet the title still bears the name of Cayenne. Therefore, this aerial documentation is not merely an important tool in emphasizing how an individual bagnard is part a network of stories: it is also draws our attention to how the bagne was not just Cayenne (for French people) or Devil’s Island (for Americans). After the bagne began its operation in 1852, Saint Laurent du Maroni was conceived as a town focused around the penal administration unlike Cayenne.

Whilst these are just the beginnings of a wider project involving graphic novels and the bagne, I think immediately it is clear that uses of space in comic images play an important role in how we understand the bagne which also draw upon and create links with forms of scientific diagram, plan or map as used in fields such as archaeology. RS

References

Blanco, Stéphane and Laurent Perrin, Cayenne, Matricule 51793 (Paris: Aubin, 2013).

Inrap, Guyane, Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni, Camp de la Transportation (Grand Sud-Ouest: octobre 2013).

Applying Agonistic Memory Theory to a Board Game?

I (Ayshka) was invited to attend a workshop on Agonistic Memory and Museums on 13 May 2019 at the University of Bath run by the Horizon 2020 funded UNREST project. The workshop targeted museum practitioners who had either applied agonistic memory to their own settings already, or who had expressed an interest in learning more about the theory and how it might be mobilized. I worked as a post-doc researcher for UNREST until March 2019, so am familiar with the project and theory, but I was keen to explore how agonistic memory might be applied to my current research as part of the Postcards from the Bagne project. 

Participants sharing during an activity at the UNREST workshop (© UNREST twitter feed)

In this project, we are considering how best to disseminate our research findings outside academia, i.e. beyond publications in academic journals. One consideration is to create a board game based on experiences of bagnards in French Guiana. We are keen to nuance and challenge dominant narratives of escape by presenting the multiplicity of bagnards’ lived experiences, which were more commonly shaped by incarceration, deprivation and death, than escape. We are also eager to introduce perspectives other than the prisoners, for example prison guards, doctors, bounty hunters, to create a richer picture of life as part of this penal colony.

Charles Forsdick and Claire Reddleman play the ‘Jeu du Bagne’ based on bagnards’ experiences in New Caledonia (© Sophie Fuggle)

How then might agonistic memory help with the creation of this board game? In Cento Bull and Hansen’s article ‘On Agonistic Memory’ (2016), they outline the characteristics of agonistic memory, taking as their starting point the failure of the cosmopolitan memory mode to prevent the rise of antagonistic memories constructed by populist, neo-nationalist movements. The traits of this memory mode include:

  • Multiperspectivism– hearing the testimonies of both victims and perpetrators, as well as witnesses, bystanders, spies, and traitors. It is believed that the testimonies of perpetrators can help us to understand when, how, and why people turn into perpetrators.
  • Emotions and passions– agonism argues that passion is an important force to reinvigorate politics and can be used to create a sense of solidarity without demonising the ‘evil other.’ Empathy with victims is the first step in promoting understanding.
  • Reconstructing the historical context – avoiding pitting ‘good’ against ‘evil’, ‘us’ against ‘them.’ Instead, agonistic memory acknowledges the human capacity for evil in specific circumstances and in certain social and political contexts.

Presentation on Agonistic Games (© Daniela de Angeli)

These theoretical concepts have been applied to the creation of museum exhibitions, theatre performances, and significantly for this project, computer games. An online version of the computer game created by UNREST, Umschlagplatz, can be played here. Players can choose from four characters, a brief background about each character is given to players which outlines the specific historical and social context at the time, players then need to make choices to save themselves and can either share true or false statements or spread rumours about other players. The decisions and consequences triggered by players’ choices are designed to create an unsettling experience for those involved in the game, causing them to question how and why they made particular decisions. 

Visitors playing ‘Umschlagplatz’ at the Krieg.Macht.Sinn exhibition at the Ruhr Museum in Germany (© Daniela de Angeli)

Agonistic characteristics, such as multiperspectivism, unsettling experiences, the importance of historical and social contexts, and the acknowledgement of emotions and passions might be applied in the creation of our board game. Life history narratives (letters, diaries, biographies, autobiographies, memoirs) could be successfully employed to highlight the ‘unknown majority’ (Thompson, 2000, p.24) who were part of French Guiana’s penal colony. The inclusion of testimonies from historical actors other than bagnards could shed light on the specific historical context which might cause former prisoners to become bounty hunters, for example, or prison guards to become perpetrators. Lesser-known objects and artefacts associated with the French Guiana’s penalscape could also be represented in the board game to complicate and challenge the dominant narrative of escape. 

More detailed discussions about our board game are to follow, but the workshop was certainly a productive brainstorming exercise and an excellent opportunity to hear from museum and heritage practitioners who are looking to develop new ways of representing difficult histories. 

References

Bull, A. C., & Hansen, H. L. (2016). On agonistic memory. Memory Studies, 9(4), 390–404. https://doi.org/10.1177/1750698015615935

Thompson, P. 2000. The Voice of the Past. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Approaching things differently (En route to the islands)

Aerial views of Con Dao including turboprop propeller

Over the past month I have returned to two islands that once were part of France’s overseas penal colonies. The first Con Dao or Poulo-Condore located 230km off the mainland of Vietnam was used over a 100 year period for both political and common law prisoners. It was subsequently used by the Southern Vietnamese and Americans during the American war.

Con Dao from the air

The second island is Ile des Pins (Kunié) located about 70 miles from Noumea, New Caledonia. This was where many of the deported communards ended up.

Ile des Pins

Last year I took turboprop flights to both islands. However, this time, completely by chance, it worked out better to travel by boat. Aside from the somewhat hairy take offs and landings you get with a turboprop, I was excited to travel by boat as I thought it might offer a different visual encounter, one that might be closer to how the islands appeared to those exiled there. Of course it was incredibly naive to think that travelling by high speed catamaran in the company of (at least in the case of Con Dao) hundreds of other passengers bore any resemblance to the slow boat that took 12 hours from Cap Saint Jacques. 

The Con Dao Express departing from Vung Tau
En route to Con Dao on deck of the catamaran

Despite all this, the experience of arriving on Ile des Pins by ferry did give me some pause for reflection. The first buildings you see on shore are the shells of former guards quarters and the restored house once assigned to the médecin du bagne. Granted you have to go further inland to find the main remaining vestiges but arriving this way rather than by plane, you get an immediate sense of the island’s penal history.

Vestiges of the bagne near to the jetty on Ile des Pins

The geography of a place, even an island, becomes abstracted when arriving by plane. At least that’s how it seems to me. The high speed catamarans in many ways resemble airplanes with their seat configurations and passport checks but they still embody a type of slow passage evoked by Marguerite Durasin L’Amant (The Lover):

“For centuries, because of the ships, journeys were longer and more tragic than they are today. A voyage covered its distance in a natural span of time. People were used to those slow human speeds on both land and sea, to those delays, those waitings on the wind or fair weather, to those expectations of shipwreck, sun, and death. The liners the little white girl knew were among the last mailboats in the world. It was while she was young that the first airlines were started, which were gradually to deprive mankind of journeys across the sea.”

View of vestiges and the doctor’s house from the jetty on Ile des Pins

Writing in transit

Views of New Caledonia taken from the passenger seat

In 2011-12 I lived for a short time between Loughborough junction and Camberwell. I would take the bus from Camberwell to where I worked in New Cross. Sitting upstairs on the bus I found that drafting book reviews using the notes app on my phone the best use of bus-time. Better than reading which made me feel slightly nauseous. I cannot fully explain it but writing on the notes app seemed the easiest way to get my thoughts down and organise my ideas into a reasonably coherent narrative. 

The same does not apply to other types of writing. I’ve never been able to apply the same method to journal articles or book chapters. I think this mode of writing really only works for short pieces (500-1000 words) that involve a certain amount of reflection and are not constrained by the need to look up references incessantly, impose rigid structures or count words. With that in mind I have come to find that writing blog posts also comes easiest using the notes app while in transit. This was my experience last summer when Claire and I would visit various sites especially in French Guiana with Claire driving. We would often chat on our journeys but sometimes Claire liked to listen to podcasts and I would use the time to write up some thoughts about the sites we had just seen.

I hadn’t really thought about it much (except to lament not doing it more) until I recently read an article by Stacey Pigg about mobile writing habits. Pigg’s focus was on how students write and study using laptops in specific yet transitory places such as cafes or shared workspaces. What the article made me realise about my own writing practices was that writing in the car or in transit is perhaps less about being productive during otherwise dead time where use of a laptop or pen and paper is too fiddly and more about establishing certain of writing habits. Pigg refers to the rituals and habits that students she interviewed talked about such as the things they needed to do to settle down into work having arrived at a cafe or work space. This is perhaps why it takes me a while to pick this style of writing up again, especially if I am not in transit, despite knowing it is most effective for blogging. At the same time I am aware that blogging also comes easiest as relatively spontaneous reflection (it can always be tidied up before it goes live) immediately after a site visit. There is always the risk that I might later disagree with what I have written but this is not unique to blogging. I disagree with a lot of what I once thought and said and wrote. 

So the question I am left with is how do I/we adapt these writing rituals when not only in transit but when the ability to establish rituals and habits is rendered difficult as a result of different factors – modes of transport, travelling companions (especially family), irregular routines and the frequent sense of disorientation that comes with travel and which cannot always be channelled into literary or philosophical prose? SF

References

Pigg, Stacey, ‘Emplacing Mobile Composing Habits: A Study of Academic Writing in Networked Social Spaces,’ College Composition and Communication, Vol. 66, No. 2, SPECIAL ISSUE: Locations of Writing (December 2014), pp. 250-275.

Adventures in Instagram #4

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On my way home from Guyane I stopped off in Paris. Turns out I’ve been staying opposite Rue Crémieux which has recently been featured in international news as one of the most instagrammed streets in Paris due to its brightly painted houses, a stark contrast to the usual Parisian aesthetic of white/grey buildings.

Residents have requested gates be put up as the street is becoming overcrowded not just with tourists but with models and rappers using it as a backdrop for photo shoots and music videos.

In thinking more critically about instagram as a research tool especially when documenting and analysing dark heritage, this story (which on the surface has very little connection to dark tourism or heritage) provides a reminder of the tensions between local and tourist appropriations and representations of certain spaces. Instagram encapsulates the desire to clear out the messy, everyday, inhabited-ness of certain spaces in order to turn them into 2D backdrops.

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Residents find different ways to make their house fronts less photogenic

Similar examples can be found in cities like Detroit where deep recession caused by the sharp decline in manufacturing has resulted in the abandonment and ruination of vast swathes of its once glorious real estate. John Patrick Leary has written on the appropriation of such space by film crews looking for locations which offer a vision of a post-apocalyptic future. The irony of course is that this future is now.

References

Leary, John Patrick, ‘Detroitism: What does “ruin porn” tell us about the Motor City,’ Guernica, 15 January 2011. Available: https://www.guernicamag.com/leary_1_15_11/. Accessed 5 April 2019.

O’Sullivan, Feargus, ‘Their street is famous on instagram and they can’t take it anymore,’ CityLab, 5 March 2019. Available: https://www.citylab.com/life/2019/03/rue-cremieux-paris-instagram-tourists-where-to-take-pictures/584164/. Accessed 5 April 2019.

Adventures in Instagram #3

I made a short return trip to French Guiana in March 2019. Although I didn’t take a lot of photos, there were things I noticed at sites that I hadn’t seen or at least noticed previously.

For example, on this visit to the Bagne des Annamites in Montsinery, I had time to continue along the trail to the creek which is a popular picnic spot. As it was half-term there were a number of families swimming and picnicking. I took a photo of the creek using my smartphone rather than my Nikon but was nevertheless careful not to be invasive of people’s privacy. The image shows people swimming but you cannot make out any clear details. Nevertheless I decided not to post the photo on instagram despite thinking how it contests dominant images of former prison sites. By which I mean images which fetishize certain aspects of architecture such as windows with bars, cells, instruments of torture and restraint and so on. The creek was integral to life in the camp and provided a form of transportation via the river network at a time when there was no road to Cayenne. One of the roles of the camp was to create a network between the other sites at Saut Tigre and near Apatou where Annamite (Vietnamese) prisoners had been sent.

But in not reproducing the photo, I am also caught up in the processes of cropping, framing and excluding which allow us to present penal heritage as empty and abandoned. This seems to me a similar practice as the production of images of the pristine, empty beach. Such images evoke notions of blank, deserted space awaiting the arrival of the tourist to project his or her neocolonial fantasies and pathologies. The enlightened amateur (or indeed professional) historian or anthropologist exploring the vestiges of the bagne is perhaps no different here to the gap year traveller looking for Leonardo DiCaprio’s beach. So instead of reproducing the image I took of families enjoying the creek, I will offer up a different yet comparable image – a postcard on sale in the gift shop on the Iles du Salut.

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I have taken care to reproduce this as an object rather than an image for copyright reasons. The postcard shows a similar bathing scene but this time at what came to be known as the ‘piscine des bagnards’ on Ile Royale, the largest island of the Iles du Salut archipelago. The postcard whose date is unknown probably dates from the end of the 1990s, early 2000s when AGAMIS (whose stamp appears on the back) took over the management of the Iles on behalf of CNES. However, the image itself seems to capture an aesthetic belonging to an earlier moment, itself located between the vintage reproductions of images taken during the operation of the penal colony and more recent photography which offers us a conventional aesthetic of ruins and nature abandoned of messy human presence. It reminds me of tourist guides dating from the 1970s and 80s during which the Iles du Salut were being reimagined as a site of leisure within a wider agenda intended to energise the department’s tourist industry precisely by moving beyond rather than celebrating its dark past.

Today the two activities appear less mutually exclusive although for some there is something inappropriate about reimagining a site of suffering as a site of pleasure. The stakes are complex not least the various discourses aimed at controlling and often excluding the use of different sites by local communities. SF