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.

L’art du voyager

Next week I am visiting Saint Martin de Ré where convicts from mainland France were held immediately before their departure for French Guiana aboard La Martinière. While it has become a pleasant port town and popular tourist destination, Saint Martin not only bears the scars of Vauban’s ‘Ceinture de fer’ in the form of foreboding ramparts and gates but also continues to operate a prison which houses inmates undertaking lengthy sentences.

Saint Martin de Ré twinned with Saint Laurent du Maroni

The OIP (2013) reports that with 460 places, Saint Martin is the largest Maison Centrale in France with sentences averaging 18 years. Despite its centrality, the presence of the prison seems to go largely unnoticed by most of the tourists visiting Saint Martin despite the fact it is possible to cycle right past its front gates. For me, the site acts as an important and generally overlooked reminder that the end of the bagne saw many convicts returned to France’s Maison Centrales to finish up their sentences.

Overlooking the roofs of Saint Martin. It is possible to make out the Maison Centrale in the distance

However, while the connection between Saint Martin and French Guiana has long been severed, limited to the story of transportation recounted in the small Musée Ernest Cognacq, a new link between those currently incarcerated at Saint Martin and the administrative centre of the bagne, Saint Laurent du Maroni, has recently been created. On display in the reception area of the Centre d’Interprétation de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine (CIAP) located within the former Camp de la Transportation at Saint Laurent, is a small art exhibition entitled ‘L’art du voyager au travers de la peinture.’

CIAP, Camp de la Transportation, Saint Laurent du Maroni

The exhibition features artworks produced by inmates in Saint Martin which create a connection with French Guiana. Each piece features a scene from French Guiana’s landscape. At the centre of each canvas is a photograph which the inmates, who have never been to French Guiana, expand outwards to create a larger scene. The project draws upon the therapeutic role played by nature and its artistic reproduction of particular importance to those whose imprisonment limits their direct engagement with the natural environment.

A selection of canvases from the ‘L’Art du voyager project

At the same time, the project seems to have a wider symbolic value in shifting the position of French Guiana from common conceptions of the department as peripheral in order to highlight its central importance in terms of its biodiversity and location as part of the Amazon (the world’s lungs). Moreover, a new connection is forged with emphasizes French Guiana as a starting point for creative inspiration rather than the end point it once represented for those housed in Saint Martin. It is thus all the more moving that the canvases are now on display in the former Camp de la Transportation emphasizing the complex and sensitive ways in which former sites of punishment can offer a meaningful space for engaging with contemporary experiences of incarceration.

SF

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).

Site visit #20. Camp Est and the penalscape*

Camp Est still operates as New Caledonia’s prison today

If you take the bus up to the university on Île Nou one of the first vestiges you pass is not a vestige at all but rather Camp Est which continues to operate as a prison. The bus that takes you around Ile Nou drives right up to the prison. As it loops around you can see the old chapel inside. It’s also possible to drive along the perimeter wall which is covered in graffiti before you arrive at a few squats.

graffiti on the perimeter wall of Camp Est

The prison has been termed the ‘prison postcolonial’ by the Observatoire International des Prisons due to its overcrowding and poor conditions. While the quartier cellulaire on Ile Nou was destroyed after the closure of the bagne as the most visible architecture of imprisonment there are nevertheless continuities with the present day. In addition to Camp Est, the psychiatric hospital is located in the grounds of the former prison hospital. 

View of the chapel inside Camp Est from the bus

Thus where we conceived the project as looking at the legacy of the bagne as attesting to a moment (albeit drawn out) of decarceration, what also emerges in exploring the ‘penalscape’ of Ile Nou is how the legacy of the bagne does not just involve the restoration of architecture as museum, theatre or university buildings but also in the evolution of what Goffman terms the ‘total institution’ within existing spaces of imprisonment.

View of the former boulangerie site of the proposed Museé du Bagne on Ile Nou as seen from the bus

*The term ‘penalscape’ first appears in Joy James’ Warfare in the American Homeland: Policing and Prison in a Penal Democracy (Duke University Press, 2007). Our use of the term which has developed as part of this project expands the notion of a penalscape beyond a very specific U.S. context.

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

Site visit #19 Musée Maritime, Nouméa

The maritime museum in Noumea is one of my favourite museums in New Caledonia. This is probably largely due to its layout comprised of lots of small alcoves as well as to its huge collection of objects many of which have been salvaged from shipwrecks. It also interweaves the practical history of technologies such as archaeology and sonography into the stories it tells without making this over-reflexive or confusing.

But another reason I like this museum is due to the way it embeds the story of the penal colony into the wider maritime history and moreover a colonial history of forced and indentured migrant labour. Convict labour is presented alongside other groups brought to New Caledonia from Indochina, Japan, Indonesia, Reunion and elsewhere to carry out the worst forms of agricultural labour as well as in the nickel mines. Where other museums focus in on individual convicts, the display here emphasizes the huge convoys of ‘human flesh’ brought to New Caledonia from the mid-1900s onwards.

Sending shiploads of workers. Display about the different forms of forced and contractual labour brought to New Caledonia

Located almost adjacent to the section on imported labour is a section which tells the tragic, unresolved story of La Monique. The ship carrying 126 passengers disappeared without a trace in August 1953 after leaving the island of Maré for Nouméa. What is known is that the boat was dangerously overloaded with both goods and passengers. The boat was operated by the Société des Iles Loyauté (SIL) but what is worth noting is that the largest stakeholder in SIL also happened to be one of the wealthiest and most politically powerful companies in New Caledonia at the time, La Maison Ballande. There is evidence that the company tried to interfere with official enquiries into the ship’s disappearance and downplay any accusations of negligence. A short documentary screened in the museum emphasizes the huge impact of those lost to communities in New Caledonia especially on Lifou and Maré. What the tragedy and its lack of resolution also call to mind within the space of the museum is the wider impact of colonialism on communities elsewhere via the displacement and disappearance of different populations through transportation and indentured labour. Without taking anything away from the adventure of seafaring, the artisanal craft of shipbuilding or the increasingly refined technologies of underwater exploration and salvage, the museum emphasizes the distinction between those who chose (and still choose) to risk everything for the call of the ocean and those upon whom these risks were imposed unwillingly or unknowingly out of greed. SF

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.

IMG_3347

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