Saint-Denis is a city of diversity. It is inhabited by 135 nationalities and is where the final resting place of the kings and queens of France stands next to another great cathedral, one erected to the gods of football. The city was one of the great industrial centres of Europe...
But also an integral part of the market-garden belt that nourished Paris until the middle of the 20th century. It is here, in this place full of contradictions and conflicts, bearing the hope for the future and the difficulties of the present, that Olivier Darné decided twenty years ago to install beehives on the roof of his home to study their social organisation. As a visual artist, his work has taken on a political dimension. His goal: to imagine new forms of social relations, capable of valuing the socio-cultural (bio)diversity of the city.
Olivier Darné is a voracious activist. Since installing his first beehives, projects have followed after the other. Often they result from chance encounters, such as what happened with René Kersanté, the last farmer in Saint-Denis. When Olivier learned that René planned to retire, he jumped at the opportunity that was presented. Why let the last vestige of the city's agricultural history disappear when everyone is talking about making urban areas more green? You have to know how to dream... and be ready for the lack of sleep that comes with it. The land is owned by the city with the intention of preserving its agricultural function. Olivier and his collective of artists and doers (the Parti Poétique) joined forces, and together with the Fermes de Gally, obtained a 25-year lease for the land.
The Parti Poétique took over the land in the spring of 2017. The fruits of its labor are already coming out of the ground, under the direction of Franck Ponthier, a landscape designer turned poetic-minded farmer. Permaculture and agro-forestry techniques are put to use, with the diversity of crops serving to make the bees happy. The farm is also destined to become a place of life and activity, a residence for artists and chefs, and a cooking school for children. Vermicomposting, in collaboration with Stéphan Martinez, is also on the agenda. The Parti Poétique's hectare of land already seems too small.
But the farm is only one step along a long road that began with the first bees and which has become more meaningful over time and through the many projects that have followed. The few hives in the beginning created smaller ones and today 8 million bees populate the roofs of Saint-Denis, some of them even squatting in the penthouse of the town hall, facing the basilica.
Olivier is the first to admit to being surprised — bees actually like to live in cities, their mortality is on average lower than in the countryside and their productivity is higher. The Miel Béton, the fruit of these bees' work, is highly appreciated by the world of fine dining (and is notably the protagonist of a dish not to be missed at La Grenouillère); it is a score composed from the 300 different types of pollen collected by the Dionysian bees throughout the seasons and blooming periods, whose flavour is ever-changing.
In 2004, following the success of the beehives, Olivier founded the Parti Poétique, a group of artists, thinkers and doers who examine everyday life through art and the territory's resources. The collective's economic dimension came to be in 2008, during the Great Recession, with the launch of the Honey Bank, an institution managed by the Fond Mellifère International (FMI), or the International Melliferous Fund.
The Honey Bank, a public awareness project, proposes to transform dead money into living bees; its Bee Savings Account makes it possible to invest in a public pollination service. Besides having a way with words, the collective also questions productivist agriculture and the food emergency that an unbridled pursuit of profits promises: without pollination, the majority of the plants that feed us would never have seen the light of day.
Olivier is a social pollinator, but he does not stop there and continues to fortify Saint-Denis, creating links between artists, intellectuals, craftsmen, farmers and leaders who gather at the Parti Poétique's headquarters, known as the Zone Sensible, often around a table to eat. “In the decadence of all the arts, only the noble art of cooking survives,” said the famous Eat-Art representative Daniel Sporri in the 1970s. From the roofs, which have become his second home, he observed the transformations and fractures of the city. The newly established business district and the multicultural Saint-Denis appeared to him as two worlds separated by a border, prohibiting any sort of social or economic exchange.
This is how his latest project, the Académie de Cuisine, was born. Designed to promote the "Queens of Saint-Denis", the women who, by cooking, preserve and transform the identity of the different communities within the city, it will highlight not only the area's rich gastronomic and cultural heritage, but also intends to promote its economic value by catering to employees in the business district, for example.
The bridge is being drawn, and its shape appears to be a table! “We prepare a world by preparing a dish,” says Peter Kubelka, a modern Da Vinci whose resume includes filmmaker, chef, musician and theorist. The Académie de Cuisine is taking shape through the good will of its patrons — among which include Alain Ducasse, a project partner — and the support of the local authorities who over time have learned to trust this wacky artist. It will launch in 2019.
The kitchens will be supplied by the farm. The latter will house bees, artists, cooks, food intellectuals, citizen activists, market garden crops suited for Dionysian soil and, within the limits set by the soil and climate, seeds that express the city's immigration flows. It is a complicated challenge — one of creating a puzzle using extremely heterogeneous elements, a place of mixing and diversity that recalls an agora as much as a workers' garden. But only those who sow the seeds for a utopia can hope to reap the future.