In the fields of Notre Dame des Landes, in western France, stands a disobedient lighthouse. It was built far from the sea, exactly where the control tower of a new international airport was supposed to be built. This short 17 minute film documents its construction by a ragged crew – including deserting architects, an ex-homeless kid, art activists, a ceramicist, a few farmers and a genius welder whose day job was building the world’s biggest cruise-liners in France’s largest shipyard.
In January 2016 all legal procedures countering the airport project had run their course and construction was given the green light. Manuel Valls, ex-Interior Minister who had to pull back his troops from the zad in 2012, was now Prime Minister. “The government will not give in to intimidations by a minority of individuals, the laws of the republic will be applied to Notre-Dame-des-Landes like everywhere else” he asserted regularly in parliament: the construction would begin as soon as everyone was evicted.
The movement responded with a series of actions, ranging from 60,000 people dancing on a motorway to 40,000 people, in a ritual disguised as a demonstration, bringing staffs and sticks and planting them in the ground pledging to return to get them if the government came to evict. In the Autumn, just when the state was due to arrive with their bulldozers, the construction of a big fuck off finger to the authorities began. On the very site where the airport control tower was planned, at la Rolandière, a full scale 20m high fully working lighthouse began to take shape, to welcome the world to port.
We inhaled inspiration from rebel towers across time. Vladimir Tatlin’s never built 1919 vision of a 400 meter tall twisting helix-like monument to the communist international brought ambition.
We drew doggedness from the 60 meter high metal vertical barricade built at Narita in 1972 by farmers, students and activists to block planes taking off from the fiercely contested Tokyo international airport.
From Dolly, a 30 meter crazed jumble of stolen scaffolding with a techno sound system at its summit and rising out of a row of 45 houses squatted against the building of the M11 Link road in east london in 1994, we acquired audacity.
An archetype of hope and haven, lighthouses are ancient tools for caring for lives and a form of commons: their light is freely given to every ship to navigate safely through the night. Resisting wave and wind, stretching between sky and earth, lighthouses emerge out of the darkness just when you think you’re lost and long for home. Made from a cut down electricity pylon given to us by a farmer, our lighthouse is tied by a ship-like gangway to the library in a nod to the mythical city of Alexandria, that melting pot of sailors, traders and alchemists, with its great library and lighthouse. A combined symbol of confidence and tool of resistance, it became the new, higher, pirate radio station antenna, and on its top was a siren that could be controlled from a mobile telephone to be set off in case of evictions. And if cops did come, we would lock ourselves to the metallic structure making it difficult for them to reach us.
Historian Kristin Ross named the zad’s lighthouse as an act of “Communal Luxury”. “Communal Luxury” is a phrase that comes from the manifesto of the radical Federation of Artists, of the Paris Commune of 1872, which proposed that luxury was not the private accumulation of stuff, but the flourishing of beauty in all shared spaces. As the geographer Elisée Reclus wrote, “if the painters and sculptors were free, there would be no need for them to shut themselves up in Salons”
Like so much on the zad, it was enabled by acts solidarity of every shape and size. Small miracles that repeatedly reminded us of the etymological root of the very word miracle, that is “an act that makes one smile”. From the gift of the pylon to the sharing of tools and skills, from the unexpected donation of a lightning conductor to the surprise delivery of a perfectly sized gangway, these material realities are part of a vibrant “culture of rebellion”. Not everyone is able to be a “front line” activist. Most people are not psychologically suited for it, or have life circumstances that reduce their capacity to take risks, like being arrested. Yet everyone can be part of building a culture of rebellion, a set of values that embrace, encourage and promote radical political transformation. It is about learning to no longer “play safe” but instead identifying what one can do from wherever one is, with ones skills, in order to support all those who are actively resisting.