Alongside making our films it felt important to create an event in Lens. The absence of a cinema here led us to organise an outside screening.
Advertised through 200 post-its placed through out the city, the projection of Tant qu’on a la santé lasted 25 minutes and took place on our final night here.
Despite the freezing cold weather we managed to attract a handful of residents, all of whom seemed to enjoy the show.
A film of the screening can be found on Thibault’s website <here>
keeping one’s mind and eyes open.
Mining site 11/19, Concentration Tower and spoil heap in background
During my first week in Lens I set about getting access to the huge tower, referred to as the ‘Concentration Tower’ at the mining site 11/19.
My initial interest was to use contact mics to record the surfaces of the disused machinery in the tower. A few days ago my request was accepted and the tower was opened for me to explore. The building is permanently closed to the public so I was fortunate to gain access.
Interior of Concentration Tower, first floor
The sound recordings were disappointing but the space, albeit low light for photography, was striking. Even a wide lens struggles to capture the scale of this building and the machinery within it. With only the sound of pigeons scuttling over the corrugated roof it is hard to imagine the level of noise which must have filled this room only thirty years ago. This building, like so many places I’ve explored in Lens is permeated with absence.
‘This 66-metre high reinforced concrete tower was built over the period spanning 1958-1960, weighing 10,000 tons. This colossal structure represents the rationalisation phase and epitomises the technical peak of the mining industry. it is the last visible example of the 4 towers of this type to be built in Nord-Pas de Calais mining basin. Commissioned in 1960, the tower was designed to mine approximately 6000 net tons per day. The mining system was distributed over 9 levels, the stacking of which resulted in a significant saving of space. Positioned at the top of the tower, the engine, with its two 4400 horse-power motors, could pull four 4-storey cages up from the bottom of the pit, each containing a 3000-litre truck. Its operation was automated and was controlled by a few employees, while up to 5000 miners worked underground in the various pits around this hub. All mining equipment (hoisting engines, sheeve wheels, tippers, rails etc.) are kept in the tower, which, together with the spoil heaps, are a landmark in the regional landscape.’
(Extracted from a guide developed and produced by Pays d’art et d’historie de Lens-Lievin)
On arrival in Lens Thibault was instantly drawn to the Apollo cinema in the city centre. The cinema has been demolished but the Art Deco facade still stands.
Over the past three weeks this spark of interest has lead to numerous ideas about performances, live events and the intertwining of tomorrow’s solar eclipse. Like so many creative ideas, many have fallen at the hurdles of finance, access, health and safety. The list goes on…
Finally during the last few days of the residency an event has been established. Apollo, will light the city of Lens once again.
20 H JEUDI
As the end of our residency nears there is a sense that we’ve only just scratched the surface of Lens and the surrounding area. I always try to get ‘underneath’ a place, that is, to try and know it as well as I can. I find it unimaginable to attempt to understand a place without searching through its past, but the past is always subjective. The archive, with its rows of books and boxes gives a false hope that it holds the entirety of the past, but of course it never does. I’ve never felt this more strongly than here, in Lens.
Since first looking up at the spoil heaps at 11/19 I have wondered about what has happened underground, in the process of extracting that material, and in its absence. I’ve wondered about the old mining tunnels, which burrow under so much of this landscape and I’ve wondered about the future of those spoil heaps, inching their way closer to where they came from.
I spent yesterday afternoon revisiting the archive. Specifically, I wanted to watch the film collection from this area. I watched hours of films only to feel I was watching the same history over and over again. There were marches and celebrations, opening ceremonies and children’s sports days, reel after reel of occasions worth filming. Occasions supported by the backbone of the mining industry. There was however no film in the local archive of the mines. There was no footage of the everyday hard labour, the explosions, the machinery, the dust, the dirt, the darkness. My thoughts return the word ‘underneath’ which has troubled me since arrival.
Everything here, from the landscape to the struggling economy begins with the history of the mines. From the smoking spoil heaps to the miner’s story, it seems that the only history we can know exists in the traces which have escaped above ground. The mines, at least in my mind, are a physical metaphor for the richness and importance of the spaces, the gaps, in a history we’ll never truly know.
This afternoon I watched hours of archived film footage from the 1950’s to 80’s ,all documenting Lens and the local region. Not knowing what I was looking for, or why for that matter I was looking, I found myself completely engrossed in a world of silent images.
Scanning through unrecognisable people and places, unknown ceremonies and inexplicable events. I paused and fast-forwarded for no particular reason and was drawn to images for reasons I can’t explain. I found the process of navigating the archive interesting but the event of getting lost in it very fortunate indeed.
Over the past week Thibault and I have been working around the clock for our films and photography. I’ve been waking at 4.30am to cycle to Noyelles-sous-Lens for the sunrise and Thibault has been exploring the city into the early hours. It seems both of us have been captivated by the light and atmosphere during these anti-social hours.
Sunrise at Noyelles-sous-Lens
After dark in Lens [photograph by Thibault Jehanne}
Since arriving in Lens I’ve been constantly referring ‘The People’s Guidebook to Lens’ , a brilliant book written by Strange Cargo in Margate.
On page 338 I was interested in the following recollection from Lens. ‘Our experience of the housing scheme involved two families living in a house with four rooms. During the 50’s, housing was in short supply and retired miners were expected to take in a young couple. If you had a child, you could expect to be housed in a shack. If you had two children, you might get a house.’
The general population reduced significantly after the mine closures and today the impact is still visible in the number of derelict houses in around Lens. I’ve been told that rows of houses will be bought by developers and that slowly these derelict houses will start to be renovated or destroyed. There is a sense that while the positive impact of regeneration is clearly visible, it will still be some time before these tell tale signs of economic hardship will be resolved.
I was fortunate enough to attend a talk given by Fredéric Kowalski from CPIE, a French environmental initiative. Frederic is directly involved in protecting the local mining heritage, specifically the slag heaps.
CPIE began their fight to protect the slag heaps just before the last mines shut in 1990. After the mine closures the general consensus was to ‘forget’, to slowly remove any visible landmarks and wipe away the local mining heritage. CPIE has dedicated decades to protecting the slag heaps and changing the way in which they are used and perceived by the general public. Now, in 2015 some 78 of 225 slag heaps in northern France are due to be protected as green spaces. It’s quite incredible to see how popular the slag heaps are for cyclists, runners and walkers and many are major recreational spaces.
Cyclist at Terrils 11/19
However, not every slag heap (or in French, terril) is accessible to the public, there are some terrils which are still burning inside. An example around Lens is that 6/14 in De Fouquieres, which will continue to burn for an indeterminate length of time until it exhausts itself.
Terril at De Fouquieres
The Apollo cinema stands directly opposite the train station in Lens. Built in 1932, the cinema was noted for its exceptional acoustics and for being the largest cinema north of Paris.
After slowly reducing its screening rooms the Apollo officially closed in 2000. Today the cinema has been largely demolished, except for the heritage protected facade which is still standing.
Since closing, lens has been without a cinema for its 36,000 residents. There are a few small cinemas in local districts but they have sporadic screening times and limited choice.
View from the station, photo taken by Thibault Jehanne
Thibault is focusing on the Apollo, its relationship to the city and the future of cinema in the area.
‘So there won’t be cinemas in small towns?’ Im Lauf der Zeit (Wim Wenders, 1976)