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Freedom, ideas and bodies: a Slovenian women’s chorus in Paris

Freedom of movement and free physical expression are a prerequisite for freedom of expression. The Slovenian women's choir Kombinat showed Parisian citizens* why singing in public spaces is a genuine protest culture.

By Mériam Korichi

The free movement of ideas depends on the ability of individuals to travel and speak their minds. Ways of expressing ideas must still be explored, even, and especially, in the age of digital over-communication. Means of expressing ideas—as well as their plurality in Europe and a pluralistic world—must be experienced through physical co-presence. When individual freedom is demanded, defended and experienced in Europe today, performance and the performing arts are important to recall what individual bodies in a public space can do. Forms of self-expression such as singing tend to stop the public in their tracks and can evoke the real power of individuals, who can always rise up against the abuses and constraints of power, especially political and institutional power, and restrictions on free access to and the free occupation of public space in contemporary cities.
Two red mailboxes Photo: Andersen Jensen © unsplash The demand for freedom or free space

In June 2018, the 50th anniversary of May 68 offered an ideal opportunity to give those ideas physical expression in Paris as part of the Freiraum project organized by the Paris and Ljubljana Goethe Institutes in collaboration, respectively, with Mériam Korichi, creator of the Nuits de la philosophie series, and Maja Ziberna, a Slovenian journalist and member of the women’s chorus Kombinat. The idea was born to have Kombinat perform in the Paris streets to foster unprecedented, spontaneous interactions with the city’s residents and, 50 years after May 68, cast a spotlight on a contemporary Europe struggling with economic, social, migratory and national(ist) forces and low self-esteem.

Officially founded on 27 April 2008, Kombinat reflects the diversity and power of the women’s movement. Its members come from across the country and work in various occupations. They are primary and secondary school teachers, lawyers, social workers, archaeologists, biologists, secretaries, accountants, students, journalists, economists and scientists. Kombinat performs political, revolutionary, resistance and protest songs from various countries in their original languages, echoing their own country’s history in a spirit of solidarity with people’s movements around the world.

Alain Badiou described May 68 as “an often atonal polyphonic chorus rather than a group of soloists playing in harmony.” Our intuition was to invite the chorus to sing in Paris, which is still protected and very patrimonial, precisely where the memory of the 20th century and the upheavals and protests of the 21st meet.

A route through the 16th arrondissement

Mériam Korichi imagined a route for Kombinat through the 16th arrondissement, far from the expected commemorative sites on the Left Bank. At first glance, that might seem like an odd choice to commemorate the 50th anniversary of May 1968. But, on the contrary, it could spur thinking more directly about the contemporary social and political situation. The May events only skirted the 16th arrondissement. True, on 7 May 1968, thousands of students who had set out from Place Denfert-Rochereau chanting “power is in the street!” crossed the bridge at the National Assembly and, waving red and black flags, marched up the Champs-Elysées past astounded onlookers to the Arch of Triumph, where they raised their fists and sang The International at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. But they never ventured beyond Place de l'Etoile. The 16th remained eerily quiet. Contemporary accounts describe the mood there as being like that of a small provincial city in the month of August. The only building the protestors occupied was 60 bis avenue d’Iéna, then the headquarters of the French Football Federation, whose occupants were undoubtedly much less militant than the workers and students. What about now? Have contemporary upheavals, crises and anxieties shaken this quarter in the age of globalism? The Paris Goethe Institute, which organized the Freiraum project, is precisely at 17 avenue d’Iéna, the last stop on Kombinat’s route through the 16th arrondissement.

Kombinat, from Trocadéro to avenue d’Iéna

On 16 June 2018, Kombinat performed around 15 songs at three main stops along a route in the 16th arrondissement. The first was the Trocadéro esplanade, also known as Parvis des Libertés et des Droits de l’homme. At 4 p.m., the chorus reached Trocadéro, fraternising with the many Togolese human rights campaigners who happened to be there at the same time and gave them their microphones to announce Kombinat’s impromptu concert. Surrounded by the African activists, the chorus performed four revolutionary songs, including Power to the People and Noi vogliamo l’uguaglianza, with the Eiffel Tower in the background, captivating passersby on the esplanade.
Shoes hang from a lantern Poto: Arnaud Mesureur © unsplash Palais Galliera : Confrontation of revolutionary fashion and politics

Then the chorus moved on to their second stop, the gardens of the Palais Galliera, where they were enthusiastically expected by City of Paris employees and warmly welcomed by flabbergasted crowds, who ended up singing three songs with them, including Bella Ciao. The gardens were chosen because they are public and lie below the Palais Galliera fashion museum, which was hosting a show devoted to Martin Margiela, considered a revolutionary designer for the past 20 years. The prospect of confronting the exhibition’s themes with a women’s chorus singing revolutionary songs seemed relevant and promising.

Place des États-Unis : Equal treatment of women and men

The singers walked over to the Alma Bridge, making an unscheduled stop and performing Grândola, Vila Morena in front of mesmerised, astonished, enthusiastic passersby and tourists who had come to pay their respects to Lady Diana above the spot where she died. Then they marched up to Place des Etats-Unis, the third stop, where a monument commemorates and celebrates the United States’ entrance into the First World War just months before the USSR was born. This stretch was chosen because it is lined by the embassies of several Arab or officially Muslim countries, including Egypt and Iran. The sound of revolutionary songs beneath their windows directly challenged the political and social status of women in those deeply traditional and religious societies as well as in contemporary Western countries where the struggle against submission and for the emancipation and independence of women and equal treatment with men is far from over. At Place des Etats-Unis, the chorus performed four revolutionary songs, including Bandiera Rossa and The International in French.

Protest songs between Paris, Ljubljana and Istanbul 

The march ended several hundred meters further on at 17 avenue d’Iéna, the address of the Paris Goethe-Institute. In the institute’s courtyard under a chestnut tree, Kombinat gave the closing concert, surrounded by a public who came to join and listen to and discuss those revolutionary songs there, e.g. a song from the Gezi Park protesters in Istanbul 2013.