The Plight of Lyon's Grrrnd Zero

Post Author:
Grrrnd Zero by Romain Etienne

It's easy for me to draw parallels between Lyon's Grrrnd Zero and Ridgewood's currently displaced Silent Barn. Both volunteer-run venues have had an equally gritty dedication to independent music and art over the years, and have showcased many of the same artists – myself included.

Friendships between the two collectives also add to the sense that both share similar orbits in an ever expanding international DIY circuit. And as is often the case with alternative spaces, they have experienced similar pressures of city ordinances, gentrification, organizational challenges and the day-to-day logistics of occupying semi-legal structures, such as soundproofing and pipes bursting in the winter.

Dan Deacon live at Grrrnd Zero

Like Silent Barn, Grrrnd Zero was given a notice of eviction last year, but that is essentially where the similarities end, as GZ have been allowed to remain in their current space, unburglarized, but in a state of limbo, until the end of 2012. Most programming has either ceased or gone nomadic, popping up in various other locales around town.

In response to their eviction, the group launched a campaign of city-wide postering, urgent emails, and internet-circulated calls for support from members, past performers, and supporters in order to create a dossier to appeal the decision as an organization that champions the experimental margins of culture, worthy of municipal euros.

Since 2005, Grrrnd Zero has occupied a former office space in the Gerland quartier of Lyon large enough to accomodate a maze of rehearsal spaces, labels Zerojardins and Gaffer Records, screen printing, photography and recording studios, and live show rooms. In addition, they also hosted visual art expositions and the Grand Salon de la Microedition, an annual zine and art book festival.

Xiu Xiu live at Ground Zero

Members Maël, Bruno and Florian gave me a recent tour and interview, but as Grrrnd Zero is a self- described collective of naive and enthusiastic people, with no official leaders, they declined to give their last names.

In self promotional materials, Grrrnd Zero estimates that in seven years of existence, it has hosted more than 500 shows, had 13,500 visitors annually, boasts about 4,000 members (people who have paid the 1 euro membership fee at shows), and housed upwards of 40 bands – such as locals Sheik Anorak, François Virot , Alligator, and Pan Pan Pan – in its rehearsal spaces.

While the original Grrrnd Zero began as a squat, and was then shuffled about between a few temporary spaces, there are no residents in the current location, which has always existed in a tenuous arrangement with the city of Lyon's independently operating cultural and municipal offices. Whereas la Ville de Lyon approves cultural funding for Grrrnd Zero, it's le Grand Lyon that owns the physical property and demands compliance with building codes and other city regulations.

AIDS Wolf live at Grrrnd Zero

With a series of stops and starts, a changing eviction timetable, initial lack of funding, lots of bureaucracy, and a little disorganization, Grrrnd Zero never made good on the work necessary to make the Gerland location compliant. However, now as a good faith effort, they are getting estimates from contractors to help solidify a budget and plan which would allow them to stay.

At the same time, they are looking into other options before the end of summer, when most people in France, including city officials, will be on vacation. Ideally they would like to have a new location to resume programming again in the fall.

The members I spoke to conceded that maybe it isn't realistic to expect the city to find a solution for them, but they defend their 'naïvety', arguing that the cultural experience that they provide is similar to an institution such as a theatre, and that 'indie rock' should have as much value as other more widely recognized and funded art forms. They want to be able to exist without corporate interest and to curate not based on popularity, but experimentation and community.

Deerhunter live at Grrrnd Zero

While a DIY collective and munipal organization may seem fundamentally opposed to each other in terms of the generation and distribution of revenue, is there potential for them to overlap in serving the interests of the public? A DIY collective exists as a counter to the culture at large, automatically a marginalized member of society.

When I first learned about the eviction of Grrrnd Zero, my initial reaction was disbelief that they would expect the city to help them at all. But it's an interesting idea to consider – working in the system. In France, there are more social programs and arts funding than the U.S. Here, musicians can apply for a status, that with a certain number of shows played, essentially pays you to be a musician. This, of course, is not an entirely easy status to obtain.

In contrast, I know firsthand that shoe and alcohol company sponsored shows and food stamps are the social programs that allow some musicians in New York to pay their bills. This is by no means a call to abandon what I still consider to be one of the greatest cities in the world, but one part of a larger idea in finding sustainable new models of cultural distribution.

As an excersize, let's eliminate the pitfalls that most DIY spaces in the U.S. encounter:

  • Underage drinking: In France the legal drinking age is 18, so assuming there is a responsible bar, and every legal person drinks without incident, maybe this could be ruled out.
  • Noise complaints: Assume these are eliminated by proper soundproofing and a location devoid of people who would be affected by noise. Noise complaints are the reason, of course, why DIY venues spring up in generally unpopulated industrial places. Also, those places are cheap.

There are stll two forces that are fighting everywhere:

  • Gentrification: Originally when the neighborhood was cheap, there was just a group of idealistic art school friends in an abandoned preschool who thought it would be tight to have naked noise shows every other full moon, complete with marshmallow filled kiddie pools and live shotgun paintings, all for a sliding scale entry if you brought your favorite Nancy Drew book. This was waaay before the 5 sushi restaurants, 10 condos, organic dry cleaner and small dogs-only doggie daycare moved in on the same block and drove the rents up.
  • Burnout: It takes a lot of energy to run a multi-use performance/rehearsal/art/workshop/office/residency space, and a lot of the tasks, frankly, are fairly thankless. From booking, promotion, maintenance, poster silk screening, vegan catering, toilet unclogging, sticky beer floor mopping, graffiti erasing, door running, band wrangling, and speaker cable untangling, there's a need for an unlimited supply of energy. Volunteers and posi vibes help to keep things running smoothly. Most people post-school don't have the time or desire to live with 13 other people in a venue with one bathroom that is shared with the silk screeners, when they can shack up quietly with their significant others and pass out on their own couch without fear of bedbugs or getting a penis drawn on their face by the touring band.

Let's say that both Grrrnd Zero and Lyon find a location that allows for the inevitability of urban growth, by either the purchase of the building, or minimal annual rent increases. And in an organization with no organizational heads, someone still gets stuck taking out the trash. But, let's say youth, determination, energy and waves of dedicated volunteers are on the side of Grrrnd Zero.

So what then? These are a lot of what if's to rule out, but if Grrrnd Zero and Lyon could strike a deal, does it make them any less DIY to enter into an agreement with the city? And should the city help them at all with the goals of their organization? Is it is better to engage with the man through the government or through corporate sponsorship?

Anyone that would like to send an email or letter to the city of Lyon on the behalf of Grrrnd Zero can find information about that here (scroll down for English instructions). They especially encourage any letters from international performers that illustrate the reach of GZ beyond Lyon, as part of a larger global DIY community.