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Some random night in L’Art Seine, I tried to know more about the squat and about its main ruler, namely THE General. The place was so fulfilled of free art, human emancipation, back and forth, regular or new guys, that it was sometimes difficult to clearly understand how the place was working; it seemed to us that the building was almost managing itself on its own.

When Cix is serving some dudes asking for beers behind the bar, Anna is enthusiastically showing to us pictures of the day on her camera, while Moste gently giggles, his squared silhouette surrounded by a muffled smokey halo. For the thousand time since we settle in the common room, the hi-fi is playing an old Jackson Five record, we lose track of life when we hang around in here, it is as if the night was slowed down by the murals and the liberating atmosphere.

At some point, the General enters the room and sits with us on the wooden folding-seats, holding a plastic cup of whisky and starts listening to SAMA’s founder, looking at the daily photographs she took, smiling under his thick beard, nodding his head crowned by a pair of fragile glasses. Glancing at me, the old chief says something about the fact that he doesn’t understand English, so that he doesn’t get much when Anna talks, but that anyway, he actually quite loves it! I laugh and take advantage of being in a select committee to start asking him some questions about everything; however, I can notice that he is preoccupied: he is in charge of guarding the main entrance. Standing up, he offers to me to follow him to his “study” to continue chatting peacefully, so here I walk in his steps.

Arriving in the hallway only furnished with a wide desk, encircled by fully tagged walls, we take place in two chairs, each one of us having a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the another one. Outside, the night is already dark, mesmerised by the art around me as well as our incredible host, I decide to shoot with all the questions popping up in my mind.

“So, tell me my General, who are you, where do you come from, what is your history?”

“I am called General Antonio Xavier. I was born and raised in Rouen, Normandie, West France. When I was a kid, I was told to study locks and keys, cuz it was supposed to open every single door to you, boy. So I did and became a metal/locksmith and see, it opened a lot indeed.”

Around us, the room is deserted and I hope it could open him up.

“How did it happen that you fell into the squats universe then?”

“With encounters. That is as simple as this. I come from ghettos; nevertheless, I was different from my hometown bros: they liked their area but nobody else, when I liked my area as well as the rest, I wanted to open my neighbourhood to the world and open the world to my neighbourhood also. I launched my first structure in Rouen around the 1st of May 2007 and it was called the Zero.”

“So how did the adventure start in Paris?”

”When some bad shit happened in my private life, I had to leave town to go to Marseille, but in the end, never reached it. On my way, I met a few persons, understood a load of stuffs, it changed how I grasped things. After that, I quickly got that we were living in a system where some people would always need a place to stay, and where some places would always stay empty, especially from an ex landlord to a new one. So in December 2011, I opened my first Parisian social lab: le Château d’Albatart.”

I am staring at the General sipping his booze, then proudly crossing his arms on his gaunt chest, his experienced eyes enlightened with wisdom.

“Would you say you are more focused on social and societal matters than on art?

“I am not an artist, I am the margin’s marginal, but the nice one you see. I discovered street art cuz when you offer a safe spot, to think, to create, to act, people are flocking inside and life happens, you can gather competences. To me, social was the most important, but State makes it its own even if he does it bad, consequently we have to add some more value to retrieve it. Meeting street artists allowed me to grab that added quality to perform my projects. In the end now, I deeply believe than Social and Arts/Technics are indivisible. I actually owe two hundreds associations for I opened and shut so many structures those last years.”

I nod slowly to every single word coming out of his mouth, drowning in curiosity, waiting for him to go on.

“The big event was to open the Bat K13 squat in 2016. I built the project with my close team, Will and Cix, in the 13th district. When you hear that a cool location is vacant, you invest it with a restricted trustworthy core and by inviting people to come, see, paint, it becomes a shelter. No need for keys, we make it ours, pirate the water and electricity, then residents can stay and live there by joining the association and paying a tiny monthly subs to help us managing it. However, it is still a private place, we rule it, we control it, deciding who can enter or not, when it is open or close, scheduling events.”

“Then, it was close by the city and you opened L’Art Seine?”

“Yeah, same story, same core. But we wish to develop it now. We organize workshops with kids, public tours, open mics, activities with handicapped children, we only work thanks to ingenuity and recycling, no government subsidies at all. What we have to do is to sustainably develop three main strengths: environmental, capitalism and social. We all have our personal plans, but they can be inserted in a much more global one. That is what we are currently greatly willing to do.”

I drink the end of my beer bottle, watching him guard the entrance where some local gawkers sometimes appear, coming in or retracing their paths.

“What about us, you meeting the SAMA?”

He dreamily smiles, softening his rugged tone while lighting an umpteenth cig.

“It was… a beautiful encounter… Yeah.”

A group of young girls materialized at the double door. The General apologized, saying that he had to deal with visitors, adding that we would catch up later. Even if I couldn’t get enough, I had to let him fly around for good… for this night.

PS: Two months later, back in Amsterdam, we were used to have some of the L’Art Seine members on the phone. Someday, when I reached the General, he asked about Anna and I heard him sweetly giggling at the distance: “I am looking at her right now. She’s smiling at me. With her dog. And an elderly local resident lady. She gave me an A3 picture (one which was hanging on SAMA’s Projects wall on the stand), they’re standing in front of a Van Gogh Mural”. I have to be true, whereas Anna is magic, she’s not able to teleport herself from Dam to Paname (yet); but she had again found a way to linger into the memories of the people she cares about and with whom she wishes to seriously collaborate very soon…

All illustrations for the interviews series are by Ricardo MOSTE

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