Conversation with Leopold Lambert

14 ‘Guilty Pleasures’
Conversation with Leopold Lambert
Nora Akawi, Cruz Garcia, Nathalie Frankowski, and Ema Yuizarix

In this conversation Léopold Lambert, chief-editor of The Funambulist Magazine in Paris, discusses with Nora Akawi, Nathalie Frankowski and Cruz Garcia the origins and focus of the publication, its reach, and the role played by networks of solidarity.

Portrait Leopold 2023

WAI: Many of the people who contribute to the Funambulist have been marginalized from discussions about architecture for a really long time, which is something that makes your magazine quite unique. Can you talk a bit about the origins of the Funambulist?

LL: The Funambulist started as a blog with my own writing on it. Between 2007 and 2015, I think I wrote like 1500 online blog posts, which makes me sound a bit crazy.

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WAI: That's a lot.

It's madness, it's ridiculous. It makes me laugh because something I wasn’t aware of back then is how shameless you need to be to write that much, thinking that people might be interested in what you have to say. Evidently, one has to be a white man to have this kind of confidence!

But more seriously, this online blog allowed me to create a small audience. In those early days, really in the world of architecture, a small bunch of us were dissatisfied with the topics getting covered, but since then we’ve witnessed a shift of interest. So I think that back then, as you two know all too well, not a lot of people were engaging with architecture’s complicity with settler-colonialism or structural racism. It felt a little bit lonely (collectively lonely!) as people engaging with these issues. With time this allowed taking part in the formation of a small community. And then, at some point, I got a bit tired with the narrow world of architecture and reached out outside of it. The very first people with whom I spoke were some of the folks gravitating around the website Critical Legal Thinking (founded by Gilbert Leung and Ilan rua Wall), who were all legal theorists in the UK.

As I was telling students this morning, it was pretty amazing to me that not only were they teaching me so much, but miraculously, they were interested and caring about what I had to say about space. To me that was fascinating: that I would have anything to say to those people that they'd be interested in hearing. And more and more, I realized that this perspective of reality through space that architects, geographers, designers have is a valuable approach.

That allowed for the Funambulist podcast to be created in 2013. With it, I got to speak to absolutely amazing people who would take an hour of their time to answer my questions, which I felt was so generous and I would learn so much from. And then in 2015, I had the opportunity to start being full-time on this endeavor which led to the creation of the magazine itself. As we're speaking right now we have the 44th issue coming out soon. So 44 issues means that we’ve worked with around 500 or 550 contributors to date. I wouldn’t call what we’ve built a network, but rather a community.

Of course, it would be ridiculous to claim we have had perfect relationships with every single person we’ve worked with during these eight years, but, truly, the majority of times we created what I like to call political friendships. And I think this also comes from the fact that this community of people is binded by kindness, which I still feel today. Despite everything that movements such as Afro-Feminism has been teaching us, we still regard it as almost slightly cheesy to say we like to talk about kindness. Kindness seems like a weak quality or something like that. But in this phenomenal community, it is absolutely central to everything that we build together. So it's been really beautiful.

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WAI: Over time, Funambulist has gotten more visibility and credibility amongst established institutions. It’s also shifted over from regional questions to planetary issues. Has that had an effect on the content?

In regard to the Funambulist’s autonomy, we're entirely independent from institutions, so I don't really know what the institution thinks of us.

WAI: We are the institutions. That's what I mean by institutions. People like Andres Jaque who is the dean of a school, for example, or people who are the chairs for architecture departments. Institutions themselves don't exist. People make institutions like Peter Eisenman and Cynthia Davidson, but then there’s people like us who are in universities, or like Lesley Lokko in the African Futures Institute (AFI).

Lesley is a good example. She is someone who welcomed us with open arms in many ways by including us on the advisory board of the AFI. Adrian Lahoud, the dean of architecture at the Royal College of Art in London (RCA), is another example. As a dean, he has probably hired the most Funambulist contributors to teach in an architecture school!

As the Funambulist community has grown, we’ve created relationships with each member of the community's own community, so to speak. There has not been a single Funambulist issue where I haven’t contacted one member of our community without saying, ‘hey, would you know someone who could write about, I don’t know, something like toxic reminiscence of military testing in Vieques, Puerto Rico?’ And people are always like, ‘oh yeah, of course, I have this friend who could write something both beautiful and powerful about that’, which has been a really wonderful way to grow. I’ve learned so much this way in each issue.

Each issue is built on political intuitions because, except maybe for a few specific political struggles, my own knowledge of these particular political struggles we mobilized in is limited. But one thing I’ve learned is that maybe it's enough to have a political intuition that will then allow us to find the right person to talk about that particular topic. So, I think the goal there for us has been to cultivate internationalist solidarity which has always been one of the two main goals of the magazine, the second being to articulate political struggle.

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WAI: Which brings up the question about the role of metropolis. Has being based in Paris been a challenge? Or has it opened doors? Does it become complicated to navigate there? I'm sure you have had quite a few encounters with people challenging the position of being based in Paris.

Remarkably, not that much.

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WAI: Does being in Paris allow for some sort of exchange that is different? Is it positive? Is it negative? Is it irrelevant?

We are in Paris, which places us in the eye of an empire (albeit a relatively decrepit one), but the Funambulist is an anglophone publication in Paris. So that's an interesting position to occupy. Being in Paris allows us to be close to things like the anti-colonial and anti-racist movement in France, and for those movements to be translated into English, which is one very little thing I can do for that particular movement myself which I find important.

For us, we are very interested in pluriversalizing the discourse. Earlier we were talking about the East Coast intelligentsia as a center that nobody really wants anymore. In the Funambulist, we have this issue on decentralizing the US. This was not about the US dominant model of thinking, but asking the question: how come we, outside of the US, are so influenced in our struggles by the way struggles are being conceptualized in the US? For instance, and this is perhaps something strange for a white editor to vocalize but one of the questions was: how come global Blackness is mostly conceptualized through a vision of African-American episteme? How come we don't get more Black perspectives from Brazil? from Congo? from Madagascar? from the Caribbean? From Melanesia?

WAI: I completely agree.

With this question in mind, it’s been truly amazing to interview Quito Swan for another issue. He’s a Bermudan historian who makes bridges between the Black vantage point in Bermuda, the African Continent, and Melanesia. We’re interested in casting these questions as being a huge blind spot in the English speaking world. And even within the US, how can we pluriversalize the discourse? We have this beautiful piece by Floridalma Boj Lopez, which was a very precise commission. I wanted her to discuss why we do not see the displacement of people from Central America to the US within a settler colonial framework, which would make us see people designated as Latinx in the US as a non-homogenous racialized group which include numerous Indigenous nations. This issue’s question was: what is the “software” (for lack of a better word) through which we think of those political struggles? How can this “software” be inspired by pluriversality, rather than only one centripetal force?

The Funambulist 44 - Vignette

The Funambulist 44 - Vignette

WAI: Maybe this next question is more a question for us, being a publication in Puerto Rico, which is a place that, because of its condition, tends to look to the US first. And when it's not the US, it tends to look at Spain second, which is also awful. How does the positionality of the Funambulist allow you to create some form of different axis of ideas? Like how you bring Kanaky or Algeria into focus? That coverage showed me things that I wouldn't even be able to be aware of in Puerto Rico, in relation to our own colonial relationships in the area. Is that something that you are aware of and that you're thinking about? Was it always part of the mission of the publication? Or does it just happen?

I think to this question I would say: who is the Funambulist? And recognize my difficulty to make it anything else than a very vertical structure to be perfectly honest. I'm not going to pretend it's very democratic when it comes to the editorial line.

But clearly every person who worked at the office is still involved. The five former members  (Margarida Nzuzi Waco, Caroline Honorien, Nadia El Hakim, Flora Hergon, and Noelle Geller) form the advisory editorial board today, and we meet about every two months. We had this big two-day meeting in November where we talked about the magazine’s future goals among many other things. So, each of those people have a very different relationship to Funambulist because of their own family histories and also because of their political engagements that might totally exceed those histories.

And similarly, Shivangi Mariam Raj, the head of communications for the Funambulist with the other full-time person working at the office when we're having this interview in Iowa. She's the one holding down the fort while I'm not there. She's very involved with Kashmir and other aspects of subcontinental struggles. So yeah, we all bring with us [into the Funambulist] what is important to us. Hearing Cruz say the word ‘Kanaky’ to me is amazing because then that means I did a little bit of a good job putting it on the map so to speak. Oh, what a horrible thing to say: “to put something on the map.”

WAI: Yeah but like, I actually heard it through you, so it's true.

To be in solidarity, we need to know each other.

WAI: If we don't we make an archipelago.

Precisely. So I think it's very important that some things become part of our imaginary. But going back to this terrible expression I used, importantly, you don't put people on the map who don't want to be on the map. Architects love to do this! Putting people on the map who didn't ask for anything.

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The Funambulist 45 - Vignette

WAI: Maybe there's another way to put something on the map, let’s call it the network of solidarity.

Yes, and that makes me think of the constellation map I drew for the Funambulist tote bag? That's actually what I have in mind when I say ‘on the map’; not a geographical colonial map but one of our imaginaries.

WAI: Yeah, I think it's a very beautiful way of describing it. Can we talk about how to reconcile the question of language in your work? Because, for example, we're speaking in English for a publication in Puerto Rico. You are also dealing with so many different languages. So on one hand, you're using the English language to allow visibility. But how do you analyze the richness of different concepts in different languages? There's also limitations in publishing in English, right?

Absolutely. The next big project of the Funambulist is how to be multilingual. We’re interested in trying to speak to even more people whose first language might not be English, perhaps by translating into Spanish, Arabic or French. So it's a big project. It's a complicated project because it's a costly project, translation costs a lot, but I think we've proven in the past that when we put something very high in our priorities, we manage to do it. But to be very honest, all of these ideas came to me on the airplane on my way here yesterday, following a conversation with Ruthie Wilson Gilmore a couple of days ago, so it's all very fresh.

This relates to what we're trying to do with Loudreaders but maybe not so much about translation, but about recognition. It's not like there's just one language in the Caribbean.

The way Kateb Yacine, this 20th century Algerian novelist, talks about why he writes in French is interesting. He's been asked so many times why he writes in French and not in Arabic. He says because French is a “butin de guerre” (“spoils of war”). I like this idea. He’s saying, just because you use the colonizers’ language doesn’t mean the colonizer controls you necessarily, right? If anything, it might be you controlling him. The colonizer may only have one language, whereas you have his and also your own.

It's funny. Our March issue is going to be about what I call ‘tough questions around solidarity practices’.

It's funny. Our March issue is going to be about what I call ‘tough questions around solidarity practices’.

NA: That’s the title? Tough questions around solidarity practices?

I don't know what the title will be yet, and when this conversation will be published, the issue will be probably out already and much more precise in what it’s trying to do. But for the moment, a lot of the thinking revolves around Palestine as being almost paradigmatic of both what makes solidarity a necessary and beautiful practice, but also sometimes difficult and problematic. As you might remember with Radio AlHara, we had organized a discussion with Sophia Azeb, Tasnim Sammak and Bisan Abu Eisheh about Black and Palestinian solidarity, or rather the lack of symmetry in this solidarity.

Similarly, Kanak people who were fighting for their liberation at the same time as the First Intifada in the 1980s sent messages of solidarity with Palestinians. But very few Palestinians have heard of Kanak people, let alone of their liberation struggle. What does that mean to receive solidarity from people you don’t know exist? This is not at all a judgment on my end to ask this question, far from it! It just seems to me like a provocative and difficult question to answer.

Continuing with Palestine (but keep in mind, this is not an issue on solidarity with Palestine; those are just examples!). When I went to the North of Ireland that is still occupied by the British, I was amazed because I saw Palestiniean flags everywhere, which at first made me very happy. But then I realized that, if I exaggerate a bit, these flags (as well as the Israeli ones that the “loyalists” fly in their neighborhoods) could just as easily be football team flags; it does not necessarily go beyond…

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The Funambulist 46 - Vignette


Yeah. While the Palestinian flag was everywhere, Palestine itself would be nowhere so to speak. I know in history this hasn’t been true, and that Palestine has been very present in the Irish anti-colonial struggle, and that real, operative solidarity exists. But what I saw seemed a little bit performative. So one of the questions for this issue would be: what is performative solidarity and what is operative solidarity?

It’s like in the past few days, we’ve been asked to stand in solidarity with the Iranian women struggle, or rather we’ve been blamed for not putting out a statement, but this is something that makes me uncomfortable because, as much as we do, of course, support the movement, what does a statement produce in this case? My intuition is that it produces nothing politically, and I’d rather adopt our usual attitude, which is that we look at things and intervene in the long term.

WAI: Yeah. That was also diverting from activism too because we needed some visibility to know what's happening. But then the black squares took over the scene.

NA: Yeah. Like land acknowledgment statements too.

WAI: Yeah, like land acknowledgments in the US also. Like, how about you [the colonizer] get out? Instead of saying that you're there?

With land acknowledgements, I’m a little bit more circumspect, because I also have seen it done in a way in Australia, for instance, where the Aboriginal scholars and activists who were intervening at the Black and Palestinian Solidarity Conference told us actually it's really important we're doing it, also because none of the Indigenous people present were from the Wurundjeri nation whose land is occupied by Melbourne. So that was a way for them to pay respect to fellow Aboriginal people whose land we were on.

WAI: I think in that context it really makes sense. But then in the US it's like, all there is is land acknowledgment. So you say performance. Yeah, that's it, it's part of the game of liberalism.

NA: I don't know if I told you Leopold, but one of the places the Palestinian flag appeared together with the Western Sahara flag is in the Canary Islands. And actually the Palestinian liberation movement and the Western Sahara, and the Canary Islands were quite close.  There's a pretty big Palestinian community and also a very big Saharaoui community there. And that's where the flags coming together and their appearance in masses meant so much.

The flags are almost the same too. One is from the left to the right, and the other is from the right to the left.

NA: I was very moved. If the protesters were for Saharawi liberation and for Palestinian liberation, they were always both there. As if they always came together. It's beautiful.

That is beautiful, like when Black and Indigenous groups come together in North America. It’s also important to acknowledge that some people belong to both groups at the same time. But this isn’t as common I guess in North America as in many places in the Caribbean and the north of South America.

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The Funambulist 47 - Vignette

WAI: I would say that narratives of race in the US are such that that coexistence is not allowed to exist. I know Black people that are Indigenous, but they always have to choose to be Black or you have to choose to be Indigenous. It's never like can you be Black and Indigenous. Let’s talk about the networks of solidarity that aren’t necessarily good, like what you were talking about in today’s lecture.

The fascists?

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WAI: Yeah. All the fascists and white supremacists and their systems. They have networks that are really successful. They also have resources. They distribute them very well between themselves, right? There’s a myth that the US system is an individualist system. That's not true. White supremacy operates with networks, right? Settlers operate through networks. You cannot have a settler-colonial state with two people. You need to create a community that is based on displacement of people. So if we think about that in light of what we're trying to do, or the things that we're studying and collaborating on, how do you see the challenge between these networks or solidarities or political friendships?

I would say that what we’re not doing at the Funambulist is trying to convince anyone of anything. Rather, we are trying to strengthen relationships that already exist. Maybe create some new ones and strengthen our capacity to organize together. The idea is not at all to have a group sufficiently big where we'd be able to win over the fascists. It's more for us a means to be more organized. Which, you know, if we had to go at it physically with the fascists, I think we're in deep shit because none of us are very good at any sort of things that would require fighting in any possible way.

I mean, that's not true, but many of us are not, myself included. So yeah, I'm not sure. I also think I'm fully aware that the Funambulist is an intellectual endeavor. It's considering intellectual work as at the same level as many other aspects of the work that need to be done to be able to to fight fascism itself.

I think we need intellectuals in this fight. We need nurses and we need fighters too. I think that's what I was talking about in my introduction to the self-defense issue of the Funambulist. Sometimes you need to be able to call a group of Antifa to confront the police and help people who would otherwise be beaten up by the police. So you need to be well organized, and to have a good infrastructure, a natural infrastructure of operative solidarity.

We basically need to be well organized enough to have what we need when we need it from who we need it from. So that involves us in a small capacity, not such a big one, but one nonetheless, and yes, sometimes it involves people taking care of others and then people who have the capacity to physically fight. I mean, I don't know, it sounds a little bit testosterone here so I wish I was able to have a little bit more nuance to what I'm saying right now. But that's a little bit how I think about this.

NA: Within the status quo networks like, the institutions where we operate, there have been many occasions where you gave important support. I mean in the context of Palestine, those who express solidarity through their work with the Palestinian cause and end up being bullied, threatened with job precarity, ostracized, and so on. And then, of course, you know, there is a network that is activated for support and you're always in it.

Yeah. But that is a very easy position for me to take because I do not depend on institutions. The only consequences I may face, if anything, the things that might end up happening which would make me miserable, would really not be that bad. I could be banned from entering Palestine at some point, which would be awful, but that's not even sure because those guys are so racist that they might never acknowledge that I’m an enemy.