Given the popularity of ‘Nuit Blanche’, the annual contemporary arts festival organized by the Paris cultural affairs office, I never expected I would be alone at any of the site-specific installations and events taking place all over the city from dusk to dawn. Still, I am not much for crowds, so my heart sank when I came out of my theatre date on the early side of the evening to find a mob swarming on the Champs-Elysées in front of the glimmering Petit Palais. Inside the turn-of-the-century palace Carsten Höller had altered the frequency of the electrical current (Demi Petit Palais 7.8 Hz), thus dimming the interior lights and causing them to flicker. The project looked lovely from the outside, but I was eager to get back to my part of town, a few streets north of the area called the Goutte d’Or, a focus for this year’s ‘Nuit Blanche’. I trudged through the Place de la Concorde, where it seemed thousands were admiring the Obelisk, sculptures and fountains gorgeously illuminated with Yves Klein’s signature International Klein Blue (sponsored by the Louis Vuitton group). Ducking into the packed metro, I met up with friends and we attached our special ‘cut through the queue’ press bracelets. Still reeling from the crowds, I rather grumpily steeled myself for the soirée ahead and hoped things would be less congested uptown.
According to the press release, this year’s artistic directors, Nicolas Bourriaud and Jérôme Sans, chose to highlight the Goutte d’Or, a predominantly African district, because it represents the city’s ‘diversity of cultures’ and its métissage (interculturality). Once considered dangerous, it is currently undergoing a massive renovation campaign sponsored by local authorities. Earlier that day, on the formerly drug-ridden rue Myrah, I had happened upon a fenced-in vacant lot and witnessed Yan Pei-Ming (accompanied by two bodyguards and a Rottweiler) hanging his large-scale painted portrait of the late comic Coluche, an immensely popular anti-racism advocate who founded the charity Restos du Coeur (Restaurants of the Heart) to feed and house the homeless. That evening I had a feeling of déjà vu when I found myself standing behind similar fences in front of even more vacant lots, watching Barthélémy Toguo’s mammoth ice block filled with tropical fruit (La goutte d’eau, de l’or qui coule, The gold drip of water that runs) slowly melting into buckets, or looking at Franck Scurti’s Commerce, a series of life-size shop signs and awnings hovering just above the dirt. Despite the large groups of people enjoying the festive atmosphere, the barriers between the audience and the works felt especially poignant when transposed onto the street.
Even in more participatory installations I couldn’t shake off the feeling that
I was a cultural tourist visiting a temporary museum in my home town. Perhaps I should have travelled to other parts of the city. But they say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. My feeling of estrangement heightened when we entered the Institute for Muslim Culture, which housed Jordi Colomer’s video installation Arabian Stars, which represented anonymous figures filmed by Colomer in Yemen, each carrying a sign bearing the name of a famous person or character (James Bond, Michael Jackson, Zinédine Zidane) painted in Arabic. The printed guide stated that the artist’s use of varied seating was supposed – again – to symbolize cultural diversity. However, the entire audience seated on those chairs was white, just like me. Nuit blanche, indeed.