BY Vivian Sky Rehberg AND Cristina Ricupero in City Report | 09 SEP 08
Featured in
Issue 117

Paris

Despite the city's troubles and persistent clichés about it's cultural life, a community of independent collectives and spaces is thriving

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BY Vivian Sky Rehberg AND Cristina Ricupero in City Report | 09 SEP 08

'Hotel Everland', 2007, by Swiss artists L/B on the roof of Palais de Tokyo, Paris

Forty years since the events of May 1968, Paris is plagued by unemployment, inflation and suburban unrest. Yet despite the city’s troubles and persistent clichés about its cultural life, a community of small independent art collectives and spaces is thriving

Vivian Rehberg

An uncompromisingly slender and elegant woman saunters on teetering heels next to a be-spectacled, dishevelled older man, who has Le Monde and a book, possibly by Georges Pérec, tucked under one arm. She has just come from a session with her Lacanian psychoanalyst; he has spent a week teaching disenchanted bourgeois youth at the prestigious Lycée Henri IV. They trail their daughter Zazie and a toy-poodle christened Guy (after Debord) as they wander toward the Ile Saint-Louis, where they eat ice cream before visiting Notre Dame to pay homage to Victor Hugo. During their dérive, they kiss a lot, expertly skirt dog poop, and are rude to tourists. After church, they go to the Louvre and then effortlessly weave their way through demonstrations near the Café de Flore to return to their apartment in the Latin Quarter with its view of the Eiffel Tower (on foot because the metro is on strike, as usual).

If such clichéd fantasies of a quintessentially Parisian lifestyle persist (and a quick survey of the dozens of Parisian expat blogs confirm that they do), they are increasingly remote from the prosaic reality in this city of nearly ten million habitants. As the 2005 riots, subsequent declaration of a state of emergency, and rhetoric of fear and insecurity that has dominated public discourse for the past decade or so demonstrate, Paris, like other European capitals, is marked by the urban constants of unemployment, crime, civil unrest, ethnic conflict and inflation. These elements clash unfashionably with its haute couture architecture, museums, monuments and gardens.

Paris connoisseur Walter Benjamin (yes, him again) spoke in his Arcades Project (1927–40) of ‘wish images’ or ‘images in the collective unconscious in which the old and new interpenetrate’. He wrote ‘what emerges in these wish images is the resolute effort to distance oneself from all that is antiquated – which includes, however, the recent past.’1 To a great extent, comforting ‘wish images’ of Paris, and especially of its people, its art and its culture, remain strongly inflected by the ideal of a lost golden age of creativity rather than by the recognition of vibrant efforts to heave this fantasy out the window.

Underlying nostalgia for Paris’s cultural heyday and the desire to retrieve its former glory persist mainly in official circles. These sentiments seep insidiously into the discourse surrounding such major government-sponsored exhibitions as the messy but revealing ‘La Force de l’art’ at the Grand Palais – the 2006 triennial of ‘art produced in France’ – and the annual solo exhibition ‘Monumenta,’ which invites artists (so far Anselm Kiefer and Richard Serra) to ‘pit themselves against the monumental nave of the Grand Palais.’ These events certainly draw vast numbers of visitors and generate a lot of press, yet there is something anachronistic and disturbing about the rhetoric of power, immensity and superiority their titles express. More recently, eyebrows were raised when Palais de Tokyo director Marc-Olivier Wahler and his deputy Mark Alizart were quoted using military and racing metaphors to describe their institutional ethos: ‘We are a true war machine, ready to brave anything,’ and ‘We are building the Formula 1 of art centres. In 2009, we are talking real fire power.’2

Never mind that elsewhere 2008 seems to have been more about capturing the fleeting moments, as at the Berlin Biennial, or maintaining a low-profile, as in New York’s Whitney Biennial. Those cities do loom large on the horizon. If Paris was first overshadowed by New York, which became a home in exile for many artists fleeing World War II, these days the pressure comes mainly from Berlin, where a number of French artists, writers, and curators have sought fresh energy and cheaper rents. In truth, French artists are always on the move, even if the global art market is reportedly slow in following.

There is no shortage of assessments, or polemics, regarding the present state of cultural affairs. In brief: consensus holds that French artists lack international recognition (with the exceptions of Annette Messager, Sophie Calle, Christian Boltanski and Daniel Buren); the public is disinterested and the arts increasingly commercialized; there is no art criticism, not enough private funding; state and municipal institutions are too hierarchical and the rigid system prevents them from recruiting and keeping talented curatorial staff. Indeed, Ami Barak, Nicolas Bourriaud, Catherine David, Corinne Diserens, Alison Gingeras, Hou Hanru, Pontus Hulten, Jean-Hubert Martin, Joanna Mytkowska, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Jérôme Sans have all passed through the French institutional network only to wind up elsewhere, though many maintain strong professional ties to France.

If on one level the Parisian art scene appears caught up in trying to renew itself and to prove it still matters, a number of artists, curators and dealers have chosen to play on a different terrain, one that seeks independence from institutional vicissitudes and is perhaps therefore less visible. Crowds still throng openings at the well-established Marais galleries such as Chantal Crousel, Chez Valentin, Yvon Lambert, Marian Goodman and Emmanuel Perrotin, while Air de Paris, Art : Concept and gb agency hold strong around the rue Louis Weiss near the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. However, other neighbourhoods are attracting increasing amounts of attention. Dealer Jocelyn Wolff, a pioneer of the eastern Belleville district, anchored by the art centre Frac Ile-de-France/Le Plateau further up the road says, ‘Not being the centre of the world affords us quite a lot of freedom,’3 a viewpoint echoed by many of those inventing alternative forms and formats for cultural production and distribution.

Independent collective initiatives like Castillo/Corrales, run by Thomas Boutoux, François Piron, Benjamin Thorel and Oscar Tuazon, and 220 jours, led by Élodie Royer and Yoann Gourmel, currently set the example, following on their defunct, publicly-funded predecessors The Store, Public, and the still-active Bétonsalon. Castillo/Corrales jam-packs an ambitious program into the reduced square footage it shares in Belleville with Daniele Balice and Alexander Hertling’s commercial gallery (which represents Tuazon). Claiming its line is ‘not to adopt a line’ and they are ‘definitely not in it for the money,’ C/C doesn’t represent artists, but mounts exhibitions from which it occasionally sells works, houses a bookstore and hosts lectures and performances.4 Inspired by spaces like Triple Candie in New York or Between Bridges in London, C/C promotes spontaneity, flexibility and economic self-sufficiency (all of the contributors work other jobs on the side), and obstinately adheres to English as the language of its frequently tongue-in-cheek, if not cheeky, PR. The commercial affair Balice Hertling, whose artists appreciate the multiplicity their space offers, shares C/C’s collective mind-set and finds that a wider public is beginning to catch on, drawn by the established presence of Cosmic Galerie and newcomer Gaudel de Stampa. When asked why they opened a gallery, Balice replied sincerely: ‘We were lonely.’5

Creating one’s own opportunities and going with the flow seems to be the order of the day. Space availability may have instigated Royer and Gourmel’s 220 jours, but their exhibition programme was conceived according to temporal terms – using up the remaining 220 days on the lease of a space across from their place of employment, the gallery gb agency, also known for its fluid, experimental approach. They committed those days to working with a core group of four artists not associated with gb agency – Isabelle Cornaro, Mark Geffriaud, Benoît Maire and Raphaël Zarka – whose works could be discovered in various configurations across the time-span. The two curators asserted that their chosen format enabled them to work intuitively and use the exhibition as a mode of questioning artistic and curatorial practices rather than demonstrating them. Precisely because of their open-ended frameworks, these initiatives wisely and regularly profit from the constant influx of international artists, writers and curators in residency at the École des Beaux-Arts, the Couvent des Récollets, the Kadist Art Foundation, the Cité International des Arts and La Galerie.

Art centres just beyond the ring road like La Galerie, Les Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers, or le Crédac, those further afield like La Ferme du Buisson and CAC Brétigny, as well as the contemporary art museum MAC/VAL, have been making increasingly vital contributions to the Paris art scene for years. Many of these art centres are easily accessible by public transport or via the professional network Tram, which organizes combined visits around the Ile-de-France region. Despite the arcane local cultural politics on which they depend, these spaces frequently invite artists or mount projects that large structures intramuros are unwilling or unable to risk. Recent tours revealed works by young French artists and more established, surprisingly under-represented foreigners, like Aurélien Froment, Guillaume Leblon, Goshka Macuga, Stéphanie Nava, Roman Ondak, Jimmy Robert, Bojan Sarcevic, Mark Wallinger and Pae White.

Each centre has its own identity (and is housed in architecture of an astonishing variety) generally associated with the distinctive stamp of the current director, who usually juggles both administration and curating. When Marianne Lanavère took over La Galerie in 2005, she opted for the creation of a separate artist and curatorial residency (the first of its kind in Paris), and an exhibition programme that alternates solo-shows by French artists, the artist-in-residence, and thematic group shows, which she or the invited curator organizes (like the recent ‘Fables du doute/Fables of Doubt’, curated by Simone Menegoi). Throughout his tenure at the CAC Brétigny, Pierre Bal-Blanc has asked each artist who shows there to contribute something permanent to the space, producing an accretion of works that serve as an institutional archive. Teresa Margolles poured a concrete floor mixed with the water used to wash cadavers in her native Mexico (Fosse commune, 2005), for example, while Atelier van Lieshout built an ‘Edutainer’, a cozy education/entertainment container, just out front.

Bal-Blanc, whose cultural project for the centre was founded on this principle and initially supported locally, has spent much of the past several years explaining his viewpoint and battling with authorities over a site-specific rectangular concrete corridor, remains of a dual-projection by David Lamelas, which elected officials voluntarily destroyed in 2007, along with an intervention by Hans-Walter Müller, built with the help of students from the adjacent high-school. In hindsight, Bal-Blanc philosophically integrates this painful experience into the role of the suburban art centre director: ‘There was no other solution to heightening the awareness of elected officials than provoking an artistic crisis on the ground. One mustn’t be afraid to act within an institution’s frame, to support artists as they play with conventions. An art centre director’s mission is to reconsider the duration of experience and renew the relationship between artists and the public.’6

Reflection about the roles curators, directors and institutions can and should play locally and internationally abounds in Paris, and positions vary widely. Probably there is something for everyone. However, if one can manage to look beyond the clichés, clear away the rhetoric, block out the naysayers and doom forecasters, and stray off the beaten-track, one can be rewarded by efforts that balance what one might wish for Paris with what its reality provides.

Cristina Ricupero

This year France has been commemorating the 40th anniversary of the events of May 1968. In some way, the celebrations were launched a year earlier by Nicolas Sarkozy, when he was still merely a candidate for the Presidency of France. In a strongly categorical tone he stated that it was finally time to erase any remaining vestiges of this ‘most unfortunate occurrence’. According to him, May 1968 was mainly to blame for most of France’s social afflictions, in particular for the ultimate liquidation of its all-important hierarchies and of any kind of authority and moral order capable of defining a clear-cut choice between good and evil, between light and shadow.

Clearly intended as a provocation and highly questionable at best, this statement set off an avalanche of contradictory interpretations of the commotion that shook France and, more specifically Paris, in May 1968. By far the most paradoxical of those new readings of the recent past was the claim that May 1968 had been the founding moment of capitalism’s modernization and of the irrepressible rise of contemporary individualism. From the other side, it is perfectly plausible to suggest that May 1968 was, perhaps, the last step of a cycle set in motion by the 1789 French Revolution – that is, of a succession of revolutionary events for which Paris was the exalted and at times tragic stage. Between 1789 and 1968, through 1848 and the 1871 Commune uprising, Paris has been the site of peaceful or violent occupations that in some cases led to the conquest of power by the people. May 1968 was apparently the last act of this epic saga, which had extraordinary repercussions far beyond Paris’ borders, and whose secret epicentre was the Situationist movement.

As a revolutionary theatre, Paris seems to have yielded the stage to its outskirts (banlieue), where violent and spasmodic riots took place in November 2005. In contrast to May 1968, the outbreak of violence in the suburbs did not leave behind any legacy of hope. Instead, it has brought to light the inescapable disconnection between Paris, regarded as an absolute centre, and the banlieue, seen as a distant periphery. In fact, the strict separation between city and suburbs dates back to the vast mid-19th century urban remodelling that took place in Paris during the Second Empire under Baron Haussmann. Up until then, the city had been a labyrinth of narrow streets and medieval neighbourhoods, which were levelled to make way for wide spacious avenues lined with trees and neo-classical stone buildings, a distinct characteristic of today’s Paris. Haussmann’s vision is still clearly dominant, despite the criticism by architects such as Le Corbusier and sporadic, half-hearted attempts to forge other types of architecture and urban planning. The city of Paris still imposes strict construction regulations and each new structure must conform to surrounding buildings in order to constitute a ‘unified’ urban landscape.

Measured against the bold new buildings of Berlin or London, Paris architecture appears extremely conservative and almost frozen in time. Well-known French architects such as Jean Nouvel or Bernard Tschumi have never had the opportunity to build private houses either in Paris or in its suburbs. It is equally rare for one of the major private French corporations to commission its headquarters to a contemporary French architect. Indeed, for a very long time, it was only the State, either embodied by François Mitterand or Louis XIV, which had the right to introduce architectural innovations.

The legal framework that strives to preserve Paris’ historical past has one major undesirable consequence: the ‘museumification’ of the city. The nostalgic quest for a certain idealized image of Paris’ past has been extensively exploited in films such as 2001’s Amélie. Transposing and promoting ‘the village spirit’, such works celebrate a nostalgic view of a ‘lost Paris’, reinforcing the image of the French capital as pastiche and theme park.

In a way, the debate about the city’s architecture and, from a much broader perspective, about cultural policy in general has been permeated by the tension between the perception of a bygone ‘golden era’ to be preserved at any cost and the urge to change in response to new needs and realities.

The obsession with its celebrated past is not the monopoly of the city’s urban planning. A frequent theme of artistic discussions is the painful awareness that, after World War II, Paris lost its central role in the international art world. Since then, the city has constantly struggled against its feelings of uneasiness and decline, linked to its perceived lack of international recognition. In recent decades, important initiatives were taken to boost the city’s art scene: the creation, in 1959, of a Paris biennial that lasted until 1985; the establishment of an interdisciplinary department, l’ARC, at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris at the end of the 1960s; and, in the following decade, the opening of the Centre Georges Pompidou and of the art fair FIAC (whose bad reputation has just recently begun to improve).

These efforts culminated with Mitterrand’s election in 1981. His Minister of Culture, Jack Lang, imparted a strong dynamism to cultural politics through many original initiatives such as the creation of the Délégation aux arts plastiques (department of visual arts) in the Ministry of Culture and of the FRACs outside of Paris, and the introduction of the Fête de la Musique (a one-day long music event that takes place in Paris and all over France every year). During the 1990s, after the art market crisis and in opposition to more established institutions, a group of young people decided to create their own art magazines (Documents sur l’art, Bloc Notes, Purple Prose) and to set up new galleries (Air de Paris, Galerie Jennifer Flay). This group was at the forefront of the artistic scene in the 1990s. More recently, Paris finally saw the creation of a major multidisciplinary art centre, Palais de Tokyo, which serves as an experimental laboratory and platform for contemporary art, as well as the establishment of an art prize, Le Prix Marcel Duchamp (the equivalent of the Turner Prize).

Nowadays, few artists and art professionals still subscribe to the idea of exhibiting under a national ‘package’ or brand. Nevertheless, Paris has seen some desperate gestures to promote what could be called ‘the French scene’ through exhibitions such as ‘La Force de l’Art’ (Grand Palais, 2006), ‘Notre Histoire’ (Palais de Tokyo, 2006), ‘Airs de Paris’ (Centre Georges Pompidou, 2007). Do these events translate anything more than political intentions? Are they symptoms of some inferiority complex? More likely they seem to exhibit the local incapacity to acknowledge that the country’s most prominent artists – such as Pierre Huyghe, Philippe Parreno and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster – have been able to create their own international networks while refusing to be exported as cultural products.

In spite of all these efforts, Paris still somehow feels disconnected from the international art scene. This lack of international recognition is sometimes attributed to the omnipresence of the State in cultural affairs. The situation is, however, more complex, with many factors contributing to this pervasive perception. Most cultural and educational institutions, for instance, have shown a total inability to overhaul their archaic structures in order to become more open to contemporary thought and practice. There are very few residency programmes in Paris and the money allocated to send artists, art critics, writers and curators outside of France is relatively limited.

The city’s relative isolation is also the result of a recruitment system for art professionals that frequently lacks a more open and competitive process. With few exceptions, in order to work as a curator in a museum one has to be French and pass an exam covering basic art history from Medieval times through Modern Art, allocating almost no importance to contemporary art and thought. Art centres seem to privilege international competition less and less, favouring civil servants from the central administration instead.

In addition, contemporary thought and practice have not yet been fully integrated into the academic programmes of literature, visual arts and philosophy in schools and universities. The public thus needs to be constantly ‘convinced’ through the proliferation of simplistic, educational, event-oriented projects. Many of France’s creative and original thinkers, such as Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes or Michel Foucault, were forced to gain recognition outside of France before being able to teach in their own country. Such a general conservative attitude on the part of official institutions also explains why many important curators, such as Catherine David, Corinne Diserens and Christian Bernard, have left France.

There are two essential problems in French cultural politics: on one side, the heavy burden of an old-fashioned administration that infiltrates, dominates and stagnates all sectors; and, on the other, the obsession with event culture – the mixture of genres, art in the streets, and the proliferation of festivals – demagogic gestures whose main purpose is to please the public and integrate ‘the masses’. Those trends have been reinforced and taken a more reactionary stance under Sarkozy.

Sarkozy has waged his criticism of May 1968 as a sort of ideological tool or a trial attempt before launching his systematic demolition of the intellectual and cultural structures put in place by Charles de Gaulle and André Malraux and refined by Mitterrand and Lang. He has denounced the ‘failure of the democratisation of culture’, claiming that national cultural policies are paid for by everyone but only serve very few. The net result has been a drastic 20% budget cut and personnel reductions across all cultural sectors. No real alternative or counter-proposal has been advanced, involving, for instance, a mixed public and private partnership. After one year under the new government, a gradual dismantlement of the public sector has become apparent. It is hard to imagine that the private sector will simply take over in such difficult times of economic crisis.

Could there be a satisfactory alternative for this controversial scenario? Perhaps the numerous small, multi-disciplinary, mostly private spaces that have flourished in the centre of Paris and in the suburbs will provide a different approach. Spaces such as the Kadist Art Foundation, Bétonsalon, 220 jours, and Castillo/Coralles in Paris or les Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers, Irma Vep Lab or Anne + in the suburbs usually work with residencies, production and research around projects that involve image, sound and performance. Hopefully the work developed by these lighter, non-bureaucratic, more experimental structures will bring new light to these frantic and confusing times.

Walter Benjamin, ‘Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century,’ (1935) in The Arcades Project, translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, Cambridge, MA., 1999, p.4 
Emmanuelle Lequeux, ‘Palais de Tokyo, vraie machine de guerre’, Le Monde 2 June, 2008. Author’s translation. 
In conversation with Wolff, 2 July 2008 
In conversation with Boutoux, Piron, Tuazon and Thorel, 23 June 2008 
In conversation with Balice and Hertling, 25 June 2008 
Pierre Bal-Blanc, interviewed by Emmanuelle Lequeux in Magazine 44, April–May, 2008, p. 54. Author’s translation.

Vivian Sky Rehberg is a course director of the Master of Fine Art at the Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam, the Netherlands. She lives in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

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