Squats That Went Straight: Dispatches into Alternative Art Culture in Paris

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By: Kera Mogue
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Wisps of smoke intertwined with music escape through the window, which is cracked open ever so slightly to properly air the studio. Pascal is oblivious to the steady flow of observers that walk through his open air gallery as his hands craft the next project: a canvas that uses the principles of light perception to optimize the visual experience of the observer. “When I was invited to work here, my only condition was that I wouldn’t work in trash”. Pascal prefers the company of his clients to the solitude of his courtyard, where he used to design his masterpieces. He could care less that artists at illegal squats look down on him for “selling out”.

At the 59 Rivoli art gallery, 30 artists spread their studios over 6 spacious floors and have the opportunity to interact with their visitors on a daily basis. The artists welcome local bands and singers to expose their work by contacting the administration. Located in one of Paris’s most commercial districts, this squat-turned art gallery is undergoing an audit by the government of Paris to verify that all artists are properly paying their dues, among approximately 40 other items on the list.

The Story Behind the Squat
Before 2001, “59 Rivoli” was the shortened address of a squat called “chez Robert électron libre”: a community of artists illegally living and working in close quarters. “It was a tree in the forest of other squats in the city,” explains Pascal. His good friend and fellow artist Gaspard found the building, which had been empty for 15 years and belonged to Crédit Lyonnais. As the leader of the group of artists, he fought for their right to stay there when the city of Paris threatened to seize the building and expel them.

Gaspard hired a lawyer that insisted they use the “lois d’hiver” (laws of winter) to their benefit. The laws of winter state that squatters may stay in a building from November 1 to March 15 without being expelled as long as they did not enter the building by force. So they stayed where they were. Before winter had turned to spring, the giant snowball of the press and the public had melted into a puddle of success; the squat had gained such a large acquaintance that the city of Paris decided to purchase the building in 2001 and let the squatters stay as long as the association paid its monthly rent.

Today, that rent equals €130 per artist, or €3,900 euros total a month. The audit being carried out by the Mairie of Paris is to verify that each and every artist whose work is on display in the gallery is paying rent to 59 Rivoli to prevent ongoing squatting and undue exposure for friends of resident artists. The audit also involves making sure the gallery is open when it says it will be and that the building meets fire codes. The results of this audit will determine whether or not the Mairie decides to renew the contract with the 59 Rivoli association.

“If the audit fails and the City is not happy, it’s all over,” says James Purpura, an artist from Ohio.

Although James’ 6 month stay is almost over, he hopes to move up on the waiting list. But competition is rough. “It’s very communal here. People here feel like they have the right to make use of an abandoned space. This is owned by the people, it’s accessible to everyone.” Indeed, the gallery’s open door policy and free entry represent the change in attitude toward alternative art galleries in a culture that prides itself on prodigies of the past.
The political attaché of the city of Paris said : “The politics of squats has evolved since we bought the squat and is continuing to change.” It is true that in the past decade, the political aspects of squats consisted of a binary pitting classist ideology against that of a counterculture. When trying to make a statement about homelessness, individual resistance and collective resistance are not synonymous.

According to Cécile Pechu, artistic squats in Paris are traditionally collectives based on the counter-cultural concept of redistribution of wealth. Pascal Foucart’s baguette sculpture says it all: a 2×4 row of freshly baked baguettes are lacquered in brightly colored acrylic paints, illustrating the daily action of buying bread without realizing that some people are too poor to afford such a luxury. While this work of art is a clear example of counter-classism, today it is appreciated by the public thanks to the government’s purchase of the property in 2001. Without 59 Rivoli’s current level of exposure, Pascal would still be painting in an empty courtyard.
Jeux Politiques
As the politics of squats softens, the housing market in Paris gets even more competitive.

“Squats, especially the illegal kind, have a short life-span”. Pascal references La Miroiterie in the 20th district of Paris, which has recently been shut down due to property laws. A dozen artists will have to find a new home, and 8 others will be losing their workspaces.

Despite the level of culture the squat contributes to the neighborhood, they have no choice but to concede to the property demand. For galleries like le Point Ephémère, being endorsed by Paris is good news, as it gives structure to their exhibits and allows them to be creative in other ways. Still, Le Point Ephémère is about to be closed, too, and art-loving Parisians are buzzing about it.

Not all artists have a circulation of over 40,000 people a year in their studio. Some of them do not want this kind of traffic because it disrupts their creative process. Still, the future forecast for squats can’t be too cloudy if the government is going along with the concept of alternative art in an abandoned space.
The results of the current audit at 59 rue de Rivoli will determine the future of a place that offers 30 different perspectives and a cultural spot different from all the rest. Like the sign on the second floor says, ‘Earth’ without ‘art’ is just ‘meh’.

 
For more information about expositions and upcoming events, visit the official gallery website of 59 Rivoli.

Note: This piece was also published on Citizenside. You can find the original here.

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