How could this be? How can one hate an all-night carnival of contemporary art?
I chalked it up to that particularly Parisian quality of considering everything municipal to be chiant. No surprise, really, that the city’s “Sleepless Night” would be snubbed by those who also scoff at Pei’s pyramid and the Eiffel Tower.
In the end, with the help of Bernhard and Andreia, I was able to piece together a five-man gang for my first-ever Nuit Blanche. During our fortifying dinner of asorda des mariscos and 2 desserts we discussed options and decided to try the Goutte d’Or neighborhood. Around Paris, there were six different quartiers selected to host contemporary art events. In the Goutte d’Or – the heart of African Paris – there were 27 official installations concentrated mainly between Chateau Rouge and La Chapelle.
We set out just after 10:00 and ambled through a crisp and beautiful autumn night. The milk-heavy moon filled the train yards with light as we passed through the haunting landscape between Gare du Nord and Gare de l’Est.
Our first stop was Rue Pajol and the former workshop of Carlos Regazzoni. No fewer than five Nuit Blanche installations were planned for the Halle Pajol, whose perimeter fence was newly decorated by a timeline history of the quartier. The only trace of Regazzoni, the Argentinian sculptor who had previously leased the space for over a decade, could be found by looking at the walls of the halle. They weren’t there anymore. Removing them was probably a necessity for extracting some of the 2700 examples of l’Art Ferroviaire which used to occupy the 2000 m2 warehouse constructed by Gustave Eiffel.
The streets were flowing with people outside the Halle Pajol – young and old, hip and square. Kids ran circles around their parents, clearly thrilled by the idea of a state-sanctioned all-nighter. A neon light blinked “Nuit Blanche” above a smaller sign indicating “one hour wait from this point.” Whatever was happening in the Halle Pajol was only going to be seen after several hours of standing around. We decided to move on, and headed for the area around Rue Léon.
The streets, independent of any art happening, were entertaining enough. Local boys sat on their cars, surveying the scene with crossed arms and wary expressions. Jugglers entertained the line waiting at the Comptoir Lavoir Moderne Parisien. Dingy neon cafés were uncharacteristically full, and the sounds of jazz manouche drew Nuit Blanche refugees into the small and pleasant “Shango” bar.
The only installations we managed to see were those set outdoors with no lines. We encountered Erwin Wurm’s piece “My home is yours” by chance as we were walking along rue Affre and looked up to find lamps, beds and dressers hanging horizontally from the buildings. Another nod to Debord and the situationists who were the inspiration for much of Nuit Blanche (click here for more on that).
Laurent Grasso’s performance of eternal sunshine provided the necessary excuse to cut our night short. Du Soleil dans la Nuit was set upon a raised athletic court and simulated daylight (like in the movies) using giant helium balloons. If this was daylight, I considered, and we were supposed to stay up until dawn…did that mean we could go home? My Nuit Blanche ended just past midnight – two hours after it began.
What I liked was the carnivalesque atmosphere – the mixing of people who don’t normally share space in this city. What I didn’t like can best be explained by returning to the example of Regazzoni. His warehouse, which I visited several times in 2004 and 2005, embodied the very spirit that Nuit Blanche seems to be striving for.
A visit to Regazzoni’s workshop, before the city kicked him out in 2005, brought visitors into a corner of the city that many had not previously visited. The unpublicized, unmarked nature of the space led visitors to wander through a series of squats (one run by environmentalists offering a vegan meal) before locating the atelier behind its iron menagerie courtyard. The interior space of the warehouse was warmed by the light of a canteen offering cheap meals and even cheaper drinks. Disciples from the Association El Gato Viejo wandered among the crowd offering information and soliciting donations.
The sculptures themselves, lit by cold and sparse lighting until the city cut power in June 2005, were a delight. Made from cast-off railway materials and weighing as much as several tons, his work comprised an “insane bestiary” of giraffes, gorillas, and other animals. There were planes, too. Not everything was good, but a good deal of it was great. And more than anything, one had the special feeling of being at the right place at the right time - a sense that was heightened as the threat of eviction, first issued in October 2004, became increasingly real.
The city, despite a 4,000-signature petition and some negative press, managed to get Regazzoni out and to transform the Halle Pajol into an acceptable space for the Nuit Blanche. Something spontaneous had become normative – an authentic contemporary art happening was erased in favor of something programmed. One could stand Saturday night in the graveyard of Regazzoni’s atelier and read the following (translated) words about the city’s mission for Nuit Blanche:
“Contemporary art mixes with the city and creates a singular time-space where each person is invited to circulate, rediscovering a transformed everyday terrain or exploring some overlooked places.”
It’s a nice idea. It was better in practice.