Monday, October 09, 2006

Nuit Blah(nche)

I was firing emails into the abyss last week, trying to drum up some excitement for the Nuit Blanche. Some friends claimed prior plans, but others just came right out and told me that they hate the Nuit Blanche.

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.


Anonymous said...

I was excited about the Nuit Blanche, buy ultimately I came to more or less the same conclusions you did. It was fun to see all different kinds of people -- kids, old people, tourists, students -- enjoying the festive atmosphere.

But the installations themselves were over-crowded and dulled by the sense of government sponsorship.

maitresse said...

I can't imagine mustering up enough energy to hate nuit blanche, but I felt very apathetic about it... maybe because it was my third one? but probably because although I have what I consider to be a healthy appreciation for art, the high-concept installations make me feel totally shut out from the contemporary art scene and derisive of those who are "in" it.

Anonymous said...

I've just read in Le Monde that the Goutte d'Or was the most successful Nuit Blanche district. Many of the other sites were deserted...

Anonymous said...

I didn't do Nuit Blanche things this year because I was working at the JPG thing (Meg, you passed by my blog so you know where I was at!). However, I did take a look at the program beforehand. What struck me was the lack of truly "populaire" things to do and the dominance of, as Maitresse pointed out, contemporary art.

This isn't that surprising given that the curators of the night were Nicolas Bourriaud and Jerome Sans, the former directors of Palais Tokyo, purveyors of the new breed of ironic and distanced contemporary art. While they do have pop sensibilities, they are also geniuses at uptight smirking. The events struck me as being a combination of some very interesting performances (I was curious in particular of Veilhan and Tellier's collaboration and Heinrich Luber), and some extremely boring wanky shit, not unlike the PalaisTok in its Sans-Bourriaud heyday.

But you know, the Nuit Blanche is not really interesting for les fetards. For us, it's just another night.

Next year's Nuit Blanche is apparently being curated by a director "de spectacle." I'm looking forward to open-air shouting and cinematic effects...

By the way, Regazzoni threw a party two years ago in his space that I managed to hear about. It was strange and fun... a real happening.

Lady K said...

I would have gone with you if I had been lucky enough to be in Paris! I'm always all in for contemporary art events. Though I'm sorry to hear about the depressing lines.

I don't think art and lines go together very well. Though being in Paris you could have had a whole bottle of wine in public while standing in line...

It's important not to structure art events too much. Fete de la musica in June was wild because it felt very unpredictable (hell, I came home with a bruised face and was totally drenched.) I liked that people could just start playing whatever kind of music, wherever they just happened to be and you could dance or sing a long if the moment struck you... Contemporary art should be like that too. As an artist you should be prepared to give your art-baby over to whatever experiences the viewer feels moved to... Putting a wall up between the art and the viewer takes away so much... I've always been surprised and inspired when I can secretly watch people interact with my own art. Well except for that guy who was only interested in paintings of trains... I wish him lots of bad art karma.

I V Y paris said...

Yup, i have to agree, it was kind of nul. I saw some good video at Chapelle Saint Severin but from there on it was downhill and my friends were too lazy to go to the goutte d'or which seemed like the best bet. we were stuck in the marais

Anonymous said...

As Parisian newbies the most original idea between us was to go to the Pompidou Centre... Although apparently they wont let you in with thirty bottles of beer in your backpack?

Le Meg said...

Huguenot, that's a damn shame. Bringing a backpack full of beer is a great way to make friends. Don't go changing...