Friday May 29th, 2009

A Truly Underground Movement

La Culture en clandestins. L’UX by “Lazar Kunstmann”
Hazan, 200 pp., 18€
Upon a hill in Paris’s Latin Quarter sits the monumental Panthéon, a tomb for storied Frenchmen. One evening three Septembers ago, six uninvited visitors unlocked door after door on their way to the vaulted catwalk that rings the interior of the building’s central dome, where they crafted a base. They wired the space for electricity and Internet and hauled up a small library, a computer, a dining-room table, a hotplate, a stocked minibar, armchairs and assorted tools. Over the following year, these men and women spent nearly all their free time there disassembling, cleaning and restoring the building’s superlative six-foot-tall clock, an 1850 Wagner that hadn’t chimed for decades (the building’s administrators had wearied of winding it once a week) and faced an imminent death by rust. The restorers came and went, by day and night, unnoticed. They received mail.

The restoration, revealed by accident after its completion, flummoxed the French media. Was this clock enthusiasm gone wild? A thrill-seeking prank? A scheme to embarrass or even subvert government? How many other operations had the group carried out? Who was the group? A fascinating new memoir (only available in French for now, alas) by its pseudonymous spokesman, “Lazar Kunstmann,” offers answers, deeper mysteries and numerous such tales of plucky infiltration. Most are unverifiable, especially because he has camouflaged details. (It is undeniable that they fixed the Panthéon’s clock.) That said, I find myself seduced, eager to believe he writes the truth.

Why did they fix this particular clock, just one of many rusting to ruin all over Paris? It is an unusual mechanism — when it works, it announces time to the building’s interior, rare for a monumental clock. And whom does it hector with its chimes? The dead! Men utterly indifferent to time. More importantly, as the forty-ish Kunstmann advised me over a beer, consider its symbolic importance: It was in the Latin Quarter that Paris’ first Roman settlers bivouacked, that most of the country’s golden ages concentrated, that Abelard established his school, that the Sorbonne and the Collège de France were founded, that Pasteur performed the first human vaccination, and that the Curies made their radioactivity discoveries. Here, in a nation that once dominated world culture lay its capital, at the city’s heart lay a neighborhood, at the neighborhood’s heart lay a building, at the building’s heart lay a clock, and the clock had stopped ticking.

Kunstmann believes, simply put, that France itself has rusted to a stop. Who outside its borders can name a contemporary French poet, musician or scientist? Kunstmann lays acid blame on the country’s consumerism (“We say that today animals are mistreated, but cows we force-feed that never touch their feet to the ground, who do nothing but eat and evacuate, and are eaten afterwards, are very close to the humans who eat them”), but especially on its bureaucratic mindset: “Everything here is designed so there’ll be the least movement possible inside something, everything’s padlocked.” The Panthéon’s director had once been asked why his building’s clock didn’t function; he replied, “What clock?” Years ago, Kunstmann writes, experts proposed to fix all the government’s antique clocks, gratis. They’ve yet to receive any response. In such a climate, “People self-censor rather than have individual ideas. Someone has an idea, and if he doesn’t think he’ll obtain popular approval, he keeps it to himself.” (Many of Kunstmann’s theories didn’t make it into this slim book, so I quote liberally from my conversations with him, which took place in Paris and by e-mail at a time when I was considering publishing a magazine article on the group.)

Kunstmann and his compatriots don’t believe in waiting for permission, so they almost always operate secretly, out of sight. They continually improve and make use of Paris’s many unused and underused spaces, especially its vast subterranean network of tunnels, caves and abandoned basements. They dig out new interconnections. They add gardens to provide oxygen. They’ve fixed up underground rooms as auditoriums for film festivals. They’ve done midnight theater inside government buildings. Anything and everything, as long as it interests them and is “positive, apolitical, benevolent” and realizable.

Operating isn’t as easy as it used to be. The police now regularly patrol underground. Nonetheless, the group manages to thrive, owing mostly to the know-how (detailed in part in the book) that they’ve built up over 28 years of existence. They keep documentation of all their activities, “more than the KGB has on its [own],” which seems surprising for an organization so devoted to spontaneity. “Consider the first Spanish explorers to arrive in Latin America,” Kunstmann explains. “They had steel, yes, that helped, but the more important reason for their success was they had military libraries. They knew every dirty trick you could pull on the battlefield, because they’d read them.”

The group calls itself UX (for “Urban eXperiment”). It began as three bored middle-school students sneaking underground, and slowly evolved into today’s diverse organization, which is broken into cells by skill – cartography, infiltration, tunneling, masonry, internal communications, archiving, restoration, cultural programming. They are men and women (the infiltration group is all female) of various ages and motivations. They devote a good deal of spare cash and nearly all their spare hours to the cause, spending more time on it than on their day jobs – as architects, journalists, historians, nurses, lawyers; one is a rock driller, another is a state prosecutor, Kunstmann is a film editor. Nearly all of their friends are from within the group. It resembles a commune, though the members circulate in society and don’t live together.

UX arguably belongs to a certain, largely French tradition of artistic collectives influenced by neo-Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre’s famous 1947 critique of modern society as overly bureaucratic, technocratic, specialized, hedonistic, and isolated. It’s a tradition that includes CoBrA, the Lettrist International, and the Situationist International, but UX departs from these groups in some crucial ways. Most provocatively, UX contests the notion that artists can change society, or even the art world. Whereas the Situationist International declared, “We should not reject the contemporary culture but negate it,” Kunstmann seems to regard this as vanity, posturing or ignorance. “If things change, in the French or global cultural world, we won’t have been the cause, it will have been larger social phenomena, an evolution in thinking caused by larger phenomena,” he says. As if to prove his point, the French media have wildly misinterpreted UX’s doings; the French government has hounded them with frivolous lawsuits, declined to better restore its crumbling patrimony, and stubbornly refused to improve its buildings’ security or even to wind the Panthéon’s now-functional clock.

UX is not out to escape, subvert, or change society, Kunstmann says, but simply to enrich life in it. “Our approach is not to replace something that already exists, or to say ‘This thing here, we’re going to do it better.’ Here in the cultural landscape, there are things that already exist, some good, others less good. Everyone’s persuaded that that’s all there is. They endlessly debate which are good and which are bad. We’re persuaded that among those things not being done, some would be very positive.”

What it is they do remains mostly mysterious, 99% of it totally unknown, according to Kunstmann. Seeing many advantages to secrecy and few to publicity, he only details projects that have inadvertently become public, especially when it comes to their restorations, which he fears could be looted or vandalized if he gave away their locations (most lie below ground, unguarded). The same anonymity that dooms sites to degradation also protects them once they’ve been restored. He says all their restorations are done as minimally and expertly as possible, some with the help of specialists that have been quietly recruited. Often it’s as simple a matter as repairing a leaky roof threatening to flood a room. Kunstmann says they have undertaken over a dozen projects, each requiring one to two years of work, and that these have included a medieval crypt, a World War II bunker and an abandoned power substation.

Knowing this much doesn’t permit us to ascertain possibly deeper motives, of course, so I begged him for a clue. He offered this about a recent project: “It’s below ground, in the south of Paris, not far from here. The site was discovered recently, but it elicited very strong interest. It totally contradicts the history of the building above it. It doesn’t at all correspond to the information one can obtain about the history of the site. The site is devoted to an activity, structures were placed there, but in fact the site had [already] been devoted to this activity for quite a long time.” Kunstmann smiles as he watches my mind race through possible sites. Did Saint-Sulpice, whose interior celebrates the Virgin Mary, once house a brothel in its crypt? Did counterfeiters once operate out of the basement of the Paris Mint? All he’ll add is, “It’s history in reverse.”

If Kunstmann is so allergic to publicity, why has he published a memoir? He told me, “Well, I believe that publicity could prevent the misfortune of someone saying, ‘One can’t do that, it would be great if one could, but it’s impossible.’ At the very least, when someone does it, when one sees things have been done, one can no longer say to oneself it’s impossible. One says, ‘Ah yes, it’s true, one can do that.’ Then the question is totally different, it’s ‘Is it good to do that or not?’”

Jon Lackman has written for Slate and Harper’s. He is completing his PhD dissertation on invective in nineteenth-century French art criticism and is the editor of