Built in 1843 as one of the outposts of the 'enceinte de Thiers' fortifications that were supposed to protect Paris but never did, the Fort d'Aubervilliers has long been a mysterious space in the city's north-eastern suburbs. Originally a military base, it has since been a somewhat dubious laboratory and most recently a vehicle scrap yard. With the latest occupiers freshly abandoning the site, it has finally opened a window of opportunity for public visits before the fort is once again transformed to fit another purpose. This occasion has been grabbed by local authorities who invited the Art en Ville association to run a two-month long In Situ festival bringing together 40 urban artists from across the world. The result is a huge splash of colour in this semi-abandoned brownfield site, and an event that should not be missed.
Somewhat strangely for a defensive structure, the Fort d'Aubervilliers is not very easy to spot as you approach. The choice of position was strategic - on one of the main routes towards Belgium and Germany - but ironically the only real military use it saw was as a base for the invading Prussian and German armies it was supposed to defend against. Today it is overlooked by a small copse of neighbouring tower blocks, and is slowly being overrun by vegetation.
There are still a number of indistinct buildings on the site, their supports rusting and their roofs collapsing, but these will shortly be pulled to the ground. Before they go though, they are experiencing one final swansong - as supports and canvases for a collective of artists.
It's difficult to imagine a better location for these creations. The site spreads over more than two hectares, and for those used to the density of Paris it is extremely refreshing to find so much space serving such little purpose. The crumbling walls of the buildings and the alcoves of the old defensive walls seem almost designed to accomodate the creations, and it is easy to imagine the pleasure the artists must have taken in working here.
The artists though must have no sentimentality about their creations. The theme suggested to the participants was 'transitions', with the history of the site and its possible future put forward as inspiration. Fully aware that they are representing a very brief period in the existence of the fort, they have also accepted that almost nothing will leave the site at the end of the festival. Most of the murals, grafitti and installations will be demolished, along with the buildings on which they are displayed.
For most of the local residents, the fort has long been synonymous with cars. Although very few people ever entered the fort, they lived within sight, sound and smell of one of the largest sites in the Paris region for smashed up, burned out and written off vehicles. It is therefore unsurprising that a large part of the festival should be centred around cars and vans.
Elsewhere themes are less obvious, with Jana & JS still pasting up their rather banal characters and Jef l'Aerosol's rock star stencils not getting any younger. One exception though is Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada's huge 1400m² creation which covers most of the old car park. Almost invisible at ground level, it is only when seen from above that a woman's face becomes clear. This is not just any portrait though, but rather a picture of a well-known figure in the area, a woman who has dedicated much of her life to local associations in Aubervilliers.
It is not the creations of individual artists here though that is important, but rather the effect created by the works as a whole. The interest of the festival is the contrast between old and new, mineral and vegetable, inside and outside. Unlike a museum or gallery which strives to be as invisible as possible to better highlight the art it shelters, the fort d'Aubervilliers remains a living space. The art catches the eye, but the mind drifts to what the space once was, and what it may look like in the future.
This future is close by, although many other projects have come and gone in recent decades. In 2025, the fort is scheduled to form one of the key cogs in the new Grand Paris machine, a transport interchange and a large zone incorporating a new eco-city and a site dedicated to cultural creation. If such development has been a long time coming though, it is largely because of the fort's 20th century toxic past.
The artists seem to make no reference to this particular chapter in the site's existence, but between 1920 and 1930, Frédéric et Irène Joliot-Curie conducted experiments on radium-226 salts in the fort. Later, the French government also used the site to test radioactive materials ahead of nuclear tests carried out in the Algerian desert. Both activities - remaining top secret until comparatively recently - heavily polluted the site.
Visitors today though need not bring masks and geiger counters. The site was depolluted at the beginning of the century, and the fort is now as inoffensive as it has ever been in its 170 year history. If there is one criticism of the festival it is perhaps the fact that on a site that has seen war, destruction and extreme pollution there should be so little menace and provocation in the creations, but then this does make the event and the location an excellent family day out. There is even a buvette selling snacks and refreshments!
In Situ Arts Festival
Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays until July 14th.
2.00pm - 7.30pm
M° Fort d'Aubervilliers