Tuesday 26 April 2011

Accidental Art: the malfunction

A recent addition to the furniture of the Paris Metro has been the installation of electronic advertising screens. Although they throw light down the gloomy corridors, they also peddle the same asinine messages as the more traditional forms of underground publicity but in a more invasive manner, a fact that initially lead certain Metro users to smash the screens.

However, could electrical glitches provide a more interesting alternative to brute force? In this corner of the subterranean system, a gremlin in the machine has transformed the messages into abstract forms and Mondrianesque coloured grids. A moment of artistic grace before the repairman resumes normal service.

Here the effect seems to be accidental, but will such electronic graffiti be possible in the future? The results would certainly be worth looking out for!

Saturday 16 April 2011

City Snapshots: The Escape

Even the most ardent city lover has to get away sometimes. To a place where the sun feels warm, not oppressive. Where breezes smell sweet and not full of dust. Where the night sky is a black sheet dotted with thousands of tiny pin pricks of light, not something hidden behind an neon-orange glow. A place where horizons expand out of sight, across fields and oceans, where dreams are not contained or crushed by concrete and asphalt.

But the city always calls you back. The electric buzz hums down the line, and time ticks back around to its normal rhythms.

The track that takes you out of the city is the same one that brings you back home.

Thursday 14 April 2011

The strange world of the Palais des Congrès

Within the city of Paris are several other micro-cities. One of these, a universe for the travelling salesman, is the Palais des Congrès at Porte Maillot.

The original structure, the exhibition halls and skyscraping Concorde-Lafayette hotel, were designed by Guillaume Gillet, an architect who had made his name building prisons and religious structures. Whether by accident or design, its labyrinth underground passages, curving concrete walls and surrounding racetrack roads have given it a certain fortress feel.

Indeed, the first problem when approaching this structure is how to get inside. There is seemingly no clear entrance. The architect Christian de Portzamparc gave the structure a more modern twist in 1998, but his juttering façade is no more accessible than the previous layout. Stand in the little park in the roundabout opposite the building, and you will see groups of people trying to cut through tiny gaps in the incessant traffic. Few succeed, with the rest being forced to negotiate the underground passageways.

Once inside, the building is no more welcoming. It is the architecural equivilent of a set of Russian dolls. The concrete exterior hides conference halls, ampitheatres, shopping centres and cinemas. Beneath and behind these, the truly hidden – the delivery roads, back stage areas and utility zones that help the building to function.

The building sends visitors through its intestines according to very curious flows. The shopping arcade is a double ring of depressing Dantesque spirals lit only by a neon glow. The tedium of the circuit is broken by empty supermarkets and cafes that look like glass enclosures in a zoo. The exhibition halls and conference facilities are reached via an endless series of escalators. When empty, these are vast caverns that echo to a chorus of vacuum cleaners. It would be easy to get completely lost in this world.

This universe has come to resemble a rich person’s ghetto. The official website for the boutiques describes the stores as “luxe et haut de gamme”, and it is probably the only shopping centre I have ever visited that has carpets. However, there are also very few clients. Visitors - and everyone here seems to be purely a visitor - wander aimlessly, with no purpose beyond killing time before the next events or their flights home. Miniature Ferrari race cars sit outside toy shops, but no children are here to see them.

A domain of Non-Places
In 1992, French sociologist Marc Augé published ‘Non-Lieux’ (Non-Places), a book which chronicled and investigated the rise in dead spaces in modern society. The Palais de Congrès is filled with these personality-free zones that people move through but never appropriate. Some of them have seemingly been forgotten. Stairwells that lead nowhere, a disused post office counter, hidden nightclubs and long corridors that illuminate only their own emptiness. These are shapeless, temporary facilities, existing outside of the urban fabric of the city.

On giant electronic boards, the perplexing titles of professional exhibitions. The Congrès français des chirurgiens esthétiques plasticiens and the 10th World Inflammation Congress. The European toxicology conference and Euro PCR. Temporary installations bringing people from all over the world together in this anonymous shared space.

If delegates stay at the massive hotel Concorde-Lafayette they need never leave the building. A dedicated entrance leads straight to the Palais de Congrès where they'll find their conference. They can eat, drink and shop in the gallery, and even watch a show or a film. Paris will be what they find inside these walls, the view from their hotel window and the souvenirs they find here to take back home.

Sunday 10 April 2011

A look back on Obscura Day

The Paris Obscura Day events seemed to go really well yesterday, but as I was running both of them, the experience for me was more a mixture of stress and adrenaline, and the whole thing seemed to be over far too quickly.

I was very happy to meet many interesting people at the events, and I think the biggest part of such a day is these encounters. I'm also very happy to see that some of these participants have now chosen to write about the day on their blogs, and often to expand and develop the subjects discussed at the event.

Jill (Landscape Lover) is a landscape historian and garden designer, so it has been fascinating to read her take on the visit to the Jardin d'Agronomie Tropicale.

Lillian also noted one of the key questions that the garden poses to visitors.

Peter has, as usual, prepared a very complete post on the event, including archive pictures, before and after shots and even a snap of me in action!

If anyone else has posted text or pictures, please let me know.

I was really pleased with the installation we had created and set up at the 'Night Garden' evening event too. For those who were there - and those who weren't - Shane Lynam has now put his photos of the Jardin d'Agronomie Tropicale on his website. Shane is currently doing an MA in Documentary Photography, and the theme he is working on - the point where the city ends and the wilderness begins - found an echo in this garden.

The sound recordings Des Coulam made at the jardin, which were played throughout the evening event, were edited down to a manageable length, but are difficult to share online. He has though put together a great post with sound extracts from the jardin and from the evening event on his website. We also plan to create an online version of the installation soon!

Thanks then to everyone who came and supported the events, and to those who helped them get off the ground, particularly Shane and Des, and Forest and Kim for the evening event (as well of course to Emporer Norton for the food and to Helen for running the bar). Special thanks also to the sun for shining so brightly!

Saturday 2 April 2011

La Chapelle de la Compassion - X marks the spot?

The Chapelle de la Compassion at Porte Maillot is curiously positioned between a coach park, the périphérique motorway and a busy roundabout, but the story as to how it found itself here is more curious still.

In 1842, the Prince Ferdinand-Philippe d'Orleans was killed in an accident near this spot, falling from his carriage after his horses had bolted. It was decided that a chapel should be built on the exact place of his death, a shop called the Epicerie Cordier where he was taken immediately following the accident. The chapel in the shape of a Greek cross, originally known as the Chapelle Saint Ferdinand, was built on this plot, but it's not clear what happened to the shopkeeper and his store!

However, although the chapel we see today is the original building, it has now moved around 100 metres from the position in which it was initially situated. When work began on the large-scale developments in this area in the 1960s - the motorway, the underground passageways, the Palais de Congrès, it was found to be particularly poorly situated. With the French Royal family having limited importance, its move a little to the North met with almost no opposition.

This building in the shape of a cross therefore still marks a spot, but not the one it was originally designed for!
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