Rivolitionary On Rivoli

photo: art squat, 59 rue de rivoli

Sandwiched between boutiques and department stores,
the Rivoli 'art squat.'

Consumer-Handy 'Art Squat'

Paris:- Wednesday, 31. January 2001:- In this city full of capital 'A,' capital 'R,' capital 'T' - what's it spell? Art. Welcome to 'Art' city supreme with a history of art to match.

Even in the nominal art capital of the world - mythically speaking - where one of the major local businesses is attracting visitors to look at art by the square metre, even buy art - antique, old, renaissance, masterful, expressionist, abstract, contemporary, modern; even 'avant-garde' - artists themselves are not appreciated much unless they've 'made it.'

Beginning artists can be self-taught. They can look at what they think they would like to do, and try to copy it. This is legal, but it is the hard way to do it.

The fast track to achievement is to attend an art school, where doing the same thing is institutionalized andphoto: squat stairway if an artist gets through the whole process successfully, they even get a diploma - plus maybe a lot of useful contacts for future art careers.

But in order to survive by making art, artists need a couple of essentials. First, they need a place to do art. Living in a cardboard box on the street with an easel is not the answer. It is low-rent too low.

Illegal art stairway exhibition inside the 'art squat.'

So, young artists, with or without diplomas in hand, need some place to do their trade. This requires finding a suitable atelier and rent money to pay for it. Not all beginning artists have this minimum necessary for this 'step one' - especially not in high-rent Paris.

About 150 years ago, Baron Haussmann was building beautiful boulevards in Paris for the newly rich to have fine avenues for their imposing apartment buildings. Many of the apartments in these buildings had lots of walls, and it was considered to be a sign of personal culture to have art covering the huge blank spaces.

Some of the bourgeois got themselves fancy mirrors and some got some art, also with fancy frames, and some got both. Some hid entire walls with it. This was very good for frame makers and artists, and a good number of them made decent livings filling up the blank spaces on walls.

To make things even more interesting, artists invented 'isms' for customers who didn't want any old art like their neighbors had, and this fed the market with enough variety to suit everybody's taste.

And, believe it or not, some well-heeled customers even went so far as to consider the working situations of artists - andphoto: squat view of rivoli selflessly financed the development of suitable properties that were designed as sort of low-rent living-working colonies for artists.

While some of these 'art' colonies built in the last century still exist in the city, they are such wonderful living units 'with character' that nobody ever gives them up, even if it is their grand-parents who have ceased to be artists.

View of the Rue de Rivoli from Caroline's illegal atelier.

Also, and possibly hard to believe, France's Ministry of Culture does not have bottomless pockets. It has to support many monuments and buildings and their staffs and budget for acquisitions - not necessarily from French artists - and from down about where the pocket-lint gathers, there may be a few sous left over for living artists, but not many.

The art colony-atelier era was long before the days of our 'nouveau riche' telephone operators, who shamelessly gouge their subscribers so that they can get zillions in excess capital in order to set up even more elaborate and technically avant-garde mobile telephone networks - all for the sole purpose of increasing their stock-market valuations.

And the telephone companies' friends, the banks, have been using some of the 'parked' money to buy up old buildings - in the hopes that some speculator will turn up, to turn them into running-shoe boutiques, mobile-phone shops and offices for the telephone companies.

In some cases, the banks will evict everybody from a building and then calmly leave it empty for years or decades while waiting for a buyer to turn up.

The 'new economy' doesn't have 'art' in its present or future. The future seems to consist solely of long-distance blabbing. There used to be some 'art' in face-to-face conversation, but TV mortally wounded it and talk-radio finished it off.

Television is presently in the process of digging its own grave - while applauding itself forphoto: squat artist caroline the achievement - so 'art' does have a chance for a come-back, as a sort of fringe novelty.

After all, artists are the only people who even remotely try to do anything new - simply to create 'new,' rather than to cash in on a two-cent rise in stock prices.

Although illegal, Caroline's atelier looks like an artist's workshop.

So, in some cases, artists - who may not have much respect for capital because they don't have any - illegally take over speculative and empty buildings nominally owned by banks and put them to use, as ateliers.

This has happened to the building at number 59, Rue de Rivoli, which is right in the middle of Paris and is right in the middle of a current frenzy of redevelopment of old buildings into huge new boutiques.

As artist and newspaper parlance puts it, it is called an 'art squat.' It is not the only one in Paris either. But since the other famous one opposite the former location of the Paris stock market was bricked up, this relatively new and highly visible one is the new focus of attention.

Its five or six floors are a mad-rabbit warren of contemporary artists' ateliers and it is open to the public - illegally. Everything about it is illegal, so it is not hamstrung by many rules or learned conservators.

Since it is composed of working spaces, it is not a gallery or a museum. But I imagine if youphoto: mirror ceiling, mr witch want to buy anything you see in it, it is for sale - directly from the artist, in person.

More than a little anarchy reigns inside the building which seems to be called 'Electron Libre.' Some artists' units are true working ateliers, while others are like on-going installations. Together they provide many surprises on every floor - some lurid, some highly amusing - in fact, there is nothing predictable anywhere in the place.

Repeated 'witch' motives identify the illegal atelier of glass artist 'Mr Witch.'

On the second floor there is a 'Musée Igor Balut' I have been directed to. It is hard to know where it stops, because it flows through several spaces. Without an astute guide, it is not easy to distinguish the difference between pure junk and artful and amusing 'installation' junk. Which it is, is in the beholder's eyes.

Visiting 'Electron Libre' requires climbing because the elevator has been transformed into an immobile installation in the entry on the ground floor. Taking the stairs is worthwhile because they are an exhibition space too - one that evolves from floor to floor.

Further upstairs I talk to 'Mr. Witch,' who had just come in with a load of fresh mirrors; to do some more mirror stuff - like the whole mirrored ceiling in his atelier, which is now an integral part of the building.

'Mr Witch,' also has - like many other ateliers here - recycled car seats for the temporarily weary. Oddly, all of these seem to be the rear seats scavenged from 1955 Austins - perhaps found in a dumpster after last years' Rétromobile show.

On the highest floor I find Caroline, who has been in the building four months, and who is anxious to continue painting, but takes a short break for my idle questions.

Her atelier overlooks the Rue de Rivoli and has good light from the north because of the high floor. Like all the other artists in the building she is very 'right now' because eviction is a constant menace.

Caroline has her atelier in the building because it is rent-free. If she has to move out, she will try to find another rent-free location - simply because she has no money for paying rent.

If all artists worried about rent first and art second, then there would be a serious shortage of newcomers to the business. Also, it seems to be a fact of today's life, that nobody cares about this except the artists in this situation. The renaissance has been over for some time.

On many floors radio music from different stations is blasting around and in an area on the second floor that seems like the building's cafeteria, a couple of guitarists are tuning up.

Through it all a constant trickle of visitors tramps, carefully sliding through the mazes of rooms, avoiding what may be fresh paint.

These visitors have brought 'Chez Robert, Electron Libre' to the media's attention. A head-counter comephoto: merci de ne pas avoir achete over from the Ministry of Culture - from further up Rivoli at Palais Royal - and the numbers toted up revealed that this illegal and unsanctioned 'art squat' is in third place in Paris for contemporary art, behind the national Pompidou Centre and the Jeu de Paume.

If the city's own contemporary art operations are added to the list, this 'art squat' takes a lower position on the hit-parade, but it is still in the top ten.

Satire and irony are featured on many signs inside the 'art squat.'

This must cause a bit of teeth-grinding, because this successful attendance is achieved without subsidies, infrastructure, mailing lists, other assorted experts like art historians and without any of the miscellaneous art bureaucracy. A 'no rent' operation in other words. Basically, it doesn't cost TV-addicted taxpayers a centime.

There is a rule in France that the eviction of tenants - illegal or not - cannot be conducted during the winter; which is deemed to end on 15. March.

There are hints of putting pressure - gentle! - on the bank that owns the building. If it has no buyers in sight it could be lenient - even, do the 'right thing,' and maybe sponsor the artists' rent. Would it be 'good' PR - and free! - for the bank?

What about the Ministry of Culture - is it happy that this wildcat operation may be siphoning off paid entries from its own high-rent operations?

But after all is considered, between the Tuileries and the Louvre on the Rue de Rivoli, and the city's own exhibition spaces in the Hôtel de Ville, there is a bit of a culture void in this part of town - now temporarily filled, for free.

One of the signs the artists' have made says, "C'est la Rivolition!" None of the big-bucks commercial establishments on this part of Rivoli have a better slogan.

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