Fête In Les Frigos

photo: escalier b, frigos

All who enter here, get ready for graffiti and art
and more graffiti.

Art On Ice

Paris:- Saturday, 9. June 2001:- Since Wednesday's failure of a crawl through upscale art galleries in the area of the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré was a kind of flop - okay, a total flop, a complete waste of time! - I have been considering just taking it easy, instead of making something up out of thin air.

Last night's little tour didn't net much either. There are all these block parties, gallery shows - all sorts of things going on before Paris closes down its spring season - and I am too lazy to do anything about it. Maybe without knowing it I am 'closing down' too.

But in today's Le Parisien there's a note about 'Les Frigos' having 'open doors. Aha! I exclaim. Last year - alsophoto: frigo open door poster on a Saturday - in the dead-centre of August, I passed by 'Les Frigos' - the SNCF's old cold-storage place at Tolbiac - and the building impressed me.

It looked like some sort of dungeon out of one of the grimmer parts of the middle ages, with a mediaeval part tacked on. It is the sort of place that could make you nervous to walk past in daylight.

This is why I get to it before dark. The action in the vacant lot in front of it seems to be harmless, with a few 21st century 'hippies' batting about its big, raggedy space. Space is what it has a lot more of than anything else. And quite a few weeds too. You know I don't like techno, but this place needs some.

A couple of beeves are keeping cars out of the Frigos parking lot - which has new asphalt on the back sides. Halfway down the entry road there's a new metal ladder of stairs, which offers the only access on foot to the building.

I decide to tackle the main part and leave the mediaeval end for the way out. So, hip, hop, up onto a loading dock, to the porch of Escalier 'B.'

This is where the 'Frigos' experience begins. If you think Paris is disfigured by graffiti, the Frigosphoto: steam engine, frigos actually are improved by it. When graffiti disappears from Paris' walls, it ends up here. It's like the Père Lachaise of graffiti.

Starting with the outside wall around the entry to Escalier 'B' there is graffiti on top of graffiti. Inside, only a large set of metal post boxes have been spared. Inside the dimness starts, and the graffiti is on the floor, on the walls, on the ceilings, on itself.

One of the world's few cold-storage facilities with a steam engine.

The ceiling is high so there's lots of room for gloom. There are lights, just enough of them - but these are only enough for bat-like navigation. Some of the graffiti is done in silver paint. It helps. As much as it would on Halloween in November.

First doorway on the right - I see black slabs inside the space. Maybe coffin lids. The door opposite has something unusual, round, like the rim of a blind mono-eye. This has a lid too, hinged of the right.

Going in, looking closer, I see it is on rails. Railroad-type rails. Move to the left, and a whole steam-train engine with four or five big wheels, plus tender attached, stretches off into the dim distance. It is the 'TY2,' once used for hauling people to the east - somehow recovered or stolen by the Résistance, and stashed here - now high and dry, with its rails cut off from the Tobliac railyards. Eerie.

There are supposed to be 250 artists, musicians, photographers, sculptors, modelers, piano tuners, film makers, recording studios, broadcasting stations - everything - spread over five floors - reduced from two other buildings, the demolished 'Mitjaville' and 'Maison Rouge.'

Legend has it that it was discovered by jazzmen in 1980 and developed to become Paris' number one 'art squat,' except that the first tenants rented their space from the SNCF - technically making everything kosher and legal.

But it is located in the middle of the 'ZAC Paris Rive Gauche,' which means it is in the centre of the speculating concrete crazies who want to 'ZAC' everything human in sight. Ten years ago thephoto: staircase landing, frigos mayor of the 13th arrondissement tried to stick the tenants of the Frigos in the grain-storage towers of the 'Grands Moulins' down the quay a bit - but nobody wants these.

The ground floor gives way to a circular staircase that winds up a tower to the fifth floor and I go up all the way, only getting the serious staggers between four and five.

A hallway leading to the spiral staircase in the tower - with its graffiti of course.

Ex-cold storage lockers are pretty good as ateliers, once you get past their cold-storage doors. These are thick, huge and original. Many of the ateliers have fairly large windows too, and some tenants have sinks and baths, small stoves - what the place really lacks is central heating. It probably has 'central-freezing' but I don't know if this still works.

The ateliers are large. Some walls have been put in, and getting into some ateliers is a bit maze-like. Once in, you can go around a wall's end and come out somewhere else.

Some ateliers are big and clean and neat and it is obvious they are living spaces, and others are pure work spaces. Some are like skid-row canteens or music clubs.

After all of them, it is back to the hallways, which are about four metres wide and maybe six or eight metres high. It seems like on every other floor the graffiti people have been called in for the decorating needs, but on one floor I see some of the artists' motives overlaid on the jungle of background scribble.

I don't want to be the first to say it but the graffiti alone is worth a visit. Phantasmagoric is the only word for it. As in, being about two millimetres high, inside your own stomach, with dying batteries in your flashlight.

Down about the third floor I amphoto: les frigos starting to feel sensory overload. There are other people on tour too but the place seems to be bigger than Galeries Lafayette, but without the duty-free export department.

Is it 'eye-candy' or an optical nightmare?

Down on the entry porch I am stopped from entering 'Escalier 'A' or 'C' and am told I can visit the mediaeval part, but my fuses are blown. On the ground I go around the corner, where there is a fenced off area between the Frigos and the street.

Here is the outdoor terrace with weeds between the cobbles - under the fronds, in a bar called a grass shack. A bit beyond some theatre seats line a wall of the Frigos, giving a view of the entries to the jazz club, under arches that are under the Rue de Tolbiac. Some empty wooden cable- wheels are used as tables.

After I've had my look, I poke my nose into a smaller room that is crammed full of various types of pianos and a quartet of Spanish piano tuners. "Come in and look around," they say.

Ah, man. The pianos are too much. Like upstairs somewhere, there's an atelier full of music robots. Chock full of machinery, organ pipes, pulleys, solenoids, cables, string-pickers and strings, with cables all over the place and old computer monitors, and PC boxes numbered 'four' and 'five,' and a room full of what else.

You stand in there, somewhere within this stuff because it's all around, and one of them plays four notes for three seconds and stops. Just when you think it's over another one does its bit. Whir, clack, plunk, plunk, boing.

If you can find the south side of the Pont de Tolbiac, you will be able to see the Frigos. The address usedphoto: hallway, frigos to be 91. Quai de la Gare. Technically it is the Quai Panhard & Levassor, which is what it really is because my map is pretty old and this is the name on it.

But really, the entry is at number 1 or 3. Rue de Tolbiac. This is now the Rue 'Neuve' Tolbiac. Take my word for it, it is the same old street. When you see the tower, you are looking at the Frigos' staircase. It's the only tower around, and it can't be mistaken for all the construction cranes.

Mediaeval monastry crossed with Catherine's astro tower - 'Les Frigos.'

You may think a place like the Frigos is too weird for Paris. I'll tell you though, the RATP built a brand new métro line almost right to it. Yessir, the ultra new métro line 14's Hyper-Grande Bibliothèque stop is closer to the Frigos than it is to the monster library.

Tune in 88.2 on your FM dial for regular and live jazz broadcasts from the Frigos. As this is written the Les Frigos Web site is no functionar. It's probably stuck in the freight elevator.

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