Drifting through Paris: an artistic urban adventure

by Connor Newson

Paris: a bustling hub of art and intellect, a foundation for Parisian Dadaism and the Situationist International; home to the École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq and the Theatre du Soleil; an urban canvas for beautiful and ugly sprays, paints and tags, seemingly random and yet logically intrusive.

Buskers, artists and dancers play on the streets, locals passively observe or collaborate along the Seine banks. Parisian creativity and political theory has given the capital such reputation throughout the years and as a result, Paris has become an internationally recognised city for progressive contemporary European art and theatre. One thing that struck my intrigue with Paris is the strength of subcultural activity within, and even underneath the city. Guy Debord, whilst being part of the Letterist International which went on to form the Situationist International in 1957, put forward his Theory of Dérive in 1956, which is essentially the act of dropping everyday activities to drift (dérive) around the urban environment, to allow yourself to be drawn to whatever encounters and attractions you feel.

A dérive is a way to subvert the preconceived hegemonic functionalities of urban space in order to discover an authentic experience of the city, with all of its raw creative and social happenings.

And so with the anticipation to drift around Paris, it was a relief to have arrived in Bercy after enduring a ten hour coach ride from London, whereby I and other passengers were briefly subject to being interrogated by the wet noses of police dogs. Despite this, I took the opportunity to sleep through the journey as much as possible knowing that it was probably going to be the most comfortable ride for a while before hitchhiking across Europe with my companion, Jean Bourzeix. However, for now we had the convenience of staying at Jean’s grandparents’ luxurious apartment on Boulevard Saint-Michel, with a beautiful view of the Jardins de Luxembourg and the Eiffel Tower from the balcony.

With a bed assured for a week, my thoughts were then of stepping into the streets and observing the many metropolitan voices that manifest through the walls, streets and rooms of the city. We set off towards the Centre Pompidou gallery to see Louis Stettner’s latest exhibition Here and There, which featured a composition of photographs taken in Paris and New York from 1946 to the modern day. His intention was to depict the evolution of both cities and their inhabitants whereby time acts as an indication of value. The portrayal of two different moments in time allows for an examination into the importance that a place, person, or epoch has over time. The content of Stettner’s photographs shows his ability to capture the raw and sensitive nature of urban life in post war Paris and the working class as he drifted through both cities.

Through Stettner’s vision the worker is wonderfully aesthetic, he goes about collapsing the cliché of the worker being seen as a brute. Instead, the faces of his subjects are detailed, emotional and poetic, with a story to be imagined in every monochromatic photograph that brought to life the past of both cities.

The next day we decided to check out an abstract photoart and sculpture installation by John Beech at the Galerie Filles de Calvaire. As we entered the silence of a small two-story white studio, we were greeted by staff who gave us some information on Beech’s agenda. Beech’s photography is of the urban space: bins, dumpsters, and similar objects, and so his action of exploring the urban can be seen to be in a similar style of a dérive. This temporality of the artist’s initial photograph is combined with a second temporality of adding a layer of paint on the surface. In essence, Beech aims to obscure the vision of the spectator by layering the surface of a canvas photograph with paint in order to not only draw attention to detail of the overlooked urban object, but to also redefine the piece as something unique. It was an interesting installation that seemed pompous and pretentious on the surface (not helped by pricing a photocanvas with paint at 19,000€), however my opinion changed as we spent the time trying to understand the artist’s intention.

In the end it was a worthwhile installation to bear witness too, however I was eager for more spontaneity. And so we set out drifting through the city, following no specific route, aiming for no specific destination. We came across beautiful and sometimes quirky Parisian architecture, had mint tea inside the Great Mosque of Paris, encountered street art on every corner, and wandered into random buildings.

Our dérive in Paris culminated in a spontaneous quest to discover a rooftop sunset only heard of in fairytales. It was at the sixth floor of an apartment building on Saint-Michel when we looked out of a window at the long drop that promised death if any attempt was made to scale the building. And so, with our hopes of reaching higher altitude gently shattered, we turned and headed for the stairwell. To which point I noticed Jean’s gaze directed upwards; an attic door hovered above. A strategically placed ladder hung on the adjacent wall. We assembled the ladder and climbed, kicking our shoes from our feet as we opened the two doors, revealing a heavy steel and glass window. Without hesitation Jean carried on through and I followed, squeezing through the small gap and unveiling a concoction of bright burning colours, as the sun set behind the Eiffel Tower. A picturesque end, to an artistic urban adventure.

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