The Null Device
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There's a new article in WIRED interviewing members of the French underground explorers/guerilla repairers/real-life troglodistes UX; i.e., the people who set up a secret, fully outfitted cinema in the Parisian catacombs and subsequently covertly repared the clock in the Panthéon (and then made the mistake of notifying the officials responsible for the building, who deliberately broke it again out of spite); this article, largely drawn from an interview with one Lazar Kunstmann, has some details about the origins of the movement, its motivations, and some of its techniques:
Thirty years ago, in the dead of night, a group of six Parisian teenagers pulled off what would prove to be a fateful theft. They met up at a small cafè near the Eiffel Tower to review their plans—again—before heading out into the dark. Lifting a grate from the street, they descended a ladder to a tunnel, an unlit concrete passageway carrying a cable off into the void. They followed the cable to its source: the basement of the ministry of telecommunications. Horizontal bars blocked their way, but the skinny teens all managed to wedge themselves through and ascend to the building’s ground floor. There they found three key rings in the security office and a logbook indicating that the guards were on their rounds. But the guards were nowhere to be seen. The six interlopers combed the building for hours, encountering no one, until they found what they were looking for at the bottom of a desk drawer—maps of the ministry’s citywide network of tunnels. They took one copy of each map, then returned the keys to the security office.
In some places, UX has been able to create covert connections between networks, using (among other tricks) an invention they call the rolling basin. This is a passage in the bottom of a tunnel that appears to be a grate with water under it; in fact, both grate and water are part of a movable tray on rollers. Voilà trapdoor to another tunnel in a different network. The tray itself is made of concrete, so even if someone raps it with a stick, it sounds solid.
So what does the group do with all this access? Among other things, it has mounted numerous clandestine theater productions and film festivals. On a typical festival evening, they screen at least two films that they feel share a nonobvious yet provocative connection. They don’t explain the connection, leaving it up to the audience to try to discover it. One summer, the group mounted a film festival devoted to the theme of “urban deserts”—the forgotten and underutilized spaces in a city. They naturally decided the ideal venue for such a festival would be in just such an abandoned site.Kunstmann has some quite scathing words about the officials notionally responsible for the preservation of France's historical and cultural patrimony, a duty which UX claim they've derelicted:
Kunstmann has a gloomy view of contemporary civilization, and in his eyes this affair illustrates many of its worst faults—its fatalism, complacency, ignorance, parochialism, and negligence. French officials, he says, bother to protect and restore only the patrimony adored by millions—the Louvre, for example. Lesser-known sites are neglected, and if they happen to be out of public view—underground, say—they disintegrate totally, even when all that’s needed is a hundred-dollar leak repair. UX tends the black sheep: the odd, the unloved, the forgotten artifacts of French civilization.
It seems that the problem is exacerbated by a culture of officiousness endemic to France's public service, where the purpose of an office is often overshadowed by the ego of the holder of the office and his (or hers, though, to be honest, usually his) need to stake out turf and engage in territorial pissing matches. Hence the neglect of anything not immediately prestigious and the active hostility to those who show up said official neglect by doing something about it.
UX have learned their lesson from the Panthéon incident; since then, they claim to have repaired some 15 other sites, though have kept the details secret:
I ask him to elaborate on their choice of projects. “We can say very little,” he replies, “because to describe the sites even a bit can give away their location.” That said, one site is “belowground, in the south of Paris, not very far from here. It was discovered relatively recently but elicited very strong interest. It totally contradicts the history of the building above it. In examining what’s belowground, one notices that it doesn’t correspond to the information one can obtain about the history of the site. It’s history in reverse, in a way; the site was dedicated to an activity, structures were placed there, but in fact the site had been dedicated to this activity for quite a long time.”
The UX, the secretive Parisian underground exploration group which built an underground cinema in the city's labyrinthian catacombs, pulled off an even more impressive feat last year: breaking into the Panthéon and surreptitiously repairing its clock, all without the authorities knowing about it:
Getting into the building was the easiest part, according to Klausmann. The squad allowed themselves to be locked into the Panthéon one night, and then identified a side entrance near some stairs leading up to their future hiding place. "Opening a lock is the easiest thing for a clockmaker," said Klausmann. From then on, they sneaked in day or night under the unsuspecting noses of the Panthéon's officials.
The hardest part of the scheme was carrying up the planks used to make chairs and tables to furnish the Untergunther's cosy squat cum workshop, which has sweeping views over Paris.
The group managed to connect the hideaway to the electricity grid and install a computer connected to the net.Neither the Panthéon's staff nor the authorities noticed anything until the UX's surreptitious restoration cell, the Untergunther, notified them of what they had done. The officials, being officials, didn't appreciate the act; the administrator of the Panthéon was sacked, and the state initiated legal action against the restorers. The group has recently been cleared of any wrongdoing, and is working on another secret restoration mission.
But the UX, the name of Untergunther's parent organisation, is a finely tuned organisation. It has around 150 members and is divided into separate groups, which specialise in different activities ranging from getting into buildings after dark to setting up cultural events. Untergunther is the restoration cell of the network.
Members know Paris intimately. Many of them were students in the Latin Quarter in the 80s and 90s, when it was popular to have secret parties in Paris's network of tunnels. They have now grown up and become nurses or lawyers, but still have a taste for the capital's underworld, and they now have more than just partying on their mind.And here and here is more about the UX and Untergunther. (It is not clear how these groups are related to "La Mexicaine de Perforation", the group credited with the underground cinema uncovered in 2004.)
I wonder how much of an inspiration those secret catacomb parties of the 1980s were on the characters of the "troglodistes", the sewer-dwelling guerilla frogmen in Jeunet and Caro's film Delicatessen.
(via Boing Boing)
The French underground explorers/guerilla art collective responsible for the recently discovered underground cinema speak to the Graun:
Huddled round a table in an anonymous Latin Quarter bar, the group's members - of whom only Lazar wanted to be named - relate past exploits: rock concerts for up to 4,000 people in old underground quarries; 2am projections in a locked film theatre; art and photo exhibitions in supposedly sealed-off subterranean galleries.
The Chaillot underground cinema is now definitively closed, even to a drill-toting and determined urban explorer. But even if the Paris police may have reluctantly (and with considerable embarrassment) decided its builders were neither terrorists, neo-Nazis nor satanists, they would very much like to charge them with some offence. "As far as we know, they've been reduced to going for theft of electricity," said Lazar. "However, we covered our tracks so well that the electricity board has apparently told them that short of digging up every cable in the district there's no way of knowing where we took it from. But they're not happy. They've seen a tiny fraction of what we do, and it's a big deal for them."
Police in Paris have stumbled across a secret underground cinema in the catacombs. The fully outfitted cinema was protected by a sophisticated alarm system and adorned with symbols including swastikas and stars of David. Its stock of film turned out to be mostly 1950s film noir, with nothing illegal or even offensive.
"The whole thing ran off a professionally installed electricity system and there were at least three phone lines down there." Three days later, when the police returned accompanied by experts from the French electricity board to see where the power was coming from, the phone and electricity lines had been cut and a note was lying in the middle of the floor: "Do not," it said, "try to find us."
There is an extensive network of catacombs under Paris, most of which is off-limits to the public, though frequented by groups of "cataphiles", who sound somewhere between the Cave Clan and the troglodistes in the film Delicatessen.
The recent discovery of three newly enlarged tunnels underneath the capital's high-security La Santé prison was put down to the activities of one such group, and another, iden tifying itself as the Perforating Mexicans, last night told French radio the subterranean cinema was its work.
Patrick Alk, a photographer who has published a book on the urban underground exploration movement and claims to be close to the group, told RTL radio the cavern's discovery was "a shame, but not the end of the world". There were "a dozen more where that one came from," he said. "You guys have no idea what's down there."