Monday, 8 October 2012
Paname: the city that wants to go to sleep
I've been going to Nuit Blanche almost as long as I've been going to Paris. I've seen the all-night arts extravaganza evolve from something resembling more of a weekend music festival to its most recent incarnation as a Paris open house meets artist film fest. In 2008, I saw Ryoji Ikeda's spectra [paris], still one of the most immensely engaging installations I've ever experienced. 2010 stands out as the best Nuit Blanche ever, ever, ever: from 7am to 7pm, we wandered around the city in a daze of wonder (possibly exhaustion) from one dream-like piece to the next. In the courtyard of the Hôtel d'Albret, some friendly volunteers even served coffee and croissants to us hardy souls who were still awake at 7am after Fayçal Baghriche's 300 alarm clocks all went off, marking the close of that year's festivities.
Last year, though, things to a marked turn for the worse. Who knows what happened exactly, maybe the money just ran out or perhaps Paris lost interest, but the 2011 Nuit Blanche was the worst I'd ever been to. If you're putting on an all-night arts fest in a city whose inhabitants don't start glassing people at 3am after, you need to consider the rhythm of the thing. The hardest bit is the 3-5am mark when enthusiasm wanes and bed beckons. Part of what made 2010 so great was that the balance was just right: there were plenty of show-stoppers; lots and lots of smaller pieces hidden across the city; and plenty of interesting films in the lecture halls of the city's many universities which meant that when you were flagging at 4am, you could sit somewhere warm and dry for 40 minutes zoning out to an interesting film. Last year, everything was outside and it was as if the organisers had made a rule disallowing any visitors to sit anywhere. Inside a school gym, watching a film, people were bared from lying on the empty floor. What's the point in having a festival run all night if you don't engender the conditions to make such a thing possible. Ridiculous.
So it was with some trepidation that we went back this year. So much so, that we rented a flat for the weekend instead of doing what we usually do and get the Eurostar to Paris on Saturday, arriving around 6pm and then back again the following morning around 10am. Knowing that we had a flat to go back to meant that we certainly didn't make as much of an effort to get around everything this year, instead choosing to check out the clever-clever Calderpiller at Les Halles before a leisurely dinner with friends at Macéo (which incidentally was very good), before heading East to the BnF and making out way back to the middle of town before heading home around 4am.
While things were certainly better than last year, there weren't any standout pieces as with 2008 or 2010. Instead, this year was more focused on the opening up vistas of the city not often available to the public with a series of belvédères across town. We began over at the BnF in Bercy, which was nice as I did quite a bit of research for my PhD in this library but hadn't visited again since. Also, the area of Perrault's library typically open to the public is underground - the four towers house the book stacks and administrative offices, so it was rather exciting to be allowed up to the 18th floor of one of the towers. The lookout offered little by way of a beautiful panorama of Paris, but it was fascinating to be able to see the layout of the library building from that vantage - it makes more sense from height than from at human scale. You could also make out quite clearly the utterly peculiar shapes of Palais Omnisports de Paris-Bercy and the cruise-chip-like Cemex building nearby.
From the library, we strolled along the Seine until we reached Les Docks de Paris: an old depot for goods brought to Paris via the Seine built in concrete at the turn of the last century. In 2009 the docks were redeveloped by Jakob+MacFarlane who elected to keep the original structure, which now houses a school of fashion and design. It's covered with two, long neon green tubes hiding walkways and staircases (ver, very ugly in person) and though I'd seen it from the train many times, I'd never actually visited until last weekend. On the terrace was showing a dreadful film by Katerina Jebb (though the premise of the film was interesting enough), and though there was a bar and it seemed like a cool-enough place to hang out, we didn't stay for long as there wasn't actually that much going on (an architect's boring pavilion is not a good installation).
We then spent a half hour queueing to get into the Natural History Museum (there's a lot of queueing at Nuit Blanche), and though the museum itself was AWESOME, the three pieces by Kate MccGwire were not.
Likewise, La Ceinture de Feu, at the Institut de Physique, which was literally what it says on the tin: a belt of neon wrapped round the Institute by Angela Detanico and Rafael Lain. Inside, a film on the history of neon lights by philosopher Luis de Miranda was showing, which may have been interesting, but at that point my feet were throbbing and my mind was starting to turn to mush and I was finding it difficult to concentrate on the finer points of complex French.
In search of something lighter, we headed off to Édourad Albert's notorious Jessieu Campus only to find ourselves in the middle of a quite wonderful sound installation/performance by Décor Sonore. Half a dozen or so performers, dressed in white and black jumpsuits with matching makeup, stalked through the site making live, improvised music using the buildings and bits of rubble lying around as percussive instruments. Combined with an underlying soundtrack of sustained tones, the whole thing was surprisingly captivating.
The history of the campus itself is interesting and the buildings are actually quite beautiful so it's a shame many seemed to be unused and that the place looks like a stalled building site, though the tower at the heart of the campus was renovated, having all its asbestos removed in 2007, and is now lit up like a stack of jolly ranchers.
All in all, not a disaster of a night, but not enough to convince me to come back for more next year. Better a weekend spent at Versailles and the Palais Garnier than traipsing round town to queue for hours for the pleasure of crumpling in front of lacklustre art installations.
Special mention must go to the cakes. If you're ever in Paris, two of the best are la pâtisserie des rêves, where we gobbled up a Kyoto-Brest which had date and saffron cream squirreled away amongst the crème patissière, sandwiched between pastry and dusted with matcha. And at Pain de Sucre, we had another divine pastry with rosemary and almond and pistachio and rubharb. Yummy!