France

France's Clandestine Culture War

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Secret societies in the news:

Mr Kunstmann belongs to les UX, a clandestine network that is on a mission to discover and exploit the city's neglected underworld. The urban explorers put on film shows in underground galleries, restore medieval crypts and break into monuments after dark to organise plays and readings. In the eyes of their supporters, they are the white knights of modern culture, renovating forgotten buildings and staging artistic events beyond the reach of a stifling civil service.

The authorities view them differently: as the dark side of the City of Light—irresponsible, paranoid subversives whose actions could serve as a model for terrorists. A police unit has been trained to track les UX through the sewers, catacombs and old quarries that are their pathways under Paris. Prosecutors have been instructed to file charges whenever feasible.

The stand-off is symbolic of French society: a rigorous bureaucracy on the surface with a bizarre subculture below.

The following passage needs to be read with skepticism, but also with an appreciation for Kunstmann's Feuillade-worthy vision, whether or not it's entirely true:

Mr Kunstmann said that les UX had 150 or so members divided into about ten branches. One group, which is all-female, specialises in "infiltration"—getting into museums after hours, finding a way through underground electric or gas networks and shutting down alarms. Another runs an internal message system and a coded, digital radio network accessible only to members.

A third group provides a database, a fourth organises subterranean shows and a fifth takes photographs of them. Mr Kunstmann refused to talk about the other groups.

Before you assume that all of that is romantic mythmaking, consider this:

Last year the Untergunther [one of those branches] spent months hidden in the Panthéon, the Parisian mausoleum that holds France's greatest citizens, where they repaired a clock that had been left to rust. Slipping in at closing time every evening—French television said that they had their own set of keys—they set up a workshop hidden behind mock wooden crates at the top of the monument. The security guards never found it. The Untergunther used a professional clockmaker, Jean-Baptiste Viot, to mend the 150-year-old mechanism.

When the clock began working again, officials were horrified. The Centre for National Monuments confirmed that the clock had been repaired but said that the authority had begun legal action against the Untergunther. Under official investigation for breaking and entry, its members face a maximum sentence of one year in prison and a €15,000 (£10,500) fine.

"We could go down in legal history as the first people ever to be prosecuted for repairing a clock," said Mr Kunstmann.

Fortunately for the subterranean people of Paris, the prosecution failed.

[Via Infocult.]

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  1. Good with mechanical devices, and able to do as they please in Paris without the French government being able to stop them?

    Must be German.

  2. Ve haf vays to make you tock.

  3. Ya gotta love the French. Negative vandalism, way fuckin’ cool.

  4. Jesus. Sounds like Silhouette from that old classic, Deus Ex. Wouldn’t want to live in that world.

  5. Must be German.

    Untergunther [one of those branches]

    Sure seems that way. I’m sure they’re only doing it to bag chicks, though.

    One group, which is all-female, specialises in “infiltration”

    I’ll bet they do. ZING

  6. And why, in the name of all that is good, are there two cats french kissing on my monitor this very instant.

  7. We need to send our own “culture warrior” Bill O’reiley over there. He would straighten these people out.

  8. Good with mechanical devices, and able to do as they please in Paris without the French government being able to stop them?

    Must be German.

    Or these guys.

  9. When I was young I used to approve whole hearted of such pranksterism and might have even participated in an incident or two but now that I am older I can’t but see a certain narcissistic arrogance in such actions.

    Doing as ones pleases with the property of others, even collective property, constitutes a form of aggression and dominance even if it takes a puckish or beneficial form. The perpetuator effectively states, “I know better than you what needs doing.”

    I mean, you wouldn’t like to wake up unusually groggy one morning, look down and see a row of stitches across your stomach and then look up to see the smiling face of UX member who says, “I thought you needed surgery.”

    On the other hand, these people seem no where near as destructive as I would be if I had to live a dirigist state like France.

  10. thoreau | November 30, 2007, 11:42am | #
    Good with mechanical devices, and able to do as they please in Paris without the French government being able to stop them?

    Must be German.

    *sweeps up, shuts off lights. locks door. Doktor T wins the internets.

  11. Thank you France, for showing us the way. The closet Libertarians there are demonstrating positive voluntary action. The bureaucrats keep trying to catch them doing good things and they keep fixing stuff.

    Reminds me of the Ron Paul Revolution!

  12. Doing as ones pleases with the property of others, even collective property, constitutes a form of aggression and dominance even if it takes a puckish or beneficial form. The perpetuator effectively states, “I know better than you what needs doing.”

    I’m glad we have the good folks in the government put a stop to such people.

  13. Oh yeah, and it’s a stretch to equate fixing a clock with cutting someone’s belly open.

  14. A, ahem, friend of mine, let’s call him Joey Joe Joe Junior Shabadoo, used to participate in late night urban explorations of the sewer system and abandoned buildings in a certain pair of two cities in the northern and midwestern section of a certain country located somewhere on the North American continent. He tells me it was major fun.

    And, Shannon, he also tells me that the prime directive was to look and not to touch. Property damage was not acceptable. Ever. Sierra Club ethics always applied.

    There were a few times that the po-po frowned on such activity, I am told, so Joey Joe Joe gradually lessened his involvement. Now that he lives in a new city he is starting to feel the urge to poke around in the dark corners of his new town now and then.

  15. Jesse Walker,

    I’ve been wondering when you were going to report on this phenomenon. It isn’t new.

    Shannon Love,

    Much of the property that is used is never seen by the human eye. Much of it consists of the former rock quarries that lay under much of Paris. Eventually the quarries were buttressed so the city wouldn’t collapse, but a lot of space still exists under the streets of Paris and no would be using one these areas for anything otherwise.

  16. Jesus. Sounds like Silhouette from that old classic, Deus Ex. Wouldn’t want to live in that world.

    It’s rather frightening to think of how far we’ve already come. The Dept. of Homeland Security and the PATRIOT Act look like precursors to UNATCO to me.

  17. It’s like a real life army of Harry Tuttles.

  18. In other words, Paris has a honeycombed underground. There are official sewer tours of course.

  19. The NYC underground is also pretty shockingly cool (and shockingly terrifying at the same time). I hear tales of a group of amphibious teenage martial artists who reside there.

  20. One of the cool things that one can visit are the bunkers from WWII.

  21. “Syloson of Samos | November 30, 2007, 12:19pm | #
    In other words, Paris has a honeycombed underground. There are official sewer tours of course.”

    very cool! You can also do “Third Man” tours of the underground stuff in Vienna.

  22. crimethink,

    Oh yeah, and it’s a stretch to equate fixing a clock with cutting someone’s belly open.

    That the violation is minor is not the point. The point is that a small group of individual abrogates to themselves the right to decide what to do with the resources of others. Its exactly the same mind set that leads people to believe they have the right and knowledge necessary to take from Peter to give to Paul.

  23. Randolph Carter,

    All I know is that there’s some freaks always ordering pizza to be delivered to a manhole cover, and demanding to get it free because it takes forever to find them. Assholes.

  24. Tours are for pussies. DIY.

  25. Shannon Love,

    The point is that a small group of individual abrogates to themselves the right to decide what to do with the resources of others.

    So, how exactly is an unvisited, forgotten underground space a “resource of others?”

  26. Morpheus,

    …a lot of space still exists under the streets of Paris and no would be using one these areas for anything otherwise.

    So you wouldn’t mind if a major corporation decided on its own to use the space for some safe purpose?

    Like many political questions, this come down to finding the locus of discretion i.e. which actual living breathing human being gets to make a specific decision. Who decides how any resource, private or collective gets used? Why do think the UX hold the locus instead of bureaucrats? Would you trust any random person to make that decision on their own? Who is responsible when someone inevitably makes a mistake and causes problems?

  27. this is so totally French (the whole story).

  28. [i]
    The authorities view them differently: as the dark side of the City of Light — irresponsible, paranoid subversives whose actions could serve as a model for terrorists.
    [/i]
    This is breathtaking — what a wonderful way to extend the War on Terror into everyday life! Is there anything that couldn’t potentially be criminalized with this argument?

  29. Shannon Love,

    So you wouldn’t mind if a major corporation decided on its own to use the space for some safe purpose?

    No, not really. Do you even understand what Paris’ underground looks like? They wouldn’t be using these spaces. I mean, from what I’ve read on the subject it is stated that a lot of these underground spaces take hours to journey to and they often 80, 100, etc. feet underground. It is like spelunking the best I can tell.

  30. “I’m glad we have the good folks in the government put a stop to such people.”

    No kiddin’. Otherwise, the damned tractors wouldn’t rust away in the collective fields where they belong.

  31. Shannon Love,

    What problems do you envision exactly? What problems have occurred?

  32. BTW, much of old Paris was torn down under the reign Napoleon III to make the city and its population more “legible.” Scott discusses this in Seeing Like A State. Those wide avenues are both pretty and easy to police.

  33. The bureaucrats keep trying to catch them doing good things and they keep fixing stuff.

    The A-Team! Only without the AK-47s.

  34. I became confused when Shannon Love started talking about putting clocks into peoples stomachs!

  35. Oh goody…GG has another name: Morpheus.

  36. Doing as ones pleases with the property of others, even collective property, constitutes a form of aggression and dominance even if it takes a puckish or beneficial form. The perpetuator effectively states, “I know better than you what needs doing.”

    It sounds like they do know better about what needs doing. Righting one little wrong that came about because of the weight of socialist neglect.

    It would have been cool if Orwell had Winston and Julia doing something like this in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

  37. Ayn Randian,

    I do sincerely apologize for forgetting to rename myself after a joke message on another topic.

    You do realize that my nick is almost always attached to my blog, right?

  38. Ayn Randian,

    Oh, and I will continue to choose new nicks from time to time as the whim suits me. Last time I changed it was due to me re-reading Herodotus.

  39. Ayn Randian,

    Actually, it strikes my fancy right now. 😉

  40. Hay J Sub.

    URKOBOLD noticed you. Not that you’ll get any service from WEIBSKOBOLD, but still 🙂

    SofS: ah, yes. The “Malkovich from Dangerous Liasons”: start with one or two latin terms.

  41. VM,

    The book was pretty interesting. I’ve always liked the device of using “letters” as a means to communicate a story (the epistolary novel).

  42. Indeed! good call!

  43. Well, if you go with a libertarian interpretation of natural rights (I certainly do), they definitely have the right to do what they do:
    They are homesteading the goods and places in question simply by using them while others have abandoned them.

    In fact, it kinda makes me sad that the first question for many people when somebody is doing something cool and creative with abandoned spaces is whether they had “permission” to do it.

    It reminds me of the old anecdote about the Austrian revolution of 1848 where the emperor, when told that the citizenry had erected barricades, asked “Jo derfens denn des?” (“well, are they allowed to do that?”).

    Utterly unthinkable that things should happen that are not regulated by the government!

  44. When the clock began working again, officials were horrified. The Centre for National Monuments confirmed that the clock had been repaired but said that the authority had begun legal action against the Untergunther.

    Something tells me that when anything begins “working”, in France, officials are horrified.

  45. Jay D,

    Well, one of the things that some libertarians bemoan is the government sponsorship, etc. of art in France.

  46. Doing as ones pleases with the property of others, even collective property

    I agree– kind of. “Collective” property is public property– and when everyone owns it, nobody does.

    “You can’t be in here, this is public property!”

  47. BTW, much of old Paris was torn down under the reign Napoleon III to make the city and its population more “legible.”

    S of S, as I understand the history, France’s much vaunted wide avenues were created so that troops could move easily and put down insurrections. Maybe you could illuminate further.

  48. Ok, it sounds pretty cool, but… what happens if (read: when) someone gets hurt while “infiltrating” some museum, tomb, what have you?
    And the municipality gets sued?
    And the taxpayers pick up the bill?
    God, I sound old…

  49. They are homesteading the goods and places in question simply by using them while others have abandoned them.

    Hm. The example right above (the Panth?on) reads more like “breaking and entering” to me.

  50. tk: So, nobody should do anything for which a screwed up system (as opposed to the people doing potentially dangerous things in the first place) makes others pay?

    Oh boy, better stay at home lying down.

  51. Bernd –

    Ah… See, if people were truly responsible for their own actions, and held themselves accountable for their own stupidity, no worries.
    The world would be a better place.
    Maybe I’m just a cynic (I live in Philly, so sue me), but somehow I cannot help but see some Romantic-era would be Byron staging a “happening” in the abandoned station situation in the Ben Franklin Bridge and getting himself and his friends electrocuted, and then the city getting sued for $100 mil.
    And the last time I checked, the French seem to be even less of the “I am accountable and personally responsible” type.
    But that is just my opinion.
    Like I said, I’m from Philly…

  52. I don’t really mind the urban exploration end of this, but while I appreciate the sentiment behind it, the restoration projects may end up inadvertently damaging things (particularly if interrupted in progress by the police) and trespassing that involves compromising the security systems of the buildings may have unintended side effects (extra copies of the keys floating around and shut down alarm systems may allow those with less noble motives to gain access). Of course, the policy of throwing the book at them even when they don’t do any harm (justified of course by vague appeals to possible terrorist threats) seems unnecessarily heavy handed.

  53. Paul:

    I happen to be reading (almost finished) Andrew Hussey’s Paris: The Secret History and he has a large section devoted to Hausman, who was largely responsible for the demolition of old Paris and the construction of the grand boulevards under Napoleon III. And yes, a lot of the redesign was done with policing and public order in mind. Prior to Hausman’s redesign – which lots of Parisians thought, and still think, ruined large portions of the city – Paris was a vast crazy quilt of meandering streets and byways – the really old parts of the city, like the islands in the Seine and the neighorboods closest to the river, had grown organically for 800 years – they didn’t have a lot of urban planning in the 16 century, for instance – and so when the citizenry took to the streets and manned the barricades, the army and police had a hard time getting around. Razing a lot of those neighborhoods, putting up big uniform apartment buildings and wide straight avenues did a lot to help the armed forces maintain control after that. I need to go back and read the part about the Commune of the 1870s – it broke out in the older parts of the city but I think the general carnage inflicted by the army on the Communards took place in the redesigned portions. I could be wrong.

    To give Hausman credit, he did modernize the sewers. English visitors to Paris in the early 19th century were appalled at the raw sewage running through the streets of the best neigborhoods.

    The book has made me long to see Paris. Just the buildings, mind you – I’m still not that interested in meeting the inhabitants. But maybe that’s because I just finished the portion that covers World War II.

  54. Julia Solis, author of New York Underground, wrote a recent story for Nat Geo Adventure about her expedition into subterranean Paris.

    Ruin/urban exploration is fairly common here in the States too, and as de stijl pointed out, the serious ones operate under a “take only photos, leave only footprints” ethic. Here’s a fun photo site, and of course there’s always the Weird NJ guys. Hardly the sort expected to perform pro bono appendectomies.

    The clock story is a perfect example of why, moral objections to taxation aside, I think government bodies are poor choices to curate antiquities: they often refuse to adequately fund their maintenance. Generally I see better results when properties and items are cared for by private groups such as historical societies. I suspect this is because their sources of income are more diverse and not as susceptible to the whims of politicians who often assume responsibilities they’re later unwilling to budget for.

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