Sometimes, when something’s screwed up – like, say, a 19th-century clock in the centre of Paris – you’ve just got to undertake an elite, covert operation, transport masses of specialised clock-repairing equipment into that clock’s building via a secret access point, and monitor the whereabouts and belief systems of every staff member of the building while you restore the clock to its original working state over the course of two years, because if you don’t, then who the bloody hell will?
This isn’t a hypothetical. In 2005, a Paris-based collective of urban explorers who go by the name Urban eXperiment, or UX for short, discovered that the Panthéon’s defunct Wagner clock was in need of urgent repair. So severely oxidised was the clock in question that if restoration didn’t commence immediately, it would soon be impossible to fix. For the UX, who consider the Panthéon a cultural homebase (the building houses some of France’s most impressive corpses, including Volatire, Rousseu, Marat, Victor Hugo and Émile Zola), this just wasn’t an option. So the cultural preservation team – codename: the Untergunther – got planning.
The Untergunther is just one of the longstanding subgroups within the UX. The others are La Mexicaine De Perforation, who run secret film festivals in the bowels of the La Cinémathèque Française and other artistic events of an underground nature, and The Mouse House, an all-female team dedicated to “infiltration”. All members of the UX are united by a common goal: to do secret creative work in Paris’ public spaces. A feat, in France, that’s not always technically legal.
When asked why they viewed the restoration of the Wagner clock as their responsibility, UX spokesperson and co-founder Lazar Kunstmann shrugs off the word ‘responsibility’. “That’s too strong,” he says. “We don’t [undertake clandestine urban restoration projects] exactly because we view it as our ‘responsibility’, but simply because it’s possible, just like all the experiences we conduct. Because it’s possible.” One thing that makes it possible is the group’s numbers, which Kunstmann is not at liberty to disclose, and over 25 years’ collective experience accessing Paris’ public spaces, especially those that are hidden or abandoned. They claim to have completed more than 15 covert restorations over the years, including medieval crypts, and have staged plays and film screenings, and even opened a temporary restaurant, under the streets of Paris.
It all started in 1980, when a bunch of high school students in the Latin Quarter, the city’s historical centre, lifted a grate in the street and – as teens are wont to do – descended into the tunnel below and saw where it led. Sure enough, they found the city’s extensive subterranean architecture allowed them to slip undetected into ministerial buildings, telephone exchanges, monuments – you name it. The UX have been exploring the underground ever since.
Every project is self-financed. The members donate whatever means they can, be it cash or materials, and decide on what project to undertake next based on a) whether or not it interests them, and b) whether or not it’s possible. “The whole methodology within the UX, behind all these things, the one common driver, is increasing the realm of possibility,” Kunstmann says. “For all these people, even if they have a day job, a life, a family, this remains their primary activity. For them, the realm of what’s possible within the UX is increasing the realm of what’s possible within their existence. I’m not exaggerating; that’s really what this is.”
So where do we sign up? “You don’t just join because you want to, or because you’re interested in a project. And we’re not really recruiting. This is a group of people who have the same fundamental principles. It’s something that’s just obvious about the person. From the moment we see that some people’s methods are similar to ours, they have good intentions and are passionate about the projects they undertake, and that they’re discreet in what they do, we approach them.”
Assuming the UX taps you on the shoulder, you can expect to start operating with two imperatives in mind: invisibility and reversibility. “All the sites, everything that is done, every action on our part must be reversible,” Kunstmann insists. “If you make the slightest irreversible modification to a site, an object, whatever, that’s a form of privatisation. You’ve left your mark on public property. Every workspace that is set up must be demountable. The fact that we’re using a monument like the Panthéon mustn’t alter its function, or stop people from working or visiting there.”
The Untergunter’s projects typically run over a year of two. Fortunately, when they were working on restoring the Panthéon’s timepiece, they had professional clock repairer on hand (indeed, it was this very horologist, one Jean-Baptise Viot, who identified the oxidised state of the clock in the first instance). In this respect, they were at an advantage. But there was still the matter of slipping in and out of the building without attracting the attention of the authorities, setting up a full-blown worksite with electricity and lighting, and carrying out repairs on the clock while remaining undetected.
“We needed to be invisible,” Kunstmann stresses. “But there were a lot of materials we needed to bring onto the site. Although, contrary to what people imagine, the materials you need for restoring a monument’s clock are less big and heavy than those you’d need for a small clock – say, for example, a watch. The smaller a clock is, the bigger your equipment needs to be for reasons of precision. For huge clocks, there’s less precision involved, so your tools are smaller.”
A whole team was dedicated to making the site acceptable for restoration work, sheltering it from dust and humidity. They also had a team dedicated to collecting information on the Panthéon’s staff. The UX needed to know who these people were, when they came, where they went – and, most importantly, what they believed in. Did they care about preserving cultural artefacts? Or were they like that Panthéon employee made responsible for restoring the clock back in the ’60s, who grew bored with the clock and smashed it?
In effect, yes, they were. Because when the UX achieved their goal, and the Wagner clock chimed for the first time in over 40 years, the Panthéon’s administration sued them. They even sought to imprison the UX for a year. In France, the land of cultural snobs? “As soon as you challenge the authority of a little bureaucrat, or a little sub-bureaucrat, or sub-sub-bureaucrat, you create the effect of panic,” Kunstmann explains. “It’s about territorialism.” The court found in favour of the UX. After all, there is no law against restoring a clock. But it would never have been achieved, if not clandestinely, Kunstmann says.
The UX’s work, by its nature, will never be done. “All organisations, all artistic collectives, all associations have a goal. And when that goal is achieved, they need to reinvent themselves in order to assure their continued existence. Urban eXperiment has no goal. It’s a series of experiences. Each experience inspires the next experience. We have such longevity is because there is no defined goal, so there is no chance of achieving it. For this reason, we’ll never find ‘an end’. None of us even think about it. How do you stop a process?”
This article first appeared in Smith Journal volume 23 (Winter 2017).