In his first piece for #itchysilk, Jac Capra takes a little sheen off the supposedly counter culture art den 59 Rivoli. Located in Paris, it implies and sells a left field artistic image but Jac Capra argues that far from a den of creative excellence, 59 Rivoli is in fact a mere tourist trap. Fuelled by consumerism, ‘art’ is the conduit to a steady stream of tourist finance.
In celebration of the first beautiful day in months, I decided to trek to the heart of Paris to visit the often talked about squat, 59 Rivoli . A mere 10 minutes’ walk away from Notre Dame and the Louvre, the building sits in a beige sea of Haussmann buildings. Bright doors and blaring music beckon the crowds of travellers to come and experience this “centre of culture”. Formerly an illegal squat, the building was adopted by the city of Paris in the early 2000’s and turned into an atelier space that “is integral to the cultural and art scene of the City of Light”. Its original purpose was to “Prove the validity of a cultural alternative”. But it begs a question, how alternative is the culture it provides?
Visitors get the “rare” opportunity to “truly enter into an artist’s universe where the work is actually created.” And yet, inside this graffiti clad, pseudo-rundown building it is difficult to find universes spiralling around each other in a fervour of creativity. I find instead a beautifully laid tourist trap complete with all the trimmings.
On the ground floor there is a gallery full of works from resident artists with rotating shows every other week. Crossing into the gallery I see walls lined with contour drawings of dancing women or ink sketches of Paris. These glorified souvenirs boast prices of 200-1000 euros while just outside the door and down the street you can get the same cliché work along the Seine for a tenner. An ink sketch of Notre Dame sports a red dot sold for 350 euros.
As I head up to the ateliers, I duck and weave between the little packs of tourists filling up the spiral staircase, taking selfies against the faded graffiti backdrop. The aesthetic of the building oozes counter-culture. Folding white tables, raw concrete floors and dirty paint covered windows gives the whole operation a DIY vibe. I can only imagine that their target audience want to feel they are getting to see the secret side of Paris, the anti-Louvre. The hip. Luckily for them, that’s exactly what 59 Rivoli is selling.
The first-floor atelier houses one of the best salesmen I’ve ever seen. He approaches visitors with a thick French accent and cracks jokes like a trained parrot. He seems to be the highlight of Paris for the Americans from Ohio. I decide to follow this couple around so that I can watch them take in this foreign environment. I slowly realize any attempt to create an air of creativity and community is undercut by the undeniable appeal to Paris’s tourist industry.
The work I’ve seen in the semi-cramped ateliers ranges from moving, informed pieces discussing childhood and feminism to banal portraits of David Bowie. Sadly, more of the latter than the former. It is clear-the art and artists are chained to the aesthetic of the visitor and souvenir. The Ohio couple hardly throws a glance at the impressive glass collages of post WW 2 France. They are too far into the spell of Mona Lisa painted onto a cigarette box. The compelling works at 59 Rivoli don’t quite seem to fit into the business model.
I have zero qualms with the artists doing their work in these spaces. They are doing their thing and I respect that to the end of the earth. However, my issue rests with this half-assed attempt to disguise a tourist trap as a “cultural experience”. The only culture that this squat provides is one of consumerism, of temporary citizens looking to check a box on their tour. I fear that the opportunity for the artists at 59 Rivoli stops at monetary. To get hundreds of potential buyers to view your work every day is a rare opportunity. Wrap that opportunity up in a ‘counter-culture’ box, place that box in the centre of Paris and you will have the perfect storm to make a quick buck.
But where is the advancement if the artists are obliged to make art that is priced to a tourist’s travel budget? With such constraints, it will be difficult for any artist to thrive.
Images by ? we are prepared to credit.