Subculture

The New French Hacker-Artist Underground

Posted January 24th, 2012

France, Subculture


A mysterious band of hacker-artists is prowling the network of tunnels below Paris, secretly refurbishing the city’s neglected treasures.

The UX (for Urban eXperiment) is an underground organization that improves hidden corners of Paris. Their works have included building a cinema, complete with bar and restaurant, underneath the Trocadéro, restoring medieval crypts, and staging plays and readings in monuments after dark. The group’s membership is largely secret, but its spokespeople include Lazar Kunstmann.

The Parisian authorities oppose the group’s actions, starting a police unit to track them through the sewers and catacombs of Paris, and attempting to apprehend and charge them.

The organization is divided into teams: an all-female team specializing in infiltration, a team running an internal messaging system and coded radio network, a team providing a database, a team organizing underground shows, a team doing photography, a team (Untergunther) doing restoration. One project, La Mexicaine de Perforation (LMDP), built an underground cinema, Les Arènes de Chaillot, next to the Cinémathèque Française.

Untergunther’s membership includes architects and historians. The team has renovated a century-old abandoned government bunker and a 12th-century crypt. In October 2007, they received attention for a project, assisted by professional clockmaker Jean-Baptiste Viot, to clandestinely restore the famous clock in the Panthéon. Never caught, upon completion they announced their work at a meeting with the administrator of the Panthéon, who called the police. Charges were brought against the four but, at trial, after twenty minutes deliberation, the judge ruled in favor of Untergunther.

Wired spent some time with les UX, the legendary art underground of Paris: “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. Heaving the ministry’s grand front door ajar, they peeked outside; no police, no passersby, no problem. They exited onto the empty Avenue de Sègur and walked home as the sun rose. The mission had been so easy that one of the youths, Natacha, seriously asked herself if she had dreamed it. No, she concluded: “In a dream, it would have been more complicated.”

This stealthy undertaking was not an act of robbery or espionage but rather a crucial operation in what would become an association called UX, for “Urban eXperiment.” UX is sort of like an artist’s collective, but far from being avant-garde—confronting audiences by pushing the boundaries of the new—its only audience is itself. More surprising still, its work is often radically conservative, intemperate in its devotion to the old. Through meticulous infiltration, UX members have carried out shocking acts of cultural preservation and repair, with an ethos of “restoring those invisible parts of our patrimony that the government has abandoned or doesn’t have the means to maintain.” The group claims to have conducted 15 such covert restorations, often in centuries-old spaces, all over Paris.

What has made much of this work possible is UX’s mastery, established 30 years ago and refined since, of the city’s network of underground passageways—hundreds of miles of interconnected telecom, electricity, and water tunnels, sewers, catacombs, subways, and centuries-old quarries. Like computer hackers who crack digital networks and surreptitiously take control of key machines, members of UX carry out clandestine missions throughout Paris’ supposedly secure underground tunnels and rooms. The group routinely uses the tunnels to access restoration sites and stage film festivals, for example, in the disused basements of government buildings.


They also hosted an underground art show featuring replicas of paintings stolen in a 2010 heist. Photo: UX

UX’s most sensational caper (to be revealed so far, at least) was completed in 2006. A cadre spent months infiltrating the Pantheon, the grand structure in Paris that houses the remains of France’s most cherished citizens. Eight restorers built their own secret workshop in a storeroom, which they wired for electricity and Internet access and outfitted with armchairs, tools, a fridge, and a hot plate. During the course of a year, they painstakingly restored the Pantheon’s 19th- century clock, which had not chimed since the 1960s. Those in the neighborhood must have been shocked to hear the clock sound for the first time in decades: the hour, the half hour, the quarter hour.”

Read on at Wired.

More at urban-resources.net and The Untergunther, a clandestine group with a mission to restore the neglected heritage in Paris. It’s a member of the UX, a coalition of groups sharing complementary activities, which include The Mouse House and La Mexicaine De Perforation.

- Interview with Lazar Kunstman about the underground cinema project