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Filmed on Tuesday November 13, 02012

Lazar Kunstmann, Jon Lackman

Preservation without Permission: the Paris Urban eXperiment

Lazar Kunstmann

Lazar Kunstmann is part of the Untergunther, a clandestine group with a mission to restore the neglected heritage in Paris.

Jon Lackman

Jon Lackman writes on politics, science, and the arts for Harper's, The New Yorker, Slate, and has covered the activities of the Untergunther for Wired.

There is at least as much underneath Paris as there is above it. The secretive members of the Paris Urban eXperiment, known internally as "The UX", have spent the last 30 years surreptitiously probing into this world - and improving it. A few years ago these underground hackers and artists became infamous when one morning the clock at the Panthéon, that had not worked in years, began chiming. It was just one of at least 15 such restorations done without permission.

In a first-time-ever public presentation, the UX spokesman, who goes under the name Lazar Kunstmann, along with author Jon Lackman from Wired, will present some of the theory and work of the Urban eXperiment. Lackman chronicled much of their work in the February print edition of Wired---which is co-sponsoring this event.

Preservation Without Permission

Their video showed clandestine urban “infiltration” (trespassing) at its most creative. Paris’s Urban Experiment group (UX), now in their fourth decade, have a restoration branch called Untergunther. They evade authorities to carry out secret preservation projects on what they call “nonvisible heritage.”

Being clandestine, they do not reveal their activities except for instances that become publicized in the media; then they reveal everything to set the record straight (and embarrass the media along with the authorities). In the video presented by Untergunther member Lazar Kunstmann and translator Jon Lackman, we see a hidden underground screening room and bar beneath the Trocadero in Paris’s Latin Quarter. When police discover it and shut it down, the equipment is surreptitiously removed to a site deeper in the city’s vast network of underground passages, where film showings continue to this day. One year the group’s annual film festival was staged and performed overnight in one of Paris’s great monuments, the Panthéon, built in 1790. In the video (excerpt here) we see a small boy slipping through newly crafted underground passageways, picking a lock, opening the cupboard with all the Panthéon‘s keys, and gliding on his skateboard beneath the great dome across the ornate marble floors by Foucault’s original pendulum as film enthusiasts set up a temporary theater and have a clandestine film festival---gone without a trace by dawn.

Elsewhere in the Panthéon the explorers found a neglected old clock displaying stopped time to the public. In 2005 they decided to repair it. They converted an abandoned room high in the monument into a clock shop and hangout. With clockmaker (and UX member) Jean-Baptiste Viot they spent a year completely reconditioning the 1850 works of the clock. Now that it worked again, they thought it should keep time and chime proudly, but someone needed to wind it. They approached the Director of the Panthéon, Bernard Jeannot, who didn’t even know that the monument had a clock. At first dumbfounded, Jeannot publicly embraced the project and applauded Untergunther.

Jeannot’s superiors at the Centre des Monuments Nationaux accordingly fired him (early retirement) and brought suit against Untergunther. The court determined that fixing clocks is not a crime, and in France trespassing on public property is, in itself, not a crime. Case dismissed. Spitefully, the new Director of the Panthéon has made sure the clock remains unwound, and he disabled it by removing an essential part.

Lazar Kunstmann explained (through Jon Lackman) Untergunther’s perspective on cultural heritage, particularly “minor” heritage---the countless objects that embody cultural continuity but don’t attract institutions to protect them. Who is responsible for such “nonvisible” heritage? The protectors should be local, self-appointed, and nonvisible themselves, because exposure of the value of the objects attracts destructive tourists. Preservation without permission works best without visibility.

Since 2005, Untergunther’s new precautions against discovery have successfully kept its ongoing preservation projects hidden. As for the Panthéon clock, that essential part the Director removed to disable it has been purloined to safekeeping with Untergunther. Someday authorities may allow the clock to tick again. In the meantime it is in good repair.

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