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Jacqueline Feldman: Vive La Miroiterie

March 26, 2013

A long-lived artists’ squat in Paris’s Twentieth Arrondissement, on the eve of eviction.

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Image from Flickr via Daniel Gasienica

By Jacqueline Feldman

“There is going to be a war,” Anne-Sophie Devos says. She pulls beers from a borrowed shopping cart, setting them on the outdoor bar before us. She lives and bartends at La Miroiterie, a former mirror factory in Paris’s Twentieth Arrondissement that artists and others have illegally occupied for thirteen years, accruing a measure of fame. As I serve beer with Devos, a punk band plays a concert, producing phlegmatic screams and a steady, percussive drone.

After this month, police plan to evict the squat at 88 rue de Ménilmontant. Punk, rap, and jazz concerts that have drawn thousands of bands from several continents will lose a venue, and thirteen squatters will lose their home. The complex—two buildings sitting on a fenced courtyard—measures about fourteen hundred square meters in total. An industrial room on the ground floor accommodates about a hundred and fifty concertgoers. Two hundred more can crush into the courtyard. Upstairs, the factory’s onetime offices are bedrooms and a painters’ workshop. Two Brazilian men who live at the squat teach free capoeira classes three evenings a week. The residents, artists, and concert organizers used to work together, but now messily sort into factions as eviction nears.

Entering the squat is like entering a jungle. Thick layers of bright spray paint cover the walls of the courtyard, depicting a blonde doll’s head, a pink-and-blue My Little Pony, and six-foot-tall penises arranged as a waving hand. A three-legged cat prowls the courtyard. Strings of lights and dried vines drape the courtyard walls. Black paper butterflies stud the walls.

Devos serves beers to mostly men with gauged ears, scowls, mohawks. She places cans on a metal countertop, covered in moldy stickers. One man has improved his bald spot by shaving a stripe down the back of his head that continues, skunklike, into his neck. Someone’s German shepherd curls on a low table adjoining the bar. Tonight’s music is so loud, I wonder how the dog can sleep.

Michel Ktu organizes the punk concerts and founded the squat in 1999. He saw the shell of the factory, then entered: he moved in a circle of artists for whom vacancies were resources, and this was not his first squat.

This concert is Ktu’s birthday party. Today he is forty-six. His girlfriend, who is thirty-two, joins us behind the bar. She holds back a lock of my hair to whisper: Ktu is shy about his birthday. “He is a public figure, he gives interviews left and right, but it’s the timidity of the artist,” she tells my ear. “I find it touching.”

“At the end of a squat that is well-known, everyone wants to have a hand in…. All these people are saying they lived at La Miroiterie when they never set foot inside.”

Ktu, who doesn’t like growing older, is widely quoted in newspaper articles about La Miroiterie, which attracts journalists, punks, students, adventurous yuppies, and support from the political left. “I would be very sorry if ever La Miroiterie disappeared,” said Florence de Massol, a deputy mayor for the Twentieth Arrondissement. “That would take away something from our arrondissement and would really be a shame.”

Devos says, dryly, “At the end of a squat that is well-known, everyone wants to have a hand in…. All these people are saying they lived at La Miroiterie when they never set foot inside.”

One punk shoves another, toppling a beer, and scolds me when I rush to right it. As I’m taking notes, the punks poke fun.

“You’re writing your memoirs?” they say.

I say, “Would you like a beer?”

They ask, “Are you inspired?”

***

Over several months I spent visiting the squat, I verified some myths about its early days. A company called Bosch ran the mirror factory, but the property was divided among many owners. The building fell into disrepair, and Bosch abandoned it in 1999. Ktu arrived with two other artists who had worked in squats before. They named themselves after the mirror factory—miroiterie in French—and installed mosaics of shattered mirror, which resemble insect eyes and store many a seven years of bad luck. Squatters in France who remain in a space for more than forty-eight hours cannot be immediately evicted, but must be removed through a lawsuit. Some of the building’s proprietors seemed not to care about their portions. They didn’t sue, and the squatters stayed.

Belleville was the last barricade of the Commune of 1871: the city’s temporary Communist government after a people’s revolt. Ktu says one of his ancestors died defending the Commune.

In 2009, a real-estate company called Thorel finished buying La Miroiterie and sued the squatters. A February 2010 court ruling said the squatters had to go, but Thorel needed to navigate appeals and delays before procuring an eviction order. Because a French law known as the “winter truce” forbids evictions between November 1 and March 15, the squatters weathered several winters. They requested another delay last fall and were denied two weeks before the start of the winter truce. Although they knew they could stay the winter, they would have no legal recourse when spring came.

After a late-season snow, the government extended this year’s truce to March 31. Wet, dense flakes caused the squatters to cancel a concert without entirely muting the squat. “It’s a little anarchic, a little hellish,” says Bernard Morlon, a painter there. “It’s the end.”

Thorel had the eviction order authorized. Police will carry out the order after the winter truce ends in April.

***

Before La Miroiterie was a factory, it housed a painter named Daniel Pipard, who hosted storied parties. He was called the Duke of Ménilmuche, which is local, affectionate slang for Ménilmontant, the Belleville neighborhood where the squat is located. Belleville was the last barricade of the Commune of 1871: the city’s temporary Communist government after a people’s revolt. Ktu says one of his ancestors died defending the Commune. The squatters have other theories about their home: an old woman knocked at the door a few years ago and recalled dancing at a ballroom in the basement; Devos says a river runs far below La Miroiterie.

The squatters say Pipard wanted the place to remain artistic—Ktu is fondest of this theory—and one even says it was written in his will. So they execute his wishes. “We preserve the patrimony of this old house,” said Ktu. Sylvain Dreyfus, the squatters’ lawyer for the procedure last fall, has not heard of this argument, but squat truth is relative. Morlon, the painter, is the oldest person at La Miroiterie, and at his sixty-sixth birthday party, a guest told me: “He has made a pact with the devil. He has been dancing for three hours. He will turn young again. It will be a historic moment.”

I wondered about the squatters’ protracted, youthful liberty, hearing of someone who intentionally smashed her boyfriend’s head through a window after a party there; hearing about the bone that showed in a resident’s broken leg after he drunkenly tumbled down stairs. For Christmas, Devos and Morlon painted the workshop sea-blue and decorated it with ornaments and miniature candles, which the squatters used to light their joints. Someone with an accordion played the Georges Brassens song “Belleville-Ménilmontant.” Devos shouted, “Vive la Commune!” Ktu broke an ornament, but I couldn’t hear it shatter—the room shook underneath the tapping feet. Structurally, the squat is not sound. “It’s a miracle there have not been injuries or fires there over the years,” Dreyfus said.

I reached Catherine Pipard, Daniel’s daughter, who lived at 88 rue de Ménilmontant until 1982. She said her family had owned the place since 1830: “It was always artists.” She called its current occupants “dishonest.” She recently visited the building, and its decay alarmed her. “They are there completely illegally,” she said. “I want nothing to do with these people.”

Andy Bolus, who lives at La Miroiterie, once looked for the ballroom where the stranger remembered dancing. He picked over the hollowed-out car in the courtyard. He felt about for a trapdoor. He found nothing, but still believes in the underground room. He prefers his version: chandeliers, a red carpet, Belle Époque luxury, now choked with dust.

***

The squatters say they carry on the tradition of bohemian Paris, a city where artists now wait decades to receive a government-subsidized studio. They say they are a dying kind: the last independent squatters in Paris. Over the past fifteen years, the city has awarded temporary leases to some artists who have squatted in buildings it owns. The artists pay rent, and are not allowed to sleep in the building. The city helps to select these artists, who must provide projects or events for for their neighborhood. “It’s a kind of cultural dictatorship,” said Ktu.

The city sometimes buys squatted buildings, afterward giving the squatters leases that allow them to stay. The most famous of these cases, at 59 rue de Rivoli, attracts sixty thousand tourists a year. Marc Wluczka, a deputy mayor for the Twentieth Arrondissement, politically supports these leases, but they offend his sense of art: “Did Picasso ask for the help of the state?”

Devos says, “You see the moon every time you enter La Miroiterie, between the trees.” I never have.

Former squatters trade artistic independence for stability. “We’re going to produce much more in the future,” said Martin Bobel, an organizer at La Petite Rockette, a group of former squatters whom the city evicted, then re-housed under a temporary lease. The endless, chaotic partying at La Miroiterie could wear out any artist. And it is physically exhausting to live in a rapidly deteriorating building, where some of your roommates are addicted to substances and relationships are competitive and conspiratorial.

Dominique Pagès, a councilor for the Twentieth Arrondissement, told me a squat is a boîte noir, a black box, referring to its inscrutable inner workings. As the mechanics of La Miroiterie became clear to me, I realized it is more similar to a void. Squatters occupied the empty building, and each filled it with whatever he or she required. Ktu reenacts Bohemia: he is the new Duke of Ménilmuche. Devos assumes strength as a self-styled vigilante: she keeps a piece of wood under the bar, to stave off the drug dealers who once frequented the place. Bolus seeks beauty in the squat. Morlon wants youth.

As the concert finishes, and Ktu’s forty-sixth birthday wanes, the German shepherd rises and walks across the bar, delicately stepping among beer puddles, plastic cups, ash. I give a page of my notebook to a handsome punk who asks for it. He returns a few lines from the Renaissance poet Pierre de Ronsard. I accept the gift politely, but secretly I am flattered. The studs on his leather jacket are taller than the other regalia I see, and I imagine this accords him alpha status.

Ktu, who had opened squats before, is unbothered that this one will soon close. He and Morlon spend nights roaming the city, eyeing vacancies. They want to open their next squat on the Champs-Elysées, for symbolic reasons. Squats are like phoenixes. Normally they don’t last thirteen years. “A squat is ephemeral,” Ktu says. “If we open another squat, we’ll call it La Miroiterie.”

Everyone from punks to arrondissement officials tells me Paris requires La Miroiterie so the city’s art has room to breathe, but I am not sure. More artists used to work here, but some left under the threat of eviction. Now, apart from concerts, the only art I see produced is Morlon’s watercolor of a glass building surrounded by palms, fountains, knots of red blossoms, and a sign: number 88. “It’s La Miroiterie in the future,” Morlon said.

Really what I’m listening for, above the din of the concert, is what the squatters produce, and sometimes I catch a soft melody, and sometimes it eludes me. When it does, those who live at La Miroiterie appear not as artists, but instead as thirteen people who want an impossible home. Devos says, “You see the moon every time you enter La Miroiterie, between the trees.” I never have.

The squatters say the commissariat promised to warn them two weeks before eviction, but Dreyfus advised them to leave before the winter truce ends. Devos has been slowly boxing up her possessions since November: a matter of pride. “We are the ones who will choose the way of leaving,” she said.

Swan Moteurs, who organizes rap concerts at the squat, predicts one hundred and sixty police will come to ensure the squatters go. As he served concertgoers mulled wine in quickly melting plastic cups, he explained that the squatters had gathered more than ten thousand signatures against their eviction. They could even summon supporters for a barricade. “If we say, ‘Come, wage war,’ they’ll come.”

Jacqueline Feldman is a writer and Fulbright fellow in Paris. Read more of her work on her website.

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