Looking for the sacred outside the Parisian city limits
It would be all too easy to think of French Weird as a mostly metropolitan phenomenon. Paris, you might conclude is already weird enough. Just think of the strangely bulbous Sacré-Coeur church, a grisly memorial to the crushing of the Paris Commune, perched on a dominant hillside. The gargoyles of Notre-Dame. The piles of bones and skulls of les Catacombes de Paris. Or even Les Égouts , which give a visitor unprecedented insight into the workings and smells of an open sewer.
But maybe France starts to embody its true weirdness as you move away from the city centres, or at least head beyond its edges, or as these edges start to blur into another sort of space. Writing on his K-Punk blog, Mark Fisher reminds us that “the weird” is often concerned with passages between worlds, between reality systems, arguing that “the defining image is that of the threshold, the door from this world into another”. The edges of cities can be profoundly unsettling, because they are vague, liminal spaces. They are clearly not the city, but they are manifestly not anywhere else precise as city-centre thinking starts to crumble (there’s clearly a hugely significant socio-economic argument to be made here too).
Thinking about this, I’m reminded in particular of the work of French psychogeographer and novelist Philippe Vasset who in Un livre blanc (2007), documents his project of visiting in real life the white spaces detailed on a map of the Ile de France, places on the edge of the metropolis, eerily, undocumented non-spaces, waste grounds, vaguely threatening sites of ambiguous ownership. In his 2013 novel La Conjuration, Vasset takes this project one step further, using such spaces as sites for his protagonist to attempt to launch a new religion. This seems appropriate since these spaces, often associated with transport - they are places you move through - can’t be described in terms of their normal functionality, rather they are invested with a more ambitious emotional meaning.
This first French Weird Field Trip was motivated by a relatively simple question: what happens when the scholars in suits embraced the irrational, or when the French liminal weird encounters the great French anthropological tradition? The great Claude Lévi Strauss, Roger Caillois and George Bataille, for example, were all deeply interested in the role that some notion of “the sacred” plays in human civilisation. The latter went as far, not unlike Vasset’s protagonist, as to found a secret society, Acéphale, which was rumoured to organise rituals, even apparently planning a human sacrifice in woods south of Paris. For all of their interest in the extremes of experience, there is a detached sobriety that surrounds these modern ethnographers. Novelist Frédéric Beigbeder once described Bataille as “le diable déguisé en Georges Pompidou” (the devil disguised as Georges Pompidou) [Premier Bilan après l’apocalypse], they look like office workers, like administrators rather than shamen or priests. Bataille of course was a librarian.
Early on a recent Saturday morning with clear minds anchored in sober reason, if not sporting dapper suits, it was time to head out of the city limits to Pantin and visit the ‘Bureau d’investigation du sacré’, the results of an artistic research project undertaken since 2019 by students at the Paris École des Arts Décoratifs in conjunction with curator Jeanne Mercier to explore the role played by the sacred, religion and spirituality in contemporary society. The exhibit was staged over two sites, one at the former Sacristie du Collège des Bernardins in central Paris, the other - which we visited with excitement and trepidation - out at the Grandes-Serres in Pantin. Here thirty young artists had their work on display. The space at Grandes-Serres is more correctly described as the former Pouchard high precision tube and pipe factory, inoperative since 2017. As a ‘Bureau d’investigation’ its name nods gently to the Canal+ series Le Bureau des légendes and, of course, the X-Files, and even also also to the coolly rational investigation undertaken by spirit hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren in James Wan’s Conjuring horror movie series. All of these owe something to the French ethnographic tradition.
The show came across less of a collection of stand-alone works than of traces left by rituals. A visitor speculated what may have happened in this space. In amongst the detritus of an evacuated factory, we found mannequins, animal skulls, piles of tyres. The boundaries between exhibit and space blurred. The works of Marion Flament, whose pieces strive to recall the incandescence of fire, and apparently originally produced in dialogue with another sacred space - a synagogue - linger in the memory. Hugo Servanin’s scupltures interrogate the human form through reimagined, posthuman (antihuman) bodies made out of glass, steel, water and plastic.
There is a certain amout of transgressive joy that comes with being about to ramble through a disused factory space, picking up leaflets documenting the works as you go, avoiding tripping over discarded bricks and falling into redundant industrial workspaces. Indeed it is the factory place itself rather than the works that stays longest in the memory of these Field-Trippers. Spaces like this outside the city are the non-spaces of TV crime series like Engrenages or Dérapages, to where kidnap victims and taken and torture takes place. Alongside the jouissance of the rubble, however, comes a sad pathos. The former Pouchard factory, like much of Pantin, is marked above all by what seems to be the partly-planned intentional forgetting of its history. It is a deindustrialised space, not really inhabited by art, rather by the cynical flows of financial capital. The suits in the background are finely-tailored and corporate, not ethnographers. The Grandes-Serres space is owned by a property developer, no doubt using the artistic collaboration as part of a speculative push. As Fisher insists, “Capital is at every level an eerie entity:conjured out of nothing, capital nevertheless exerts more influence than any allegedly substantial entity” (The Weird and the Eerie, 11).What could be eerier than than this form of weird-washing?