59 Rivoli — Contemporary Art and the ‘Squat Aesthetic’

In the middle of one of Paris’s most commercial streets, 59 Rivoli breaks the visual monotony of advertisements, brand imagery, and the banality of consumption with an anarchically whimsical facade. Now open to the public, and officially recognized by the city, the former artist squat turned gallery, artist coop and cultural space still relies on what I call the ‘squat aesthetic’ to mark its territory and assert a kind of DIY spontaneity it once knew as an illegal squat.

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First entering, visitors step over a threshold of loose change (a denial of economics of contemporary art?). On weekends when contemporary jazz musicians fill the street-level gallery with their avant-garde sounds, passers by are invited to climb the graffiti-covered staircase of 59 Rivoli and check out the work of the associations resident artists, each with their own atelier space on one of the formerly abandoned building’s six floors. Each space has its own feel, depending on the work and whim of the artists. Visiting the ateliers one after the other, woven together by graffiti-ed corridors and stairways, has a dizzying effect. You seem to lose your sense of place as it evolves from one room to the next, however the cultural association of graffiti to do-it-yourself culture, squats, and underground music holds the space together and creates for it a place in time, makes it a sort of unified interruption of the visual experience offered in the city. Seeing artists at work at first makes one feel as if they’re intruding, trespassing, until they realize how accustomed the artists are to their presence. The basic tenet of squat culture, this feeling of trespassing in the name of discovery underpins the authenticity of the visit.

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However, as spaces like 59 Rivoli are no longer the squats they once were, many gaining official status through forming associations or attracting corporate or institutional sponsors, what are we to make of this utilization of the ‘squat aesthetic’? Is becoming official merely a way to bring what was once illegal and considered derelict art production into public culture? Or is the ‘squat aesethetic’ a means of branding certain forms of contemporary, mostly urban cultural production? In other words, is that underground feeling part of a consumer experience? What was once a squat called Chez Robert Electron Libre, 59 Rivoli, “the aftersquat” has been able to survive on a mixture of patronage, public support, and recognition from the city as a cultural center. Part of this includes regular exposition and concert programming, as well as more visible forms of promotion and public engagement. It would seem that despite no longer being a “real squat,” as some die hard DIY activists point out, 59 Rivoli has re-purposed the ‘squat aesthetic’ for a broader public. The ‘aftersquat’ uses the frenetic, whimsical, derelict imagery of the squat to engage the public with art outside the ‘white cubes’ where the contemporary art market thrives. Stepping on money when you enter doesn’t take the capitalism out of contemporary art, but it does hint at a more democratic approach to viewing art and art production.

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