First Encounters: Cafe OTO, Vortex, BFI and National Gallery

Spotlight

Discovering a venue is like entering a new universe: if they got it right, their identity – the type of art they programme, the values they carry, the experience they create – is palpable right from the front door. This is how I felt recently about Cafe OTO, an experimental venue in Dalston, East London, where I went in September to see Rodrigo Constanzo (with whom I’m currently working on developing his dfscore project) perform with Distractfold as part of the Kammer Klang series of contemporary chamber music.

Here is Rodrigo performing one of his composition, iminlovewithanothergirl, a solo piece for snare and microphone, right at the end of the set.

The austere feel of the venue – basically a warehouse – creates an edgy focus for the music and makes the listening experience that much more intense. The acoustics are not even that good, there’s a loud fan that comes on between each set, and I can’t describe the seats as comfortable, but the space creates an intimacy not just with the performers but also between audience members: I was on my own, but I could easily strike a conversation with people sitting near me.

Not long after, I was at the Vortex, just round the corner, also for the first time, for what I can only describe as a journey through abstraction and emotion with Electric Biddle, a Jazz Shuttle project (Jazz Shuttle is a creative scheme supporting new Franco-British bands that I’ve recently started to coordinate on the UK side). A team from Paris venue Le Triton was there to film a documentary about the band, and here’s an extract from the first leg of the tour, filmed in France.

My latest encounter with a venue is a double one: I was invited to the BFI to watch the latest documentary by Fred Wiseman, who spend 12 weeks inside the National Gallery. He filmed everything from guided tours to executive meetings and restoration work, and condensed 170 hours of footage into a 3-hour film that celebrate both the art and the institution that hosts it, in all its complexity and contradictions.

I’ve never actually been (yet) to the National Gallery, so this was a formidable virtual encounter. The spotlight is of course on the paintings, but also on people: those who make, buy, care for and admire the art. We’re privy to debates amongst staff over the purpose and limitations of restoration, or on the tension between ‘inclusion’ and ‘excellence’. We also get to eavesdrop on the vast array of education, engagement and participation activities that take place within the National Gallery: from guided school tours to teacher training, a life-drawing class, or a session for visually impaired people observing Pissaro’s The Boulevard Montmartre at Night through touch and words.

National Gallery is a journey through art and humanity told with a multitude of fragments that continue to resonate and build a meaning long after the film is finished. The most powerful moments are wordless juxtapositions of masterpiece portraits and the people observing them: a mise en abyme that connects past and present, art and life, and artist, sitter, museum-goer and film spectator, in an infinite jeu de miroir of “who’s looking at who?”.  I was also reminded of Thomas Struth’s Museum Photographs, a series of large-scale images showing museum-goers engaged in the process of observing paintings at several institutions, including the National Gallery (below).

National Gallery I, London, 1989 by Thomas Struth

National Gallery I, London, 1989 by Thomas Struth

The film is out in the UK in January 2015. Meanwhile, I’ve been back to Cafe OTO for another great night hosted by Kammer Klang, I’m off to the Vortex for the Emile Parisien Quartet in November, if not before, and I’m planning a visit to the National Gallery in the next few weeks. I haven’t said much about my experience at the BFI, but it inspired my to start a weekly film club at the Cat’s Back, the South West London pub I run with my husband, so surely that’s their job done!

Summer in the City

Programming

Summer for me tends to mean either working on or recovering from a festival, but I still remember fondly the French summer school holidays – Les Grandes Vacances, a seemingly endless 8-week stretch of perfectly free time. However, Summer in the Suburbs wasn’t exactly action-packed, so I would have been grateful at the time for this Mairie de Paris initiative: the Pass Jeunes (Youth Pass), a bundle of free or heavily discounted cultural offers for anyone aged 15-25 and living, studying or working in Paris.

Amongst the 26 free activities, pass holders can choose from admission to several museums, temporary exhibitions, cinema, music festivals (jazz, world, and classical), heritage buildings and sports activities.

13 further activities are offered with a discount: a visit of the Eiffel Tower and the zoo, a river cruise, a hot air balloon trip and more exhibitions.

As an added incentive, there’s a competition to win a few more cultural/lifestyle activities: more exhibitions, singing and circus lessons and free subscriptions to Vélib, Paris’ shared bike scheme. Each voucher used unlocks a password to input on the Pass Jeune website – so the more offers they access, the more likely users are to win rewards.

Here’s my imaginary summer line-up of Grandes Vacances weekly activities – if only I were a few years younger and living in Paris – for a grand total of €8.5.

 

1. Les années 50 at the Musée de la Mode

Not just any 50s fashion but 50s fashion in France – Givenchy, Chanel, Schiaparelli, Balenciaga, Pierre Balmain, Jacques Fath, Christian Dior, Jacques Griffe, Pierre Cardin… Here’s a teaser in French with sweeping views of the outfits on display.

 

2. Ballon de Paris

Billed as the biggest in the world, this hot air balloon changes colour to indicate the quality of air, from red for very bad to green for excellent.

Here’s a Go Pro video filmed 2 years ago – according to the comments, the orientation is all wrong, but it’s still a nice view.

There’s also a permanent webcam to see Paris from the sky whenever the balloon is up and flying.

 

3. L’Etat du ciel at the Palais de Tokyo

I try to go to the Palais de Tokyo whenever I’m in Paris, because it’s actually quite small and exhibitions i’ve been to so far felt slow-paced and spacious. I also like the fact that it’s right next to the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (which permanent collections are always free to visit).

L’État du ciel – a title borrowed from Victor Hugo’s essay Promontoire du songe, in which the author wrote that “the sky’s normal state is at night” – is “a homage to many artists’, poets’ and philosophers’ reflections on the physical, moral and political factors that shape our world”. Artists include Ed Atkins, Camille Henrot, Steve McQueen, Tony Oursler, Dominique Ghesquière and more, with a focus on performance and time-based art.

 

4. JR au Panthéon

The Panthéon is a 17th-century neoclassical church that has been used as a burial place for eminent French citizens – all men except Marie Curie – since the Revolution. It is currently one of 9 heritage sites hosting a participatory photographic installation by artist JR, whose mobile “Inside Out” photobooth van travelled through France earlier this year to collect photographic portraits.

The Panthéon is undergoing major renovation work, and the commission is a great way to draw attention to the building and its signification in French history, whilst questioning its function as a place of consecration of the great and the good by infiltrating it with 4,000 anonymous portraits.

The video below is in French but shows lots of views of the installation.

 

5. Jeux, Ruses et Hasards at the Forum des Images

3 short films – Zig-Zag, Le Jeu de l’Oie by Raoul Ruiz, Le Coup du Berger by Jacques Rivette and La Boulangère de Monceau by Eric Rohmer, as part of the “Goût du Jeu” thematic retrospective, surveying the notion of play in films. There are many more of the 70+ films that I would like to discover or watch again, but this selection of shorts by 3 great filmmakers seems like a safe bet.

 

6. Marc Ducret – Tower Bridge at the Paris Jazz Festival

Marc Ducret’s Tower Bridge is a project based on “an attempt at transposing in the musical world a short chapter from Vladimir Nabokov’sAda, in which the writer weaves a whole labyrinth made of mirrors, memories and correspondences, eventually building a form which in turn leads to his other books, themes and emotions”  (from the press release). The 12-piece band incorporates two-third of the excellent Trio Journal Intime (Matthias Mahler on trombone and Frédéric Gastard on bass saxophone), so it’s got to be good.

 

7. Pierre Henry: Voyage à travers ma modernité at Paris Quartier d’Eté

A pioneer of musique concrète and precursor of electronic music, Pierre Henry has been artist-in-residence at Paris Quartier d’Eté (an annual eclectic programme of performing arts) for the past 7 years. If I had to choose only one of the 6 concerts presented at the recently renovated Carreau du Temple, it would probably be Symphonie pour un homme seul, a musical collage in 12 movements featuring vocal fragments recorded backwards, accelerated or repeated, whistles, footsteps, doors slamming, metallic sounds and a prepared piano, which he composed with Pierre Schaeffer in 1949-1950.

Here is a film of the choreography of the same name by Maurice Béjart, created in 1955 and based on the Eroïca movement of the “symphony”.

 

8. Avec motifs apparents at the Cent Quatre

Large-scale in situ installations by 5 artists at the Cent Quatre, a new(ish) arts centre opened in 2008 on the site of the former municipal undertaker services.

Artists include Pascale Marthine Tayou, Xavier Juillot,  Jérémy Gobé, Alice Mulliez and Prune Nourry.