Caroline Archer: kata-type
Parisian art underground
Paris is in the international super-league when it comes to galleries. No art tour of the city is complete without a visit to the Louvre or the Pompidou Centre. For those whose tastes lean toward the avant-garde there are the galleries in St-Germain. More contemporary work can be found in the Marais, and young artists are premiered in the showrooms around the Bastille. These are the known and acknowledged art spaces of the French capital. However, there is another gallery in Paris that is hidden and unacknowledged, which is home to a collection of art so vast it defies estimating, so various it resists categorising, whose oldest exhibit was created in the seventeenth century and whose newest work was made only yesterday.
This secret gallery can be found in the complex network of passages that wind their way through 285 kilometres (170 miles) of abandoned quarries that lie below the streets of Paris. The stone needed to build the French capital was extracted from these quarries, and after five centuries of extensive and haphazard excavating they were abandoned, leaving Paris sitting on top of a vast hole into which there was a real danger it might collapse.
In 1777 the General Inspection of Quarries was established to investigate, map and make safe the underground of Paris. Since then it has been forbidden to enter the old quarries without the permission of the General Inspection, and any violation can result in trespassers being hauled before the courts and fined. However, this has not stopped the tenacious and the curious from descending illegally into the underground and many of these illicit visitors have marked the quarry walls with a remarkable collection of artistic and graphic material. Engineers and quarrymen, Prussian and German soldiers, Resistance fighters, secret societies and Freemasons, smugglers, subterranean mushroom growers, civilians, students and tourists have all added their marks.
It is impossible to estimate how much material there is in the underground. Hundreds of thousands, probably millions of different graphic images have been made by an unquantifiable number of people, for innumerable reasons, on diverse subjects using a variety of materials. The oldest dated mark is from 1609; the most recent was left yesterday. And decisive moments in the life of Paris have been recorded and preserved in the underground quarries.
The art and graphics cover many genres and were made by many processes: incised inscriptions, handwriting, graffiti, painting, sculpture, mosaics, sketches, directional signage and art installations. These sometimes functional, frequently personal, often fantastic, and always unique artworks are the creation of Everyman. They reflect and record the individual's role in the evolution of a metropolis and collectively they form a visual memory and memorial of the city. The quarries are the hidden art gallery of Paris.
The quarries are full of characters: majuscules and minuscules with or without serifs; roman letters and cursives, some made with a chisel others using a stencil; large and small characters produced with smoke, paint, pencil or incised letters that have been blackened or left with the natural stone still visible. Visitors to the underground cannot fail to be impressed by the volume, variety and ranging competence of the letterforms that have been left on the walls.
These are the official inscriptions made by employees of General Inspection during the course of their work and include technical engineering marks and topographical indicators created with the aim of dating, referencing and directing the work of the quarrymen. In addition there are an abundance of street nameplates and commemorative plaques. The street signs were made to indicate the location and orientation of the inspection galleries; and the plaques remember significant moments in the development of the underground. For those concerned with the evolution of the quarries, these official marks are of great historical importance and tell the story both of the underground and the topographical development of the surface, some also bear witness to times of conflict: the inscriptions are an integral part of the quarry's heritage. To those interested in letterforms the underground has given rise to a curious gallery of vernacular interpretations on the art of inscription.
Most of the official underground inscriptions were probably incised by quarry labourers who were generally uneducated men with limited degrees of literacy and for whom the letters and signs had little meaning beyond their specific purpose in the quarries: they were simply letters as symbols. Many of the inscriptions are crudely rendered and naively produced by hands that had little understanding of the forms they were creating, but the inscriptions are not without charm and their sheer volume cannot fail to impress.
The inscriptions were entirely the creation of the individual labourers who cut without prescription from architects or designers. They were simply following their own habits, instincts and preferences. Most of the cutters rendered traditional and conservative letterforms. Others were more adventurous and love of their task, enthusiasm for letterforms or perhaps sheer high spirits encouraged some cutters to show off and express their pleasure and pride in their work.
The lettering on the quarry walls was purely functional, it was not produced in a public arena to be seen by many and where its presence might enhance or diminish the environment. The letter carvers had neither the skill nor the civic obligation to produce anything other than utilitarian signs. However, whether the inscriptions were incised, painted, stencilled or enamelled, visitors to the quarries would not only be lost, they would also be deprived of items that are a source of typographic pleasure and historical interest giving information about the area where no other evidence remains. The inscriptions not only serve a purpose, they add humanity, richness and subtlety to their environment. Small-scale items they may be, but their pervasiveness makes a big impact.
A visit to the underground is something akin to pot holing: there is a total absence of light; the floor is uneven and unpredictable and in some areas the roof is just a few metres from the ground; the walls are rough and running with water, and sometimes the floor floods and is transformed into a swimming pool. Negotiating the network requires stamina, and it is easy to become disoriented in the frequently turning passages. However, illicit visitors both past and present have attempted to explore the quarries without the assistance of maps. To help with navigation many have found the simplest solution is to mark the walls either with arrows showing direction, or with other symbols indicating evidence of their route. There are an abundance of these signs made by all methods of inscription, they are prominently placed and found on the quarry walls and ceilings at crossroads and intersections.
The quarrymen produced their directional signs using smoke on the ceiling. Visitors of the past used pencil but these have become difficult to see amidst the chaos of signs now in the quarries. Increasingly visitors use aerosols to mark the walls, as spray paint is easy to transport, simple to use and highly visible. Nowadays a whole host of multi-coloured arrows and signs form a miasma of directional or indicatory symbols on the walls of the galleries. Each mark is superimposed over the graphics and graffiti of its predecessors and there are so many signs in some places that it is a wonder the authors can recognise their own.
Whilst the post-war visitors to the quarries may have left a collection of vibrant if disorganised directional signs, by contrast the occupying German forces of 1940-4, made the most orderly, measured and well-executed exit signs to be found in the quarries. The signs were produced with consideration and expertise and not without understanding of letterforms. They also had a uniformity of presentation that created an instantly recognisable corporate image.
Some of the directional signs in the quarries use images rather than symbols. 'Liberty birds' were drawn on the quarry walls by the labourers as a rather poetic means of indicating exit points: the way the bird was facing indicated the way out. The idea of the liberty bird came from the early navigators who, when at sea for many months, longed for the sight of a bird to indicate the approach of land. The quarry workers adopted this symbol to indicate the way out and thus freedom from the quarry.
Jérôme Mesnager is a well known urban artist whose work can be found on walls, façades and hoardings across Paris and major cities around the world: he is also a regular visitor to the quarries and his trade-mark creation 'White Corpse' appears throughout the underground network. 'White Corpse' is the means by which Mesnager left his own unique and unmistakable directional signs in the quarries
Throughout the underground there are roughly made and rapidly executed sketches made with pencil. These images are frequently small, generally very fine and have been carefully rendered with great detail; they are scarcely visible because graphite on stone in an unlit environment is hard to see. Larger images produced with charcoal, coal, or slate have been left on rough surfaced walls. In addition there are some drawings and sketches that have been created with black smoke on the quarry ceiling. The sketches cover a multitude of subjects. Some are representations of men at work in the underground; many of the images are rapidly made observations of topical events and pornographic image adds titillation to the underground; some of the drawings use religious or Masonic symbolism, others are wholly esoteric and their significance and intent have faded with the years.
War has always played a major part in the life of the quarries. During the Revolution, those fleeing persecution left images of that most evocative symbol of their time: the guillotine. During the 1870 siege of Paris, French Commune fighters left defiant slogans and tributes to France. At the same time Prussian soldiers made use of the quarries. Some of these men left pictorial records of soldiers at war; anonymous hands realized most of them, but some are credited with the name of their creator.
For some people the quarries are frightening places and it is not surprising that many esoteric symbols can be found. There has always been speculation that the quarries have been used as a meeting place for Freemasons and there are typical Masonic symbols such as acacia trees and compasses, on the quarry ceiling. There are also religious symbols made to Christianise a godless place and to bring light into the dark, and to provide protection for those that drew them.
The sketches and drawings in the Parisian quarries may have been made in haste by inexperienced hands, but they form an historical essay on the life and times of this unique underground world, and highlight the concerns, fears and superstitions of the people who drew them.
There have always been clandestine visitors to the underground. In the beginning their numbers were quite small because the quarries were relatively unknown, unmapped and uncharted. Today it is estimated there are in excess of 8,000 clandestine visitors venturing below ground each year, generally at the weekend or at night. Many of them make regular descents. This is despite the fact that entering the quarries is illegal and that over the years there has been a systematic and widespread closing of access points. The illicit visitors are known as Cataphiles, they are young, predominantly male and many, but by no means all, are students. Their reasons for exploring the quarries are diverse: some like the geology of the place, others its history and the architecture attracts yet more. Some go down for the physical challenge whilst others merely want to have fun, play music, and drink and smoke in this novel party venue. Many are tempted down because of the prohibition, it is an act of defiance on their part and the element of risk lends an additional frisson. But whatever their reasons, it is the singularity of the place that is the greatest attraction and many Cataphiles descend simply to 'enjoy the ignored inheritance of Paris', which most people do not know exists and which few 'are privileged to have seen.'
A number of Cataphiles go to exercise their talents as artists. Cataphiles have been illicitly producing art in the underground since the early 1980s and their paintings, mosaics, sculptures, ceramics, and installations are found over a large area of the quarry network. It is an environment that encourages introspective, contemplative and decidedly personal paintings of subjects that are always extraordinary and frequently bizarre: monsters and beasts, phantoms and ghouls are favourites; futuristic topics recur; and politics, religion and sex inevitably find wall space.
The painters produce work that is highly stylised and graphic and which has been inspired by many genres: some have adopted the manner of comic-book art; others have been stimulated by Egyptian hieroglyphics or North America Indian symbols; punk has had its influence; whilst classical art has shaped other paintings. Some of the art is purely decorative, and colourful geometric and amorphous shapes abound. The sculptors and ceramicists choose gentle themes and are often influenced by architecture and produce work inspired by masons of an earlier age. Alternatively, fantastic and mysterious creations of the imagination result in whimsical castles or extravagant gargoyles. The mosaic artists create the most delicate work in the quarries and their small pieces of coloured glass and stone are used to produce charming birds, butterflies and flowers. For those with no aptitude for art but who wish to make a creative statement, installations are the solution: one room is strewn with artificial flowers; another filled with CDs; and yet one more is equipped with an inflatable doll, sex toys and pages torn from pornographic magazines. But whatever the subject matter or method of production, Kata-art is always executed with passion, humour, and wit.
Large walls, subversive attitudes, illegal situations and dangerous conditions are essential to the performance of most modern graffiti writers. The quarries admirably satisfy all criteria: they provide extensive wall space; a population of rebellious and anarchic individuals; trespassing is illegal; and danger is ever-present danger. The quarries are undoubtedly the graffiti writers' natural milieu and they find the quarry stonewalls irresistible. Graffiti is a large-scale art form and the underground is accommodating with its space. Dedicated writers have the choice of prime spots that give good pay back for their risk, time and money, while small-scale graffiti tags appear in areas where Cataphiles congregate and where marking the wall is seen as a social activity, a sign of being part of a group.
Wall writing is ephemeral, however the longevity of graffiti in the quarries is greater than that at street level: it is not subject to the vagaries of the weather or to removal by zealous town councils. As a consequence there is a lot of layering of one generation of graffiti on top of another and several decades of graffiti happily co-exist.
Opinion is divided over the merits of the graffiti writers work. Some people regard it as inexcusable vandalism not to be tolerated under any circumstances, an unwelcome intrusion whose presence is destroying and defacing the city's subterranean heritage. For many others, the work is welcome as it is seen to humanise an inhospitable place and to provide evidence of life in an otherwise fossilised environment. But love or hate the graffiti writers, their creations are a testimony of our time, and the thoughts and actions of the graffiti artists take their place in the history of the quarries.
Parisian art underground is hidden from everyone except the illicit visitors, but there is another more ephemeral form of underground art that is out of sight and buried in the fabric of the stone, and which is only seen by those that know where to look.
For the past twenty years it has been the custom of the cataphiles to leave small leaflets or pieces of folded paper known as 'tracts' in the quarries. These tracts are hidden everywhere in the underground; some are stuck to the walls whilst the most beautiful, rare, or sought after are pushed into the cracks of the stone. The practice began in the early 1980s when paper notices were posted on the walls asking visitors to remove their rubbish when leaving. Today the purpose of the tracts remains primarily one of communication, however since their first appearance the leaflets have evolved significantly both in terms of content and presentation and have developed a distinct editorial, literary and visual style.
Tracts are self-conscious, amateur publications that form an important part of the cataphiles' alternative culture. Some tracts are issued at regular or irregular intervals and might even be classified as periodicals or serials, but publishing schedules are non-existent. Some of the productions are dated and numbered and some are ascribed to a particular cataphile whilst others remain anonymous. Whilst much of the art on the quarry walls is dependant upon images, the tracts are more reliant on words. Their editorial style and content is often irreverent; they can be obscene, bizarre or downright funny, and they generally display an in-your-face attitude and are written in forthright language. Not all the tracts have an idiosyncratic edge; some are sensitive with a touch of pathos whilst others are serious statements on meaningful subjects. But they all share the common characteristics of energy and spontaneity because their contents remain free from manipulation by owners, publishers or advertisers. Typically, a tract consists of personal observations, opinionated narratives, poems or short stories that are often accompanied by hand-drawn images or other crudely assembled illustrative matter. Because the tracts are a part of an active alternative culture their creators often exempt themselves from the traditional rules of publishing and ignore the conventions of grammar, spelling, punctuation and pagination, they pepper the text with plenty of expletives and frequently breach copyright laws. It is a form of publishing that is underground both literally and metaphorically.
Tracts have a firm standing as bonafide non-commercial vehicles of expression in the quarries and they are tributes to a belief in freedom of expression, the power of the individual, the value of diversity. Their production shows the cataphile community to be large and thriving and for as long as there are passionate cataphiles or those with agendas the tracts will continue to flourish in the quarries.
For those who know and love the quarries the greatest artistic creation in the underground is the rock itself and the fabulous structures raised from the limestone by the engineers and architects in the course of upholding the city surface. Each structure has its own beauty, its own reason for being and its own history that has been incised into it by the engineers responsible for its construction. However, the last thirty years have seen a dramatic increase in the number of illicit visitors to the quarries, which has resulted in a commensurate increase in the quantity of graphic images appearing on the quarry walls. This in not always for the good, and some people feel the illicit images are starting to detract from the architectural beauty of the underground but perhaps, as one Cataphile commented 'this is the destiny of this scorned place!'
Caroline Archer is a UK-based journalist and writer on the graphic arts. Her publications include Tart Cards, The Kynoch Press, The St Bride Notebook and the soon-to-be-published Parisian Art Underground. She is also a founding trustee of the newly established St Bride Printing Foundation.