Paris Journal: La Miroiterie, Parisian Artist Settlement, May Close

March 14th, 2013

Catalina Martin-Chico for The New York Times

Anne-Sophie Devos has lived at La Miroiterie, an artist settlement in Paris that is closing, for five years.

PARIS — Illegal squats in Paris usually have a short life. After one year, perhaps two, they are either shut down or transformed into legal art centers with the support of the city’s Socialist government. But not La Miroiterie, which has been a renowned artists’ squat for the past 14 years.

Its days appear to be numbered, however, as a development company is threatening to close it down. Somewhat nihilistically, its residents say that the one thing that could have saved it — having it be taken over by the city, like the other squats — would have killed it anyway.

In 1999, an artist who signs his work Michel Ktu was among the first to set up a studio at La Miroiterie, an abandoned mirror factory up the hill of Ménilmontant, a slowly gentrifying immigrant neighborhood in the 20th Arrondissement, in northeastern Paris.

“I was in vital need of a space to work,” he said in his former studio there. Now 46, a set painter for the theater, he identifies with the Parisian Communards of the 19th century and is comfortable with taking what he feels is the property of the people. In this case, empty premises.

Empty but owned. The real estate company SARL Thorel spent four years buying up the various parts of the complex from numerous owners and is now suing to take control of the building, though its plans for the place are not clear.

Over the years, many artists lived and worked in the “squart” (a contraction of the English words “squat” and “art”), and contributed to creating its identity. La Miroiterie provided free services to the neighborhood: a free clothing store was opened, classes were given to children in capoeira (a Brazilian discipline combining martial arts and dance), free meals were distributed, exhibitions were regularly organized and the rusty, graffiti-covered gate of the dilapidated complex was always open.

Over time, residents organized concerts and started to attract a different audience: Parisians looking for an underground scene. La Miroiterie is now well known for its entertainment — jazz, punk and rap shows, which are scheduled several days a week, for no more than 10 euros, about $ 13, or sometimes free, depending on the lineup. The Stooges have played there, along with many American jazz musicians, including David Murray and Oliver Lake.

“There is no other venue like this in Paris, for this kind of music,” said Mr. Ktu, who says thousands of bands have played at La Miroiterie over the years.

In its cultural importance, La Miroiterie has become emblematic of a Parisian squart and its fate has become an issue for the news media.

When they discovered in 2009 that Thorel was planning to evict them, the Miroitiers, as they call themselves, filed suit. But after four years and many court hearings, it looks as if the fate of La Miroiterie is sealed. The whole complex seems likely to be emptied of its last residents by the end of the month, since wintertime evictions are forbidden in France.

Parisians tried to support the Miroitiers: online petitions were issued and demonstrations were held in front of City Hall, demanding that the Miroitiers be able to “continue conducting their cultural, social and ‘humane’ activities without being threatened.” Television and radio stations have recently started documenting the Miroitiers’ activities, and a researcher for the National Center for Scientific Research is working to create La Miroiterie’s archives.

“Places like these should be protected,” said Erwan Le Scouarnec, an amateur hip-hop artist who often performs at La Miroiterie.

The City of Paris and the Miroitiers did discuss ways to preserve La Miroiterie, but nothing came of it. Since the city does not own the building, it cannot prevent the eviction of the artists. But officials offered to relocate them to several different spaces owned by the city. The effort failed partly because the Miroitiers were poorly organized, but also because they refused to compromise.

“The City Council has always respected and admired what was done at La Miroiterie, but we never supported them” financially “because they never wished for their project to be institutionalized,” said a spokesman for the council, who said he was not authorized to give his name.

Anne-Sophie Devos, a 37-year-old Miroitier who has been squatting in a small, misshaped yet cozy room at La Miroiterie for five years, said, “We’d rather be wild, hands free.” Mr. Ktu, who also opposes the city’s involvement, said, “They are willing to help us, but they want to have a hold on us.”

The two of them are considering opening “La Miroiterie No. 2” and already have a vacant building in mind.

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