Urban eXperiment: The new French underground

By Jon Lackman

Thirty years ago, in the dead of night, A group of six Parisian teenagers pulled off what would prove to be a fateful theft.

They met at a small café near the Eiffel Tower to review their plans, before heading out into the dark. Lifting a grate from the street, they descended a ladder to a tunnel, an unlit concrete passageway carrying a cable off into the void. They followed the cable to its source: the basement of the Ministry of Telecommunications. Horizontal bars blocked their way, but the skinny teens managed to wedge themselves through and climb to the building’s ground floor. There they found three keyrings in the security office and a logbook indicating that the guards were on their rounds.

But the guards were nowhere to be seen. The six interlopers combed the building for hours, encountering no one, until they found what they were looking for at the bottom of a desk drawer — maps of the ministry’s city-wide network of tunnels. They took one copy of each map, then returned the keys to the security office. Heaving the ministry’s grand front door ajar, they peeked outside; no police, no passersby, no problem. They exited onto the empty Avenue de Ségur and walked home as the Sun rose. The mission had been so easy that one of the youths, Natacha, asked herself if she had dreamed it. No, she concluded: “In a dream, it would have been more complicated.”

This stealthy undertaking was not an act of robbery or espionage but rather a crucial operation in what would become an association called UX — “Urban eXperiment”. UX resemble an artist’s collective, but far from being avant-garde — confronting audiences by pushing the boundaries of the new — its only audience is itself. More surprising still, its work is often radically conservative, intemperate in its devotion to the old. Through meticulous infiltration, UX members have carried out acts of cultural preservation and repair, with an ethos of “restoring those invisible parts of our patrimony that the government has abandoned or doesn’t have the means to maintain”. The group claims to have conducted 15 such covert restorations, often in centuries-old spaces, across Paris.

What has made much of this work possible is UX’s mastery, established 30 years ago and refined since, of the city’s network of underground passageways — hundreds of kilometres of interconnected telecom, electricity and water tunnels, sewers, catacombs, subways and centuries-old quarries. Like computer hackers who crack digital networks and surreptitiously take control of key machines, members of UX carry out clandestine missions throughout Paris’s supposedly secure underground tunnels and rooms. The group routinely uses the tunnels to access restoration sites and stage film festivals, for example, in the disused basements of government buildings.

UX’s most sensational caper (or, at least, revealed so far) happened in 2006. A dedicated cadre spent months infiltrating the Panthéon, the grand structure in Paris that houses the remains of France’s most cherished citizens. Eight restorers built their own secret workshop in a storeroom, which they wired for electricity and internet access and outfitted with armchairs, tools, a fridge and a hot plate. During the course of a year, they painstakingly restored the Panthéon’s 19th-century clock. The neighbourhood must have been shocked to hear the clock sound for the first time in decades: on the hour, the half-hour, the quarter-hour.

Eight years ago, the French government didn’t know UX existed. When their exploits first trickled out into the press, the group’s members were deemed by some to be dangerous outlaws, thieves, even potential inspiration for terrorists. Still, a few officials can’t conceal their admiration. Mention UX to Sylvie Gautron of the Paris police — her speciality is monitoring the city’s old quarries — and her face breaks into a smile. In an era when ubiquitous GPS and microprecise mapping threaten to squeeze all the mystery from our great world cities, UX seems to know, and indeed to own, a deeper, hidden layer of Paris. It claims the entire city, above- and below-ground, as its canvas; its members say they can access every last government building, every narrow telecom tunnel. Does Gautron believe this? “It’s possible,” she says. “Everything they do is very intense.”

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