In October 2013, cultural media and street art lovers from all over the world had their eyes glued to a small apartment building in Paris’ 13th arrondissement which was slated for demolition.
A neighbourhood gallery that specializes in street art managed to convince the arrondissement’s town hall, the building’s landlord and over one hundred artists from around the world to participate in the first street art exhibition to cover nine floors and a basement, in 36 abandoned apartments.
A web platform and a TV documentary accompanied the installation, to create a veritable, evolving, long-term transmedia experience.
An overwhelming physical experience
Acting as exhibition curator, Mehdi Ben Cheikh, founder of Galerie Itinerrance, gave carte blanche to over one hundred artists, who flocked in from around the world to spend the summer leaving their mark on the building.
The results were open to the public for just one month, from October 1 to 31; the show was so successful that the lines grew longer with each passing day. In the last 48 hours, the tower stayed open all night, while people waited a record 13 hours to enter.
Nicknamed “the Sistine Chapel of Street Art” by an enthusiastic press, the tower has been slated for destruction from the start, an outcome that was expected and even wished for by residents waiting for new housing. Extending the exhibit was never considered. The issue then was how to conserve it, how to keep a record of this extraordinary show.
A historic TV documentary
The gallery owner first approached France Ô, a French public television network. “It wasn’t the exhibition so much as the concept that intrigued us: a temporary exhibition for artwork that is all too ephemeral. What’s more, the project fell under two of the three pillars of our channel’s programming policy: urban culture and openness to the world,” confirmed Olivier Daube, the programming advisor at France Ô who spearheaded this project.
A 52-minute TV documentary went into production, taking a historical and fact-based look at what street art has become in the last 20 years, its rise to legitimacy and the musealization of the practice.
Matthieu Buchsenschutz, producer at La Blogothèque, knew that a web approach, more thorough but also more immediate, would be entirely appropriate for this type of project. “There is a real story to tell about this building for a wide audience. But it only lasts 52 minutes, and could never show the rich nature of the building and the works that were created there.”
An interactive and evolving project
The producer elaborated on his thought process: “We must use the web to design a visit of the entire building, one that also creates interactions between real-world and online visitors. We asked ourselves three questions:
— How can we design a site that will embrace the extreme diversity and richness of the one hundred artists that are there?
— How can we make this virtual experience immersive?
— How can we work with interaction from online visitors?”
The team decided to develop the transmedia project so that it would span three time periods: before, during and after it was exhibited to the public. “Before” deals with the origins of the exhibition, to be covered by the TV documentary and its director, Thomas Lallier. “During” and “After” would be dealt with by the web portion.
The website was quickly envisioned as a type of frieze, allowing visitors to travel through the tower, floor by floor, and collect a certain number of media clips—images, videos and sounds. “The frieze allows us to discover all of the works in each apartment, which is the unit of measurement for the Tour, and enabled us to develop a soundtrack with Radio France,” Mathieu Buchsenschutz explained.
A radical stance on the exhibition’s end
[Text in picture: 28% of the tower has been saved, 09D 08H 02M until saving ends, Work 27% saved, 153 users are saving works]
As of November 1, Tour Paris 13 was longer accessible, and public interaction took a new form.
While the website could have been considered a virtual back-up of a work fated to be destroyed, the team decided to go against this assumption.
“We felt it was very important to maintain coherence between the physical premises and its virtual twin. To trace something while giving it its own life,” elaborated Matthieu Buchsenschutz.
The site went to black and white, divided into 500,000 small squares (like pixel art). Internet users had ten days to “save” the site and collect the works represented there.
The producer explained this step, extreme to say the least. “Rather than insisting on its destruction, we ultimately chose a positive action, saving it. Just as the tower took one year of work from the artists, basing ourselves in the same extreme philosophy about the ephemeral nature of street art, we were ready to let the six months of work we had put into creating the site be reduced to nothing if nobody took action. We would let the site disappear, just like the building would be destroyed.”
[Text in picture: 09D 08H 02M until saving ends, Image 1/3 72% saved, Press to save part of the work. Capture the image to access hidden zones. Return to the floor Browse artists’ works]
In concrete terms, Internet users had to click on each black and white square to see it in colour once more. By clicking on the images of each apartment, visitors access the photos to be “restored.”
[Text in picture: 09D 07H 54M until saving ends, Image 1/3 73% saved, Apartment 953]
This success of this innovative experience exceed the team’s hopes: 80% of the works were saved within 40 hours of the site going live, and all of the small squares were clicked—and the artwork preserved—in less than 5 days.
[Text in picture: 08D 21H 392M until saving ends, Image 1/3 100% saved]
A complete and successful project
Following the operation’s success, the production team turned to the future. “We’re going to film the tower’s destruction, which will take place in several stages, from the building’s secure closure to its dismantlement, floor by floor. We are thinking about streaming demolition live; we were going to it to include in the documentary, which should air on France Ô sometime between April and June 2014,” notes Matthieu Buchsenschutz.
Despite its local and ephemeral origins, Tour Paris 13 has become a universal transmedia work, with the chosen format perfectly echoing its subject. Demolition work on the building has now begun; soon the only traces of the exhibition will be the future documentary, the saved website, and the hundreds of photos taken by online visitors.