Vox Populi

Vox Populi: A Public Sphere for Politics and Poetry

Bart Plantenga: Paris Scratch

Archaeologie de Boureé Archaeology of the Drunk Dance
The short snout-nosed barman at the landmark, Le Pigal, wipes grime & puke off the dormant juke. Shines it until he sees his face – a bit too much too early, this kind of mockery. Sweeps up butts, sugar cube wrappers & wadded bar napkins, secret projectiles holding as yet mycologically unidentified bodily fluids. He opens the door a crack to air the place out of its deathly smells, its archeological legacy, a nocturnal residue discharged by the hard-faced maquereaux (pimps), old Brassai whores & other loose- toothed flambeurs, former school kids gone sour, all corralled into 1 side of the sweeping black neo-kitsch horseshoe bar, acting out the spectacles expected of them. Crafted from the finest Hollywood, like a copy of a copy betrayed by their own self-portraits. The chichi fashion designers & awestruck touristas can order the 80-franc menu, slum it, pilgrimage into Pigalle. I stand grey between the 2, like a piece of grimy protective glass, feel the undertow, the attractiveness of their mutual contempt.

Empty Immobiliers Empty Buildings
Owners everywhere in the world would rather brick in the windows of empty buildings than have people without homes live there. However, simple physics dictates that the homeless (sans abri) shall flow naturally into abandoned buildings, making them habitable, homey even, here on the border of the 19th & 20th. The renovations by artists including members of a ska band & some refugees with donated materials or those found on the street have already produced a photo studio, recording studio, art gallery & performance space. “It’s not a commune – too many negative connotations,” FanFan, an artist-member of Robin de Bois [Robin Hood], an action directe group, explains. She prefers “village” because “Our door is open. At first locals were hesitant, curious, but now it’s ça va. We engage the neighborhood. 18 kids were just here doing art. An African refugee family of 11 lives here.” Artists Pascal & Omar recuperate discarded doors & use paint scavenged from old garages. Pascal is not worried about the police. “They need to be careful – public relations – & the doors are heavy & reinforced…” The building was demolished 6 months later. Return now & you see not a single sign of this squat that was once located somewhere between impossible & hope.

La Grève to the Grave The Strike to the Grave
The strike, a grève, which for some may sound like grave, affects Orly & involves the cleaners, the maintenance crews, the personnes de nettoyage, the humans who disappear right inside their very presence, their obvious ubiquity. We as tourists, as passersby, as people with appointments defined by more meaningful employment, have stopped relating to these beings because if you make eye contact you could embarrass them – or so you think – so, in deference to their privacy, you do not stare. But you maintain this nagging notion that if you look at them & they stare back, you will end up like one of them.

Champs des Pneus Picasso Field of Picasso’s Tires
Although the team leader had explained my job in both English & French several nights earlier, I was unprepared for the Champs Élysées on Bastille Day. I am led around the lot with its 75 tractors times 4 tractor tires that I’ll be painting with my crew, after all, employment is work is pay. but it all remains just beyond my ken. The task: hastily but neatly paint each black tire glossy black & then neatly outline the words of the brand name in white. The Champs, planted with its million bushels of fresh wheat in pots, is ready for the tractors to mow down in a veritable harvest ballet in honor of man’s glorious triumph through industry only after we complete our painterly task. Does everything depend on us!? There are millions from every nationality in attendance to partake of this spectacle of which I am a part, treated as migrant grunt 1 minute & photographed on my knees as a performance artist the next, distracted along the way by requests for me to pose with brushes aloft next to 1 of my completed tires. I am almost certain that 1 day absurdity & purpose will become hopelessly or necessarily confused for 1 another.

Travesti Contre le Scheisse et le Shit Transvestite Against Shit
The brood of English tourists with their raw necks & generous-fit trainers who had reduced themselves to 1 sole pleasure, taking the piss out of all humanity, are taunting the travestis by throwing centimes at them. It is like a childhood game. The travesti in leopard had tits of a precise & elegant manufacture, the way certain armaments can be awesome & enchanting. But, more importantly, she is a doll of a precise fabrication that combines Cubism, Fluxus, Impressionism, mythology & combustion with a stare that’s like a cigarette burning a hole through polyester. They stand pathetically just far enough away out of the swing of her big grommeted handbag, across the rue clutching whatever manhood they have left & stare & hoot & ridicule, singing “Lola,” wasted blokes arm in arm, war casualties of their own battles. She ultimately loses the grace of boundless patience & turns on them like a dark rabid dog. “Casse toi! Chiens, scheisse, dumm scheisse assholes, scheisekopfen, arsewipes, fuck you, what you looook at idiots?”

Tenir les Barricades Man the Barricades
I’m DJing at the Ermitage from 3 to 9 PM during the city-wide Fete de la Musique. No 1 informs me that no 1 will be here except for some annoying clochards who’ve decided the squat transformed into a vibrant place by young art-squatters is actually theirs. I spin the Meters, Booker T. & the MGs, Gary Clail, Dub Syndicate, the Beatnigs … But only a few hipster types enter & deflate into corners with hands across their foreheads – headaches, sharp light – to listen for audio signals that may re-engage their nervous systems. I see light pouring in through wire- enforced windows to reveal clouds of ancient cement dust floating around the space. 1 girl is rolling her body along the wall to “my” music. I learn later that the clochards, wearing headbands, have barricaded the doors, leaving festival-goers stranded in the lobby, far from “my” dance space. A struggle ensues & the branchée patrons, overmaster the opposition, burst through, toting plastic cups of cheap wine, only to find themselves miffed by my mix: Culturcide, Curtis Mayfield, Mark Stewart, Renegade Sound Wave, Fela, Jah Wobble, Hank Williams – so much so that their nervous systems refuse to process the audio cognitive dissonance & begin to twitch, tense up, hurl invective: “Ce genre de merde est-ce?” But 1 girl, Céline, tries to intervene, offers to stay behind & help. But her boyfriend, a much older squatter, has other ideas & departs with her hanging decoratively from his arm. At 9 PM sharp, Pedro, a Radio Nova DJ, arrives with his entourage & countless metal containers packed with vinyl. He puts his thumb on my vinyl & the space is full of a tense, held-breath, silence. The world is waiting for Pedro….

The Nazi Porcelaine Nazi Porcelain
The old woman isn’t particularly happy about taking time off from watching her main passion, National League baseball, on cable TV. Her daughter, Madame D., tells me that nothing else helps – not sedatives, not meditation, not soothing music, only baseball helps keep her within the reasonable limits of vaguely calm. But once she starts in on the story she cannot be stopped. The Nazis threw her family out of their own house & set up a headquarters here &, instead of washing the dishes, “these brutes,” she pointed out in near- perfect English gleaned from her many visits to America, “rather than wash our dishes – Limoge china! – they just tossed the dirty dishes out the back window. After the war, there was a pile of broken dishes a meter high.”

Le Text Sacré The Sacred Text
I make many photocopies at the Paris Passion offices. Too many if you ask some in the office. There are always petty souls who think they’re siding with right, when all they’re doing is siding with might in the hope that their loyalty will be rewarded with continued employment. Some tolerate me making copies & just ignore me or totally refuse any eye contact. But, the most interesting includes those, like receptionist RG, who enthusiastically encourage it as their own indirect way of getting back at their employer & as a good a way as any of redistributing income. I have copied my entire novel while in deep, heated debate over a few words in an article I wrote. Later I stand on the bowed bridge looking down into the Canal St. Martin, not far from Passion’s offices. &, on a park bench, I marvel at the quicksand-lined vortex of journalism. You see your byline & you read the article & feel estranged from it – sure, some of the words are the same but not in that order & a LOT less of them. You marvel at how they whittle a story, a profile of an artist of some history, his whole life reduced from 957 words to – I sat & counted – 281. All rewritten to feature an art gallery to coax an ad out of its owner.


Copyright 2017 Bart Plantenga. From his collection Paris Scratch (Sensitive Skin Books, 2016)

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