(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)
A fascinating 2012 article in Wired introduced readers to the exploits of Urban eXperiment (UX for short). UX is a clandestine group of Parisians who make use of the underground tunnels break into museums in order to restore neglected pieces of art. Pascal Monnet is a museum administrator who did everything in his power to shut them down.
If this sounds too much like Robert DeNiro’s rebel-commando air conditioner repair man character from Brazil for comfort, well, yeah-me too. A friend of mine from graduate school, Dan Twiggs, sagely noted that Brazil was actually a documentary rather than a bizarre dark comedy.
UX is more than cool enough to force you to revise any stereotypes Americans hold about the French, but people like Monnet force you to reconsider your reconsideration. The group invests their time, effort and money into restoration projects neglected by the state, and even gives pointers to museum administrators regarding the flaws in their security. Armed with a map of the underground tunnel networks beneath Paris, UX members set up workshops in order to conduct late night restoration projects. In 2006, they decided to fix a large clock within the Pantheon:
That September, Viot persuaded seven other UX members to join him in repairing the clock. They’d been contemplating the project for years, but now it seemed urgent: Oxidation had so crippled the works that they would soon become impossible to fix without re-creating, rather than restoring, almost every part. “That wouldn’t be a restored clock, but a facsimile,” Kunstmann says. As the project began, it took on an almost mystical significance for the team. Paris, as they saw it, was the center of France and was once the center of Western civilization; the Latin Quarter was Paris’ historic intellectual center; the Pantheon stands in the Latin Quarter and is dedicated to the great men of French history, many of whose remains are housed within; and in its interior lay a clock, beating like a heart, until it suddenly was silenced.
Untergunther wanted to restart the heart of the world. The eight shifted all their free time to the project.
After fixing the clock, UX notified the administration of the Pantheon, whereupon the story started to go wrong:
As soon as it was done, in late summer 2006, UX told the Pantheon about the successful operation. They figured the administration would happily take credit for the restoration itself and that the staff would take over the job of maintaining the clock. They notified the director, Bernard Jeannot, by phone, then offered to elaborate in person. Four of them came—two men and two women, including Kunstmann and the restoration group’s leader, a woman in her forties who works as a photographer—and were startled when Jeannot refused to believe their story. They were even more shocked when, after they showed him their workshop (“I think I need to sit down,” he murmured), the administration later decided to sue UX, at one point seeking up to a year of jail time and 48,300 euros in damages.
Jeannot’s even more clueless successor, Pascal Monnet, not only continued to file suit against known members of UX, and he even hired someone to break the newly restored clock:
Jeannot’s then-deputy, Pascal Monnet, is now the Pantheon’s director, and he has gone so far as to hire a clockmaker to restore the clock to its previous condition by resabotaging it. But the clockmaker refused to do more than disengage a part—the escape wheel, the very part that had been sabotaged the first time. UX slipped in shortly thereafter to take the wheel into its own possession, for safekeeping, in the hope that someday a more enlightened administration will welcome its return.
Meanwhile, the government lost its lawsuit. It filed another, which it also lost. There is no law in France, it turns out, against the improvement of clocks. In court, one prosecutor characterized her own government’s charges against Untergunther as “stupid.” But the clock is still immobile today, its hands frozen at 10:51.
Well thank goodness for that- after all we wouldn’t want a clock actually displaying the correct time for more than two minutes a day- that would be like having a public school system that actually taught children how to read– quelle horreur! It strikes me that in a sense we are all waiting for that “more enlightened administration” in one form or another. I happily nominate Pascal Monnet for the Higgy, as he is a good candidate to be Patron Saint of Soulless Bureaucrats everywhere by displaying rigidity well past the point of absurdity.