Academia in the mirror of street art: back to a recent walk in Paris

Fabrizio Sciami/Flickr, CC BY

This was a rainy day in Paris. On June 14, an alternative academic network (RGCS) organised a great learning expedition about street art in the 13th district (“arrondissement”) of Paris. This Open Walked Event-Based Experimentation (OWEE) was an opportunity to mix academics with entrepreneurs and street artists. A group of 20 people thus walked in the grey and cold streets of Paris this day. The context helped us to realize how coloured and warm street art can be!

We started with a meeting point and a first discussion at the town hall of the 13th arrondissement. The deputy major explained us the history and context of street art here. We then walked around from one point to another (see the hashtag #oweesa and our album) before the final destination at les Frigos.

The street as art

In this article, I want to focus on an encounter which took place during this expedition, one of this moment where something happens, where and when we are obviously here, in the situation. It was the planned encounter of the street artist Lor-K in an inner court. We were all seated here, in the cold. Actually, it was raining. Lor-K, a young woman Parisian street artist, stood in front of us, with a cardboard next to her. I will never know what it was for. Suddenly, all the meaning of an OWEE became obvious to me. The possible “mirror effect” for researchers was there.

We are animals of the inside! We are mainly seated, covered, protected, involved in ritualistic environments such as meetings, seminars, courses, PhD defenses, data collection… Here, I felt clearly outside, with someone looking at my “inside”. My all world is an “inside”, made of activities defining the inside from the outside, and staying in the inside. Lor-K recycles waste, rubbish and bulky on site. Her all world is made of what the inside does not need anymore. She stays courageously on the street, works on the street, includes art in and on street, not from the street or the horizon. She creates beauty in an unexpected way and makes rubbishes nice in an ephemeral way.

Here comes another key temporal difference: I spend the bulk of my time trying to build things made to last, or rather, that I expect will last a little bit. She explained us that she never sells her art. She wants to keep the integrity of it. She sells narratives about her work: pictures in exhibitions, books, articles, activities on social media. She creates continuity and durability with the narrative itself. On my side, I realise I keep settling ephemerality and discontinuity with my individual and collective narratives…

Paris Street; Rainy Day, by Gustave Caillebotte (1877). Flickr

Alone together

Lastly, Lor-K told us about her loneliness. Her purposeful, chosen loneliness. She preferred to work alone, it’s more effective. At least for the concrete part (maybe not for the narrative part…). She was alone in the middle of us. She is alone in the middle of the city. Street artists are “alone together”, like entrepreneurs, and maybe also like many academics. This is not my case with RGCS and all these great people interested in alternative things. I think precisely the all OWEE narrative is about breaking the numerous waves that fragment academia, and to produce (with numerous other initiatives) more synchronicity and duration for our work. This is about re-creating powerful collective narratives for academia, shared collective narratives likely to be more transformative and relevant for the City.

But at some point, the place was so cold. I was happy to come back to my indoor, bounding world. At least for a moment.

Just a last thought before coming back to my safe, protected world. OWEE is about alternating, encountering, walking, narrating, and reflecting. Third-places and collaborative spaces are beautiful levers and contexts to create discontinuities. But I realize more and more that street art, art at large, and all the aesthetic, cultural and historical places of the city I’m not used to cross, can play the same role.

To be continued…