104, or Le Centquatre in its verbal designation, is the center for arts and creativity run by the City of Paris in the northeastern neighborhood of Aubervilliers. An urban-industrial complex, edgy and multifaceted, it aims at mirroring the multiracial and exuberant life on the surrounding streets. This brainchild of Bertrand Delanoë, the mayor of Paris, crystallizes the strong ideological spectrum of art as a democratic enterprise and follows in the French tradition of public commitment to arts management.
Its 39.000 square meters of frantic activity are housed in the former site of the City Morgue that used to give shelter to different trades busying themselves in the death industry. These grim origins have been wiped out in the new conversion and its warehouse dimensions are opened to the sky through its glass ceilings. It functions as a symbol for the regeneration of the arts and the surrounding community.
In its anti-elitist insistence, the center is open as much to the visual as to the performing arts with offerings of plays, circus performances and musical events. Beyond professional creations, it exhorts the occupation of the agora by organic markets, urban rappers and Qi Gong practitioners. Local amateurs of all artistic hues are invited to hire the ateliers for temporary exhibits or performances. It is this effervescent nature that delights and confuses the visitor in equal parts as a disorienting but tasty banquet of riches.
The current exhibits of Argentinian artist Leandro Erlich illustrate the hybrid nature of this collective undertaking. Of ambitious dimensions, his creations straddle the architectural and the trompe l’oeil where reality is a matter of perception and surprise and the spectator is invited to participate and complete the piece. The work called “Bâtiment” acts as a metaphor for the 104. As its current Director José Manuel Gonçalves puts it: “ Imagine a space more than a monument that creates its identity on the continuing research of new functionalities”.
The persistent atmosphere is one of playfulness where art is interpreted as a party activity. This party, however, is costing 12 million euros a year to run of which 8 millions are contributed by the City coffers. In the current climate of budgetary constraints, the political guillotine menaces to release its heavy blade on a project whose compass is still trying to find the Northern Lights.