In May students from the Photography and Urban Cultures (PUC) MA at Goldsmiths met with MA sociology students from the Sorbonne (aka Descartes University) in Paris for an afternoon of presentations and discussions, followed by a day of guided walks around the city’s 13th arrondissement Chinatown.
This was our fourth annual seminar, since a first experimental meeting at the University of London Institute Paris (ULIP) in 2016, and the second to be organized entirely between the Sorbonne and Goldsmiths, thanks to the wonderful efforts of our host Carolina Sanchez Boe.
The venue was the Institut des Cultures d’Islam (ICI) in the 18th arrondissement (northern Paris) – a cool and quiet place, built around a courtyard in the heart of a bustling neighbourhood, alive with the sights, sounds and smells of West and North Africa. And with its own catalogue of photography and film events to boot. We came here 5 years ago to see a Martin Parr show, which had been commissioned by the local community, to help raise funds for a new mosque (instead of praying in the street).
As with each of our meetings so far, this one had its own unique content and flavour. Under the banner Visions of Space, the accent this year was geared even more towards the participation of students, not just through the guided walks, but in the presentations themselves. After presentations by Peter Coles, Paul Halliday and a short film by Moustafa Traoré, David Kendall and Abbas Nokhaste, we were treated to engaging presentations of work by Naoual Mahroug, a doctoral student at the Sorbonne, and Goldsmiths students, Yasmin Zadeh, Stephen Jones , Kali McMillan, and Marie-Alix Isdaul Voisin and Barbara Tramontano (see the programme of presentations here).
When the event closed it was pouring with rain – a signature of much of the following day, too. So, the scheduled wine and baguettes at Sacré Coeur overlooking the panorama of Paris below was abandoned in favour of a beer in a surreal disco-bar around the corner (shades of Twin Peaks).
Buddhist temples, Gilets Jaunes … and Rooftop Dancing
The rain held off for most of Saturday morning, as Peter led about half of the students around some of his long-time haunts, hidden among the brutalist tower blocks and rooftop esplanades of the 13th arrondissement. These encompass Paris’s largest Chinatown, compressed into the ‘Triangle de Choisy’ formed by two avenues and a boulevard. Peter’s haunts included a Buddhist temple in an underground carpark and another, much larger temple hidden in a corner beneath a block of flats. We finished the walk in the Buttes-aux-Cailles on one of the few hills in Paris, – unknown to even some of the Parisians in our group. The Buttes still looks like the rural village that it once was, looking down on the Bièvre river (long buried underground), even though it’s just a stone’s throw from the Place d’Italie.
After lunch, ducking out of the torrential rain in a café before the next walk (the same circuit as in the morning) we were treated to the full drama of the Gilets Jaunes and the massed presence of armed and armoured CRS (riot police), complete with Robocop uniforms, helmets, riot shields and water cannon.
But the skies seemed to dump all the water they held in one go, as we had beautiful sunshine for the rest of the day – albeit interrupted by passing clouds. This was much to the annoyance of Paul, who saw the light change between pocketing his light meter after a reading and raising his Polaroid to his eye. Still, from what I saw of his pictures, he didn’t miss a trick – not least when an impromptu gathering of energetic teenagers practising rooftop dance-moves turned into a full-blown outdoor location shoot.
Rendezvous next year, same time, same place (Brexit permitting).
Peter Coles is Teaching & Research Fellow, at the Centre for Urban and Community Research, Goldsmiths, University of London.