06/25/2014 10:38 am ET Updated Aug 25, 2014

Of Squats, Near-Squats and After-Squats

Pockets of Artistic Creativity in Paris

Gaspard Delanoe is a fighter -- his passion evident as he walks me through 59 Rivoli, a six-story commercial building in Paris's First Arrondissement. Empty for eight years, the derelict building was occupied by Delanoe and his artist comrades some 15 years ago when they first turned it into an illegal squat and, subsequently, convinced Paris officials to transform the building into a legal after-squat. It is a victory, Delanoe explained, that is constantly being tested by the city.

Delanoe walks me through the squat's history, round by round. "We came in the place through a broken window at night," he said, explaining how he and two comrades entered the building. He nods in a kind of self-recognition, acknowledging their bravery. Before he continues, however, he makes sure that I understand the philosophy behind his activism:

Paris has museums and high-class galleries," he said, adding that, "We represent something that is different. Not a museum. Not a gallery. Not anything to do with money. People will see art in our workshops -- it is a third choice.

Once Credit Lyonnais, the bank which owned the building (and 100 others) went bankrupt, the State of France took it over and sued the squatters for possession. During an eight-month delay in the legal process, Delanoe won the support of Bertrand Delanoe (no relation), a left-wing candidate for mayor, who promised to save the squat if he got elected. No one thought he would win but, in an upset, he did. Delanoe was quick to take him up on the promise to save the whole project. The City of Paris agreed to buy the building from the State for 4.6 million Euros, about $6.3 million today. It was a big building but it was "in terrible condition. It was raining in everywhere and desperately in need of renovation."

Over the next three years, from 2006-2009, the city spent 4.1 million Euros ($5.6 million), almost as much as the purchase price, to renovate the building. This included installing an elevator and a second staircase. "There was lots of controversy over the expenditure," Delanoe said. "The right wingers complained, 'Why is the city spending 9 million Euros to legalize these squatters?'"

The city said that they would consider legalizing the space but only as studios and workshops. There was to be no living there. "We said why separate art from life?" There was disagreement among the 30 artists inside the group, 20 of them permanent members who could stay as long as they wanted, and 10 who had six-month residencies. "Some said, 'Let's do it. It's half but better half than nothing.' Others said, 'No, its better to be kicked out than to accept this compromise.'" In the end, the group voted, with a majority of 22 accepting the three-year lease, which ran from 2009-2012.

Before they signed their current lease (2012-2015), the city wanted them to cut the number of permanent artists from 20 to 15. The idea was to have more temporary artists with six-month residencies. "We compromised on 17," said Delanoe, who explained that they were able to do so because they still held the majority vote on the five-person committee which selected the artists -- comprised of one person from the city and four from their group.

Costs for artists are minimal, 130 Euros per month for a studio, for both permanent and visiting artists. Rue Rivoli pays for the electric, for security, and for an accountant which adds up to about 65,000 Euros per year -- a substantial sum for the after-squat.

A European paper company, Camson, came to the rescue, sponsoring an artist competition each year and generating 10,000 Euros in revenue for the collective. But, Delanoe stressed, "We don't want to be a 'space.'" The idea is to keep things modest. Artists pay 100 Euros a week to show in their gallery. Permanent artists can have at most one show a year in the gallery. "We want to remain a collective," Delanoe said.

Studios at 59 Rivoli are very small, about 10 square meters or 90 square feet, and permanent artists tend to stay for two to five years, although five of the original squatters are still there after nearly 15 years.

Aside from the tug-of-war over permanent vs. temporary artists in residence, there is also the tension over selling art in the building. The city mandates that artists cannot sell their art in the building so they don't show prices. Artists keep their own private little sheets of prices which are shown discretely to visitors. All transactions take place outside the building.

"It's total hypocrisy," Delanoe said. "They fear that if they gave us the right to sell here, we would be a commercial space, in competition with the galleries." Unlike other artist squats like Les Frigos which is open only three or four days a year, 59 Rivoli is open from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. daily and, according to their agreement with the city, artists are supposed to be at the studios regularly. "We are located in the heart of Paris, on the biggest metro line at the Chatelet Station," Delanoe added, stopping to greet a tourist from Florida who was visiting 59 Rivoli for the third time. She is one of many. According to a ministry of culture study, more than 40,000 visitors tour 59 Rivoli each year.

Delanoe has his eyes on Lisbon, a capital city which after its recent economic crisis has hundreds of empty buildings that are city and state owned. "We wrote and said that we would like to send a bunch of artists there but so far they have not answered."

Julien de Casabianca-Caumer is a seasoned squatter. Now occupying his second squat in a former water tower at 111 Rue St.-Honore in the First Arrondissement, a building that was built to serve the Palais Royale in 1776, he received his training in the trenches some 12 years earlier in 59 Rivoli. Within seconds of talking to him, it is apparent that Caumer is more of a diplomat than a fighter, at least these days, with his global mission for The Laboratory of Creation (Labo) of an international network of art residencies and creative venues.

Compared to 59 Rivoli, the tower building, which also served as the embassy of Honduras in the 1960s, is small, with only 15 artists occupying its six stories and basement. Caumer is positive about his relationship with the City of Paris. "The city recognized our presence from the start," he said. "They thought that we were doing a good job."

So, without hesitation, Caumer signed a contract in 2005, making the building the first illegal squat to become legal studio space. Artists, however, were not allowed to live there. When asked if artists broke the rules and lived there, Caumer said that officially they did not do so. Respecting the city's decision that the collective not just benefit a few, they rotate the artists-in-residence. On average, artists stay six months to two years.

In addition to the studios, the building contains a ground-floor gallery, where Entre les cailloux by Jean-Michel Alberola was on exhibit from May 14 to June 12. Paintings by Merce Lopez (Labo Barcelona) and Pascale Forget (Labo Paris) are currently up until June 30, to be followed by a collective exhibition of all Labo artists in July and August.

A filmmaker whose 2010 feature film Passing By was filmed in 44 cities in 22 countries in Europe, without a script or actor or staging, Caumer was just back from South Dakota where he will be collaborating with Dominique Barneaud, a well-known French producer, on a new feature film.

Caumer directs me to the Laboratory of Creation's website and to their network of spaces in Barcelona, Brussels, Berlin, the French countryside, and Sicily. Like Paris, he said, "We all have the same spirit." He recently opened another Labo, one block away from the water tower at 37 Rue de Richelieu, in a monument with a sculpture in honor of Moliere, a few meters from The Comedy Francaise.

All artists are totally international. We travel all in the time, in different disciplines, all over the world. In the past, artists often traveled because of war or other crises. Now, everybody travels. The lab was born because we are brothers. A fraternity. We are trying to answer the question: What are your needs?

So, for example, in Sicily, two months rental of their space enables them to pay for the rest of the year for artist residencies. Artists pay only one Euro per day to be in the St.-Honore building.

Caumer praises the City of Paris and says that there are now 10 legal or ex-illegal after-squats in the city. "The problem in Paris is almost solved," he said, adding that "Ten years ago artists wanted space. Now, places need artists."

Solved for some people, but not everyone as a visit to Hangar 56, a four-month old squat reveals. When we met in May, members of the group were about to go to court for the third time. Mostly an activity and gathering place, this squat has chosen to focus on citizen organizations and nonprofits, although there are some artists in the building. Sandy (real name Henri Murden) tells me that there is a big demand for space in the area of social entrepreneurship, especially for cultural audiences. Many of the issues raised by 59 Rivoli artists are now being reviewed by newer squatters in this larger context.

The building presently includes a screening room, a stage, a gallery space for street art, an open computer repair shop occupied by a hacker, a clothing exchange, a communal kitchen, and at least one studio for a painter, Gauthier Schoonover, who "likes being a minority in the building." Schoonover said that there is a real give and take over the question of space in the squat and that things can change easily. He points to a stack of mattresses in his studio. "I moved them because they were in my way," he said, "but the next day they moved them back."

As I leave, I stop to chat with a group busy making signs for an upcoming demonstration against privatization by the radical French National Collective. One of them gives me a handmade sign, a cutout of a yellow and brown bee, writing her name Louise and phone number on the back. "We have a big enemy," she said.

Of Squat, Near-Squats, and After-Squats

All slideshow photos by Shael Shapiro.