We are living through a new golden age of debate and salons. Talks and conversations are the new religion. We asked our senior correspondent to spend one week at the heart of her city’s debates.
The veneered folding seats squeak in the lecture hall just off Paris’s Boulevard Voltaire as a mixture of policy wonks, former ambassadors and students settle down to hear three panellists begin a discussion on the geopolitics of Russia. It’s standing room only and the latecomers who arrive clutching their overcoats must perch in the wings.
At events such as these it is the audience’s questions that define the evening. In this case there are many. Are we pushing Russia into the arms of China? Is France inherently Russophobic? Then a more passionate stand on the back row: “How can we morally engage with a regime that has political prisoners locked away in modern gulags?” A response of sorts comes from another spectator on the front row who jumps to his feet. “Viewed from Russia, the Borgo prison in Corsica is a penal colony. It is a matter of perception. They are having the same discussion about us.” It’s a hot topic for a cold, dark Thursday night. When the talking is over there’s a sense of catharsis as the crowd disperses.
On any given evening in Paris – and most big European cities – there are dozens of talks, lectures and seminars. People gather before work for coffee mornings; they attend lunchtime jamborees and after-work events at bookshops, cinemas, cafés and libraries. In the art world, no exhibition is complete without a series of rencontres. In diplomatic circles, such events are where business cards are swapped and alliances formed. The city that invented the soirée is rebooting its oral tradition. In a world that’s supposedly governed by online social networks, the urge to gather in a room, listen and converse is more compelling than ever. Talks are a way of making sense of the world – alongside likeminded people.
The next morning the bells of Notre Dame cathedral chime 10 as a much more arty demographic crams into Shakespeare and Company’s café near Saint Michel to hear four women introduce a new project (and book) called How we See. The attendees clutch buttered bagels and jam-slathered scones as the panellists are introduced. With the room at capacity, a hardy splinter group assembles outside at tables in the bitter morning cold (and lingering Seine fog) to follow the discussion through the long window. The first to speak is Russet Lederman, a writer and publisher from New York who has put together a mobile reading room of books by female photographers that will tour the US and Argentina. “The goal is to spark a debate about inclusivity,” she says. “We want these books in as many hands as possible.” Next, publisher Frédérique Destribats opines on the work of Claude Cahun, Hannah Höch and Lucia Moholy. “A lot of her work is attributed to her husband [László Moholy-Nagy],” she says.
Here the questions quickly become manifestos: women are under-represented in photo publishing; they’re under-represented in arts education; older women should also be taken into account. When a well-known (male) writer and curator takes the mic to make a comment on who is creating the photographic canon, parts of the audience prickle with hostility. “Not again,” says one person. “There was some tension last night when he spoke at another event,” says another spectator. “There was a sense that all these women had spoken and he had to have the last word.” It’s clear each talk has its consensus – and its disruptors.
Paris Photo, the four-day jamboree at the Grand Palais, is in full swing. One side of the balcon d’honneur in the huge glass-domed hall is reserved for a series of quick-fire informal talks with artists. Véronique Prugnaud, co-founder of The Eyes magazine and organiser of the programme, says the sessions are modelled on Japan’s PechaKucha, a fast-paced presentation format devised in 2003 by Tokyo-based kda architects. It allows just 20 slides shown for 20 seconds each during a presentation limited to 6 minutes and 40 seconds. Essentially, it stops people sounding off for too long. “We’ve allowed a little longer – around 10 minutes,” Prugnaud says. “But the point is that the subject flows, you get the artist’s view. It’s not a closed lecture theatre. We hope to draw people in.”
The open format beckons a transitory audience from the photo stands, who appear and disperse in waves. The small attentive group that assembles to listen to Matthias Bruggmann’s grave presentation about photographing the Syrian war gives way to a jubilant gang who hang off the handrails to hear the exuberant French installation photographer JR on his photographic intervention on the Mexican-US border, which involved constructing a scaffold to support an image of a giant baby that seemed to be peering over the partition. “I had tea with the border guards,” he says as the Francophone crowd chuckle. “We even did a cin-cin through the border fence.”
Next door, an interview with octogenarian Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama draws a reverent crowd who film the fêted pioneer of postwar photography on their phones, as if it might help them to see him better (it doesn’t, of course). This session has a sense of studied homage as Moriyama talks about his practice with the kind of pared-back honesty that is found in his work. “Through my photos I have been trying to edit this world as a jigsaw puzzle,” he says. Asked how various cities have inspired his approach, he replies simply: “Wherever I go, be it Tokyo or Honolulu, I don't make any distinction between cities. I just like taking photos.”
Friday afternoon in a former clothes market in Le Marais is a chance to debate the status of African wax-print and Indonesian batik. Three designers and an anthropologist start by discussing the meanings of motifs and patterns. The conversation is surprisingly political. Is wax-print really African? (It was developed by Dutch companies, based on Javanese batik, to export to the colonies.) “There is a lot of debate in African fashion about the need to use real African fabrics,” says Faou Soulé, an entrepreneur with roots in Benin who already knows a great deal about the topic but is here to network in advance of launching her own brand. “I want to make something that’s African but doesn’t look African.”
Later, at the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris, audience members peel off their overcoats as they enter the thick warmth of the long, 16th-century room with its painted coffered ceiling. They sit in near silence on green leather chairs as actor and director Pierre Jacquemont takes to the stage and begins to read the letters and poems of French poet Guillaume Apollinaire to his love Lou. Jacquemont’s voice is both soothing and gripping.
The letters are longing, witty, erotic odes to Lou but they darken as Apollinaire endures the horrors of the First World War. There is something potent about listening as a group. There is a kind of solidarity in the room as we hear the poems the author wrote from the front. “Tu as vu la mort en face plus de cent fois?” A middle-aged man with a cashmere overcoat draped neatly over his knees cries quietly. Later the group gathers for drinks in the foyer. “[Many of these poems] were written on the bark of birch trees, on military report cards,” says Jacquemont. “Apollinaire used the rhythm of horses, of the train, of walking. He sang poems to himself. It’s right that they are read aloud.”
Cerebral nocturnes are drawing crowds in Paris. At the Unesco HQ not far from the Champ de Mars, an all-night rota of talks on philosophy draws a huge crowd who pack into the halls of the concrete edifice for seminars on anarchafeminism, utopianism and reputation. There are wine-tastings that question the essence of perception (In Vino Veritas) and a 05.00 piece on Why it isn’t Nietzsche Who Elected Donald Trump. There’s even a philosophy disco with texts read to house tracks. The event has the feeling of a rave, albeit a very clever one. Here there are few distractions and people listen into the night (with the odd power nap). “It is fast paced and you have that intensity to stay awake,” says Peter Keyser, who enjoyed a session on being “veganish”. “We saw another talk that had the kind of monotone delivery of Gil Scott-Heron. It was very radical, theatrical.”
And finally, a talk about talking – in this case to terrorists. Over coffee served in white Minton china cups, diplomats sit in the panelled dining room of the British embassy. They are here to listen to the UK government’s former negotiator on the Good Friday Agreement, Jonathan Powell, discuss the necessity of talking to armed political groups. We should talk to terrorists on their own turf, he says, “not just [from] a castle in Stormont”. He recalls engaging with the ira in settings ranging from monasteries to small semi-detached houses on the outskirts of Belfast. There were moments of humour and of ingenuity during the process – including the custom-made diamond-shaped table designed to allow two arch-enemies to sit both beside and facing each other at the same time. “You have to make it human. You have to engage on a social level,” he says. “Just don’t let them get Stockholm Syndrome – that happens too.”
It’s clear that no matter what the circumstances, we understand each other better in person. We may not agree but agreeing to disagree is a powerful tool. There is an energy, tension and alchemy to a real-life discussion that cannot be replaced by technology – so, for the moment, we’ll keep on talking.
Debate: The Artist Talks by The Eyes at Paris Photo
Venue: Grand Palais, Avenue Winston Churchill
Speaker: Artist-photographer JR
The crowd at international fixture Paris Photo hear from French photographer JR, whose provocative images and installation pieces have endeared him to the typically iconoclastic Parisian art crowd
Debate: The Geopolitics of Russia
Venue: Espace de Conférences de l’Iris, 2 Bis Rue Mercoeur
Speaker: Former French interior minister and Fondation Res Publica president Jean-Pierre Chevènement, hosted by Iris director of research Jean de Gliniasty
No laughing matter:
The great game of global rivalry and a resurgent Russia make for a sober kind of soirée but the audience at strategic policy think-tank Iris are ready to drink it all in
Debate: How We See – Photobooks by Women
Venue: Shakespeare and Company Café, 37 Rue de la Bûcherie
Speaker: Publisher and collector Frédérique Destribats, Vogue India’s former photo editor Iona Fergusson and Russet Lederman, a writer, editor and photobook collector
He said, she said:
The discussion hots up on a cold morning at the Shakespeare and Company Café near Saint Michel, where a full house (and more) debate women’s representation in the photography world
Getting it out in the open:
Space is not an issue at the Shakespeare and Company Café, wher ethe extramural audience gets involved
Debate: Apollinaire: Letters to Lou and Madeleine
Venue: Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris, 24 Rue Pavée
Speaker: Pierre Jacquemont (reader), Stéphane Puc (accordion)
Reading from the front:
Actor Pierre Jacquemont breathing life into the century-old wartime words of poet Guillaume Apollinaire in the moodily lit Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris
Debate: Daido Moriyama at Paris Photo
Venue: Grand Palais, Avenue Winston Churchill
Speaker: Photographer Daido Moriyama in conversation with Simon Baker, director of the MEP
Pioneering Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama discussing his practice and philosophy in front of a hushed audience at Paris Photo
Debate: Batik and Wax, From Indonesia to Africa
Venue: Le Carreau du Temple, 4 Rue Eugène Spuller
Speakers: Model and designer Imane Ayissi, Guave co-founder Myrthe Groot, and Youssouf Fofana, founder of Maison Château Rouge. Hosted by anthropologist Anne Grosfilley
A former clothes market is the apposite setting for model and designer Imane Ayissi (left) to discuss the perception and origin of African textiles with anthropologist Anne Grosfilley
Debate: How to End Wars Well
Venue: UK embassy, 35 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré
Speaker: Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s chief negotiator on the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland
Talking about talking to terrorists:
At the British embassy, Powell explains why the only path to peace involves speaking to the masked men
At Unesco headquarters, a philosophy marathon lasting from 19.00 until 7.00 tests the audience's stamina with sessions on the nature of existence, death and wine.
Debate: A Night of Philosophy
Venue: Unesco headquarters, 7 Place de Fontenoy
Speakers: A plethora of writers, thinkers and artists from around the world
Just because it’s a 12-hour marathon, that doesn’t mean the audience gets to sit back and soak it all in. The Unesco philosophy night’s strength is in dialogue and the exchange of ideas
At a session called In Vino Veritas, thirsty attendees at the Unesco philosophy all-nighter breavely inquire into notions of reality in the perception of taste. Hic.