Text by Secrets of Paris Correspondent Tara Oakes.
The Gaïté Lyrique is an elusive place. Not physically: the building is grand, impressive and situated an easy walk from the centre of town. It is what lies behind the façade that is not easily categorised. For the curious, however, it turns out to be one of the most individual tourist attractions in Paris: a forward-thinking haven of digital culture and modern music, currently welcoming art collective H5’s Hello™ exhibition as well as recent concerts by international groups from Maximo Park to Jagwa Music.
First things first: for a digital culture centre, the most obvious place to start is online. The website is enthusiastic, colourful and well-laid out – but gives little real illumination as to what to expect. In their own words, the aims of the centre are sketched out using terms like, ‘[a] crossroads of artistic disciplines’ with an ‘inter-disciplinary approach to all...creative fields’. At best, this sounds so bafflingly intriguing that the inquisitive are lured along to see how one venue can encompass quite so much. At worst, it sounds like the empty hipster discourse masking a fairly woolly mission statement.
The hipster angle can’t be discounted – one look at the other visitors shows how popular it is with the cutting edge crowds. What the place isn’t, however, is too cool for its own good. The architects of the current centre have worked hard to maintain the character of the original theatre, created by Baron Haussmann and part of the city’s cultural life for 150 years. Aside from the building’s frontage, the magnificent bar gives an idea as to where the trendsetters of the past would have relaxed.
As well as the architectural efforts made to keep what could be a relentlessly modern project rooted in the wider story of Paris, the current exhibition is designed not to alienate a wider public but to get them asking questions about one of the most prevalent forces in modern life: marketing.
Hello™ H5 is at turns playful and disturbing, engaging the viewer with an imagined brand through video, installations, games and more. Indeed, it is here where the centre’s vast cultural remit comes into its own. The visitor is often so much more than a mere viewer – particularly in a futuristic room where you take on the role of Hello™’s eagle mascot in a giant computer game where triumph depends on mastering the best way to flap your arms around. It’s hilarious and engaging, allowing an interactivity beyond what traditional museums can usually offer. A sense of continuity throughout the centre is given by the separate room dedicated entirely to games consoles – something the Louvre is sadly yet to offer.
For those still doubtful of the Gaïté Lyrique’s ability to sufficiently represent such a wide creative mix as they claim, a trip to an evening concert is highly recommended. The concert hall itself is bang in the centre of the whole space, encased in its own box but requiring passage through the wider spaces (and potentially a brief detour to the aforementioned historic bar). The venue hosts an eclectic mix of music from brass bands to hip hop, and I was lucky enough to catch British rockers Maximo Park making the most of the space at their recent gig. Tom from the group explained the appeal of playing more unusual spaces as an artist, saying: ‘It's nice when a venue has some character and history, it can make it easier to connect with a place and the audience’. During the concert the crowd themselves seem to prove this, including one man’s repeated attempts to tell the group that he used to go to school with any or all of them, much their bemusement.
As shoutouts from English gentlemen in the audience prove, the wide range of music on offer make musical events here an excellent way of engaging with the international community. Tom explains this phenomenon from the point of view of a foreign band on tour: ‘It's almost inevitable that there will be some Brits at all our shows: exchange students, tourists or whatever. But they rarely affect the atmosphere or, for us, the sense of being somewhere abroad. Every town has a different crowd and react to the music in different ways. Some like to clap along, some like to dance, some like to head-bang, and some just like to listen’. There seems to be a bit of all of the above at Maximo Park’s own gig – the crowds at the Gaïté Lyrique are clearly entering into the spirit of the place and reacting to the music in an eclectic, inter-disciplinary way. Or perhaps just having a great time.
It’s always fun to discover more unusual places to watch bands, and the Gaité Lyrique works well in this regard – the show sounds fantastic, continues the long tradition of entertainment in the venue and has the added twist for the visitors of coming out and finding yourself in the middle of a museum. As for the museum itself in the daytime, don’t be put off by it sounding like it takes itself too seriously – the Gaité Lyrique is simultaneous new, old, thoroughly enjoyable and like nowhere you’ve ever been before.
Hello™ H5 is on until December 30th.
Maximo Park are touring the UK and Australia until January 2013.
For upcoming concerts at the Gaïté Lyrique, check out their listings here.