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People watch a film projected in an underground cave.

An Underground Art Collective That Recovers Abandoned Spaces


For the last 13 years UX (L’Urban eXperiment) has been illegally restoring abandoned spaces in Paris.

Thirty years ago, six Parisian teenagers perpetrated an unusual robbery. The youngsters broke into the Ministry of Telecommunications’ dark basement looking for maps of the tunnel network that runs underneath Paris. They simply made copies of each map and then left. But this intellectual theft, much like what a hacker would do today, was the founding act of UX (L’Urban eXperiment), a secret association devoted to the preservation Paris’ cultural heritage.

UX is an artistic collective of sorts that works on the fringe of the law, but always in an effort to benefit citizens by silently restoring forgotten works of art, and launching a series of cultural events in the underground, which bring abandoned spaces back to life.

The team has completed more than fifteen undercover restorations. Its most successful work to date was the restoration of the 19th century clock in the Pantheon before its irreversible state of defacement. Eight restorers, all members of the UX Untergunther cell, built their own hidden workshop equipped with electricity, Internet access, a refrigerator, furniture, and working tools. In 2007, after a year of underground work, they finally reawakened the Pantheon’s old Wagner clock; nearby residents had not heard the clock’s tick since the 1960s. Unfortunately, the Pantheon’s director hired a clock repairman to stop the dials and then filed an official lawsuit against the Untergunther.

UX has an underground rhizomatic structure that organized in subgroups, its almost one hundred members are specialists in fields as diverse as brickwork and cultural programming (among many others). Interested in public spaces and artifacts left in the oblivion of French history, and working with things that nobody notices anymore, UX members are also shadow flâneurs, explorers of a subterranean world that perhaps only exists for them.

The Unthergunter does not have a manifesto or internal rules, except that every member should remain undercover. And, like any other secret society, you must be invited to join. The work of UX rarely reaches the surface: an unprecedented interview with one of its members, the occasional public discovery of one of its restorations, or a spiteful ex-girlfriend who reveals the existence of an underground movie theater.

Gaining free access to Paris’ tunnels (the collective claims they have access to all of the government’s buildings) has established it as a truly underground art movement.

It seems hard to believe that preserving abandoned monuments and maintaining alive a city’s cultural heritage could be an exciting, attractive and cool activity. But UX has revolutionized these prejudices, turning the artworks of past centuries into a living present. Undoubtedly, the members of the Unthergunter are part of an anonymous elite that works for the collective wellbeing without expecting recognition in return.

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