What if I told you that there’s a clandestine organization operating out of the tunnels below Paris, intent on throwing secret film festivals and restoring historically significant monuments? “Preposterous,” you say. “That’s something straight out of one of those historical conspiracy novels like the DaVinci Code, not something that happens in real life!” And you’re right, it is preposterous. But you’re also very wrong, because this organization actually does exist.
It’s called the UX – short for Urban eXperiment – and it’s comprised of about 150 members who operate out of roughly 10 different divisions. These include an all female infiltration group known as Mouse House, a database team, an internal message network, a group responsible for hosting film festivals, and a photography branch that documents the whole ordeal. But the wing that brought the UX (marginally) into the public light is the Untergunther, a covert restoration group that has restored some 15 or so monuments it deems culturally important.
Their most daring project was the restoration of the Pantheon clock in the center of Paris. The yearlong operation was overseen by professional clockmaker Jean-Baptiste Viot, and involved the group establishing a temporary workshop in a forgotten Pantheon loft “outfitted with eight overstuffed armchairs, a table, bookshelves, a minibar, and red velvet drapes to moderate the ambient temperature.” Once the clock was fully restored, they politely contacted the director of the monument, Bernard Jeannot, and informed him that his once-broken clock was now operational. Once he had seen the setup and restored clockwork (as might be expected, he was incredulous up until that point), Jeannot was outraged by the groups presumptuousness and promptly filed a lawsuit against them, which would later be thrown out (and characterized as “stupid”) by the French court, on the grounds that there is no law against restoring clocks.
I could go on about the other (known) projects undertaken by the group, or how they are able to utilize the city’s forgotten infrastructure because the founding members conducted a stealth raid on the office of telecommunications in which they stole plans for the city, but there’s simply so much – and it’s so strange – that you should just go an read Wired Magazine’s excellent article on the group. The stunt they pulled in the Pantheon also got them articles in The Guardian and The Times, which are also worth checking out.
It’s hard for me to describe how I feel about this group, mostly because I still can’t quite believe it’s real. There’s a Hollywood movie in the works here, mark my words. I will say though that I respect immensely the motivations the group has professed. They aren’t in it for fame or money, which is why they say so little despite doing so much. They’re really just in it for themselves, and to preserve what they see as important and threatened elements of Parisian history, elements that the government is either unwilling or unable to preserve itself.
There is also something tremendously romantic about this group and their actions. They claim to be able to access any government building in the city, and their unofficial spokesman has said that it isn’t really all that hard to steal a Picasso. Not that they’ve done it though, that wouldn’t be their style. And that, I guess, is my point. With unprecedented access, secret membership, and a fascinating array of expertise, the most provocative thing they’ve done was to start a famous clock working again. It’s this roguish self-indulgence that makes the group both unbelievable and fascinating. Hopefully we’ll here more on them in the future. But then, maybe it’s even more alluring if we don’t.