Museums, restaurants, shops, theaters. These are the types of spaces the public interact with on a regular basis in a city. But these spaces alone do not make a city - in fact, the vast majority of buildings house spaces that 99 percent of the population will never see. Yet a true city experience cannot exist without these buildings. What is the true value of private buildings to the tourist or the passer-by on the street? Is it simply a matter of aesthetic and identity? Could the same result be achieved with a streetwall made up of only facades? These are the implicit questions embedded in “Apparences,” the new video from Claire and Max of Menilmonde. The duo uses video editing and CGI to alter iconic Paris views, making the city of romance appear to be little more than the world’s largest movie set.
A city with the history and imagery of Paris cannot be mistaken for a Potemkin Village - the city functions still as one of the preeminent economic centers in the world. Yet its status as one of the world’s most visited cities and tales of its beauty and luxury often plant false visions of grandeur in visitors’ minds.
Upon arriving in the French capital, instead of a spotlessly pristine city filled exclusively with tall, slender women in Chanel suits, tourists find a city filled with a diverse population and a cleanliness comparable to many cities. At its most extreme, this dissonance can cause visitors to experience a physical culture shock accompanied with sweating, dizziness and hallucinations. This phenomenon is known as “Paris Syndrome,” and can affect upwards of 20 people per year, largely of asian origin. Perhaps as a result, countries have instead attempted to bring Paris to them, such as the strangely unoccupied Tianducheng, China, which features Parisian inspired buildings and promenades clustered around a replica Eiffel Tower. While this copycat city features occupiable buildings and functioning infrastructure, the lack of people on the streets bears an eerie similarity to “Apparences,” when the video fades the pedestrians and vehicles out to show an empty Paris.
While Paris’ economic climate may keep it safe from becoming a historical theme park, other cities’ reliance on tourism cause the line between reality and fantasy to blur. Take for example Venice, where the economy is nearly entirely reliant on tourism, and the ever increasing demand for tourist housing is driving residents out of the city. With Paris Syndrome, the daily culture of residents is so robust that it can give tourists nausea; in contrast, Venice Syndrome describes tourists disappointment with the city’s lack of a bustling urban life. The buildings in Venice are very real, yet the function of most contribute to the city’s identity in a manner no stronger than the scaffolding of Menilmonde’s video.
As shown in “Apparences,” taking away the physical space of a building will strip a city of its life. But so will stripping a building of its function. It’s not just an aesthetic that makes a place desirable and interesting, but the people that come with it.