Blank Canvas & Dead Space

Below the surface of France’s capital, in a network of underground chambers, lie the remains of corpses exhumed in the 1780s from a church cemetery. The church was dedicated to the children of Judea slaughtered by Herod the Great. Of course, these aren’t the actual infants involved in the Massacre of the Innocents. But the way Dead Space, the documentary that follows graffiti artist Psyckoze through the Paris catacombs is presented we could be excused for mistaking this film for a cross between a Dan Brown project and a re-reading of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

The film’s title refers to the very essence of the catacombs, a complex labyrinth below the city of Paris haunted by its past as well as such veteran cataphiles as Psyckoze. But according to “Psy”, this space isn’t dead at all — this is the space in which he is reborn.

The film opens on a shot of Psy disappearing down a manhole, but although his French nonchalance makes this illegal and highly dangerous act seem innocuous enough, he describes the very physical descent into the depths of Paris’s belly as a wholly “liberating experience”. Civilisation, we are told, is divided into two: an overground society governed by oppressive laws dictated by oppressive humans; and an underground community that is society-free, where, as Psy’s wife Cathy puts it, people are “autonomous”. For Cathy, this underground world hollowed out in the earth and stone holds within it a levelling life-force. This is the catacosmos.

The catacosmos adds itself to the pantheon of cultural references that look to a world contained in the soil beneath our feet. Axel’s discovery of an underground beach covered with human bones in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth leads Professor Lidenbrock to wonder if cavemen could still subsist within the bowels of our planet. For the poet Seamus Heaney the peat bogs offer Ireland its archives, digging the earth allows us to access the country’s past:

Live skulls, blind-eyed, balanced on

wild higgedly skeletons,

scoured the land in ’forty five,

wolfed the blighted root and died.

The new potato, sound as stone,

putrefied when it had lain

three days in the long clay pit.

— ‘At a Potato Digging’, Death of a Naturalist, Faber 1966

And then there is the Wasteland underground community pushed below the streets in order to escape the omnipotent eye of CCTV in the film, Demolition Man.

In the first example, foraging our way through the soil contains a journey of self-discovery; in the second, it contains our history; in the third, an escape from the totalising forces of a sterile centralising governance. The way this documentary builds up Psyckoze’s vision of the dead space, the Parisian catacombs contain a sense of all three.

For the first 20 minutes of this hour-long film, Psy takes us through a brief history of this dead space which runs vertically parallel to the birth and expansion of the city. Lutetia (Latin for ‘middle-water dwelling’) was a settlement on the island in the Seine known today as Ile de la Cité. It is from this starting point that the modern city of Paris developed, spiralling out to eventually encompass a number of bordering towns or bourgs. Psyckoze explains that stone was taken from adjacent land to build the houses, but then the town expanded onto the neighbouring quarried areas. As the buildings became bigger they began to sink into the hollowed ground.

As irony would have it, the problem created by the quarries came to light on rue d’Enfer or Hell’s Road. On 17th December 1774 a number of constructions on the road suddenly collapsed. By April 1777 the Inspection Générale des Carrières (the General Inspection of Quarries, or IGC) had been set up — not quite in time, however, to prevent another major catastrophe. Three weeks later, on the very day the king was appointing his architect to head the new Inspectorate, another building collapsed on rue d’Enfer.

The role of the IGC was to consolidate the quarries and they did this by digging out underground galleries, allowing them to build supporting pillars. Nine years later and it was decided that the quarries should become a dumping ground for the cemetery of the Saints-Innocents Church, whose graveyard was so full it had grown over eight feet above street level.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is contemporary history that interests Psy the most. He informs us that the 40 miles of underground labyrinth were used as a hiding place for the Resistance during the Second World War (though there’s no mention that it was also used for Nazi bunkers and black market storage). In the 1950s and ’60s the Grandes Ecoles, France’s most prestigious universities, performed its hazings in the extremely hermetic chambers. From then on it became a secret venue for festive gatherings, the dead space becoming the birthplace of a cataphile subculture, groups of guerrilla-speleologists armed with crayons and spray cans.

But postmodernism teaches us that everything is plural and even down here, in this place that is supposedly capable of levelling societal differences, there are many subcultures. Reflecting perhaps the world of the more conventional street-level taggers, the cataphiles soon formed gangs. It was from 1975 to ’80 that one particular gang leader, a man called Dan, head of a crew called the Rats, began to fit out some of the underground chambers. For instance, one was filled with sand and became known as the Beach Room. It was from this moment that the modern cataphile movement developed.

Psy, who started going down into the quarries in the mid-’80s, sees himself as a second generation modern cataphile. But I’m not sure this film does justice to the artist or the place. The documentary left me somewhat with the impression that the modern day cataphile in the Psy-ilk goes down below the streets of Paris to crudely tag their name on the limestone, share drugs, and drink themselves into oblivion. Unfortunately, Psy’s insights tend to leave us wondering what the purpose of the experience and film really is. At one point he tells us how, after having taken LSD in the catacombs, he ended up lost for hours, but now he has found a map. Contrary to earlier philosophical posturing, this is not intended to be understood metaphysically.

As we follow Psy through our rather limited guided tour of the catacombs, we come across different chambers, but never really get to see many of them. Of course, you could argue that it’s bound to be poorly lit at over 25 metres below the surface. We do, however, get to see le puit qui chante, a shaft named “the singing well” because it acts as an echo chamber. We never learn who christened it but we do see Psy demonstrating its acoustic feature. It’s a shame that most of the shots are simply of Psy walking down narrow corridors, tagging his name when he feels like it. There is one scene where Psy crawls over the bones of the dead from the Cemetery of the Innocents, and you realise that this should be a place of respect — this hollowed ground is also hallowed ground.

Thankfully, the soundtrack is perfect. Featuring a score by Simahlak

and Scott C, as well as music by hip-hop artists on the Canadian label, Bully Bully ,such as Sixtoo and Interceiving, the phonic environment accentuates the core urban essence of this dead space. The juxtaposition of these contemporary sounds with close up shots of this buried city populated by the ghosts of the poor, displaced 250 years ago, perhaps gives us a greater sense of place than Psy and his wife’s musings.

Fleetingly, the camera offers us ominous close-ups of stone stairwells and road signs. My thoughts turned immediately to Edinburgh’s old town, buried by the city elders to stop the spread of the plague. Excavation has made visiting some of the lost city possible again. It can be quite a strange experience as you walk through the streets and shops where people once lived and worked, especially when the guide tells you of the rumour that the authorities buried the suffering alive. Knowing that Paris also suffered the spread of many deadly diseases, these shots left me believing that some Parisians had suffered the same fate as Edinburgh’s poor. I now know that this isn’t the case. The lack of commentary or explanation belied something far less sinister. In fact, the quarry inspectors had simply placed on the walls road signs corresponding to the streets above. The galleries that the authorities were constructing to strengthen the road surface followed the streets, allowing private landlords to access their own foundations in case they needed securing.

Ultimately, this isn’t a film about Psy the cataphile. This is about Psyckoze the graffiti artist — he just has a fondness for tagging walls buried beneath the ground, even if he claims not be a catacomb tagger. The catacombs are presented by Psy as a graffiti museum. He mentions the existence of ‘prehistoric’ tags – though they are only 300 years old – and how “over the centuries, all of the layers have created a blend of hues and colours… [they] have become a heritage where time has stopped.”

It is true that tags usually have a limited life span. They are phatic markings of an individual’s presence and existence mixed in with a dog’s need to mark its territory. They are manifestations of being inscribed on public loci, turning walls and buildings into communal notice boards of exchange. For all these reasons, they are ephemeral creations biding their time before someone else claims his or her right to exist here and now and obliterates the preceding tag with their own. But in the initiate world of the catacombs, Psy still comes across tags of his that are 20 years old, and in this way the transient nature of tagging is neutralised in the catacombs.

Psy’s argument is that we all feel the “desire to palpably immortalise our emotions” and that tagging allows us to leave behind our mark. Though I have no great aspirations to be remembered by future generations, I’m not too sure how I’d feel if the only trace I did leave behind was my name scrawled on a wall. At the end of the day, there may well be graffiti that are 300 years old, but they are few and far between. In fact, the walls have been largely covered with contemporary tags in the past 20 years only. Is this not simply vandalism?

As we lose our way through the catacombs, so, too does the documentary. Filmed over a two-year period, the directors Marielle Quesney and Jean Labourdette again leave me wondering what the central premise of this documentary is about: the catacombs, tagging, Psyckoze? If this is a portrait of Psyckoze, is he interesting enough? In one particular scene Psy and a friend get overexcited when they find a bit of hash that has been left behind in one of the party rooms – and this in part answers my question.

The film’s narrative sees this discovery of cannabis as an opportunity to bring us back to the notion of escapism. We see Psy roll a joint and once stoned, he starts to talk about the stress inflicted on us all by our weekly routines. Watching this sequence, you’re left wondering how this differs from smoking a joint in your bedroom. Psy’s wife explains that the catacombs offer real freedom because people can “roll around on the floor, scream, get high, drink like fish, and perhaps they’d vomit on the floor but it’s not a problem because there’s no carpet.” Then the camera switches back to Psy who tells us the catacombs offer “another dimension”. Sounds like a regular party to me.

When Psy tells us what is currently happening to the catacombs, however, there is a pervading sense of loss. We are told that the chambers are being filled with concrete injected to consolidate further the quarries. Psy feels angry that the role of the IGC is no longer to maintain the catacombs, but one would have to say that it never was, really. Its role was always to make sure Paris didn’t collapse into the quarries. This isn’t to say that the IGC shouldn’t evolve into a more heritage-orientated body. One cannot but agree with Psy that if the catacombs came to disappear, Paris would lose part of its soul.

This anxiety has given rise to another distinct cataphile force made up of heritage associations who want the catacombs turned into a museum. The problem for the likes of Psy is that these cataphiles see his tags as visual pollution.

Snippets of an interview with Henry Chalfant, the American photographer, filmmaker and co-author of the books Subway Art (1984) and Spraycan Art (1987), punctuates the film in an attempt to offer a voice of ‘scientific’ authority. On the confrontation between the tagging cataphiles and the heritage cataphiles, Chalfant is at his wisest: the walls of the catacombs offer us the “markings of history” and some contemporary graffiti may, in 50 years, become significant; but it is equally destructive for taggers to indiscriminately cover 19th-century graffiti with their own markings. Chalfant refers to this rivalry as reflecting human nature whether you’re bound by the laws of society above ground or the associations you form below. Psy sees this opposition between the two groups as a “war”.

When Psy and his gang, the Frotte Connard (‘Scrub Arsehole’, a reference to those who try to clean the tags by rubbing the stone), are confronted with the heritage cataphiles, his opinions don’t stand much of a chance. He comes out with the habitual arguments about the liberating experience of the catacombs compared to the oppression felt on the surface, only to be rebutted and accused of polluting the quarries. There is then the menace of a physical fight.

Psy turns to the camera and says “that’s what the catacombs are about”. But then if it’s about verbal and physical aggression, I think I prefer to be confronted in daylight. Or at least somewhere where I can escape from. Descending into the catacombs may be a form of escape; but it’s very difficult to escape from the catacombs once you’re down there.

Stone Faces photo from

During his journey, Psy comes across a number of notes carrying printed messages. It has become somewhat of a tradition to leave different notes in the catacombs for people to find. One particular note stuck on a corridor wall reads ‘Death to Psyckoze’. You have to wonder.

At the beginning of the final third of the film we encounter Cochise the leader of another gang of cataphiles, the KTA (French pronunciation would give ‘cata’, an abbreviation of catacombs). Cochise is one of the cataphile elders, and appears like a hippy guru. A few years ago he had started sculpting a room with Psy, creating figures in the limestone, but then was sentenced to a 33 years in jail in Thailand. His way of offering moral support, Psy continued sculpting the room and the results are quite impressive. It is precisely this work that should make Psy a focal point of a documentary. Who or what do the figures represent? How does he conceive what is a technically difficult exercise? I was left wanting.

Cochise was released early and has since returned to his beloved catacombs. In the full interview with Henry Chalfant, which appears as one of the extras, Chalfant talks about his descent into the catacombs and in one of the rooms, happening upon Cochise setting up a hammock. Later on, in another room, a vodka and grass-fuelled fight breaks out. This description of Chalfant’s experience of the catacombs, penetrating into the heart of darkness, always afraid of who you might meet down the next pitch-black corridor, paints Cochise as a sort of Mr. Kurtz figure, the head of an alternative community only to be found at the end of the Congo-esque labyrinth.

Psy seems himself, above all, as an artist. From tagging to sculpting to painting, if his canvas isn’t the catacombs then the catacombs must be his subject, for here is the womb of Paris offering a voyage au centre de la mère. The pun between mother and mother earth through the reference to Verne’s work may seem a little trite. but it sends us back to the primal words of Heaney: “Heads bow, trunks bend, hands fumble towards the black / Mother. Processional stooping through the turf…” (‘At a Potato Digging’).

The film leaves us with Psy contemplating his future, with the ominous idea that one day he’ll either leave Paris and the catacombs or he’ll stay in the catacombs. But the final words are, for some reason, given to Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots: “In my end is My Beginning.” This suggests that Psy will reign once he has departed. But in what way? For Mary Stuart it was through her son. Can Psy honestly believe that it will be through his tags? I have my doubt as to whether Psy’s work will be seen as significant in 50 years.

Dead space is primarily the volume of air we breathe in that is not involved in gaseous exchange. It relates therefore to something totally redundant. But this is not how the cataphiles view this particular dead space. Henry Chalfant seems to confirm that this labyrinth offers an alternative world, a world outside of the law: “the organised life of the city doesn’t exist down there”.

This may be so, but the lack of law is just as oppressive.

RATING 4 / 10