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"In Place: Place Royale"

Nantes, France

August 17, 2013
6:00–18:00


The eighth intervention of the "In Place" series. The photo above of the square before all the crowds arrive.

"It feels like the whole world opening around me as I enter Place Royale, the barest of sounds ricocheting like small thunderclaps off the buildings surrounding the square. The cooing pigeons sound bigger than I've ever heard them, the hue and cry from the seagulls surpassing any levels of aggression I've ever attributed to them. And perhaps louder than all these sounds is the onerous silence of the noble fountain crowning the middle of the square. An occasional drop of water leaking from one of the numerous spigots lands with a resolute plop into the empty stone basins.

Little by little I get accustomed to the wild acoustics of the square and the morning settles down into what passes for quiet. I make a slow surveillance around the square, noticing how even my attempt at walking carefully sends the sound of loud footfall discharging around me. A couple of stragglers from the evening before enter the square from the other side, arguing vigorously about something. After a few rebounds around the square their voices sift away into the soft morning light. A blue sky is just lifting over the eastern horizon as the sun rises above the rooftops surrounding Place Royale.

I go to sit on the lip of the fountain. The square is like a vessel holding a deep pool of pale gray light. And the sound matches this, indistinct, flickering now just beyond recognition and purling delicately around me. The seagulls have for some reason departed, leaving the pigeons to coo unruffled at my feet. Their gently beating wings and deep chattering creates an aural foundation for the square to rest upon.

A small car materializes on the other side of the fountain. Machine noises fill the square. A man gets out of the car and opens a trap door leading to the mysterious bowels of the fountain. He fiddles around with some valves and levers for some time and then, with an amazing clatter, the fountain spurts on to its full brilliance, all spigots exploding with water splattering against bare stone. And then, just as unexpectedly, the water stops. Momentarily rent apart, the morning now folds back in on itself. The birds slowly dare to take up their places again and I too inch back to my seat, having made a hasty retreat as water sprayed all around me and the sound of the fountain shocked me out of my morning reverie. Seemingly satisfied that the fountain works, the man gets back in his car and drives away.

What follows for the next hour or so is a rapid sequence of different machines and city personnel entering the square to spruce it up and make it presentable for this new day. First comes the man with the high pressure water hose, the water hissing like a wicked snake and sending trash skittering away from the fountain and out to the perimeter of the square. Then the vacuum truck arrives. It ambles painstakingly around the square like some foraging animal, inch by inch its voracious maw sucking up the bits of trash, with rotating brushes working like maniacal discs of sandpaper as they scour the pavement clean. And finally, a person without a machine this time comes to retrieve the odd scrap of rubbish that his predecessors might have missed. He flicks the pieces of paper and the occasional plastic bottle into his metal dustbin, which snaps open and shut each time with a menacing clap that pops around the square like a gun going off.

At eight a.m. sharp the fountain turns on again, its entrance this time somewhat mitigated by the previous succession of machines and sanitation procedures. But this time the fountain stays on. I walk closer to admire its industry, pumping so much water through so many spigots, creating so many waterfalls and rivulets. The air smells sweet and a halo of cool humidity encloses the fountain. All this crashing water creates such an impermeable mass of sound that I assume this will color the rest of the day for me. I am both somewhat irritated and amused by this realization but figure that either way I am going to live with this. When the sun comes out and starts to bake the square I will surely welcome the sight and sound of this watery edifice.

A prominent cafe on the northeastern side of the square now slowly get itself ready for the day. Workers haul out tables and chairs and umbrellas to shade the customers from the impending sun. Cumbersome steel pedestals to mount the umbrellas in get dragged across the stone pavement of the square. The sound of steel scraping horribly against stone cleaves through the more friendly aquatic offering of the fountain, making the square nearly unbearable for the duration of the restaurant's morning preparations. It sounds as if the whole square is being ripped apart, like all the surrounding buildings were Hollywood backlot facades toppling down from the sky.

Now more people appear in the square, on their way to work, some taking a seat at the cafe. I'm sitting by the fountain again. It seems now that I no longer register the sound of the water in any conscious way. It has become like the light, just filling the square with its beneficence but not imposing itself in any way. A man sits down next to me and tries to strike up a conversation. I'm so engrossed in my meditations on this place that I find it hard to talk with anyone, which, I admit to myself, is strange as these people too are a part of Place Royale. But finding myself now in the space of conversation completely befuddles me. It's as if I've left the square for this brief moment of verbal exchange. The man wants to know if I believe in God. “Sometimes,” I answer. This seems to satisfy him as he and his colleague move on to grill the next person.

The sun has now crept over the rooftops and bathes the fountain in its heat and light. I move on to the periphery of the square, sitting down in the shadows of an optician on the southeast corner. I feel a bit dizzy from the heat and the unending array of people now roving through the square. Today is Saturday and it seems like the whole city is out shopping. Floating magically, nearly indistinguishable above the easy shuffle of feet and fundament of babbling voices, a melody ekes its way into the square. I feel drawn to this music. It pulls me to my feet and I go in search of it, slowly walking around the square, looking around each corner until I finally locate the source: a man playing accordion down one of the side streets. It seems to me that the music sounded better as heard in the square, mixed in with all the other sounds. Standing directly now in front of the source I feel driven back, the music saturating me, tearing me away from the more cordial ambiance of reverberation and burbling water in the square.

I go back to the square again and station myself in one of the last remaining patches of shade. At this distance I can no longer hear the fountain. Like in the early morning it is silent, yet now alive and sparkling like a glittering mass of jewels in the hot afternoon sun. Right in my line of sight to the fountain a break dance group sets up a video camera and proceeds to make a film of itself, every few minutes a different person moving in succession to dance in front of the camera. And like the fountain, these dancers too make no sound. They dance without music and in the din of shoppers and tourists even the movement of their feet can't be heard. I imagine them dancing to the sound of the fountain.

I feel fatigue starting to set in. I crouch down in the last remaining slither of shade and watch heat waves rise from the square, making everything shimmer and dance. It feels as if all sound is in me now, filling my head, trumpeting from my ears as if they were loudspeakers and dissipating with the curls of heat beating against the fountain. I see a rainbow emerging in the mist of the cascading waters. The sound of voices and people walking raises an hermetic seal over the square which slowly closes in, creating a pressure of sound and heat and light that pushes down me to the ground.

A hand in front of my face, palm upturned, jerks me out of my thoughts. A woman wants to know if I have any money. I give her a coin and she moves on. On the other side of the square I hear loud voices, people yelling. A fight has broken out. Screams and shouts ring across the square, then slowly dissipate as the group of people moves on down a side street. The cafe on the square is full now, people at every table. Laughter and conversation, clinking glasses and clattering silverware fill one side of the square, pulling it away from center and creating a lopsided effect. I walk over to the fountain again. It seems that I've never seen a fountain as vibrant and glorious as this one. I walk all around, admiring its many pools and spouts. I drink in its sound now, the most beautiful sound on the Place Royale, masking the hordes of shoppers, the fight, the noisy cafe. The square has become this fountain. And like the sun suffusing the afternoon sky above, the cascade of water slices through all the sound around it, shrouding this patch of hot stone and concrete in its cool, watery relief.

Shade starts to fill the square again. The sun rests astraddle over the western rooftops of the square. The shoppers are now dissolving into the streets radiating form the square or stopping by the cafe for dinner. I can no longer make out any distinct sounds. My head is full, everything gyrates around me. I make one more round of Place Royale and then go home."

 

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