Purple Magazine
— Purple #31 The Paris issue

lionel bensemoun

lionel bensemoun

interview and photography by OLIVIER ZAHM

le consulat, a roving club open day
and night, is energizing the paris
social scene as a place for parties,
performances, talks, eating,
resistance, and raving

OLIVIER ZAHM — What’s happened with nightlife lately? I was in Shanghai last week for the anniversary of the last Le Baron club. The others have all closed. Nightlife just isn’t the same at all anymore.
LIONEL BENSEMOUN — The world of the night is no longer anything like what we knew from the early 2000s up to 2015. Le Baron opened in 2004 in Paris and lasted until 2016 — 10 solid years of clubbing. It began in Paris, and then Le Barons popped up all over the world: Le Baron Miami Art Basel, Le Baron Cannes, at the film festival in Mexico City, etc. You were there, with the Purple soirées in Paris, and at Le Baron Miami and Le Baron Cannes. We held so many parties. Yes, there’s still a Le Baron in Shanghai, but Paris, London, and New York have closed. It’s the end of an era.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What made Le Baron original? What was new about your way of creating clubs with André and others?
LIONEL BENSEMOUN — We didn’t do it for the money. We did it for the fun, providing a place where people could meet. We took pleasure in doing Le Baron. It was a nonstop meet-up machine, especially for creative types. Le Baron was successful because it blended so many different milieus: kids, fashion people, movie people, musicians, rich people from the eighth arrondissement, the “vagrants” from the ninth. There was a freedom to it that’s gone now. You could have fun until all hours and smoke until morning. Find me a place to go on a Monday or Tuesday night in Paris. Nobody knows where to go anymore! Those used to be our biggest nights! No one had a job [laughs], and Sunday was karaoke night, with concerts and live music. People were really free. This was before Tinder, Instagram, and Facebook.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Where’s the nightlife scene now?
LIONEL BENSEMOUN — Clearly in Berlin, when it comes to music and drugs, but also in cities less focused on consumption or on fashion. If you travel to Beirut, Lisbon, or Berlin, or to Eastern Europe, you can still find places that are packed on Sunday evening, Monday evening, Tuesday evening. There are fewer regulations in cities like that, more freedom. In our old, rich countries, there’s less tolerance. Everything’s forbidden in the name of security. You need so many emergency exits and can have only so many people per square meter, and you have to abide by the opening hours. That’s in Paris, but it’s the same in New York. You’ve got to go through hell to open a new place.

OLIVIER ZAHM — The new generation doesn’t want to go out to cookie-cutter places.
LIONEL BENSEMOUN — Right. The kids don’t want to go broke paying for lousy, overly expensive drinks and bad music. And look at who’s going out these days. It isn’t interesting people anymore! So, if they’re going to set aside their cellphones, kids today want something more extreme, more authentic. Not brand events, not marketing events for Fashion Week, even if they can drink for free at those things. They head for the suburbs to hit improvised stuff, in garages…

OLIVIER ZAHM — How is it that nightlife has changed so much in a mere decade?
LIONEL BENSEMOUN — Things might come back, but the obvious cause is the cellphone, social media, the Internet, Netflix, and so on. With the Internet and the smartphone, people already get everything they want at home: all the meeting up, the socializing, the going out, the food, the fucking, the films, the conferences, and everything else. So, you go out a lot less! Before, you had to go out to a bar or a club to see people, to meet them, to learn, to talk. That whole scene has simmered down a lot. Even in New York and London. And then there are the increasingly complex safety regulations, permits that are more and more difficult to get before you can establish a club. Everything’s changed.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do nightlife and partying have a new meaning these days?
LIONEL BENSEMOUN — No. We still need fun, but the planet’s faring badly, getting worse and worse. I, at least, want to do something different. I want to have fun some other way. I want to find some other meaning in nightlife. I don’t want any more brand-sponsored events like I used to have at my club, La Clique. It was interesting for a while. We made some money and were able to throw some incredible parties. I could have drinks on the house for 1,500 friends, book the hottest DJs, put up huge decors, and bring in artists. But I’m done with product-launch parties.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What changed your mind?
LIONEL BENSEMOUN — At some point, you realize that the big brands play a big role in our environmental problems, and that we can’t keep doing nothing! The period around 2013-2014 was transitional for me. I left Paris. I went to Tuscany to set up the Villa Lena, a little agritourism project with artist residences. You went through there, actually. And it gave me time to think. I was able to re-energize myself, start reading again and think. There was also a vegetable garden, which needed daily tending. I started doing things with my hands again. I’d work every day in that garden, for example, and I’d make sculptures out of sand and clay, working with this incredible happiness and joy…

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, what did you decide to do then?
LIONEL BENSEMOUN — When I got back to Paris, I asked myself: what could I do? What do I know how to do? I know how to bring people together. I know how to get messages across. I make places where people really have fun. The first thing I did was create G.A.N.G., Groupe d’Action Neo Green, an association that operates like a press agency for NGOs.

LIONEL BENSEMOUN — I realized that the association sector needed to overhaul its whole communications scheme. Their communications were directed strictly at people who were already involved, and the message was often too moralizing or militant. I said to myself: it needs images, YouTube videos, trendy posters, funny memes, slogans that stick. You have to do fun stuff, too. You have to go beyond basic militancy. We’re living in an age when nobody listens anymore. The earth has too many problems as it is. It’s all too alarmist. A permanent state of apocalypse doesn’t get through to anyone anymore.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Could you cite an example of the action you’ve taken?
LIONEL BENSEMOUN — The first thing I did with G.A.N.G. was during the Cannes Film Festival. One day, I read in the paper that the palm trees in Cannes were dying because of a disease, and I learned at the same time that Monsanto had gotten Europe’s approval. So, we organized a fake news conference to announce that Monsanto was coming to Cannes with a plan to save the palm trees by introducing a genetically modified tree, called the Gold Palm. I made up a whole fake press kit, went two weeks without sleep. We invited City Hall, the media, all the landscapers in Cannes. My uncle let me borrow his hotel in Cannes. I had the team from Les Guignols at Canal Plus make a palm trophy. In short, I made a big joke to convey the horror that is Monsanto, and raise awareness in the film world while having fun. And suddenly City Hall wanted to buy our palm trees! There was even an anti-Monsanto demonstration! In Cannes! The SWAT team showed up and everything! And that evening at Le Baron, we made glyphosate and pesticide cocktails. The bartenders were green and had missing teeth and everything. That was some wacky communication, joyous stuff, and it actually works. You make people aware of the dangers without telling them what to think. Actually, everybody already knows what to think, and it makes no difference.

OLIVIER ZAHM — When did you set up the first Le Consulat?
LIONEL BENSEMOUN — The first Le Consulat happened two years ago, on the Rue Ballu, in the ninth arrondissement, in an old school under renovation, which I rented. I invited everybody who was writing about the new solidarity economy, the environment, associations, the Nuit Debout [Up All Night] protests, etc. We mixed the hip crowd with group activists in a Parisian locale that was new to Paris. That first Le Consulat was intuitive, but it was a success. Then we had to close. People didn’t get it at first. They said: “Look at that. Lionel’s a hippy/anti-globalist now.” It’s not easy in Paris to mix the hip crowd with protesters and intellectuals.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But you didn’t give up.
LIONEL BENSEMOUN — No. I opened a second Le Consulat here in the 14th district, a bigger, more ambitious one, with 3,000 square meters spread over several floors. We answered a call for offers from Paris City Hall, which was looking for a way to use a building slated for demolition. It was the old building of the magazine Le Point. We won, and it lasted six months. In the beginning, when I did the first Le Consulat, I worried that it wouldn’t work, that people wouldn’t care much about the meaning we were trying to put across. In fact, we’re just normal people. We’ve got children. It’s as simple as that. We’re thinking about the future! You can try to change people’s mentality and still keep things joyful. And if it doesn’t work, well, at least we tried.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Le Consulat is a new kind of social club on the English model, no?
LIONEL BENSEMOUN — Yes. It’s a social club insofar as it’s open to society and calls on all associative, intellectual, and creative energies that seek to change things. It’s open 24 hours a day. You can dance by night, see an exhibition by day, listen to a conference by day, take in a concert in the afternoon, another in the evening, eat breakfast or dinner… We’ve got a cafeteria run by some great chefs. But you can also have a drink with friends, or do some yoga or meditation in the morning. It’s a new space that runs around the clock by bringing together all kinds of energies. People will come to a conference at four in the afternoon and still be there at four in the morning! On a Tuesday! By offering a conference, a dinner, and an evening of clubbing all on the same day, we draw 500 people a day to Le Consulat. Evenings with 2,000 people. At a place with nothing particularly Parisian about it, deep in the 14th arrondissement, behind the Montparnasse train station, a deserted quarter that no one goes to! That was a challenge. The place was open almost 24 hours a day. Things would start at seven in the morning, with meditation, dance, sports, and yoga, and then the restaurant would open, and then there’d be conferences, and associations would come in to work, and then there’d be photo shoots of all kinds. You, for instance, had several photo shoots here. And then we had a whole floor devoted to art, with exhibitions that Samuel Boutruche put together. Unfortunately, we lacked the means, and our ambitions were a little too grand.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is it complicated to open new places like that?
LIONEL BENSEMOUN — It’s a crazy amount of work. We’re closing next week, and I’ll need a month of total rest. It even cost me a love affair. We paid dearly, for sure, and there weren’t many of us. There were only five or six of us who were hard-core about it, and there were about 15 of us, all told, if we count the people who helped out. But they weren’t around every day. It was tough! It’s very complicated to open a place like this in Paris. It doesn’t fit into any category. If you open a hybrid place, the codes contradict one another and add up. I just happened to have the support of the 14th arrondissement’s City Hall, which knew that we were looking to get things moving and change the image of the whole quarter. For the art, the gallery owner Emmanuel Perrotin helped us out, especially by putting us in contact with the artists who loaned us some of their important works. It was an enriching experience to see young people get involved in projects with a little social engagement about them. Even the ravers pitched in.

OLIVIER ZAHM — After the terrorist attacks of Nov. 13, 2015, I thought that clubs in Paris would be forced to set up security gates everywhere. Fortunately, they didn’t do it.
LIONEL BENSEMOUN — We didn’t, fortunately. But there was the state of emergency and Vigipirate [government acronym for anti-terrorism
measures], which lasted a year and a half and involved a lot of prohibitions. Security problems are my nightmare. An overdose at the club, a fight, something collapses in a building slated for demolition… Especially since I’m personally liable for Le Consulat. I can reveal it to you now: there was never any safety committee. I took responsibility myself for keeping the place open, at personal risk. We’d have these raves with 2,000 people, and I’d be freaking out. I took responsibility and opened up, but I brought everything up to code and did everything they told me to do. Everything. It cost me a lot more than expected. At one point, they asked for even more stuff, and then I refused. In the end, the bureaucracy looked the other way because it was a temporary place and because people like what I do. They knew I was trying to do things for education and culture. It was physically hard, but I’m glad I went through with that madness.

OLIVIER ZAHM — There’s a really surprising mix of people at Le Consulat.
LIONEL BENSEMOUN — We brought in some well-known people, some top-flight speakers. It was wonderful to see and meet some incredible artists and personalities every now and then. The French philosopher Bernard Stiegler spoke about a period of disruption — now one of the greatest revolutions humanity has ever known because things are going super-fast, much too fast, and neither our species nor nature itself has time to adapt. Everything’s going very fast: new technologies, artificial intelligence, genetics. We don’t know what’s happening to us, and we don’t have the time for a transformation, so we fear the worst.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Does that mean people want more from a club?
LIONEL BENSEMOUN — There’s real freedom here. It’s a place where you can make a huge amount of noise, or smoke, or whatever, in the heart of the city without bothering anybody. And, you know, all those hard-core ravers behave really well. At a normal nightclub, you have to keep watch to make sure things don’t get out of hand. Here, it’s neither the public nor the private sector, so people have made the place their own, and they’re very careful. Even during raves! You have to admit, it’s amazing that there’s never been any damage to the place. People respected laws that we never even pronounced! It was participatory.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you see the new generation?
LIONEL BENSEMOUN — It’s a real no-future generation we’ve got here. No-future raves like in 1990, but worse! They’re not taking ecstasy. It’s a crazy cocktail of GHB and ketamine. Just imagine. I get 2,000 kids on a Friday night, but it seems there are 10 raves just like it the same night out in the suburbs. That means you’ve got 20,000 hard-core stoner kids in Paris going at it in unknown places — parking garages and basements. Then there are the 18-year-olds who’ve already put together three associations and are doing tons of stuff. And I see others who’re looking forward to only one thing: taking GHB during the weekend and picking up guys or chicks and having a super look, being super beautiful, looking androgynous. They’re into purely physical expression and walk around in a kind of trance. They’re practically taking part in rituals.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you ensure a minimum of security for these kids?
LIONEL BENSEMOUN — There are always five or six people at the raves who take charge if somebody falls down because they’ve taken too much GHB or ketamine. They revive them with speed. So, there are these speed nurses! [Laughs] It’s for nut-jobs, man! The cops actually gave me shit at first, but I told them to be happy these kids were coming to me because if I cancelled, they’d just go to super-dangerous places, places that aren’t up to code at all.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What about the conferences at Le Consulat? What were they about?
LIONEL BENSEMOUN — Ecology, the environment, de-consumption. But there were also a lot of economists specializing in social matters and solidarity, the new systems being set up, like parallel currencies and barter systems. Indigo, for example, is an exchange for knowledge and services. They’ve developed an app where a Syrian math teacher can give classes to a seamstress in exchange for her services, with no money changing hands.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It was a nice place, too, with the concrete and the plants and the wood furniture. There’s a warm, brutalist atmosphere.
LIONEL BENSEMOUN — It’s what we really wanted, something stripped down and brutalist, but with good light. Something human.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Was the restaurant, the “cafeteria,” an important space at Le Consulat? How did you find chefs?
LIONEL BENSEMOUN — When we talked about a solidarity cafeteria, solidarity jobs, and the reasons we so wanted to do this project, everyone was down for it. The great Parisian chef Alain Passard was quick to come see what it was all about. Then there was a chef from Noma, the Scandinavian restaurant, and they just kept coming after that. We set up a hyper-constructed culinary plan right away because the chefs are walking the walk. They’re present, they’re activists, and they stand together in solidarity. They want to get a message across about junk food and pesticides, and they want to take action for the refugees and the homeless.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What do you mean by a “solidarity” restaurant?
LIONEL BENSEMOUN — We’ve worked, for example, with associations like Carillon for the homeless, and Singa, which finds jobs for refugees, especially Syrians and the Sudanese. There are plenty of very active associations that take care of the administrative details to make it all possible. They’re overwhelmed and have trouble meeting the demand. Things move fast, and the world of associations is becoming more important all the time.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s amazing that chefs are the first to step up because they have so little time.
LIONEL BENSEMOUN — Yeah. It’s crazy. I don’t know of any other profession that shows so much spirit in that area, getting things to change. And it has a huge impact because when it’s celebrities, and they recommend that people stop using pesticides and start using forgotten kinds of food or eat less meat, it has an effect. They’re really people of their time. They listen to what’s happening and show the way.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What’s next?
LIONEL BENSEMOUN — I’m taking a rest. I’m getting my bearings. And I’m looking for a new place for a new Le Consulat.


[Table of contents]

Purple #31 The Paris issue

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