To map the eco system of the arts, Flanders Arts Institute points its focus to Off Spaces: art spaces that are installed by artists and/or curators. Mostly they works without funding in empty buildings, or at people’s homes. There is a wide array of goals and working methods. Curator Pieter Vermeulen interviewed for this article Amaury Daurel & Victor Delestre (Deborah Bowmann, Brussels)
How would you describe Deborah Bowmann?
Deborah Bowmann is as much an artistic project as it is an art space. The name is the articulation of these two facades, the studio production and the curation of exhibitions.
So you’re both trained as artists?
Yes, in sculpture. Then we started to flirt a lot with design, so the space became also a way to deal with the tension between sculpture and design. We felt like we needed a context to play with the status of objects. The object is not answering any question; it’s mainly about the context the objects find themselves in and how they’re travelling.
We don’t curate work like any other curator — everything happens in a collaborative spirit.
How are your exhibitions being programmed?
For us, all of our exhibitions are conceived in a collaborative fashion rather than as group shows, because we mostly invite people to work with us. Sometimes it’s also Deborah Bowmann’s work that artists physically have to deal with.
At other times it’s just the curation of a show and inviting other artists. But we don’t curate work like any other curator — everything happens in a collaborative spirit.
How do you make the selection of artists to invite?
Obviously we invite a lot of friends, but that happens everywhere. We are not so much looking at artworks that we like, but rather at the story that the exhibitions are creating. So it’s really about the narration, you know, and we like to think there is a sense of diversity in that.
We tend to be quite specialised, rather than trying to be as diverse as possible, like so many other art spaces. For us that’s not the thing, we are just specialised in certain questions and topics.
Your initiative also seems to deal with finding a combination between living and working. You both live beneath the exhibition space, for instance. How do you see the relation between the two?
For us, the physical space is just one element in the whole project. As I said, we also take a performative stance as artists. Sometimes it’s just in the communication, at other times we literally walk through the exhibition or things like that. We consider it as a new endeavour about what a total work of art is nowadays and what it could be. It is not an end in itself, but more of a means to do new things. We are building a kind of story and invite people to take part in it.
We find it important to understand the reality of running a commercial space as a subject matter.
What can you tell us about the space that you’re currently occupying?
We were looking for a display window that was also well located. A lot of the shows might seem like regular art shows, but we are equally interested in the context that it creates for random passers-by. There is already some ambiguity about the nature of the space. In many cases we also play around with set design, showcases and stuff like that, so a display window was really important to us.
We also find it important to understand the reality of running a commercial space as a subject matter. This is why we are dealing with all of these questions that we can’t avoid, like commerce, bureaucracy, art fairs, being a gallerist and so on. Obviously we are playing with these codes.
How is Deborah Bowmann organised as a bureaucratic, administrative entity?
It used to be a factual association. Now it’s becoming an asbl [association without lucrative purpose], but since we are also making work as artists, we have to divide it a bit. So Deborah Bowmann Studio is just a collaboration of artists.
Would you ever consider applying for funding, if you haven’t done so already?
We’re going to receive subsidies for a few shows and we’ll be applying for more. I don’t know if it’s going to work out but we’ll see.
For us, the project wasn’t really about making money. It was more about dealing with commercial codes in an aesthetic way. At some point we realised that, if we are able to cover the rent and the production expenses for exhibitions with what we earn from Deborah Bowmann, that is quite something already.
We do like a normal gallery would do, but we try not to spend too much time doing just that.
You’re satisfied with a break-even?
Yeah, that’s the goal. When we operate outside of the space, as Deborah Bowmann, it’s still related to what we do here in the space. If we start making money by selling works in another gallery, it’s a different thing. If, in the long run, we start making lots of money by selling Deborah Bowmann artworks in galleries, the space can still remain a non-profit. The two activities can be related, but still be different.
How do you sell your artworks?
We do like a normal gallery would do, but we try not to spend too much time doing just that. So we send e-mails and PDF’s to collectors and stuff like that. It is important for the sustainability of the gallery and the project. In other cases we are showing artworks as Deborah Bowmann at other galleries. They do the sales and are often also better at it.
What role does your website play in all this?
On the one hand, there are certain codes that we like to play with. We try to present it as in between a gallery website and an e-commerce webshop. For some objects it’s rather playful to present them in this web shop setting. There are more than 10,000 sculptures, and we know we’ll never sell them there. But we like to offer different kinds of works for different budgets and sizes, limited editions as well as more affordable ones. So for some works it makes sense to be presented in this context, we have small ashtrays or paintings for instance. Finally this also generates an income for the gallery itself, which is then used to set up future shows. It’s really hybrid.
Do you distinguish between the pieces that are being sold on the website and the ones that are sold in a more traditional gallery circuit?
No, we put everything on the website. Everything that is made through Deborah Bowmann appears on there. It’s a bit like how we function as artists, in between sincerity and parody. Also, we don’t keep a percentage off the sales of works by other artists after the exhibition, except on the website. We were more looking for a kind of branding than an art gallery strategy. We are trying to find our commercial strategies in this field as much as we can.
Do you organise any other activities besides exhibitions?
Yes, we organise lectures downstairs. We call them the “bedroom talks”. It’s a way to show our bedrooms and do things in it. As I said before, we decided that the gallery space is only one element. If you dig deeper, you will find that it’s much more complicated. For the talks we are inviting artists, researchers or musicians, whatever. It’s a really loose way to discuss the meaning of the exhibition. Instead of explaining the show we try to relate to it. We invited someone else to curate this program with us. Not because we couldn’t handle it – we just needed some new input.
Deborah Bowmann was supposed to be a kind a sculpture that develops over time.
Do you have a job besides Deborah Bowmann, and how do you divide your time?
Yes. We devote about eighty percent of our time to Deborah Bowmann. Besides those activities, we both work as art handlers at La Loge [an exhibition space in Brussels]. It doesn’t take up that much time – just enough. We like their programme and they like ours, so it’s not like working at some random place. We learn things, and they are flexible with us.
How do you see your initiative evolving in the future?
No idea, because we started Deborah Bowmann expecting it to last for one year. It was supposed to be a kind a sculpture that develops over time. In the end we noticed that we had more things to say than we possibly could in one year, and we are still excited about a lot of upcoming projects. So it’s hard to tell. At some point the space might become too small and, if things are going well, we’ll be able to afford a bigger space. We are also involving other people in the project, like with the curation of the bedroom talks, so maybe we should also involve someone in the exhibition program. I also see a lot of potential in the invitations as Deborah Bowmann Studio. We are being invited for bigger things than before, so that’s where I see the main evolution.