Territories of new-urban creation in Flanders

Koekelbergse Alliantie van Knutselaars, La Soirée Télé Partagée (c) Sofie Joye

The stereotypical image of the artist who,vshut off from the outside world, is continuously occupied with that which is most individual, was shattered some time ago. Art does not arise in a social vacuum, but is inextricably intertwined with a broader social context.

In practice, we see that many artists and cultural workers explicitly seek dialogue with other domains, for example by developing work outside of the perceived sterility of the black box and white cube, or through participatory projects in which participants actively contribute to artistic creation. You increasingly feel how artists and cultural workers go one step further and also move into areas that are outside the consensus of the artistic and critical values of the institutionalised arts field.

Einat Tuchman describes how, after a career as a dancer and performer, she deliberately left the stage behind her in order to strive for ‘social transformation through dialogue’ via artistic projects anchored in the urban and social fabric of different neighbourhoods. With Espacetous, she takes the Maison de Quartier neighbourhood centre in Molenbeek as base and organises, among others, street parties in order to re-collectivise public space (see also Tuchman 2018).

From his shop/gallery, Idris Sevenans sets up Troebel Neyntje’s disruptive artistic practices in the public domain and in this way calls into question established values and ways of working. He closed his café De vaste hand one day after its opening because everything had become ‘too much McDonald’s’, causing confusion for both passers-by and the local newspaper.

As a support centre for the professional arts in Flanders and Brussels, Flanders Arts Institute keeps an eye out for new developments in the arts field as well as for ‘weak signals’: subtle signs of possibly greater changes in the way this field functions and organises itself. Absorbing these new developments and subtle signals requires looking beyond the established artistic circuits that abound in Flanders and Brussels. When you do, you soon see interesting cross-pollinations taking place in socially and culturally diverse cities in Flanders. Think of the breakdancers at Brussels North Station, film screenings for newcomers at Maximilian Park, the place makers of Toestand, De Koer and Het Bos, the squatters of Squat 123, and the artists who call into question the artistic value frameworks and develop their artistic practices in the middle of the city.

Free of stereotypes, new alliances are created from the bottom up in which artists, craftsmen, activists and committed citizens set up experiments together. They form practices that oppose the marketing of the arts and life.

Based on this observation, Flanders Arts Institute set up a multi-year research project under the
name Deep-urban Ground [Diepstedelijke Grond] in 2017. We examined initiatives in different cities that are developing between domains, different communities and urban developments, out of sight of established circuits. How do these deep-urban initiatives arise and develop? Who do they themselves regard as an embodiment of deep-urban creation? What is their role in the ecosystem of the arts and in wider society? Answering these questions might give us a glimpse of what the future of the arts sector could look like.

Jo Caimo furnished his house in Borgerhout as De Samenschool, and transformed the pavement in front of his door into a meeting space. © Sofie Joye

‘New-urban? Call me deep-urban!’

At the start of the research project, we still spoke of ‘new-urban ground’ and ‘territories of new-urban creation’ (see among others Keulemans 2018). We opted for a neologism that was not yet defined by hard policy lines or contaminated with public connotations. We hoped thereby to offer sufficient openness so that the concept could gradually be coloured in by the initiatives that crossed our path.

This turned out to be naive. The concept may not have been defined by hard policy lines in 2017, but during our encounters it quickly became clear that ‘new-urban’ was not free of desired and undesired connotations.

In his work for the Mestizo Arts Festival and as city dramaturge of the Royal Flemish Theatre (KVS), Gerardo Salinas recognises in the term what he calls the ‘art of the new-urban’: the new artistic practices that sprout among others from people who were moulded into artists in another country, and autodidacts who experiment with new art forms and languages (Salinas 2017).

Others, however, are offended by this ‘new’. While many initiatives on our path may generate innovative practices, some have been around for more than ten years. Thus, they are not necessarily ‘new’, yet they are neglected and often undervalued. ‘What we are doing is no longer new,’ Haider Al Timimi said in a conversation during the research project, ‘migration has helped make the city.’ With this he also immediately refers to a second problem with the term. ‘New-urban’ threatens to fall into the trap of labelling residents, participants, spectators and artists with a migration background as ‘new’. While Europe is precisely one long history of migration, and each wave of migration leaves its mark on a city and country. How many generations have to grow up in Flanders before you as a  person of colour are no longer ‘new’? Al Timimi suggests replacing ‘new’ with ‘deep’. Hence the choice to speak of a ‘deep-urban’ ground from then on. The new term also does more justice to the most important characteristic of the initiatives we come across: at the basis of their existence is a strong interdependence with the dense urban fabric that they are constantly activating and intervening in.

Soft cartography

The idea behind Deep-urban Ground goes back to a call from dramaturge Geert Opsomer during the 2015 conference City of Cultures/Revisited to develop a different way of monitoring the arts field:

The tools to observe the intercultural dynamics in the field are disappearing. The main tools for tracing and measuring are pretty static and do not provoke change, they study what is already there. We might need a more adventurous experience of cartography, the way Guatarri and Deleuze once defined it: as a creative act that involves inherent exploration and discovery.

Geert Opsomer, 2015

Opsomer is referring here to the work A Thousand Plateaus by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (1987). In it, the philosophers present some challenging concepts and conceptual frameworks that nourished the methodology of the research project. This ‘more adventurous experience of cartography’ consists of taking up a different position and letting go of known frameworks. We did not start from what is established and approved by policy or the established order, but from what emerges from below and what develops as an underground root system (or ‘rhizome’) that has not one, but multiple entrances and can branch infinitely far.

We therefore do not offer exhaustive, objective mapping that nails down places, but rather a soft cartography, which subjectively assesses motives, investigates dynamics and thereby starts from the perspective of the artists, activists and citizens involved. If laws, policies and established institutions are the visible hard lines, we use this process to look for the invisible soft lines and flight lines, the small breeding grounds, their dynamics, the tensions and the petites histoires.

We look at what thrives there. Or in the words of Geert Opsomer, referring to the ‘rhizomatic’ thinking of Guattari and Deleuze: ‘Cartography should map out new territories rhizomatically forming connections, strolling where the mood takes us, rather than relying on a fixed direction or restoring some form of central identity or norm for the arts’ (Opsomer 2015).

With the metaphor of the rhizome in mind, such research can never be complete. For practical reasons we chose three specific locations: Ghent, Antwerp and capital city Brussels were the three starting points for the research. Three creative and diverse cities with a dense urban fabric as focal points of a study that can branch out into other areas.

De Nor, an artwork/pavilion by Dennis Tyfus at Middelheim Museum in Antwerp: a well thought-out example of space creation. © Sofie Joye

For each city we invited a researcher whose activities are linked with similar deep-urban initiatives abroad. As outside eye, travelling writer and journalist Chris Keulemans, artist and activist Quinsy Gario and artistic curator, researcher and writer Lara Staal each spent a month in the urban fabric of Brussels, Antwerp and Ghent. This delineation over time was again chosen for practical reasons. A month was, of course, a short time to explore the ever-changing deep-urban networks in each city, but it turned out to be sufficient to identify a few outlines that characterise the initiatives and dynamics studied. Three new, outside views from a neighbouring country that share the Dutch language with us and — although they are not unknown in Flanders — were not deeply involved in the Flemish arts field. Their task was to pen the soft cartography of each city.

To expand beyond the horizon of Flanders Arts Institute, we invited local guides in each city who embody this deep-urban ground. For Brussels they were Pepijn Kennis (Toestand), Einat Tuchman (Espacetous) and Yassin Mrabtifi (dancer, performer). In Antwerp they were Elisabeth Severino Fernandes (Mama’s Open Mic), Tine De Pourcq (Mestizo Arts Festival), Steven Debbaut (A School Called Tribe), Jo Caimo (visual artist) and Tile Vos (Het Bos). Haider Al Timimi (Kloppend Hert/Jong Gewei), Fatih Devos (rapper, sociologist) and Tim Bruggeman (De Koer) were the guides in Ghent. Their biographies show how they each generate their own perspectives on this deep-urban ground based on their different backgrounds and experiences. They are the driving forces behind some of the initiatives and often operate as bridge builders and frontier workers between the institutional and the non-institutional.

The guides acted as initial point of contact and as conversation partner in this study. As experts, they took the researchers and Flanders Arts Institute in tow through the city. While walking, they often shared their insights, methodologies and networks. In each conversation, we assessed what the ‘deep-urban ground’ could mean for them, how they interpret it themselves and who they believe (also) embodies this idea. Each conversation ended with a list of names of key figures who became our next conversation partners. Like a baton in a relay race that passes from one hand to the other, the researchers and Flanders Arts Institute traversed people, spaces and initiatives.

Conversation by conversation, we gradually came to a more shared meaning of the concept of ‘deep-urban ground’, to a better understanding of the dynamics that underlie it, and to the discovery of new connections between practices, people and places. Inevitably, soft cartography also became more a case of parties establishing and sharing contacts that allow the deep-urban networks to further branch and intertwine.

Quinsy Gario in Antwerp

Flaneur or colonial?

Chris, Quinsy and Lara accepted the assignment to excavate the deep-urban ground in Brussels, Antwerp and Ghent for one month, in the footsteps of the local guides.

Lara Staal spent about a month at intervals in Ghent in 2019 and, with the help of the local guides, conducted fifteen conversations with initiatives from the deep-urban fabric. Her blog posts (Staal 2019) have the subjective character of a diary and in particular let the people behind the initiatives speak for themselves.

Following her stay, Lara wrote down her views and advice to the city which she shared during State of the City of Ghent, a gathering at arts centre Bij’ De Vieze Gasten on 7 September 2019, organised as part of the Theaterfestival. The result – an “open letter to the city” – can be read in this edition of Kunstenpocket. During the State of the City of Ghent, her insights gave rise to a conversation with the players who sat around the table: small initiatives, big arts institutions and employees of the City of Ghent entered into a dialogue about the particularities and needs of Ghent’s deep-urban initiatives.

In 2017, Chris Keulemans travelled a similar route in Brussels. First via blog posts (Keulemans 2017), he reported on the planned conversations and the casual encounters he had in Brussels, and reflected on who he saw moving through Brussels’ urban fabric. With the longer text “Brussels: In search of territories of new-urban creation” (previously also published in Keulemans 2018), he presented his experiences and insights to the rhythm of the walks and conversations. ‘His report reminds me of Walter Benjamin’s flâneur’, said Lara Staal (2019): ‘the idea of walking without a clear goal. Absorbed in the here and now of the urban dynamics.’

Chris’ report served as a stepping stone for a round table discussion during State of the City of Brussels on 7 September 2017, organised at Toestand and Kaaitheater. As finishing touch to his soft cartography, we brought together the players he met, to get to know each other, to present their practice to a wider audience, and to engage in dialogue.

A State of the City of Antwerp took place at arts centre Het Bos in 2018. A dozen initiatives gathered together to launch the exploration that Quinsy Gario would undertake in Antwerp. Quinsy too spent a month in the deep-urban fabric of the city. The text he delivered gave insight into his motivation for starting the assignment:

Antwerp is the city where the colonial atlas was first produced on an industrial scale by the Plantin-Moretus printing company, so I found it an intriguing assignment. I, a living legacy of that colonialism from the Netherlands Antilles, was offered an opportunity to explore art in the city where they made up stories about my ancestors. I wasn’t sure what was meant by ‘new-urban creation’ or what the ‘territories’ could be, but I would gradually understand that, I hoped.

Quinsy Gario

Later in his text, Quinsy made it clear how problematic he found the assignment:

It should therefore be clear that I do not interpret my assignment as the opportunity to put on a colonial safari hat and look for art, makers and art practices that were invisible to the Flanders Arts Institute network. It is not my task to provide a predominantly white arts field with new blood such as the settlers at the time of Plantin-Moretus, who, after all the violence and injustice that they caused, are still mistaken for heroes. This is not a text for programmers, curators or institutions to note down new names that they can use in their project-based funding applications or to artificially increase diversity rates. Many of the people I spoke to had had enough of the parade of diverse people passing by, while much needed system change was being blocked with large and small actions. This is also not a text to help the minister extract examples of policies that will restrict inclusiveness, creativity and innovation. It is a small encouragement for introspection about dry white papers, interpersonal etiquette and institutional power.

Quinsy Gario

The first version of Quinsy’s text gave rise to differences of opinion during reading and editing at Flanders Arts Institute. That was also his intention. Quinsy’s strategy to confront differs greatly from Flanders Arts Institute’s strategy to unite. After long deliberation Flanders Arts Institute decided not to publish Quinsy’s text. When she read the draft, Lara Staal said:

He makes a connection between mapping and describing new-urban practices and colonialism. After all, the emergence of world maps came from the need to map the country. And history teaches us that defining regions using a map has always been a way to control, capture and colonise them. Describing is determining.

Lara Staal

Describing is determining, indeed. Did we make an error in judgement? What does that say about the other texts within Deep-urban Ground, which do not bother us at all? Have we, as Quinsy suggests, been unintentionally colonial? He deviated from our question and assignment, but does he not have that right? And why do we have such fundamental problems with the result? Is it because we are a white institution? And if so, is it only due to this? If the text had covered a different theme, would we also refuse it because it is too hard and too specific about people and organisations?

Perhaps, but it does reveal precisely the balance of power that the text denounces. The text confronts us with a strategy that is not ours, because Flanders Arts Institute aims to work at all times in a way that makes connections, has the luxury of being able to do that, and chooses to continue to do so. We thus are clashing with our limits as a (white) institution. We are presented with a mirror that forces us to look at ourselves.

Old remains from the building are given a new life at neighbourhood centre De Meubelfabriek in Ghent. © Sofie Joye

Dynamics in the deep-urban fabric

Through the conversations that the researchers had with several initiatives, we quickly realised that there is no single formula for setting up something in the urban fabric in a bottom-up and interconnected way. Everything depends on the context from which someone works, the focus a person or organisation takes, the alliances it enters into, and how it connects with other players.

This does not alter the fact that we can discern a number of shared characteristics between the mapped practices and the fact that we see similarities between the developments in the different cities investigated. The following is an outline of what we can classify under the common denominator of deep-urban ground.

Alternative logic out of urgency

When people find each other in shared urgency, something happens. The lack of an intersectional approach in the arts, social exclusion, the challenge of dominant aesthetics and artistic values, calling power relations into question, the lack of accessible space for creation or community in certain neighbourhoods, the sense of rethinking a new generation from below: these are just a few of the many reasons why people take action. In the initiatives examined, activists, artists and committed citizens respond to the hard lines of the arts sector and society: they break through prevailing logic, but also formulate an alternative.

By themselves experimenting, failing and refining, they depict other ways of thinking and doing, outside the frame of mainstream institutions. Out of a common urgency, temporary communities arise that – when they receive the right incentives in time – grow into broader communities that can instigate change in established sectors and wider society.

The ways in which this is done differ greatly, as do their interpretations, but what binds the initiatives investigated is the belief in the power of the artistic. Chris Keulemans puts it as follows in his text:

While many of the practices are not yet or only partially recognised by governments and the established order as artistic at the required level […] there is no doubt about the necessity of the artistic element in their work, the urgency of an artistic perspective on the complex urban issues within which they move, and the redefinition of (artistic) categories that their work will lead to.’

Chris Keulemans

Often the initiatives that we encountered on our path were not interested in definitions of what is or is not art, in the division into art disciplines and genres, or in the distinction between high and low arts. They start from an artistic sense, and piece together their own story using all the material they have.

For some, this can be done via Bach as well as via Kanye West; for others, it starts from a subculture or a craft that they don’t see represented in the current cultural field. All of them use artistic strategies to create empowerment, community building and a new, urban fabric.

In each case, the activity and the joint initiative are paramount and not the linguistic, religious, cultural or socio-economic differences between the participants. Many deep-urban initiatives try to actively overcome these barriers by working multilingually, offering activities free of charge, making time for personal contact, by settling outside the gentrified city centre whether by choice or by force, experimenting with forms of co-ownership, and sharing space with a range of diverse initiatives and other strategies.


[ Looks confused ]
[ Shakes head no ]
[ Unsteady hand gesture ]
Spanish? Arabic?
[ Eyes open wide ] Sí.

In cosmopolitan cities such as Brussels, but also in Antwerp and Ghent, there is often no single community language. Those who wish to be open to different communities are therefore flexible in their use of language. Often with hands and feet or with the help of others who spontaneously emerge as temporary interpreters, people look for the best way to communicate with one another.

Toestand, the organisation that reactivates vacant buildings and abandoned (public) space into temporary, alternative socio-cultural centres, makes the basic information available on their website in Dutch, French, English, Spanish, Arabic and Albanian. This also reveals how many different language communities are involved in its operation. Transfo Collect starts each workshop with an assessment of what the common language is that day and who will translat for whom in parallel, so that all have the opportunity to express themselves.

The richness of languages that you find on the street and in these initiatives sometimes contrasts sharply with the guidelines and language policies that governments and funding bodies use. This sometimes leads to Kafkaesque situations where institutions that operate in multilingual neighbourhoods formally only communicate in Dutch. However, this straitjacket is difficult to maintain if you want to create a shared space for the different communities in our cities.

Bij’ De Vieze Gasten – Bal Mosquee (Ghent)

Making time for encounter

Cultural economist Pier Luigi Sacco (2018) states that artists have a responsibility to enter into long-term engagements with the communities they involve in their artistic processes, and sees this as necessary if they want to formulate credible social criticism.

This exercise requires time. Time to find a common language, to get to know each other’s world, and to work together from there. ‘The point is to start from what people are doing and notfrom what you hope they are doing’, says Mark Jeanty of Bij’ De Vieze Gasten. No matter how crowded their agendas are, the people behind deep-urban practices take the time to engage in interpersonal encounters. When two young people walk by and stop at the red gates of art centre In de Ruimte, coordinator Robert Monchen turns to them to answer their questions. Here the opened gate is truly an invitation to talk.

Elisabeth Severino Fernandes is a spoken word artist and one of the driving forces behind Mama’s Open Mic. She is the person who leads the evenings and who snaps her fingers from the first row with the rest or shouts when a slam preaches truths. It is she who, together with those present, creates the safe space where people who wear their heart on their sleeve can present their slams and poetry.

Sam Dewaele, Karim Kalonji and Admir Mirena, despite their international successes and titles in breakdance, are the coaches who guide the young B-boys and B-girls every week in their own clubhouse Together We Stand. Haider Al Timimi, who took his first steps in the professional performing arts circuit through the youth work of Union Suspecte, spends his Sundays on the floor at Transfo Collect and Jong Gewei, where he guides a new generation of makers.

After twenty years as artistic programmer at Bij’ De Vieze Gasten, Mark Jeanty still regularly taps beers, catching up with the youngsters from the neighbourhood. These are modest encounters based on a shared humanity and common interests, not on a prestigious role or function you fulfil. In this way, the initiators remove barriers between people, get to know others, their stories and their needs, and mutual knowledge – bearing in mind the principle of ‘each one, teach one’ – is shared.

Making space for co-ownership and empowerment

Often they not only make new contacts and facilitate encounters, they are also strongly committed to co-ownership. This is contained in the etiquette but also in the starting point and the formats that are developed to allow a wider community to participate in the operation and activities.

These can take the form of a collective exhibition, a performance in the public space that makes each spectator a potential co-actor, opening up a space for a community yet to be created, or setting up studios and workshops. But we can also think about the way in which women with knowledge of traditional handicrafts work together to complete an artistic creation at Manoeuvre, the open mic events of Mama’s Open Mic at the Zomerfabriek, or the cypher of B-boys and B-girls at Together We Stand. They are all forms that provide active participation and make co-creation possible for those who want it.

You often see that co-ownership is also considered within the organisational structure, and organisational forms and decision-making procedures are sought that are more horizontal. There is no clear leader, but a team of people collectively working towards the same goal, sometimes with interchangeable roles.

The Koekelbergse Alliantie van Knutselaars (K.A.K. for short) works together on artistic projects in the public space or on stage as a multi-member collective and does this based on an organisational mod el in which each member of the collective has a voice, and roles are interchangeable depending on the availability and needs of each project. The production work in one project can be done by an artist who is on stage in another project or who works at the bar.

Under the name Koerforum, De Koer organises monthly meetings where all involved in the operation meet, discuss the operation and can help determine the course to be taken. De Meubelfabriek holds a monthly parliament in which all residents can vote on the agenda items. And not coincidentally, Pepijn Kennis, one of the founders of Toestand, is also one of the driving forces behind Agora, the first Brussels civilian assembly with legislative power.

Such horizontal organisational forms often aim at empowerment, in which both initiators and participants go through a learning process and a personal growth process is achieved. The aforementioned principle ‘each one, teach one’ can be seen in various organisations in the form of formal studios and workshops, but also in less formal mentoring, coaching or simply by organically working together.

Exchange: financial and otherwise

The way one deals with a community implies that access to the deep-urban initiatives is also regulated in a different way than in the institutional circuits. Many of the initiatives are free of charge or require a voluntary contribution. Some activities require entrance fees, but the price rarely exceeds 10 euros. The focus is not on a monetary exchange, but on forming and maintaining a community, and that can often be achieved through the exchange of knowledge, services or gifts.

Alternative use of space

Space that you can fill in yourself is essential to many deep-urban initiatives, whether at a fixed location or in nomadic form. The initiatives are in control of their management and implementation. Space makes encounters possible, and through the space people relate to the neighbourhood.

It is not easy to find affordable space that allows open dialogue between users and with the environment. The development of deep-urban initiatives sometimes takes place under the wings of established players such as community centres or social practice organisations, but just as often is accompanied by the alternative use of existing space of private owners or governments.

Affordable space is usually located outside the expensive city districts and the tourist centre. You tend to find them in neighbourhoods and sub-municipalities such as Borgerhout in Antwerp, Brugse Poort, De Muide, Het Rabot or Ledeberg in Ghent, and Sint-Gillis, Molenbeek, Schaarbeek, Anderlecht, Matonge and the Marollen in Brussels.

These areas – with an urban mix of residents and users – often provide the ideal breeding ground for such initiatives. They form, as it were, the centre from which the deep-urban initiatives develop. Deep-urban initiatives often resort to the temporary use of vacant retail premises, old industrial buildings or dilapidated homes. This temporariness is sometimes a conscious choice, while others start a temporary initiative, while hoping to make it last for the long run. Many practices turn this structural vacancy into a city lab, by claiming a location and squatting, renting or, increasingly, through the mediation of anti-squatting companies that take their share.

Studio operations such as Nucleo in Ghent or Studio Start in Antwerp specialise in transforming vacant buildings into temporary studios that are rented out to artists at affordable prices. From their temporary base of operations, such initiatives show the potential of a certain location in the city and, as a result, sometimes unwittingly contribute to gentrification.

The dynamics that these initiatives bring about, initiate a revival in the neighbourhood, which attracts new, wealthier residents. This pull factor then causes an increase in property prices. Together with less wealthy tenants, it is often the initiatives that are at the root of the revival that disappear once real estate prices become too high or their city lab has to make way for an urban renewal project. We see how the temporary use of space is recuperated by real estate developers who want to capitalise on the revival generated by deep-urban initiatives, or is deliberately used by a city government as part of what Pascal Gielen (2015) calls ‘the creative city’. Except for the space, the initiatives themselves receive little in return.

Vacant buildings are filled in with a lot of energy and enthusiasm by users, without receiving much money from the owners or from government to effectively start an initiative. In addition, the users are responsible for preparing and maintaining the building. The renovation and maintenance of the building, the search for funds and the operation then fall on the shoulders of the initiators who usually work on a voluntary basis. Deep-urban initiatives in large buildings give the impression of boundless energy and imagination, but this is often accompanied by extreme precariousness in temporary constructions.

This temporary nature is tiring for those who aim to build a sustainable relationship with a neighbourhood and wish to grow into a permanent initiative. Certain initiatives are therefore looking for affordable and sustainable models that resist the value appreciation logic of a liberal real estate market or reverse the exclusivity that comes with it.

Some initiatives such as De Koer in Ghent obtain long-term use through a lease, or manage to purchase with private-public partnerships. Other initiatives acquire a place as a private  person. Governments can play an important role by offeringdeep-urban initiatives a long-term perspective and making a building available for a long time, with sufficient support for operations and maintenance. And thus to ensure social and cultural functions at diverse locations in the city (periphery as well as centre).

In many cases, the available space is used to the maximum. It is not uncommon for a room to have multiple functions and to find multiple functions on one site. Each of the three visited cities houses a number of creative hubs where traditional studios for screen printing or woodworking are interspersed with neighbourhood kitchens, skate parks, give-away shops and multi-purpose halls that can be transformed into an exhibition space, a concert or banquet room in no time.

At larger, more industrial sites such as DOK in Ghent, Allee Du Kaai in Brussels or the Zomerfabriek site in Antwerp, we see how different artistic, social and cultural initiatives come together in one place and strengthen each other through that spatial proximity. Pierkespark in the Brugse Poort district of Ghent not only provides space for local youngsters but is closely surrounded by Bij’ De Vieze Gasten, community centre and eatery Trafiek, a thrift shop and a Moroccan restaurant. These are initiatives that attract different audiences, but their proximity increases the attractiveness of the district for all.

Local residents are also the primary public in these neighbourhoods, more so than the travelling tourist. By acquiring locations that are close to public spaces – such as Jo Caimo who bought a corner house with a view of the forecourt for gathering – or through thoughtful renovations of an existing building – such as an old shop in the case of Troebel Neyntje –, creative minds expand the idea of communal space and allow a blurring of the boundaries between private, semi-public and public space.

More often, the artist’s home also serves as meeting space, studio and exhibition space. In this way, public spaces are extracted from private spaces in all sorts of creative ways, and physical and mental barriers are lowered. A nice illustration of how artists creatively use and activate space can be found at the periphery of the Middelheim Museum in Antwerp, an open-air museum for the visual arts. Artist Dennis Tyfus was invited to add an artistic project to the sculpture garden. What he ultimately delivered was De Nor: a work of art/pavilion, which serves as a grandstand and houses a small bar underneath.

Due to its location at the edge of the sculpture garden, and with separate access from the street, the pavilion can be transformed into a meeting point and stage for outdoor events at any time.

Screen printing at In De Ruimte (Ghent). (c) Sofie Joye


Regarding the above, care must be taken not to regard these initiatives as a purely local phenomenon. Indeed, many work at a glocal level: locally anchored, but globally connected and networked. The partnerships and networks extend as far as the contacts of those involved. Thanks to modern communication flows and accessible mobility, peers in all corners of the world are becoming increasingly accessible, leading to new transnational meetings, knowledge sharing, and cooperation.

For cosmopolitans, the development of a practice here and there is often natural. Toestand, for example, sets up projects in Brussels as well as in Macedonia, Spain, Ukraine and other countries. Curator and dramaturge Nedjma Hadj simultaneously develops initiatives and networks in Morocco and Flanders, acting as a bridge between both worlds.

Ambivalent relationships with power

Many maintain an ambivalent relationship with the established order and often clash with the hard lines of power: the power of urban development driven by private  and public forces, the power of social control, the power of citizenship and civil behaviour, the power of valuation frameworks, the power of coercive policy frameworks, the power of institutional circuits, and so on.

The latter does not mean that the deep-urban initiatives investigated are constantly turning away from collaborations with cultural institutions: a number of good examples prove the contrary. Vooruit, an arts institution in Ghent, with City Residencies [Stadsresidenten], adapted its residency activities to meet the need of artists to work in certain places in the city for a long time.

The different realities in which institutions work – with sophisticated organisational structures, tight schedules for multiple years, good infrastructure, professionalism and (artistic) prestige built up over many years – and in which deep-urban initiatives operate – that are often more flexible, more accessible, with less barriers to participation – often result in unnecessary mis- understandings, mutual incomprehension and, worst case, in a breach.

At the same time, they each have something to gain from a collaboration. The established order hopes to attract a new audience and new talents with unexpected art forms. For the unestablished order, this is the path to recognition, more space and possibilities (Keulemans 2018).

The friction with frameworks for government support stems from the hybrid identity of many initiatives. Policy categories such as ‘community work’, ‘social-artistic work’ or ‘participation’ appear rigid to many deep-urban initiatives. Initiators often have to familiarise themselves with several decrees at the same time in order to request support for different parts of the activity via different subsidy channels. Many indicate that they have to artificially divide up their operation in order to fit the mould of one or more policy instruments.

In addition to frustrations, this mainly results in significant administrative work. Also, expectations regarding long-term planning that come with subsidy applications are not always in line with the protean nature of many deep-urban initiatives. This encouraged Lara Staal to argue in her open letter for new selection methods that give room to difference and create trust on the basis of intentions instead of tightly defined plans for the future.

The way in which deep-urban initiatives work from below, based on a conviction, and sometimes on dissatisfaction with the existing, is decisive for the social relationships that are created, for the handling of space, the kind of artistic practices that are developed and the way in which finances are organised. Earlier it was mentioned that financial barriers to access activities are avoided, kept as low as possible, mitigated in a way other than through money.

Self-generated revenues through ticket sales and other channels – beverage sales, (hall) rental, crowdfunding – do happen, but must fit within the values of the initiatives in question. ‘Not all values can be reconciled with a pro-fit model’, says Lara Staal in her open letter (Staal, 2019).

Many practices therefore largely survive on voluntary commitments, the solidary pooling of resources through cooperation, and support via government funding from the city or the Flemish region.

Some initiatives resist funding out of ideological persuasion, concluding that their values don’t match with the ones embodied by public policies. For many initiatives however, it remains a continuous mix-and-match exercise, which means that many deep-urban initiatives lead a precarious existence.

The recent austerity measures of the Flemish Government in the social and cultural field, including the reduction in project subsidies in the Arts Decree, are very worrying. Many initiatives are dependent on government resources from these different domains and are now in danger of falling by the wayside, one by one. Thus, the room  for experimentation and failure is coming under increasing pressure.

Various initiatives with a slightly more stable operation indicate that the support of local policy makers has played a crucial role in their growth process. A positive relationship with local policy depends on the trust that is built up between both parties and on the commitment of policy makers to get involved in or deepen these initiatives. When they contribute ideas as equal partners, detached from the hard lines of policy frameworks, this generates opportunities for both policy and initiatives to work together on a thriving urban environment.

However, this mutual relationship of trust is also precarious, and accumulated knowledge quickly disappears as soon as people change positions.

Future perspectives

In recent years Flanders Arts Institute has taken the time to explore the deep-urban ground. We left the traditional paths of the organised arts field and listened to artists and cultural workers who operate from and are strongly rooted in the urban fabric. Through visits, in-depth conversations and walks through the various cities, we learned more about their motives, their way of working, and the problems and opportunities that this creates.

The trajectory that ultimately came to be known as Deep-urban Ground showed that a growing number of initiatives are working on new forms of community development and democracy in the urban context. They often operate outside established art and cultural institutions, and maintain an ambivalent relationship with them. They often resist categorisation. Just as many people no longer allow their identity to be determined by nationality, they have outgrown narrow definitions of ‘socio-artistic’, ‘participatory’, ‘diversity’ and the like, and they largely owe their identity to the urban mix in which they originate. To quote Chris Keulemans:

The dynamics of rapidly changing city life, which in addition to many other things also produces art, albeit in forms that are not always immediately categorised as art. No productions, exhibitions or concerts, but creation: the making instead of the made.

Chris Keulemans

Moreover, being grounded in the city does not mean they only want to be a factor locally. Their partnerships and networks extend as far as the contacts of the people involved. Locally anchored, but globally connected and networked.

Deep-urban practices are not always clearly legible from specific cultural codes, the trained artistic eye of a Western art audience or a hierarchical management philosophy, but are logical and natural for those who grew up in the hybrid nature of the cities and are open to an encounter, free of biased frameworks, stereotypes and categories.

If you look with the necessary attention and an open mind, you will see that here art and cultural practices arise that challenge and enrich the current ways of working. And if they get enough oxygen, they will help shape not only the art and cultural circuits, but also the urban and social fabric and policy of the future. They create open spaces from below for experimentation, human interactions and (temporary) communities.

In the process, they call into question the current way of working, weave connections across social barriers and develop alternative logics. As frontiers, they are indispensable innovators of both the artistic and the social landscape of the future. There is an opportunity to recognise them in this valuable role, to learn the needs of the initiatives, and to give them the space to grow sustainably on their own terms.

In this sense, this publication is an interim snapshot of an exercise that is never finished and should never be finished. It is up to the institutional circuits and policy to always keep an eye on the grassroot initiatives that emerge in the urban fabric and to enter into sustainable partnerships with them based on a relationship of equality. These kinds of initiatives are indispensable to maintaining a rich arts landscape and developing a rich, interconnected community in our Flemish cities. They help determine the broad cultural dynamics and thus also the society of tomorrow.

You are reading: Territories of new-urban creation in Flanders