Let me be your guide: Artists’ Moving Image in Flanders

Black Speaks Back, Roxanne Maillet and Nazanin Fakoor in 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080/1000 Bruxelles (2020) at ARGOS. Photo: Dirk Pauwels

Artists’ Moving Image is a rich field in Flanders. Whilst many of Flanders’s internationally recognised artists place the moving image at the centre of their practice, there is also a plethora of publicly funded organisations, both large and small, committed to supporting and showcasing moving image art. The complex network formed by these organisations, together with artists, curators, writers, art schools, universities and public funding bodies, constitutes the basis for a sustainable culture of artistic experimentation for the moving image. 

Long-time caught between a rock and a hard place – the fields of “art” and “film” – artists’ moving image encompasses experimental film, essay film, video art, installation and performance art practices. This inclusive, elastic term can be used for works made for exhibition in the cinema, in the gallery, on television and online. Works may be the personal expressions of one individual, made collaboratively or with professional crews, and all stages in between. 

This breadth is apparent in Flanders, where artists’ moving image spreads from the artisanal, analogue DIY practices of filmmakers Floris Vanhoof or Els van Riel and initiatives such as the Brussels Labo, De Imagerie and Cinéma Parenthèse, to the lavish gallery installations of artists including David Claerbout or Hans Op de Beeck. From the essayistic and political to the narrative and performative. From the cinematic to the resolutely digital. 

Artists’ video in Flanders 1970s-2000s

Such pluralism is hardly surprising when one looks back to the idiosyncratic histories of Belgian cinema and video, in particular the fertile tradition of video art in Flanders. From the early 1970s, Antwerp constituted an important centre of gravity for artists’ engagement with video, with many (including Lili Dujourie, Gary Bigot or Hubert Van Es) working around the ICC (International Cultureel Centrum), the first public institution for contemporary art in Flanders. Over the next two decades, video art would be strengthened as a field of practice by the country’s supportive institutions and numerous private collectors. In 1989, Frie Depraetere and Koen Van Daele set up Argos in Brussels in order to “stimulate and promote the then still emerging Belgian audiovisual arts scene”. To this day, Argos distributes the work of Belgian video artists internationally, including the many visual artists who use video in addition to sculpture, installation and other media, such as Edith Dekyndt, Michel François, Ana Torfs and Joëlle Tuerlinckx. 

Whereas artists around the world took to video cameras in the 1970s and 1980s as a way to critique television, by direct intervention and subversion (often by working with public-access television networks), in Flanders a distinct practice was developed from within mass media instead of in opposition to it, fuelled by the openness of public broadcasters. This would give way to the pioneering work of Jef Cornelis [1] (which has recently received international recognition through an exhibition at the Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art and screenings at Tate Modern) and Stefaan Decostere. Across the linguistic border in Wallonia, Jean-Paul Tréfois also commissioned Flemish artists to make work for the legendary programme Vidéographie on RTBF.

Video technology had also been used by artists as a tool to uninterruptedly document live performance. The so-called “Flemish wave” in contemporary dance and theatre of the 1980s had its own effect on the country’s audiovisual production, producing a distinct tradition of dance films and videos that resulted from the collaboration between choreographers, dancers, video artists and filmmakers – such as the partnership between Eric Pauwels and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker in Violin Fase and that of Walter Verdin and Wim Vandekeybus in Roseland. The relationship between the theatre and the moving image is also present in the work of Jan Vromman and that of Frank and Koen Theys, who took Wagner’s Der Ring Des Nibelungen as the point of departure for a number of video works, whilst Harald Thys and Jos de Gruyter’s farcical videos stem from the “klucht” tradition of theatre that dates back to the Middle Ages.

To Free the Cinema

Long before artists used video, Marcel Broodthaers was one of the first visual artists to use film in the gallery space. His gesture was prescient of contemporary moving image installation and also pointed towards the idea that exhibition-making is a cinematic act. Belgium’s long-standing tradition of artists’ engagement with film in fact began with the surrealists; René Magritte made a number of amateur films with friends and family as cast and crew. Avant-garde films such as Charles Dekeukeleire’s Histoire de détective (1929) and Ernst Moerman’s Monsieur Fantômas (1937) were madeunder the Surrealist influence. Another pioneer of Belgian cinema, Henri Storck (a co-founder of the Royal Belgian Film Archive) is known for his social documentaries, but also shot impressionistic portraits of his native Ostend. Close to figures such as James Ensor, Constant Permeke or Léon Spilliaert from his early youth, Storck made a number of documentaries on painters that challenge the distinction between artists’ films and films on art, and which prefigure the work that Jef Cornelis undertook decades later at the VRT.

The narrative of avant-garde cinema in Flanders, or more widely in Belgium, is not as neatly unified as in other countries. As a “small” cinema and a relatively well funded one, Flemish filmmaking was already more prone to artistic experimentation, less constrained by a market logic. There was perhaps no need, to use Jonas Mekas’s famous words, “to free the cinema”.

Though it did not develop an underground cinema as significant as its buoyant video art scene, Flanders was home to one of the most important events in the history of international avant-garde film: the EXPRMNTL festival which took place in Knokke (in 1947, 1963, 1967 and 1974) and once in Brussels during Expo ’58. Occupying the week between Christmas and New Year at the Casino in a semi-deserted Knokke, EXPRMNTL has become the stuff of legend [2]. An international gathering of avant-garde artists from all disciplines (film, video, music, poetry, installation, performance), EXPRMNTL is yet another example of an officially sanctioned avant-garde practice in Flanders. This state-sponsored celebration of the counter-culture was organised by the Royal Belgian Film Archive and was the vision of its curator Jacques Ledoux. The significance of EXPRMNTL is not lost on the contemporary artists’ moving image scene in Flanders; its legacy is still felt by contemporary artists, filmmakers and curators across Belgium. The Royal Belgian Film Archive continues to hold many key works from the history of avant-garde in their collection and has a special acquisition policy for experimental film.

Artists’ moving image has emerged as a relatively recent term, one that can heal past divisions between the fields of art and the cinema – where audiovisual artists have previously been situated. Whereas the distinctions were greater in other countries, creating completely separate disciplines, quasi ghettos that had little to say to one another, in Flanders there was always less of a gap between an artists’ cinema and the mainstream, as well as between video and film, with artists and filmmakers moving freely from one medium to the other. Filmmakers such as Annik Leroy and Chantal Akerman would elsewhere have been ‘relegated’ to the avant-garde, but in Belgium their work was not only celebrated, it was produced within the official film funding structures and distributed and broadcast on national television and film theatres. 

A Cinematic Turn

In 1993 Chantal Akerman reconfigured her film D’Est as an installation for 8 triptychs of video monitors spread across the gallery space. It was presented in an exhibition organised by Bruce Jenkins and Catherine David for Jeu de Paume, Paris, later travelling to Brussels’s Palais des Beaux-Arts and other international venues. It would have a profound effect on a new generation of artists for whom it opened up the possibility of thinking about film as an art medium and not as something separate – as film and art had been considered until then. D’Est demonstrated a place for documentary and cinematic practices in the gallery or museum. Akerman was not alone in exploring this possibility – other filmmakers such as Agnès Varda, Atom Egoyan, Abbas Kiarostami, Harun Farocki and Chris Marker had also turned to exhibition practices in the 1990s and early 2000s.

In 1997, Johan Grimonprez’s Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y was presented at Paris Centre Pompidou and at Documenta X in Kassel. By this time, advancements in video projection technology had enabled artists’ video to become “cinematic”, allowing audiovisual art to break free from the limitations of the TV monitor and to occupy screens of a much larger size. Grimonprez’s found-footage documentary essay on the history of airplane hi-jacking was groundbreaking, in part because it demonstrated the possibility for cinema, in its conventional form, to inhabit the museum. Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y is not a multi-channel installation, there are no expanded elements that require the white cube of the gallery space instead of the black box of the cinema. As a 68-minute single-screen video, its worldwide success helped create a space in the museum for the presentation of single-channel works that require time and attention conditions not dissimilar to those of the cinema. The contemporary works of other Flemish artists such as Sven Augustijnen, Herman Asselberghs, Vincent Meessen, Isabelle Tollenaere, Sarah Vanagt and Manon de Boer continue to inhabit the space that was opened up by Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y over twenty years ago.

Johan Grimonprez and Chantal Akerman are emblematic figures of the shifts that occurred in the 1990s. This changing landscape would see a cinematic turn in video art, and a blurring of traditional distinctions and hierarchies between art and film. 

Working together

2019 marked the 30th anniversary of Argos. Having been identified for decades with a particular history of “video art”, the scope of its collection has widened in recent years as the field opened up and diversified. Argos now also represents the work of artists and filmmakers engaged with digital and analogue film practices; the ambition of the collection is decidedly multicultural and international. It’s also an archival collection intended to preserve important works by Belgian artists [3]. Argos’s public programme includes exhibitions, screenings and other events that seek to expand the notion of the “audiovisual arts.” 

In December 2019, Argos hosted – with the support of Flanders Arts Institute – the first meeting of the “Platform for audiovisual and media arts”, an assembly of organisations working “with artists’ film, sound art, or media art.”[4] This meeting was a formal acknowledgement of what has been for many years an informal network of mutual support. The artistic and the socio-cultural have always been intertwined in Belgium, and many of these initiatives represent socially engaged practices. For instance Cinemaximiliaan, which began in an improvised refugee camp in Brussels’ Maximiliaan Park, and has grown into a vast network of volunteers who organise film screenings for newcomers in Belgium, particularly in asylum centres. The “Platform” attests to the breadth and diversity of the sector and the important role that smaller, artist-run structures play. If there is one distinctive trait of the artists’ moving image landscape in Flanders, it is precisely the proliferation of artist-run initiatives, collectives and other collaborative groups. 

In 2006, four artists joined forces to start a production and distribution platform Auguste Orts. Although their work was formally very different – each typical of different traditions within artists’ moving image practice – the four recognized a shared position between the fields of contemporary art and cinema. They identified a need for an organisation that could help artists navigate the intricacies of film production mechanisms whilst understanding the demands of exhibition presentation. A structure that could adapt itself to the logics of both the art world and the film industry, or in the artists’ own words, “to generate a specific context that would be conceived in response to the very specific modus operandi of artists’ film production.”

In the years since Manon de Boer, Herman Asselberghs, Sven Augustijnen and Anouk De Clercq began Auguste Orts, Flanders has witnessed a rapid multiplication of similarly-minded structures: Jubilee (Justin Bennett, Eleni Kamma, Vincent Meessen, Jasper Rigole, and Vermeir & Heiremans), Messidor (Meggy Rustamova, Pieter Geenen, Eitan Efrat and Sirah Foighel Brutmann), Escautville (Wim Catrysse, Jos de Gruyter & Harald Thys, Ria Pacquée, Frank Theys, Koen Theys) to name a few. Elephy (Rebecca Jane Arthur, Eva Giolo, Chloë Delanghe and Christina Stuhlberger) are the new kids on the block, describing themselves as a “moving image atelier” with a holistic approach that also encompasses public engagement through public programming and workshops. 

Labo (Jen Debauche, Khristine Gillard, Séverine de Streyker, Els van Riel) is an artist-run lab devoted to film processing and a key organisation for all those working with analogue film. Van Riel is also a founding member (together with Wendy Evan, Nicky Hamlyn, Daniel A. Swarthnas and Arindam Sen) of Cinéma Parenthèse, a collective of writers, programmers and filmmakers that organizes experimental film screenings in Brussels. Other collective structures, such as manyone (Sarah Vanhee, Mette Edvardsen, Alma Söderberg and Juan Dominguez) or Black Speaks Back  (Emma-Lee Amponsah, Heleen Debeuckelaere, Burezi Turikumwe and Christopher Daley) are more multidisciplinary but retain a strong connection with the moving image. All of these groups highlight sustainability as a reason for togetherness and often have a very self-reflexive position that also brings into question their own existence as a collective. As the Messidor artists put it, they came together “in order to discuss, to question and to practice the value of joining forces in today’s artistic realm, in Belgium and abroad.”

Auguste Orts always understood its mission as being broader than just supporting its founding artists and a number of guest productions each year (these have included Aglaia Konrad, Dora García, Sammy Baloji and Annik Leroy, amongst others). Auguste Orts is the driving force behind the European project On & For Production and Distribution. Originally intended to facilitate the production of artists’ moving image by bringing together artists, producers, curators, institutions and collectors, On & For has gradually built a European network of organisations involved with artists’ film, placing Flanders at its centre. Its international partners include LUX (UK), CA2M (Spain), Kaunas International Film Festival (Lithuania) and Nordland kunst- og filmskole (Norway) – whilst also working closely with organisations in Belgium including Art Brussels, VAF, Argos, Cinematek, Beursschouwburg, Contour, RITCS, ERG and Atelier Graphoui. 

That collaborative spirit is present in similar endeavours in Flanders, whether they are shaped as collectives – Cinema Nova, the Courtisane festival, cinephile online platform, Sabzian or workspace De Imagerie – or the result of joining forces in order to be able to produce ambitious projects, such as the “DISSENT!” conversation series organised by Auguste Orts, Argos and Courtisane. After all, “Unity makes strength” is the country’s motto. 

Institutional alliances are regularly formed to facilitate production and presentation, with most audiovisual arts organisations, including Argos, Courtisane and Contour, being involved in coproduction and commissioning. Beursschouwburg, a multidisciplinary arts institution with an emphasis on performing and audiovisual arts, not only coproduces many of the works it presents, but also facilitates the production of artists’ moving image through residences. Other organisations not specifically devoted to moving image – such as Netwerk, Z33, Wiels, STUK and Het Bos –occasionally coproduce and present artists’ moving image. 

The most recent Contour Biennial in Mechelen (2019, curated by Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez) placed a special emphasis on collaborative practice, featuring the work of Coyote, Call It Anything, Black Speaks Back, Black(s) to the Future and Greyzone Zebra. Founded in 2016, Greyzone Zebra comprises artists, curators, educators and researchers working on contemporary forms of the transmission and rewriting of histories. Its particular concern with Belgium’s colonial period has been reflected on through the study of home movies made on the African continent before and shortly after the colonies gained independence. 

Many artists in Flanders have engaged with the colonial archive through the moving image. Sarah Vanagt, who has made a number of works in the border region between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, shot Baby Elephant in the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren, before the institution was revamped in an attempt to undo its colonial and racist legacy. Vincent Meessen questions the writing of history and the westernization of imaginaries, often adopting strategies that “undermine the authority of the author and emphasize the intelligence of collectives.” For his presentation at the Belgian Pavilion of the 56th Venice Biennale, Meessen invited other research-based international artists to create work in response to Belgium’s colonization of the Congo, and also reflected on the particular history of the Belgian Pavilion and the international context of the Biennale. 

Although aesthetically diverse, many of these works stem from an essayistic, documentary impulse. An van. Dienderen and Laurent Van Lacker – both working at the intersections between documentary, anthropology and visual arts – initiated SoundImageCulture (SIC) in 2007, together with Rudi Maerten. Mentors for the (SIC) programme have included Didier Volckaert, Eric Pauwels, Els Opsomer, Pieter Van Bogaert amongst others. 

Whilst (SIC) is an example of an innovative educational programme outside academia, Flanders has excellent moving image degrees in its art schools, notably LUCA Sint-Lukas in Brussels and KASK in Ghent, where Edwin Carels (one of the field’s most influential curators, and a long-time programmer for the International Film Festival Rotterdam) teaches, along with artists including Jasper Rigole, Anouk De Clercq, Mekhitar Garabedian, Elias Grootaers, An van. Dienderen, Sarah Vanagt. The Courtisane festival, which has become a key international gathering place for the expanded field of moving image practice, is also based at KASK. Auguste Orts founder Herman Asselberghs has taught at LUCA Sint-Lukas for over twenty years, where the film department also counts amongst its faculty Robbrecht Desmet, Ana Torfs, Aglaia Konrad, Els Opsomer, Ludo Troch, Flo Flamme and Sofie Benoot. 

The organisations (workspaces, festivals, cinemas, collectives) mentioned here above receive – for the most part – public funding from the Flanders Audiovisual Fund (VAF) and the Ministry of Culture (via its Art Decree). VAF funds the development, production and promotion of single-screen audiovisual productions (narrative shorts and features, documentaries and experimental work), and also supports training and fellowship programs.[5] The Art Decree supports the production of multi-channel audiovisual and media art works, and subsidises arts organisations such as Auguste Orts, Escautville, Jubilee, Argos, and others. The Brussels region ((Vlaamse Gemeenschaps Commissie VGC) is also an active supporter of moving image projects and initiatives.

Although the focus of this text is on the public sector, and the thriving culture that it enables, a word is necessary on commercial initiatives that also contribute to the ecosystem of artists’ moving image practice, particularly private galleries such as Jan Mot, Harlan Levey Projects, Dépendance and others. Mot’s long-standing commitment is unique and the majority of the artists that he represents (including Francis Alÿs, Sven Augustijnen, Manon de Boer, David Lamelas, Pierre Bismuth, Joachim Koester and Sharon Lockhart) place the moving image at the centre of their practice. Art Brussels, the country’s biggest art fair has also in recent years devoted a parallel programme to artists’ cinema. 

A Complex Constellation … but a Fragile One

Artists’ moving image is always interstitial: between disciplines, between trajectories, between aesthetics. And yet, it appears to have coalesced into a rather stable form in Flanders. Flemish moving image art has been internationally recognised – at art biennials and festivals such as Rotterdam, Berlin, FID Marseille, Rencontres Internationales Paris/Berlin. In order to sustain this level of activity it is vital that small and non-commercial initiatives are allowed to flourish. Those who are always more at risk – the small structures, the artists themselves – are those who are more directly responsible for the sector’s dynamism.

The organisations, institutions, art schools, artists and curators who constitute the landscape of artists’ moving image in Flanders, including the many not mentioned here, form a complex but fragile constellation which relies, despite its many strengths, on stable public support. At a fundamental level, it also relies on artists’ inventiveness in navigating uncertain times and making the most of available opportunities. Togetherness, now as ever, seems the only sensible way forward. 

About the author: María Palacios Cruz

María Palacios Cruz is a film curator, writer and educator based in London. She is course leader for the Film Curating course at Elias Querejeta Zine Eskola in San Sebastian (Spain) and was previously Deputy Director of LUX, the UK agency for artists’ moving image. She is a also programmer for the Punto de Vista and Courtisane festivals and writes regularly on artists’ moving image. She is the editor of the anthology of writings by British artist Lis Rhodes Telling Invents Told (The Visible Press, 2019) and co-editor of Mediations on the Present: Ute Aurand, Helga Fanderl, Jeannette Muñoz, Renate Sami (Punto de Vista, 2020).

Footnotes

[1] Jef Cornelis’ entire body of work is in distribution at Argos.

[2] For an extensive study on EXPRMNTL see Xavier García Bardón’s PHD thesis as well as his many articles on the subject, and Brecht Debackere’s documentary Exprmntl (2016).

[3] Argos is not alone in its efforts to preserve the Flemish audiovisual arts heritage. It works closely with other initiatives such as PACKED and VIAA, which have now merged into Meemoo – Flanders Institute for Archives. A notable example of research-based preservation and public programming was the collaboration between Argos, MuHKA and Objectif Exhibitions on the work of Hugo Roelandt (1950–2015), a pioneering photographer, performance and installation artist.

[4] aifoon, ARGOS, Art Cinema OFFoff, Auguste Orts, Beursschouwburg, Centre Vidéo de Bruxelles-CVB, Centre de l’Audiovisuel à Bruxelles-CBA, Cinemaximiliaan, Constant, Contour, Courtisane, Elephy, Escautville, GLUON, Graphoui, Imagerie, iMAL, Jubilee, Lab-au, LABObxl, Messidor, Out of Sight, Overtoon, Qo2, SIC, Werktank

[5] VAF’s FilmLab has a budget of 400K and funds an average of 19 artists’ film productions per year.

Sources

kunsten.be

argosarts.org

onandforproduction.eu

augusteorts.be

messidorgroup.be

elephy.org

courtisane.be

soundimageculture.org

kask.be

luca-arts.be

contour9.be


Research & development

Which areas of focus will determine the future of the arts in Flanders and Brussels? What are the current research projects of Flanders Arts Institute envisioning the development of the arts sector?