Ménage à trois: alternative forms of collaboration, organisation and production in the Belgian visual arts

Much is happening in the visual arts on both sides of our country’s language border. But do artists, curators and organisations from Flanders and the French-speaking part of the country actually know each other? How do they relate and what can they learn from each other? In response to this divide, Kunstenpunt and the Direction des Arts Plastiques Contemporains of the Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles iniate a series of encounters entitled Ménage à trois.

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Its premiere was hosted in the Caermersklooster, home to Kunsthal Gent. Invited presenters were Robert Monchen from the Biennale of Belgium (Ghent), Sonia Dermience & Estelle Lecaille from Château Nour (Brussels), Jérôme Mayer from Les Brasseurs (Liège), Idris Sevenans from Troebel Neyntje (Antwerp), Thomas Dupont from La Superette (Liège), Patrick Carpentier from CCINQ (Brussels) and Danielle Van Zuijlen, Valentijn Goethals, Tim Bryon and Marjoleine Maes from Kunsthal Gent.

Host for the gathering is Kunsthal Gent, a structure that came into existence in 2018 after Nucleo vzw and Smoke and Dust (019) joined forces as the new tenants of the Caermersklooster. The place follows its own temporal logic that incarnates the spirit and history of the place. On working days, the old monastery is primarily a haven and workplace for artists and artistic organisations – through initiatives such as the Permanently Practising development programme – but also via a myriad of public activities: from lectures and workshops to screenings and performances. In the weekend, however, it opens its doors for free to the public, who can enjoy a new series of exhibitions up to three times a year.

In contrast to classical exhibition spaces, Kunsthal Gent follows the rationale of its home base, which has evolved with its city ever since the fourteenth century. With the Endless Exhibition – a curatorial-manifesto-as-artwork by Prem Krishnamurthy – Kunsthal Gent redefines the stakes of exhibition making and rehearses new approaches to changing the global art ecosystem by rewriting its rules. As in an everchanging city, works remain, move, change or disappear.

Ménage à trois: 1ste editie in Kunsthal Gent

For their first Ménage à trois, Kunstenpunt and the Direction des Arts Plastiques Contemporains of the Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles invited artist initiatives and organisations that explore alternative forms of collaboration, organisation, and production, and have a particular, collaborative relationship with the residents and place they inhabit. Collectives, off spaces, artist-run spaces or Projekträume. Places in the margins, where experimentation is permitted and necessary.

Freed from institutional ramparts, these spaces occupy an interesting position between the private initiatives of artists or curators and the established institutions and commercial galleries. With often very condensed teams – host Kunsthal Gent consists of only 2.3 full time employees, others even less – they straddle different roles ranging from curating, producing, communication, fundraising and so forth.

Doing so in constant exchange with inhabitants, artists and art professionals, they make for an important source of information and expertise. Many of them respond to a certain lack and seek recognition for contemporary practice in the current art realm, often with the aid of performance, multidisciplinary programming and more socio-politically engaged practices. The Biennale of Belgium, for instance, reacted to the absence of one. Born out of an ironic gesture, some six years ago, the makeshift biennale – initiated by the Ghent-based artist-run space In De Ruimte – bridges the gap between Flanders and Wallonia. Decompartmentalising disciplines and practices, the biennale takes shape through an assemblage of various initiatives and collectives from both poles of the country, each curating, producing and participating a piece of the event’s patchwork.

Although there are also many established players at work, especially novice artists are able to access a hospitable buffer zone between the academy and the larger institutes and galleries within these kinds of organisations and collectives. The Brussels’ CCINQ, for example, became a familiar meeting place for students of the La Cambre art school. Despite their unusual location in the corridors of the Ravenstein Gallery of Brussels’ Central station, the non profit space instantaneously attracted a varied and highly professional public. In this way, it became a celebrated place for encounter between both emerging talent and established art professionals.

The non profit space initiated by C12, directed by Patrick Charpentier and co-curated by Manon Ceyssel, CCINQ has become synonymous with surprising exhibitions, both by its uncanny location and selection of works. Juxtaposing two individual artists’ practices – one work of each – the space provides both affirmed and upcoming artists with a stage for their art.

Ménage à trois: 1ste editie in Kunsthal Gent

In the same way, Les Brasseurs has made the promotion of emerging talent one of their main missions – alongside multiple other initiatives ranging from retrospectives to workshops. As many young artists from Liège are forced to leave the city in search of opportunities, Les Brasseurs develops projects such as Antenne Jeunes Artistes and Vitrine Jeune Artiste offering visibility and new opportunities to young artists, and partnerships with other cultural structures and operators.

In this regard, the Brasseurs team devotes particular attention to the development of collaborations with other structures in Belgium and abroad through exhibition projects, exchanges, and many other projects. One of their allies on the other side of the language border is the S.M.A.K. in Ghent, with which the Liège initiative launched the joint TRUST project. Presenting a selection of recent acquisitions of S.M.A.K.’s collection while bringing together key figures from the Wallonian and Flemish art scene, both organisations have led the way in bridging the gap between the north and south of the country.

Also Kunsthal Gent has become a home for young talent and collaboration. Settled in a monumental fourteenth-century Carmelite monastery, the team describes itself as a ‘small organisation in a large building’. This abundance of space is shared with local partners such as Art Cinema OFFoff, KASK’s curatorial studies department and the art education organisation das Kunst, therefore breaking down barriers between individual, collective and organisation. By opening its doors to other, small initiatives, Kunsthal Gent tries to provide oxygen and space to other organisations within an increasingly acute financial climate. As a shared anxiety affects the Ménage à trois, their heralded strategy soon sparks a discussion, one about solutions and solidarity. Only a few days earlier, Minister Jambon announced a 60% cut in project subsidies, the very ones underpinning the survival of many of the small initiatives present.

Ménage à trois: 1ste editie in Kunsthal Gent

In the face of a chronic lack of budget, different initiatives have resisted extinction by adopting alternative models. Proposing new situations for collaboration, Château Nour has become home to five initiatives, sharing both the space and costs: Clovis XV, Komplot, mòsso, Rectangle and SUPERDEALS. Circumventing a variety of pressures — soaring real estate prices, a fickle art market, and white cube displays — the space defies a solely artistic definition. Occupying the former NOUR hair salon and Albert garden in Brussels’ Cureghem district, Château Nour explores both artistic and communitarian forms of creativity, from gardening to residency projects. Thus, making itself known first and foremost as a place of encounter. A place to share time and a talk as much as art.

Likewise, the Liège-based La Superette discovered collaboration as a survival mechanism. Borrowing its name from popular convenience stores, the collective of young visual artists and designers constructs improbable installations in and out of ordinary sites. After a year of organising exhibitions, screenings and concerts, the site closed its doors in 2012 and became nomadic. Since then, they launched the Supervue Festival – blending both art and music – and have embedded their practice into projects such as la Biennale de l’image possible, the Biennale of Belgium and le Créahm.

Moreover, the absence or scarcity of state funding has pushed many of the intiatives to adopt their marginalised position as their core strength. As institutional outsiders, alternative places in the margin, they are in a position to support apolitical or politically engaged projects which would easily flirt with hypocrisy within institutions. “As soon as you get outside interference or have to create certain guidelines to obtain certain funds, the context changes and your sanctuary ceases to exist,” Robert Monchen of vzw In de Ruimte suggests. The fact that many of these initiatives revolve around volunteers means they escape the bureaucratic mill, giving them the possibility to be adaptable and operate quickly. The buildings in which they are housed are seldom neatly executed white cubes. From former monasteries to hairdressing salons, each of the structures present has woven their unusual home into the mesh of their organization and source of inspiration.

Ménage à trois: 1ste editie in Kunsthal Gent

The Antwerp-based Troebel Neyntje is possibly the most striking example of this. Presenting itself as a ‘non-realistic initiative’ and a ‘structural anti-space’, the project started its adventure in a 2014 in an old DIY-store. Some four years later, they moved to an old café in the center of the city. Ever since, each exhibition opening coincides with the opening of a new café, from Café De File, Café De Spons, Café De Vaste Hand to Café De Friet.

As a kind of russian doll, Troebel Neyntje seems to generate an endless series of iniatives – each inside and alongside one another – such as AARS (Antwerp Artist Run School), AARS Construct (AARS’ building department), Winkel van merkwaardige producten and HOR (Het Ongewenst Reclamebureau). Called into existence as jokes and puns, these different adjacent initiatives may also serve as impromptu sources of income. “We also have a construction company. If you need anything fixed, just give me a call,” adds Idris Sevenans, “I can also do electricity, but nothing too complicated.”

It may very well be this type of Belgian surrealism that will feed the future of these initiatives and bind them all together; one project entwined within another, extending its rhizomatic roots from one end of the country to the other. In the same vein, the Ménage à trois will propagate and take root on the other side of the language border for its next edition. Let us meet in 2020 in Charleroi.

A.T.

Aude Tournaye

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