Offspaces #5 – Artists Club Coffre-Fort, Brussel

(c) Benjamin Hugard - Art Brussels

Om het ecosysteem van de kunsten in kaart te brengen richt Kunstenpunt het perspectief op Offspaces: beeldende kunstruimtes die opgericht worden door kunstenaars en/of curatoren. Ze werken meestal zonder subsidie in leegstaande ruimtes of bij mensen thuis en met heel verschillende doelen en manieren van werken. Hieronder gaat curator en onderzoeker Pieter Vermeulen in gesprek met Ištvan Išt Huzjan (Artists Club Coffre-Fort, Brussel).

Dit artikel is enkel beschikbaar in het Engels.

Ištvan, can you explain the origins and mission of Artists Club Coffre-Fort?

Artists Club Coffre-Fort is located in a former jewellery factory at 63 Rue du Houblon (Hopstraat) in Brussels. After the death of the owner, the building was purchased by a group of five young people. While they were developing a master plan for the property and waiting for grants, they offered it to me and my former partner as affordable studio space. In the end, the building accommodated seven individual and two collective studios, a concert hall and an exhibition space.

And this was organised by just the two of you?

Yes, it was just the two of us in the beginning, but then it expanded of course. We’d invite someone to join us, who in turn would ask someone else, and so on. We were all visual artists. Some had graduated from the same art school as us, others we met in Brussels. It continued like this for almost two years.

The initiative didn’t have a name, other than the address of the building. I met Thibaut Espiau and Gregoire Motte through Komplot and, as a group of three, we decided to establish the Artists Club. None of us had any prior experience of groups or collectives as we’d always worked on an individual basis. When I first pitched the idea for a group, the others were a bit reluctant, but I said, “our group doesn’t have to do anything. Let’s make a group and do nothing.” We didn’t even have a name.

We agreed to do it, and all our activities were based on the exchange of knowledge. It wasn’t about making art together. That’s how we arrived at the idea of a club instead of a group or collective. We’d already started up when we discovered a huge coffre-fort [strong room] in the basement of the jewellery factory. From that point onwards, we had a focus for the club. It was obvious from the outset that weren’t going to have a gallery, and we didn’t want to curate a programme. Our idea was to treat the strong room as a kind of club house, a place where people could meet. It was this perfect monolithic object around which we could all congregate. Inviting people to come along wasn’t a problem. It was like a kind of meeting point. The three of us would also do studio visits together, as artists.

Would you say that the activities were an extension of the confidence and friendship already present in the club?

Exactly. In the beginning, our meetings were more about exchanging knowledge rather than trying to create a profile. But it was the strong room, as an object, that generated the ideas and inspiration. Despite not having a space that people could visit on a regular basis, we slowly established a reputation. It’s more by appointment only. We only open the doors of the club house when we have a public viewing.

In the beginning, our meetings were more about exchanging knowledge rather than trying to create a profile.

When did the coffre-fort initiative begin?

In 2012, on 21 December, at six o’clock in the evening [laughs]. It took us a week to renovate the place, it was pretty fucked up. At the first opening, the only thing you could see was the empty strong room. There was no art inside, just a carpet on the floor. It was like a twelve-hour drinking extravaganza. But by January, we’d already had the first show. Witnessing the energy and excitement around the strong room made us realise its potential. In 2013, we did eleven shows, sometimes two in one month. We had a lot of energy to spend.

As a club, we like to play with the form of the exhibition space, the production and distribution of contemporary art, these kinds of things.

Could you give us an idea of the projects you were organising, or the artists you were inviting at that time?

It all started with the politics of friendship, that’s for sure. But as it expanded, these friendships brought us to other levels, either professionally or based on shared interests. We were even invited to two art fairs. A good example was Art Brussels, about three years ago, when we were given a subsidised booth. We didn’t hesitate in pitching our idea to the artistic director at the time, Katerina Gregos: we’d dismantle the strong room, bring it to the event and call it ‘the heaviest booth’. It was impossible to realise, of course. We then asked the art fair to get in touch with Fichet-Bauche, the original manufacturers, to see if we could initiate a collaboration. Eventually, they gave us eleven safes that we could take to the fair. We decided to use them to show smaller versions of artworks. This brought us to the point where we could enter the art market, but also played with the dead form. As a club, we like to play with the form of the exhibition space, the production and distribution of contemporary art, these kinds of things.

In the commercial context of Art Brussels, were you suddenly representing artists? How did you organise sales?

Our policy is very strict: we are a non-commercial space. Our non-profit status means that we can sell artworks, but that we take zero percent for ourselves. The production costs are shared with the artists, but they receive all of the proceeds when we sell something.

This is also reflected in how the building in the Rue du Houblon was eventually developed. It now accommodates a small hotel and the owners of the property — who also live there — wanted to retain the cultural activity. Which meant that the strong room and programme could stay. The owners don’t ask for rent and cover most of the basic costs. As an organisation, we have very few expenses.

How did you set about building your audience?

Like everything else in this project, it all began with a network of friends. But in 2013, the first year of our activities, things really started taking off. We created a mailing list that grew and grew, we used Facebook, made a WordPress-blog, etcetera. Word of mouth was an important way of getting our voice heard. Sometimes, we’d also print flyers. After that, a lot of people started showing up that we didn’t really know. And overseas visitors to Brussels also started getting in touch. There was always a core audience of friends, but it also depended upon who we were showing.

In terms of communications and promotion, is Artists Club Coffre-Fort part of any larger platforms or networks?

Until the renovation work on our building began in 2014, we were part of The Walk (the independent arts listings for Brussels). Due to the restoration of the property, there was a long period in which we couldn’t really to do anything, and our future was uncertain. Since we couldn’t pay for our advertising in The Walk, we had to quit. Now that everything is back on track we’re renegotiating the terms and conditions. But we’ve always admired the idea of having an alternative wing under which artists and unconventional spaces can present themselves. And because The Walk connects different initiatives, it’s good to have their brochures in our space.
Apart from Art Brussels, we also participated in Brussels Cologne Contemporaries (BCC), just like the other non-profits in town. It was fun to go to Cologne as a group and expand our network. With Coffre-Fort, we also organised a show at SUPERDEALS, a project room and artist’s residency space in Brussels, which we really liked.

Do you keep an archive of past activities?

Of course, there is the website, Facebook and the printed material that you keep in your drawer at home. We also created a family photo album by printing digital photos and sticking them in a book with the flyers. A kind of club album, you could say. Another interesting aspect is the floor of the strong room. The original wooden flooring was in a terrible state. We started by covering it up with white carpet, which we came to see as an image of the show. You could also see the footprints of visitors on it, along with traces of wine, cigarettes and such like. Eventually, we took the carpet up and placed it in storage. Afterwards, every artist came up with a new idea as to what to do with the floor. For each show, we changed and saved the flooring. At BCC, we decided to make a carpet shop, where we would roll out the carpets based on the work that you would like to see. Each carpet became a unique kind of drawing.

We don’t have to answer or report to anyone. We don’t like how the transfer of money would affect our relationships and our way of working. For us, it’s always complete carte blanche.

Would you ever consider applying for funding?

Not really. I think it would limit our freedom. A lack of money can sometimes be a hindrance, but I don’t think external funding would really improve our programme. As soon as you start making grant applications, you’re required to report on your activities. We don’t have to answer or report to anyone. We don’t like how the transfer of money would affect our relationships and our way of working. For us, it’s always complete carte blanche.

You’re mostly working within an informal economy, based on collaboration and symbolic exchange. Would you agree with that?

That would be the common denominator for all the artists that we’ve worked with, who’ve all loved doing something with the strong room. As an object in its own right, it’s easy to adore.

Have you ever represented yourselves as artists?

No, we haven’t, but we consider it a lot. But whenever we participate in an art fair, or something like the triennial of contemporary art in Ljubljana for instance, we’re also presenting ourselves in a way, even if we’re showing works by other artists. Of course, we could do both simultaneously by presenting ourselves as an institution and also showing our artworks. It’s a good idea but, even so, it’s not something we’ve ever done. Perhaps we’re still waiting for the right reason.

Do you think Artists Club Coffre-Fort could give you leverage as artists?

The triennial in Ljubljana was a great opportunity, because it’s a city in which these kinds of initiatives are appreciated. When we arrived, we did a talk about each show that we’d organised, which people found very inspiring, especially the younger audience. They really seemed to value our enterprise. Although we’d been given money for the triennial, we explained that we wouldn’t be bringing any objects. We wanted to travel to Ljubljana by car, taking our time, and simply show the audience a space. The organisers gave us some petrol money, so first we went from Brussels to Karlsruhe, where we visited Peter Weibel’s museum, the Centre for Art and Media (ZKM), because he founded the first triennial.

Then we travelled to Munich, where we saw an exhibition of work by the Croatian artist Ivan Kožarić (b. 1921) at the Haus der Kunst. He was a founding member of the artist’s group Gorgona, which was active in the early 1960s. Even though a group, the artists worked independently, so we saw many parallels with Coffre-Fort. They did a wonderful piece in which they left a wallet in a drawer at the desk of the bookshop. When you needed it, you could go there and take the wallet. Perhaps there was some money to be found in it, perhaps not. Or you could leave a message, and so on. The idea of sharing the wallet is the perfect analogy to what we’re doing as Coffre-Fort.

After Munich, you travelled onwards to Ljubljana?

Even as we arrived, we didn’t know exactly what we were going to do. Our idea was to organise the presentation upon a piece of carpet that we’d cut into the shape of the strong room. On the way to the event, we’d been subject to a roadside police search in Germany. They were looking for guns and drugs. When we said that we didn’t have anything, they made us empty our pockets, opened the boot and searched the entire car. When the police left, our belongings were scattered all over the bonnet, right down to the tiniest bits and pieces in our pockets. It was the perfect inventory of our space!

At the end of the presentation in Ljubljana, we realised that it was also a kind of inventory. We’d emptied our pockets and left everything on top of the car. There are a lot of narratives involved in what we do, which are often funny, but also deal with different formats. And at the end of the day, that’s also what we truly enjoy.