Brussels is a hotbed of artist-run spaces and projects – they form a vital layer of the ‘micropolitical ecosystem’ that supports the city’s dynamic art scene. Pieter Vermeulen surveys this ever-changing landscape of bottom-up initiatives and assesses the challenges they face in terms of sustainability, self-organisation and institutionalisation.
The sales pitch for Brussels as a contemporary art hub has been in the works for more than a decade. Lazily dubbed ‘the new Berlin’ and praised by the New York Times for its ‘cosy chaos,’ the Belgian capital’s art scene defies any attempt at city marketing or commercial labelling. While it is undeniably true that the city has been attracting increasing attention on the international artistic stage, its success story is not one-dimensional or easy to summarise. Often cited economic factors include the high density of collectors in Belgium or the financial impulses of tax-evading Parisians and a wealthy Eurocratic elite. Such aspects may explain the attractiveness of the art market, but still say very little about the appeal of Brussels as a place to live and work for artists, critics and curators alike. To understand what makes the art scene so unique, we need to look beyond the monoculture of mega-galleries setting up shop in the city and powerful museums adding yet another franchise to their global art emporium. It requires us to follow the lure of the local, to follow the trail of some of the city’s artist-run initiatives.
The use of ecologically-inspired idioms has undoubtedly become commonplace in the art world, but in the case of artist-run spaces, they actually seem appropriate. In a 2012 study, the Institute of Applied Aesthetics put it this way: ‘The artist-run space of the future will be found below our feet, in soil and nutrient deposits, inhabiting cracks and places that would otherwise prove inhabitable; vacant lots, abandoned buildings and unlikely storefronts.’ The local is what creates a sense of place and belonging, as Lucy Lippard has argued, though she didn't mean it in a reactionary sense. Today, the local can hardly exist without the global, and vice versa. Rather than cultivating a parochial outlook, locality connects us to and grounds us in a particular neighbourhood or city. Artist-run initiatives often manifest themselves in the most unlikely of places, and yet they don’t come from nowhere. They are always surrounded, sustained and supported by a community. This social dimension — what we call a ‘scene’ — is an indispensable element for the art world to thrive. It is therefore not so far-fetched to think of an art scene as a micropolitical ecosystem made up of things, people and places. Diversity, not homogeneity, is the key to making the whole system thrive. After all, artistic innovation is bottom-up, not top-down.
Intentionally or unintentionally under the radar, artist initiatives are less easy to find. One hears about them or stumbles upon them. 76.4 is a vitrine project in the Sint-Gilles neighbourhood hosted by Ekaterina Kaplunova, Juan Pablo Plazas, Richard Venlet and Michel François, whose home and studio are in the rear. Artists are invited to create a site-specific intervention in a shallow space — the depth is in the name — for the neighbourhood’s residents and random passersby to admire. Their programming is rather impromptu and haphazard, but each opening invariably attracts a diverse and engaged crowd eager to mingle and exchange ideas. The latest intervention was by visual artist Lisa Blas, who recently relocated from New York City with her partner Thierry de Duve.
Further down the street is The Green Corridor, inaugurated just last year by artist and curator Juan Duque and architect Sam De Vocht. ‘We host and facilitate month-long practice-based residencies, creating a space for exchange between practitioners from a wide range of disciplines, from artists, designers, and architects to writers, curators and activists,’ explains Colombian-born Duque. Research and peer-to-peer dialogue are at the heart of the program, which regularly opens its doors to different audiences. Does this make The Green Corridor a non-profit? ‘It’s too early to tell,’ says Duque. ‘We don’t want to define our initiative at this point, but we do have a three-year plan that includes looking for partners and financial support. Not so much for us as for the residents, because we want to take fair practice seriously.’
CCINQ is a project space initiated by the legendary techno club C12 and run by the artist Patrick Carpentier. It recently moved from the Brussels Central Station (where the club is still located) to a magnificent space near the cathedral. Inspired by a work by Maxime Fauconnier based on Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, Carpentier is now using the book as a curatorial plot to invite artists to engage with the space and create accumulative exhibitions. After contributions by Ann Veronica Janssens, Guillaume Bleret and Devrim Bayar & Perri MacKenzie, works by Nicolas Stolarczyk and Céline Vahsen will be on display.
The elasticity of the concept of space is a matter of imagination. Founded in 2012 by artists Thibaut Espiau, Ištvan Išt Huzjan and Grégoire Motte, Coffre Fort is an art space located in the vault of a former jewelry factory at 63 Rue du Houblon, in the centre of Brussels. The initial idea was to treat the vault as a kind of clubhouse, but the founders were soon tempted to organise more public events such as exhibitions and performances. The unique setting makes each visit to the Coffre Fort a complete surprise, depending on the artist’s take on the steel monolith. The founders have even participated in commercial fairs such as Art Brussels and Brussels Cologne Contemporaries, but they don’t want to apply for external funding in order to preserve their artistic freedom.
Many artist-run initiatives are reluctant to institutionalise, preferring instead to remain informal or low-profile. After all, the accountability that comes with public funding significantly alters their day-to-day operations, putting the independent, free-spirited mentality at risk. Administrators would have to be hired, reports written, structures imposed. In his book Artist-Run Europe (2017), Gavin Murphy phrases it as a catch-22: ‘If voluntary labor is removed, funding or other revenue streams are required to replace it, and to a large degree, if funding is applied, a new level of bureaucracy … is generally insisted upon.’ The conscious decision to stick to a DIY work ethic and volunteerism is understandable, but it doesn’t create a sustainable, long-term perspective, thus reflecting the artists’ own precarious living and working conditions. A certain degree of institutionalisation would be a way out of this precariousness, but how to achieve this without the artistic spirit leaving the building? How to organise and not bureaucratise?
Enough Room for Space (ERforS) is located in Drogenbos, on the outskirts of Brussels. Marjolijn Dijkman and Maarten Vanden Eynde started what they call their independent art initiative in Rotterdam in 2005 and moved it to Brussels five years later. Most of their projects are context specific, discursive and research driven, and conceived and developed in close dialogue with their co-initiators. Vanden Eynde: ‘Especially since we moved to Brussels, we began to work on more global, geographically encompassing issues, such as futures thinking or the trade in natural resources. From this perspective, it was almost logical to set up collaborations in different places and with different people, spread over several years.’ But ERforS doesn’t work with fixed opening hours, because it doesn’t have a regular public programme — at least not on its own premises. ‘Since our projects are shown all over the world,’ Dijkman adds, ‘organising exhibitions in our space is not our main priority, on the contrary. Our relationship with the public varies with each project and what it requires. In this sense, we are a shadow organisation. We are not an official non-profit, and we don’t have structural funding, so we don’t have to write or file reports.’ Institutionalisation is something they consciously avoid. And when both artists are too busy running their own prolific practices, they can easily put ERforS on the back burner without too much worry. Next month, with support from the Goethe Institute, ERforS will host a residency for Congolese documentary photographer Pamela Tulizo, who will work with their archive of Belgian colonial artifacts.
Etablissement d’en Face, a long-standing icon of the artist-run scene in Brussels, has been going through challenging times lately. Founded in 1991, it has a rich and fascinating history with many prominent artists and curators. Last year, it was announced that their application for structural funding from the Flemish government had been rejected due to negative advice from the selection committee. Currently, they have managed to temporarily resolve the situation with project grants from both the Flemish and French communities. In addition, Etablissement was kindly asked to leave the building — opposite Bozar — where they had been organising exhibitions for over a decade. Against all odds, they were offered a generous buyout fee, which partially allowed them to move into a three-story mansion across from the Palace of Justice, once again living up to their name. ‘All’s well that ends well?’ wonders Etienne Wynants, who has worked for Etablissement d’en Face for twenty years and still sees some problems. The new premises, hidden behind a lofty façade, require a completely different approach to exhibitions than in the previous showcase-like space. Wynants also thinks now is a good time to reform the artistic committee, bring in some new names and create a longer-term programme. ‘Etablissement d’en Face may be an artists’ organisation,’ he says with a grin, ‘but that doesn’t mean it should be run that way.’
The artist-run scene is not only about presenting, but also about producing. While studying in San Francisco, Rokko Miyoshi became inspired by Theaster Gates, an interdisciplinary artist whose practice includes transforming existing spaces into collective workshops and studios. Miyoshi went on to do his MFA at LUCA in Brussels and noticed a striking lack of studio space in the city. He found a vacant 500-square-metre building at 34 Rue St. Bernard in Sint-Gilles, which he decided to rent together with a number of other artists in 2018, aptly calling it SB34. Initially conceived as a production space, a year later curator and founding member Pauline Hatzigeorgiou created The Pool in the concrete basement, an exhibition space that leaves room for artistic and curatorial experimentation. A funky tiki bar was installed as a meeting place for the artists. In recent years, SB34 has expanded to include two additional venues and now houses some 80 artists’ and designers’ studios. Their website outlines a clear modus operandi that reflects their unwavering commitment, thoughtfulness and enthusiasm.
What was initially a political wasteland — affordable artists’ studios in Brussels — has now become a thriving field thanks to the self-organising efforts of artists, with other key players such as Level Five, Meyboom Artist-Run Spaces and MAX Collective joining the ranks. However, precarity remains an ongoing struggle. Artists and other cultural workers still have to deal with temporary, short-term contracts and little to no security. This is an issue that all of the above initiatives are self-critically aware of and are working to address in the long term. During the COVID-19 lockdown, Rob Ritzen (Level Five) and Jesse van Winden (Jubilee/Meyboom) founded the Brussels Artist-Run Network, which focuses on mutual connections and knowledge exchange between like-minded initiatives in the city. They also contacted the Flemish Community Commission (VGC) to address the acute shortage of artists’ studios, based on their own surveys. The result was Plan Atelier, a strategy currently being developed under the auspices of the former Brussels Minister for Mobility and Public Works, Pascal Smet. Together with various authorities and stakeholders, it aims to ensure that artists in need of studios have access to affordable, high-quality spaces. Noble intentions, but as the legislative period draws to a close, it remains to be seen to what extent these plans will actually be implemented.
Surveying the artist-run scene in Brussels is a difficult task because it always falls short. Not only is it an ever-changing landscape, with many initiatives often flying under the radar, it is almost impossible to do justice to its multiplicity and diversity. An entire article could be written about what’s happening in just one neighborhood. The closer you look, the more you see. Anderlecht, for example, is a breeding ground for initiatives such as NICC, the artist-run organisation advocating for artist rights that moved its headquarters from Antwerp to Brussels, the curatorial collective Komplot and the former brewery turned multidisciplinary work and exhibition space Brasserie Atlas. While bottom-up impulses, whether for presentation or production, are urgently needed to establish an innovative and experimental art scene, the long-term perspective is still a sore point. Self-organisation is crucial in this respect, but it is not a holy grail. Unless a conscious decision is made to remain informal and self-sustaining, many artist-run spaces, insofar as they aspire to grow, will sooner or later be faced with the question of institutionalisation. And this is where politico-economic factors come into play, such as fair practices, infrastructure, real-estate policies and government funding. Whether artists need to become bureaucrats to deal with these issues is a question I prefer to leave open.