With 'Humus,' HART wants to offer a platform to Belgium's essential and fertile bottom layer of artist-run initiatives and off-spaces. It’s often these organizations and collectives that keep a finger on the pulse of the art world and guarantee a certain artistic freedom and autonomy. Here, we give them the floor while providing context and reflection.
In the summer of 2020, when the first corona wave had subsided somewhat, I joined a studio space in the center of Brussels. A year earlier, a group of around eighty artists had moved into the fifth floor of an empty office building on the Beursplein. It turned out that the former office spaces were highly suitable for use as artists’ studios. A member-association was set up to ensure everything ran smoothly. Level Five was registered in the statutes as a non-profit association.
It seems obvious, yet we tend to forget: a thriving art scene not only requires a diverse range of venues and institutions with varying degrees of ‘accessibility’, but depends first and foremost on artists with a workplace. An affordable workplace that is easily accessible, heated, without significant technical defects, and preferably for more than a few years.
In many ways, Brussels is one of the more exciting places in Western Europe in terms of the development of contemporary art. An international crossroads with a strong allure for artists. There are several reasons why a growing number of art makers from around the world are settling in Brussels. One is, of course, the ever-expanding community itself, which becomes more attractive and vibrant as it grows. But in the end, most of these reasons will be directly or indirectly related to the simple fact that, in Brussels, the combined cost of living and rent expenses are relatively low compared to other European capitals.1
However, unlike cities such as London, Amsterdam, Paris, Berlin (and even other cities in Belgium), Brussels still lacks an established and organized infrastructure for artists' studios. Remarkably, policy around artists’ studios and management is virtually absent. And so, artists have had to organize themselves, and artist initiatives and artist-run studio spaces or workplaces, such as Level Five, emerge ‘out of necessity.’ Spaces that combine a lack of certain kinds of stability and structural resources with relative autonomy. Spaces that, consequently, are forced to work in conditions of precarity but that simultaneously display a different dynamic than more institutionalized initiatives.
A collective problem
Since I only became a member a year and a half after its foundation, I meet with Rob Ritzen, coordinator and co-founder of Level Five and the only paid employee for the time being. Since its inception, Rob has been one of the driving forces behind our organization and the designated person to recount its history.
In 2018, several smaller groups of artists in Brussels were forced to leave their studio locations around the same period. 'So we started thinking about how we could join forces to find a new location,’ says Rob. When an empty office building opposite the Beurs presented itself, it turned out the minimum surface area to be occupied was an entire floor of approximately 2,000 square meters. To keep the studio prices and thus the rental costs per person somewhat affordable, the group calculated that about eighty artists were needed to share the total amount. Interested parties were soon found.
'Our conviction is that studios should be affordable. Flanders Arts Institute says that the average disposable income for artists is around 1,300 euros per month. Suppose you rent an apartment plus a studio on the side; you can’t pay much more than 150 euros because you’re probably already spending more than half of your income. While we often hear that fixed costs shouldn’t amount to more than a third of the total.'2
But fitting a larger group on the same floor space means less space per person. Concessions, such as temporary contracts, short notice periods or buildings with defects or without heating, are inevitable without substantial financial resources.
Self-organization and collective decision-making
Organizing a group of eighty people is different from doing it with a few friends. Liability became a consideration. So the group decided to set up a non-profit organization that could act as a legal entity.
'The whole structure actually came about very organically,' Rob continues. 'Since its founding, the members have been the bedrock of Level Five. If you rent a studio, you automatically become a member and pay a membership fee. So everyone has an equal say.'
Mariana Pecháčková did an internship at Level Five over the last six months. Through Rob, she got to know the ins and outs of the organization, getting perhaps a better picture of the inner workings than some of us. 'In the beginning,' she says, 'it wasn't immediately apparent how Level Five works and who exactly makes the decisions. A hierarchical structure is absent. But in the end, it's really the collective that makes decisions. The people here realize that they themselves are Level Five.'
The group that established Level Five sought not only to address the need for physical workspace for artists but also how that space is managed. ‘From the beginning, the idea was to base our decision-making on a practice of collective organization.’
A council was set up for this purpose, consisting of several members who were part of the very first group. The 'council' is still there and is now chosen from all current members of Level Five. It keeps an eye on the organization's sustainability but also considers practical matters such as household shortages, vacant studios or mutual disagreements.
One of the most essential aspects of collective decision-making is the idea of a forum, a regular gathering of all members. The forum gives direction to the organization and discusses, for example, the use of common spaces and resources. It’s also during the forum that the council informs everyone about important developments related to the location, activities, costs, etc.
After four years, some things have also been 'professionalized' and an official board has been appointed. It includes two members, a member from the council, and five external members, including Caroline Dumalin from Morpho in Antwerp, Sophie Rocca (financial director at WIELS) and Mirthe Demaerel from Cas-co in Leuven.
Division and support
Level Five now manages studios at three locations in Brussels, in three municipalities (Vorst, Molenbeek, and Ganshoren). This was no idealistic choice. We had been looking for a new location for a long time because we knew the place at the Beurs was temporary. Nevertheless, the story at Beursplein ended fairly suddenly in 2021 due to a sudden eviction notice. We had to urgently look for a new home.
Despite an extensive network, finding a common place for all eighty artists was impossible. A division was inevitable. One potential location, a former nursing home in Ganshoren around the corner from the Basilica of Koekelberg, which could house between forty and fifty artists' studios, required considerable renovation and, therefore, money.
In addition to all members' rent, our income comes from the annual membership fee of sixty euros and a monthly contribution of twenty euros. We pay the bookkeeper with money from the membership fees. Of the monthly fee of twenty euros, five go to an allowance for a team of two members per location who keep an eye on the goings on there, five euros for joint purchases such as coffee and toilet paper and another five to a budget for the development of artistic programs (more on this later). We try to save the remaining five euros.
Despite our efforts to set aside money, our own budget proved nowhere near sufficient. Then the Flemish Community Commission (Vlaamse Gemeenschapscommissie) decided to cover most of the renovation costs.
The support from the VGC started during the first lockdown. 'During the pandemic, it became painfully apparent that there is a major problem in Brussels when it comes to studio spaces for artists,' explains Rob. The VGC then commissioned Level Five to map out the situation of artists' studios in Brussels and to write a report, based on the idea that the organization could build on the knowledge already acquired.
Based on that report, a plan for artists' studios was drawn up. 'I don't know exactly what that means, but the idea was that something had to be done about it. And when we suddenly had to move, that became more concrete with the investment subsidy for Van Overbeke' (the building in Ganshoren, on the Van Overbekelaan, bb).
Subsequently, two smaller locations were found, so we suddenly had room for more artists than we originally had. The number of members has now grown to 112.
Back to school
When I tell people that, as a writer, I also need a studio, they’re often surprised. ‘But you don't really make anything, do you?’ Yet I am no exception. In addition to visual artists, Level Five houses curators, writers, designers, architects, researchers, directors and even scientists. And that variety is invaluable.
As an architect, Laura Muyldermans says the choice to rent a studio at Level Five and not elsewhere is strongly linked to the community. 'I need to be in contact with artists and other disciplines. Level Five is a kind of necessity for me as an architect, to not be completely absorbed in a world primarily focused on efficiency.'
Before I got my own studio, I had been looking for a place to write, think, and be. But during the long, barren lockdown silences, it became clear I was also looking for a form of collegiality, perhaps even more so than a workplace.
Aline Forçain and Stephanie Lamoline experienced something similar. Both were on Level Five's waiting list. When the building in Ganshoren became available, they were able to join. ‘I had been on the list for two years. I wanted a place of my own, but one where you aren't alone,’ says Aline. The choice for a studio within the framework of a collective was also very conscious for Stephanie. 'I want to break out of my cocoon, get to know people and build a network.'
The atmosphere reminds Mariana a bit of art school. ‘It's like going back to school,’ she says. ‘You get to know so many people as a newcomer.’ The Australian Alasdair Doyle, now one of the two people responsible for the location in Ganshoren, also experienced this. He recently moved from Ireland to Belgium. ‘After the pandemic, this was exactly what I was looking for,’ he says. Alasdair realized he did not want to work in isolation in a studio. And Level Five also introduced him to Brussels. ‘Much of what I've done here so far has been through Level Five.’
More than a studio
For many people, a studio space under collective management is a convenient way to meet like-minded people and exchange ideas without having to comply with all kinds of contextual formalities and etiquette. An informal community of people who are active in the arts and who can help, inspire and share their knowledge and network.
One of the most effective channels for this is the chat – a simple group chat on a mobile-phone app. There, tips are exchanged about work, shops and accountants. But also messages about apartments for rent or open calls for residences. People give each other advice about the dos and don'ts of a studio visit, offer up left-over material from exhibitions, ask for help translating a text or inquire about the hidden gems or restaurants in Brussels to show to visiting family members.
Something that functions as a network, confirms Sirah Foighel Brutmann, one of the co-founders and now responsible for the location of the building on Van Volxemlaan, close to WIELS. 'Level Five is first and foremost a workspace for artists. But in addition to being a physical place, it's also a virtual environment where ideas and networks can be shared.'
Moreover, it has always been a place where other initiatives were based or originated. Before moving to their own location, rile* – a bookshop and project space for publications and performances initiated by Chloe Chignell and Sven Dehens – had a place in Level Five at the Beurs.
The same applied to Kantine, an exhibition space run by Kevin Gallagher and Perri MacKenzie, who now have their own place in Saint-Gilles. And currently, another exhibition space is being run from the basement of the building in Van Meyelstraat: Winona.
These initiatives also create a bridge to the outside world. Blue Screen is a monthly public screening program focusing on film and video work by visual artists, founded by Emma van der Put and Chloé Malcotti. And leading up to the annual Open Studios in 2020 (which were eventually canceled), some members, myself included, started a podcast series featuring talks, discussions, audio works, poems and soundscapes, as a way to introduce people to the members and our community. We also launched the Salon Sale, where we put our members' works up for sale. The income is split fifty-fifty between the artist and Level Five.
In addition to member initiatives, there are also partnerships with other organizations. With SB34, another studio organization run by artists, we applied for a grant in the context of CultuurCulture, a collaboration between Féderation Wallonie-Bruxelles and the Flemish government.
For the span of a year, we will organize workshops and public events around topics such as the necessary conditions for artistic practices to flourish and grow. And thanks to the grant, we were able to invite curators last month and offer them an overnight stay for a two-day visitor program with studio visits. More than fifty artists were given the opportunity to have one-on-one conversations and show their work in their studios.
A unified answer to multiple problems
Rob explains that the idea had always been more than merely facilitating workspaces. 'The aim has always been to support artistic practices in the broadest sense.' On our website, we describe ourselves as an artists' cooperative supporting artists through studios, artistic development programs and advocacy. Level Five is now a member of UFO, a partnership between six studio organizations in Flanders and Brussels. The participating organizations want to 'put the importance of investing in affordable creative space and developing emerging artistic practices on the agenda.'3
'In fact, Level Five was created as an answer to a number of problems,' says Rob. 'There is still no organized response to the lack of organized creative spaces in Brussels. Artists become isolated in this way, which leads to mutual competition for available space.'
And not just among artists. In fact, all parties looking for temporary accommodation, from sans-papiers to artists, come up against each other. But those seeking housing and artists looking for workspace shouldn't be each other's competitors.
'Ideally, being successful means developing practices that can offer an alternative to these problems on a social level,’ summarizes Rob. ‘As well as provide insight into the layered nature of such problems. Not only with those who experience the problems but also with those who are part of them or can actually do something about them at a policymaking level. I think that Level Five, like many alternative forms of organization, in addition to answering a problem, also critiques the dominant forms of life by showing that other possibilities exist. This, to me, is the potential of Level Five: proposing another way of organizing the arts. In doing so, we change ourselves and hopefully also the world – and art world – in which we operate.'
In addition to collective control and community-based structure, our alternative also includes practical mutual support. When rental costs temporarily become too much to bear for a particular member, they can appeal to the so-called Care Web. The rent (or part of it) is then covered by Level Five as a collective, so that they pay less or no rent for that month.
A delicate teeter-totter
Sometimes it seems like a small miracle that a group of more than a hundred people, divided over three locations, manages to organize itself almost entirely voluntarily, without a strict hierarchy and with minimal formalities. It takes a lot of dialogue to decide things together. And a lot of time.
'It’s probably more efficient to rent a more expensive bureau and work in isolation,' says Laura Muyldermans. 'But that dialogue is also enriching for me. It offers insights I wouldn't want to miss.'
To avoid conflicts, it's inevitable for a group of more than a hundred people trying to organize something together to think about agreements regarding responsibility, commitment and expectations. 'It goes without saying that the degree to which people are involved differs,' says Mariana. 'Some are more and others less involved.'
Rachel Bacon, who works in the Netherlands, joined Level Five after a residency in Belgium. She talks about her experiences as part of a small artist initiative and collectively managed studio space in The Hague. ‘The group was much smaller, maybe 15 people,’ she says. ‘So there was no room to withdraw yourself. Because there are so many people at Level Five, I feel like there are always people willing to put in the effort. But that also makes the group dynamic very vulnerable. With a larger group, more people can withdraw. That means a smaller group is always carrying the weight for everyone.'
The trick is to keep the organization ‘light', as all the members I spoke to emphasize. The fact the absence of a hierarchical structure also makes room for individual participation is unanimously acknowledged. ‘A lot comes down to a sense of ownership and responsibility,’ says Alasdair. ‘In part, I like that responsibility. On the other hand, it’s purely pragmatic, because otherwise, we simply wouldn’t exist.'
How much energy can forms of self-organization demand before they collapse? Level Five exists as an organization to support artists. And at the same time, it asks a lot from those artists. The balance is delicate; what and how much does Level Five give, and what kind of commitment does it ask from you as an artist in return?
‘I don't think the organization has a sustainable future without more full-time paid employees,’ Alasdair concludes. Rob holds a similar view. His part-time appointment is paid from the VGC's grant to Level Five. It started two years ago, and that financial contribution has been renewed on an annual basis until now. But a half-time paid employee is insufficient for the organization's current size, let alone for pursuing the impact we strive for.
‘At this moment, the buildings actually demand too much attention,' says Rob. 'As a result, we're unable to truly focus on community activities.' Problems with heating at one of the locations meant, among other things, that much of Rob's time was spent on purely practical matters over the past six months. The temporary leasing period of one of the other locations will expire within a few months. 'That means another thirty artists who may end up without a studio. The buildings, maintenance and the search for new places require too much investment. Investment that we don't have, in terms of money and time.'
And time is money. But where do you get the money? 'If we say we are a studio organization in Brussels, then we cannot turn to the Arts Decree [Kunstendecreet] of the Flemish government,' explains Rob. 'They say that artists' studios are a concern for the city. That's okay in Ghent or Antwerp. The problem in Brussels is that you don't have one city; you have many municipalities and the Region. At the Flemish level, we can only apply for development programs, for example.'
It's a delicate game. Without external support, our future remains uncertain. But the effort that is now required of all artists to make Level Five possible also ensures that that network and a sense of community are maintained. And for many, that turns out to be one of the most significant added values of a place like Level Five. In looking for other, more structural income, the challenge also lies in preserving that feeling of being part of something.
According to data from Numbeo, although it is slightly more expensive in Brussels than in cities such as Antwerp or Ghent, the total costs in Brussels are, for example, 35% lower than in London, and approximately 20%, 13%, and 10% lower, respectively, than in Paris, Amsterdam and Berlin. Source: Numbeo, a crowd-sourced global database for the cost of living, housing indicators, and other statistics: www.numbeo.com.
Rob based himself on the figures of the Flemish government from 2016. See: Does passion pay off?(2016) wp.assets.sh/uploads/sites/4718/2019/12/Sociaal-eonomische-positie-van-de-kunstenaar_Rapport.pdf. The current figures are slightly higher, towards a net income of 1500 euros per month for visual artists. See: Does Passion Pay?(2021), publicaties.vlaanderen.be/view-file/50778.
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