Read on the occasion of BLAUWDRUK in Vooruit Art Centre, Ghent, on the 14th of March 2017.
THE MOMENT TO CHANGE
I’m the artistic Director of BUDA Arts Centre in Kortrijk . Part of my job involves meeting artists and having conversations with them. These moments are quite important to me and I thought I would tell you a little bit more about them.
Usually these conversations take place in one of those nice coffee bars we are now having all around Europe. So there I am, having a coffee; and the artist who’s sitting in front of me is telling me about her next project. I’ve seen many of her previous shows and the project she’s describing to me now sounds just amazing: it will fit perfectly with my next thematic festival about climate change... or gender or discrimination or money or participation or post-colonialism (here you can just insert what ever topic you prefer). So I’m promising her to support this project with a residency, a co-production and a presentation – She’s very happy with my proposal, I'm very happy with her project and I know the audience will soon be very happy too. And I’m thinking: “Who could dream of a better job?”
From the outside, this encounter seems to be quite relaxed. It looks like an equal and open conversation between two professionals. But the agency behind our nice coffee moment is not that simple. Even if we are discussing all the details of our exciting collaboration, there is one point we are surely not talking about. It’s the fact that of the two of us sitting here, she will be the one responsible for delivering the artwork, the very content of my socially or politically engaged festival; but of the two of us, I am the only one who is getting paid?! I mean really paid. Of course she can make applications every three months, and beg for co-productions all around Flanders and Europe, but chances are she won’t get paid for half of the time she will be working on this amazing project.
Now wait, that’s not exactly true; I’m actually not the only one who’s being paid. All the dedicated people who are working with me, in the back offices of the theatres, are also paid. And the reason why we are all paid (sometimes we tend to forget) is to support, and protect the making of artworks.
Now, don’t tell me that cleaning or doing the accounting is the sort of jobs people are normally paid for, and so why not in the arts? Sure. I hear you.
But it seems not to occur to anyone that making good artwork may not be easier than making good accounting. And that we could at the very least call “making artwork” a normal job; and then also, eventually, demand an equal payment for it.
Again, don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that accountants should be paid like artists. It would be as if – just imagine – Men were suddenly to be paid like Women... No, no that would be quite a bad idea, indeed. I’m just evoking the idea that artists could eventually be paid like accountants (and maybe even Male accountants, why not?...). Now, believe me or not, but this idea is, today, in 2017, just impossible to imagine .
I must say that, after almost 6 years of having coffee with artists, I’m totally fed-up. I cannot take another coffee. And strangely, or perhaps not, I’m not the only one. Everywhere in Europe the unpaid labour of the artists, what we commonly called “the blind spot of our sector”, has become a huge black hole, right the middle of our beautiful theatres. And everywhere in Europe the devoted people who are working in the theatres are starring at this frightening hole and they are asking themselves: “What are we doing here? Who are we actually protecting?”
When these “big questions” appear in our lives, there is often someone to think about them with us; and this time, again, it’s the philosopher Bojana Kunst who is guiding us through the mist and the confusion. She explains: Today, art institutions too have been taken into a spiral of social insecurity, – and the only way they can realize their programme is by abusing the long-term precarity of the artists.
Even if arts institutions (such as BUDA) are proposing more and more public programmes that investigate other possible ways to live and work together, they are in no way opposing the current system. On the contrary: they are reproducing scarcity on a structural level .
OK, but enough coffees, complaints and analyses, we are here tonight to celebrate The Change! So let’s try to get started with it.
Can we base the compiling of our artistic programmes on working relationships that are less unbalanced and less paradoxical? Can we have art institutions (and here I’m quoting the artist Sarah Vanhee) “that practice alternative politics instead of presenting programmes about alternative politics?... Can we have art institutions that take care of the people who work there, (...) of everyone involved with the institutions?”
Can we, finally, invent the art institutions anew?
These questions have nurtured many conversations with many artists and curators over the past few months. And they were the basis of a symposium we organised at BUDA last month (February 2017) . It was called 'The Fantastic Institution'. Our idea was to hear about inspiring examples from all over Europe – but also to use fiction, or even science-fiction, to open up our imagination, and to turn our institutions into fantastic ones.
Now, The symposium didn’t actually provide a direct solution to my coffee problem, (sadly enough). But it did open up a lot of other perspectives for rethinking the institution more broadly. It is of course not really possible to summarize all the lectures we heard over those 3 days, but after the symposium, I kept thinking about a place which summarizes quite well many of the ideas and images that emerged during the symposium. And I thought I could tell you about this one, instead.
So here comes another story, and in this one, you’ll have to follow me carefully.
Some weeks ago, Jozef Wouters, who is an artist and a stage designer, invited some people to come to a café he had opened in his new décor-atelier. When I arrive at the address Jozef sent me, in a grim street somewhere in Molenbeek, I first have to pass through an abandoned travel agency. Then, at the end of a very long corridor, I enter a huge, more or less empty and dark warehouse. There is not much to see except, in a corner on the right, some light that is coming through a plastic door. The door opens into a space that has been separated from the rest of the warehouse with fake walls.
Upon entering this room, I discover a café. There's a beautiful wooden bar in the middle, some couches on the side, a rather noisy heating system, high stools and a row of mirrors on the upper side of the fake walls. Jozef tells me that this room is actually a replica, but on a smaller scale, of a bar in .. Vienna. There are quite a lot of people talking and drinking. Later, Jozef proposes that we all listen to a recording of a lecture. A lecture Jorge Luis Borges gave in the 80’s about “Metaphors”. But the sound quality of the recording is so bad that we have to cut off the noisy heater in order to hear the recording. The room then becomes very cold but it doesn’t seem to matter that much, people continue listening to this voice coming from the past.
As Jozef was saying when he introduced Borges’ lecture, a Metaphor is like a scale-model that you can put on a table so you can look at it and talk about it. I’d like to take Jozef’s bar as a Metaphor in itself; a scale model for another possible Art Institution. Not that anything was fantastic about this place, but I thought everything about it was deeply poetic. And I thought that this may be what we actually need: not The Fantastic Institution, but The Poetic Institution. A place that would help us to name what has no name, so that we could think about it .
So, let’s look at it again. The travel agency is closed. We are not in Vienna. And there is no bar. In this poetic place, no one is pretending to know anything. There is no curator, no expert . Only people who are curious about something, and tonight one of them has invited the others.
The context and the programme have been made carefully, but all the rest is rather uncertain .
In this bar that doesn’t exist, nobody is in charge, but everybody, the audience included, seems equally enthusiastic  and concentrated.
The walls of this place are solid enough to protect us from the hostility of the outside world , but they can be removed or displaced whenever we would need them to create something else .
This place is not hosting poetry; it is the poetry itself .
It is like a gap in reality, a hole that has been drilled into the possible .
Jozef’s bar reminds me of something that researcher and curator Daniel Blanga Gubay said during the symposium, namely that institutions are not Natural Phenomena. They are not like the Weather, or like mysterious Gods that we cannot control. No. Someone, one day, invented them. Which means that we could just as well invent them anew. The institutions could decide to become the fiction instead of hosting it. We could decide to dig holes into our daily organisation. We could reserve time and space for things that do not have a clear direction, places that are not already dedicated. And we could do so because, as artist Vladimir Miller proposed in his lecture, “it is from those undecided places that institutions can gradually be re-invented”.
Art Institutions would then perhaps also be able to develop new skills. Curator Mai Abu ElDahab pointed out that maybe the notion of a professionalized environment for the arts rests on a serious misunderstanding. Maybe we do not need Art institutions to be well-equipped and to provide what we expect from them. Maybe we need exactly the opposite: Art institutions that are deeply and continuously maladjusted , that do not fit or blend in, that do not please or serve, but endlessly question and propose something else than what we were expecting.
My call to the institutions today, my call to us all – because we are the institutions: institutions do not act, people act , and we are the people. My call is to pay constant attention to How we are doing what we are doing, and to get this finally aligned with the values we publicly stand for.
My call is to dare to make Time, Space and Money, not only to support experimentation onstage, but also to experiment on a social and political level offstage , inside our own organisations and with our public funding.
Sometimes we tend to forget, but Art institutions are publicly funded primarily to support and to protect the making of art, which quite often is also the making of Metaphors; the making of images, spaces that are so radically different, so powerful that they can haunt people’s minds for days and days, sometimes years. This is what art can do. This is what we are protecting. This is what we are passing on to an audience.
On this BLAUWRUK day, for this celebration of the Big Transition in the Vooruit Arts Centre, I call for art institutions that would be as much Art as Institution. Places that would be so radically different and powerful in all their coexisting realities that the political effect of their working would keep people awake at night and make them doubt the world they’re living in.
And perhaps one day, they would emerge from their dreamless sleep and decide that this is the moment to change.
NB: all the second part of my speech is actually reformulating the words of the people who gave lectures during the
symposium, The Fantastic Institution hold in BUDA on the 16th – 18th of February 2017. You should know that their lectures are much better than my speech, they have been documented and the videos will be soon available on the website of kunstenpunt.be.
 Here I should mention that I “inherited” the artistic direction of BUDA from Barbara Raes. She left BUDA to join the direction of Vooruit Art Centre for which she proposed a very innovative, valorous and inspiring transition program. I’m feeling many of her ideas are only now coming to live, still inspiring a lot of people, among which I am.
 As we know, this situation is the result of, on the one hand, of the professionalization of our field (as organized in the late 90’s, early 2000’s) and, on the other hand, of the current neo-liberal way of governance that continuously cuts into projects funding and do not provide any long term perspectives for artists to develop their work autonomously.
 "Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought" - Audre Lorde, Poetry is Not a Luxury – as quoted by artist and choreographer Eleanor Bauer on facebook on March, 4th – 2017.
 Cf. Johan Forseman’s lecture (Skogen) for the Fantastic Institution symposium.
 Cf. Francis McKee’s lecture (CCA Glasgow), idem.
 Cf. Mai Abu ElDahab’s lecture (Mophradat), idem
 Cf. Laurence Rassel (erg) and Sarah Vanhee’s lecture, idem
 Cf. Vladimir Miller’s lecture, idem
 Cf. Daniel Blanga Buggay’s lecture (Aleppo), idem
 Cf.Sarah Vanhee’s lecture, idem
 Cf. Anthony Huberman ‘s « How to behave better », in Circular Facts, Steinberg, 2011.
 Cf. Vladimir Miller’s lecture
 Cf Barbara Raes’s State of the Arts, « Radiantly burning out and stacking stones”, 2014. https://fo.am/blog/2014/09/25/radiantly-burning/