How Belgium’s declining art & culture sector is reinventing itself

Wednesday, 18 April 2018 12:00
Alexandre D'hoore

Alexandre D'hoore is a young entrepreneur based in the Antwerp area. Before moving back to Belgium in 2012, he lived in the United States. He has advanced degrees in linguistics, EU studies and management.

There is an expression among creatives that only two types of professionals are unprotected by the system in Belgium: Artists and Prostitutes.
There has been a gradual shift in how governments approach the cultural sector. Subsidies are getting smaller and more targeted towards art forms that are easily commercialisable. In a sense, culture is feeling the squeeze of austerity. Governments have unwittingly put the cultural sector under pressure by creating a swamp of bureaucracy, where subsidies and support are concerned. They are also playing favourites in a gamble that has become known as the fetish of the masterpiece. While box office proceeds and awards are a good indicator of what we enjoy watching, they don’t fully elaborate the richness of artistic discourse that is required out of which the masterpiece must blossom.

Overcoming the austerity and wall of bureaucracy

Artists fundamentally just want to create, and Belgium’s tendency towards burdensome bureaucracy is creating a seemingly unchartable mess for those who dare make a profession out of their desire to create. Enter Auguste Orts, in short, a production house, but upon closer inspection something far more robust. Built on the principles of collectivisation, they have developed a model for organising artists that has spurred and inspired many others around the continent.

Auguste Orts is a production house, in the sense that they produce Artists’ Moving Image, a vague term used to describe audio visual art that is a bit more esoteric.

“Perhaps the term sounds a bit lofty, but it’s just supposed to convey that the artists create art that is audio-visual in nature”, says Marie Logie, the key figure in the organisation. Marie is not a professional artist herself, she is a producer. Her background isn’t even in film or A/V arts. 11 years ago, she was approached by four well-known artists and asked to take part in establishing a platform. “It was a time in my life when I was okay with working temporary for free, I mean I was willing to take that risk. I was pregnant and working in Antwerp but living in Brussels and getting a bit tired of the commute.” The four established artists were finding it harder and harder to arrange funding, production and distribution of their work on their own.

When subsidising film, governments demand a sort of guarantee in the form of production houses tied to the projects, and so artists were finding it harder to even keep up with the administration of applying for financing, as well as searching for third party support. On the other hand, they were eager to develop formal communities. The idea of an artist locked up in her ivory tower chiselling away at her masterpiece was not appealing.

Auguste Orts operates as follows: Marie is the head of the organisation, which has since received a small government subsidy to employ a few people. They work with their core group of artists, as well as guest artists from around Europe.

When an artist wants to begin a project, Auguste Orts takes over the burden of funding applications. Once a project is funded, pooled resources are used to help produce it. The artists have complete artistic control over what is made. This is not how a traditional film production house works. Generally, producers would ask artists to make adjustments so as to better commercialise the final product.

The final product remains the property of the artists, this again is atypical. Lastly, as a result of knowledge and network sharing, Auguste Orts is able to effectively distribute the finished creations to a wide array of different venues. When I ask her for some names that people will recognise, Marie tells me without a trace of pomp or moment’s hesitation “the Tate Modern, the Venice Biennale, Documenta Kassel, etc. Yes the artists are displayed there, but we cherish as well small scale, more local venues such as Het Bos in Antwerp, STUK in Leuven or Courtisane in Ghent.”

What is more remarkable is that the artists involved have different approaches, so while Auguste Orts has made feature-length productions with substantial budgets, they also regularly engage in projects that have literally no budget whatsoever. Because Auguste Orts is artist run, its main focus is the creation of art. They add an immeasurable amount to the collective culture of large abstract discourse that we are all a party to.

International expansion of a proven concept

Auguste Orts has since attracted European Union funding. It began with a pilot knowledge- sharing program, where they attempted to link nascent productions with professionals in lots of different sectors. The goal was to get people to talk to one another, to share ideas, to make connections, thereby making every aspect of the creation of art more accessible to everyone. The pilot was in Brussels and was so successful that it attracted EU funding. The subsequent Auguste Orts spin off – On and For Productions – spurred similar events in Madrid and London. They were scheduled during large film festivals and events so as to maximise their reach.

It also highlights one of the fundamental discrepancies of cultural funding. The “fetish of the masterpiece” has inspired governments to fund art that they feel will bring “prestige” to the nation, that being the exact wording of a subsidy reduction recently imposed on Brussels’ famed Cinema Nova, which in a European context is the most prolific and daring cinema in Brussels. It truly begs the question “what does a regional bureaucrat know about cultural prestige?”.

Artistry is the most fundamentally European profession there is. Here are a group of people, uninterested in borders, fiercely willing to display their own culture and militantly eager to explore the world by letting it into their lives. Organisations like Auguste Orts transcend divides, and in doing so raise the national “prestige”, but also go to lengths in fuelling European cultural integration almost inadvertently, as a by-product of artistic curiosity.

“Our partnerships are not international for the sake of it”, Marie Logie tells me. “Our recent production of Barcelona-based artist Dora Garcia makes sense because Dora has lived in Brussels for nearly two decades.” Auguste Orts has worked with artists from Congo to Holland, and displayed work from Lima to New York. While knowledge sharing, increased efficiency and productivity, and being an example of the success of a collective organisation are impressive in their own right, what is perhaps more impressive is how easily reproducible this structure is. I sat down with Vincent Stroep and Ulli Lindamayr at Antwerp’s Escautville, who lovingly refer to Auguste Orts as their big sister.

Thriving Artists and the Benefits of Collectivization

Ulli and Vincent began Escautville in much the same way Auguste Orts was started. They were approached by a handful of visual artists in Antwerp who were looking to collectivise, driven by external pressures and an almost mammalian desire to be amongst their own. These weren’t unknown artists either. Documentarians like Frank Theys, whose documentary on transhumanism has built a cult following and attracted praise from Martin Scorsese.

“We’ve had to turn down working on some projects”, Vincent tells me “and some of the artists who’ve come to us are world renowned, we were honestly surprised that even they struggled to find funding.” Escautville’s mandate is a little different. Their artists are more visual in nature, the types of pieces you would see exhibited in a museum.

“They’ve done studies that show that the average amount of time people watch those films is 10 to 30 seconds,” Vincent says laughingly. One of their productions, a piece by Wim Catrysse, was recently screened at the famed International Film Festival of Rotterdam. Wim, an artist who is famous for installation work, was able to show multiple screenings from start to finish in a packed theatre hall. This represents a subtle shift in how spectators consume culture. Where before we would engage this art passively, now it is staring us in the face. It is important to note that while these artists are a bit more off the beaten path, their art is deeply accessible. These aren’t artists who leave you wondering whether or not you “got it” after seeing their work.

The synergies are due to the specialties of the organisers of Escautville. While Ulli is from the artistic visual world, Vincent is more linked to film. This synergy has bridged an artistic divide in both the artists and how they approach their art, and the distribution of this art. Artists like Ria Pacquée, whose comical short video productions are shot discreetly on handheld cameras, are finding their way into the hands of unlikely consumers by way of the film festival circuits, and likewise, filmmakers are finding their art popping up in museums.

Escautville, now in their sixth year, have completed over 20 productions, with four currently ongoing. While the reach of their artists, whose shadows are longer than they are broad, is inherently less pervasive, Escautville as an organisation is branching out into the world more fervently than in years past. The last and upcoming year is marked by shared productions in Holland, Ireland, Japan and the US. So while the artists previously had international footprints, the sharing of knowledge has created structural relationships with artists and venues in other countries as a result.

These organisations and structures operate at the core of our culture. They lay the seeds for everything else, and function as a sort of sensing mechanism for what is and will be. The artists that assembled around Auguste Orts and Escautville could have survived either way, but now they rejoice in the idea that they are fuelling new ecosystems and building platforms that will proliferate artistic creation and human interaction. The innovation with which these organisations approach the creation of art and the replicability of their mechanics will help ensure a continued artistic discourse for years to come. 

By Alexandre D’hoore
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