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by Sigrid Gareis and Nicole Haitzinger

The Artist as Curator/The Curator as Artist. Interview with Michiel Vandevelde

Sigrid Gareis/Nicole Haitzinger: As an artist, you’ve already dealt with curation practically and theoretically during your studies in the renowned dance training at P.A.R.T.S. in Brussels. Can you please elaborate on the conceptual background of this decision?

Michiel Vandevelde: I have worked as a production assistant, a technician, I’ve worked in the field of press and communication, I have been a distributer, an administrator, a performer, an artist, a curator, a programmer, an artist-curator. With the goal to emancipate from powerlessness, one needs to gain knowledge. It was important for me as artist to not only gain knowledge from the position of the curator or programmer, but from any other position in the field as well: all these roles are important to understand what it means to make art. One could say: it is about understanding the apparatus of art. Making art is not only what you see on stage; it is actually also including everything around it. And if one wants to make a change, one needs to take into account or at least be aware of the entirety of all the elements making up the artwork. In my journey of creating knowledge, I absolutely wanted to become part of an established institution. That is where the International Arts Centre DE SINGEL enters the story. I worked in the years before, together with a lot of institutions, as an artist to produce and present works, and as a freelance curator to make events and exhibitions (Kaaitheater, Het Bos, Extra City Kunsthal, etc.). But I was always an outsider, as a freelancer, working alongside institutions. To fully understand an art institution, I wanted to be “inside.”

One can ask: Why? Is it merely to shift from a position of powerlessness to a powerful one? This is where my dream enters: to make a nomadic institution, similar to a circus, that travels around and anchors itself; it claims space for extended periods of times in certain contexts. A travelling arts centre, which is a school of arts at the same time (hence the reason I am also involved as a co-curator of a Master Dance in the Conservatory of Antwerp). This dream has materialized in very small versions in the following artistic projects: Tentproject (a space for ideas) (2011) and the curatorial project: Precarious Pavilions (2018–2019). And in order to realize this dream, I am collecting experience, a network and knowledge.

SG/NH: Is an “artist curator” different from a “traditional” programmer or festival-maker in the performing field? What is your personal opinion?

MV: In my work, I would differentiate between three roles: programmer, curator, and artist-curator. Specifically in an institution like DE SINGEL, I spent most of the time as a programmer. Programmer within an arts institution is a funny title. Most people would think of a computer programmer. And I think it is somehow close. As a programmer, you take into account a lot of parameters, and the program is for a large part a result of the balance in the parameters than of personal taste. Some examples of parameters are budget, infrastructure (presenting something in a large hall for 700 people is different from a small hall of 200 people), context (the neighborhood or city the venue is in), audience, social-cultural balances (gender, cultural background, abilities, local/international, age, etc.), history of the institution, artistic disciplines, etc. So, part of the selection you make is coming from your own preferences, but when programming, I would say 70 percent has to do with parameters beyond your taste.

As a curator, my starting point is different: I start from a specific artwork or a group of artworks that make formal and/or thematic sense together. The curatorial framework in which artworks are presented is more restrictive, but at the same time allows for more focus on a specific artist, group of artists, or subject. It is a frame that makes ideas more present and allows for more dialogue and exchange about a topic or field of topics. Often within performing arts, the curatorial frame is presented in the form of a festival or platform. Although, other than in visual arts (even though it happens there as well), one needs to be aware that in performing arts there are two kinds of festivals: (1) festivals that are merely vehicles for communication, and (2) festivals that are genuinely occupied with the artistic processes and projects.

There is the third position as artist-curator. This is a position where your own artistic ideas come to the forefront and define the curatorial starting point. The previously mentioned Precarious Pavilions would be an example in which I acted as an artist-curator. Your own artistic research is expanded through the work of other artists with whom you start a dialogue.

When working for a public institution like DE SINGEL, I attempt to dissociate my position as an artist from the position of programmer or curator. Already in the agreement with the institution, it is said that none of my artistic work is presented or supported by the DE SINGEL. Of course, you are only one body of experience and knowledge, but I think one can employ a methodological difference where, as an artist-curator, you start from the “inside” of your practice and enter into a dialogue. As a programmer/curator, I start from the outside (the artists’ work) and practice listening as the main tool to support and present their work in the conditions that serve their work best. In the end, working in a public institution means I am a public servant. I think it is important to never forget that the public institution is never yours, unlike one might feel about their own artistic practice (although one could question in general what is really “yours”).

SG/NH: When you curate, do you consider the relationship between you and the artists you invite to be "equal"?

MV: The relationship is not equal, especially when working from within an established institution. Perhaps when both artist and curator are freelancers, one could argue that they potentially share a state of precarity, depending on how successful each of them is in a certain logic of the market, and therefore they could share an economic status. In any case, more importantly, in the position of the curator you make the decision of how the budget is distributed and who is invited. So, that means that the starting point is always unequal.

SG/NH: How has your view of the institution changed since you began working as a programmer/curator employed by an institution? Based on this, do you have any concrete suggestions for how institutions can work in a more artist-centered way?

MV: Working from within an institution has made me more aware about all these different parameters one needs to take into account for making a program. As a freelance artist or curator, you want to claim space. You might say that the institutions are not accessible and open for you. That is, for sure, true; most conventional arts institutions are based on selection, so not every artist gets supported or presented. At the same time, I have the feeling that recently, at least in Belgium, but I also see it in a lot of other places, that the question of who is presented becomes increasingly important. One could say there is an intersectional turn in the arts. The next question is how to implement this intersectional turn structurally, as a standard practice, which no longer needs to be thematized in a program brochure or festival. That is a more central question, and I have the feeling institutions fail to implement structural solutions, as it might have, for example, consequences for your own job. One solution could be mandates: one can only be on the artistic programming staff for five years, for example. In a lot of institutions, mandates exist for the directors of the institution but not necessarily for the artistic staff (programmers/curators, dramaturges, etc.) More dynamics on that level would be a way to keep the institution flexible and keep close to the process of culture-making where the rate of change is accelerating.

Secondly, formal quota (based on identity) for making a selection could be a (temporary) tool to overcome one’s biases. This is a somewhat controversial measure, as people would claim that talent can’t be bound to a quota. This kind of argument is, of course, beside the point. The problem is not that there is no talent in this or that group. The point is that whoever is making a selection always has blind spots, and a quota can remind you to simply do your work better and not rely on what you comfortably follow up on and know.

One could say that more radical measures are needed to end the model of selection. There are interesting and inspiring examples. For the moment, I am not so much involved in radical theories of how to understand an arts field without selection, yet in DE SINGEL we are implementing multiple ways of having access to the institution and what trajectory one might envelop through the infrastructure that we have to offer. How can one enter as a young (aspiring) artist, for example, or how can an artist with a long trajectory find her or his place? What are the different trajectories with which artists can navigate within an institution?

With this in mind, answering the question of how an institution can be more artist-centered has a high degree of complexity. For me, the centering is closely linked to the kind of infrastructure an institution is made of. I mean both the concrete architectural infrastructure and the human infrastructure. An institution that has a lot of “bricks” (building) to care for will always fail to be fully artist-centered; the building comes with its own cost and caretaking. And this will sometimes be in opposition to what artists wish for. (Large) public infrastructure comes with its own rules. In my experience, organizations with smaller or no infrastructure can often respond better to artists’ needs, as the infrastructure can be provided in favor of the artistic project. So, I think a validation of small organizations in term of budget and recognition is important. Also, the human infrastructure, those people on the payroll: their (well-)being determines how an institution is run and what is in the end possible for artists. For example, in Belgium the arts field is structurally underfinanced, which leads to a situation in which a lot of projects are run by very few people, which makes it rare that a project has the ideal focus artists wish for. The solution to the problem is simple: more adequate budgets, but the (political) reality one operates in often shatters any hope.

SG/NH: Could you name some parameters of a social and equitable curatorial infrastructure? What is important for you as an artist? What is important for you as a curator? What is important for the curatorial milieu or field in general?

MV: When thinking from within the existing and dominant way art is presented, developed, produced, and reflected upon, it is hard to imagine a fully fair and social way of organizing the field. One can always take some measures that soften the cruelest parts, but deep down the system is what it is: highly competitive. Already, refusing awards, or getting rid of awards or festivals based on “best-of” feels like a radical gesture within such a field. One could say: there is selection in whatever professional field. But the arts are a different game; each utterance is publicly judged and criticized. So, the first exercise is to think from within this kind of arts field: how to make it more just and accessible. Often, the role of education is pointed out as an important parameter in which everyone is introduced to the art. I agree that it is important, but it is not the only parameter to rely on, and it can never be an excuse for not acting. Some possibilities I’ve sketched out earlier: mandates, quotas, more budget to redistribute, artists building awareness about the apparatus they act within, developing different structural possibilities and platforms for artists to present their work, etc. Thinking about it, these are typical ideas to fix unjust systems. Beyond that, it is always good to realize that institutions are built and made by humans. As an artist, I experienced harm from bad communication skills from programmers/curators (this is at the same time a self-critique). So, it might be as simple as acquiring skills to communicate decently with artists, to recognize their presence, even if you might not appreciate the work. I can say that only ten percent of the conversations I’ve had with programmers have been really interesting and confidence-giving.

Thinking beyond the existing system is when we enter the field of dreams, desires, hopes, which is always more exciting to dwell in. One dream I mentioned in the beginning is the Tentproject: a nomadic institution which anchors itself in different realities, where the social, artmaking, and education can potentially dissolve. A model in which the institution does not have land property but depends on the land of others. Fixed property is power and makes people conservative (conserving the building), so let’s get rid of it. An arts project like this also has the potential to shift relations; the artists choose to become part of it, not the other way around, because it is a non-conventional context. Perhaps similar to the way the artists-run center PAF (Performing Arts Forum) in St. Erme (France) works: one chooses to go there; PAF doesn’t choose you. A model of sharing labor, time, and knowledge, perhaps akin to our first edition of the Brussels-located Bâtard festival. In this edition, we worked for one month with all the artists on creating the festival. We ended up with “a festival as opera.” Was it an easy cooperation? No, but I believe one learns most from conflicts. I am working towards an institution that is messy and anarchic, in which one is not told how something works, simply because it can always work differently, so nothing “works.”

Sandra Chatterjee and Cynthia Ling Lee, Back to the Beautiful (Water Memories), performance produced for group show co-curated by the students of the Curating in the Performing Arts university course, 2017, SZENE Salzburg. Photograph by: Hubert Auer.

Michiel Vandevelde is currently active as a choreographer, curator/programmer, technician, and producer. As a curator/programmer, he worked or works for Extra City Kunsthal, Het Bos, Bâtard festival, Precarious Pavilions, Arts Centre DE SINGEL. Vandevelde’s artistic work is presented and supported throughout Europe by Kaaitheater, Münchner Kammerspiele, Platform-K, PACT Zollverein, Wiener Festwochen, steirischer herbst, STUK, Viernulvier, among others. In his work, he investigates the elements that constitute or obstruct the contemporary public sphere. He explores which other social, economic, and cultural alternatives we can imagine in order to question, challenge, and transform dominant logics and ways of organizing. He has been developing a variety of projects both in public space and in (performing) arts institutions.       

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Issue 55

Curating Dance : Decolonizing Dance