Michiel Vandevelde (dancer, choreographer and curator) in conversation on repercussions of the corona crisis on the cultural sector, his new function as a curator at deSingel and his plans and desires for the far future.
How has the corona crisis affected you? What are and will be the consequences of the crisis for you as an artist?
On the 14th of May I would normally have had a premiere in Zurich at Theater Neumarkt. It’s a project entitled ‘Protest 1980’, together with 7 activists. This project is luckily not cancelled and it has been postponed. We were also touring with ‘The Goldberg Variations’ which is now also postponed to later dates. At this point I can be happy that the work is rescheduled rather than cancelled. But the situation is far from good. What is happening now is a huge crisis with an economic recession to follow and the arts sector will feel its long lasting consequences. Certainly on an economic level we will see the effects in the years to come. As we can see now already, blocks are tumbling down which will definitely lead to a poorer art sector on very different levels: how much space for experimentation will there be left, how much financial means will there be available to support all kinds of generations of artists, how many possibilities for presenting the work will there be?
With the suspended economy, things being cancelled and with many still unknown consequences ahead, the outbreak of the virus seems to have only negative effects but can you also look at this suspension from a positive angle? As something that could bring positive repercussions? A potential starting point for a change of some sort?
No. I don’t think an economic recession is a positive thing. It leads to more poverty and more social inequality so no; I can’t see any positive side to it. A lot of people inside and outside of the arts see this crisis as a great time to rethink the neoliberal model. There have been a lot of statements released about how we should reorganize/rethink society. I find that interesting, because that is what lots of people, artists, activists, scientists, journalists, have already been doing in the past decades. There is already a lot on the table. There are a lot of ideas out there, ready to be used, to be exercised, to be activated. It is something to work on everyday. At the same time, when you lose your job, when you lose something you really love, and certainly within art that is very often the case: there are many passionate people out there, how will you be able to think about a systemic change when all you can think about is the next day? And that is the reality for a lot of people within the arts, but also in other fields. I think SOTA’s (State of the Arts) Relief Fund is a good initiative to try to formulate an answer to urgent financial needs but it is not a sustainable model. And it was interesting to me that this initiative came from a volunteer based, small organisation.
What the current crisis is making clear to me is that for so long it has been based on dominant rules of productivity, competition and visibility. Rules which were only encouraging the focus to be brought to the very few leaving the other many in a grey zone with not much if any support. Do you think that this individual oriented focus could or would change?
No, I don’t think the focus on the individual will change. That requires much longer process and other crises to realize that our individuality might not save us. It also requires some sort of broader analysis of what kind of world we live in. We live in a fast, digital world. We live in a world of images. This notion of visibility is not something that is only relevant to the art sector, it is in all sectors. If you work in a company and you don’t do your work ‘excellently’, you might not make a career, or be ‘visible’. The same goes for academics, if you don’t produce enough papers, you don’t go higher in the hierarchy. This is the system in which we live in and the art sector is operating in the exact same ways. I don’t think that we are better or worse, we are just the same. And will this change? – no. What we know for now is that there will be less money, less structural support and let’s see who will get elected in 5 years… I know that I am a bit negative when it comes to the system in a broader sense. I am however much more positive when it comes to initiatives on the micro level: what people (and institutions in relation to institutions) can mean for each other in a direct sense.
You have already joined the curatorial team of deSingel but talking about hierarchy, what would the actual positioning of the current team be? What will your function be?
In deSingel I will co-program the performing arts program (theatre/dance), together with Karlien Meganck. Karlien is adjunct-artistic director, and Hendrik Storme is general and artistic director. There is also Chloë Herteleer who is co-responsible for the music program, and there will also be a new programmer yet to be decided, who will work cross-disciplinary and with a focus on participative projects.
To shift from a freelance artist and curator to being officially bound with an institution sounds like a big step…
Yes, and such a step was my desire. I’ve always developed a parallel trajectory: one as an artist and one as a curator. As an artist it is about the artistic work I make, speaking about individuality earlier: it’s about my own trajectory. Since the beginning though I’ve found this individual focus difficult and the question has always been present was of how can I also make things possible for others? How can I be useful or in service of others? And that’s also how the trajectory as curator came into being. As a curator up until now, I have operated, whether it was Batard Festival (Brussels) or Extra City Kunsthal (Antwerpen), from a very precarious position of a freelancer often with very limited or almost no budget and that made making things possible for others always very frustrating because you actually never could do or offer enough. So for the first time, within the stable frame of deSingel, I can offer better conditions to artists.
deSingel mostly supports and shows works of already established artists whose work is often of rather big scale. This is not necessarily something that you have done much of before. Has the change from being an independent curator to being a programmer of a house whose historical weight is very present, demanded from you a big change of your focus as a curator?
To support already established artists is definitely something that deSingel does and will continue to do. I understand the opposition between those who are established and those who are not yet but for me it is important that whomever artist can present their work. I think that to present work of both the established and the non-established artists is a task of an institution like deSingel but also like Kaaitheater, Vooruit or STUK. Now, one could say that (speaking for the theatre/dance program of deSingel), the problem is that besides Bouge B festival, and Generation Y, there is little platform in deSingel for less visible artists. To change that is definitely an intention. What Karlien and I are thinking about is how to create a platform similar to Bouge B but which will no longer be an annual festival but would rather, under a sort of label, become more structural, a more than once a year platform, part of the deSingel’s season. This is just one example of some small change, there will also be other changes which both have to do with artistic programming as well as more structural changes linked to Hendrik Storme’s overall project.
The history of deSingel is one of innovative theatre and dance primarily of a Euro-American tradition which emerged in the 1980’s, and which is still very present in the programme today. What I find interesting is not only the task of innovation but rather of how to deepen and broaden this programme, which are also ways to innovate of course. By deepening I mean, to think of what kind of other trajectories could you create with artists rather than only presenting within a conventional format. Broadening in a sense of how you could widen the spectrum of the artists that can present in deSingel. These I think are the two important tasks that any institution today has to deal with and certainly deSingel does.
Will the focus still remain on let’s say finalised products or do you also imagine some space for experimenting, asking questions, sharing? A sort of more loose space which artists more often address as their need or even necessity?
First of all, I will react as an artist. I understand the discussion behind the logic and focus on a final product but at the same time I disagree with this kind of vision. What do I want as an artist? I want to create. I want to indeed experiment and search in the studio but I also want to share it with people. For me developing an artistic trajectory is about a process that never stops, and that occasionally is opened up and shared. I never think about these moments of sharing as ‘products’. It is just one point in a larger process and sharing with people enables you to deepen/shake/question your artistic trajectory.
deSingel will remain based on presentation, that is for sure, but what do artists define or understand as ‘presentation’ intrigues me – it is a question of language politics which I think is important. So, yes, we will present: but the understanding of formats of how to present something have to be widened. That is definitely something we will also work on.
Will you continue creating your work simultaneously to being a curator? How will this new function affect your development as an artist?
I will not work full time for deSingel which will allow me to continue making my own artistic work. This work will be fully independent and in no ways supported by deSingel. It will be developed through structures that have been supporting me in the past years, and hopefully also new structures, let’s see, nothing is certain of course.
The art sector is composed out of clearly divided functions and rather rigid labels that name them. There is a strong division between the function of an artist and that of a programmer or curator. You are an example of someone that continuously blurs these lines. Is it an intention of yours?
Absolutely. There is one important text for me. It is from Daniel Buren from 1972. It is a very short statement titled ‘Where are the artists?’ which was written as a reaction to the position of curators which in some ways took over the role of an artist in the Documenta exhibition of the 70’s. When it comes to group exhibitions with a thematic, the situation in which the curator becomes more important than the artists, is still very common today. As an artist, it has been very important for me to emancipate myself from this sort of power relations that you automatically have in the sector and to indeed blur these dividing lines. The same goes also for other roles: for my performances I am also the technician, or I do the production. A performance is not just what you see on stage, it includes everything around it and my interest has always been in this totality, and how to perform or interact with this whole.
One could ask: what for?
Well, I have this desire to, with all the experience and knowledge that I am building, to create a new kind of institution and in order to do so, I firstly need to thoroughly understand how the apparatus of art works. My wish for many years already has been to create some sort of nomadic institution which will literally be in a tent structure. A moving circus let’s say (without the circus), that travels around and develops projects with (local) artists on the spot. An institution which combines the local with the global in a new way. To drown into extreme locality which is recently often talked about for me is a return. We still need to make links with other people, cultures and traditions and to put a halt to it would in my opinion be a step back. I dream of an institution in which the global isn’t about the artist-tourist model, but about a deeper engagement within a local community. An institution to which people no longer travel but which travels to you. To create such an institution is a big desire and of course a huge project which needs a lot of support. One could say that what I have been doing for now is trying to create the knowledge in myself as well as a potential network which will one day help me to realise this project. But before realising this project, I need to learn more, to take time and to understand the structures that exist today from within.
Brussels/Antwerp, May 2020.