This article makes no pretence of being an exhaustive account of everything that happened during the Neerpelt Hot House, but offers a specific and partial perspective from a curator and artist who has recently become a network partner. It offers a periscopic perspective, much like that of a submarine – enough to identify what is on the surface, and maybe even to target what is under the surface.
It breaks down into three parts: examination, diagnosis and cure. First I will endeavour to identify what struck me in the artists’ personalities and in their projects, then what bringing together these personalities and projects can tell us about the context and the broader situation in society, and finally what could, perhaps, be refined in the Hot House approach.
Examining the content of this meeting reveals a number of facts.
The first is that out of 16 presentations, there were only 4 female artists presenting projects. But we could also note that there were no artists from a non-European ethnic background (and that apart from them, only one person in the IN SITU team is not from a strict “European” background), that there are no artists with visible disabilities (with the exception of some when they attempt to speak English…), and that if any of the artists belong to the LGBTQI community, they are very discreet about it, which, of course, they are perfectly entitled to be. Indeed, that might be the most prudent approach, given the future we face with the renewal of conservatism around the world.
Furthermore, it should be noted that the programmers and curators all invited artists working in their own country. Past attempts to choose artists from elsewhere have ended in failure, but does that mean it's not worth trying again? That was probably back in the last century, in the era of Nation States.
But let’s put aside the characteristics of the artists and focus on their projects.
A number of projects use technological “prosthetics” (mainly smartphones) to access the works. Four of them give them a central role and three others use them as components which can be used to view the work in one way or another. This is far from the majority of projects, but it is striking, given the relative newness of this trend, and the fact that we were not all “born digital”.
Various other projects focus on the idea of communities, the communities we work with, or the communities we build, whether it's the “village” dreamt up by Bas van Rijnsoever, the international tribe evoked by Franklin Roulot, or a temporary community created for communal sleeping at the initiative of Vera Maeder...
A number of projects claim, at least at the draft stage covered by Hot Houses, to be “experiments” with the audience, sometimes even “social experiments” – although it should be noted that at this stage, the consent of the audience has not been sought.
Many projects are mobile and use an itinerant approach. These journeys for audiences are generally closely supervised, whether walking with Laure Terrier, taking the car with Dukagjin Podrimaj, or via a mobile telephone which often serves as a guide or interface (especially for Mark Etc, Mesut Arslan, Bas van Rijnsoever, Daniel Marcus Clark, etc.)
Several other projects seek to explore or reinvent a myth, or an aspect of identity or cultural heritage, and demonstrate the importance of this common imaginary world.
Some projects rely on the participation of spectators. But participation ranges from the “act” that we perform when, for example, we pull out our digital “prosthetic”, to more significant engagement, such as sleeping alongside people we do not know (Vera Maeder) or investing money in a community project that we know nothing about (Seth Honnor).
It is also clear that despite the emphasis on digital technologies, five projects (those of Chris Haring, Franklin Roulot, Thomas Chaussebourg, Tørbjorn Davidsen and Laure Terrier) give a central role to body language. Old habits die hard for heritage and transmission in this area, with the teachings of Eugenio Barba and Julyen Hamilton, Contact Improvisation, Body Mind Centering or “physical theatre”, alongside new practices such as parkour (free running).
In a way that has become almost traditional in the field of contemporary art, a number of artists (and operators) state their intention to occupy an intermediate space “between” two concepts, like the schemes dreamt up by Sara Leghissa - between private and public, between fiction and reality, between actor and spectator, between citizenship and cultural participation.
Only two projects (those of Richard Wiesner and Chris Haring) deal directly with the issue of language, which remains a critical question in a European context. Very few others touch on the way in which language is produced and communicated, or on translation issues.
Two projects (those of Thomas Chaussebourg and Tørbjorn Davidsen) use horses, and a third project involves a pig. Of course, the pig is not a live animal, but a piggy bank (Seth Honnor). But this giant piggy bank has something uncontrollably large about it, which makes it like an animal. It is interesting to see this (re)appearance of animals and the questions it raises. This is also present in contemporary circus and philosophy (Donna Harraway, Vinciane Despret): we start thinking of ourselves as humans with, and not separated from, other beings.
What do these observations tell us, not about the projects themselves, but about the way in which the artists perceive and reflect our modern world?
What should we think of the fact that so few women were involved? It is a commonplace social reality that men tend to monopolise discussion, but it is surprising in a theoretically progressive environment such as the arts. Is public space really still a man’s world? We know that it is potentially more dangerous for a woman to be alone in the city, and that many continue to think that a woman’s “natural” environment is the home. But that doesn’t seem to line up with what a network like IN SITU stands for…
The use of smartphones as mandatory extensions of the body sometimes comes off as a bit of a platitude: it is presumed that “everyone” has this prosthetic, nothing can be envisaged without it, and owning a smartphone has virtually become a human right... But one of the notable and interesting effects of these approaches is that they prevent the “free” use of your own smartphone, which is so often incorporated into a performance in ways outside the artist’s control, since your hand, or device, is already taken up with the tool provided by the artist.
At first glance, the need expressed by several of the artists to reconstruct myths (Daniel Marcus Clark), rituals (Tørbjorn Davidsen), or to develop a common imagination, from our experience of borders (Dukagjin Podrimaj) to the trauma of the cruellest nursery rhymes (Angie Dight) seems like a very positive idea. But behind this need to recreate certainties, is there not a common language, a “tradition”, a kind of hipster nostalgia which values the old because it is reassuring? Is this not another manifestation of the fear of the unknown which characterises our contemporary globalised cities? Why should we want to restore common ties in these cities, which sociologist Eric Corijn sees as places for encountering difference where we are changed through contact with others? What are we afraid of?
The idea of using the audience as a material, rather than as the viewer of the work, is also interesting. This is undoubtedly due to the fact that the projects are at a very theoretical stage (and therefore so is the audience), but it is sometimes a little odd to hear artists talking about the audience as if they were modelling clay. A number of operators stated that participatory approaches have created some inspiring pieces in recent years, but it is important to remember that participation has also been used by totalitarian regimes for controlling the masses.
Some projects were deeply anchored in the “here and now” of cities, but analysis of the entire selection shows that 9 out of 16 aimed to impose another “imaginary” reality, rather than reveal the magic of daily life. As someone who is new to the network, it is hard to say if this is a trend of our time or a recurring theme in public space. It was striking to observe that these imaginary worlds were not really designed as harmonious spaces, but that they were just as violent as our crisis-stricken world, with child abuse (Angie Dight), the possibility of sudden death (Ambrus Ivalyos), the experience of losing freedom (Dukagjin Podrimaj), violent situations on the margins of society (homeless people, illegal immigrants, Mark Etc…). But the projects frequently invited us into another life, with or without our digital prosthetic.
Finally, it was striking that very few projects evoked “physical” public space, but again, this may be explained by the draft stage of the projects. It was as if the materiality of public space had been replaced with people and bodies. As if public space was first made up of people, and perceived first and foremost by the artists as a social space.
It should first be observed that discussion was polite, and that the rules set at the Hot House mean that it is in no way hurtful. But as we saw on one or two occasions (including the oral presentation of this article), some more lively debate can also be interesting. On this point, there is nothing in the approach that needs “curing”, it is already pretty effective, but a few recommendations could perhaps improve it.
“Stop speaking” might be an interesting suggestion. The few examples of actions that occurred during the group discussions, where explanation involved an action (like for Chris Haring’s project), often proved extremely enlightening.
Real and tangible examples are often also a way of quickly explaining concepts that seem a little hazy. The simple physical examples given by Mesut Arslan when he presented his project for a train station immediately explained what had previously seemed very theoretical.
I also think, and this is my personal opinion, that the artists invited to this event would have something to gain from thinking more about the various European languages represented in the network and the issues that this presents in artistic terms. Not in order to avoid an issue by removing words, but to use the notion of translation as a driver for inspiration.
The question of increasingly equal representation of women and minorities remains outstanding and could be worth working on together. The aim would not necessarily be to achieve perfect political correctness in terms of artistic representation, but a proactive policy in this area, particularly with regard to the selection of artists invited, could make them more representative of society, with regard to both gender and ethnic background. The English-speaking world’s approach to political correctness definitely has some annoying aspects, but it has succeeded in increasing the representation of minorities in the world of art.
To me, it was also a shame that we didn't hear more on the positions of programmers and directors, especially when they were introducing the artists that they had invited. Discussions could have more impact if the operators stated more clearly their aesthetic, political and social positions.
I also feel that the artists left a lot of space “around” their projects and this space would be perfectly “filled” by information on the realities faced by programmers, even if the projects do not end up being hosted in this framework. The lack of specific detail in a number of projects would probably have had something to gain from being more often or more quickly linked to the various realities experienced by programmers in their specific contexts.
Finally, I think it would probably be worth raising the question of space for criticism, of feedback that is less systematically “nice”. It seems to me that there is probably a way to open up “rougher” discussions without it all descending into a fist-fight, but this would require the moderators being willing, on occasion, to stir things up. It would probably be good to hear from the external reviewer/reporter before the very end, instead perhaps finishing each day with them, so that they can feed into the next day’s debates.