Lara Almarcegui, Julia Rivera, Pepo salazar and Jorge Satorre stayed one month in the FLACC in Genk. "Artist in residence" is in a certain sense the contemporary sequel to what used to be called the "Prix de Rome" (the Rome Prize). This renowned institution awarded generous scholarships to talented artists which allowed them to perfect themselves in what was apparently considered to be the Mecca of the arts. The choice of Rome coincided with many factors, such as the presence of Antiquity, the attraction of the Italian Renaissance, and the prestige of the oldest academy, the Accademia di San Luca. The creation of the Prix de Rome was linked to the foundation of the famous Ecole de Rome in 1666 by Louis XIV as advised by Colbert. It followed shortly on the 1663 foundation of the Académie royale de peinture et sculpture in Paris.
Academies replaced the antiquated guild-body with its cumbersome monopoly. The new system represented an emancipation of the arts. Art for the sake of art became conceivable. To that end the Prix de Rome fulfilled a pioneering role to a certain extent, albeit dubiously. We need only to look at the 19th century: from the Ecole de Rome emerged such painters as Géricault, Delacroix, Millet, Corot, Daubigny on the one hand (and from Belgium Antoine Wiertz for example), but on the other hand also Cabanel, Bouguereau, and Gérôme. Progressive or conservative? In the Nintheenth Century the school of Rome was then the actual centre of the arts. The fact that the Prix de Rome has an oldfashioned ring in our ears is due to the fact that this custom has far outlived itself. It did after all act as a break on all innovation. It was one of the many institutions that forgot to extinguish itself in a timely fashion.
The time of there being one centre of the arts has today definitively passed. Almost all over the world there are "centres" where one encounters the same art. In order to view a work by Beuys or Buren, one needn't travel to Darmstadt or Paris. It makes no difference whether one visits the museum of Möchengladbach or of Bilbao. That which presents itself as new or young talent, spreads worldwide on the same day. During their stay in Genk the artists visited the exhibition on the Nineties in Belgium. Once upon a Time (MUHKA). According to their own accounts they encountered much the same kind of artworks as can be seen in Barcelona, New York or Berlin. In other words, "elsewhere" no longer exists. The question therefore also arises as to the relevance of an institution such as the "artist in residence". It should ask of itself the question that the Prix de Rome had forgotten. Is this custom passé in our fast world, even before it has been properly integrated?
Until now the most desired destinations for artists to reside where P.S. 1 in New York and Bethaniën in Berlin. P.S. 1 appears to have drawn its conclusions now. It prefers to annul its own existence, at least as an "artist in residence" programme. From the Seventies it offered young artists the possibility to reside in New York for a year. Discovering the city and its art scene was an attraction-pole for decades. The virtual network has however fundamentally cast this in doubt. Web traffic is today's mode of transportation. The old-fashioned modes of transport, be it airplane or high-speed train, and the medievel sounding "lodging" (even though we now call it residing) have been surpassed.
Is this conclusion fair? In this case, more concretely: is the virtual effectively our new reality, truer than the socalled genuine reality that western metaphysics has been wanting to identify? Or does the "physical" residence of the artist on a material place still have possibilities that P.S. 1 has overlooked? Has our physical implication become completely irrelevant?
When the FLACC invites four extremely young artists to stay and work together for one month, it is with the exact aim to ponder this question: what relevance could an "artist in residence" project still have today? The result of their stay has paradoxically become a "classical" museum exhibition. The artists have in no way responded to the local context or produced site specific work. They have chosen to make "oeuvre". They have avoided the booby-trap of direct commentary. This contradiction is interesting: residing at a specific site and deliberately withdrawing oneself from the offered context at hand.
Of course, Genk isn't Rome, Paris, Berlin or New York. It lacks the metropolitan context, in which contemporary art is rooted. The train journey from Brussels to Genk takes almost as long as it once did by horse and cart. For whoever does eventually reach the station, first impressions must be puzzling. Any search for the city centre is in vain. The centre is a motorway, adjoining a main shopping street and a market. The church tower stands shoulder to shoulder with the shopping centre, as if one religion had effortlessly taken over from the other. Boring social housing projects, intimate workers' housing and enclosed villa areas run through one another. There is no centre point from which you can explore the periphery in a concentric fashion. This city, that it still has to become, is clearly the product of uncoordinated decisions, or of rapid haste or speedy growth. The disorganised urban structure and the architectural disharmony testify to steps in procedures that have been omitted. It is a broken up puzzle without a clear pattern. Disparity beats concentration. Without being particularly spread out, everything seems to be far removed from everything else. Moreover Genk is caught in the impasse between a past, the mining history that is definitively over, and a new position that it still has to find. But precisely this makes the city is so unique, or rather estranging. Temporariness or liminality makes it the true embodiment of post modernity itself. With some exaggeration Genk coud be called a post-modern artwork, be it for the fact that you cannot pin it down. The many faces of Genk can be found in another way in its constituent population. Genk is a typical mulitcultural city and strives feverishly for a modus vivendi with this plurality.
All these factors: the heterogeneity, the mulitifariousness, the openness, the hybrid, the temporary, are recognisable characteristics, which can also be found in contemporary art. In this sense it could be that an artwork has nothing to add to Genk. The city is in itself a post-modern phenomenon. The heterogeneity that an artwork could contribute to the fabric of a city is already present here in abundance. If it is so that art works are there to help people lose their way in the world, this loss of direction is of itself intrinsic to Genk. Through art works, artists attempt to introduce an interference to the restrictive logic of a city. But Genk possesses no logic. It is inconsequentiality brought to life. In no other city are art works as excessive in public space as they are precisely here. They are superfluous here. The city requires no disturbing factors. could it be that the artists, after exploring the area, came to this conclusion? In any case they wisely left the city to its own devices.
The desire to produce oeuvre can however be understook in a different way, namely, as an independent phenomenon. Perhaps its origins lie not in Genk's refusal to lend itself to artistic interventions, but in a desire on the part of the artists to bypass commentary as such.
Their stance recalls reminiscences of what occurred at the end of the nineteenth century. Already one decade after the first appearance of impressionism the major motivation of many artists was how to escape from it without neglecting its value? This was the major challenge from around 1885 onwards. Its ephemeral and superficial nature called a steadfast art into being, an art "for the museums", comprising more than a fleeting, passing experience. To this end Seurat turned to that which according to him offers the greatest guarantee of certitude, science. No more randomness or coincidence, but solidity and durability, because one drawq on certitydes with an eternal value. At the same moment symbolism took root in all of Europe. It wished to break with the impressionism of the spirit. The emphasis of the subkect matter returned triumphantly, the narrative and even the mythological were restored in their former right. Art should be about somethin, the place of the human being in the world, the major existetial questions, and not only about the laqs of painting itself. In orther words, it was an entirely opposite reaction to that of Seurat. Buth both had a repulsion for the academic in common, and their disre to esape impressionism to which thay simultaneously owed so much. At the beginning of the twentieth century, where dozends of minor masters were enthusiastically but also quite desperately practising impressionism, all efforts were directed tothe cration of post-impressionism. Finally Cezamme forced a breakthrough with his Bathers and landscape paintings of the Mont Ste Victoire (1902-1906), which offered a way out for the following 50 years for art: "the whole op modern painting is contained in the studio of Paul Cézanne" (Marcelin Pleynet).
One could ask oneself whether a recent history of post-modernism doesn't respond according to exactly the same pattern. The aversion of modernism, comparable with the then dislike of academism, is an important motor of that. Modernism, with its religious-like belief in art that has been unable to distance itself from its desire for the absolute, for truth, for dogmas, is left on the wayside. An urge for fragmentation, crumbling, insecurity, indeterminacy, falsehoods, floods the artistic landscape. This health cure has certainly had its impact. But could it be that now the whole question being posed again for a post-post-modernism?
Site specific or contextual art is after all linked to that whole precedent period. It is a typical product of it. An artwork that only makes statements that are valid for that particular angle of that particular street, automatically only has the limited use-by date so typical of post modernism. It is emblematic of difference, or of fragmentation. It is not transferable, nor is it connected to a greater whole. Its theatrical immediacy does not locate itself in any aesthetic.
Could it be that these four young artists have kept themselves deliberately uninvolved with the context which offered itself as the nth easy prey to temporarily be a parasite to? Does this partially explain their exodus from the site-specific?
If they would have given in to their desire for an "oeuvre" earlier, this would obviously have been without relapsing into the modernist belief in the "genial" artist, the demiurge, as Julia rivera likes to label him. Modernist artists were builders of worlds, who claimed to be contributing to the organisation of the cosmos and to be located somewhere between gods and human beings.
They are all four of them anti-demiurgic: such is their loyality to the recently enforced dismantling of the artist-as-prophet. They refuse to take on the role of the clairvoyant. The serendipitous, the playfulness, the inserious (or the not too serious), the event, the possible, all replace the impossible, the grand ideas, the public vistas, the absolute proclamations. This does however not prevent them from aspiring to an "oeuvre".
But there is still a third possibility. A number of the works presented here can be interpreted as an indirect commentary or a subtle response by the artists to their "artistic residence".
The drawings that Pepo Salazar made are no doubt the most eloquent example of this. He considered the FLACC as a work space, more still as the scriptorium of a monastery, where, one month long, he could carry out his monk's work. Instead of being a base from which to explore the fascinating outside world, the FLACC became a sort of retrenchment. With endless patience ("like an animal", he says himself) he drew small, barely visible lines on large white sheets of paper, with a transparant marker. The effect is that of a colourful rainfall, in its constancy just as monotonous as the existence in the scriptorium. This is how a month in Genk is compared to a rainy day, which is spent staring out of the window, aimlessly, waiting for some occurrence or other which never takes place. The image is just as absurd as a screensaver, with its empty message that only appears when nobody is looking at the screen. It sets into motion when we remove ourselves from the screen in order to stretch our legs, to drink a glass of limonade or to answer the telephone. Salazar underscores the screensaver quality of these "drawings", in other words, their absurdity, by the rather clumsily placed spotlights, which are part of the game like a theatre set and seem to be saying: this is just a construction. Do not read this as an oeuvre, even though it looks like one. but as an absurd way of killing time sensibly.
The delimitation of unused terrain is not the same gesture whether it happens in Rotterdam or in Genk. While the activity of Lara Almarcegui during her residency in the FLACC appears to be the continuation of her earlier procedures, this is in fact not the case. In Amsterdam her work consisted in cataloguing a number of vacant spaces, in order to compose an atlas of the Wasteland. In Rotterdam she took one vacant terrain in the harbour area into protection, as if it were a species threatened with extinction. Whatever managed to escape the construction, demolition and organisation fury of architects, urbanists, planners and speculators, she protects from devastating interventions. She emphasises the freedom (threatened with extinction itself?): this piece of sand, grass, hedge, and weed can still follow its course undisturbed. In this way she nurtures the fragile life in a world that is monopolised by bulldozers and cranes. In Genk this gesture takes on a wholly different significance, namely a pars pro toto . The situation in Genk on the whole has everything of a wasteland. Isolating a vacant terrain there is to hold up a mirror to Genk in which it sees itself. In Rotterdam this goes against the grain; it is a protest. The irony of the delimited patch of land seems like the lonely act of resistance by the sole protester laying himself in front of the tanks. It has the charm of the weakling wanting to deter the relentless march of higher powers.
In Genk there is more of an homage, a show of respect. It seems as if no one has ever had a hand in this city. As if all the heterogeneous, spread out, irregular forces have been permitted to express themselves. The urban anarchy has all the characteristics of a natural wasteland: that which escaped the attention of planners and demolition workers and slipped through the meshes of the organisational net. If Genk possesses the more profound seduction of a vacant terrain, every drastic intervention by the artist would have the same effect as the censorious meddlesomeness of the urbanist. The site-specific artwork would attribute itself unacceptable pretences or in the best case appear pale or comical against the backdrop of a context that is already unusual or whimsical of itself. The artwork is no worthy opponent of the bizarness of the city. "Hands off": the chosen empty terrain seems rather to be an admonition in that sense; literally, a monument.
Julia Rivera concentrates on the tension between mental and genuine space. Wherever one is, it is always possible to be somewhere else. The confrontation between true mobility of the mind and merely moving about or being somewhere physically, begs the question of the sense of this and similar residential invitations. The objects in which one fixes oneself, place the link to particular place in a stark light. The space, delineated by lines on the ground and on the walls is like the folding shape of a box in which one is enclosed like a bird. The notion of pattern obtains a double meaning here. It is the model of which shapes and sizes are drawn out beforehand in such a way that the execution can merely follow this example dutifully. The inclination to live according to fixed patterns of thought, that in each situation classify the data of the moment according to a fixed order, leaves no room for divergent views. The paralytic effect of such a manner of working is fatal, both for art as for life. The interference of the routine status quo is after all the role of art. The unpredictable keeps life in motion.
This calls up questions about the mental delimitations that are imposed by the vague parameters in which art can be practised. The risk of context-based art is thus revealed. The context can be a hindrance, an alibi for allowing oneself to be mentally constrained. If art allows itself to be too far led by circumstances at hand, the parameters within which it can play, are already drawn. How free is its play then? Each local situation is of course different. The response to this difference automatically gives the art a self-satisfied trait of differentiation, precisley the current measure of things today. In this way art threatens to remain within its self-imposed boundaries. Does it then not become a reflection of teh apparent freedom that typifies our society?
Jorge satorre used his stay in the FLACC to produce a video, his first experiment with this medium. This recording could have been made anywhere in the world. A landing spot for a helicopter is marked in sawdust. However, before the helicopter has landed, the turbulence created by its airscrew has long blown away this symbol. The uninterrupted repetition of this same occurence possibly makes this piece of autodestruction even more absurd. It has something desperate about it.
The search for a landing spot (a heliport) can have manifold meanings. The particularity of the human condition is the un-housedness of his situation, the desire to feel at home in a world from which he is irrevocably detached. Man and world have become separated through consciousness, but man is also tied for life to the inextinguishable desire to restore this unity. A place, a habitat keeps on having to be created by reconciling oneself with this inhospitality.
For this standpoint it was positively unnecessary to come to Genk. But it is precisely this tension that can be taken for an ironic commentary on the residence of the artist at this place. Landing at a strange place is a metaphor in itself; but in this case it is a literal instance: the search for a landing place through the construction of a durable sign, which also persists in memory afterwards. Of this passage (by the artist) nothing will remain. No trace, other then the dust particles, transported onwards by the wind and the elements, shaken up, disappeared. The welcoming becomes inhospitable. The ephemeral vanguished the enduring. Did it really happen or was it a dream? ("life is a dream and the dream is itself a dream")