Already during his studies in industrial design and philosophy, Ben Meewis (b. 1968) became fascinated by the interfaces between thought, creation and everyday action. Since then, he has steadily developed an unconventional oeuvre that does not take the slightest notice of the traditional dividing lines between disciplines. He blithely combines literature, philosophy, design and the visual arts. Meewis’s sculptures, installations, videos, writings and performances all fit into what he calls his ‘research into the status of the object’. He investigates what is left of the role of the material object in a world that is becoming increasingly virtual and where information is threatening to replace our involvement with matter.
In 2005, the town of Bree invited Ben Meewis to put together a presentation on the theme of ‘taste’ in the context of an exhibition. Meewis chose to set up an artistic participatory project in which the original challenge was handed back to the town itself. Not he, but the citizens of Bree would decide what belonged and what did not belong to ‘the taste of Bree’. For this purpose, the artist organised a so-called ‘hysterical provocation’.
Via a website, publications in various media and personal contacts, the citizens were exhorted to make their own digital photographs and mail them to him.
Meewis then brought them together in a ‘Breese smaakbibliotheek’ (‘Bree taste library’): a box containing two books of pictures. In its workplace capacity, FLACC supported the realisation of these books, which were presented to the public during a three-day event in the former monastery of Bree.
In an interview he gave on 26 August 2005, Ben Meewis gives more details on the project, that was given the title De Smaak van Bree. Whence the emphasis on public participation? ‘People seem to expect an artist to know it all. They want you to produce a bite-size chunk that can be consumed and digested without any problem. Or else your role is reduced to illustrating a story thought up by some
curator or other, or worse, a firm of citymarketing consultants. I want to react to that by saying: try and do it yourself for a change! After all, who am I to decide what is and what isn’t “the taste of Bree”?’
Ben Meewis’s project also rests on several philosophical premises. To start with, along with most contemporary philosophers, he does not see reality as a ready-made given. Reality, or at least, reality to the extent that it is meaningful to us, is a construction. We create meaning ourselves, through our dealings with the world. ‘A farmer who hammers a few piles into the ground to mark out a piece of land, creates a field or pasture. He makes the difference. What I want to achieve among the participants in the Bree project is something similar. Instead of forcing them into the passive roles of spectators and consumers, I create a situation in which they can actively perform an act through which they can develop or adjust their own concept of taste.’
It turned out to be quite hard to persuade people to take part. ‘Passive consumption has become the rule. It takes a lot of energy to get people to break out of that. That’s why I resort to what I call “hysterical provocation”. I ask a question to which there is no cut-and-dried answer.
What is taste? What is the taste of Bree? It overturns common views and definitions and creates a void that produces a degree of friction or irritation. Precisely because of that friction, you might start to become aware of the fact that you can produce meaning through your own actions. You could compare it to the situation of teaching at an art school. The teacher can’t say exactly what he expects from his students, because if he did, he would nip their creativity in the bud. And so he asks a question to which there is no answer. He elicits reactions without being able to foresee their consequences. It is impossible for him to say “seduce me with your work”, but that’s
what it really comes down to.’
Terms like ‘hysterical provocation’ and ‘friction’ sound rather aggressive. In the actual project, however, there was not much aggression. Didn’t the project eventually have to contend mainly with indifference? ‘It used to be possible to be bowled over by art itself, but that is a thing of the past. I don’t want to provoke for the sake of provocation. I deliberately kept the visual design of the project to a bare minimum. Too much emphasis on form would have stood in the way of the participants’ freedom. It was not my intention to steer them in a particular direction.
I tried to create an open situation in which they could actively define the concept of “taste” themselves. That is also why there wasn’t a prize for the best photograph or anything. Otherwise, they would probably only have sent in pictures they thought I would like. The participants did not stand to win or gain anything, except that they might become an artist.’
“By “friction”, I mean that you are forced to undergo things bodily, that you use the experience of your own body. In this age, that has become practically impossible.
Reality itself is becoming increasingly virtual.
More and more things are functioning as purely virtual signs. The material layer is hardly ever perceived anymore.
Even when we are obsessively occupied by our bodies, e.g. in a gym, the body is mainly seen as a sign of something else: health, social status, what have you.’
Meewis launched his call to participate through a website and the participants responded by sending in digital photographs.
In other words, the project was largely realised in a virtual world of bits and bytes. But it was important for the artist that the project got a concrete and material form. The pictures taken by the
participants were printed, bound into two books of A4 format, and the books were placed inside a specially made box. ‘On the one hand, I mainly want to create a situation, set a process of meaning into motion. But on the other hand, it is also
important to have something material afterwards.
I do not consider these books as the definitive form of the project, but rather as something that can be taken further. Something that can serve as a point of departure for continuing the process of creating meaning. This concrete form gives the project a body. That means it becomes vulnerable, that criticism is possible. There is a physical impact.
If the project had remained purely virtual, existing only on the Internet, it would be very easy to ignore altogether, or to recuperate it for something else. If there is one conclusion that can be
drawn from my research into the status of the object, it is this: the more virtual the object, the less resistance or friction it can summon.”