An interview with Wiels curator Devrim Bayar about her project Le Salon

A firm favourite among followers of Brussels’ art scene, Le Salon has became the go-to website for original photo reportage, features and interviews on local and international contemporary art. Founder Devrim Bayar developed the project with graphic design kingpins Donuts and friends Virginie Devillez, Martin Laborde and Valerie Verhack. She has also spent the last six years as curator of Brussels’ leading contemporary art institution, Wiels, where she mans the gallery’s residency programme, alongside her role as art teacher at renowned city academy La Cambre. Le Salon’s success all comes down to a unique and knowledgeable take on art shows both in Brussels and abroad, all presented in a suitably stylistically-savvy format. As the website celebrates its first birthday, Bayar fills us in on the driving forces behind the project, some of Le Salon’s most important gigs, and her own influences as the project’s original creative force.

So, tell us about how Le Salon came about.

Le Salon is a combination of all my past experiences; my job as curator here at Wiels and my work at CODE Magazine. CODE started here in Brussels. When some friends finished their studies at La Cambre they felt that there was no real support available for the young local art scene, and thought it would be nice to have a free magazine that could present – in a very simple and attractive way – the works of young, local artists.

How did you get involved with CODE?

It was back then I was a student studying art history in New York. When I returned, friends asked me to join their team as editor-in-chief. They were all artists and needed someone with experience in writing and editing, so I developed CODE with them over the next four or five years. Our openings and readings were filled with people, and there was strong support for the whole project. After five years of volunteer work, we began moving in different directions, getting tired of the effort involved in publishing a magazine and having no money to work with. We also didn’t want to sell too much advertising because we had a very strong idea of what we wanted and didn’t want. CODE still exists which is nice for us – some contributors took the project to Paris and have renamed the magazine CODE 2.O.

Did you also spot a gap in the market for Le Salon?

Yes, when CODE went to Paris this gap appeared again. I also realised that it was tricky for international artists coming to Brussels to get information about what was going on here. There are some good art newspapers and magazines, but they’re either entirely in Dutch or French. They’re also not freely distributed. From my own experience of working and browsing the Internet all day, it was the perfect place to document art and share information. It’s also much cheaper than printing a magazine.

And, of course, distribution…

Exactly. So, instead of creating a new kind of CODE, I decided to do something online with the possibility of doing projects. That’s how the idea of Le Salon was born.

How is curating online different from in a physical space?

I’m glad you refer to it as “curating”, because it really is a curated project, in the same way that a magazine is curated by an editor. Le Salon was an important name because it also refers to a physical space, a sense of gathering people together. We used a friend’s apartment in the Tour Albert, the highest neighbourhood in Brussels, to launch the website last year. Le Salon is about sharing experiences with other people, so we didn’t want to just make an announcement online. One of the problems with websites and magazines is that everyone works behind a computer and never gets a chance to actually meet and exchange ideas in real life.

Is the website’s name a comment on that?

The name was inspired by nineteenth-century Parisian salons, artists gathered to share what they do. At CODE Magazine the aim was to be mainstream; readable by large audiences. In contrast, the idea for Le Salon was to narrow down the readers to people who already have knowledge of art. It’s more intimate. It also gives us greater freedom to feature projects that are little bit more hybrid. There are classical reviews, but there are also artist projects.

Tell me about some of the projects.

We organised an exhibition for Brussels Art Days. Attention at that time of year is focused on the commercial part of the art scene – the galleries. We wanted to create an event with people working in the non-profit part, an incredibly active and important part of any art scene. We invited three groups, and gave them carte blanche to do whatever they wanted. We also invited a small Brussels-based group who distribute a lot of artist editions and fanzines to present a selection for people to buy during the show.

What websites inspire you?

In terms of content one is definitely Tim Barber’s Tiny Vices, a New York photographer. He uploads portfolios of his favourite artists. Because he’s good friends with hip artists like Ryan McGinley, Tiny Vices got a lot of attention. I also check Contemporary Art Daily – their selection is excellent. Unlike Le Salon it’s much more neutral as they get galleries to send them images, but this means that you can visit shows from your laptop.

In Le Salon you can display lots of different media within the same kind of structure – how did you develop that idea?

It took some time for me to develop the concept. I knew I couldn’t do it on my own, so I talked with Donuts, friends who are graphic designers. They’re known locally for their collaborations with artists – even though they also do projects for big companies like Delhaize, they do artist books and websites for galleries. They came up with the visual identity and layout of the website – they really understood what Le Salon could be visually. I wanted something that wasn’t too flashy and distracting, but allowed the reader to focus on what is written and shown. That’s why they came up with the idea of having a front cover like a newspaper. To me, it looks a little bit like the New York Times.

So the Inserts section was born, featuring those mad stereoscopic .gifs from Nicolas Bourthoumieux, a video by Benoit Plateus, and a lecture by Eric Thys on space and the soul.

We imagined it like an insert from a magazine. I worked on finding collaborators for the website. Most of them are very good friends, which is often the case when you work without money and in such a small city. I contacted my friend Virginie Devillez, an art historian who works at the Royal Fine Arts Museum in the archives. She has access to an incredible number of documents relating to the past of the local art scene, and an incredible knowledge of its history. We try to include things that are meaningful to what’s going on right now. There aren’t so many yet, but we’re working on it.

Many of your writers are artists and curators themselves – Rebecca Lamarche Vadel, Michaele Van den Abeele, Robert Suermondt, and Aline Bouvy to name a few. Anything for novices?

It’s people in art, but it’s not only for established artists. It’s definitely meaningful for people who have a certain knowledge or references in contemporary art. For others it might be a little bit obscure or complicated. Of course, we try to have a variety of contributions; texts that can be more theoretical or more analytical and then to have others like photo reportage that’s much easier to understand and perceive as an inexperienced.

In your studio visit with Harold Ancart, you discuss his move to New York and choice to live in Brooklyn. Do you think Brussels could ever have the same mythology surrounding it that Brooklyn has?

At the moment Brussels definitely has a mythic quality. I also like the mongrel feel to the city. When you come from here you might not realise it because you can easily get bored in a city that’s small and rainy where people are always complaining. It can feel like the city doesn’t have big ambitions or is glamorous, which is true in a way – but at the same time it has a very long and very interesting history with art deco, art nouveau, and with music.

Brussels might be considered a work-in-progress whereas Berlin, for example, is definitely growing less and less rough around the edges…

More and more people in the art world are getting tired of Berlin. It’s beautiful and seducing and cool, but when you’re a professional artist, being cool and young is not your aim for the rest of your life. I hear more and more that instead of relocating to Berlin people are relocating to Brussels.

What are you working on at the moment?

We actually don’t have anything planned for the birthday – we’re all so busy. I want to do something very small with Le Salon, but at the moment since I’m curating a big show here at Wiels I don’t have the time to work on it. We all have full-time jobs – this is our hobby.