“A masterclass in global art gallery practice.” Elizabeth Dee and Vincent Honoré on Independent Brussels 2018 breaking the art fair mould with performance

“We hope to create an urgency of live events and build a social retreat where people can stay all day”, say founder Elizabeth Ann Dee and independent curator Vincent Honoré, the two forces behind the upcoming art fair Independent Brussels 2018. Ever challenging preconceived notions of art fair and its market rationales, Independent continues to push boundaries this year, notably through the introduction of performance art. In a candid Q&A, the pair discuss the evolution of the art world, the power of performance and the brighter side of curation. The fair opens to the public on Thursday 8th November at Building Vanderborght, and carries on till Sunday 11th – make sure you attend this year’s showcase of international and varied artworks.

Can you talk us through Independent Brussels 2018?

ED: Independent Brussels 2018 is a completely unprecedented edition that brings together new and pre-existing models of the art fair for the first time. This falls at a time when the art world is changing rapidly. We study gallerists with whom we are in contact with on a daily basis, working on ideas of content, taking the social fabrics of Brussels and Europe as a point of departure. It’s a proactive response to the art world in 2018, with an abundance of performance commissions, talks, screenings and the galleries’ nominated projects for 2018.

What do you feel is the art fair’s main statement?

VH: The fair’s main statement is quality and engagement. It’s about bringing a different content, being different and not being afraid of this difference. I’m very excited about the new formula, and how performance art will add to the strong context brought by the galleries.

Speaking more generally on the core Independent art fair framework, are the Brussels and NYC editions considered to be complimentary and coherent, or (excuse the pun) independent of each other?

ED: We are not a New York brand exclusively. With every passing year, the Brussels edition becomes more responsive to its native habitat. The NYC edition is a quiet contemplative oasis removed from the hustle and bustle of the city, but in Brussels we hope to create an urgency through live events and build a social retreat where people can stay all day.

Ola Maciejewska, Loie Fuller: Research (© Martin Argyroglo)

How does the exhibition’s name help to evoke its content?

ED: It’s very helpful that our name infuses artistic freedom, innovation, authenticity and curatorial quality. I think that brings in nominations and presentations from galleries that want to show their top game. In curatorial terms, it’s a self-selected audience who are curious about what there is to learn from us.

How would you describe the majority of the works on show?

ED: Unexpected, fresh, yet creatively influential.

Joan Jonas, Performance Drawing, Reanimation (Tate Live), 2013 (© Amanda Wilkinson Gallery)

From research to scenography, can you discuss the various different people involved in the show?

VH: First of all, I inaugurated a dialogue with Elizabeth and her team – in particular, Laura Mitterrand – to discuss the content and the atmosphere of the fair; its ethics. Then I started to speak with artists to conceive the programme of performances and talks, liaising with galleries, explaining my project and the fair’s profile; it’s uniqueness. Recently, we’ve also started working closely with the fair architect and designer Diogo Passarinho to offer a renewed approach to the building, in tandem with the multiple activities that will take place during this “festival”.

This year’s edition heads into a newfound territory, bridging contemporary art with performance art. What lead you to take this decision?

ED: If successful, this format has the potential to drive the future audience for culture toward quality content, and inspire a somewhat complacent art world. I think other fairs will begin adapting our methods, too.

Elizabeth, why did you decide to entrust the responsibility of curation to Vincent Honoré? How has this collaboration been for the both of you?

ED: Three reasons. First, we felt we needed a curator in closer proximity to Brussels and who is a steady fixture in the local community of galleries, rather than relying on a curatorial outlet headquartered in New York. Secondly, I’ve known Vincent for over a decade now, and admire his expertise in performance art. He possesses a style that is very experiential, emotive and less academic. Lastly and most importantly, we’re aligned in the belief that the fair model is an outdated 20th century dinosaur that needs some evolution: it can be informed by live performance in ways that are provocative. 

VH: Our collaboration has been based on trust and professionalism. I’vee never worked for a fair before, and when Elizabeth contacted me I was immediately seduced by its unique approach and emphasis on the curatorial.

Julie Béna, Soir de Paris, 2017 (© Valentyna Janu)

This year’s Independent Brussels is arguably challenging the notion of the art fair. At what point can you still call it an art fair, as opposed to an outright performance festival?

ED: The exhibition format will be consistent and very international as always. We have roughly the same amount of galleries and the same amount of exhibition spaces in Building Vanderborght , whose exhibition architecture we have rethought and designed. There will be a relationship between the entrance, the ground floor (quite a dramatic space), and the rooftop restaurant .Albert run by Arno Verbeke. Here we’re playing with different moods and experiences between the many floors.

VH: Galleries will be selling works, so it is essentially still an art fair. It’s important to understand that performances will be held on the ground floor and will not necessarily invade the upper floors where the exhibitions take place. Therefore, the visitors will be able to enjoy one, the other or both depending on their interests.

What do you hope viewers will get from visiting the show?

ED: I hope they don’t miss some of my favourite performance artists active today. Oliver Beer, Naama Tsabar and Cecilia Bengolea are doing Belgian debuts of new works. In fact, Naama will also have a show in Israeli gallery Dvir‘s Brussels branch, and a residency at Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens. This is a great example of how we program across the spectrum in partnership with galleries and museums. I’m also super excited about the Joan Jonas and Derek Jarman duo from the London-based Amanda Wilkinson Gallery, so don’t miss this historically relevant show. Galerie Joseph Tang is a really forward-thinking gallery, part of the next generation of Parisian galleries, who will be participating with us for the first time with a performance and exhibition by Julie Béna. He has a great interview in our feature magazine, which you can find here.

VH: I hope visitors will get a range of different and strong aesthetic experiences, from the moving performances by Oliver Beer and Julie Béna, to the humorous sound piece by Laure Prouvost or film by Monster Chetwynd, to the works by Derek Jarman or Jean-Michel Basquiat. The fair will be full of exquisite surprises.

Oliver Beer, Making and Breaking Tristan, 2016. (© Hervé Véronèse)

On a more personal level, how has working on this art fair enriched your understanding of contemporary art more generally?

ED: Independent is a masterclass in global art gallery practice. In one year, one gains expertise that might take a decade of study. Gallerists and artist are our heroes. We work together so closely; the insights are invaluable.

VH: Working closely with artists such as Oliver Beer always enriches your understanding of their work. I also discovered many artists and works I didn’t know, and galleries with which I’m eager to continue a dialogue in the future.

Elizabeth, you are founder of the year-long experimental non-profit consortium X Initiative, which sought to “respond to major philosophical and economical shifts in contemporary art and culture”. Is this approach also applicable to Independent? If yes, what would you identify as today’s major shifts?

ED: Yes, X Initiative was an anti-institution by institutional and gallery forces formed after the global recession in 2008, when the world was going through some major shifts and art was recalibrating. We started in that atmosphere and thrived in those uncertain times. One year later, we created Independent from X Initiative with a gallery-centric approach and strong ties to institutions.

As curators, how do you select the artists whom you’d like to exhibit?

ED: I think we both hunt and solicit conversations. It’s the part I love the most – the idea phase. As for the vetting, I think it has to be done by one person who’s appointed, and that has always been the guest curator.

VH: I start by seeing the works and entering into a dialogue with the artist. Then, you need to find the right context for the invitation to make sense.

Adam Christensen

Vincent, you’ll be moderating an exemplary talk on Saturday 10th November between art directors Dirk Snauwaert, Sofia Hernandez Chong Cuy and François Quintin on “the role of art spaces and their possibilities in today’s global art scene”. In addition to this, there will be a talk on Sunday 11th with writer Elisabeth Lebovici and others. What can we expect from these talks?

VH: I’m inviting very different profiles to come and share ideas and concepts at Independent. We can expect a talk between museum and foundation directors about the future of the institution and how to work with artists and the audience. Elisabeth Lebovici will be speaking about recent art history, namely the 80s and 90s, how the AIDS crisis shaped it, as well as its impact on the current contemporary scene.

Another new feature is to be the tours hosted by a rotating group of museum directors and curators – namely, leading figures of Belgium’s powerhouse museums. What lead you to introduce this activity?

ED: Part of reframing the art fair model is in reshaping the “VIP” programme. Led by Goedele Bartholomeeusen, Monia Warnez and Séverine Delen, we have developed a programme that helps iterate our content through different lenses and further connect our institutional ties. We are patron- rather than sales-focussed, and therefore our target public benefits from digging deeper into these presentations and experiencing points of view from Belgian’s best museums.

Would you say your shows all have somewhat of a common denominator to them? If so, what would it be?

VH: My exhibitions have evolved considerably over the years. Something that remains consistent is the engagement with the audience: I want the visitors to be the authors and actors of my exhibitions.

Derek Jarman, I.N.R.I.

Independent Brussels 2018 runs from Thursday 8th to Sunday 11th November at Building Vanderborght.