Our relationship with Charleroi and its locals was left somewhat shaky after a feature we ran in last year’s Heritage Issue. Conceived as a tribute to the city’s industrial heritage, the piece garnered its fair share of controversy and even a few angry comments. We felt we owed the city a fresh new look and hopped on the Charleroi Adventure minivan for an urban safari. No khaki clothing or pith helmet required – just a simple camera in our hands and eyes wide open.
Words and photography Vincent Duraud
Liv Vaisberg and Nicolas Buissart (who took part in our Follow the Guide exhibition with his much-loved Mayonnaise bracelet), a Belgo-French pair, are the founders of Charleroi Adventure, a quirky concept tour paying tribute to the city’s most desolate and overlooked landmarks. The first stop will drop you right on the tracks of a ‘ghost subway line’, which was built before the authorities realized it was hardly used. Lunch is enjoyed aboard an empty plane, before heading to a slagheap from which one can admire a never-ending landscape of (partly abandoned) factories and warehouses, some of which have now been rehabilitated and are run by art collectives. The guides will point out the fake neon palm trees that clash with the diffuse greyness; they will drive through ‘the most depressing streets in Belgium’… And they will do it all with nothing but love.
Charleroi Adventure is now about a year and a half old and has grown to attract an unexpectedly eclectic crowd. “I first met Nicolas at a gallery opening in Antwerp,” co-founder Liv recalls. “When he told me that he was from Charleroi, I said ‘great, take me there!’” Her enthusiasm wasn’t what Nicolas had been used to in the past, so he took her on a personal tour two weeks later. Liv fell in love with the post-industrial landscape of the city and saw in it a promising potential for the future. Liv further explains: “We decided to organize these ‘safaris’ around the city, but initially envisioned them as an art performance”. In order to attract attention, they chose to adopt a provocative stance; unapologetically admitting it was “for the media stunt”. At first, the Charleroi Adventure website was only available in Dutch, English and German – despite the fact that French is the official language of the region – and, to this day, it opens with the statement that Charleroi is the ugliest city in Europe, as proclaimed by a recent Dutch poll. The pair was aware this would shock the residents of the city and more generally the entire country… And it worked: they benefitted from a wide media coverage – appearing on BBC, The Guardian or France Culture to name but a few – before the safaris had even started.
Nicolas and Liv present these safaris as a ‘voluntary art project’. At first there wasn’t even any organisation to speak of, just a small van and big ideas. Then they started doing tours specifically targeting amateur photographers, and this gave the project even more scope. “We’ve seen posh Dutch couples climbing up the charcoal hill in their Tod’s shoes or professional photographers coming along”, adds Liv. She had always wanted to organise tours around industrial areas such as the Ruhr region in Germany and Nicolas was keen on placing his hometown firmly on the map. Yet similarly to the colonialist connotation which safaris carried in Africa, these urban tours have been met with a great deal of negative reactions. “Yet to me,” says Liv, “Charleroi possesses an industrial heritage worthy of UNESCO. At first, people did not realise that we actually like this city and are not trying to ridicule it. When there’s an interesting festival taking place, we take our visitors there. Many cities like Berlin or Leipzig have used art in their industrial areas and, in doing so, have emerged stronger yet.” In that respect, they believe they have managed to help the city, as demonstrated by the recent creation of art residency Hotel Charleroi, or the fact that three music videos were shot there since. They even created T-shirts specially for the occasion, which say “Ik hou van Charleroi’, i.e. ‘I love Charleroi’.