How Philippe Braquenier’s work exemplifies Europe’s juxtaposing contrasts

Worrying whispers coming through Brexit’s grapevines, ambiguous declarations of Greece’s financial – even humanitarian – crisis finally being over, an impending Italo-Hungarian anti-migration front. One would not be amiss to wonder if Europe is indeed going to the dogs, while deep in the heart of Brussels lies the European Union and institutions, ever-present to its citizens yet seemingly always just out of reach. The young and ambitious Brussels-based architect firm Traumnovelle – consisting of Léone Drapeaud (1987), Johnny Leya (1990) and Manuel León Fanjul (1990) – teamed up with fellow architect and art historian Roxane Le Grelle to initiate Eurotopie, an all-encompassing and interdisciplinary investigation into the “true” nature of the EU, its physical manifestation in Brussels’ European Quarter, and its tenuous relationship with the capital city’s inhabitants. As Traumnovelle’s first financed and selected project for the 16th Venice Biennale of Architecture’s Belgian Pavilion, Eurotopie not only seeks to inspire other architects and space-makers to consider what it actually means to build democracy – both literally and figuratively – but also serves as a call to arms, arousing the sleepy citizens of Europe into a politically committed and engaged population. Read our feature interview with Traumnovelle and Sébastien Lacomblez here.

Born in Mons and educated at Haute École Libre de Bruxelles, Philippe Braquenier (1985) decided to focus on his personal photography after having worked as a photographer’s assistant in an advertising studio for under a decade. As the multidisciplinary project’s resident photographer, we shoot him several questions on being tasked with documenting the European Quarter, from its present state to future possibilities.

How did you become involved in Traumnovelle’s Eurotopie project?

The curating team, including Roxane Le Grelle, were already familiar with my Palimpset project – but beyond that, I’d also previously worked with the uncle of one of Traumnovelle’s founding members, Manuel Léon Fanjul. Manuel was explaining the Eurotopie project to his movie and theatre directing uncle one day, telling him that they were looking for a photographer to collaborate with. He suggested they work with me and put us in touch.

At its core, what is your visual Eurotopie series about? What is its starting point and statement?

It aims to help us think of a new Europe. We know that Europe currently isn’t in prime conditions, with a population split between Eurosceptics and those that are pro-Europe. Brexit is an obvious example of today’s social divisions. With Eurotopie, we wanted to show that Europe is in fact a great idea that should not be abandoned.

Your photography is placed alongside Bruce Bégout’s Journey to Eurotopie, a fictional, utopic account of an improved “New Europe”. How challenging was it to visually document an inexistent utopic future, and how did you go about it?

My goal was to create a new narrative for Europe through my photos that would accompany the fictional text. Journey to Eurotopie starts in the aftermath of a huge European civil war, when the people of Europe are picking up the pieces and looking to re-establish peace. In order to get the perfect shooting conditions to create such a narrative, I had to create a generic kind of imagery, losing any reference to space and time. For every picture, I had to be very patient and must’ve gone to each location at least five times. Additionally, I worked with a 4×5 analog camera using positive film, which made things even more complicated because I had to process them in my basement myself. I had to be really careful because it’s a long and expensive process.

Eurotopie granted you carte blanche when commissioning the photography to you. How much information and material did they give you before you started shooting the photos?

We started to work on the project last year September, so it took half a year in total. There were a lot of meetings between myself, the four curators, the author Bégout and illustrator Claire Trotignon to decide how to approach the topic. The curators made a study group with La Cambre students to gather information on the buildings that make up the EU and to figure out how their institutions works. I did have a specific vision in mind beforehand. We made several visits to the European Quarter before I started shooting and what struck me was the opacity of the buildings. Its interiors are concealed from the outside, which is perhaps telling of its inner workings. This discrepancy is also present in media reports on the EU. So I wanted to explore this notion of order and disorder as well as entropy on a micro- and macroscopic scale. I then remembered an essay I had read a while back, namely the art and film theorist Rudolf Arnheim’s Entropy and Art: An essay on order and disorder. His essay describes patterns that he discerned between entropy, art and architecture, based on the notion of order and disorder, so Arnheim’s piece was highly instrumental.

How did you gain access to the notoriously securitised European institutions?

The project was very well planned, involving a lot of emailing. Gaining access to the buildings required a lot of authorisation. Initially, it was quite difficult but once we found the right contacts, it was easy enough.

Personally, was there anything that struck you while taking the photos?

The complexity and disorder of the European Quarter. It’s enclaved in itself; the people are in a sort of bubble, as is the architecture.

Eurotopie is of the opinion that the EU’s current system is flawed, and that a more participatory and democratic version is possible. Would you agree? And would your vision of a better EU coincide with that of Eurotopie’s?

Yes, absolutely. The project is about being pro-Europe, but in a different way. It’s about rethinking the whole concept. However, I think politics has to first evolve before we can start thinking about a new Europe, as we need to leave behind this oligarchic system that we call democracy. Maybe it’s a dream, but it’s certainly a goal we can try to reach.

Do you have a favourite photograph from the Eurotopie series?

It’s hard to choose only one! I like Tour Madou, it’s definitely in my top five. It highlights a lot of things: the strong hue of blue, which I think reflects EU’s megalomania and the opacity of its institutions well. Espace Léopold is also pretty great. It shows a series of sculptures which were gifted to the EU from Spain when they joined the Union. There are 11 sculptures because that was the number of member states prior to Spain being accepted. I don’t know why, but they’re now trapped and forgotten inside a basement. Another favourite is Berlaymont and its foundations. Overall, with the lack of any reference to space or time, I found the text and images worked really well together. I was able to say a lot with the pictures but Bégout’s text really implies the images’ moods. Not to sound pretentious but I’m really happy with the results!

The project is about being pro-Europe, but in a different way. It’s about rethinking the whole concept.

The Eurotopie project deals heavily with the subject of the EU and its relationship to not only the rest of Europe but also Brussels, and in particular its architecture and cityscape. As a photographer who visually documented this relationship, do you think that the EU and the city of Brussels coexist well? Or is such an institution divisive?

Spatially it does – I saw this with Rue Belliardstraat and Rue de La Loi/Wetstraat. All of its buildings create these corridors of roads running in between them that make it impossible to get to Saint-Josse-ten-Noode or Ixelles. That it spatially divides Brussels is indisputable. But there are also institutional buildings in areas outside of the general European Quarter, so in a way that also connects Brussels instead of dividing it. But in order to know that these buildings exist in the first place, you
really have to search them out for yourself.

Alternatively, Eurotopie deals specifically with EU architecture and its “symbols”. Having visually documented them, do you also feel that they could be improved, and how so?

Yes, completely. Maybe the institutions could try and include a sort of common meeting spot for the people to enjoy the interiors as well, like a restaurant or café. It would improve their public impressions. In fact, that was actually their initial goal. Located on Place du Luxembourg/Luxemburgplein, Espace Léopold’s ground floor was meant to be turned into commercial shops, but after 9/11 the EU decided to increase the building’s security measures and restricted public access to the ground floor instead. It would be great if the Quarter would be more open to the rest of the city again.

Talk to us about your photography approach in general – why the camera? What can you achieve with this medium that you cannot with another?

It’s funny, you’re the second person to ask me that today! I’m never really sure why I chose photography. When I was 15 I started to buy disposable cameras to shoot my friends and such and continued to work with the medium. I don’t really think of a specific medium when I work – the subject determines the medium. Of course, I now mainly use photography, but my first project for example was a crossover between installation and photography. I’d say photography is a cornerstone of my practice, but I am open to exploring other mediums, too.

What characterises your work?

I would probably describe it as conceptual and documentative. I’ve always liked focussing on societal issues in some way shape or form from the very start – I try to really dig in and represent it all. What’s also specific about my work is that I don’t choose topics in a time-scale frame format, they’re always generic in a certain way. End of the day, the main role of art should be to raise questions, and not only on societal issues but also on the medium itself.

How do you actually work on a piece, from start to finish?

I spend a lot of time researching before I begin a project. First, I read a lot, like scientific and journalistic papers, and from this research I find a recurring issue upon which I can focus my photography on. I’d say photography actually only makes up a mere 5% of my work, while 85% is the research involved beforehand and the remaining 10% is spent on editing.

What series are you currently working on?

At the moment I’m working on the project Earth Not a Globe, which deals with “flat Earthers”, a community that believe the Earth to be flat. I’ve been working on it for about a year now and will try to complete the project this December while I finish a two-month residency in Canada. The project incorporates three corpuses: portraits, landscapes and experiments. To try and prove their theories, flat Earthers use a lot of scientific experiments – but only those that suit their cause, which they apply to prove something specific. Their theories are never entirely factual. The aim of my project is to question photography in this “post-truth”, “fake news” era we’re finding ourselves in. Perhaps it’s not much of a coincidence that the idea for Earth Not a Globe came about following the election of Donald Trump. We can’t rely on images for “truth” anymore – even if images have been manipulated for centuries, of course.