“I walk around, I ask a lot of questions, and I’m as naive as possible.” Bert Villa on human design and rediscovery

The best things in life are free, and that includes the annual art festival PLAN B in the rural town of Bekegem in West Flanders. As a counterweight to the numerous expos and performances one finds in urban cities, PLAN B gives young and emerging artists the opportunity to create an artistic free space in this not-so-common scenery. Through residencies, they enter into a dialogue with this environment and its inhabitants, showcasing their results between 1st and 2nd September. During these two days, various art forms will be explored, boundaries will be crossed and the unexpected is to be expected as Belgian artists and creatives from further abroad will showcase new and existing work. We’ve selected five artists and projects you cannot miss.

After obtaining a degree in architecture at Ghent’s Sint-Lucas, Bert Villa (1991) has been moving between different forms of practising architecture. Nowadays, his works are a combination of durable and temporary projects in which he studies the link between design and the human body and mind.

At its core, what is your work about? How would you describe it?

Starting from a fascination with low and high technology, anthropology and the appropriation of space, I try to involve myself in engaging installations, temporary living structures and public space interventions. I still have no idea where my exact focus lies in, and have a childlike attention span catapulting me from one admiration to another. I’m trying to construe a constructive method from this, at some point. The last year has been a mix of working in architecture offices, participating in collective projects and creating some solo work.  When working in an architecture office, you quickly stumble upon the realities and limitations of creativity in the overly-regulated field of architecture in Belgium. The genius, I guess, lies in the wriggle room of creativity that presides, where a surprising crafty result remains possible. Working on small-scale projects, often temporary and participatory, generate a different and straightforward approach in which you can experiment much more easily.

Can you talk to us about your approach in general?

Recently, I started to develop an interest in the roots of design, and started looking into it as an extension of the human body and mind. It’s all around us and never seems to end; layers upon layers upon layers. Trying to untangle it and meanwhile getting lost in this web is a lot of fun and immensely inspiring. That’s where I usually start, asking myself, “What does a certain object mean in different contexts? How did it come into place, or even, how did it shape that place?” For a residency at the Antwerp-based Underground School of Contemporary Art, I started the Office for Retrograde Investigations. I went to an office every day, drawing and redrawing specific objects in that environment to get an understanding of the multitude of explanations shaping something the way it is. By looking at a finished object with wide eyes, trying to figure out what the initial need for this could have been, new connections come about between those initial needs and other answers and meanings. That’s what reverse engineering does: extracting knowledge from the object and building a hypothesis in an almost scientific way to reveal its build-up and purpose.

What characterises your work?

I would like to think there’s authenticity in it, rooted in history and people. I really enjoy work that’s quite personal but also somehow moves people on a global level. Last summer, I worked with the collective Constructlab on a project called The Arch. We designed and built a living support structure on a former mining site in Genk, which acted as a social and experimental laboratory welcoming in the public, co-developing an inclusive art installation. This was a beautiful example of people from different backgrounds, each with their own expertise and wishes, coming together and creating a new collective narrative. So much energy was evoked and all of that is captured in a new remaining structure.

How do you actually work on a piece from start to finish? And how did you start making your specific piece for PLAN B?

I walk around, I ask a lot of questions, and I’m as naive as possible. Consciously being naive is one of the greatest perks we have as humans and is what distinguishes us from other species. So we should cherish it. For Plan B, running around the village, reading up on its history and talking with its locals are central. It’s a treat to get to work in this cool environment with such an attentive organising team. The whole process evolves so much more smoothly and organically because of that.

What were your initial thoughts and expectations on Bekegem? Did they change, and how do you plan to counter them?

I expected a lot of cows, and Leontien Allemeersch showed me at least 10, although it was a pity we didn’t find the donkey. I find that Plan B’s general idea of attracting (mostly urban) artists to a small village, and bringing the work back to an urban context later is interesting. The urge to escape to the countryside is also a funny phenomenon: it’s hugely romanticised, including in my head. To go from one extreme to another, from city to nature, from constant to zero distraction. Little villages like Bekegem search for the place in between. I expected Bekegem to have an even more rural identity than it actually does, with no more than a few farms, when in fact there are small signs of urban life and civilisation everywhere. This helped me think of an idea for my project quite quickly: what were the essential elements of our settlements and how do they manifest themselves now in our present world?

How do you translate your work to this village?

Being in Bekegem, surrounded by the countryside and obvious elements of the typical Belgian urban sprawl, it pushed me to dig deeper into the understanding of the tracing of human settlements. I want to work with the signals of civilisation: what were the essentials of a human shelter? How does this translate to our way of living now? Following in the footsteps of Vitruvius in his understanding of fire as a destructive but also sustaining element. In the past, fires have caused disasters that generated assemblies of primitive humans living in the woods as foragers to flee, originating language as they had to learn to communicate and eventually even sparked the building of huts and forming of communities. In all of this, fire returned as an organising element that eventually provided heat and helped with the preparation of food. It would be interesting to somehow single out such an element with a lot of weight to it, then leaving it open for interpretation again.

How is making a piece in a rural environment different from working in an urban setting?

Each setting has its own essence. A rural environment has a connotation of a more primal existence, which of course is attractive in itself. Living there and being content with a feeling of self-sufficiency and self-fulfilment, not having to rely on others. Figuring out stuff on your own. I agree with Eileen Gray’s point that the human needs to be discovered again and that the whole point of design is to offer this gesture of rediscovery to the users, who will paradoxically finally feel human in being at once extended and completed. Figuring out your own stuff and living on the land allows this rediscovery to happen more easily, and allows a more independent kind of experimentation, as opposed to one in an urban setting where there’s a lot of “noise”. Bringing this self-sufficient mindset back to the city is wonderful –  for instance, street life in Istanbul is very active, even though there’s a large shortage of free and open public space. And yet fish is still being caught and cooked on rocket stoves, with impromptu community dinners constantly being organised.

What series and / or project are you currently working on?

This year Lydia Karagiannaki and I are residents at De Koer. Acting as a team of archaeologists, we dig through those layers of the building’s substance, as well as the layers of social networks wrapped around De Koer. By being part of its day-to-day life, we can discover old stories and unravel odd parts of the building. True facts merge with fiction. Real findings mix with interventions. Recently, through the making of new building bricks composed out of traces found on site at De Koer, we made a connection between the archaeology of the past and future. Furthermore, this summer I’m preparing a few projects with the collective Constructlab for Istanbul Design Biennale, helping out with the 019 collective and building a house with/for Jan Dekeyser.

Talk to us about the people around you, your local scene. To what extent does it inspire and influence you?

I get very excited about seeing all the motivated initiatives in our region, not throwing in the towel when the going gets tough but instead making it happen with a group of friends. For instance, it will be interesting to follow up on how the new Kunsthal Gent by 019 in the Caermersklooster is going to shape itself in the coming years. Also in Ghent, it’s exciting to follow what the future will bring for the fly-over highway bridge.

The way De Koer, a community-driven cultural gathering space in Brugse Poort is developing is beautiful to watch. It’s going to be very interesting to see the process of reshaping the building. Not only will it be built in a participatory function, but the design phase itself will also be as inclusive as possible.

In Brussels, the redevelopment of the canal area up to the Northern Quarter is moving fast, and it’s great to see how 51N4E intertwines with the work of AWB (amongst others) and architecture students from Sint-Lucas.

Which Belgian artists do you follow, look at for inspiration? Either from the past or the present.

Sybren Vanoverberghe and I recently discovered a common ground, which we’re looking to explore soon. I like Bert Jacobs‘ variety of works, it shows an interesting curiosity which he expresses in quirky combinations. He was also part of Plan B two years ago. Finally, I stumbled into a back room when the S.M.A.K. was closing a few months back, and finally saw Nicolas Provost’s Plot Point. It completely blew me away.

On a more personal note, how does your every day inform your work?

I like to dig into technology, science and design review magazines, or watch how five artificial intelligence bots work together to defeat a world champion team of gamers. But then on another day, I would enjoy shovelling some earth, making mixes of mud, and trying to figure out how ancient builders made bricks completely from scratch. However, I’m still working, as a lot of people are, on how to balance this with a job that probably doesn’t allow you to just dig into whatever you think is interesting. Let’s see.

What does success look like to you?

Having a farm, with a donkey, wearing a silver and gold cape every day.

To you, what role should contemporary art occupy in the community?

It should speak! Have a message! Spark excitement! Cause controversy! Create activity! There’s so much blandness around us.

Art festival PLAN B will be taking place on the 1st and 2nd of September, in and around Bekegem. Additionally, an extra exhibition in which the works are reinvented will take place from 20 to 23 September at Gouvernement in Ghent.