“I would like to interrupt today’s machine gun of images for a moment.” Oona Libens’ questioning of today’s imagery

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.

Originally from Ghent, Oona Libens (1987) specialises in multimedia performances and is fascinated by media-archaeology and the history of motion pictures and the dialogue between these two. Now, she moves between Brussels and Sweden whilst working with the concept of body-focussed performances and shadowplays in performances that can only be understood once they are witnessed. Here, she explains how she would like to redefine the current conception of imagery.

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

In essence, it’s a desire to study the movements and textures of light and shadow. Mostly, I make multilayered performances which you really should see live to fully understand. I’ve tried to describe it in many different ways: semi-scientific object theatre, analogue powerpoint presentations, visual music, media-archaeological phantasmagoria… But I think these formulations confuse people more than they explain the idea — which perhaps is a good thing. The performances are documentative in style. Scientific topics — the sea, the universe, time — are illustrated with light and shadows. Scientific facts get mixed up with more poetic ideas; it’s not an exact science really. In the end, it’s more a reflection of being human, rather than a scientific documentary.

I use home-made lamps and several primitive and analogue projection techniques such as 16mm film, slide projections and episcopes which I manipulate on stage. It’s a hybrid between film and theatre. My work should be seen more in the tradition of moving image and media history, rather than an example of puppet theatre, for instance (even if there is an affinity with it too). I try to make references to both historic and recent media phenomena. Lately, I’ve also made two-dimensional work in the form of photograms: photographic images created without film directly in the darkroom. For me, this technique is a way to materialise the fleeting character of the shows. In both I use light, shadows and objects to make images, using light-sensitive paper for the photograms, while in exhibitions it remains ephemeral.

What is its starting point and statement?

In the 18th and 19th century, new scientific discoveries were presented to big audiences in popular science shows. They were illustrated with the help of early projection techniques such as the magic lantern and optical trickery, phantasmagorias. I’ve adopted this kind of theatrical, educational form of lecture and used it as a starting point to build the rest of the show upon. I try to figure out the meaning of different imaging techniques throughout history; shadow theatre as the most primitive kind of film, to today’s image-based society, where social media have become tools for self-confirmation and our private lives are uploaded to the internet as a film.

I often ask myself what the meaning of an image is today. We see thousands of pictures flickering by non-stop each day, but in the end, none of them really make a lasting impression. I would like to interrupt this machine gun of images for a moment and dissect them into very simple components. I want to expand our experience of the screen. The entertainment machine that I create on stage is slow, it hesitates, fumbles and fails.

What characterises your work?

I guess there is a certain fragility and craftsmanship to it, a tactile, mechanical approach to a sometimes immaterial technology.

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 work very intuitively and jump from one thing to many others, back and forth. It can go on like this for a while before the idea materialises. I collect information, write texts, experiment with visual ideas and construct objects. Slowly the puzzle becomes clear and forms a coherent whole. Usually, I make the music and soundtrack at the end.

For PLAN B, I am making some new, site-specific light and shadow installations. I hope to be able to use sunlight and outdoor settings, but I need a plan B in case it turns out to be cloudy. I want to make people discover the play of light themselves, so there will be an element of activation in it as well.

What is, in your opinion, inspiring about Bekegem’s rural context?

The fields, the cows, the somewhat odd architecture and bushes cut in perfect geometrical forms. It’s funny that in many rural villages, being that bit closer to nature, people do their best to keep their gardens as well-trimmed and artificial as possible. I like the fact that I’ll be confronted with another kind of audience: there’s often times a more down-to-earth approach among village residents. When working in a smaller community people often like to engage in a project. It’ll be interesting to cross-over this pragmatic manner with more idealistic, head-in-the-clouds artists.

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

For me, it’s liberating to get out of the confining settings of white cubes and black boxes — even though it can be more difficult because there aren’t really any neutral spaces (white walls, white light). It’s a challenge to make sure the work doesn’t get lost in the surroundings, that it’s fully appreciated as a work by itself; but that it contributes to its surroundings, too.

Do PLAN B and Bekegem lie outside of your comfort zone, and do you happen to have a step-by-step approach getting out of it?

Not really. I’ve actually participated in similar happenings in the countryside or remote villages in Sweden and Norway. I really enjoy making or adapting my work to a specific place. It makes more sense to me than restricting yourself to “traditiona”’ art spaces. I find that the art world today is becoming more and more categorised, while it should be doing the opposite. I think we really need to take art to new atypical places and to new audiences.

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

Right now I’m working on a new show about the human body, inspired by the concept of pharmakon, meaning both remedy and toxin; a notion which has two opposite meanings at the same time. It’s used in media theory as a metaphor for digital media: it can be a useful tool, and a consuming addiction alike. Throughout the show, I want to use the idea of medicine as a portrayal of our addiction to entertainment and visual input. Besides that, I’ll be collaborating with a classical music ensemble in Malmö, putting up the Mozart opera Don Giovanni, but with shadows. A challenge!

Who would you say was instrumental in shaping your artistic practice?

I’m very thankful to Sjoerd Paridaen and René Van Gijsegem, who founded the multimedia design department at KASK (previously known as 3D) where I studied. I guess the whole atmosphere in the department and my class specifically played a big role in the way I think of art — rather anarchistic, where everything was possible. And actually, negative critique has been quite significant to the development of my practice. This has made me reflect on certain choices and re-evaluate my principles. I’d say that’s a very healthy thing to do from time to time.

What are the challenges you face as an artist working in Belgium today?

I’m quite the introvert, which isn’t always helpful in the Belgian art world. It helps if you’re a socialiser who’s able to sell themselves. Another aspect — which is more general and isn’t limited to Belgium — is having to spend too much time on administration: applying for grants, writing dossiers, e-mailing, administering your finances, communicating on your social networks… I feel like a secretary 80% of the time. Other than that, I think Belgium has a very inspiring cultural scene which is of quite a high standard!

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

As I’m half Swedish, I spend about half of my time in Sweden and the other half in Brussels. It’s a perfect mixture of nature and silence and chaotic city life. Both are equally inspiring. In Brussels, I have friends from around the world, musicians, illustrators, film-makers… In Sweden, I mainly reside in a small village with about 12 neighbours. I mostly hang out with three of them: an embroidery artist, a musician and a welder. We have a lot of fun. Maybe we’ll organise an art event there one day.

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

I don’t really separate between my personal life and my work, it’s all the same thing to me.

And what do your parents, your family, think of what you do?

They’re very supportive and believe in my work. My father taught at KASK and is a photographer, so it’s fun to be able to share thoughts about work and art with him. I sometimes engage the whole family to help out when I need something for my shows.

What does success look like to you?

Having my work be appreciated by an audience that’s not necessarily used to art or theatre, as well as an audience that is. I like to take them out of the banality of their everyday lives for a moment. Once a very “rational” looking person came up to me after a show with tears in his eyes — that’s success to me!

I spend about half of my time in Sweden and the other half in Brussels. It’s a perfect mixture of nature and silence and chaotic city life, which is really inspiring.

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

Bruegel, Leon Spilliaert, Marcel Broodthaers, Aglaia Konrad, Floris Vanhoof…

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

Art offers people a safe space where they can question and reflect on what is going on, without necessarily needing words to communicate. I’m not a big fan of steering culture to convey certain moral behaviour, even though I am aware of the impact culture can have on people. I think art needs to remain an open field. Everything should be questioned, even the so-called “good values”. If art is only beautiful, soft and cosy, it becomes shallow entertainment. It’s important that it can also be a place for the subversive and provocative, creating discussions and encouraging people to think independently. I think that’s where the real social change happens. Art is also a form of playing and unfortunately, this is something our society doesn’t always allow. In a way, being an artist is in itself a form of protest against the idea that everything needs to have a purpose, and is quantifiable and profitable.

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.