Ghent-based sociologist and photographer Jakob Van den Broucke (1993) recently challenged himself to write a book as a project with no fixed goal; as a reflexive inquiry into text and imagery. Considering systems and concepts as essential constructive notions, his thoughts wander around in a back-and-forth motion, between what he writes on a daily basis and what he sees and captures in his close environment. Photography is just one of the many ways in which the young Meerhout native plays with our understanding of social life in its many forms. Here he talks to us about his methodologies and thought processes, heimat-related plans, and on self-publishing his first ever book, which you can discover for yourself at his book launch and exhibition at Gouvernement this Wednesday 23rd January.
At its core, what is your work about? How would you describe it?
My work is an attempt to blend sociology with photography and text. In making and analysing imagery I explore an interest in the process of making art, the concept of objectivity versus subjectivity and the construction of meaning in general. I’m engaged in a constant search to adopt systems in order to organise all interesting things crossing my path. A system can be really simple: a concept, form, colour or method. This allows me to make decisions and express these ideal constructs in their most suitable form – the system then is just an excuse to make work. Until now this has predominantly resulted in photographic images and text, but my practice is open to include performance, installations and sculpture. All things considered, at its core my work is all about having silly ideas and engaging them very seriously.
What is its starting point and statement?
I once read a quote by Wolfgang Tillmans going, “Your eyes are free and you are free to use them. And the real work is the act of transforming it in your mind.” There’s so much to see, and so much imagery begging for our attention in everyday life… But how can one cope with this abundance of stimuli? Although photography is noted for its realism, it’s undeniably ambiguous in its nature. As an image, a photograph is always a constructed depiction of reality remaining open to interpretation. In addition, photography is a highly democratic medium: it’s all around us, easily accessible and rather cheap to distribute. Text offers me some possibilities that imagery is never able to deliver, since it enables a guided form of abstract thinking. Interesting opportunities for juxtaposition then arise by combining texts and images. Words guide the way we think, and in its turn images also guide our thought process. So in trying to make connections between the realm of theoretical abstraction and the particular reality captured in a photographic image I try to interpret things in a way that hopefully makes sense.
Can you talk to us about your approach in general?
Photography for me is rather an attempt to understand than to inform. By “going outside” and “staying inside”, I observe and capture the world surrounding me and try to make sense out of it sitting behind my desk. In a way this practice resembles that of a social scientist who assembles data in the field, and abstracts theory in his or her office. These explorations range from reading an essay by Zygmunt Bauman to watching an episode of F.C. De Kampioenen, or walking past a bouquet of fake flowers in a bin. Through photography and note-keeping, I keep myself continuously busy by building an archive of text and imagery. The next steps consist in contemplating, organising and re-organising my archive, leading me to develop plans for a series or an autonomous work.
What characterises your work?
Ideally my work presents itself as an open entrance with the possibility of a deeper dive. This comes in two layers: the first is characterised by accessibility and humor, while the second aims to contemplate and reference. How far one goes is up to the spectator willing to take the dive. In order to achieve this dual purpose I’m pleased to take the considered risk to not be fully understood, because in the end it’s all about trying to make art and having fun while doing it.
How did you work on your latest project and first ever book, de mentaliteit is van plastiek, from start to finish?
My professor in cultural sociology once told me, “Books? You shouldn’t read books, you should be writing them!” These wise words convinced me to do so. Intrigued by the phrase “the mentality is plastic” – confided to me by a complete stranger during a hazy night out – these simple yet enigmatic words became the starting point for a visual and conceptual investigation which is now bundled in a self-published book: de mentaliteit is van plastiek. I initially used the phrase as a guiding principle to make a thematic selection of my photographic archive, but I quickly began supplementing existing work with new images. When these photographs later gradually started relating to quotes, strands of texts and social observations, what began as an artistic exercise slowly developed into an in-depth and structured exploration of the mysterious statement. As a result, words and images now interlinked in a perpetual flux, offering endless takes on the elusive concept while never fully conceding to either the word or the image. Along with the book I also wrote a sociological appendix. The article is the result of a search for rendering the sociological reflection and imagination meandering the book. In the article I turn to a discussion on auto-ethnography and use it to investigate my experience of making the book. What especially drew me into auto-ethnography is its emphasis on reflection, subjectivity and personal experience in combination with social scientific methodology. Conceived as a whole, the book and the appendix include both the process and product of the project de mentaliteit is van plastiek.
What series and / or project are you currently working on?
My long-term project is a series of self-portraits taken on interim jobs. Besides this, I’m currently focussing on finalising several autonomous works wherein different methods of combining text and photographic imagery are explored. In the near future I also want to organise an exhibition in my hometown Meerhout. The plan is to collaborate with heimat-colleagues, exploring the concept of heimat through photography and film. Furthermore I’m always on the look-out for new opportunities for collaboration. So, if you’re up for doing something fun, call 0470069618.
Who would you say was instrumental in shaping your artistic practice?
Firstly, I would say that instrumentality is plastic. Secondly, I would say visual artists like John Baldessari, Hans Eijkelboom, Wolfgang Tillmans and Martin Parr have been very important for me. Then there are sociologists like Rudi Laermans, Zygmunt Bauman, Erving Goffman and Bruno Latour. Other personal heroes are Pepijn Lanen, Jerry Hsu, Ton Lebbink, Riff Raff, Spooky Black and Sam Gooris. Yet what I find especially intriguing about an artist like Theo Van Doesburg is that his oeuvre combines the expression of very different, and often conflicting ideas, through the use of varying practices. While Van Doesburg is most noted for his theoretical and painterly contributions to De Stijl, he also wrote novels and poems, and made dadaistic works under the moniker of I.K. Bonset. This varied practice is something I hold to be true for myself: it’s not because I take photographs that I’m only allowed to create photographic work.
I’m pleased to take the considered risk to not be fully understood, because in the end it’s all about trying to make art and having fun while doing it.
What are the challenges you face as an artist working in Belgium today?
Since I don’t have a driver’s license, the challenge for me is to get around by public transport and bike.
Talk to us about the people around you, your local scene. To what extent does it inspire and influence you?
First and foremost, the people around me are very important people. Gerry, my housemate is a big influence for me: he’s a great DJ and all-round good companionship. Together with Mathijs and Maurice we currently inhabit Oerschaffel, our house and family compound. We host regulars such as Jasper, Zjef, Leontien and Florian on the daily, sharing inspiring moments together. Our house has also proven to be a hotbed for brainstorming on collaborative projects and idea , such as Waterzooi.. Then there’s the man, the legend: Joris F. Kerremans, a great guy with tremendous insight who always manages to come up with great stories. Stan Auwers, the artist himself is a handsome young man who is always in for some fun. Furthermore, I want to take this occasion to mention my main men and group of friends, the Warriors.
What does success look like to you?
To you, what role should contemporary art occupy in the community?
Art should be down to earth, because without art it would be “eh”. For me, art that explicitly engages with society is the most interesting kind. Artists such as Wolfgang Tillmans, Jef Geys and Francis Alÿs are interesting examples in this regard. But also more closely, initiatives like PLAN B or Echo’s uit de wijk. Since art holds a great potential for understanding, inspiring and transforming society the artistic community should actively feed off of and contribute to this potential.
Which Belgian artists do you follow, look at for inspiration? Either from the past or the present.
People like Gerard Herman, Vaast Colson, Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven, Marcel Broodthaerts, Kasper De Vos and Bert Huyghe have very interesting oeuvres. Music-wise I like DJs like Maurice Goossens, Lee Scratch Gerry, Victor De Roo and of course the king, Nosedrip.
On a more personal note, how does your everyday inform your work?
Investigating the everyday is everything to me. I’m always on the hunt for inspiration to make work or reorganise my thinking. This can come from seeing and experiencing things on an ordinary Tuesday, or from reading passages in books on art or sociology. Making pictures and writing texts happens in between all of this. So my work is very much an everyday thing.
And what do your parents, your family, think of what you do?
My parents are the most loving people on this planet. Seriously, they’re the most supportive persons I can imagine, even in situations when I can’t explain what I’m doing clearly. Nothing but love for them.Van den Broucke’s upcoming book launch and exhibition for de mentaliteit is van plastiek will be held at Gouvernement in Ghent on Wednesday 23rd January. jakobvandenbroucke.be