The art of togetherness: De Zwarte Zusters on the power of mutual improvisation

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.

The Ghent-based band De Zwarte Zusters is made up of 17 musicians and visual artists working and rehearsing closely together, performing experimental and spontaneous improvisations as a sort of reaction to previous gatherings. In anticipation of their performances at PLAN B – which will be one of their last projects as a collective for a while – the group shares how they grew close during rehearsals, and how they aim to prepare for their big show at the end of the weekend.

At its core, what is De Zwarte Zusters about? How would you describe it?

It’s an initiative that was started by a group of 17 visual artists, who all felt the urge to experiment with sound and music. We started meeting up every Monday as of the last two years. It was quite chaotic during the first few months, but we stuck together and slowly our collective identity grew stronger. For instance, the food we shared during these rehearsals was of real importance. Our work exists only during performance: it combines all the experiences we’ve gathered during rehearsals and previous shows. Due to the fact we always start with the idea of improvisation, we try to take the surroundings – the context of the event – into consideration in order to find the best way to express what we want.

What are your starting point and statement?

We try to develop all sorts of possibilities to play music together, to find different ways of communicating and to be able to create a collective sound. During the improvisation in a show, a concrete or more abstract sound can arise which is often generated by a performative idea or situation.

Can you talk to us about the approach in general?

We see each rehearsal as a football training session: our rehearsals are not moments to make goals but rather to improve passing skills. We’ve create our own exercises to improve and strengthen our performance. We practice our collective mind and mutual trust to become more conscious performers.

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

We attended the previous edition of PLAN B and enjoyed the festival’s approach, set within the small village of Bekegem. During our week of residence, we’ll camp out in a field in the surroundings of Bekegem. We hope this will generate new musical and performative ideas for a different context and audience.

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

The music or sound we generate will easily vanish into the context. We’re curious to see how we’ll be inspired by the surroundings and whether we’ll react against or follow the quietness. It’s always lovely to see how the group cumulates energy and ideas in a new context they’re sharing.

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?

We’ve already gone on group holidays together a few times to rehearse, but this time is special. Before we were confined in a house, far removed from nighbours and locals. This time, a conversation with Bekegem’s inhabitants will undoubtedly start from our idea to camp and play in different area’s of the village. Getting to perform for a larger public that weekend is very exciting.

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

We find it interesting to discern how many different contexts there are in the cultural landscape, and how they differ. In the past we’ve played in the theatre CAMPO, the non-profit art gallery Croxhapox, the multicultural centre Gouvernement… Each space requires us to perform differently and generates a different relation with the perception of the public. All these experiences strengthened and helped us to find the best ingredients from these different contexts. We’re convinced that every contemporary artist will increasingly have to face these interesting challenges because the art scene is becoming more multidisciplinary, which is an important shift benefitting the image-maker’s freedom.

How do you see yourself fit into the country’s contemporary art scene?

We don’t see ourselves choosing one particular context. It keeps us alert. Even if we decided to make a theatre piece, we would never play it exclusively in a theatre – we would also play it in other venues and surroundings.

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

We’re inspired by Francis Alÿs, Carate Urio Orchestra and Wild Classical Music Ensemble.

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

The everyday is a very important influence on us, both individually and as a group. For example, the football and table tennis balls we played with during our rehearsals somehow found their way into the percussion suitcase.

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

An important choice we made was to wear our own clothes, so that we’re not differentiated from the public. PLAN B is a good challenge and opportunity to perform in front of an audience of all sorts of creeds, and not necessaily with an art background.
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.