Can you describe what you do? Where you are based, the neighbourhood you live in, your daily routine, the people you work with, the scene you feel the closest to.
I work as Senior Curator at the M HKA – Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp – which I’m glad to say is a world-class venue for contemporary visual art. My colleagues are a smart and idiosyncratic bunch which is exactly what you need in the workplace. I moved to Antwerp to work at the museum and now live in the city centre. As a non-driver, I find the city small enough to be able to walk pretty much everywhere I need to. I have to travel internationally quite a lot, but otherwise you’ll find me rather predictably either at home, at work or at one of Antwerp’s old cafes.
How do you perceive Antwerp? In your view, what kind of city is it? Its people, its cultural landscape, its vibe? How does it compare to other, similarly-sized cities?
Even if it sees itself as culturally diverse and brags about having so many nationalities living here, Antwerp is a largely monocultural city compared to other similar sized places I know, which is a little paradoxical for a port city. But I reached the point where I was ready to confront that after many years of living in more liberal and cosmopolitan places. It does have an independent spirit though, which I like a lot, and I think the visual art scene here reflects that. In fact the city really needs it – the art, the design, the fashion, the academies. Those take on an essential role for stimulating the imagination in a way other sources could never do.
What would you say is Antwerp’s main appeal for creatives? What gives the city its edge?
Antwerp’s creative ‘edge’ is largely historical. But I think we should see this historic edge as a contributing factor to its present-day independent spirit. It has always been open-minded to creatives coming from the outside, including artists and curators. There is a strong ‘local’ scene, but there is also a place for highly original artists like Otobong Nkanga and Laure Provoust too. Historic spaces like Hessenhuis and Wide White Space were seminal because they generated the comings and goings of key artists to and from Antwerp. There have been brilliant public spaces for contemporary art, but it is important to note that this has been eroded recently in a rather unhelpful way.
Antwerp does have an independent spirit though, which I like a lot, and I think the visual art scene here reflects that.
How would you say has Antwerp contributed to making you who you are today? What role has the city played in shaping your outlook and career?
Firstly, I’ve shed any signs of that island mentality that can often come from being British, and now locate myself in a continental context for culture. I have found it deeply rewarding to explore and understand this scene. I work at M HKA because it is open and reflexive. To give you an example, I recently curated a major exhibition on rave culture from the 1980s and ‘90s in Western Europe, and I can’t think of many places that would embrace such an idea. Antwerp demonstrates that the public can be interested in complex and strange things. Plus, having previously been a sceptic, I seem to have become more amenable to fashion.
On a personal level, what would you like to see more of in the city?
More efficient transport connections with other cities in the region, which also run until later on at night. More coordinated resistance to the banal faux-subculture of hipsterdom. More connection to the Schelde. More support for public sector art organisations. More emphasis of contemporary stuff alongside the historic. More nuance and diversification rather than monolithic gentrification. Shall I carry on?
To you, what is the best way to spend a weekend in Antwerp? If you had to take out-of-towners to one place that truly symbolises the city, what would it be?
I’d say it would rather be a combination of activities rather than just one place. Lunch at Fuji-San, then a trip to the M HKA, followed by a drink at Café Zurich, then maybe later at one of the following cafés: Vitrin, Multatuli, De Pallieter, Witzli-Poetzli, De Kat, Kassa 4 or Rode7. Food somewhere along the line at Falafeltof, Da Jia Le Malaysian noodles or Little Ethiopia. And then eventually on to club Ampere, which I would say is one of the top five culture venues in Belgium. Depending on the visitor, I might include other places like the Plantin-Moretus Museum or the Kleine Bourla. Full English Breakfast round at mine the next day.
A local legend, neighbourhood anecdote or urban myth?
It seems that analysis of the wastewater in Antwerp shows that it is the Cocaine capital of the world. Even the pigeons are on it. Being a global trade gateway means that it is apparently more readily available and cheaper than anywhere else, and closely connected to the demands of a city that has been going through a process of ‘embourgeoisement’ over the past couple of decades. From my research into the heyday of rave in the recession-era of the 1980s, I discovered that it was a cottage industry in the region of Limburg that was supplying the whole of Europe with its ecstasy tablets. It seems the story of this place, whether good or bad times, has always been closely connected to mindbending experiences.muhka.be Photography Miles Fischler