An intimate discussion with contemporary art space Netwerk’s two new artistic directors

The second in our series of curator talks takes us to Netwerk, Aalst’s centre for contemporary art, on one of those typically Belgian grey days, with the dullness of the city hinting in no way to the madness of the yearly Carnaval Aalst is mostly known for, that took place just a couple of days later. Since September last year, Netwerk’s artistic direction is in the collaborative hands of Pieternel Vermoortel (curator, writer, and co-founder of FormContent) and Els Silvrants-Barclay (curator and former manager of CAHF). Much like the Carnaval festival’s tendency to shake things up and have people look at the world from a different perspective, Pieternel and Els aim to challenge Netwerk’s organisational ethos, implementing a new way of doing things.

All photography (c) Miles Fischler

Both of you have been working together more or less full-time in Aalst since the start of the year. What’s it like to collaborate on a project like Netwerk, with a horizontal hierarchy?

Pieternel: We work together because we share a similar vision about the complexity of an organisation like Netwerk. At the same time, our partnership is about more than mutual ideas; we both believe that today’s necessary leadership qualities can’t be found in one person alone. We believe in a comprehensive mentality towards working together, which is also what we want to transfer to our team.

Els: I agree that there’s a strong need for many different skills when it comes to leading an artistic institution in today’s world. I’d love to see a new kind of leadership in our contemporary institutions, specifically within the kind of innovative establishment that Netwerk aspires to be. Those different skills can often contradict each other. For example, you have to be very present inside of your own institution, without losing touch with what’s going on outside of your walls. Also, you have to be able to connect both with the artists as well as with stakeholders.

Pieternel: It’s about welcoming and carrying out different forms of intelligence.

Els: Working together is not as simple as just being complementary. Pieternel and I learn from each other and create a context within which we can grow. We want to extrapolate this idea of horizontality to our entire team, leaving our collaborators free to voice their opinions the way we want to lead things.

That seems like an important turnover to have, and not an easy one to implement.

Els: Right now, we’re in this transitional – or liminal – phase, and are actually doing several things at once. Practically, we want our artistic thinking to resonate with all aspects of our organisation. This means that we want our curators to take up various roles within the organisation according to the project we’re developing, but it also means that we want our communication to have meaning beyond the merely explanatory. The relation with our audience will be more integrated than the classical ‘workshop for kids’. We’d like our programming to be made public. This means having little difference between our approach to an artist who is here to make a solo exhibition, and to somebody who is here to get a workshop going.

Pieternel: Because of this, we look out for people who can multitask, and are multi-skilled. For example, our communication could be done by somebody whose main responsibility is building exhibitions. I think we want to get rid of the barriers between the different departments of an institution. The idea that artistic production lies at the core of all the various aspects of the institution is important

We, as an institution, have to think about how we want to use our limited resources to offer a much more comprehensive kind of support – not just for one work of art, but for the artistic practice as a whole.

What about the heritage of Paul Lagring, Netwerk’s former artistic director? How do both of you deal with his program, which was still in place when you started out?

Pieternel: We look at what is already here as a starting point – we revisit it as a way to understand the role of Netwerk  today and tomorrow, as we are developing in the remainders programme for example.  In a way, we’re in a gray area now, and that can be challenging because we bring a different approach to decisions that were made as part of another artistic mindset.

Els: We’re actually doing three things at the same time. We’re continuing Paul’s program, managing a transition, and developing our own program.

Pieternel: All while taking the changing cultural landscape into account. We’re constantly asking ourselves what our role and responsibilities can be, and how to unfold this in this developing context.

Traditionally, Netwerk has always been a commission-based organisation, meaning that it focused on the creation of new art. Is this something both of you want to underscore and unravel much more than has been the case over the last 30 years?

Pieternel: This question of production – of creating new work – generates other queries about infrastructure, about what it means to support the creation of work. It also shines a light on the Flemish cultural landscape which has changed a lot over the last few years. We’ve lost quite a few supportive initiatives due to cuts in government support, so we really need to think about how we want to work within these new circumstances.

Els: The usual way to go about things when an institution supports the creation of new work is to do this in a representative manner; to take on the role of a representative. The artist is given a budget and a space to show the work once it’s completed. Unfortunately, in this method, a lot of steps in the creative process and reception of the work are overlooked: what about the research, the formulation of a discourse, post-production, documentation…? When you think about the pressure artists are under nowadays, with government support for the development of projects dwindling, we as an institution have to think about how we want to use our limited resources to offer a much more comprehensive kind of support – not just for one work of art, but for the artistic practice as a whole.

Pieternel: This means that we offer a very inclusive approach, which offers room for all kinds of research, production, and programming. And for links between different artistic media like performance, visual arts, film, music – although again we want to work based on artistic practice rather than from a focus on a specific medium.

This all sounds very ambitious. How do you go about selecting the artists with whom you want to work?

Pieternel: That question actually takes us back to how we envision our restructuring. We plan to expand our full-time team with experts from outside of Netwerk, like philosophers, writers, and curators. Together with those people, we want to map out our program, or our different templates, so to speak. This can range from planning an exhibition based on a certain idea to developing a library because a certain practice calls for it. It’s very open-ended.

Els: Although we firmly believe in this way of doing things, in organising the institute as an open-ended basic capacity, we don’t want to put forward one big institutional transformation – we don’t want to pretend to know best. We want to stay firmly grounded and, rather than conducting a big overhaul, we want to proceed with this experiment step by step, adjusting as we go through programming.

The location of Netwerk within the city of Aalst is very important to you both, and also accounts for one of the main reasons why you applied for the job. Aalst is a city with a very specific set of particularities: its industrial past which is still very noticeable in the make-up of the city, the current right-wing political climate, the madness of Carnaval, the city development projects going on around the Dender…

Els: I was once told people from Aalst are manic-depressive. One day, they’re out celebrating like tomorrow will never come and if it does, they just continue to party; and the next their soccer team has lost and they slump into apathy. The dynamics in Aalst today are representative of what happens when big city dynamics hit a typical and very Flemish small city. It’s important to work from within that small town context because we are precisely part of the transformative movement. We have to ask, for example, who our audience will be. We want people from Aalst to feel they are welcome here, but we realize we have a long way to go. At the moment, very few people outside of the art world even know we’re here. We need to focus on the way people find their way to Netwerk – not only literally, by being more visible in the city by means of developing an ‘art in public space’ program; but also by trying to be more part of people’s lives, for example by having a lively and accessible bar.

Pieternel: By working in Aalst, we circumvent the sometimes self-congratulatory vibes that can be present in a more ‘artistically acclaimed’ city like Brussels.

Els: We don’t want people to feel like they should come here to be educated. Rather, we’d want to be a place where you, as a member of the audience, don’t have to be productive, that you don’t have to work really hard to understand what it’s all about.

Pieternel: Of course, this doesn’t mean we want to make things easy because nothing is: life isn’t easy and neither is art. But we want to make people feel at home as a starting point.

To conclude, I’d like to talk about your desires for the future. What do you envision as making you happy in one year’s time?

Pieternel: I feel we won’t be able to rightly evaluate things one year from now – it would all be too soon. But I will be happy when we feel like we’re in the middle of one of our episodes, or templates; where we are in the process of inspiring an artist’s practice whilst simultaneously expanding our institution’s knowledge, and somehow feel those processes are pertinently connected. We talked a lot about wanting to be a part of our environment, both in Aalst and international, and I feel this embeddedness is equally important, too.

Els: I agree, I think we definitely need 1,5 to 2 years to achieve all the things we talked about. At the same time, we don’t want to huddle in our conceptual corner or intellectual ivory tower – we’re already putting our words into action.

Pieternel:  The transformation will be the process, while the questions we face will be tested out by our artistic program.

Els: For me, the biggest challenge will be to be of meaning in the city of Aalst. Together with our team, we want to create something that is of interest to more people than just our artistic peers.

The duo is still thinking hard and experimenting with different ways of how to formulate and reach their goals. Some ideas are developing the film program and extending the way Netwerk talks to its audience, for example by offering small bits of fiction to accompany an exhibition, rather than the usual explanatory or contextual texts. They’re already – literally – breaking down walls, to break down the schizophrenia of a 1.200 m2 building with two separate entrances, left over after two separate programming strands fused together. The long-term goal is to open up the building, merge the disciplinary thinking, make it more accessible and to try and get the building to be climate neutral.