Immersion into the unknown: Marijke De Roover’s DIY visual activism

This summer, BOZAR is hosting Somewhere In Between, an exhibition which celebrates the vast array of art practices in Europe and tells the stories of anyone who’s someone in the diverse world of European contemporary art. Spread across different venues within Belgium and constellations further afield, it showcases the artistic dialogue taking place in the continent today.

As part of BOZAR’s ambitious show, Brussels-based curators Romuald Demidenko and Hélène Jacques have prepared Fremdkörper: Non-normative body and voice mapping, a group exhibition of voices both upcoming and established, to explore the elusive boundaries between physical corporalities and abstract identities. For the occasion, we’ve invited five of the signed artists to showcase their work

Dynamic artist Marijke De Roover (1990) is truly a Jill-of-all-trades. In her work, DIY videos often made on her laptop or phone, she touches on politics, humour, emotion, human existence, health fads and many more. She layers this imagery with texts commenting on the concepts at hand, in hopes of inspiring people to question society and speak up about current issues. She tells us about art’s power to influence, and how she feels responsible and inspired to initiate change.

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

My early work focuses on the meaning of identities and the performative aspect of its creation. In previous projects, I’ve researched grassroots politics and the relationship between presidential campaigning and Greek theatre (You can’t spell America w/o me, 2013), how identities exist on the Internet in relation to pop culture (#TheSelfieSong, 2013), Mormon lifestyle and musicals (A Mitt Summer Night’s Dream, 2014), the cult of health (Is bio the new avant-garde?, 2015) and religion (Cosmic Latte, 2016). In my latest work, I deal with questions regarding the nuclear family, feminism and motherhood and the ethics of reproduction.

What is its starting point and statement?

It’s ever fluctuating, but it basically always starts from an obsessive curiousity. I actually think this curiousity is both the starting point and the statement at hand. It’s an eagerness to discover new viewpoints: understanding and immersing oneself in the unknown.

Can you talk to us about your approach in general?

I feel that language is a big part of the work. I’m an obsessive reader, from fiction to sociology to shampoo bottles. For the most time, I have these inner dialogues with myself, and for about 300 days of the year I’m in my head — doing stuff, meeting people, and creating stories. When I’m up to my ears in fantasy, I usually start panicking and after a short recess, actually start the process of creation. It’s an excessive process, even if it’s relatively short: I work for days and hours on end like a maniac, not eating, nor really sleeping. I’ve tried to create an actual studio rhythm for myself but it hasn’t worked. I get lost sitting there in the studio trying to produce something. I’d rather be walking outside or making up future realities whilst sitting on my sofa.

What characterises your work?

My face! I think what’s very distinct in my videos is the way I appear on screen. All of my videos are DIY and made entirely by myself. This means that I often film myself with my laptop camera, or with the front camera on my phone. The result is a very blurry fourth wall, because there’s a lot of me looking into the camera, and directly interacting with the viewer, who doubles as me, because phone and computer cameras also operate as mirrors. Another aspect that is at the core of my work is music. I use a variety of songs, but mostly just any audio that sounds familiar. A lot of the work I do is based around singing, whether it’s singing along to hits in #theselfiesong or songs about making gay babies. The last thing that I find characterises my work is the layering of images and text. My approach is very saturated and I like to give a lot of information all at the same time. Text on top oflayers of images, with songs with very distinct lyrics mixed through it.

How do you actually work on a piece, from start to finish?

I spend quite some time on- and offline, reading throughout the year. I tend to collect images and text that I find interesting, until  something grabs my attention, at which point I become obsessed by it. I need to know everything! This was definitely the case with the Sarah Palin project, where it went so far that I literally transformed myself into the subject I was obsessed by. Now I feel the same way about motherhood. What follows next is that I start writing texts, from Facebook statuses to essays, with plenty of songs in between. I would say that 70% of the time I really start getting into creating a work because I made a song that I believe deserves to be drenched in content. I start performing the songs and texts wherever I am, trying to catch them on film. I will also spend hours on end watching YouTube videos, as they serve as great inspiration to the kind of work that I like to make. It’s really hard to say how the work becomes done after this point, because I basically black out. I have no clue what I’m doing anymore. I use way too much content. My eyes hurt and I have an earworm from hearing the same song over and over again. Suddenly, it’s just there. Sometimes with mistakes (actually, more often than not), but at this point, I start to like it. It’s a very distinct feature in the work. My signature, somehow.

I get lost sitting in the studio trying to produce something. I’d rather be walking outside or making up future realities whilst sitting on my sofa.

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

I’m currently working on The Eggcellent Adventures of Marijke De RooverIn the first part, A Womb of One’s Own, I question concepts like the nuclear family, feminism and motherhood, and the ethics of reproduction. The work is both a video and a performance, the latter being in the format of a supposed TEDx musical. TEDx (Technology, Entertainment and Design) talks address a wide range of topics, often through the act of storytelling. The speakers are given a maximum of 18 minutes to present their ideas in the most innovative and engaging way possible.

In 2010, noted statistician Passim Taleb called TED a “monstrosity that turns scientists and thinkers into low-level entertainers, like circus performers”. I chose this format for my musical lecture performance to combine (pseudo-)scientific research, personal experiences, including music and musical theater features. They’re intended to evoke emotional reactions from the audience, reflect on personal setbacks, and — by including fairytale inspired songs — to create a myth of origin of conceiving and raising a baby in a non-heteronormative family, often including questions of how the kids will relate to their family construction and existing tales and models. This is the first time I take a personal (though still political) subject as a starting point. It was very emotional performing this piece, but I also feel like this was a very important step in the development of my practice. I feel more open than ever. 

The second part HERLAND is gong to be a sci-fi experiential musical about an all-female society. This will be the first time I collaborate with musicians and performers.

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

In 2013, I was part of a Summer Academy class in Salzburg with Tania Bruguera. I was already interested in art as a form of activism at this time, but my knowledge about it was still quite limited. Having the opportunity to work with someone like Tania was eye-opening and very confronting. I had a huge crisis (many to follow after that) about the meaning or use of art, and my responsibility as an artist. The coming two years I continued to make critical work, but my voice was getting lost behind the theory. Far from my best work, I completely lost all pleasure in creating, eliminating myself from the screen almost entirely and not singing at all. After that, I knew that something needed to change and I had to be more honest and vulnerable in order to create significant meaning. I feel it took a long ass time, but I finally found my voice back (quite literally!), and it’s loud now. And still now, Tania Bruguera is one of the artists-cum-activists that I admire the most.

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

First, I have to admit that I feel very privileged, being white, middle class and growing up in Belgium, a country that allows me to love whoever I want. However, as an artist, I do feel that Belgium is rather small, which in my opinion makes art politics more difficult at times. Everybody knows each other, which makes for a lot of “talk”. We only have few big players when it comes to galleries, which creates a very one-dimensional reporting on art in mainstream media and such. Nepotism would be a word I would use to describe my sentiments on the Belgian art scene.

It was very emotional performing this piece, but I also feel like this was a very important step in the development of my practice. I feel more open than ever.

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

I honestly don’t know. I feel that a lot of (young) Belgian artists use plenty of humour in their work, so I cab relate to them, but at the same time I don’t know that many Belgian video artists who work with the rhythms and imagery that I’minspired by. Questions related to my country make me very uncomfortable, because I’m not that nationalistic, since people from all over the planet surround me at all times. Biosphere and holism over nations!

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

Right now, I am surrounded by the most amazing people at HISK. We are an almost all-girl squad, which makes for an interesting dynamic. However, naturally I’ve never been the type of person to feel at home in a group setting. I love spending time on my own. Although the Internet and cameras are my main instruments in art, I feel that technological advances and commodity-based pleasures increase my feelings of alienation. I feel that through creating, I inherently distance myself more from life. I’ve struggled with this because I’m very much interested in community and commonism. In theory really, but I’m only now making constant efforts to create an integrated social togetherness and cohabitation with my fellow creatures. I’ve always felt like there’s a spiritual emptiness in my generation. And there’s definitely a shifting relationship with nature. Being out with my fellow artist friends is what inspires me most: out in nature, but also out of my head and talking about everything and nothing.

What does success look like to you?

Actually being able to participate in change. Speaking up and having people listen and question. Being able to inspire. Also, some days ago I woke up to an unexpected breakfast in bed. I could get used to that too.

Although the Internet and cameras are my main instruments in art, I feel that technological advances and commodity-based pleasures increase my feelings of alienation.

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

I think art has the power, but also the responsibility to contribute to social issues. Art doesn’t produce immediate change, but it can provide a voice, challenge normativity, reveal the unknown and create a new vocabulary for change. There’s no absolute truth, just a good rhythm of different points of view. Art can change the way people think about the world and that’s why art should have an education role in our community. It should be taught in schools and considered as valuable as other subjects.

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

My favourite Belgian artists are the late Jef Geys and Luc Deleu. I admire Geys for using the everyday in such a poetic, beautiful way and Luc for his social and political engagement. Other artists that I look up o are Liliane Vertessen and Ria Pacquée, whose Madame was a life changing work in regards to my own practice.

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

The personal is political, and especially so right now: I don’t see a real separation between my everyday life and the work I make. I’ve used video material of me cleaning my house, going to doctor’s appointments, crying because of heartache, reacting to election results…. My body of work is basically me trying to make sense out of my everyday life. It’s about collecting, structuring, questioning and reappropriating events.

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

They’re supportive, even if they don’t understand how people actually make a living out of this. They have a point.
Somewhere In Between, and Fremdkörper are on display at BOZAR until Sunday 19th August.