From the Journey Behind to the Road Ahead – Part 2

This is the second part of the previous blog post on the lecture I gave to revisit the first year of my professorship at Fontys University of the Arts in Tilburg. As mentioned in this last post (Part 1), one way of extending the circles in the first year of our professorship has been to organise and curate Connective Conversations: The idea is to invite art practitioners, present their work and then think through this work as a lens about the “terminological clouds” of the artistic, the connective and practices.

The events have the form of a “double bill”. After having dinner with the team and guest(s), the public part on the evening engages with both the team and audience, followed by drinks, snacks and informal exchange. On the morning after the team meets the guest again, to continue the conversation more in-depth and to follow up on themes and questions that emerged the evening before; to continue the thinking-together. During the presentation I shared examples of two of our guests: visual artist Bart Lodewijks and performance curator Lara Staal.

Chalk Drawings in Public Space: Bart Lodewijks

Bart Lodewijks makes large scale, linear chalk drawings in public and private spaces. The drawings can be found on building facades (where they naturally disappear over time), in hospitals and offices, but also inside private homes and the surrounding streets. His distinct abstract drawings respond to the social context in which they are made.

Lodewijks’ work is both an artistic and a social practice: Drawing is central to it and always the point of departure, sparking or provoking conversations and what emerges from these conversations. Usually Bart starts by making chalk drawings in public space, which typically attracts people’s attention: “What is this?” – “It’s just a line.” They enter a conversation, in which Bart often asks them if they allow him to draw inside of their house (one example of such a process can be seen in this video). He meticulously documents his work through photos, and at a later stage makes books from it: These books show images of the drawings next to written stories. These stories are not about the drawing itself, but of the people, the place and time in which the drawing has been made.

Bart Lodewijks’ work has a strong sense of ongoingness: His drawings are linked through their aesthetic and technique with which they are made, – the continuous “commitment to the straight line” – as well as his approach of social exchange parallel to making the drawings, and the reccuring “move” from the outside (public space) to the inside (people’s homes). He describes his work as being “one drawing, actually.”

Bart Lodewijks (photo: Jan Kempenaers)

Several elements in Lodewijks’ work resonate with our notion of connectivity. Next to the obvious element of social exchange through artistic practice (the act of drawing in public space that provokes or encourages conversation, which in turn leads to drawing in private space), it is crucial that Bart is taking time for this exchange – however, not as a “fetish” in itself, but always closely connected to the drawings, or even with the drawings as a catalyst for or topic ofexchange, at least initially. He does this with great care and attention. This includes asking for help in specific situations (as e.g. when Bart’s needs a ladder), not only because he needs it, but also as a means to build connections and collective infrastructure between various residents in a neighbourhood, for example.

Curating Imaginary Proposals: Lara Staal

Lara Staal is a researcher, writer and curator. Between 2013 and 2016, she worked as a programmer at Frascati where she developed various sociopolitical programmes in which alliances were created between art and other fields on the basis of shared urgencies. From a growing interest in developing innovative forms within which dialogue and reflection can take place, she developed the “Congress of Utopia” in collaboration with Jonas Staal in 2016. Since 2017 she has been working as a freelance curator in the performing arts and has developed works such as “The Evening of Anger” (together with rapper Gideon Everduim) and “Europe on Trial” (together with human rights activist Yoonis Osman Nuur). In the 2020-2021 season Lara Staal made the short film “The State of Justice” at NTGent about the improper treatment of refugees in Europe, and part of a series in which she focuses on several fundamental values in our society.

Lara Staal (photo: Ernie Buts)

One work that struck me in particular is the performance Dissident, which Lara created in the 2021-2022 season at NTGent, together with six so-called ‘problem cases’, dropout kids from schools in Gent. Dissident is a work about school and critique on the school system. The central change of perspective, and key point in this performance and its process is the switch from speaking about trouble kids to speaking with them; and together with this change the piece asks the question if the kids actually get a voice through this performance, or if they just become instrumentalised (a teaser of the performance can be seen here). Lara does not over-romanticise the performance and its “message”, or impact. For her, art is a possibility to address things that are unbearable and need to be spoken out. Even if there seems to be no place to actually speak out, in art this is still possible. In times when nothing works, art can be an alternative – even if only a weak alternative. Lara is not interested in the question if this (or such) a piece is good art, actually – she is interested in the youngsters’ proposal.

Regarding the connective in Lara’s work and in Dissident in particular, what stands out is, again, a strong sense of attention and care, and the urgency to take responsibility for “matters of concern”, as philosopher Isabelle Stengers would call it. From Lara’s perspective, connectivity in not without obligation, it brings responsibility with it. As artists we do not only have the possibility or responsibility to ask questions, to lay bare what concerns us, but also to make proposals, to propose alternatives; even if these alternatives are imaginary and speculative.

The Road Ahead

An essential outcome of this first year is an initial “framing-in-progress” of how we think Artistic Connective Practices, as:

A set of interconnected ideas, a concept to think and work with, rather than a thing, genre or field in itself; in order to enable and support artists and art educators to being engaged and ethical in their work and the world.

The professorship’s main next step is to generate artistic research work from the questions we have, in order to explore the notion of Artistic Connective Practices through artistic (research) practice. This will happen in the form of artistic research residencies, both in local contexts in Tilburg, as well as regional and national contexts in the larger area of “arts and health.” More news about these two strands can be expected after the summer. Furthermore, next to continuing the lines of work with the Connective Intra-Activiteam and organising Connective Conversations, the ambition is to make the circles wider: by adding artists and researchers from the residency-contexts, and by facilitating student circles.

I finished the lecture with a small exercise in which the audience became part of this wider circle. I asked the audience members to speculate about their own practice: Take an element from our framing of connectivity that resonates with you, and speculate what would / could change in your practice if you allow this element to take a bigger role in your work?

Rather than mentioning the interesting and sometimes funny ideas that came up from this exercise, please, dear readers, take some time to think for yourself, and see where the lens of connectivity can resonate with your own work, and potentially strengthen it. And so, this is where we are at this point with the professorship Artistic Connective Practices. There is a lot to look forward to, and to everyone who reads this: I wish an amazing summer!

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