Museums have a social responsibility and must try to be relevant to a wide audience
We met Ilse, curator of Mu.ZEE, along with recently graduated curators Leroy, Sofie and Vincent, in Oostende. Together they co-curated the expo Trance-Action, which had to temporarily close its doors. On the last day before closing, we sat together around a large table to talk about experiencing the creation of an exhibition, the final result and what impact corona had on this.
Good afternoon all four, thank you for welcoming us in Mu.ZEE! Could you introduce yourself?
I am Ilse and I have been working in Mu.ZEE since 2016. My practice as a curator mainly focuses on projects with artists who work on social, economic and geopolitical issues. Based on the idea that we, as a museum, should ask ourselves how to be better embedded in the society we live in, we made a proposal for collaboration with students of Curatorial Studies at KASK in Ghent. That's how Vincent, Sofie and Leroy ended up with us.
We are Vincent, Sofie and Leroy and we completed the postdoctorate in Curatorial Studies at KASK in Ghent last academic year. For Vincent this study followed Art Sciences, Sofie studied Liberal Arts and then worked as a guide in FOMU and Leroy studied Graphic Design. We ended up in a course that consists of a mix between theory and practice within the professional arts. The theory is applied during an internship, which everyone can fill in freely. We chose to curate an exhibition, as one of the few students who have done a group project.
Why did you choose to work together?
Because we believe in radical horizontally and because we match well on a personal level. We think it is essential to work in a positive atmosphere, and all three of us thought it might be a good idea to work on the presentation of a collection, which Mu.ZEE offered. Moreover, since that is too big a task to do alone, it is easier to achieve in a group.
Our collaboration went very smoothly and organically. We had made a plan and agreed in advance who’d take care of what part of the process. Leroy, for example, is mainly interested in graphic work, since he studied Graphic Design earlier. Communication was the most important thing, and that worked out very well.
The fact that three students ultimately participated in the exhibition is in line with the philosophy of collaborations that Mu.ZEE considers so importantly. The future of the arts is solidarity, and the current climate can only confirm that. Public institutions such as museums have a social responsibility and must try to be relevant to a wide audience.
Public institutions such as museums have a social responsibility and must try to be relevant to a wide audience
This collaboration resulted in the exhibition Trance-Action. How did that title and concept originate?
We started from a video by Sammy Baloji (° 1978), a co-production between Mu.ZEE and Documenta 14, shown in Belgium for the first time in this exhibition. There we encountered a repetitive manufacturing process, both industrial and human, in terms of content and form. The rhythmic act of the maker quickly became the focus of the exhibition. These rhythmic movements bring the maker into a trance at a certain moment, a process, a transcendental experience.
In addition, the artist also refers to religion in that video through the choirs that can be heard in the background, which we also used and extended to the poetic, the spiritual and the meditative. Trance is an individual experience, which at the same time transcends the individual and makes a connection with the interhuman and universal.
This brings us to the meaning of the title Trance-Action. The words Trance and Action refer to the trance created by performing an action, as we just mentioned. As soon as a connection between people arises, or between people and art for that matter, there is a transaction or exchange of an experience, knowledge, emotion ...
By choosing that topic, did you want to send an explicit or implicit message to the audience?
The message is mainly non-verbal, sharing knowledge in a non-rational way. Experience is key in the exhibition, in an alternative way. The visitor experiences the art with all senses because we worked with sound, scent and light.
The exhibition is structured as a tight track, so that the visitors can fully immerse themselves, fully enjoy the arts without thinking about which direction to take. It is about the reintroduction of finding peace at your own pace and in your own way.
We don't necessarily want to send out a message: we want people to feel the art and see it in a pure way, without too much text. It is not a research exhibition, but the works have been brought together in a substantive way.
Why and how were these works selected?
They are works about action; artisanal, individually or in groups, or works that talk about creating something together, some works are more spiritual. Within the selection of the works, we stuck to the different nodes, the repetitive and the meditative, which we found as a basis in Baloji's work.
Because it is a collection exhibition, we have brought together works from the collection of Mu.ZEE. We started by browsing a bit, visiting the depot, and consulting the museum's database. For example, we investigated which works of art could be interesting, on their own and in relation to other works. The final choice is diverse, the artworks touch different aspects of the story.
We wanted to show work by Panamarenko, but we were unable to have it restored
The museum has a large collection, but what is available is limited. We have come across an underfunding of the cultural sector. For example, we wanted to show work by Panamarenko, but it was in need of restoration. In the end, we were unable to have it restored, and therefore we were not able to exhibit it. That’s, of course, inherent in curatorial practice: there are always opportunities and limits. That’s what you learn during an internship.
In addition to content, did you also visually pay attention to how the works could fit together?
We did have a plan for a setup, but the final choices only came in the second phase when we put the works on display. We also collaborated with the graphic designers from Atelier Brenda. We brainstormed about the scenography, and they also made the designs for the flyers and social media.
We deliberately made a number of striking choices in the scenography. We wanted to deviate from the classic museum path and more towards an experimental direction. The result is fresh but not too crazy. For example, there are racks in the entrance hall and we placed a statue of Dan Van Severen on a girder instead of on a white plinth. A fake one though, we were unable to get a real one inside.
Something completely different: you all graduated from KASK last year. What was it like to graduate in 2020?
Regarding our internship: the start of the exhibition was postponed. Normally it would have opened on June 6. We used the extra time to perfect everything.
In terms of completing the course in general, it was not easy. Since we wanted to apply the theory we learned in the first semester into practice, we ran into many limitations. A lot of projects were cancelled. The intention was to travel a lot, see a lot, meet a lot of people, attend lectures, but all of that was systematically abolished.
The courses are also socially very intense. In the first semester, we practically lived together, and that suddenly changed in March; we went from one extreme to the other. The social dynamics in such a group of students is extremely important to motivate and inspire each other. Much of that communication and motivation suddenly disappeared.
After all, a college education also prepares you for a career, but entering the job market is not easy either this year.
We used the extra time to perfect everything
What is it like for you to take further steps in the professional world?
Sofie: It is difficult to find a job, and it is also a difficult time for personal research because for me the most important thing is to bring people together, to connect and to exchange (non-verbal) knowledge. I am looking for opportunities to organize projects outside institutions, but I sometimes run into the uncertainty of future measures.
Vincent: Fortunately, I found a job very quickly as a stylist, which gives me peace of mind. Art and fashion touch each other in many areas, and they are both important interests to me. Ever since I began my art studies, I have wanted to combine art and fashion. Both worlds are different, but not completely.
Ilse: It's not an easy time to look for a job. Institutions are closed, which means that fewer projects can take place, and fewer people must and can be put to work. This concerns permanent staff, but also artists and freelancers, for example.
Leroy: There are very few opportunities at the moment, I am fortunate that my parents are continuing to support me until I have a job. I can safely fill my time with all kinds of projects, including the Belgian Institute of Graphic Design. With this, I am researching the history of design in Belgium and translating part of this research into exhibitions. Currently, I have already realized showcases in Brussels and Antwerp. In addition, I occasionally still receive design assignments, but there could have been more.
Corona has a major impact. Due to the new security measures that have just been announced, the exhibition has to close its doors tonight (Wednesday 28/10). How's that for you?
The work was already done. We mainly worked on the preparation of the exhibition, production, preparing tours for the guides. Apart from that, we of course made an exhibition with the aim of reaching as many people as possible.
It's too bad for the artists, too bad for ourselves, and too bad for the public. We want to share what we've done, what we’ve worked so hard on. The purpose of an internship is to actually get out in the field. We are curators because we want to bring people together around art, but corona makes our job difficult.
Have you thought about online alternatives?
We communicate a lot about the collection online, and we also made a video for example. An online museum visit is of course never a real experience of visual arts. You have to see a physical artwork and exhibition in real life to feel the right atmosphere. You also lose the feeling of the communication of the works between each other online. Even something simple like colour or materiality changes completely online. Also in terms of scenography, you really just have to see it for yourself.
To end on a positive note: are there any extra things you would like to add?
We would like to thank Leroy's parents again for continuing to support him while he’s looking for a job (laughing).
Perhaps it’s also important to mention that there is one work in the exhibition that is not from the collection of Mu.ZEE. We asked the artist Céline Mathieu (° 1989) to make a work for the first space. She works with light, scent and sound, a total experience to get into the right state of mind for the rest of the exhibition. We invited her because her oeuvre fits very well with the other works that we have chosen.
We never thought that the exhibition could have an impact like that on someone
There is one more thing that has hit us very hard. We received an email from someone who visited the exhibition and is terminally ill. He had made a video and sent it to his friends with the message that they should go to Mu.ZEE to understand how he feels. We never thought that the exhibition could have an impact like that on someone - it is very emotional and reaffirms the importance of the arts.