Occupied City. Antwerp & Avant-Gardes

PDF January 2019

Prolific & Insistent Existence of Artist-led Initiatives: Pinkie Bowtie

Foreword

I don’t know which one is more fascinating. Generations of artists trying to free art from it’s period or as a newcomer discovering the treasures of Belgium. In this class, they come in one package and I enjoyed every discovery. Back in the grade schools of Turkey, what I recall was that the history lessons were one of the most difficult ones. They were intense, cluttered and if one wasn’t interested in it at all, they still had to preserve this intensity till the university. It would be a lie if I said that I never really was interested in history. Even though what they taught was only about Turkey/Ottoman Emperor. Neither in middle school nor in high school, I couldn’t enjoy it. Wars of men, invasions and terror… Whenever I got too excited about a topic, it always proved me that no historical event came without blood spilling, rape, deception, harassment and greed. Either “how” it always had been taught, or “what” was taught was the reason why I exaggerate my despise on general history. What history ended up teaching me was how horrible humankind is and I really do not think I need the past to verify me that.

However, the crucial need of knowing what happened is a basic way to get to know how societies became the way they are today. The past is not only the beginning of things but also growth and endings. Being conscious of evolutions and repetitions of the past is what makes today more meaningful and comprehensible. In personal terms, history can undoubtedly be an engaging territory to wander around if only one could scrape the brutality off it. If we downsize the frame from history to art history, the ferocity of life is still present but less bloody and less intimidating. At least around the subject of this class anyway. So yeah! Instead of tricks and games of warfare and loss that came with it, let's talk about creative solutions of artists who faced walls of underdeveloped ideas, either from the art world itself or from the government. Let's get excited about their eagerness to express and change. Their wills, desires and needs that led them to occupy. But where? Where would be the best place for me to learn more about? The answer was my explicit purpose for this years’ theory class: Occupied City. Antwerp & Avant-Gardes.

After deciding that staying here would benefit both me and my husband, the only way I thought I could enjoy Antwerp was to learn the city behind the city. I felt alienated for a long time already and unless I started learning more and became acquainted with it’s history, I could stay alienated. After all, knowing a certain building’s former purpose to assist artists along the way to reforms, or crossing a street while pointing at a place where one knows that it was occupied by artists are the colors of the city. In passing, let’s not forget the fact that I’m also an artist who is established in Antwerp. I think as a student in the painting department of The Royal Academy of Antwerp, it’s crucial to be familiar with former students’ contributions, the challenges that they had to face and their footprints in our lives that traces back to them. It feels almost as though I owe it to the Academy and to the city of Antwerp. Also, engaging in such subjects combined with the relations of the Academy and it’s former students that took part in shaping the art back in the 20th century till now, was irresistible. What makes it so different for me, for someone who had a misfortune with general history, is that it was exciting! Not to mention my teacher Johan Pas, who was as passionate as sharing this knowledge as the subject itself, it was overall an intriguing experience that led me to research more. The more I dug the more I found information that was valuable to me. I know that I made a good decision before graduating, by selecting this essential course and I really appreciate it existing.

Research Question: As an artist of today, is it possible to free art from the corporate system?

Introduction

This research was the most engaging thing I ever did so far since my time here in Antwerp. I for sure didn’t feel like I was in any situation where I could experience a collective working method. Especially in the first few months after I arrived here. The sky was dark and cloudy most of the time. Causing lack of sunlight which isn’t helping the grey roads and buildings of the city. A psychological influence that one cannot avoid, that the reflection on the people is so evident, as people were as cold as the weather; No intention of reacting to their surroundings. Am I in danger? Is she being harassed? Does anyone care? Unwillingness to connect with others; A simple “Hello” or look in the eyes and smile… Seeing people not willing to interrupt the group of friends they built in long years and there I’m, trying so hard to engage. I’m often shy, an asocial person in situations of introducing myself compared to my other friends. But I thought that this amount of disconnection was not healthy. Missing so much content by not knowing Dutch. At the academy, I misunderstood half of the things that were said. The other half was in Dutch and I worked my brain so hard to find similarities in English to understand it. Gathering in the atelier to talk about our works and of course not everyone is going to explain themselves in English for two students. Explaining your work or methods are already a nervous act especially in front of a group. At that point they might think that it’s more important to transfer their thoughts in the best way possible than making sure that every single person understands how they are doing what they do. Some lessons were in English thankfully, like the class of Hans Theys. Then I was aware of some-things. Let’s not forget people’s constant reactions to my story: “Oh! You left your family and came all the way from Turkey to study in Antwerp. In another country? How did you do it? Don’t you miss your family? Etc. Reminding me that I can not see my family as often as they do. Visiting home every weekend if they choose to. The next closest city is how far? Like an hour by car? It was just terrible. I’m already in a discussion with myself about my artistic growth and contribution to the world as an artist, yet the pressure of the new system, school, culture wore me down the most. I haven’t felt any lonelier. Until I realized that the people here are not that different than what I was used to. I learned the language, worked at a student job in the city and went to some cafes/bars. Got harassed from time to time. Similar issues were happening but in an Antwerp customized format. You need to know where to hang out, where to smoke, where to complain and when to interfere. If you hang out at certain places and spend enough time on your relationships, you can find people who are open to change. Who reacts to each other and things, while others walk like zombies. Who is not shy to take a stand, while others stare like cows staring at a train. Who creates just to be able to answer a basic question, while others wonder artist’s income.

When I look through a wider frame concerning social issues and artists’ approach on them, I see no major differences between what Antwerp today is facing and what 20th century Antwerp had to face. With the urge to find new ways to artistically strengthen the communication between artist-art-people, they discovered the use of books and catalogs as their new exhibition places, then later simplistic yet powerful acts of mail art pushed the boundaries of collective actions in the 1980s. Whether encouraged G58, creating the zero exhibition in Hessenhuis or at the times of Gunther, Dennis Tyfus and Vaast Colson’s collective attempt of showing art in a hexagon structure, glass for walls, both questioned the gallery as a space and the place of contemporary art in the city. Since the 1960s, ongoing initiatives of artist-led organizations and project spaces such as Wide White Space, De Zwarte Panter… then, LLS Palaeis, C A S S T L or Pinkie Bowtie now shows that, the space insufficiency for contemporary art is still an obvious problem. In addition, the explosion of America’s commercialized art caused a mad profit driven contemporary galleries to appear. Pushing artists to question their self worth along with their art works’. While history keeps repeating itself in spite of new titles and names, the common events that they all share are the inevitable efforts of freeing art from it’s time. The binding point for me was the way they do it. Panamarenko and Dr. Hugo Heyrman occupied the Royal Museum, as an answer to “Where do Antwerpen artists go to, when an art related problem occurs?” Under the name of Vaga (Vrije Aktie Groep Antwerpen), demanding an exposition space for contemporary art, represents the very essence of what artist do; Being sensitive enough to question acts and happenings, focusing on the origin of the problem by having the courage to interfere, moving collectively to change/evolve the current... By the way, ICC, De Zwarte Panter and Club Moral were resolving the need of time’s emerging artists. It took about 20 years after the occupation to see a contemporary art gallery being established in Antwerp. They hoped to change people and their ideas and after years, looking back and realizing how they “partly made the city what it is and looks like today.” (1)

In the past, whether the long period of Renaissance dominating artists for what and how to paint in order to gain recognition and considered successful or, throughout the modern art where the numerous isms indicated the attitude of the time, some artists from each period have always proved to society and art organizations who shaped the society that, there will always be oppositions. Years of conservatism must have ended one way or another or, evolve until it became the past again. What was there to do if the artists didn’t want to depict religious stories or paint what they were commissioned anymore and yet be known and respected? Would the public pay attention and support those artists who rebelled against the time’s Salons? People don’t just obey circumstances do they? Without questioning or listening? We are beings who observe, learn and think. Who have opinions to discuss and ideas to express. Unfortunately, it’s way easier nowadays to numb our minds and accept without question to whatever is happening around us. Just submitting, now that we have more distractions than ever compared to other ages but, that’s why artists and thinkers are needed. A crucial part of nations. As Ataturk once said: “A nation devoid of art and artists cannot have a full existence.” If art and philosophy wasn’t the way to attain freedom (thinking and a way of living and earning the way you choose to), then what was? It wasn’t just about creating a space to show your artwork and make money off of it. It was a contumacy of the perception on the purpose of art and the role of artists in societies. In no way I’m saying that ordered paintings of elites, portraits of royalties and depictions of religious events were badly executed or less important but, I think the Mannerism was the most beautiful initiative and a milestone in 16th century that indicated what we owe to those who made today’s artist the way they are now.

Thanks to artists, art is a living thing and it will react to whether wars, regimes, isms or organizations. As results of uncountable disputes, what private collectors left for the public eye were masterpieces and partly well protected history. History of beauty. History of people, politics, religion, passion... For generations, people whether elite or common folk, admired artworks. Some wanted to buy and hang them on their wall. Some just wanted to stare at them and appreciate the artist's effort and some, wanted the possession of it for investment purposes. As everything became a market, as soon as contemporary art became a commercialized market, it didn’t take too long for opportunists or better to put “very smart people” to catch up to this market. To build their own even, where signing contracts were involved. Where artists must pick from “to be paid monthly” or “each art piece that was purchased”. This attitude of the market made some artists feel like merchants or as “reduced to a product”(2) This convention of the gallery system commercialized the artwork and the artist until any potential artistic transactions died. Without questioning the relationship between artist and the audience before the transaction happens. Exposing this gap between the uniqueness of an artist's contribution and marketing, that were inauthentically executed by corporate acts. The idea of independence and free expression in organizing oneself however, are more natural and pleasing. From this page forth, we’ll examine a group of artists who want to fill that gap by establishing a collective space that challenges, encourages them and others around.

Peter Fengler, Vaast Colson, Dennis Tyfus (Pre-Pinkie Bowtie Period)

Before the idea of researching the Pinkie Bowtie settled in my mind, I was already fascinated by Antwerpse artists’ passion of managing their own space, exhibition, catalogs and books. Numeros artists found the support they needed from this passion and processed it in collaborative manners. Leading them to experience different aspects of making and showing. Sharing a space while doing acties with no audience, making underground magazines... Solidarity was how I used to define an artist until I got familiar with Antwerp and its Avant Garde artists. As Vaast Colson mentioned during our class’ visit, he didn’t know why he didn’t have “the reflex in visual arts to directly organize” himself, as he did with skateboarding and music. Without boundaries, daringly creating a collective project to gather under an utopian idea. Like Frigo, an aktie group that was built by the academy's former students including Vaast. It was after graduating that he participated in Frigo akties. In the academy years, he was more focused on the traditional values of visual arts and the academy. Respecting the structure that the academy provided, he immersed himself with information before he wanted to become vocal. Visited every exhibition every week, found himself in libraries and bookstores around the city. Once he graduated, he felt lucky that he was immediately adopted by his first gallery. They cherished and spoiled him. Like an artist in a “golden cage” was maybe the reason he formed Frigo with his friends. Students from different departments coming together with another who was majoring in philosophy, to not just do an exhibition, but something that they share a process with. Without the presence of “other”. Almost like a private research group. Designing a context, sharing the experience, then let go. So the result wasn’t as important as the process. It would be akties such as inviting the group to a space like stage. Performing small tasks that were given from the current leader who have switched time to time. Such joyful and experimental events under a conceptual context. By inviting the audience, the context formed more solidly, that everybody’s reflex on akties was disturrupt. Everybody fell into a different mood, which led them to go off the rails. The idea was broken as Vaast puts it. When they tried to reunite after years, they were even further away from each other. The moment wasn’t there anymore so it didn’t work. Once the moment was gone, you couldn’t push it anymore. How I would like to narrate this, that once the akties gave all that it could to the individuals of Frigo, it completed its task of shaping them. And at last, as they let the idea go at the end of every akties, the idea left them. They needed a new goal, a new target to follow and Vaast claims that he found it with Dennis.

Dennis Tyfus’ and Vaast Colson path were about to cross. The duo’s collaboration series started with Scheldapen in 1998. Scheldapen was for a while an unauthorized collective organization which united artists and free thinking people in one place. They designed their own magazines. Performed experimental gigs, where Vaast and Dennis met often. Back then, Dennis, who spent years at the Radio Centraal, had the Ultra Eczema for a year already. Ultra Eczema is a record label in an untraditional way which was established by Dennis Tyfus. As he describes: “A place that draws a line through all of my activities that connects the points.” His ideal place to combine interests and influences with his work. A center for Dennis to thrive. It releases all sorts of things for over twenty one years. Such as books, t-shirts, flyers…. When Scheldapen became more organized and well supported by the government, they could feel the change in the effect of the place. After it shut down, the duo felt like they fell in a gap. The lack of space for art and the fondness of collective acts, pushed them to create Gunther. Duo’s first collaborative space, where they gave numerous concerts and performances. Another project space where you could challenge the ways of showing, created an atmosphere where friends and loved ones were involved. Long nights with music and deep conversations, experiencing and sharing together. As naive as to share a utopia together, one has to confront the end of things. Working hard to keep the place functional and busy schedules that requires travelling, caught up with Gunther. The relationship with the owner was also not going any better. They left the building along with Gunther.

Having reached the end with Gunther, only fired up the energy that the duo shared. It didn’t take too long for them to find a new place in the city. Even smaller than Gunther, De Stadslimiet was situated opposite the castle at the river Schelde. With De Stadslimiet, (also called Vansteensel & De Caigny Gallery) Vaast and Dennis kept on pushing the boundaries of artist-led initiatives, while LLS Paleis and other project spaces supported the variety of showing art in the Antwerp scene. Together with Ultra Eczema, De Stadslimiet became a point in the city where you could hear independent and non-commercial music. Self built cassettes and instruments, unheard, quality music. Now and then a solo show by Vom Grill… It’s also where Peter Fengler enters the pre-Pinkie Bowtie scene, if not already entered by collaborating with Ultra Eczema or exhibitions he held in M HKA and Middelheim. With his own production platform De Player, he is creating an alternative space for artists to cherish and share the mutual influences of visual arts and music. Progressing the contemporary scene in Rotterdam and the world. With the network they have; Vaast’s environment from the music industry and the Academy, Dennis’ Radio Centraal and Ultra Eczema roots, they created an atmosphere in the city that beats like a heart. They invited so many artists, hosted so many shows but not so much of their own work. They did more than the Gunther times but still not as much as they should, as Dennis Tyfus puts it. With Peter’s presence, once again the idea of organizing selfworks with less of being supportive of others and more of concentrating on your own practise emerged. Looking back at Gunther and Stadslimiet, they needed an artist who could also figure out the financial side of the next big thing: Pinkie Bowtie

Pinkie Bowtie

Pinkie Bowtie is a collective gallery in the center of Antwerp. It was founded January 1st, 2017 by three artists: Vaast Colson, Dennis Tyfus (Faes) and Peter Fengler. It is their idea of colliding their practices for collaborative work methods under one roof which created the Pinkie Bowtie. A way of seeking power from each other, a different type of dynamic which only would arise from group effort of three. As Fengler puts it: “a potential”. Potential of experimentation. Potential of unexpectant of when three artists come together. When we look at the founders individually, the only feature that they have in common is organizing, creating a sort of social environment. The rest do not meet. And it’s almost as though it is the reason why the Pinkie Bowtie is made out of them. They don’t want to be sorted or separated by their differences. Quite the contrary. By pushing the range of variety, they could only increase the quality and the uniqueness. As another definition by Fengler: “the opportunity to meet each other” He might or might not meant it as literally, I understand it figuratively. Meeting point for their practice and mediums. A potential to define, question and show art as Pinkie Bowtie. It’s the attitude of Pinkie Bowtie that shows the habit of hosting is still present. There is not only one type of exhibition that you can witness. There is not only one medium that you would get familiar with seeing. It is difficult to define it in one word. “Pinkie Bowtie is a personnage” The place is as liberal as the artists that represent it. Artists who don’t like to be stuck in one technique, that don’t want to stop thinking and questioning what they are doing. How and why? Their approach on life and art is the reason why they are not attempting this kind of initiative for the first time and won't be the last if they somehow happen to close. Exhibitions; installations, drawings and paintings. Performances that include concerts and experimental music. Participations in festivals, art fairs and open studios.

As becoming the Pinkie Bowtie, they experience the freedom of not having to do anything if they want to. Stumbled by De Stadslimiet’s tempo, they spent more time in the studio, focusing on their own work. That’s why the first three events were solo exhibitions. After a few collaborations, because of course the Pinkie Bowtie obtained the collective qualities of it’s artists, they began to feel the Pinkie Bowtie persona that thrives from the energy between the trio. Playing with presence and absence of organisms, proving that it’s not only a showroom but a place for them to experiment. Improvising with the form and presentation. Sometimes put in situations where they need to have faith in one another that created an even stronger bond. While representing it conceptually, also trusting another to represent it without you. When Pinkie Bowtie was invited to the Kraak festival in Brussels, it endorsed an act with a certain attitude. They had to feel one to make the persona appear, as they all were representing the Pinkie Bowtie. The effects of the place were undeniable. Symbolizing the taste of contemporary initiatives of Antwerp since the 1970s. Pinkie Bowtie Artists knew long ago about the location they reside now. Dennis wished to have a place there on Wolstraat 31 as soon as he got familiar with it’s history. ERCOLA (Experimental Research Center of Liberal Artists) was established by Jean-Claude Block, Jean-Claude Buytaert, photographer Piet Verbist and author Dominique Donnet in 1968. Once active and prolific ERCOLA, had a multidisciplinary approach including performance and music. Creating a rich network of artists that dealt with sound, color, light, time and space. Supporting the tradition of entrepreneur Antwerpen artists to organize their practise, they became non-profit in 1971. They have an ambition that influenced artists to get things done. ICC later M HKA, Radio Centraal, Club Moral couldn’t be without the awareness of ERCOLA in the city.

The purpose of Pinkie Bowtie’s existence comes down to carrying on that ambition. Even evolve it; “organize things from our own practice at any time and with every rhythm”, filling the gap between artist-audience-marketing. The time period to establish the Pinkie Bowtie was also an opportunity. Antwerpen artists and art lovers were confronting a strange time in the city when the three big organizations: The Royal Museum, M HKA and Extra City closed for restorations. The hopes then were turned to single galleries or artists’ initiatives such as C A S S T L which emerged around the same time as Pinkie Bowtie. Not selling nor representing any artist. They focus on showing art and the enjoyment that comes with it. Reopens the idea of switching the contemporary art scene to more a creative contemporary art experience. As encouraging as it sounds, the economics and maintenance of taking initiatives should not be mentioned lightly. if one doesn’t have any experience nor interest, the invisible tasks of the organization will obstacle the artist and the practice. Management, commercial, social media, take so much mind space to be focused on self. Galleries that represent artists however, will do everything else that they wouldn’t do. Create a platform on the internet for one’s image, publications and news. Any kind of effort to provide them the economic freedom as artists work for them. Giving artists “the space”, that eventually becomes “the gap”. The absence of authenticity, the malfunction that generates from “being” represented by other, were one of the reasons of Pinkie Bowtie, “but the economic aspect remains difficult” As a successful entrepreneur both as in quality of material and financial manner Peter Fengler, added his contribution to the group with his managing skills of De Player. Vaast Colson: “He is not only ten years older than us, but also very pragmatic, and that is what we sometimes miss.”

Designing and more importantly updating the website, hiring photographers for every event, the maintenance of the space costs money or time. As far as one could see from outside, Pinkie Bowtie is doing well with its time. Guessing that the past experience of all three artists, had the perfect chemistry to bring out and manage this initiative successfully. With current and upcoming events of Pinkie Bowtie and its artists individually, they seem on track. Continuing on expressing collectively and creating experiences both for themselves and the audience. Having the non-commercial point of view lets them co-exist with their fellow organizator artists and share the enjoyment of wide variety in the city. All together freeing art from its time once more.

Conclusion

Throughout the research and writing process, what I learned and experienced along the way was the most valuable outcome. Constant repetition of life that feels unique every time, influences of revolutionary individuals’ presence in the city and in its artists. Reminding the need and power of connection and reaction. Defining the very nature of humankind and everything else related with it. Joy and unity of sharing utopic perspectives to ease the tensions that don't need to exist. It’s pleasing to see two artists who had to break down a literal wall to collaborate together and end up organizing their own space over and over. Keep on creating in every manner possible, preserving their characteristics of self organizing and free thinking. Pushing the boundaries until there is none left. These traditional characteristics of Antwerp artists tells us, “that as long as there are limits, there will be many more walls to break down and we will break them down”. I can never look at the city again as I looked before this class. Emptiness that I felt during my time in this strange city is now filled with knowledge and curiosity. Once again I learned that art is a living thing which needs artists attention and care. Artists that don't let it be suppressed or labeled by any. Every young, emerging artists, especially the ones whose history is as full of akties and infinitives as Antwerp, must have an idea of the past. Engaging an enjoyable adventure of research to be able to comprehend today’s art world. Gaining an insight of the city by experiencing the spirit of the past. Generations of artists and artist-led initiatives showed that art can be free from its time if the artists cherish the value of collective methods.

The Pinkie Bowtie Explorers’ Club

Explorer’s club is the secret society of Pinkie Bowtie. If paid the membership fee, you can become a member which includes a personalized, framed bowtie and access to the beautiful minds of other members. Come together to discuss ideas or brainstorm in a familiar and dynamic environment.

Selin AYDINOL