Urban Interventions

The Triennial Bruges has been reopened this year. And it turns out that showing contemporary art in confines of historic public spaces allows for interesting observations.

Atelier Bow-Wow, Canal Swimmer's Club, 2015

Atelier Bow-Wow, Canal Swimmer’s Club, 2015

When you move a piece of art out into the public sphere where people travel, new and unexpected situations arise. Left on its own, it’s almost impossible to control how the piece will be received, no longer protected by the so-called neutrality of the white cube. Yet, at the same time, it is in the public space, in that meeting with an unwary audience, that conditions are right for unexpected stories and different experiences. It brings a certain edge to the art works – in so many words.

So what do you need for an art project in a public space to succeed? Is it a problem that public art is often expected to have some function? And does it matter at all whether the public realises it is art or not, as long as they get something out of having experienced it? In the case of the Bruges Triennial, the interactive and usable aspect seems to have been key to success.

Rigid framework?
The first Triennial Bruges was held in the early 70’s followed by a second edition. Then a political shift in the city’s administration led to heavy cuts in funding for contemporary art, and the triennial was shelved. When the triennial was resurrected in 2013, Mayor Renaat Landuyt stipulated the following premise: that the triennial should take the form of a walk through in situ intervention pieces in the historic city centre. An idea that – according to the introduction in the catalogue – almost immediately “led to an exploration of the city’s identity”. Moreover, the triennial’s curators, Till-Holger Borchert and Michel Dewilde, wanted the triennial to touch on questions regarding the city’s future as a listed medieval city, how to deal with urban development, the tourist stream, new citizens – all seen from a city planning and sustainable growth perspective.

Bruges is amongst Europe’s most well-preserved medieval cities, and the city administration has done much to uphold that impression. The city is subject to strict limitations regarding alterations to architecture and cityscape, so as to preserve the authentic image of the medieval city as such. Besides leaving an aesthetically striking exterior that would make any (art) historian want to move there, this also leads to a flourishing tourist trade. Every year, close to five million tourists visit Bruges, where the inner city only houses roughly 20 000 inhabitants. The city’s success in maintaining its façade as a medieval city is attested by tourists asking when the city will close for the night. As if it were some sort of theme park.

Based on this, the curators posed the following question: “What would happen to the city if the those five million tourists who visit the city every year decided to stay?”

The question is not necessarily answered directly by pieces in the triennial, nor is whether it is answered with concrete solutions the most interesting thing. Rather, what is interesting is what we find between the layers: a more overarching view of the city space and city planning in general, and the people of Bruges’ feeling of ownership and access to the city in particular.

Measures are taken to set the city itself up as the protagonist in a story of urbanisation. Together, the various pieces in the triennial form a multifaceted narrative, in which themes like migrants, sustainability, availability, energy issues, overpopulation, and how to preserve one’s cultural and historical legacy hide beneath the surface.

Studio Mumbai, Bridge by the Canal, 2015

Studio Mumbai, Bridge by the Canal, 2015

Subtle (non-)places
Among the strongest projects – and my personal favourites – are the pieces that on the one hand do not make much of themselves in the cityscape, but on the other hand seem to make an impression on both members of the visiting public and city residents alike. These pieces turn a spotlight on non-places within the city – places you might normally pass and easily overlook because they are of no real consequence.

Bruges city centre is split by canals leading off in various directions, and one might think that this would encourage idyllic afternoons along the channel, evening dips, or the occasional boat ride. But the canals of Bruges are strictly regulated; there is no bathing in the canals, and only boating companies guiding tourists are allowed to operate boats on them.

One of the projects that deals with this topic, is a project belonging to the architectural collective Atelier Bow-Wow named Canal Swimmer’s Club. With a jetty built specifically for the occasion jutting out into one the city’s numerous canals, the collective has made it possible for citizens of Bruges to make use of their own city, if only for a brief while. When yours truly was visiting this summer, the little pier was crawling with life, and many people ventured a swim, despite this being forbidden on weekdays due to insufficient police presence.

Most people would agree that a jetty in a city with canals is perfectly natural. So, a jetty in a city where canals are not free for public use points to several things: 1) places for interaction are shaped in the urban spaces; 2) in a city where the local population is not entitled to the use of their own canals, this piece gives inhabitants back a little of their city.

A small bridge right outside the city centre points to something similar. Bruges city centre, about 4.3 square kilometres, is circumscribed by the city’s main canal, and tourists largely stay on the inside. Right outside is a different atmosphere, and it is here at that the Indian collective Studio Mumbai have built a roofed bridge on edge of the canal. It has been named Bridge by the Canal, which is quite apt, since the bridge is actually situated by the canal and not across it. The piece is plainly shaped, built of wood, and painted black. In all its simplicity, it encourages reflection on the paradoxical fact that the city’s inhabitants do not have free use of its waterways. Similarly to Bow-Wow’s jetty, Bridge by the Canal subtly focusses on non-places in the city, potential gathering spots in the public space, spaces for people from and in Bruges.

Tadashi Kawamata, Tree Huts in Bruges, 2015. Photo: Peter de Bruyne

Tadashi Kawamata, Tree Huts in Bruges, 2015. Photo: Peter de Bruyne

Utopian Settlements
Among the projects that directly touch on the question of “What should we do if all those five million tourists came to live in Bruges?” is Tadashi Kawamata’s. In one of Bruges’ cloister gardens, he has built wooden cabins high in the trees. On the face of it, this might seem like a utopian idea for how to settle the largest number of people until other solutions surface.

In contrast to Bridge by the Canal and Canal Swimmer’s Club, Kawamata’s cabins are completely inaccessible. The opportunity to see things from the bird’s-eye perspective the cabins would provide is unattainable, for we, as observers, are forever consigned to observing the cabins from below. Nowadays, one can easily draw a parallel to the social ladders that so many of the world’s citizens – for different reasons – are denied from every climbing. Are the cabins Europe and those of us on the ground people from the world’s southern reaches, fleeing war and misery?

Another piece that attempts to answer the question of (over)population is Nicolas Grenier’s Vertically Integrated Socialism. Plans and architect’s models show building complexes where the few and select at the top pay for the flats below, which there are more of and therefore house more people. It is a utopian and radical, but captivating idea for a way to provide a place to live for everyone. As a socio-political comment in a discourse on sustainable city planning, it works and may certainly be taken into consideration. But as a work of art, it risks coming across as too definite, too closed unto itself. In all its clarity, it prevents the possibility of alternative interpretations.

Historical Bases
Other pieces in the triennial deal concretely with Bruges’ history, and thereby also with the question of preserving cultural and historical legacy. Rainer Ganahl’s Über Capitalism is a sculpture made of chocolate, placed in one of the city’s green spaces. Its architectural figure recalls the Bourse, an inn in Bruges that became the world’s first bureau de change when the stream of guests from all over Europe forced the innkeeper to provide change for their various currencies. Ganahl’s medium also carries economic connotations, as chocolate is a key basis for income in both Bruges and Belgium at large. The fleeting nature of the melting chocolate becomes a strong picture of how delicate economic systems are, not unlike an historic town. And if you really dig, you can’t avoid Belgium’s colonialist history. If you then follow chocolate into the present day, you may find yourself with questions about the production of chocolate and the economic profit generated on the backs of underpaid (child) labourers.

Pan-human references may also – with a touch of good will – be seen in Nathan Coley’s project. In the courtyard of the bell tower overlooking the city’s market square, Coley has mounted light bulbs that form the words “wealth”, “belief”, “land”, and “mind” – words relatively dependent on context and the observer’s frame of reference. Though, there is a certain ambivalence on seeing the piece. Is it so open to interpretation that the result is anything and everything? Or is capable of making you reflect on what “wealth” means to a Belgian – as opposed to, say, a refugee on a boat – and thus able to make a relevant statement on the extreme contrasts in our world?

Vibeke Jensen, 1:1 Diamondscope, 2015. Photo: Piet Goethals

Vibeke Jensen, 1:1 Connect: Diamondscope, 2015. Photo: Piet Goethals

Other projects stand out as spectacular contrasts to the otherwise oh-so historic background, literally breaking up the cityscape. One such example is Vibeke Jensen’s contribution. In the middle of the main square Markt, you’ll find her 1:1 Connect: Diamondscope, an architecturally multifaceted construction covered in mirrors. The piece has become a favoured spot for selfies, for both tourist and citizen alike, and adjectives like “spectacular” and “superficial” might be the first that comes to mind. However, if you enter this architectural structure, you’ll find there is a small amphitheatre inside. And if you sit far enough up, you can see the top of the Bruges belfry from an angle you would normally never be able to. In their own ways, the mirror surface outside and the amphitheatre within each allow for different perspectives, which is where 1:1 Connect: Diamondscope contrasts with Kawamata’s wood cabins: in Jensen’s installation, you do have the opportunity to see things from a different perspective.

Amongst the triennial pieces that tie into Bruges as a medieval city in which the façade should be maintained, is the installation Undercurrent by the artist duo HeHe, which they have placed in the middle of a canal. Consisting of power masts with a repeating, electrified ticking sound, the artistic duo brings up the problems in preserving Bruges’ historic façade. In Undercurrent, a pylon stands up out of the water, more or less a source of irritation, indicating what would likely be reality should five million people actually decide to take up residence in the city: the electricity grid would probably become more obvious.

HeHe, Undercurrent, 2015.

HeHe, Undercurrent, 2015.

On Its Own Terms
Examples of art projects in the public space that have – for various reasons – failed, are numerous. In light of this, it is remarkable how Triennial Bruges has managed to organise a contemporary triennial that avoids being a UFO in the city, and is instead actually capable of intervening in city life and the day-to-day of what is the most important audience at any given time: the local population – the people who see this art every day. With several projects that subtly allow citizens to get involved on their own terms, so-called non-places in the city, places overlooked in the everyday, are highlighted and filled with activity. Seen altogether, and in light of the mayor’s wish for interactivity, you can’t help but conclude that the Bruges Triennial successfully shows residents and tourists other parts of the city than they would normally encounter, which in turn has probably created fertile soil for other, unexpected experiences and stories.

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