Blog 6 // Ithaka arts festival

Since 1993 the Ithaka arts festival has taken place in Leuven every year, but this edition was different from the others. For the 29th edition the expo, co-organized by LGC-intern Celien Govaerts (CG), was divided into two sections. Visitors could enjoy the work of 19 promising artists both online and in the open air. The online expo “Ithaka”, which you can still visit, offers a virtual 360° tour through Keizersberg Abbey where the work of 9 artists was exhibited. In addition, the “Odyssee” walking tour took you along the work of 10 artists accompanied by an audio guide. This trajectory included the work Anesthesie (2021) by LGC-fellow Clara Wouters (CW). In order to gain further insight into both the organisational and the artist’s side of such an arts festival, LGC-intern Ellen Van Driessche (EVD) asked them some questions.

Photo by Michiel Lemmens of Anesthesie (2021) by Clara Wouters on display at Convento.

EVD: Despite the current situation in which we find ourselves, LOKO, the student umbrella organisation in Leuven, managed to create a worthy alternative to the annual arts festival Ithaka. How did you experience this ‘odyssey’ as an organiser, Celien?

CG: A first difficulty was finding a suitable location, since there are fewer and fewer empty premises in Leuven that we did not already use as a venue. So we started early with this. The Keizersberg Abbey eventually became the location, where the online expo “Ithaka” would take place, but took a big bite out of the budget because of the rent. This will also become increasingly difficult for other organisations. The second part was an open-air exhibition entitled “Odyssee”, which was set up at locations where no rent was required, which helped to balance the budget. In the future, exhibiting at shops, bars and restaurants may therefore be a good alternative.

A second difficulty was the communication with many parties simultaneously for the organisation of the “Odyssee”. In addition, the fact that the exhibition also had to be suitable for families, given the coincidence factor, caused certain restrictions regarding the content of the exhibited works. We had thought of this beforehand, but certain works turned out not to fit in the chosen shop, or to be too sexual or too political. As a result, we moved a work to the online exhibition, for example.

During LOKO’s elections for the position of culture, one of the questions I was asked was “How are you going to involve as many people as possible in Ithaka?”. As an art historian, I don’t think everyone has something to do with art, and this should not necessarily be the case, because then you run the risk of detracting from the quality of the expo. Of course, you do want to show the works to a lot of people, so you have to find a balance, which I think we found this year. People often become visitors or spectators at the “Odyssee” by chance, which contributes to this. In previous editions, many peripheral activities were organised to involve people.

EVD: This year’s expo consists of two parts, an online expo called “Ithaka” and an open-air expo/walk called “Odyssee”. The latter takes the visitor to local shops, coffee bars or even pharmacies where works of art are displayed in the showcase. In this way, this edition seems to hark back to the origins of Ithaka, where the exhibition was also spread over various locations in the city. Was this a conscious choice?

CG: When I filled in the application for the subsidy of the Flemish government, I had to indicate the history, so I did indeed notice this. Ithaka has been an art route for quite a few years. Last semester it became clear several times that events would either have to continue online or be cancelled. This was a disappointment each time and certainly when many volunteers were involved. The idea started to grow to go in a different direction with this edition. So it is indeed, by a coincidence, inspired by the older editions of Ithaka.

Installation photo by Michiel Lemmens of Annelotte Lammertse’s work in the showcase of fabrics shop Pauli.

EVD: The online exhibition “Ithaka” at Keizersberg Abbey starts where the open-air exhibition “Odyssee” ends. How do you see this online continuation of the expo within the whole? How do you see the interaction between the fact that the art is inside and the visitor outside? The spaces where the art is exhibited are not all accessible, or more difficult to enter than in normal situations, and the works are exhibited behind a showcase or online.

CG: The story is indeed that you make the walk and then end up at the location of “Ithaka”, which you then visit online. The construction of the online expo was also an interesting element as it was there for a week, but no visitors saw it. This in itself was a new and experimental experience for us as organisers, but also for the artists.

When we were building the expo, the measures for students forbade a physical expo in one location because we are not a museum or a cultural institution. Because so much is already happening online, even though we are used to it, we felt that there should also be a physical element to this edition. With regard to the question of the accessibility of the expo, I think that people mainly felt safe this way. Besides, people have been going for walks a lot during the last year anyway. I often do the set-up route myself, so it was certainly nice to discover new things that you don’t consciously pay attention to. For example, the Klein Begijnhof looked like a small museum to me because there was art in the windows both on your left and right side. In short, everything was quite experimental.

Installation photo by Michiel Lemmens of Fee Veraghtert’s work on the windows of the houses in the Klein Begijnhof.

EVD: For some of the works in the open-air exhibition the link between the work of art and the location is very clear. For example, Annelotte Lammertse’s work, in which she works with fabrics, is exhibited at Pauli, a fabric shop. The same seems to apply to Eva Maria Bouillon’s work exhibited at the De Zeven Hoeken pharmacy, in which she deals with her grandmother’s germophobia. The works are very clean in both form and content and when you enter the farmacy you encounter a “clean” space which causes a continuation of the work. How did you match the artists with the place where they were exhibited?

CG: We certainly tried to find a good match. Fascinating here was that for some artists both the location and the work often changed and the match between location and work was in some cases rather coincidental. Sometimes you just need good windows. I am glad that the photography was at the “Odyssee”, because it did not come across so well online.

Installation photo by Michiel Lemmens of Eva Maria Bouillon’s work in the windows of De Zeven Hoeken farmacy.

EVD: Because you can enter certain locations where the works are exhibited, you can also look behind the work of art. As an art historian, I enjoyed experiencing the interaction between the art, the visitor and the shop staff with whom you sometimes start a conversation about the works. How do you see this interaction, Celien as an organizer and Clara as an artist?

CG: It’s definitely nice for the owners to see art in their window, even though there were a few art walks going on at the time. Especially for the artists, who were free in their communication with the traders, this is interesting.

CW: I don’t think it made much difference to the passer-by which display case the works were in. What I really like is that I was allowed to exhibit at the physical exhibition and not online. I myself, am very happy with the contact with the owners of Convento. They even suggested to leave the pictures up because they are not allowed to open yet.

CG: The owner of Animaux Speciaux told me that his neighbours often let him know that a lot of people were looking at the works in his showcase. Especially in these times, this is nice attention for cafés and other businesses that are closed.

EVD: The people who walk through the city sometimes unwittingly become visitors of the expo. How do you see that factor?

CG: When we were discussing this edition of Ithaka, it already came up as an interesting effect. For example, more people came for the Anatomical Theatre itself, which was the starting point of the “Odyssee”, than for the exhibited work because the monument is not often open. But I don’t think this is negative. I think it has been good for Ithaka to have done something different this year, which certainly contributes to opening up the event.

Installation photo by Michiel Lemmens of Anesthesie (2021) by Clara Wouters at Convento

EVD: Clara, in the artist talk about your work Anesthesie you tell that it originated in the first lockdown where there was overwhelming media attention for Covid-19. How did you experience the influence of the past year on your work?

CW: The second lockdown took place in the middle of my second year of photography at Sint-Lukas in Brussels. As a student, you are very dependent on the material that they provide to work or experiment with. Because of this, there was a shift from an analogue to a digital focus in my work. I didn’t think of myself as a digital person, but the end result of Anesthesie is all digital post-production. Moreover, for my bachelor paper I am now only working with screen videos and internet-inspired topics. I see that shift with many of my fellow students as well.

CG: Do you regret this?

CW: I don’t know. It is definitely a pity that the threshold for borrowing material at school has become very high. When I graduate in June that possibility will disappear and it is regrettable that I have not been able to try everything. On the other hand, it has certainly opened up interesting avenues for me, as I might never have worked with Internet art otherwise. I had to get out of my comfort zone.

EVD: How important are initiatives such as Ithaka arts festival for young artists?

CW: It is very difficult to make a career right away. So these low-threshold initiatives are ideal. As a student, you try to participate in as many things as possible and you hope that the curators find your work interesting. This sometimes doesn’t correspond to how the lecturers at my school view it, which can at times be funny.

EVD: Artist and LGC-fellow Joeri Verbesselt talks in his article Kannibalistisch Kabaal. Een wansmakelijk recept voor artistieke benadering en kladderij [Cannibalistic Rumble. An unsavoury recipe for artistic approach and a fine mess] about the excess of information and how he wants to take it all in and process it, partly willingly, partly obliged. He discusses his method of digestion, ingestion and egestion whereby he takes in the input, processes it and excretes it back in a fruitful form. You are also trying to deal with the enormous amounts of stimuli that we receive daily through the media. Can you identify with this?

CW: What Verbesselt discusses is very recognisable. He also says it in a very poetic and beautiful way. The fact that he uses these terms is also very coincidental, as the original title of Anesthesie was “indigestion” before,  and the original concept was the inability to digest the overwhelming amount of information. As I thought about how to work out this idea, the concept of a magazine-inspired booklet containing a crescendo of filters came up from which Anesthesie was born.

EVD: What does your method consist of? Can you elaborate on the filters?

CW: The search for the filters took a long time, about a year. In the beginning I read a lot of newspapers and cut out articles thinking that I had to do something with this because I was stuck in the pile of information. Originally I made collages and started to interpret things differently. For me this worked as a process of “digestion”. For others, the images came across more intensely because of the condensed information on one sheet of paper. In the collages, my own ideas are very much incorporated, which is less interesting for the viewer. Nevertheless, there are still a few in the booklet. After a long search, I decided to take the filters literally as a concept, so that the interpretation of the images could be broader. It is interesting for me to see how people manage to give a completely different interpretation.

For the application of the filters, I first worked manually, but later decided to combine it with digital layers. So first I scan everything and then edit it in Photoshop. The intensity of the filter also depends on how difficult I find that subject or image to process. As the book progresses, the images are deconstructed more and more as the last pages consist of the most traumatic images of the past year.

Photo by Michiel Lemmens of Anesthesie (2021) by Clara Wouters on display at Convento.

EVD: Could the display case or the closed nature of Convento be an extra filter? In the window the outside space is reflected, so it offers a kind of reduced visibility.

CW: That is indeed an interesting perspective. Other people have different thoughts and get those things out of it. I like that.

EVD: One of the pages shows refugees in a boat on a turbulent sea whose faces have been made unrecognisable. Are there certain subjects that you apply certain filters to, or deal with in a specific way?

CW: In the photo of the refugees, their faces are very clear, so I made them unrecognisable. In my opinion, it is absurd that we do not do this in view of their privacy. They are in mortal fear, which affects us, and this is one of the addictions. I am very much inspired by Susan Sontag’s book Regarding the Pain of Others (2003). Martha Rosler is also an inspiration. Through them two comes my love-hate relationship with photography. After all, don’t we become addicted to looking at bad news? I often think about that. It is all in the image.

Clara Wouters, Anesthesie, 2021.

Then, as you browse further, the photos become more and more unrecognisable. The last ones are almost completely unrecognisable and these are photos that have gone around the world of, for example, police violence or racist incidents that have traumatised many people. I find it strange that we continue to share them. That is why I filter them as hard as I can. If you leaf through the booklet, you get pain shots and the further you leaf through, the more you take painkillers.

EVD: In your work, both the quantity and the shock level of certain pictures and information play a role. Do you want to anticipate the anaesthesia that may occur when we see so many images? Are you a kind of anaesthetist who protects against the pain that occurs when we want to absorb the overload of stimuli through the media?

CW: I don’t see myself as an anaesthetist, because then it can come across as if I can solve it all or that I know it all. I had a lot of trouble with this at the beginning of my photography training. I first studied art history and had written about the crisis within photography in my bachelor paper and thesis. My first project for example, was about a befriended refugee family that I tried to visualise in different ways to avoid the one-sidedness. In hindsight, I was the one who just went home while they are still in their transition phase without the things I have. Theoretically, I knew exactly what I didn’t want to do, which blocked me in my practice. I only let go this year that I want to make art that is good for everyone. Anesthesie is a taste of a more digital way with an ironic touch of trying to keep that perfectionism in check. I think it should be very relatable.

EVD: You graduated as an art major and are now finishing up your photography bachelor’s degree. Is this interaction between theory and practice reflected in your work?

CW: I had been working with art and its criticism for 4 years, so I knew what I didn’t want to do. Without having that background, I would not be able to make meaningful works. I think it reinforces each other. For example, I wrote my thesis while I was already studying at Sint-Lukas, so there was a reciprocal effect. I certainly don’t want to have a negligent view of the whole history of photography. I think there should be something that deals with the two together. I still don’t feel like I know enough to get started. One of my examples is Hito Steyerl who also does research in art history and photography. I personally find it less interesting when this is missing.

For those who missed this edition of Ithaka and want to see the work Anesthesie by Clara Wouters can visit the Antwerp Art Weekend where it will be on display at De Studio.

Ellen Van Driessche is currently completing her MA in art history at KU Leuven focussing on contemporary art. For her thesis she researches alter ego’s and persona’s in the work of women artists. As part of the master’s programme, she is doing an internship at the Lieven Gevaert Centre.

Celien Govaerts is currently pursuing her MA in art history and social and cultural anthropology. After working with tourist posters for the Belgian Congo for her bachelor paper, she wants to dive deeper into colonial history and memory in contemporary art during the following years. Her internship at the Lieven Gevaert Centre investigates the role of art criticism today.

Clara Wouters recently completed her master in art history by doing research on artists who criticise photojournalism in their work. Currently she is completing her bachelor’s degree in photography at the LUCA School of Arts Brussels. Through her artistic projects she wants to highlight pending social and political problems such as the refugee crisis, the image overload and the textile industry. She created a website where you can see her work.