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.

Blog 2 // Calais. Témoigner de la ‘jungle’ – the polyvalent echo of a social debate

This post is part of the series ‘Thesis Higlights‘ in which recently graduated master students affiliated with LGC are invited to give a short insight into their research. The first posting is by LGC intern Clara Wouters.

My master thesis focuses on the exhibition Calais. Témoigner de la ‘jungle’ which ran in the Centre Pompidou Paris during fall 2019. The infamously called ‘jungle’ in Calais started off with a temporary camp for (equally infamously named) ‘transitory migrants’ aiming to cross the Atlantic Ocean to the UK. Because of the slow and dangerous journey, the area quickly filled up to an amount of approximately 7000 inhabitants. The wild living conditions of the camp’s inhabitants created a very popular hot-spot for journalists. Pictures of sceneries in the camp were plentifully shared all over the world.

What makes this exhibition extraordinary, is the three-dimensional perspective on the sensitive social and political issue of (trans)migration. Curator Florian Ebner not only combined press pictures with the more reflective approach by artist Bruno Serralongue, but he also invited persons who were formerly on the move into the museum. The dynamic this creates is reinforced by a ‘conversation corner’ in which the debate is evoked between the different parties: a photojournalist, an AFP editor, art critics, Amnesty International lawyers, artist Bruno Serralongue, and former ‘jungle’ inhabitant and artist Alpha Diagne.

Bruno Serralongue, Agence France-Presse, Les Habitants [The Residents], Calais, témoigner de la Jungle [Calais, Witnessing the Jungle]. Installation view, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 2019. © Bruno Serralongue.

My research paper is divided into three chapters aligning with the three photographical approaches and one chapter that focuses on the practical construction of the exhibition. The first chapter looks at the methodology used by big press companies such as Agence France Presse (AFP) to spread out visual information on news topics. For example, I take this internationally shared picture of an Iranian camp inhabitant who sewed his lips as a form of protesting against the lack of right of speech for refugees. (Fig. 1) According to the photographer, Philippe Huguen, this is a good press picture as it does not need so much explanation. The picture surely catches attention and provokes a craving for information, a craving on which the whole media system is build. AFP editor Olivier Morin points out that only these types of pictures make it to the world, despite thousands of other pictures coming in every day. The pressure put on photographers to create a large amount of ‘interesting’ or ‘dramatic’ pictures in a small amount of time is high, and it takes away the possibility to really think about the pictures they take and the consequences for the people depicted. Especially in the case of the migrants, an unlucky recognizable shot of their profile in the media during a confrontation with the police, for example, could ruin their already small chance of successfully completing their asylum procedure. Therefore, there is a lot of tension in the relation between the media and the migrants, and little trust.

(Fig. 1)
© Philippe Huguen, 2016. (Yohan Blavignat, “A Calais, les “bouches cousues” poursuivent leur grève de faim.” Le Figaro.)

Many authors have warned for the abuse of power that comes with holding a camera, especially when pointed to people in a weaker position than the operator. Allan Sekula cites Walter Benjamin, who considers it impossible to document humanity without any form of barbarism. (Allan Sekula, Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Documentary, 1978) Susan Sontag compares the camera with a gun, John Berger the shutter button with the trigger of a gun. (Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, 2004 ; John Berger, About Looking, 1980) Ariella Azoulay points her finger at the imperialistic (mis)use of the camera in the very beginning of photography. She argues that some kind of universal right to look at everyone and everything, commonly used as an excuse by the media, is a fraud. (Ariella Azoulay, Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism, 2019)

Bruno Serralongue, Agence France-Presse, Les Habitants [The Residents], Calais, témoigner de la Jungle [Calais, Witnessing the Jungle]. Installation view, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 2019. © Bruno Serralongue.

Artist Bruno Serralongue is very aware of what he calls ‘the crisis in photojournalism’ and seeks for alternative ways to visualize the same sensitive news topics. Focusing rather on non-spectacular situations and non-events, he leaves behind the glorious ‘moment décisif’ of the photojournalist. He also undermines the race in speed by using a large format analogue camera. Because this method is not directly meant as critique on photojournalism, but more as an attempt to create more sustainable and humane alternatives, I build on the work of my supervisor Hilde Van Gelder in order to argue that the term ‘counter-photojournalism’ is more adequate than Allan Sekula’s ‘anti-photojournalism’. (Hilde Van Gelder, “Artistic ‘Non-Compliance’ with the Protocol Rules of Photojournalism” in Depth of Field, 2014 ; Allan Sekula, Waiting for Teargas, 2001) A good example is this picture of a charging point in the Calais camp. (Fig. 2) There is no action, and without any given context one could assume these men were at a festival charging their phones in between two concerts. But the somewhat clumsy fits of their jackets and the way the men are huddled in into the warmth of the coats spreads a feeling of hopelessness, of a lifetime of waiting. The phones are their only connection to relatives, who they either left behind or are waiting for them. It is their only insight into what is happening in the world and what governments are deciding on them. Because of the slow method of the analogue camera, Serralongue is obliged to start a conversation with his subjects, and ask them for their cooperation; in this way he also gains their trust.

Serralongue’s approach fits under the meta-critical way of documenting that is advocated by Allan Sekula. Requirements for the documentary maker therefore are (i) questioning the subject and provoking a dialogue, (ii) being aware of the expectation of truth that comes with the medium and not abusing it, (iii) questioning the representation itself. Serralongue is not the only contemporary artist concerned with classic ‘taxidermic’ representation in the documentary genre or photojournalism. In 2019, four Belgian artists signed the ‘Manifesto of the School for Speculative Documentary’ with which they aim to open a collective of artists actively trying to question representation and truth claims in documentary throughout their oeuvre. You can find more information about the activities of An Van Dienderen, Thomas Bellinck, Michiel Decleene en Max Pinckers on their collective website.

(Fig. 2)
Bruno Serralongue, Station des recharges des téléphones, “bidonville d’État” pour migrants, Calais, novembre 3th 2015, from the series Calais (2006-2018). © Bruno Serralongue.

In the third chapter I focus on the way in which the curators included the camp inhabitants themselves in the exhibition. They reached out to three organisations building bridges between the camp and the real world. Firstly, Art Refuge UK tries to give mental support to people on the move through art therapy and participative workshops. Secondly, Jungle Eye focuses on the accessibility of photography and art in the camp. They went around in the camp and asked for the photographs which the inhabitants took of their life there. This resulted in the series titled ‘Souvenirs from a nightmare’. (Fig. 3) The third organisation is called Agency of Artists in Exile (AAE) and offers professional equipment and administrational progress to artists on the move. For example, Alpha Diagne, who claims to be one of the first inhabitants of the Calais camp. He constructed a blue house on a little hill to create an atelier space for himself, but also to form a central space in the camp to promote friendships and social activities. The exhibition visitors can watch the short film ‘La Maison Bleue sur la Colline’, shot by AAE filmmaker Fadi Idris. It is interesting to remark that the images of Diagne in his atelier are accompanied by a voice-over of his own voice. It is possible that Idris did an attempt to be as neutral as possible in his role as filmmaker. Although the editing of the shots always brings out a style or interpretation of the filmmaker, the voice-over gives a very personal touch coming directly from the subject. Idris intentionally left behind an external journalist explanation in National Geographic style, keeping in mind the taxidermic structure this would create.

(Fig. 3)
Bruno Serralongue, Agence France-Presse, Les Habitants [The Residents], Calais, témoigner de la Jungle [Calais, Witnessing the Jungle]. Installation view, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 2019. © Bruno Serralongue.

In the last chapter of my thesis I focus on curator Florian Ebner’s intention with bringing this issue into the national, powerful museum of Centre Pompidou. Questioning the role the museum in general can play in social and political debates, I turned to Bruno Serralongue, who worked closely with Florian Ebner on this exhibition. He explained to me that biggest reason why this kind of participative exhibition was even possible is because of director Bernard Blistène, who believes that a museum should be ‘a chamber of echoes for our society’. The free admission exhibition took place in the Galleries de Photographie which is located in the basement of the museum. The atmosphere of this space is entirely different from the international and expensive exhibitions on the higher floors. Serralongue remarks: “This reminds of the hierarchical situation in society but also in the museum: the big names are at the top floors and you have to pay to see them. The usual question of reciprocity (f.e. exposure for the artists) was not accurate in the exhibition about Calais. They worked together with the artists and the camp inhabitants for the exhibition public. Everyone got their chance to tell an individual story via the conversations planned in the opening week of the exhibition. The migrants were not shown as victims, but as active people in our society.” As this thesis shows, the exhibition has succeeded in opening the debate on this subject. The multiplicity of perspectives has proven that a museum can be also a participatory space, open for every layer of the society. But in order to break the classic hierarchical structure and to bring this kind of exhibition to a higher floor, there is still a long way to go.

Blog 1 // They Say She Was – Artist Conversation with Erien Withouck

Image from the slide sequence ‘Selkie’ (2020), © Erien Withouck

This weekend will be the last chance to visit the exhibition “they say she was” at CAS, Ostend. In an old building located in the popular Belgian coastal town, artist Erien Withouck shows us the power of storytelling and oral history. “they say she was” portrays two stories of female characters: one from the Shetland Islands in Scotland and one from Ostend – Selkie and Miete Delanghe –, and each story is approached in a particular way. It is not surprising that the central medium remains photography, as Withouck is schooled in photography. The eye-catcher of the exhibition and also the cover photo, is a large black and white picture of Shedlandic waves. Withouck’s interest in the oral transmission of history is reflected in her use of headphones in the installation. These connect you directly to the voices of eight different women telling the Selkie story in their strong Shetlandic dialect. As you are listening to the varieties of the story of the Selkie Wife, you are also invited to watch a slide show with photographs of Shetland contemporary life. The second mythological character highlighted in Withouck’s exhibition, brings us close to the history of Ostend and its fishery. Miete Delanghe was, according to the fishermen, a witch who cursed them when they refused to give her fish. One of the stories about Delanghe is brought to you through an installation of posters at the gallery and the fishery docks.

Professor Hilde Van Gelder (HVG) and intern Clara Wouters (CW) sat down with artist Erien Withouck (EW) to talk about her interest in oral history, which led to this project.

CW: For this project, you went all the way to the Shetland Islands to discover the oral culture and in particular the myth of the Selkie. How does this project about mythology relate to your artistic interest throughout the years?

EW: My artistic projects always depart from material that I find, which can be either photography or archive documents. For this project about the Selkie story I decided to start from oral history, which is still very much alive on the Shetland Islands. It surprised me to see the amount of stories still travelling around there.

CW: As you are living and working in Belgium, how did you stumble upon this story in the Shetland Islands?

EW: I have travelled to the Islands before and I found it remarkable how isolated the people live there. In the past, this community lived off fishery industry. Men often went out to sea to fish and because this used to be very risky, there were numerous widowed women living on the islands. Women predominantly ran the community, which means that the history of the islands was transmitted through their voices. Focusing on the stories told by them brings out a female presence in history. This in particular is what attracted me to Sheltand in the first place. Also, storytelling is quite common there, more than in Belgium, so there it is not very hard to find stories like this one.

CW: The fact that the story is told by a female artist is also really important. Is this female point of view a common perspective in your artistic research?

EW: Yes. But it stands out the most in this project.

HVG: Your Belgian background together with the coastal theme of your project brings you to this exhibition space in Ostend. Can you explain how you translated the Selkie tradition into the Belgian context? And why did you choose the title “they say she was”? What does it mean?

EW: Maybe it is good to answer your last question first. I initially exhibited the Selkie project in Leuven (Ithaka #28, 2020). I wanted to show the project in Ostend for the obvious coastal link. But for this exhibition in CAS I wanted to add something which also put Ostend history into the picture. It was a bit harder to find vernacular history in Belgium than it was in Shetland. I think this is because the storytelling culture is less alive here. But nevertheless, after some research, I found the many stories of Miete Delanghe who was said to be a witch. As I got more informed about her, I kept in mind how this extra project would take form within the already existing exhibition. This is the point where the title “they say she was” came to me, as it can be applied to both stories. In addition, it includes also a reference to storytelling and oral culture itself and refers to the female perspective. By using the verb “was”, the meaning of the sentence can be purely existential, or one could easily add an adjective. I really wanted to bring Miete Delanghe’s story back to life here in Ostend, and this is why you will discover that the poster is not only hanging inside the exhibition space, but also on the docks of Ostend. The connection between the outside and the inside world is important for this project.

Installation view of the project Miete Delanghe (2020) at the fishery docks in Ostend,
© Erien Withouck

HVG: So the Selkie figure and the Miete Delanghe myth become slightly conflated in the exhibition.

EW: Yes they do. Because I think they have a lot in common. They are both strong and independent figures. The Selkie tale shows a more positive representation of a woman while Miete Delanghe was seen as a poor old witch, which says a lot about how women were presented in the past in these different coastal regions. Through studying these stories, I hope to present another perspective on the history of these two places.

Installation view of the exhibition they say she was (2020) at CAS, Ostend, © Erien Withouck

CW: You chose to highlight the oral transmission through adding hanging headphones to the exhibition space. They connect the visitor with Scottish women who each tell the story a little bit differently. Can you tell us more about this?

EW: What interests me in the idea of oral history is that it is not fixed, unlike writing or photography. It is always changing depending on the context. Every teller will insert their own nuance into the stories. Instead of portraying one single version of the story, I asked several women to tell it their way. In this way, the ephemeral character of these tales is emphasized. On another level, I am very interested in the way that oral culture gives a different perspective on history than the more dominant written texts, which are very fixed and dependent on authority.

CW: Written history is nonetheless easier to study, you just have to look them up in a library. But what is the methodology that you use for your research on vernacular, more ephemeral history?

EW: For the Selkie story, I did an open call on the Shetland radio for people who could tell me anything about Selkies. This was one way to get information, but another was simply to get around and drink tea together with the female inhabitants of the island. This way I not only learned a lot about the history of the island but also about the personalities of the people who live there. It was a really nice experience. In Ostend, it was different. Because of the lockdown situation, I wasn’t able to talk to people the way I did in Shetland. But there are resources and databanks for these kind of stories in Belgium, which is how I discovered Miete Delanghe.

HVG: But to get to know everything about Miete Delanghe, people should visit the exhibition of course. And you continue to look around for locals who can add elements to the story from their personal recollection. Is there something like a local radio in Ostend?

EW: There is, indeed. I’m still planning on contacting them. I’m also planning on collecting more of these types of stories. I already found some other interesting women who were said to be witches. This is definitely only the beginning of a much larger project, which will focus more on Belgian characters, starting with tales from Ostend.

CW: In the exhibition, you approach the subject through different media. Primarily there is photography, then you have the audio files with the interviews, and then you add a dictionary for a better understanding of the Shetland dialect. How did you come up with this multidimensional approach?

EW: For me, the photography in the exhibition stands for the present version of what the island looks like today. The voices, on the other hand, are a way to break this temporality and go back to history. So, the combination of the photos and the voices works as a link between the present and the past. Listening to the voices while watching the photographs creates an opportunity to make up your own version of the story. It is a way of speaking beyond the visual element. Similarly, the installation of the posters of Miete Delanghe transport the past stories into a present context.  

CW: The aspect of the dialect is also typical for these oral cultures, and this aspect is fading in our modern society. In this sense, it is interesting to bring it back together with the more personal side of history.

EW: Yes, language says a lot about history. For example, the language in Shetland is derived from Scottish, but the island was also colonized by Vikings at one point, which is why they also use some Norse words. So, in this dialect you can already read a lot about the past of the islands.  

Installation view of the exhibition they say she was (2020) at CAS, Ostend, © Erien Withouck

CW: Entering the exhibition, one big black and white picture directly attracts the attention of the visitor. Why did you choose to bring the focus to this image of the sea?

EW: Firstly, it had a lot to do with the space itself. CAS is located close to the sea and when you enter the space the sea directly looks back at you. The sea is for me a place of reflection, of travelling, it is a departure point but also a resting point. This is the image that comes to my mind when thinking about the stories. I wanted to bring this space of reflection into the exhibition.

CW: For me it also brings out a big contrast between the black and whiteness and the colour in the other pictures.

EW: Well, the colours of the coloured pictures have this coldness, blueness. This reflects the isolation of the island, but it also refers to the elements of wind and sea, which are very present there. I chose to print the big picture of the sea in black and white because it adds this notion of timelessness. Whereas the coloured pictures are not as timeless because they include very contemporary elements.

CW: To me, the black and white print of the sea looked very alive. I had to take a moment or two to realize that there really was no colour in the photograph. Depending on the way I looked, a green or blue shade would appear.

HVG: It is interesting that you say that because my initial impression was the other way around. Looking at the sequence of the pictures on the wall, I had to constantly convince myself that this was colour photography. You see the colours, but there’s something really airy and thin about their atmosphere, as if the colours are about to fade away. That adds tremendously to their enigma. This aspect is probably the most visible in the last picture on the wall, a picture in which you look through a window at the sea. This one is almost a black and white photograph, and it is very nice how exactly that picture makes the transition to the large black and white print. The visual narration builds up very well, and offers a fascinating prelude to the multi-medial installation in the adjacent room.

Installation view of the exhibition they say she was (2020) at CAS, Ostend,
© Erien Withouck

The exhibition will be open until the 26th of July in CAS. It is open on weekends from 14:00-18:00 at Frans Musinstraat 19, 8400, Ostend. The artist will be present on the 25th and the 26th of July. We hope to see you there!

For more projects by Erien Withouck, please visit her website.