Caveat is a collective research project initiated by Jubilee, reflecting and acting on the ecology of artistic practice. Emptor continues along the methodology and efforts of Caveat. It actively applies the practice-based approach to 'property', a concept that highly defines the economy of visual arts.

Report of Assembly of Practice #4: Whose collection?

On 3 March 2023, Emptor assembled artists, research dramaturges and other professionals around the question “Whose collection?” in the working studios of a.pass (Brussels) for a day of collective reflection.

Contemporary practices are faced with faltering funding and lingering negotiations regarding their integration into collections (read, for instance, this double interview with Agency and Katya Ev by Lotte Bode, MHKA. In times of acute conflict, this moment is an attempt to engage with the meaning and potentiality of a collection.

Reading Room #26 set the tone for the day: “How to imagine collections as shared practice?” Following a workshop by Vijai Patchineelam and Heide Hinrichs in a.pass, we read ‘Threads from the Labyrinth (About a Library in Beirut)’ by Rachel Dedman, part of shelf documents: art library as practice (ed: Heide Hinrichs, Jo-ey Tang and Elizabeth Haines, 2020). The text shines light on our ideas about “libraries that are more than books, in buildings that are more than stone.”

We considered everything potentially interesting. ... The idea was that Mansioners would be invited on a rotating basis to spend some time exploring the library, select between five and ten books that spoke to them, and place them on display. They could choose things related to their work or research, of course, but equal value was placed on things for their visual, graphic or sensorial qualities.

The collection as a commons, managed by principles of commoning. The collection, and the practice of its activation.

The collection of practices addressed in this Assembly of Practice reflected the gluttony we sometimes observe in collections and the difficulties of capturing contemporary practices within a curated framework. The richly filled programme did not get completed, the arc of attention seemed difficult to manage and attempts at activation in the public programme deviated from the plan.

Teresa Calonje took us through her research on ‘appropriating’ gestures, putting the finger on strategies that emerge within artistic practices to evade or integrate property into a live art practice. Through La Ribot’s work and experiments within the humanities, we arrive at notions of material remnants of a practice as ‘traumatic objects’ (case study: La Ribot’s N°14 from her series of Distinguished Pieces, 1997), the [fixating] of a practice in a collection as capturing (and decapitation, in the practice of Brazilian performance artist Luísa Nóbrega), and the possibility or impossibility of the activation of collected works. Calonje’s account brings us back to ‘resilience and rethinking’. Dealing with trauma in collective ways is thus made central and connected to the issue of collections.

Jennifer Beauloye gives us an account of the collecting policy of the new museum Kanal-Centre Pompidou (Brussels, open since early 2018), the order of the day within a new arts institution, and the hunger to search for new ways of instituting a collection together with a local arts field. Hunger for ideas from the artistic practice, and from the confrontation with them, developing new modes of collecting.

Raphaël Pirenne enthusiastically steps in with his research and policy work on an inter-institutional platform for artists’ archives in the French-speaking Community of Belgium. The platform aims to bring together institutional players around archival issues, with the objective of activation and transmission, rather than conservation of artistic practices.

Pirenne’s collaboration with students of the art school Erg around the activation of the archives of Erg Galerie illustrates the ambition and brings us to questions “what to preserve?”, “and how?”, and ways to address them collaboratively within an educational context. The creativity of his approach raises the question of the artistic or non-artistic nature of his practice and reasons for putting himself in the ‘artist’ category or not.

Of which practices do we want to keep a trace in art collections?

The artistic practices in this Assembly are delayed. The repeated rescheduling of a presentation of Agency’s work seems to suggest that a practice cannot be separated from its inspirer.

We returned to one of the protagonists of Reading Room #26, Heide Hinrichs. The artist guided us through Silent Sisters - Stille Schwestern. A process in which she brings together Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's book Dictee (1982) with her own unauthorised German translation of it – after the artist’s life had been violently cut-off, a publishing house as well as a museum have prevented any translation of the seminal work on the intersection of literature and conceptual art. An artist-driven, investigative activation of a collection piece that brings us to discussions about paternalism, copyright and reintegration into collections of art.

Hinrichs’s poetic way of breaking down rigid institutional frameworks of collection management and preservation is also featured in On some of the Birds of Nepal (Parting the Animal Kingdom of the East). The way she brings into this work the theme of ‘care’ within collecting and conservating led to a conversation about the reconnection of collections to their origins and the worsening expansion of bureaucratic risk management.

Seamlessly, this leads us to the first guest in the public programme Eline De Clercq, who practices and researches gardening as an artistic practice. The short film Gesamthof / A Lesbian Garden, which she made with filmmaker Anne Reijniers, captures the material elements of this practice – the garden – and unfolds reflections about natural ecology as a collection, diversity and the indispensable collaboration between species. The film is an impression of the garden in a vertical movement, alternating between the vegetation and the humus layer, on a rainy day with a wavering, reflective voice as an undertone.

The audience was interested in the diversity angle. LGBTQI and botany are more closely related than one might suspect: numerous plants and mosses can reproduce through female-only specimens. De Clercq explained that lesbian love makes one realise how strongly Western society is encoded by paternalistic conventions: ruled by money, women are there to procreate and satisfy scripted ideals of beauty. The Gesamthof garden does not have to do any of that: with others, De Clercq has been taking care of it in order to do justice to the species present – without having to bear fruit, without having to be there for the pleasure of people, without money. Nevertheless, the garden gives in abundance: by tending it, the garden provides more flowers and plants than there is room for, as well as lessons and insights. The relationship between artist and garden - a form of guardianship - makes us realise that the three kinds of property rights a person can enjoy since antiquity – usus (use), fructus (profit) and abusus (disposal)[] can be complimented by ‘property obligations’: cura (care), stadium (study).

Time for action. Stijn Van Dorpe took us to the dance floor in a corner of a.pass’ immense collective workspace. Introducing us to the micro environment of his work Curating is Writing the Future, he handed out: wooden frames, five jugs of water and one of vodka, a wooden miniature tractor. On the dance floor, six people stood in front of music stands: Stijn Van Dorpe, Raphaël Pirenne, Guy Gypens, Teresa Calonje, Kristien Vandenbrande and Julie Van Elslande. They embodied the roles of artist and curator, teacher, housing fund, collector, co-initiator and lawyer respectively – the protagonists in the project. They reactivated the work reading out loud the agreements that define their relationships and responsibilities.

In the discussion that followed, attempting to transpose the work to a macro scale, questions arose about the sense and nonsense of contracts, the artificial layer they might create and their potential to bring about change in relationships on the arts field.

Time must tell whether this re-activation will have an effect on the renegotiated role of collector into a ‘guardian’, on the (im)possibility of appropriation of the work contained in contracts, and the constellation between art and non-art actors. In other words, whether curating is really a way of writing the future.

What this activation does already teach is that activating art works is a way to better conservate them. (The list of material elements that make up the work was completed, we established that one piece was damaged, and the possibility of transporting the ensemble by cargo bike has been noted.)

Between soup and sandwiches we recalled Raphaël Pirenne’s practice, and decided to integrate Agency’s practice into the day, introduced by Pirenne – who is also a member of Agency’s board of directors.

After a film and a performance, we seemed ready for the activation of a “boundary thing” from Agency’s collection, or “list”. In consultation with Emptor, Agency’s initiator Kobe Matthys prepared the case Thing 002514 (tensegrity) concerning video recordings and interpretations of Carlo Castaneda’s Magical Passes. A dispute between his granddaughter, her partner and several companies, which Castaneda co-founded in the years before his death materialized in a legal case. In a collective reading of the Thing at the end of the evening, no speculations arise. As in the trial, Agency thus presented us with questions about the relation between ‘art’ and ‘practicing’, about transmission and how it involves more than just the transmission of material pieces, the designation of those responsible, and a protocol.

Agency’s practice, which explores the divide between nature and culture and the role of copyright in it, thus re-emphasises the importance of the questions of its enquiry into how ‘the list of things’ could be collectively managed and continued. And whether, and how, Agency’s assemblies can take place without Kobe Matthys. Already, Thing 002514 puts into perspective the possible consequences of the creation of corporate legal structures and trademarks, and invites us to speculate beyond the facts and legal analyses on what exactly is part of its very collection of lists and how it can be reactivated.

Traumatic objects, healing, shamanism, re-activation...our reflection within Emptor is finished but far from over. First upcoming testimonial: Grace Ndiritu, Healing the Museum, 01/04 - 10/09/2023 at SMAK, Ghent.