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Reports and interviews2011.1.11

Artist-in-Residence NOW: 09 Creative Alternative Space in Belgium and Paris

Atsuko Hisano, Program Director, The Saison Foundation

From April to June 2010 I had the opportunity to visit Europe as part of an Agency for Cultural Affairs program. One of my objectives was to search for a “creative space” that can serve as a model for a new artist-in-residence (AIR) development at the Saison Foundation where I work. This came about after the Foundation decided to open a small studio, lounge and accommodation facility for artists and staff from outside Tokyo and overseas, on a plot of land next to Morishita Studio, a theater training facility the foundation owns in Morishita, in Tokyo’s Taito Ward.

I will write about two organizations I came across during visits to France, Belgium and elsewhere. Both are small organizations but conduct unique activities. They do not limit themselves to one genre, and provide support extending beyond artist residencies. One is Les Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers in France, the other is wp Zimmer in Belgium.

Les Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers (or “Laboratoires”) is a non-profit organization housed in a converted metal factory located in a Paris suburb with a large immigrant population. The 900-square meter site includes two studios, warehouses, workshops, accommodation for artists in residence and an office. The Laboratoires regards itself as a research tool for pursuing art, and invites—from both France and further afield—performing-arts and fine-arts curators proposing interdisciplinary art projects involving culture, society and science. The artistic direction of the Laboratoires is entrusted to a team of young curators in their 30s and 40s hailing from diverse backgrounds. Their term of appointment is three years. Depending on the project, each curator assumes a role that makes the most of their specialty, collaborating by providing and sharing resources drawn from their respective fields of expertise. The projects typically span multiple genres and are realized by employing all manner of artistic expressions including workshops, exhibits, performances, videos and dialogues.

There is also a system of cooperation at the organization for enabling young curators to realize their ideas; namely, the presence of technical staff and six “permanent staff” members, who are charged with the operation and administration of the facilities. The organization receives financial support from the commune of Aubervilliers, Seine-Saint-Denis General Council, Île-de-France Regional Council and the Ministry of Culture and Communication.

Processes and issues of upcoming projects at the Laboratoires are subjected to public discussion by members of the art world, the local community and the audience at regular discussion meetings called “rendezvous.” The Laboratoires believes that it is more important that a project undergoes a process of transformation as a result of being shared by many people through presentations at the Laboratoires and discussions at the rendezvous, rather than remaining faithful to the original idea. Records of processes and outcomes of completed projects or works are compiled and distributed worldwide. The Laboratoires has hosted projects by a diverse range of artists including Nature Theater of Oklahoma (U.S.), Jérôme Bel (France), Antonia Baehr (France/Germany) and Walid Raad (Lebanon).

At the time I visited the Laboratoires, video artist Akram Zaatari, who is known worldwide as a founding member of Lebanon’s Atlas Group, was the resident artist. I was fortunate enough to watch his project’s final presentation, a performance titled Conversation avec un cinéaste israélien imaginé: Avi Mograbi. The performance was part of an art project which involved archiving the history of the Lebanese-Israeli war from the perspective of an individual living in Lebanon. The project itself comprised an array of media including photography, oral history, film, objects, correspondence, installation and performances, and was a typical example of an ideal match between the objectives of the Laboratoires and the methods adopted by the artist (incidentally, contact between Lebanon and Israel is currently banned, which is why the two real-life film directors who make appearances are treated as imaginary personages).

A team of three curators, although only recently appointed from dance and fine-arts backgrounds, were literally devoted body and soul to supporting Mr. Zaatari’s project, and were eager to learn from him. The teamwork of veteran staff members who provided behind-the-scenes support to the curatorial team was another factor contributing to the project’s success.

The Laboratoires is unwavering in its belief that young personnel should provide the artistic direction of the organization if the organization is to remain an experimental place. Indeed this belief has given the three curators valuable experience that includes responsibility for the project—even its failure, should that come to be—at an early stage of their careers, and helped them achieve significant growth. The case demonstrates that AIR programs not only support the work of artists but are also effective training opportunities for personnel supporting such artists.

About 40 minutes by train from Brussels, Belgium’s wp Zimmer is located in the north of Antwerp, in a neighborhood with a sizeable Turkish immigrant community. It is a space for artists to do their creative work, and focuses especially on international activities. The blue entrance door made of heavy iron is usually kept firmly shut, but once pushed open reveals a sunny patio and a mature tree. The building is a former vegetable storehouse, the vestiges of which are still visible here and there. The compact facility consists of a studio, which is also used as a theater, kitchen-cum-lounge, workshops, storage room, office, and accommodation for three to five persons. There are plans to add more studios by purchasing the land adjoining the courtyard. There are five staff members: the artistic director, plus general affairs, production, management and technical personnel. Only the artistic director is there full-time, and seemed to be handling most of the duties. The organization’s running cost is met by grants from the Flemish Community and the municipality of Antwerp. Resident artists also apply for individual grants for respective projects.

wp Zimmer calls itself a “home” for emerging dance, physical-theater and performance artists who do not yet have their own base. It offers short and long residency programs. The short program provides accommodation and studio space for up to two weeks for artists needing a workplace. For the long program, the artistic director selects seven foreign artists working in Belgium, to whom wp Zimmer provides not only a base but all aspects of support, enabling them to continue activities in Belgium. This includes consultations regarding visas, social security, management, contents of works, non-profit organization registrations, grant applications, work execution, public performances and public relations. Support is offered not for a fixed period but until the artist is deemed capable of independent activities in the Belgian performing arts scene. Similarly there are no fixed selection criteria: collaboration between wp Zimmer and an artist begins when the artistic director contacts an artist considered both capable of developing his/her work and career in Belgium, and in need of support. Etienne Guilloteau is a French choreographer long supported by wp Zimmer. This year he became independent and took part in the Kunsten Festival des Arts, which is held every May in Brussels. When I visited wp Zimmer I chanced upon Brussels-based choreographer Koshi Hidama, who was spending his residency at wp Zimmer. Immersed in a great number of books in a spacious studio he had to himself, Mr. Hidama appeared well-focused on ideas for his work, free of any distractions.

During my trip to Europe I visited many art residency facilities in addition to the above two: there was a national center for choreographers, a facility established in a converted monastery in Paris and a residence attached to a theater, which were all admirable institutions. Why then, did the Laboratoires and wp Zimmer outshine them, when both are located in somewhat tough neighborhoods and their buildings far from pristine?

The reason is their high degree of specialization; they commit themselves to incubating roles for new works, and leave the presentation of works to the theater. This exclusivity is manifested in the well thought-out facilities and availability of support staff with expert knowledge. They capitalize on their small institutional size and provide fine-tuned and intimate support. They also have in place a system based on extensive networks with domestic and foreign art centers, cultural institutions and festivals that allow works completed during residencies to tour or be invited for presentation. This is possible not only because their theater systems and creative environments are better-developed than in Japan, but also because their residency artists are producing works that warrant such a reception.

All is not rosy though, as they share some of the problems faced in Japan. Unlike theater performances, residency programs have a low profile in society, making it less easy to solicit external support and appreciation. This is why the two institutions go to great lengths to publicize residency artists’ profiles, works and projects. Documentations of Laboratoire projects, executed in French and English by external editors, are full-fledged studies in their own rights, with richness of content far beyond a mere report; wp Zimmer produces and widely distributes bilingual booklets written in both Flemish and English introducing the activities of residency artists. I strongly feel that Japanese programs have a lot to emulate from these efforts, which are crucial approaches for informing society of the significance of our activities.

Morishita Studio’s new annex is set to open next June. I am not sure how much of what I have seen and learned can be put into practice; to be honest, prospects are tough, given the tight funds and staffing levels. However, optimism outweighs apprehension when I reflect on the fact that both the Laboratoires and wp Zimmer only gradually took their present shapes through a long process of trial and error. I think the development of AIR programs are more advanced in the fine arts than in the performing arts. I look forward to your input.

Les Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers: