This is a story about you, becoming the artist that you are today. You became a full-time artist, and for you being an artist means a constant establishing and dismantling of this role. Yes, that means that you think about yourself a lot. You often write in the first person. But not now. This story originated from at least two I’s, who came together to be you. They are juxtaposed, placed side by side, not fully merging.
A few years ago, you discovered what it is to be an artist-researcher, which transformed many artistic anxieties that had been built over time. You understand that part of doing artistic research is producing the infrastructure for the research, an economy of knowledge that has an aim to go somewhere else, to be shared. For lack of a better word, you use the phrase “ecosystem of artistic practice” to describe this fundamental aspect of artistic research. You tend to believe that artistic research, in this regard, could even be an alternative to the artistic practice that goes into the market. You went to a.pass, an artist-run program for artistic research. Let’s mark the words: trans-disciplinarity, experimental, the blending of discourse and practice, and practicing together. And we go further back in time to provide a background for what made you become the artist that you are today.
This artist didn’t start working as a child already, like some artists do. She did notice that she was able to draw what she sees more realistically than other kids, which is what grown-ups considered a talent for art. Her parents, of good standing, took her to museums, with work by dead artists. Another story says that she first learned about art from her uncles, who showed her books with black and white reproductions. The big museums were in the western countries that she would visit one day. When she went to museums she would have illogical subjective favourites. Usually paintings of women that seemed kind. She would fixate on these, as if they were made for her personally, and then she would buy the postcards of these paintings in the museum shop.
Her first conscious pedagogical encounter with art was in the “craft” class at her high school, which together with “drawing” formed the art curriculum. The craft teacher liked to use the powertools and would give students a high grade if they asked him to assist them. She graduated, but with a peculiar conceptual work: a half-folded cube of paper, which explored the border between the two classes: The fastest way to go from drawing to craft is to fold the paper, she reasoned. The teacher said that maybe she should look into the art academy, “they like these sort of things there.” She registered herself without telling her parents, who got angry with her. Or perhaps she thought about applying to an art academy, but she thought there were only ‘special’ people going there. Since she was quite sociable and even popular, she thought she was neither eccentric nor talented enough to be an artist.
During the first admission round at the art academy the coordinator asked her who her favorite artist was and she answered: “Miró?” He told her to look at more art. For the second admission round she brought her sketchbook with some drawings in it, her best. Her aunt told her that she shouldn’t show a half-full sketchbook because it would seem as if she didn’t have enough passion to finish it. She quickly filled up the sketch book with random drawings and collages. This artist got accepted into an art academy.
On her first day of art academy, during the opening speech, the head of the department said to all the new students: “No one is waiting for you.” When you think back to this, you want to sit down next to your former self, and clarify that it is possible to sustain a practice even if no one is waiting for you: “Unhelpful conditions like these might even be subverted in order to become the foundation of your practice. You will meet someone who calls it radicalization. When you align with your conditions you will see that they are not separate from the work, they are its material: this will be the way to break the spell.”
She liked it at the art academy, but she also cried a lot. Teachers were called “masters,” and one master didn’t like her paintings, he thought she was not expressive enough. Once, he got so annoyed by her slow and intermittent movements with a brush that he roughly took her hand in order to make an expressive movement. The brush broke in their hands.
In the second year all of the students had to choose a discipline. This artist chose printmaking, because it was the only thing she couldn’t learn by herself at home, she reasoned. It was the only department where people would work together in groups, because of the printing press. Hanging out with people and talking about art and life is the thing she liked the most. You still do, and are now finally exploring how hanging out could be an artistic practice. Also, the department was the only one led by a woman, actually for a long time she was the only female master at the Academy. The master would come twice a week, to look at her students’ drawings. They were only allowed to make self-portraits. She would take a look and select a couple of drawings which they were permitted to print.
It could also be that this artist chose sculpture, safely away from the bullies in the conceptual department. They didn’t have group classes anymore, only individual studio visits by teachers. When they came she had to talk about something. She got very good at talking about things without making anything. She would have liked to have group classes but her teachers said: “When you’re an artist, you won’t have classes either.”
She was alone a lot, she was supposed to work in her space, a studio. She would sit behind her desk, and then she would fall asleep. There was very little urgency to do anything at all, except for the four times per year when the students had to present something to be graded. She always pushed the deadline. She would always cry. She had to force herself to work, which made her think she wasn’t really an artist. She fantasised about making immersive installations, but she didn’t have the energy or the means. She got into Duchamp.
At a certain point she made her first video-performance. She had filmed herself reading a script in a forest. The head of the department asked her why she wasn’t standing in the middle of the frame, she didn’t know. He said that in art you should always know and choose these kinds of things with precision. After this, this artist started thinking more about what was expected of her, and what kind of art those expectations produce. Now you can not see art without the frames that were already proposed.
In 2011, the year before her graduation, national politics had turned against art. Even the person in charge of the cultural department said that he wasn’t interested in art. “Cultural entrepreneurship” became the magic word. This artist had to take a class on how to write a business plan, the students were encouraged to print business cards. They were very focused on the graduation show, because curators and gallerists would come by and it would be the perfect moment to “network.” The coordinator of her department had favourites, mostly boys who used drugs. Thus, he would direct the professionals to pass by their working spaces; they were presented in all the “best of” graduation shows.
After exiting the hierarchical framework held by the masters of the academy, she was suddenly on her own. She wondered: When am I going to be an artist? When is it going to come? Is it just going to show itself to me?
She worked as a babysitter, cashier, dog walker, technician, security guard, tour guide, hostess and more. She broke up the long relationship she had with an older artist and went back to live with her parents. She made jewellery with her sister, who had just finished high school, and they made some money selling it on the internet. She wanted to leave her home country so she started applying for master’s studies, but she couldn’t afford the visa.
Life felt like a series of loose events that wouldn’t turn into a narrative. She got really good at writing applications. She had an exhibition here and there, in kitchens and project spaces, over which she would expend many tears. During the openings she would feel detached and empty, like nobody cared about it really, not the curator, nor the exhibition space, nor the audience. She was on her own.
She came to Belgium and started her master’s studies, a new life. Today you would not accept to study in a place with a majority of male professors. Back then, she was surprised too, but she was just completely overwhelmed with all the changes. Besides the crazy bureaucratic procedures that this immigration required, she had to find a way to support this new life. For the studies, she started reading the kind of art theory in English that she wouldn’t even have been able to understand in her own language. It was not just her, the whole group of students struggled to understand things. The teacher, a prolific writer himself, would contribute very little to help the discussion. You are still not sure whether it was a style of pedagogy, or a lack of it.
After this master’s there was another master’s. Or: she never pursued a master’s. She couldn’t imagine getting grades for her practice. She was alienated by the whole enterprise of art, it seemed to be something that she didn’t want to do and maybe also couldn’t. She was always told by her parents: “If you’re good at something, you will find a place in the world.” You are not so sure about that anymore nor about what it means to be good.
She wanted to study or work abroad, but every residency rejected her. Except for a.pass, in Brussels. By this time, she had already become hyphenated as a performance-artist, artist-writer, artist-cashier and artist-babysitter. When she arrived at a.pass, however, she understood: she was an artist-researcher. On her first day there was a girl with big eyelashes, wearing some kind of space suit or workers jump-suit. Another new artist-researcher said that he was into sourdough and a writer in the group was experimenting with subtext, interested in protocols and psychoanalysis. You remember this well, you were so happy to meet these people. They used words that you didn’t understand, but then they also sometimes didn’t seem to understand themselves. You can still recall the first time she heard the word “phenomenology.” It didn’t sound like anything to her. They often gathered as a group to concern themselves with these un-understandable things, whether it was some speculative theoretical object, someone’s proposal, or the institution itself. They would talk about them for a long time.
Sometimes, she was concerned about spending too much time there with other people which meant she was not making money for a living. Sometimes she would get confused about this privilege and accessibility of knowledge and worry what would happen once the program was finished.
Sometimes she would remember that she was supposed to be an artist, with an individual practice. She would be mildly disconcerted, but then the concerns of the group would move her away from herself, like a big wave. Without realizing it, her perspective was shifting. Art used to signify the work, an object or a piece. The presentation of them, and what they would mean for her, what they would do for her. But now people kept mentioning “practice.” All the separate events and choices she had made became connected like beads on a necklace. And then there was another word: “research.” Instead of objects she thought about questions and the people who shared them. This made them her colleagues.
You say that it reminds you of certain moments at the academy, when watching and analysing films with your peers for example, or during reading groups. You would be working together, but not for the production of work or art. It would be a different kind of sociality. Now you call it trans-individual knowledge production.
They would sit at the table or on a carpet, on chairs or pillows, and talk about the institution. The institution considered itself to be a practice, a dynamic, speculative structure. For the first time, this artist who was always becoming an artist was in an institution which was always becoming an institution. Through this process she learned how to play and perform the conditions for work, as if those were hers. Her anxieties transformed from being the symptoms of pressure for success to being the symptoms of something like hope.
During a.pass, as she extended and dissolved into all of the other practices and issues, she became the oceanographer-artist making an archive of encounters with the ocean, she also became a dancer translating and dancing ballet into reggaeton, and a charming storyteller connecting medieval bestiaries and animal videos circulating on the internet. She could feel what it is to be obsessed with things you own and objects that inhabit your living interior, she could feel what happens with your body and the collective body if you walk at the slowest possible speed, if you become impersonal or if you close your eyes and you talk about your habits and your research horizontally whilst someone touches your hands.
You are a full-time artist-researcher now, which in your case means that you think about yourself a lot. The self seems porous and strange. You’ve met other people who feel the same, sometimes to such an extent that you don’t know who is voicing when you talk. You still have a hard time writing about it, this becoming through each other. You try anyway.
Adrijana Gvozdenović and Pia Louwerens
This text was written for the publication In these circumstances: On collaboration, performativity, self-organisation and transdisciplinarity in research-based practices (Eindhoven: Onomatopee, 2021), which collects the texts about artistic research as it is practiced in the co-learning environment of a.pass Brussels, on the occasion of its 14 year of existence. The launch of this book coincided with the Belgian Ministry of Education’s decision to end their financial support of a.pass.
Pia Louwerens researches the relationships between artist, artwork and the (institutional) context in which they are produced. She considers these relationships as intertextual entanglements, which she taps into by way of performances, spoken and written text. From 2017-2018 Louwerens participated in the post-graduate program of a.pass, and later joined their Research Center as an associate researcher in 2020-2021. In 2019-2020 Louwerens held the position of junior embedded artistic researcher in the multi-institutional research project Bridging Design, Technology and Art through Critical Making in the Netherlands. She has used her embedded position at an exhibition space to further understand how institutions co-write the practice that artists perform, and to fantasise about how these institutional “scripts” might be rewritten. In 2021 Louwerens self-published her novel I’m Not Sad, The World Is Sad: an autotheoretical, semi-fictional account of a performance artist who lands a part-time job as an Embedded Artistic Researcher in an art institution.