20 September, 2006


Like this, Vis-à-vis Art Lab becomes not just a place of mere transition or a ‘necessary’ stop on your artistic path. It is more a place of layers: residue, exchange and interference.

Peter Lemmens, artist, Belgium
Comment on his residency at Vis-à-vis Art Lab


1/ To what extent can you connect to the other place in a personal way for the development of
your art practice? What are the obstacles and opportunities?

2/ How can you communicate this experience to your own culture (artists, others)?

These two questions were to be addressed in an article on the experiences of a European artist in an Asian art residency. I submitted a proposal that dealt with the notion of margins: “As my own artistic practice is predominantly about exchange and the remix, I mostly depend on others to create my work. This requires efforts to connect to and with all the people involved and their cultures (in the broadest sense of the word). All need to let others intervene in each other’s work methods.

My residency at Vis-à-Vis Art Lab (Xiamen,China) besides having offered me the obvious opportunities of experiencing and being inspired by a foreign culture, had also some other effects. Vis-à-Vis Art Lab positions itself in along two margins: the evident geographical margin of my Western culture and the mental margin of an art scene. This position actually creates space, something that is almost out of stock in the art scene: some legroom for unconditional research. Exactly because of this marginality, it can offer the experience of another culture to its residents. This has the advantage and difficulty of forging other networks, methodologies and modes of connection. Also part of the residency was about reflecting on what Vis-à-vis Art Lab itself is and can be. This is one’s contribution to the programme and it creates a diversion from one’s own work. However this becomes a part of it: through this discussion, you evaluate indirectly your own position, works and methods.

Transferring this experience to one’s own culture means avoiding the trap of the exotic. Instead of geographical impressions, one needs to apply and translate this notion of margins as a constructive drive for development to one’s own culture and point out similar peripheries there.”

When my proposal for the article got accepted and I reread it, I had to reconfigure what I was trying to communicate with it. For the duration of the residency, the thing that stuck me the most was a feeling of operating in perimeters. So instead of trying to capture the complete experience, I focussed on this one aspect of connection. This feeling was tangible because of three marginalities.

First, there was the geographical margin: Vis-à-vis Art Lab is located near the beach in peripheral Xiamen, China. Coming from Antwerp - that’s inland Belgium -, the consequences, opportunities and difficulties of the actual, physical distance were obvious. A change of environment, especially to one that is entirely foreign, increases the number of impulses one has to deal with. Sometimes this is easy and fascinating, other times it’s more difficult and frustrating.

Second, there is the margin of the art scene. Although a rather big city, Xiamen is still significantly smaller than Beijing or Shanghai. It has no real art scene, in contrast with for example New York where there are five galleries in one building. This positions Vis-à-vis Art Lab on the fringes, almost in an artistic no man’s land. It leaves one without standard structures that are so predominant in the Western art scene such as galleries, museums, Biennales, etc. With this, one can consider the intricacies of decentralization. There is a need for complementary spaces, outside of the acknowledged, established geographies; Places with a different site and intent, anchored to an art scene so that other artistic practices can develop. This margin can also be seen as a margin for error, some leeway.
These two margins can be considered as a given.

Third and most interestingly is the margin this residency produces within one’s own work. Something that is more of a question than a given.
An important part of the Vis-à-vis Art Lab residency was the invitation to think about the programme itself, a call for participation in the actual operation. This was a diversion. It distracts you from your own curriculum. These considerations often came about in a spontaneous way, after supper, while working with the man from the print office, while waiting for the bus, during a visit of a temple…

It’s a surprise attack. What was at first only a digression from what you thought you had come for, become soon a considerable part of your praxis. This may seem unwanted, as it seems to create delay. I felt like postponing my schedule. However, it was precisely in this state of suspension that the advantage lay. All the questions and discussions about the residency, returned to you and your own work. You got to think of the deeper structure of your work; not despite the distractions, but exactly because of them. This rescheduling was the most intense interaction with the other culture, because it is not a margin you chose yourself, but one that reached out to you. This was the interface, it was what generated the connection. You side stepped your own given configurations and produce elusions, margins, latitude, scope. Vis-à-vis Art Lab generated distance in your own praxis.

This also means that besides producing your own work, you also had to shape the residency, both physically, by leaving work behind, as well as logistically.

You helped to give temporary direction and drive to the residency. Through this involvement you were responsible and you participated. Following residents would see the work you left behind, but they would also have to discuss the notions you inserted. This was their raw material to work with. A continuous shifting and re-organisation is expected to take place, so that each new resident can come there and be asked the same questions. This is the starting point, the default: margins via the “remainder” instead of the “reset”, through deliberate lingering instead of erasing. You steer clear of a status quo and allow new lines to demarcate what this residency is and by detour, what your own work is. The failure to unconditionally support the realisation of a predetermined work is not a deficiency. It is an asset. Like this, Vis-à-vis Art Lab becomes not just a place of mere transition or a ‘necessary’ stop on your artistic path. It is more a place of layers: residue, exchange and interference.

This brings us to the second question of how to communicate this to your own culture.

Based on the above experiences, it seems meaningful to dodge the cultural debate. It is not a ‘cultural’ issue per se, as if I speak for my culture or I convey their culture. It seems relevant to aim outside the immediate cultural sphere, outside of the exotic. To seek in stead, possibilities for exchange between individuals; hence the name Vis-à-vis.

The content you give to these margins will be determined by culture, your own background as well as the environment in which you are evolving. However it is the intent to create these margins that is paramount and that needs to be communicated. Via a distracting question, you can work with the givens of cultures: diversion as working method.

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