Apparatus 22: Brussels

The curator Evelyn Simons visited Apparatus 22 at their studio in Brussels, »having a highly inspirational conversation on their thought-provoking and multi-layered practice, which offers poignant but ironic social critique.«

Interview with Apparatus 22 by Evelyn Simons — Sep 19, 2016

Evelyn Simons, studio visit »Apparatus 22: Brussels«, 2016
Apparatus 22 – »TRINITY, TRIANGLE, THREESOME«, detail, installation, 2016

The art collective Apparatus 22, former Solitude fellows for design, operates between Bucharest, Brussels, and Turin. For an insight into their studios, they invited three curators from the three cities to discuss their work and thoughts. Find an interview by the Brussels-based curator Evelyn Simons in this post and also take a look behind the scenes in Bucharest and Turin.

Apparatus 22 are currently curators and jurors for the third Schlosspost web residencies under the title »SUPRAINFINIT: L’Avenir redux«. All creatives – visual artists, musicians, writers, scientists, etc. – are invited to apply with all possible formats until October 21, 2016 to expand the Suprainfinit universe with ideas, fantasies, and manifestoes for rituals, dreams, exchanges, objects, energies, knowledge, and new words for other futures. Find all information here.

Studio Visit in Brussels by Evelyn Simons

I first discovered Apparatus 22 at this year’s edition of Poppositions, the alternative art fair held in the notorious but lively suburb of Molenbeek. The scent and creamy colors of their exhibited leather works hypnotized and soothed me after an art-overdose weekend. My curiosity was further triggered through the virtual language the works revealed, evocatively alienating though recognizable obsessions of appearance.

A few weeks later, we drank store-bought beers together and discussed art, fashion, and consumerism at the opening of Hidden, a window shop exhibition in which Apparatus 22 participated. Fast forward a few more weeks, they welcomed me in their temporary space in Schaerbeek, within the impressive Loft residency housing a selection of works from the Servais Family Collection.

I stayed for hours, having a highly inspirational conversation on their thought-provoking and multi-layered practice, which offers poignant but ironic social critique on the verge between fashion and art. Great to have them in Brussels!

Evelyn Simons, studio visit »Apparatus 22: Brussels«, 2016

Apparatus 22 – »Erratic Statistics (cluster)«, objects, 2016

ES: Coming from fashion, how do you position yourself towards consumerism in the art world? How does this influence your practice?

A22: The acceleration of production and consumption were the main reasons we left the race imposed by the fashion system back when we had the label Rozalb de Mura (2005 – 2011). It was painful to throw ideas and so much hard work into the bin every six months, and we drowned in the frantic overproduction around us.

Also, more importantly, we felt we needed the freedom only the art context could offer.

Things are relatively different in the art context, at least in regard to the pace. Certainly, the commodification is obvious; there is a powerful market unfortunately more and more driven by investment thinking, which exerts excessive pressure on artists and galleries, etc.

Our take on consumerism within our practice sometimes infers a scrutiny of the rhetoric employed by corporations to seduce us all or a glimpse into the precariousness brought about by greediness masked as imperative economic efficiency; or a radiography of short-term thinking in fashion and beyond abusing resources and myopic to the destructive impact in the long-term.

As to the art system, our way of reacting to such topic sometimes involves a rather defiant attitude of placing some of the things we do outside the market logic: how we deal with prices for certain works, the manner in which some works circulate. Also, some of the works we imagined and intend to show don’t need institutional frame – for example the series of appearances entitled Elastic Test which will act as performative public interventions in various cities this autumn to open the conversation on divergent perspectives that can cohabitate. A direct exchange.

There are also other strategies: for example experimenting with collective production of work and blurring authorship boundaries, as in the joint work The Hour Broadcast sound installation (with StudioBASAR and SillyConductor) or in The Continuum Broadcast, which is now in production (with Simon Asencio and Irina Bujor).

Or it is just something as simple as not showing work we are not totally convinced about – such a decision is definitely easier to take in a collective when the three of us must be content with what is being presented in public.

ES: You also explore the notion of labor.

How do you see this in relation to the performative and demanding art world?

A22: You’re probably referring to Art is Work. We were intrigued and consequently won over by the failed Utopian dream of Italian futurist artist and designer Thayaht – a universal piece of clothing. Its aesthetic resemblance to a worker’s uniform as well as its ambitious attempt at universality fascinated us and we imagined a reinterpreted Tuta as the perfect canvas on which to add another layer: a two-version text questioning the valuation and remuneration of artistic labor.

The debate »work vs. play« and the topic of valuation and remuneration of artistic work are vast and therefore we decided to emphasize the occurrence in which artists provide work in an exhibition (or other institutional format). The focus of the discussion is not on subsidies, but on a very clear exchange.

We presented the work in exhibitions in various ways, yet we never had the financial means to reach its ideal version in which we offer the manifesto uniform to a large number of artists interested in wearing it as a conversation piece. One of the challenges raised by the Tuta featuring the potentiality of two messages was to create a sense of collectivity, of togetherness, and to empower a common voice for artists and creatives facing the same dilemmas.

With the aforementioned ideal version in mind, we finally managed to find solutions to organize an exchange with the Tutas in Turin and Brussels later this year.

People outside the contemporary art scene tend to romanticize the »privilege« of creative freedom and self-directed labor, and are usually oblivious to the reality of self-exploitation when working in the art field, to the numerous gift exchanges in terms of labor, and sometimes to plain exploitation.

There are multiple reasons for the structural poverty of the cultural sector and the marginal role that culture exerts when governments and local authorities ate public funds. The lack of empathy and vision of managers in the business sector that could support arts is another important reason.

The pressure of being efficient in precarious conditions, to perform on a scene increasingly defined by mobility, trendiness, and transience is a difficult challenge.

We try to work out a mix of income from different sources so as to not be too dependent on any of the possible options such as public sources, market, external jobs, or parasiting our families. And we try to be very honest with the work we produce and the pace of producing new work. For example, last year we had personal reasons – some very happy like Lili, Maria’s daughter, some very sad – to slow down and we just said no to different invitations to exhibit. Saying no when we are used to a certain pace, when we are super curious also brings a certain degree of anxiety.

Evelyn Simons, studio visit »Apparatus 22: Brussels«, 2016

Apparatus 22 – »Vanity Mirror (Family Portrait)«, lightbox, 2016

ES: You employ animal leather to reference human skin tones while at the same time employing a virtual language in the Several Laws. The Elastic Test exhibition?

How do you see these two extremes: The human body and our dehumanized virtual worlds come together in this body of work?

A22: The exhibition you mentioned, presented earlier this year at GALLLERIAPIU in Bologna (curator Eleonora Farina), is the first in a series advancing thinking on human body perceived as a battlefield for civilization norms.

The set of seven poetic texts tattooed on leather is our way of extracting the body from the tyranny of rigid formats built by the fashion system and disseminated by the media, from pseudoscientific preconceptions, from the binary reading of gender, from colorism. Some of the works are extremely precise – a reflection about skin as a shield that is fragile and political in terms of surface and identity.

The duality of formal and political, scientific or highly emotional references allowed us an intricate oscillation between the poetics of different knowledge registers and intimacy, between metaphors inspired by our escapism in virtual worlds (manipulated and heavily improved by filters or Photoshop, etc), by a reality mediated through cosmetics and surgery, and by the very strong presence of leather simulating the skin.

We created the disturbing untitled pieces as »quintessential thoughts« about the misty times we live in; the texts are acting like bridges from which, through a transposition process, new images are generated.

In the same exhibition we presented other non-text works also made in leather: the striped sticks in the Erratic Statistics series and Infinite Contradictions flag. Each is intended as a symbol, a silent manifesto of totemic power – the stick references cosmetic samples and is reminiscent of Andrei Cadere’s bars acting as a hope-infused amulet for a better, more diverse future, while the flag with its dash of youth subculture turns black into something positive.

ES: Do you use text and narration as tools to guide the interpretation of your audience? What is their role in the activation of the work?

A22: We try to use text and narratives in distinct ways.

Most of the times there are no proper narratives but short, concentrated poetical texts – we call them »quintessential thoughts.« We could even call them mental images as one could just look at them as much as imagining something new by reading through subtexts.

Some of the text works might look straightforward at first reading. This impression of something easy to engage with acts then as a hook when we call for closer scrutiny.

These short texts are concentrated drops where layers, thoughts, experiences, and sometimes perplexing twists are squeezed in. Every word is carefully chosen – it’s literally a bloodshed in the words arena. Tracking subtleties and complexity in our text works might demand perseverance and the ability to read beyond first assumptions and to look for nuances and ambiguities.

Another significant way in which we use text in our practice is through questions.

It all started back in 2011 with a backbone project for Apparatus 22, 1000 questions on fashion. It is a long-term conversation piece we have been developing with the aim to address 1000 questions that will shift the focus of conversation on fashion from style, trends, and IT items towards issues that could ignite a debate on the lasting impact of this industry on many levels: creativity, authorship and copyright, engagement in public space, economy, labor, politics, ecology, etc.

The use of questions is strategic in igniting critical thinking and opening a conversation on the aforementioned topics.

The questions cover a wide palette; some trigger instant connections with experiences we all had or with stories circulating in media, other are very niche and more hardcore. They also take numerous forms: from a poster commenting how magazines mimic transgender identity to celebratory and subversive confetti performances for the public space in Museums Quartier Vienna, from a set of alluringly poetic postcards on our experiences in South Korea to a workshop, etc.

Last but not least, there are works featuring complex narrative constructions – as in 7 Uncertain Scripts with its seven speculative scenarios scrutinizing the future of nature, or in the imaginary catwalk show Patterns of Aura or in the radio shows for The Hour Broadcast. We use narration to take the audience in imaginary worlds that become unique according to their power of imagination, their cultural references, and understanding of language. The fascinating challenge in working with narrative conversions and strategies is to play with expectations. The story is as important as the way in which it is told.

ES: Is your work site-specific towards the place of production? When working in a range of contexts, what is the balance between the ongoing themes in your practice and constantly changing input?

A22: We are driven by enormous curiosity and that translates into inquisitiveness in local stories, hidden or erased histories, in-depth layers. This is what makes traveling, living, and working in other places exciting for us.

But then we feel it is important to expand larger concerns from very particular contexts, meaningful beyond the very place that inspired us; something that is apparently untranslatable, but that has an enduring quality, a certain weight in the locality.

How we react to a certain place depends very much on where we are at emotionally, intellectually, physically, financially, and on what stimulates us there, etc.

For example in Korea, while traveling between an unfriendly island close to North Korea and Seoul, we decided to just immerse ourselves in the strange otherness of an unfamiliar world and let ourselves be surprised: from wandering through night markets and temples of consumption at night to watching the second biggest tidal wave in the world, from doing interviews with defectors from the north to encounters with shamans. The work based on the Korean adventure came some months later, yet most of our ideas inspired by that experience are still not produced for practical reasons.

On the other hand, we have our own interests and threads of research that we can follow, no matter the place we are in. As with everything, it is always a fine tuning between the ideas one has before arriving and the actual reality of the place.

ES: And did the time in Brussels play a part in your work?

A22: Alain’s kind invitation to live in Brussels for a while was almost life-saving as heavy depression loomed all around – Erika and Dragos lost their mother they were so closed to. Indeed Edesonyam was very close to all of us, always our most generous supporter. Bucharest felt unbearable, Brussels turned into a protective cocoon with supportive friends from here and home.

To live in a house that seems fit for a movie scene, filled with stunning art and books that keep you glued indoors for days has altered our reality in the most gratifying manner.

This amazing place and our trips to the enormous Palace of Justice were the perfect setting for lots of thoughts we transformed into works for An Archive of Longings: chapter one(Galeria Calina)– an exhibition looking at the emancipatory power of desires.

Our research for this exhibition started from the life of Maruca Cantacuzino, which challenged Romanian society norms and imagery in the first half of twentieth century. The invitation of curator Liviana Dan to work on something triggered by Maruca lingered for quite a while, but none of us was interested in illustrating her life.

So we postponed it, feeling blocked.

It was only in Brussels that we had the distance granted also by living in an almost otherworldly place to approach the exhibition with what we called »fractured fictional memories« encouraging and at the same time blurring identification (with Maruca or with us).

Luckily, there is a room in the house where we can experiment with materials and ideas. The outcomes of the most recent trials will be more visible in the second chapter of An Archive of Longings.

In retrospect, the reality of living in the vivid Schaerbeek, a truly diverse neighborhood (and not really the institutional rhetoric of the capital of Europe) made us reflect even more critically against racism and celebrate diversity in some of the works presented in the Several Laws. The Elastic Test exhibition. The need intensified following the horrible attacks in town (or in other places in Europe and beyond).


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