Agnes Quackels at Blauwdruk in Vooruit: The moment to change

Good Evening,

And thank you, Matthieu, for inviting me tonight.THE MOMENT TO CHANGE

“The fear that new institutions will be imperfect, in their turn, does not justify our servile acceptance of the present ones”. Ivan Illich, 1969.



I’m the artistic Director of BUDA Arts Centre in Kortrijk[1]..

Part of my job consists ofinvolves meeting artists and having conversations with them.

Theose moments are quite important to me and I thought I would’ll tell you a little bit more about them.


Usually these conversations take place in one a one of thoseof those nice coffee -bars we are now having all around Europes for hipsters we are now having all aroundcan now find anywhere in Europe. So there I am, having a coffee; , and the artist who’s sitting in front of me is telling me about her next project. I’ve seen many of her previous shows and the project she’s describing to me now, sounds just amazing: it will fit perfectly fit with my next thematic festival about climate change…  or/ gender or/ discrimination or/ money or/ participation or/ decolonization post-colonialism or whatever else… (– here you can just insert whichever topical issueatwhat ever topic you wantprefer). So I’m promising her to we willto support this project with a residency, or a co-production , or perhaps and a presentation –  et c. etera. She’s very happy with my proposal, I'm very happy with her project and I know the audience will soon be very happy too. And I’m thinking: “Who could dream of a better job?”


FSeen from the outside, this situation encounter seems to be quite relaxed. It looks like an trustful and equal and openopen conversation between two professionals. But But the agency behind our nice coffee moment is not that simple. Even if we are discussing all the details of our exciting collaboration, there is one point we are surely not talking about. It’s the fact thatsomehow, while drinking our flat whites, we are not talking about  the fact that from oof the two of us sitting here, sitting here and having coffee, she will bwill bee the one responsible for delivering the art work, the artwork, the very content of my socially or politically engaged festival;. bBut of the two of us, from of the two of us I a’mm the only one who is getting paid?!.


I mean really paid. Of course she can enter make applications every three months, and beg for co-productions all around Flanders and Europe, but chances are she won’t get paid for half of the time she will be working on this amazing project.


Now wait, that’s not exactly true; I’m actually not the only one who’s being paid. All the dedicated people who are working with me, in the back offices of the theatres, are also paid. And the reason why we are all paid (sometimes we tend to forget) is to support, a and nd protect the making of art works.


Now, don’t tell me thatDon’t tell me that cleaning or doing the accounting is areis the type sort of jobss people are normally being paid for,  and so why not in the arts? Sure. I hear you.


But it seems not to occurre to the mind of anybodyone that making good artworks is maybe not be easier than making good accountingbeing amaking good accountanting. And that we could a minimaat the very least call “making an art work” a normal job; and then also, eventually, reclaim demanddemand an equal payment for it.


Again, don’t get me wrong; I’m not defending saying that accountants should be paid like artists. It would be as if – , just imagine,…  –  as if Men would were suddenly to be paid like Women… No, no that would be quite a bad idea, indeed. I’m just evoking the idea that artists could eventually be paid like accountants (and maybe even Men Male accountants, why not?…).  Now,  believe me or not, but this idea is, today, in 2017, just impossible to imagine [2].



I must say that, after almost 6 years of having coffee with artists, I’m totally fed-up. I cannot take another coffee. Thank you very much. And strangely, or perhaps not, I’m not the only one. Everywhere in Europe the unpaid labour of the artists, what we commonly called “the blind spot of our sector”, has become a huge black hole, right the middle of our beautiful theatres. And everywhere in Europe the devoted people who are working in the theatres are starring at this frightening hole and they are asking themselves: “What are we doing here? Who are we actually protecting?”


. Because everywhere in Europe the issue of the unpaid labour of the artists, whichat was commonly called “the blind spot of our sector”, has become a huge black hole, right at the middle heart of our theatres. And more and more often, the devoted people who are working in the theatre are starring at this frightening hole and they’ are asking themselves: “What are we doing here? What are we actually protecting?”



When theseis type of “big questions” appears in our lives, there i’s often someone is there to think about them  together with us; and this time, again, [WU1] it’s the pPhilosopher Bojana Kunst who is guiding us through the mist and the confusion. And here is how Sshe She’s explains iting: Today, art institutions too have been taken into a spiral of social insecurity, as well as everyone else – and the only way they have tocan implementrealizerealize their programme is to abuseby exploitingabusing the long- term precarity of the the artists.


Even if arts institutions, (such as BUDA) for example, are proposing more and more public programmes that are investigateing other possible ways to live and work together, they are in no way opposing the current system. On the contrary: they are reproducing scarcity on a structural level[3]. And in this crooked system, there is no safe position from whichhere to start: we are all accomplices.




OK, but enough coffees, complaints and analyseis, we are here tonight to celebrate The Change! So let’s try to get started with it.


Can we base the compiling of our artistic programmes on working relationships that are less unbalanced and less paradoxical with regard to our public programmes?

Can we have arts institutions (and here I’m quoting the artist Sarah Vanhee) “that practice alternative politics instead of presenting arts programmes about alternative politics?. … Can we have arts institutions that take care of the people who work there, (…) of everyone present there, and everyone involved with the institutions?”


Can we, finally, reinvent the arts institutions anew?

Maybe here I’m firstI should start by reading you some quotes I’ve taken out offrom  a text by artist Sarah Vanhee. Se, she said:

“I desire a feminisation, colouring and queering of the arts institution.

I desire art institutions that practice alternative politics instead of presenting art programs about alternative politics. (…) I desire art institutions that take care of the people who work there, (take) care of every one who is there, (take)[WU2]  care of every one involved with the institution.”


Theose questionsdesires, and the general question whether or not we could indeed re-invent the art institutions,  have nurtured many conversations with many artists and curators over the past few months. And theyse have beenwere also at the basis of a symposium we organised at BUDA last month in BUDA. It was called 'The Fantastic Institution'. Our idea was to invite the people behindhear about inspiring examples from all over Europe to hear aboutexplain to us how they are working on their institutions – but also to use fiction, or even science- fiction, to open up our imaginations, and to turn our excellent institutions into fantastic ones.


Now, The symposium didn’t actually provide an immediatedirect solution to my coffee problem, (sadly enough). But it did open up a lot of other perspectives for rethinking the institution more broadly.


It is of course impossible not really possible to summarize tonight all the brilliant lectures we have heard during over thoose 3 days, b. But after the symposium, I kept thinking about a place which summarize encapsulatessummarizes quite well many of some of the ideas and images that have been broughtemerged during theis sympoisumsymposium. -  SAand soAnd I thought I could cwould tell you about this one, one instead. Not that this place is providing any answers to all the questions we just raised, (actually it does not) – but, I do believe it could open reveal some interesting perspectives.


So here comes another story, and in this one, you’ll have to follow me carefully.



Some weeks ago, Jozef Wouters, who is an artist and a stage -designer, invited some people to come to a café he had opened in his new set décor-atelierworkshopdécor-atelier.


When I’m arriveding at the address Jozef sent me, in a grim street somewhere in Molenbeek,. I first havedve to pass through an abandoned abandoned travel agency. Then, at the end of a very long and high corridor, I’m entereding a huge, more or less empty and quite dark warehouse. There waisis not much to see except, in a corner, on the right side, some light that waisis coming throughout of a plastic door. The door openseds into a space that hasds been separated from the rest of the warehouse with fake walls.


Upon entering this room, I discovered a café. There's a beautiful wooden bar in the middle, some couches on the side, a rather noisy air-pulsed heating system, high stools and a row of mirrors on the upper side of the fake walls. There are quite a lot of people drinking and talking. Jozef tells me that this room is actually a replica, but on a smaller scaled, of a bar in .. Vienna. There are quite a lot of people talking and drinking. Later, he Jozef proposes  to the people who are there, tothat we all could all listen to a recording of a lecture. A lecture Jorge Luis Borges gave in the 80’s in the 80’s about “Metaphors”. in the 80’s. But the sound quality of the recording is quite so bad and that we decide thave to cut off the noisy heater in order to hear the recordingit. The room then becomes very cold but it doesn’t seem to matter that much, people continue listening to this voice coming that is coming from the past.



As Jozef was saying when he introduced Borges’s lecture, a Metaphor is like a scale-model that you can put on a table so you can look at it and talk about it. I’d like to take Jozef’s bar as a Metaphor in itself; an imagea scale model for another possible Art Institution. Not that anything was fantastic about this place, but I thought everything about it was deeply poetic. And I thought that this may be this is what we actually need:, not Tthe Fantastic Iinstitution, but The Poetic Institution. A place that would help us to name what something thatwhat , as yet,  has no name, so that we could think about it [4].


So, let’s look at it again. The travel agency is closed. We are not in Vienna. And there is no bar. This place has been invented out of nothing. It is not hosting the poetry; it is the poetry in itself.  This bar is like a gap in the reality, a hole that has been drilled into the possible.

In this poetic place, no one is pretending to know anything. There is no curator, no expert[5]. Only people who are curious about something, and tonight one of them has invited the others.

The contextframe and the programme have been made carefullywith love, but all the rest is rather uncertain [6].

In this bar that doesn’t exist, nobody is in charge, but everybody, the audience included, seems equally enthusiastic[7] and concentrated.

This poetic place seems to be suspended in time and space. It could have been on the second floor – with no first floor underneath. The walls of this place are solid enough to protect us from the hostility of the outside world[8], but they can be removed or displaced whenever we would would might needneed them to create something else[9].

In this bar that doesn’t exist, nobody’s really in charge. But everybody seems equally enthusiastic and concentrated.This place is not hosting poetry; it is the poetry itself[10].

It is like a gap in reality, a hole that has been drilled into the possible[11].



Jozef’s bar reminds me of something that researcher and curator Daniel Blanga Gubay said during the symposium, namely that institutions are not Natural Phenomena. They are not like the Weather, or like mysterious Gods that we cannot control. No. Someone, one day, invented them. Which means that we could just as well invent them anew.


The institutions could decide to become the fiction instead of hosting it. We could decide to dig holes into our daily organisation. We could reserve time and space for things that do not have a clear direction, places that are not already dedicated. And we could do so because, as artist Vladimir Miller proposed in his lecture, “it is from those undecided places that institutions can gradually be re-invented”.


Art Institutions would then perhaps also be able to develop new skills. Curator Mai Abu ElDahab pointed out that maybe the notion of a professionalized environment for the arts rests on a serious misunderstanding. Maybe we do not need Art institutions to be well-equipped and to provide what we expect from them. Maybe we need exactly the opposite: Art institutions that are deeply and continuously mal-adjusted [12], that do not fit or blend in, that do not please or serve, but endlessly question and propose something else than what we were expecting.

Jozef’s bar reminds me of something that researcher and curator Daniel Blanga Gubay said during the symposium, namely that institutions are not Natural Phenomena. They are not like the Weather, or like mysterious Gods that we humans cannot control. No. Someone, one day, invented them. Which means that we could just as well invent them anew.


We could invent institutions that would operate under cover. A bar that is a warehouse behind an abandoned travel agency. We could decide to dig up holes into our daily organisation; give up a part of our offices to open up a room that wasn’t there before, a reading room for poetry. Wwe could preserve time and space for something that doesn't have a clear direction, a place that is not already dedicated. And we could decide to do so because, as artist Vladimir Miller was proposeding during his lecture, “this it is from those undecided places that institutions can gradually be re-invented.”


Art Institutions would then perhapsmaybe also be able to develop new skills. I’m agreeing with curator Mai Abu ElDahab, who saidwas saying that, the notion of a professionalized environment for the arts lays rests today on a rather seriousbig and problematic misunderstanding. We do not need Arts institutions that are beautifully well- equipped and are provideing exactly what we expect from them. What we need is arts institutions that are in fact working on towards being deeply and continuously mal-adjusted, that are do not fitting in, that doare not blending in nor serveing, but whichthat are endlessly questioning and proposeing something otherelse than what we were expecting. A lecture from the 80’s about metaphors. For example.


My call to the institutions today, my call to us all – because we are the institutions:, institutions doare not acting,  but people are act [13]ing, and we are the people.  – My call is to pay constanta restless attention to How we are doing what we are doing, and to get this finally aligned with the values we are publicly standing for.


My call is to dDare to mMake Time, Space and Money, nNot only to support the experimentation on stage, but also to experiment on a social and political level off stage [14], inside of our own organisations and with our public funding.


Sometimes we tend to forget, but Arts institutions are in the first place publicly funded primarily to give support and to protect the making of art, which quite often is also the making of Metaphors; the making of images, spaces that are so radically differentother, so powerful that they can haunt people’s mind’s for days and days, sometimes years.

This is what art can do. This is what we are protecting. This is what we are passing on to an audience.

art can do.


On this Blueprintauwdruk dayBlauwdruk dagg, for this celebration of the Big Transition in the Vooruit Arts Centre, I call for desire art institutions that would be as much Art as Institution. Places that would be so radically different and powerful in all their  aspects and coexisting realities, that the political effect of their overall workingcumulative efforttheir working would keep people awake at night and make them doubting of the world they’re are living in.


And perhaps one dayMaybe then, they would emerge from their insomniadreamless sleep and decide that this is the moment to changewake up in the morning and “consider the world not as a static reality, but as a reality in process, in transformation”.


Thank you.




NB: all the second part of my speech is actually reformulating the words of the people who gave lectures during the symposium, The Fantastic Institution hold in BUDA on the 16th – 18th of February 2017. You should know that their lectures are much better than my speech, they have been documented and the videos will be soon available on the website of


Agnes Quackels,

Read on the occasion of “Blauwdruk” in Vooruit Art Centre, Ghent, on the 14th of March 2017.






[1] Here I should mention that I “inherited” the artistic direction of BUDA from Barbara Raes. She left BUDA to join the direction of Vooruit Art Centre for which she proposed a very innovative, valorous and inspiring transition program. For many complicated reasons, she couldn’t manage to achieve this program. Though I’m feeling many of her ideas are only now coming to live, still inspiring a lot of people, among which I am.


[2] As we know, this situation is the result of, on the one hand, of the professionalization of our field (as organized in the late 90’s, early 2000’s) and, on the other hand, of the current neo-liberal way of governance that continuously cuts into projects funding and do not provide any long term perspectives for artists to develop their work autonomously.



[4] "Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought" - Audre Lorde, Poetry is Not a Luxury – as quoted by artist and choreographer Eleanor Bauer on facebook on March, 4th – 2017.

[5] Cf. Johan Forseman’s lecture (Skogen) for the Fantastic Institution symposium.

[6] Cf. Francis McKee’s lecture (CCA Glasgow), idem.

[7] Cf. Mai Abu ElDahab’s lecture (Mophradat), idem

[8] Cf. Laurence Rassel (erg) and Sarah Vanhee’s lecture, idem

[9]  Cf. Vladimir Miller’s lecture, idem

[10] Cf. Daniel Blanga Buggay’s lecture (Aleppo), idem

[11] Cf.Sarah Vanhee’s lecture, idem

[12] Cf. Anthony Huberman ‘s « How to behave better », in Circular Facts, Steinberg, 2011.

[13]  Cf. Vladimir Miller’s lecture

[14] Cf Barbara Raes’s State of the Arts, « Radiantly burning out and stacking stones”, 2014.

 [WU1]Whyagain ?’

 [WU2]Repetition of ‘take’ adds impact?