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Molenbeek co-working space unites artists in former laundry

17:28 24/01/2016
The LaVallée project in Brussels hosts artists and creative entrepreneurs, with the aim of fostering lasting and fruitful relationships

While Molenbeek in Brussels has had its share of the international press’ worst headlines lately, it’s also an area that’s become fashionable among the capital’s Flemish community for its old industrial buildings, which can be transformed into working spaces or trendy residential lofts at low rents.

This is the case for LaVallée, an artist co-op that opened 18 months ago in a former laundry in the commune. LaVallée (pictured) consists of open work spaces, individual studios, conventional offices and two big exhibition halls. Eighty artists from a variety of disciplines have taken up residency.

“The idea is to gather as many creative entrepreneurs as possible in the same space,” explains Lieza Dessein from SMart, a non-profit organisation that supports artists and self-employed workers in the cultural sector. “The residents range from visual artists to filmmakers to stage designers to journalists.”

SMart was created in 1998 in Brussels and is developing in eight European countries. LaVallée is one of its creative spots, as is the Brussels Art Factory in the commune of Saint-Gilles. These co-working spaces, run or supported by SMart, offer cheaper studio spaces and cater to the specific needs of their residents.

“The LaVallée project is still very young, and for now we are using the space as it is,” says Dessein, “but we will eventually continue to adapt it to the needs of the artists.”

Good neighbours

She shows me around two exhibition spaces on the ground floor, then walks me through two studios. There are various working spaces at LaVallée, and the artists occupying them include Bonom, the street artist known for his dinosaur drawings in public spaces.

Large bones and animal skeletons hang in Bonom’s studio, and Dessein explains that he wouldn’t be able to create his work in the street without access to a large indoor workspace.

Next we walk into a scenographer’s space. “In this case, we made sure that the studio had access to the street, as this is often very important for people who work with theatre scenery.”

The floors above are an open co-working space. “It’s very difficult to find the right people to work next to each other, since all the artists come from such different backgrounds,” Dessein explains. Artists share the space, with the aim of fostering interaction and collaboration, as well as encouraging productivity.

The animation company Square Fish rents one space with the film collective Full Tunes. Another co-working area is shared by painters, graphic designers, dressmakers and jewellery designers.

“It’s super working here,” says Marie Artamonoff, co-founder and designer at Especes, a jewellery company that’s been resident at LaVallée since last summer. “It’s comfortable, and you have interesting encounters. You feed off the energy of other artists, even if you’re not directly working with them.”

It is indeed important for LaVallée to create this interaction, Dessein says. “Due to high rents, a lot of freelancers end up working at home. We’d like to create a community so they don’t become isolated.”

Since opening, resident artists have organised a series of events to promote LaVallée and invite the public to visit. Throughout the summer, the artists organised weekly themed drinks evenings, with DJ sets and live silk screen printing both inside and outside.

Building bridges

Dessein is also eager to work with other organisations and institutions. LaVallée has been hosting Fuckup Nights, an event in which entrepreneurs share stories of failed business ventures and projects. It has also recently collaborated with one of its neighbours, the VK music club. For its latest event, LaVallée’s resident artists created a night full of DJ sets, visuals and performances hosted by the concert venue.

“We don’t want to become insular,” notes Dessein. “It’s better when there are a lot of different players, and that’s why we build bridges with spaces like VK. They’ve been in the neighbourhood for ages, and they’re doing a fantastic job. We can learn from them and offer our own contributions as well. It was good for the VK to have our audience visit their space, and we’re looking forward to hosting their event next year.”

Apart from hosting events such as conferences, exhibitions and workshops, LaVallée hopes to be able to benefit more from the network of art spaces that SMart has developed not only here but elsewhere in Europe. LaVallée has already offered residencies to artists from France and Italy.

Dessein explains that, after having focused on the individual spaces themselves, SMart would like to strengthen its international network so they can have a form of exchange between countries and facilitate artist movement.

LaVallée aims to increase its number of resident artists to 100, and, as I leave, two artists are dropping off their applications. Meanwhile, builders upstairs are working away on a new common room in which the artists will be able to socialise as well as host their clients.

Photo courtesy SMart

Written by Miriam Galea