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The rise of living room concerts and exhibitions in Brussels
While apartment exhibitions and music salons are as old as art itself, urbanites from Berlin to New York are taking it upon themselves to reignite this ancient tradition. And Brussels is no exception. From folk gigs to performance art, citizens are opening the doors of their own homes to offer cultural experiences of a different kind.
The most established and best-known initiative is probably Sofar Sounds, a hugely popular movement founded in London and active in 382 cities around the world, including Brussels. Music fans sign up via email and receive information about the private location on the day of the performance. The cosy gigs in random living rooms across the city have become so sought-after that entrance can’t always be guaranteed.
But what’s the appeal? How can a do-it-yourself setting with less than ideal sound compete with state-of-the-art concert halls? “There’s a real gap when it comes to small, more intimate venues,” says Fanny Ruwet, presenter at Belgian radio PureFM and a music PR. “People love the special atmosphere, while artists appreciate the attentive audience. You know you’ll have a great time because everyone really cares about the music. In the big venues there’ll be someone talking loudly, singing louder than the band, or throwing a beer over you. With living room concerts, people listen carefully and don’t even look at their phones.”
Home is where the art is
A lot of local initiatives are popping up all over the city, from Glaïeuls Paradise, which organises concerts in a variety of private locations with a focus on Belgian artists, to Musiques de Cour, a summer concert series in a private garden. “First I was a little worried because people need to pass through my living space, but everything always went smoothly,” says Barbara Decloux, who started Musiques de Cour in May last year and has already fully booked the programme for 2018: a mix of local musicians and others who are passing through Brussels on their official tour.
In terms of genre, concerts tend to be folky, mainly for practical reasons. “I want to be respectful to our neighbours, so I make sure that I mainly invite one-person-projects; nothing too violent,” Decloux says. Accordingly, she has never had any complaints, and neighbours even gather at their windows and on their balconies to enjoy the gigs, too.
It takes time to organise all this, from booking musicians to preparing drinks and snacks – without receiving any kind of financial remuneration. “By selling refreshments I can cover my expenses, and everything else goes to the musician,” says Decloux, who closes the bar during the shows so that the only background noise comes from children playing or birds singing. “I’m not doing it for the money but to create a special moment. I want to give more established artists the opportunity to experiment, and give a chance to newbies who might have a hard time getting booked in a conventional venue.”
This willingness to invest personal space and time to create chances for artists is also what has kept Tania Nasielski going. She’s been hosting high-quality exhibitions in her living room for 10 years, and has no intention of stopping. 105 Besme has grown into an integral part of the city’s art scene, even collaborating with contemporary arts centre Wiels to organise artist talks.
“During the shows I have to cram everything into my kitchen and bedroom, which can be quite inconvenient,” says Nasielski, a trained curator. “But I see it as a privilege to live with the art, and I want to provide a playground for artists where they can take risks, something that’s not always possible in a commercial gallery.” That’s not the only difference between living room shows and white cube exhibitions, which to some can be quite intimidating. “I’ve noticed that people stay much longer than they do at classic gallery openings,” she says. “They hang out, talk a lot, and there’s this closeness and intimacy, between people as well as with the works.”
Ans Mertens, part of Soil Collective, a group of art graduates who host exhibitions in their shared living room as well as a private garden, feels the same way. “The setting is much friendlier and welcoming,” she says. French artist Camille Lancelin, who has just started organising performance evenings in her spacious loft, agrees: “There is a real connection and dialogue between artists and public.” Right from the start, she was able to attract quite a crowd, and word has spread fast.
“There seems to be a big demand for these kind of events,” she says. And, in times when empty, affordable spaces in big cities can be hard to come by, it’s an easy and quick solution to getting things done. “We knew we wanted to host exhibitions, and this was the simplest and most obvious way to do it,” Mertens explains. “It’s amazing what you can achieve with manpower, motivation, and almost no budget.”
Photo 1: Glaïeuls Paradise/Delphine Seminckx.
Photo 2: Sofar Sounds/Marie Jérôme
Photo 3: Musiques de Cour/Barbara Decloux