1000 photos, 50 photographers, four weeks of speed assembly, one city-wide exhibition, and 174,000 visitors. Since June, the streets of Brussels have turned into outdoor exhibition halls and, here and there, Belgian photography has eclipsed billboards. The project is called EXI(S)T, and reminds us once again that culture is a site of resistance to ongoing crises.
“During and after lockdown, billboards had grown increasingly depressing: they advertised shows that had taken place a long while ago or that would never take place!” Walking through the streets of Brussels in May, Lise Bruyneel, an iconographer for opera and the performing arts, had an idea. Why not breathe some charm back into the public space, and replace dolefully obsolete posters with photographs?
This is how EXI(S)T was born, a photographic journey through (post-)lockdown Brussels. The young Brussels woman contacted Artepub, the city’s cultural advertising network. Yes, advertising space will be made available for this ambitious project! She then contacted dozens of photographers, Belgian or living in Belgium, selected works, raised funds (13,000 euros), created a website and an interactive map to help locate the exhibition venues and identify the artists.
A subtle guiding thread
A girl sitting with her back to the window, a man hugging his cat, a woman languishing on a couch with boredom or melancholy… It is difficult not to see in these photos a specter of the present moment. The common thread tying the images together dialogs with current events, and, in a non-obvious way, “resonates with the strange situation we are going through.” “We have a lot of information related to Covid in the street: posters, signs, and messages that are necessary but a bit oppressive,” added the curator.
Viewers discover “photographers who might still be students or are well established, some older who have no personal websites.” At a time when physical distancing is a must, the exhibition offers a great diversity of images – couples kissing, human contact, social ties, holiday memories, and abstract subjects that send one daydreaming.
The photographs are scattered throughout the city. The exhibition is held in any and every shared space that becomes a window onto culture: bicycle stands, storefronts, café terraces – “real neighborhood coffeeshops, not just café chains!,” stressed Lise Bruyneel. The city has been divided into sectors, so as display the same pictures in one neighborhood.
An alternative art experience
People are free to create their own itinerary around the exhibition, use the interactive map or just wander around. It took a while before Sarah, a resident of the Saint-Gilles neighborhood, noticed the exhibition, but now she follows the artists who have inspired her on Instagram: “I was having a coffee on the patio of the restaurant Le Robinet when I noticed a very touching large-format image by Vincen Beeckman, showing a homeless couple, Claude and Lilly, kissing. Since then I would stop for a few seconds to look at the photos and note the Instagram handles of the photographers I like.”
In these uncertain times, when cultural events are under threat, what drives photographers to participate in such a project? “It’s all Lise! We didn’t know each other personally, but she had been following my work for some time,” said Charles Paulicevich, a photographer specializing in cinema. Paulicevich is showing two pictures at EXI(S)T that smell of summer holidays: “She bursts with energy … and inevitably, this is a captivating project!”
As time goes by, some photographs begin to deteriorate, others are replaced by posters advertising upcoming events. Up to a point, this is an ephemeral project; Lise Bruyneel and the photographers, however, are already working on an a-posteriori catalogue of the exhibition!
By Charlotte Jean
From June 13, 2020 in Brussels, Belgium