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An Overview of the Playground Kunstenfestival in Leuven

Hugues Decointet puts together his installation for Drama Vox. Photo credit © Hugues Decointet

An Overview of the Playground Kunstenfestival in Leuven


Leuven November 19-22, 2015 - Earlier this month, the small Belgian city of Leuven hosted a wealth of important performance artists from around the world who challenged their audiences with a diverse selection of thought provoking works. In its 9th season this year, the annual Playground art festival visibly aimed to reevaluate the meaning of performance and visual art through experimentation with movement, voice, and installation.

While performance art is not typically tied down to a singular artistic discipline, it is often perceived as a complex yet strangely didactic method of expressing one’s ideas. In the case of Playground, unrestricted notions of freedom, place and context, and the re-appropriation of social norms were at the center point thematically, as is often the case with this particular medium. 

The festival takes place every year in a rather unsuspecting setting ― Leuven, the home to UNESCO protected landmarks, the oldest Catholic university in the world, and Stella Artois. As the city’s industry is almost entirely devoted to its beer and the students who drink it, Leuven tenaciously quenches its thirst for artistic innovation by being one of Belgium’s most important platforms for nurturing contemporary art.

The historic architecture and aura of the city are continuously re-contextualized by the powerhouse creative community who inhabit it, including the M Museum Leuven and STUK (both venues for the festival), which results in a brilliant juxtaposition of a contemporary artistic revolution against a compelling medieval backdrop. It was these aged surroundings which transformed both the ways the performances took place and how they were experienced.

Taking in the oddity of the M Museum’s unique method of displaying 13th century statues of apostles in a white cube gallery setting was UK artist Cally Spooner’s piece, Damning Evidence Illicit Behaviour Seemingly Insurmountable Great Sadness Terminated in Any Manner.

The performer, an operatic mezzo soprano, sang an improvised aria inspired by YouTube comments whilst interacting with her environment (the audience members and the sculptures as if they were real people). A remark on the hysteria of the media and celebrity fandom, Spooner installed an LED screen near the ceiling of the gallery from which the singer had to read while throwing herself across the room in an deliberately dramatic manner. This nearly psychotic act embodies how overwrought people’s responses to the media can be, especially in terms of their criticism against celebrities who turn to technology for their personal enhancement. In her statement, Spooner refers to “the Lance Armstrong doping scandal” and “Beyonce lip-syncing at the Obama inauguration” as being sources of her research.

Elsewhere, several performances channeled the ideals of the early 20th century, dadaism, and its visionary predecessor Alfred Jarry, which comes to no surprise as the festival is connected with the Alfred Jarry Archipelago, an ongoing international performance art project. His unobstructed commentary on societal and moral conduct opened the door to a more liberated practice and infringement of formalism in the arts.

A snapshot of the LED screen from which Cally Spooner’s performer read for her performance, Damning Evidence
Illicit Behaviour Seemingly Insurmountable Great Sadness Terminated in Any Manner. Photo credit © M Museum Leuven

During the 70s, the French artist and playwright Guy de Cointet made a name for himself by resurrecting these notions with his symbolist works, which were guided by his unique approach to the visual world and how we respond to it. Though de Cointet had passed away in the 1980s, two of his plays and installations were featured at Playground. Taking cues from the likes of the dada great Hugo Ball, vocal patterns in his plays are fragmented and entirely non-sensical to the context they are performed in, which are brightly graphic and geometric installations set up on a stage. Two of his performances took place during the festival in addition to his own retrospective exhibition currently being shown at the M Museum.

Inspired by a text on the voice of the avant-garde Irish writer Samuel Beckett, the French artist Hugues Decointet (also part of the Alfred Jarry Archipelago), based his research on the many ways a voice can be described. In the minimalist mannerism of Beckett himself, Decointet gave birth to the Drama Vox. In a room filled with seemingly unfitting 18th and 19th century works the rotating sculptural installation channeled a kind of dark-wave surrealist dream through which voices projected an index of adjectives over a Martin Gore-esque beat in the background, creating a “dramaturgy for the voice”. The displacement ofwords along with the installation successfully blurred the lines between literature and visual arts, and was by far one of the most intriguing works seen.

Other performances questioned the possibilities of space. In Carry On by Heine Adval and Yukiko Shinozaki (also known collectively as fieldworks), space was continuously manipulated through the placement of white cubes which were moved throughout the lobby of the M Museum. Through this, the movement in this particular space was ever changing as the architecture of the room was transformed. In this sense, the lobby was appropriated as a persistently changing experience and the audience became part of the performance as they needed to make their way through this installation to access the other galleries.

It goes without saying that even though performance art today strives for authenticity, it is more often than not a salute to its establishment and an interpretation of their cultural and historical references. The exploration of space, voice, movement, and the other themes explored in Playground are not at all new themes seen in the arena of performance art, yet the featured performers were able to interpret them in consideration with their time which is what makes their art contemporary and arguably relevant.

This year the festival also featured performances by Adva Zakai, Benjamin Seror, DD Dorvillier, Ieva Misevičiūtė, Jean-Pascal Flavien, Jimmy Robert, Julian Weber, Julien Prévieux, Kristof Van Gestel, Maria Hassabi, and Sonja Jokiniemi. WM


Alana Voldman

Originally from southern California, Alana Voldman is a freelance art writer based in Antwerp, Belgium. After participating in Chicago’s contemporary gallery scene for several years, Alana’s increasing interest in underrepresented, emerging, and alternative art markets brought her to Europe where she reports on related stories which occur both locally and continentally. She holds a BA in the History of Art and Architecture from DePaul University and is an MA in Art Business candidate at Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London.

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