These words by Stanley Brouwn (Art & Project Bulletin 11, 1969) are the starting point for this year’s Artefact festival, which opened on 21 February in Leuven, Belgium. Contemporary visual arts, current events, and societal challenges will meet under the theme Parallel Crossings, focusing on movement in all its forms. Former curator Pieter-Paul Mortier is back to guest curate the exhibition. A man who prefers to stay behind the scenes, he knows every square centimetre of the STUK arts centre, but is returning with a new awareness. He took a break from overseeing the preparations to share his ideas on a ‘quiet’ exhibition with DAMN°.

DAMN°: You’re back at Artefact after five editions away.

Foyer by Ismaïl Bahri
Pieter-Paul Mortier: After curating the festival from 2007 to 2013, I got the ‘seven-year itch’ and decided it was time for something else, parting with the festival as very good friends. Karen Verschooren is the current curator and will remain so, but she got the opportunity to spend a year abroad and I was asked to step in for this edition. I’ve been busy coordinating the Courtisane film festival and teaching at KASK in Ghent. But I still think putting together exhibitions is the most beautiful job on Earth. So it was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

DAMN°: What new perspective and approaches are you bringing to the festival after being away?

Seeds of Changes by Maria Theresa Alves. 1999-ongoing, installation & garden.
Mortier: On a personal level it was a confrontation to realise that certain questions about my own position as a white male western curator were never or very rarely addressed in the past, not by myself, my peers or others. For me personally, the last edition of the Berlin Biennale was an important moment. Many huge challenges when it comes to racial issues, origins and social and economic backgrounds in the arts were not a theme or the subject matter of the exhibition. The curators presented an alternative that they see, feel and experience as a natural thing.

DAMN°: What inspired the theme Parallel Crossings?

Jim Campbell –Exploded View (Commuters). Photo by Sarah-Christianson
Aila Syed – Points of Departure. Courtesy of Alia Syed and LUX London
Mortier: I started with the text by Stanley Brouwn. The text is really simple, but very complicated… Migration has always been important but today it seems more problematised than in other moments. I wanted to get out of the heated arguments of today and look at it with a bit of distance… A theme is not something that closes everything, but is more of a space where you can bring certain practices, certain works, together without taking a tight grip on them... The title is a paradox, because parallel lines are not supposed to cross. But you will cross eventually – both people and ideas.

DAMN°: If you’re trying to stay away from the popular views of today, why did you feel like this was the moment to treat this theme?

Mortier: Because it is touching me in every way. Because it is confusing me. Because of what’s happening today, you have to rethink a lot of things.

DAMN°: Several of the artists are focusing on the deconstruction of old norms and limits. Do they give you a clue about what possibilities the future might hold for us?

Mortier: Yes, they do… I see other possibilities in Alia Syed’s work. She doesn’t see herself [in the BBC archive] and she’s not cynical about it, she says I’m going to inject myself in the images and in the archive. With Renata Lucas it’s obvious, that we still have something to say about the space we inhabit. I think that people like Sven Augustijnen and Maria Thereza Alves are really asking you to rethink your culture, which is an important step in the process. They really open up your environment and they reveal yourself in a way, so not necessarily the past but it’s really about you. I love Kiluanji Kia Henda’s work, the humour, the wit, the beauty of the imagination of travelling to the sun from Africa, it is possible. We can do it. For me Foyer [by Ismaïl Bahri] is all about the totally unexpected, meeting people… for me that’s a work full of potential and possibilities.

DAMN°: You have described the exhibition as ‘quiet’. What is so powerful about quiet?

Mortier: It's powerful because it's not loud. I think quietness, humility, poeticism, fragility, can be features of strength. And they do not exclude anger or dissent.

I really hope the exhibition communicates. I think it does.

Artefact 2019: Parallel Crossings, STUK arts centre, Leuven, Belgium, until 10 March, 

From Icarus by Kiluanji Kia Henda
Shifting Axis by Marjolijn Dijkman
Renata Lucas - Falha (Failure), 2003-2019. Photo by Nathalie Barki, Istambul Biennial, 2011