Guillaume has a reputation for putting on complex and difficult exhibitions packed with meaning and signification. In 2019 he started a series of cycles at the exhibition space, each one investigating special themes.  Currently it is “Matters of Concern”.

Guillaume Désanges has always been interested in the connection between art and knowledge. “I like to take a topic and really exist in it,” he says, “not just take it and make an exhibition about it. It has to really affect how we think and live, rather than just producing obvious answers.”

His approach to art is never cynical and he prefers to work with artists who don’t take a theme as a point of departure, but who embrace ideas as a common perspective. For example, conceiving the cycle “Matters of concern” was less about curating the topic ecology and more about curating ecologically. “Which makes it more touchy and complex,” he says.

Exhibition view of Minia Biabiany, ‘‘Musa Nuit’’, La Verrière (Brussels), 2020 ©Isabelle Arthuis / Fondation d’entreprise Hermès

“Today, everyone can understand that ecology, economics, politics, but also social issues including racism and feminism are all connected. They are all about domination and power. None of these issues are contradictory.  They all stem from the same system.”

Désanges has a French Cambodian heritage and talks passionately about how France has struggled to come to grips with slavery and colonialism. There, racism has traditionally been sidelined as a minority issue. “It’s been rather silent in France for decades” he says. “When I was a kid, it was rarely talked about at school. Recently, things have changed and improved in official programs.”

The French subscribe philosophically to the system of universality, which in theory erases difference and focuses on equality and secularism. It is a political and social system that believes an emphasis on diversity, ethnicity or race runs the risk of undermining unity and the social fabric.

“There are still a generation of well-intentioned people (including politically and socially engaged persons) who sincerely believe that they can’t possibly be something other than inclusive, because they have this ideal of equality,” Désanges says. “Which I understand, but they cannot imagine that racism can also be structural, not personal. That exclusion can live invisibly inside society.”

Exhibition view of Minia Biabiany, ‘‘Musa Nuit’’, La Verrière (Brussels), 2020 ©Isabelle Arthuis / Fondation d’entreprise Hermès

And so often it is art that gets this – that deals head on with power and with issues that we sometimes get wrong. It’s the subject matter that Désanges has been leaning towards showing at La Verrière.

“I like art that fights against dominant forms,” he says. “When you start to understand this you realize that the blind spots of history matter so much. I feel like art needs to play a big role in writing another history - through matters, forms and poetry because for me, one possible definition of art is creation that opposes dominant forms.”

Which is where the artistic influence of new voices and thinkers - like that of Minia Biabiany who is currently on exhibition - need to be given more cultural platforms to speak out.

If art (and sometimes design) is understood as giving form to ideas that oppose the expected, a force against let’s call it “dominant knowledge,” then its associated research can’t operate only inside the status quo’s limited structures.

Exhibition view of Minia Biabiany, ‘‘Musa Nuit’’, La Verrière (Brussels), 2020 ©Isabelle Arthuis / Fondation d’entreprise Hermès

If we learnt anything from the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic, it’s that celebrated and dominant knowledge while not necessarily wrong, can be somewhat limited.  Like in that moment when nurses might suddenly matter more than doctors, when care is immediately more efficient than science. Art has always pushed for and celebrated the alternative position, the minor gesture, the concern, which in the hierarchical framework of our society is rarely recognized.

Belgian philosopher of science, Isabelle Stengers has written a lot about an “ecology of practises” that oppose this dominant ideological frameworks. In the wake of ecofeminism, it is a way to brings attention to other practises in science, like when female primatologists merged science with values by living with the subjects they were studying.  It took their daring approach that indeed broke all the usual scientific rules and research protocols to properly understand the social dealings of gorillas.

“The idea of there being a minority knowledge is difficult for some to accept,” says Désanges. “But for me it is the beginning of constructing a new world.”

And that is a position that art (and always design) students need to hold onto Their schools must always make room (and budgets) for students to deconstruct the structures of knowledge.  Because it’s there where alternatives are revered, and where alternative ideas have freedom to breathe. It is a sage space where difference can be preserved.


The current artist showing in Matters of Concern is Minia Biabiany: Musa Nuit, Fondation d’entreprise Hermes’ La Verrière exhibition space, Brussels, until 5 September.

This article appeared in DAM76. Order your personal copy.