La drôlesse

01.04  –  04.06

One has to start somewhere.

One of my favorite memories of LTE (the Late Trudo Engels, who disappeared in 2009) is the moment he stood at the front door of his student address with a tape recorder and microphone at the ready, aiming to record the clattering sounds of the monthly glass collection in the Spiegelhofstraat. Such deafening cacophony could be put to good use for one of his sound collages. Or shall we call them sound sculptures, as LTE was then a student at the KASK sculpture department? As a sixteen-year-old schoolboy from Kortrijk, I occasionally went to Ghent for a concert, and I could always stay with LTE afterwards. The next day he would recount his recent adventures at the academy and the most interesting art-historical case studies he had picked up. His storytelling was at once animated and casual, and usually didn’t involve any interruption to his work—except to replenish his large, trusty thermos with coffee. In this way LTE drew my attention to the “noise art” of the Futurists, the blood-soaked rituals of Hermann Nitsch and the Viennese Actionists, the provocations of Piero Manzoni with his canned Merda d'artista, the centimeter-thick abstract paint layers of Eugène Leroy, the primitive pictograms of A R Penck, and—already familiar to me—the subversive strategies of Marcel Duchamp.

A schoolfriend, like LTE also from Dadizele in West Flanders, was the connection that brought us into contact. The location of the first meeting was possibly at the Twenty-One, Kortrijk’s only authentic punk café. At the time, Christ Vanneste, who would later become a strong figure in the socialist union, overflowed with fascination for Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, and then Patti Smith, the Virgin Prunes, the Slits, and a wealth of other bands. I was more into Thomas Bernhard, Céline, and the sonic worlds of Wire, PIL, and Brian Eno. The 1980s had just begun and the English music scene was evolving astonishingly fast from aggressive quickies to an unfathomable range of new styles and practices—from the existential cold wave of Joy Division (LTE could imitate the convulsive dance moves of Ian Curtis like no other) to the atonal entropy of industrial music. LTE even went on a field trip to Berlin, where he witnessed Einstürzende Neubauten, Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft, and other “Geniale Dilletanten” at work. The post-punk DIY mentality that was averse to all practical or legal restrictions and put artistic autonomy first was infectious. We put ourselves to Letraset adhesive letters and stencil machines, starting our own cassette labels, spontaneous performances, and network-building through mail art, artistic pseudonyms, and anonymous mailboxes.

From 1980 onwards a special catalyst of all that feverish creativity was found in the Limelight, located in a former porn cinema in the center of Kortrijk, with the police station two houses further down the roas. This creative hub instantly became an incubator for young theater-makers, musicians, and film lovers. There we discovered disruptive films like Claude Faraldo’s Themroc and Andrzej Żuławski's Possession, in which, respectively, a cop is cannibalized and a young Isabelle Adjani mutates into a slimy alien at the foot of the Berlin Wall. And almost weekly, we were bowled over at concerts by the likes of This Heat, Tuxedomoon, Blurt, and many, many more. Gradually we were also allowed to organize two “Nachten van de Industrie” (Nights of Industry, 1982–83), our own low-budget interpretation of international events such as The Final Academy (London) and Pandora's Music Box (Rotterdam), for which we dragged in not only amplifiers and slide projectors but also scrap metal, bricks, and animal entrails. Pushing the boundaries seemed obvious to us then.

Indeed, we lived through a grim period of social unrest. Unemployment was sky-high, the currency got devalued, the government changed at every turn (between spring 1979 and autumn 1991, the country had ten governments), and protesters marched against higher registration fees and against the installation of nuclear weapons. The Cold War fueled activism on many fronts. Through music and literature (J.G. Ballard, William Burroughs, Kathy Acker...), a range of alternative visions of society reached us: feminism, anarchism, vegetarianism, transgressive thinking, and post-apocalyptic science fiction. The climate of fear was intensified by terrorist actions, private militias, and other polarizing organizations (the Bende van Nijvel, the Communist Combatant Cells, the Vlaamse Militanten Orde, the Taal Aktie Komitee, Voorpost, Westland New Post). Frequent intimidating actions against civilians by the militarily organized gendarmerie, the Bijzondere Opsporings Brigade (Special Investigations Brigade), and even more special elite forces (Group Diane, etc.) reinforced, especially among young people, a general skepticism towards both the police and politics.

Power/Impotence was one of LTE's early musical incarnations. Just as he figured out systems and diagrams on paper instead of drawing like an “artist,” LTE did not play an instrument but rather extracted his sounds from a double cassette deck and processed bits of magnetic tape into collages of concrete sounds and insane sound textures. On my way to café Den Amber (renamed The Cover a few years later) for his first performance in this guise, I was stopped on the street by a police unit. So not only art students but also their friends were automatically under surveillance as suspicious elements? I possibly attracted attention because I had photographed a neon sign with a lightning symbol using my flash camera. This simply because the symbol reminded me of the album cover of The Second Annual Report by Throbbing Gristle. It might also have had something to do with the fact that I was on the Nieuwe Wandeling, right by the prison, around the corner from Spiegelhofstraat. Or maybe it was because I was wearing a bright yellow industrial helmet? The other day, in contrast, I received approving responses to my headgear from enthusiastically honking strikers. “No future” had long since ceased to be an exclusive claim of rebellious youngsters; by then the entire working class felt threatened. The polluted center of Ghent still smelled rotten from sewage and exhaust fumes, and at the Dampoort there were still four giant chimneys in operation. Yet the industrial era was running on empty.

Stimulated by the artistic freedom that apparently prevailed at KASK, I enrolled at the academy two years after LTE, but opting for the photo and film course. It was still the era of analogue media, and so you first learned all the processes for the still image and only then—optionally—the moving image. A different mentality prevailed on the ground floor of the Academiestraat than in the sculptors' studio, which was on a separate location with studios at the Berouw. In the photography department, the documentary approach dominated, thanks to several teachers who were quite active in photojournalism. By 1982, a particularly motivated batch had just graduated, including Dirk Braeckman and Carl De Keyzer, who together with Marc van Roy gave a major boost to local visual culture by founding the XYZ photo gallery on Brabantdam in 1982. They chose the name after observing that it was right next to the porn cinema ABC. Possibly inspired by the start-up of MTV in 1981, graduates of the film department launched a video café on the Ottogracht around the same period: Videotto.

After KASK, performer and body artist Danny Devos moved back to Borgerhout and with artist Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven started the controversial organization Club Moral, at once the name of a space, a collective, and a noise band. With that and their magazine Force Mental, DDV and AMVK also offered an important incubator for art that did not shy away from taboos and that dared to magnify latent, fermenting patterns of extreme behavior in society. Club Moral didn’t just provide an appropriate stage but anchored LTE and several contemporaries from the Ghent sculpture department within an international network. Dirk Paesmans and Koen Theys, who for a while operated under the name V-side and Votnik, pushed it too far with their macabre actions and installations and got expelled by KASK director Pierre Vlerick. Theys moved to Brussels and continued his iconoclasm through what have since become classics of Belgian video art. Paesmans also gradually channeled his iconoclasm towards the electronic screen and, as part of the duo JODI, became one of the leading figures of the international net-art scene. Claude Yande, who preferred painting with motor oil rather than oil paint, radicalized in his own way: he first learned to shoot in the army and then became a dogged union militant.

Back then, we were just at the beginning. The Berlin Wall had yet to fall, the European Union was expanding, the internet was about to open up, and the neoliberal wave of globalization hadn’t even gained momentum. For LTE, his artistic career could still go either way, and that was exactly what he intended. From the outset, LTE set out several diverging lines at the same time, always based on idiosyncratic systems. These projects were typically extremely physical and labor-intensive (he preferred to consider himself an “art maker” rather than an “artist”), but they also implied a radical thinking exercise and thus a large degree of mental freedom. From the late Duchamp, he maintained that “the artist of the future will go underground.” From Brian Eno’s box of Oblique Strategies, he took the advice that it is not the genius but the scene, the environment, that makes the art. Underground or backstage, behind the Brussels curtains of Plateau and then Nadine, as a shadow artist for third parties or under the guise of a few dozen fictitious names, over the decades the inimitable, protean LTE has operated as multiple entities. As generous as he is elusive, consistently questioning the status of “artist,” LTE has rejected all consolidation and is now even sabotaging the notion of an oeuvre by destroying all his early works, from 1980 to 2009, by putting them in the hands of third parties to recycle or realizing projects for the first time after decades of delay. Four years of incubation time at KASK have sufficed to keep the variations going—tirelessly and unpredictably — for forty years and counting.

KIOSK La drôlesse Trudo Engels kopie