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100 years ago, pianos were built here. Today, Professor Stefan Wouters comes to the Pianofabriek to be inspired by contemporary artists.
Photo: Saskia Vanderstichele
This article was previously published in HENRI Magazine.
We meet Stefan Wouters, professor in performance art and curator of the Belgium Performance Festival, in the Pianofabriek in Sint-Gillis. Today it’s a training centre, a city lab, an arts workshop and a community centre, but, as its name indicates, the main building was originally a piano factory. It was built at the end of the 19th century on the foundations of the Monterey Fort, a citadel in the south of Brussels, known at the time as Obbrussel. The Spanish governor and Monterey count Juan Domingo Mendez de Haro y Fernández de Córdoba had it built in 1672.
The main building was erected in 1898 by the Gunthers, a family of German piano builders who settled in Brussels in 1845. Their pianos were acclaimed the world over. They had all the trademark qualities of traditional, built-to-last German pianos, combining attention to both sound and mechanical engineering. They could withstand rough handling, and were a favourite in both schools and homes. Between the wars, every local conservatory owned a Gunther piano.
After World War II, the factory and its name were acquired by the Vanderelst family, who owned one of Europe’s then leading piano restoration businesses. From 1966, the factory only restored pianos. The company finally closed in 1977, by which point a second-hand Gunther had become more expensive than a brand-new, Japan-built piano.
No movie theatre
Wouters meets us in the snug bar of the Pianofabriek, to explain why he chose this place as his B-spot. He talks about the volatility of performance art, both in time and space. “Performance art isn’t space-specific; it doesn’t have a fixed location of its own,” he says. “There’s not really one particular place we visit to see performance art. It’s not like a cinema, for instance, where the purpose of our visit is clear to us in advance – to watch a movie.”
Brussels is currently a global leader in performance art, he explains. “The city has a number of really big players like Wiels, Kaaitheater with its Performatik biennial, Beursschouwburg with its Bâtard festival. Even Bozar and the KMSKB have taken up the art form. What’s special about this is that every location is only temporarily used to show performance art; these spaces in truth weren’t designed for this type of art.”
Neither was the Pianofabriek, which in its current form opened in 2008, after a long trajectory and extensive renovation works. In 1978, the Brussels state secretary for Dutch-language culture, Vic Anciaux, bought the building next door, and the cultural centre and non-profit Trefcentrum Obbrussel was born. The building consisted of two separate houses; the many Flemings active in the local social and cultural life rebuilt the houses in their spare time, transforming them into a gathering place that doubled as a children’s and youth club, a volleyball club, a film club, and much more. In 1982, Rika Steyaert, a Brussels member of parliament for the Christian party CVP, bought the adjacent piano factory. She declared that the centre would open its doors to the many local migrant associations. At the beginning of the 1990s, the various buildings were combined into one community centre – De Pianofabriek. It would be 2002, however, before the necessary renovation works could begin.
Wouters is drawn to the Pianofabriek precisely because of its wide range of activities and its vibrant energy. “This is not your typical space, because it’s a true community centre,” he says. “There’s a great openness and people can bring their own ideas. For instance, I once saw the international theatre school Lassaad, based not far from here, perform their interpretation of Kurt Schwitter’s Ursonate – a classic avant-garde piece, but one that’s rarely performed. I love the thrill of finding such gems in unexpected places.
He also introduces the place to his students, “to show them a location that’s maybe slightly less well-known but is nevertheless a place where a lot happens.” He wants to offer them a direct experience of performance art, rather than just focusing on its theory. “When it comes to art, it’s really important that you always go and watch it for yourself. This is especially true for performance art, which is so heavily focused on the audience’s experience.”
From the past to the present
Wouters recently published a book based largely on the Belgian happening in 1965 and 1966, Vluchtigheid en verzet (Evanescence and Resistance), with a particular focus on the early performative works by Panamarenko, Hugo Heyrman, Wout Vercammen, Bernd Lohaus and Yoshio Nakajima.
“My aim is to keep both the historical and theoretical framework of performance art relevant,” he says. “I always try to establish a connection between my research into the history of performance art and the present.” That’s another reason why he likes going to the Pianofabriek.
We come to the crux of our conversation. The space, according to Wouters, is key to the atmosphere it evokes and with which a connection can be built. And it is that atmosphere that drives Wouters here. It’s a continual quest for new experiences. Visiting the Pianofabriek also means visiting VUB alumnus Philip Meersman, the centre’s cultural officer and curator of the Poetry Underground Festival. “The Pianofabriek also stages performances. I like staying up to date about ongoing shifts and trends in performance art, because that’s what I’m passionate about and because I want to integrate the most recent developments into my lessons. That’s why I chose this place as a Living Lab.”
And sometimes, Wouters, who comes from Antwerp, just sits at the bar, enjoying what he discovered when he moved to Brussels. “Brussels is not an open book. You always have to look for it. But once you know your way around it, Brussels is fantastic.”
How to get there
Etterbeek station – tram 7 direction Vanderkindere – stop at Churchill – tram 3 direction Esplanade to Horta – walk 4 minutes – 35 minutes
Or take bus 95 to Mouterij – tram 81 to Willem Tell – walk 2 minutes – 30 minutes