Les Marches de la Bourse

Public space

35 min

OPENING 2015
8/05 – 18:00
Outdoor performance

The steps of the Bourse in Brussels – a highly symbolic piece of Second Empire architecture reflecting Leopoldian ambitions – have long provided a popular stage for demonstrations and celebrations by Belgian citizens. Playing a vital role in amplifying words, they assert the right to urban diversity. For the opening of the Kunstenfestivaldesarts 2015, Anna Rispoli, an artist whose polymorphous work examines relationships between people and cities, invites a group of people to return to the steps of the Bourse. What they all have in common is that they once shouted out something on them. Climbing the steps one by one, they take their clear message with them, but end up disappearing beneath a vibrant cacophony, a tableau vivant of sights and sounds that irons out partisan interests to express nothing but a shared desire for change. Suddenly, the tumult of protestations gives way to a silence interrupted only by the chatter of tourists...

A project initiated by
Anna Rispoli

In conversation with
Daniel Blanga Gubbay & Lieven De Cauter

In collaboration with
Koen Berghmans

Presentation
Kunstenfestivaldesarts

Production
Kunstenfestivaldesarts

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Message to the people on the ‘de-politicisation’ of Brussels city centre

For years I had a view of the Stock Exchange building from my apartment in Orts Street. Nearly every day, from my balcony, I could see a passing event: football fans after a match, industrial action, protests of all sorts, and naturally, demonstrations.

As if topicality had found a stage. Yes, I really felt that from my balcony I was watching political and social theatre; rather than just a lovely street view, it was a glimpse of the world. The steps and forecourt of the building were literally a kind of theatrical space, where politics and history took on a tangible, visible form.

I also subsequently stood there many times myself, and regularly chipped-in with brief, impromptu speeches. For the television cameras, it was a handsome and obliging décor. But all that is history...

When I went along to a demonstration in late August last year concerning an apparently imminent intervention in Syria, for which I had been mobilised – in 24 hours we had managed to get 200 people onto their feet, as well as national radio and television crews – I noticed to my dismay that the steps and forecourt of the Stock Exchange building were denied to us by the police. The argument was that these areas had since become the entrance to a museum and that therefore political action no longer belonged there.

I could not believe my ears. We had to stand on the opposite side, between the concrete planters. A measly spot – no visibility, no amphitheatre, no political stage. The VRT (television) camera crew had a very difficult time finding a good angle.

It is important to realise what is happening here: the most public space in Brussels, if not in all of Belgium, an amphitheatre for political and social life in this country, is being taken away from us. Nothing less. Here is where for years one could, as it were, gauge the mood of the time, and follow the latest topics. Frenzied football fans, angry unionists, or indignant contestants, they all chose the steps and forecourt of the Stock Exchange as a stage or as an important stop along their route. And they knew why. That is where you needed to be.

GAS fines

Of course, one use of the steps is not the same as the other. I am keen to see if they get the police to hold back the football fans after a major victory. Of course not. Even the strict mayor of Antwerp felt it prudent last year to tolerate protesting football fans and not to distribute GAS (municipal administrative sanction) fines, even though the fans had not asked for permission to demonstrate.

This sharply contrasts with the GAS fines that were handed out to people who wanted to protest in Antwerp’s Meir Street last year against the privatisation of multinationals like Monsanto through the patenting of GMOs.

The bottom line is that political action is not welcome, and partying or protesting football fans are politically innocent and therefore acceptable (and moreover, potentially violent). In any case, this is a potent example of the subtle expropriation of our public space, in the strong sense of the word, as a space for the political.

Belgian Beer

Naturally, this was no coincidence at all: the neoliberal city does not desire any form of political expression. The Belgian Beer Temple, the future incarnation of the Stock Exchange, must be a place that boosts tourism in Brussels – that is what we read in the newspaper. As with a shopping mall or a theme park: keep it cosy. ‘Here one does not engage in politics.’

But that cannot and should not be an excuse. Besides, tourists love a bit of a spectacle; they can then see with their own eyes that Belgians are enacting democracy. I would like to help develop a complete marketing plan together with the tourist services, in order to make this a point of interest.

You can amplify it to such a degree that tourists would be disappointed if they only saw a group of people with banners and megaphones and a few media sources on the steps of the Stock Exchange the day they pass by. Anyway, maybe I'm getting carried away, but you know what I mean.

Neither the temple nor the tourists have to fear the nuisance of protesters, especially since we also read in the newspaper that the entrance to the Beer Temple is at the side of the building. Uninterrupted access is thus assured. The stairs are now definitely available to us, to anyone and everyone.

The steps of the Stock Exchange also offer more than a platform for protest. They define a permanent meeting place for many different people. From tramps to businessmen to American tourists: one meets at the Stock Exchange, and if the wait lasts too long, you take a seat on the steps. It’s simply a powerful meeting point. Especially now that the area in front is soon to become car free (???). At the same time, we must avoid it becoming car-free, a cloak over the city centre to further frame it as an apolitical theme park. Honestly, I’m afraid.

Many cities would envy us a place like the steps of the Stock Exchange: an ultimately democratic place, because there, in addition to day-trippers and newspaper kiosks, cries of joy and voices of protest find their place: a locatable domain for free speech, a truly symbolic place for the public, which otherwise plays itself out in newspapers and on television, radio, and the Internet; in short, in a virtual space. This is even more impressive than Speaker's Corner in Hyde Park.

I therefore think that the city council or the managers of the Stock Exchange should adjust their decision, as a show of their civic duty. This is about an easement to real democracy, maybe not de jure but de facto. As Brusselaars, as well as Belgians, we must not let this unique place be stolen. With this, I call on the Picnic in the Streets network, in collaboration with the trade unions and the various activist organisations, to organise a Reclaim the steps campaign.

PS But that’s still not all. My open letter of last year to Picnic in the Streets and co. was clearly too focused, and therefore a bit near-sighted (maybe that’s why it has been set aside…).

All the demonstrations in which I have participated since then (and there are quite a few), have departed from the North Station (as they have done since time immemorial), but were then led along the inner ring road rather than directed along the central axis in the direction of De Brouckère, with the area in front of the Stock Exchange as their stop and culmination.

It often then went further, towards the South Station, where the final speeches were made, but many people continued to hang round the Stock Exchange (also going somewhere in the neighbourhood to grab a well-earned pint).

Now the procession marches round the city. We run screaming into nothingness, at the empty inner ring and its buildings. There’s no public. The demonstrations have literally been stripped of their public character: a demonstration without passers-by and spectators might as well be marching through the fields.

A demonstration takes place in the heart of the city; political action belongs at the crux of the policy. Does it not? In my opinion, there is method in the madness. The steps of the Stock Exchange are but one sore point (yes, it angers me), but in fact, this concerns the whole of the city centre. They want to safeguard it from all that racket.

The ‘pentagon’ has to be a peaceful theme park for tourists and one big shopping mall for day-trippers. A Winterpret (the awful Christmas market bursting out of its seams, which for weeks transforms Brussels into an insufferable light & sound show and a no-go zone for residents because it’s engulfed by dense crowds of tourists), but then throughout the entire year.

Political protest does not fit in the picture. Thus, from the steps of the Stock Exchange we need to zoom out to the entire city if we want to defend the protest’s ‘right to centrality’. We must once again, in other words, explicitly traverse the city with our demonstrations, and if need be, occupy it (or in some way relieve it of the amusement-parking and commercialisation), in order to safeguard it from total de-politicisation.

Hence, this message to the people, this call to the whole of civil society, to all organisations that still organise demonstrations: demonstrations must cross through through the city centre or all hell will break loose. Just tell that to the police. A blockade around parliament and such, ok, so be it. But no blockades in the city centre! The city is ours. Reclaim the Steps? That, too. But more importantly: Reclaim the City [Goddammit]!

Lieven De Cauter
The origininal Dutch text was published on the website DeWereldMorgen.be on 19 September 2014

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Anna Rispoli (b. 1974) comes from a small city in northern Italy best known for its alpine bridge. The definition of urban identity being a central narrative in her work, she questions the conceptual possibilities and aesthetic options between public domain and intimate territory. Her projects – Vorrei tanto tornare a casa (2009), Genius Loci (2011), Retroterra (2012), and W. Seven walks around Wielemans Ceuppens (2013) in Brussels, and A Piece of Land (Mülheim an der Ruhr, Germany, 2010), The invention of the elevator (Hannover, Germany, 2011), and I really would like to come back home (Gwangju, South Korea, 2013) – have used urban development plans as fictional backdrops for the staging of architectural performances and visual and filmic installations. During the last edition of Kortrijk Congé (Belgium), she joined the platform Potential Office Project to test a fictional city operating without money. In September 2015, Rispoli will sing an ode to the current state of utopia inspired by the long lasting Leiewerken, which aimed at turning the river into a major commercial waterway. Since 2000, she has been collaborating with the artists’ collective ZimmerFrei (50th Venice Biennale, Manifest 07, Biennale de Valencia, Visions du Réel in Nyon, Rome International Film Festival, Torino Film Festival, Biografilm Festival in Bologna), whose complete cycle of films called Temporary cities will be shown at the upcoming Film Fest Gent.

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