Parties and Public Space

By Vincent Clay
© Emilio Azevedo
Welcome To Brussels
Walking somewhere in the city, on summer weekends visiting Brussels before I lived here, I came across street events with what seemed remarkable regularity. A few thousand people dancing to techno in the square in front of the royal palace? OK! A DJ playing Burial from a bandstand tucked away in the corner of a park, to a tiny crowd? Absolutely.
You often stumble across public events in London, from Trafalgar Square to neighbourhood high streets, but the difference in Brussels is that a fair number of them - by no means all - are things that have interested me, made me stay, got me dancing. Of course, for finding things by chance, it helps that to get anywhere here you're as likely to be using your feet as you are to be rattling directly there underground.
At least in the summer, it seems evident that people here do more living in public spaces than in London, and not just in the 'continental' manner of sitting out at street-side cafes, a Brit's stereotypical point of envy of the way of life in warmer climes. It’s important here, but the Brussels drizzle makes it fairly unpleasant, if not unfeasible, for half the year. Instead, what has caught my attention is the 'official' involvement in enjoyment of public space here: the mingling of municipal permission, even encouragement, with entertainment and creativity of a quality that interests me. In the winter, you won’t passively stumble across events in the same way, but they're still going on. And so one night you might find yourself wandering through a business district doubly desolated by the night and by the weekend, catching the distant, heavy four four beat, before finding the right edifice and being welcomed by buzz and vapour down the steps to a railway station that, for tonight, has become a party. This is High Needs Low at Gare Congrès - but first you’re going to get a little history...
Ripping Up the City
For the past couple of decades, Brussels has had an image problem. Part of this is down to the word 'Brussels' being a metonym for the institutions of the European Union: admire it, despise it, or not think about it very much, whatever your opinion on the EU, the picture of Brussels that you have in your head will be bureaucratic and not lively, a million miles from 'Berlin ist arm, aber sexy.' But the capital of Europe remains a European capital in its own right, a real city, with its own urban history.
In this history, one thread is the railway line connecting the main stations of Gare du Midi and Gare du Nord. Discussed for decades before eventual completion in 1952, this project ripped through the centre of the city, resulting in the demolition of 1,200 homes. In the subsequent decades, the areas above and beside the line developed in two main ways: as poor, grey, city centre housing projects, or as grey, concrete and glass business districts.
100 years earlier, the increasingly grimy River Senne (not Seine) was covered to form some of Brussels’ main streets: as you criss-cross the busy Boulevard Anspach, there’s nothing to indicate the once-noxious river running below. Similarly, the Midi-Nord connection might not be pretty, but it’s certainly functional – at least if you’re a commuter (or appreciate the old joke about Brussels). As Nicolas Hemeleers of a Brussels -based urban planning office says: “This space has been made with urban planning in the past – it’s here, and the challenge for urban planning now is how to use it.”
Two new stations were formed by the link, Gare de la chapelle and Gare Congrès. Gare de la chapelle is in a poor, largely North African neighbourhood. Since 1997, the station has been the home of a regeneration project for the surrounding area: Recyclart. The Recyclart bar, tucked beneath the station’s concrete superstructure, is the most visible part of a project with initiatives that range from an arts programme that draws people to the area from across the city, to training that raises the skills of the neighbourhood population. This integrated project receives city funding and is one of the city’s creative hubs.
By contrast, Gare Congrès sits between the former Ministry of Finance building, a car park, and a couple of other disused, broken-windowed office blocks. It’s a business district, but a dilapidated one that offers no accommodation and no attractions. With no local community, there is no need for ‘community’ projects. Instead, since 2006, the Bruxelles Congrès association has been finding ways to transform the space, with permission but without funding.
The conception of the project was, in part, driven by former deputy mayor Henri Simons when he was in charge of urban planning and culture. The Association is entirely voluntary: Hemeleers, a member, says that this means although arranging events can be exhausting, more risks can be taken with programming. Meanwhile, the station is always in use: the program has to work around the timetable, and features exhibitions, seminars, and parties – sometimes simultaneously. In October 2009, it hosted the first LDN/BRU event, coinciding with the annual Nuit Blanche. One of the exhibits turned the locked-up ticket office into something halfway between a projection space and post-apocalyptic vitrine.
© Installation by Moustache Collectif - Photo by Dan. J. Spinney
So, not only does the space of the station challenge exhibition curators and party throwers to use it in new ways, but it works towards encouraging a new perception of the Brussels urban environment: anywhere can be used, anywhere can be transformed in purpose whilst using the existing urban fabric. For me, this surely encourages people to see the actual shapes and structure of their city regardless of a building’s function, moving away from received ideas of architectural worth and perhaps towards feeling more of a claim on the city as their own. Or at least reassess a grumpy ticket vendor.
High Needs Low
At the most recent High Needs Low, I find the wood-panelled station bar heaving with people, filled with a sense of excitement alien to what is, in effect, a subterranean transit café. Elsewhere, you hand your coat over at the cloakroom table, and it’s taken to racks lining a long, brightly lit corridor that is only ever hurried through by commuters going somewhere else: keeping something in this space is a subtle shift of purpose. And in the main underground atrium, a DJ is playing some beautifully mellow techno in front of a double-time projection of lights flickering on a city river, and the dancefloor is surrounded by screens with static images that might be fireworks, sparks, or the ends of a bunch of fibre optic cables lit with information. Whatever they are, they provide a sense of movement captured and held, at once complementary to and in tension with the act of dancing. But being there doesn’t feel as if you’re in something conceptual, it’s not clever-clever: just as your dancing legs start to flag a couple of hours in, some guy with a big smile on his face bumps into you and insists he gives you one of the stack of shots he’s carrying, the DJ brings in a new beat, and everything adds up to a fantastic party.
A couple of weeks later I meet up with two of the organisers, Soumaya Dance Machine and Guillaume Bleret. Soumaya is the resident DJ, and Guillaume one of the artists involved. I learn that the stills were actually derived from something far from techno and railways. Bleret and fellow High Needs Low collaborator Luz Diaz were photographing in a tropical garden: a near-abstract photo of light falling on the surface of a small fountain was the one that most intrigued them, and became the basis for the look of this edition of High Needs Low. Cineaste Patrick Charpentier completes the team.
An ambitious party, the first High Needs Low was in October 2008, and Soumaya’s idea was that it would be an event where your eyes and ears are on an equal level – not just another party trying to invite the right DJs (though they certainly make some good picks) with a VJ ‘responding’ more or less successfully to what is played. And it’s a labour of love: they pay the guest DJs but take nothing for themselves, and for days before the event there are always at least two of the team around the station setting up, attracting occasional glares from commuters who they have mildly inconvenienced. Soumaya, who DJs across Europe, and Guillaume, who in addition to his own work assists Ann Veronica Janssens, are dedicated to High Needs Low because they felt something was missing in their hometown. The established Fuse nightclub, for example, is on the circuit for some of Europe’s finest DJs, and was the site of my first long Brussels dancefloor night, but some people are turned off by a macho culture that occasionally appears in part of the crowd. By contrast, Soumaya tells me that giving things away to people is central to High Needs Low: it turns out that the guy who had pressed a Jägermeister into my hand was one of the team, who had liberated a bottle from the bar and brought it out onto the dancefloor.
Guillaume adds another thread to my history of the city: in the 70s and 80s, Brussels had a strong alternative scene, with a continent-wide reputation. In the early 90s, when he started to experience things first hand, it was possible to find the sharper edges of creativity or entertainment in the city. But with the continuing growth of what he ambivalently terms ‘the European fortress’, increasing efforts were made to clean the city up, and through the late 90s and early 00s, most of the city’s creativity seemed to fall away. Yet even with the temptation for emerging talent to move elsewhere, to somewhere marked more indelibly in the 21st century European creative consciousness, Guillaume is convinced that things are starting to change now, despite the inflow of Eurocrats like me helping to push up rents.
Indeed, despite this population often failing to engage outside the Euro-bubble, Brussels’ dual position as both heart and crossroads of Europe results in a mix of people that is one of the reasons Guillaume wants to work and make things happen here. And, from what I’ve seen, the willingness of the creative community to engage with municipal space – in addition to spaces commercial, domestic , or abandoned, in which other cities might have their strength –is one of Brussels’ most distinctive aspects.
© Emilio Azevedo