Assembly of Practice #1

What does it mean to own?

Article 3.50 of the Belgian Civil Code defines ‘ownership’ as follows: “The right of ownership confers directly on the owner the right to use, enjoy and dispose of the object. The owner has the fullness of powers, subject to the limitations imposed by laws, regulations or by the rights of third parties”. In legal terms, therefore, the answer to the question “what does it mean to own?” seems simple: ‘usus, fructus, abusus’ – the right to use, enjoy and dispose of an object. Or is it? Ecological and social catastrophes and struggles oblige us to reconsider the absolute nature of property rights. Witness hereof, the disappearance of the phrase “in the most absolute way” from the law article.

In an attempt to grasp ‘ownership’ in a nuanced way, we collectively read texts by Sarah Van Uxem and Lonnie Van Brummelen & Siebren De Haan.

In “La propriété de la terre”, Sarah Van Uxem (see Reading Room ´#20) questions the summa division between persons and things in our Western legal system. From ecological and legal historical considerations, Van Uxem invites us to consider nature and things as ‘environment’, persons as their inhabitants, property as the possibility to inhabit, and rights as a place within the environments.1 An interpretation of property as a complex, layered relationship between things and people, rather than a unilateral relationship of ‘control and mastery’. One that doesn’t propose legal personification of nature and things as a solution since this inevitably goes hand in hand with problems of representation and forms reduction. This invites us on an “excursion into the invisible right of others”2 – listening to things and nature and including these voices in the way we exercise the way we function in relation to property. While this seems a difficult exercise for us, for the Maroons, whom we meet in the work of Van Brummelen and De Haan, it is a matter of course. In “Jurisprudence of symbionts”, (see Reading Room ´#21) the artist duo sketches how the Maroons have a whole range of customs for maintaining relations with “those who never fully reveal themselves”. Life rules in this community, ‘weti’, are passed on within a broad coalition of human and non-human actors and are considered laws on how to act in order to not disturb the intricate ecosystem.3

This right to opacity, this broad coalition, is contrasted with unsuccessful attempts in New Zealand and Ecuador, where granting legal personality to nature does not have the desired result, and where economic interests of resource extraction outweigh ecosystem interests time and again.

It is a clear indication that the revalorisation of nature, not as a mere resource but as a coexisting actor in our daily reality requires more than a theoretical and legal foundation. The aforementioned artists take up this challenge in their ‘extended co-authorship’, in which Marrons as well as nature and ancestors help to set the rules.

With these Reading Rooms in mind, on April 14, 2022, Emptor went for a day of collective reflection to the C-mine landscape in Genk – Assembly of Practices #1: What does it mean to own? - where Jester (formerly FLACC-CIAP) is building its new future.

Nature as a resource and the accompanying landscapes of extraction formed the canvas of our collective reflection.

Vermeir & Heiremans take us to the ‘water city’ of Spa where their recent work 7 Walks (resolution) is set.

In 7 Walks (resolution) Vermeir & Heiremans introduced us, through historically documented, interactive walks, to the history of the management of a vital, shared resource like water, how exploitation is driven by economic considerations and what consequences this has for the way we relate to the landscape. Forgotten stories and practices emerged in an ongoing conversation about water management and possibilities for redistribution between private, public and collective spheres. With an artistic strategy of walking and integrating material into the local Musée des Eaux, Vermeir & Heiremans developed a layered, respectful presence in the landscape; a presence that used the management of water as a metaphor for the current economic model of the arts. In response, 7 Walks (resolution) took the audience into the landscape and into the creation process, activating, arranging and rearranging contributions in the local museum and presenting the artist duo as water sommeliers – offering water from the various sources at presentations outside of Spa. A difficult practice to ‘bottle’ and ‘export’, in which ownership is based on invested time and work in the landscape and local archives, and a complex web of relationships with local actors and experts.

Perhaps even an extended co-authorship, in which the floods in eastern Belgium in 2021 also had their share. Questions regarding Spa Monopole’s monopoly position, analogous to the historic position pioneering art gallerist, Ernest Gambart, had in relation to artists, led us to a discussion about the capture and redistribution of economic value.

What constitutes a proper quid pro quo when a private player privatises common goods? Spa Monopole’s contract with the municipality regarding royalties was called imbuvable (undrinkable) by locals at the time, while relationships between the two are so intertwined that there seems no option but to go on together. Meanwhile, the municipality is clearly not getting richer, and it is (again) selling off its patrimony (notably old thermal baths) without ensuring access for the public. Because it is necessary and because the municipality cannot survive economically, otherwise? Or because local politicians are waiting for private money to turn this city into a liveable ecology again?

Vermeir & Heiremans do not seem to be waiting. In the meantime, they have become ambassadors of a sort for the collective wealth Spa has to offer – inviting you to discover for yourself through the soles of your feet instead of getting a bottle of Spa in the supermarket.

Paysage Ménagé by Ciel Grommen & Maximiliaan Royakkers as well contains a message that urges the presence of art as an activity and not as a consumer good. An invitation from art centre CIAP led them to an active, two-year observational presence in the landscape of Winterslag, a place in Belgium with a rich history of coal mining; well known in the art world since the 2012 edition of Manifesta at C-Mine Genk. A search for a way to inhabit the landscape develops in dialogue with present players, dynamics and forgotten practices.

Winterslagse duivel, a local type of brick, was produced on site with the help of volunteers and experts, and it was used to strategically ‘furnish’ the place with a sculptural intervention titled Warmbed (hotbed), which provided a place to sit down and enjoy stunning views of the man-made landscape of the slag heap. Furthermore, it houses a wood oven that warmed up the surface. With Warmbed, the artists created an active possibility to inhabit the landscape, not only for the new art institution Jester, but also for accidental passers-by, animals, peace seekers and local residents who visit this now little developed or regulated place.

With this action, Grommen and Royakkers seem to continue the extraction of natural resources that marks the local landscape, albeit in a very different way and within a different rhetoric of ownership. The extraction of Winterslag soil for brickmaking and building homes by and for local residents is at odds with the historic, exponentially growing extraction and export of coal by private owners. Warmbed‘s unclear ownership status, for everyone and no one, as well as the way it inscribes itself into the landscape, allow – from an impasse – to avoid top-down management and control of the space while bottom-up, place-based use is encouraged.

This impasse seems to reflect the situation in which the city of Genk finds itself with regard to the future exploitation of the slag heap. An impasse, which currently prevents large-scale tourist exploitation and allows ‘soft’ human use of the terril heap of slag coal residue.

51N4E, the architecture firm commissioned by the city to draw up a plan for the C-Mine site, also seems to be moving away from orchestrated use and talks about a ‘soft grid’ and a ‘master palette’. As a result, the city of Genk will soon launch an open call for the creation of a framework of values for the further development of the site.

As in Spa, there are economic considerations here with regard to the reallocation of landscape and patrimony, and the question arises of whether and how Warmbed will be able to function as a model for the future of the place.

In our discussions, Twee-eiige Drieling (TWIIID) proposes to draw up a ‘foster care’ agreement for Warmbed. This would allow participation in management by a diversified group of stakeholders, in the form of a ‘family council’. While the idea of a family council and the personification of the Warmbed potentially allows for certain values to be conditioned upon its use, we question, with Van Uxem in mind, whether we are not thus ignoring the complexity of the local ecosystem and falling into a form of reductive representation.

What these discussions around an agreement for Warmbed make clear is that we are moving away from the idea that only a formal owner can determine how we manage and use things. It shows that within the arts, we increasingly understand that only a complex web of relationships and positions make it possible for a work of art to continue to exist.

However, in our urge to control we seem to forget that there are a lot of uncontrollable, invisible and unpronounceable elements that also determine what that ‘continued existence’ ultimately means. Or, how we got involved in a conversation with Sarah van Sonsbeeck, FLACC resident, about millimetre-cut front gardens and the mole as architect.

How do we articulate and pass on an inclusive and dynamic framework of values for the use of a landscape? Do we need agreements for this, or rather rituals and interventions like Warmbed that confront us with an impasse, which by exposing different layers of ownership (e.g. the intellectual property rights of the artists, the ownership of the land, the material ownership of Warmbed, the right of use) make the complexity and different positions visible and invite us to continue to actively discuss them?

“Be (in the) present” the new Jester chants.

With Emptor we were present and ‘we owned the place’.

We did this by walking the terril and gathering wood, as a gesture of being in the landscape, a form of resistance against privatisation of commons, and the creation of a possibility for future ‘owners’.

Mapping is an important tool when it comes to ownership, and as a way of sharing our reflections of the day with the public, we made a first contribution for a map of the site. With the audience, we shared our fascination and the potential we see in this tool by sharing the question:

Can we map commons without extraction and exploitation?

Can we use cartography as a tool for shared management of a place, as a tool for exercising ownership in a different way?

Guided by Atelier Cartographique and discussions around different forms and formats of maps, it became clear that the first step is to collect information for the map. Then, it’s to decide what information goes in the map, and finally, it’s how to represent the whole.

The day was too short to make a ‘wood gathering’ map of the area, but the exercise is continued by Max Royakkers and his students from UAntwerpen.

The fact that, in addition to wood, we also brought along a lot of waste was information that confirmed the need for a reciprocal relationship with nature.

In the meantime, Clémentine Vaultier nourished our taste buds with resources that she gathered from the bakery museums of Veurne, Jolimont Castle in Brussels and Genk. Old waffle irons were warmed at the hotbed, recipe and material knowledge were shared and enriched, and sparks were created around ways to devour property.

With our backpacks full and our hearts at ease, we left the smouldering Warmbed, which succeeded this evening as an art activity that gathers around – fanning debates about ownership and planting seeds for the future of the site.

  1. p. 61: “Dès lors que l’on se propose de substituer à la conception romaine de la chose-lieu, on pourrait suivre le mouvement dessiné par le philosophe et définir les choses comme des milieux, les personnes comme leurs habitants, la propriété telle un faculté d’habiter, et les droits comme les places occupées par les dénommés propriétaires dans les choses-milieux.” 

  2. p. 97: “En d’autres termes, le juriste pourrait être en mesure d’entamer ‘une excursion dans l’invisible ‘droit’ des autres, et de s’interroger sur les droits que les personnes-habitants non humains s’accordent eux-mêmes.” 

  3. pp. 129-130