Initiative, leadership, commitment and most of all, team spirit. These are the main qualities I saw in Marie du Chastel when I first met her. Missing just one edition, she is one of the main reasons why Kikk Festival has such rich content. She has been the curator of the digital and technological art festival since 2012, and her endless source of ideas announces that this is just the beginning. From a very young age, she knew what she wanted, and even though she branched off her path for a while, she ended up not only working on what she wanted but also having a driving seat.
I met Marie one afternoon in the first floor of La Bourse building in Namur (Belgium), right before she guided us through the exhibition tour of Kikk in Town which, this year paid special attention to Africa. La Bourse was the fortress of Kikk’s organisation team. Everyone was working, bustling around, setting everything up for the opening of the festival on the next day. There I found her, in-between the stress and the excitement. She shook everything away and offered me to have a sit to start the interview. And while having a coffee, our conversation travelled from digital art to the lack of visibility of African artists while stopping by women’s empowerment and rights.
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You studied Advertising in Brussels and then you made an Interactive Media master at the University of Arts in London. What made you move from the marketing field to art and curatorship?
It’s a long story, but I’ll make it short! (Laughs) Basically, when I was studying in high school and the time came for me to choose my higher education studies, I felt like the education system didn’t prepare you well enough for what’s out there. So, I told my family I wanted to do computer science. But everybody told me, ‘Are you sure? You’re a girl, you know this is a field dominated by men’ – and all these things. So they advised me not to do it and I listened. Therefore, I had to choose at the last minute, and the school of IHECS was a good compromise in-between touching a bit of technology and communication. This is actually the field many girls in Brussels choose when they are creative in technic aspects but don’t know what to do.
Then, after that, I learnt that I didn’t want to work in advertising. However, I learnt a second thing, which was that I wanted to continue creating technologies – you know, in all studies, we have to choose some specific media to do some projects, and I always chose HTML websites, interactive CD-ROM and all that technical stuff. That’s why I went to London to do the Interactive Media master. Moreover, nothing like that existed in Belgium, so I had to move out of the country.
By that time, the field was booming. Did you see an opportunity in this market?
Yes, this was a very interesting time to do so because it was before mobile phones but also it was the time of exploration of interactivity. The first micro-controller was out, so it was when all the creative and technological tools appeared and they were very cheap. Before becoming what we call a creative coder – an artist or a designer using code –, you needed to be very technical and know very complicated programming skills.
At the time, many creators understood that some people would like to use code but they were not as experienced as programmers, and that is why they started to release some libraries and frameworks easier to code for designers and people who knew nothing about it. So yes, that was a good time for me to start my studies.
Kikk Festival dives into a main topic each year. In 2017, the theme was Invisible Narratives –looking for alternative and invisible realities – and then, in 2018, it was Species and Beyond – exploring the symbiotic relationship between the living and the non-living. This year is about Archipelagos of Fragility. These are quite abstract concepts. How do you decide each year’s topic? What does it depend on?
It’s a very organic process, there isn’t an order. I mean, this year’s festival is all organised, so within two months, we will meet again at a restaurant and we will throw ideas on the table about topics and things we want to talk about. In the beginning, we don’t discuss the words we are going to use for the theme but just about the topics. Usually, the topics are chosen following what’s happening in society and the world right now.
Once we have the topic, we can draw out all the related ideas and then we try to find the poetic way to wrap everything up. Normally, there are several topics and sub-themes, and that’s why the concepts are always abstract. Also, the programme is so dense – there are four different conference rooms, the marketplace, huge exhibitions, etc. – that it would be very repetitive if we covered only one specific topic.
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Also, I realized that the first editions didn’t have a theme; Kikk was ‘just’ a festival focusing on innovation, research and the digital world. When did you decide to englobe everything under a concept? And what motivated this change?
The programme of the festival evolved gradually. In the first edition, there were some conferences, a few workshops and also a hackathon – at the time, it wasn’t called like that but it was a hackathon. Every year after the first edition, we started adding things to the programme, like the exhibition. If you do an exhibition, you will need to have a title, a topic or a frame for it because, otherwise, it would be just some random content in a room. So, it started right after the first year because of the exhibition. Also, it was easier to have a sort of canal for all the initiatives, for the team to collaborate with the curators. If you have a topic, you can frame and guide people to give ideas.
About this years’ theme, Archipelagos of Fragility: the festival will focus on the fragility of our planet and its ecosystems and the role of technology in all this. But how is the concept of archipelago and island related to the digital era? Do you feel we’re isolated identities (like islands) who create a greater archipelago when connected through the Internet?
There are different visions with this image of ‘archipelago’. An archipelago is made by several islands to make a whole, they are connected together and they come from a bigger picture. We hear quite often that media and technology are sort of connecting people with each other, they gather people; if you are on one side of the world, you can connect with whoever is on the other side. But at the same time, we wanted to talk about the negative aspects of technology because it isn’t only gathering people but it is also separative and discriminatory. So, the image of an archipelago was really nice because we are talking about the ecosystem and its fragility, but at the same time, we have subtopics such as diversity, discrimination, etc.
Also, this year we are taking a look into the relation of technology with the South and the North, but specifically in the African diaspora. Therefore, the image of archipelago really connects with the planet, climate change, the fragility of ecosystems and the idea of breaking into multiple pieces. It all makes a metaphor about the dividing parts of technology but also technology as a whole.
Anyone who takes a look at the festival’s programme will see the huge amount of content that you create every year. So I imagine that being the curator must be quite challenging. How do you face this task? Guide us a bit through your research process, the initial part of the festival.
It is horrible to say, but it is very random! (Laughs) I don’t consider myself a very well-organised person and I function a lot with intuition, meaning that I can’t really explain how I get there. But what I do to prepare the programme every year is travel a lot, go to many events and I try to visit as many exhibitions as I can. I try to store all this knowledge in my mind. Also, I classify a lot of information using Pinterest because I’m a visual person. Whenever I see something on the Internet that I like, I create a board. I think I have like six hundred Pinterest boards where I classify the information with specific topics in case one day I need one of them. This way, I just need to take a look at all those boards, read articles and talk to people, and it all comes along.
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Also, how do you manage to combine so many disciplines under the same space and make them all work together? What are the selection criteria for guest artists?
It depends, there are different selection criteria. For the conferences, the first thing I look for is someone who knows how to speak on stage. This criterion goes even before the topic they are talking about because the conferences are an important part of the festival and there are people who are very interesting or who have written amazing books but they don’t know how to talk or how to communicate their work. I never invite these people because when you go to a conference, it needs to be entertaining and it needs to wake you up, otherwise, just read a book! Some very good writers come with a piece of paper and they read it. That’s the kind of conferences I hate. The second criterion is the topic, of course, and its connection to the festival’s theme. Also, it needs to have something to do with actuality and what’s happening during the year.
For the exhibition programme, the criterion is about the work’s aesthetic and also intellectual qualities. I also think about how the location and the architectural space can match the artwork because we aren’t in a typical exhibition space. We use locations that haven’t been made for exhibitions at all – like churches, public schools, public buildings, etc. It’s about finding the right artwork that will create the right dialogue in that space. Another criterion is that it has to be accessible and understandable for everybody because we want to reach all publics.
The so-called STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – have remained predominantly male with very low participation of women. It happens the same in the art world, where male artists have always been more valued. You are an example of a woman in a leading role in this business, which mixes both (art and STEM). Could you talk to us a bit about your experience as a woman in a predominantly male world? What should be done to fix this gender disparity?
From my experience, I’m a good example of why we should break stereotypes about women in these fields because, actually, there are many women in this field but they are less visible, they are not in the spotlight. The more males in this work, the more males in the spotlight. That is one of the reasons why my family and friends told me, ‘Don’t do computer science, you will be the only woman’. But finally, I ended up working with technology anyway. So, what can we do to break the stereotypes? Placing more women in the spotlight where we are expecting them less.
For example, in the festival’s programme, I pay special attention to having a balance and having the same number of men and women. Also, when we do the technical talks, I give a lot of space to women. This is basically what we can do: showing good examples of women in this field because I think that women have this fear of having to work double to get the same in a working environment dominated by men. I think that showing examples of women who made it lowers the fear and encourages women to get into this field.
From your point of view and personal experience, why do you think this situation hasn’t been reverted yet?
It’s because of the culture of our society. This stereotype is still very much present, and to revert it, we need to work on many levels. It needs to be in the family environment, in the education system, at the workplace – everywhere. But it has to be done following the same path in every level, that’s why it is so difficult. If they teach you something at school but then your family tells you the opposite, who are you listening to?
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The Kikk Festival was founded in 2011 in Namur, which might not be the most famous city of Belgium. However, attendants can get to know the city through an artistic tour full of digital and technological installations. Did it also have a touristic intention when it was created? What do you think are the benefits that a city like Namur can provide to the festival?
I joined the team just after the first edition. It was created by Gilles Bazelaire and Gaetan Libertiaux, the two co-founders, who are both originally from Namur and they also run a business in the city. Gilles has Dogstudio, a digital agency, and Gaetan has Superbe, an artistic and creative studio. These are international businesses with offices in Mexico and Chicago. Thus, people advised them to be based in Brussels but they made a bet on Namur.
When they decided to co-found Kikk Festival, they did the same bet. It was like, ‘let’s place the festival in Namur and not in a main city’, and it worked. The first edition was more national-like but it quickly became international on the second edition. Also, the city is perfect for the exhibition because of the huge pedestrian area. It would be impossible to do so in Brussels.
This year, Kikk in Town puts a special emphasis on Africa by creating AfriKIKK in collaboration with Ker Thiossane and The Dakar Biennale with curators Delphine Buysse and Marion Louisgrand Syllat. Some of the installations are made by African artists from different countries like Senegal, Egypt, South Africa, or DRC (Congo). How did this collaboration with the Dakar Biennale come up? And what do you think these artists have to offer to the current art world, especially Western?
Marie: In fact, Delphine is just right here, so I suggest we both answer this question. Talking about the collaboration, for many years we have been willing to focus on Africa but never had the chance. We assumed that it would take a lot of time and it would also require some travelling, and we are always too busy. However, at some point, Gilles, the festival Director, went to Africa and met Delphine – who is actually from Namur but lives in Senegal – and she proposed to do this. And that’s how it all began!
Now, I let Delphine continue the story.
Delphine: Yeah! Then, he put me in touch with Marie and we started to work on this crazy idea. Because it is actually a bit crazy if you think of the shipping and also the visa issues. It was all crazy but well, look at what we have achieved! For me, it’s a wonderful experience because working with such a competent team like them makes my job as a curator much easier. Also, this is an amazing project to give visibility to African artists who have a lot to offer. First of all, they provide a more global vision. Most of them talk about immigration. In fact, one of our artists hasn’t been able to be here because they didn’t give him the visa. Our point is to show that Africa isn’t at the back talking about technology because they have taken a very pragmatic vision to solve their technological issues.
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