Filip Van Dingenen works extensively on location. His Brussels studio is his base, a place he uses to document projects, store plans and meet with colleagues. Much of Van Dingenen’s work revolves around non-human voices, human-animal relationships, our dominant human perception, how we interact with various ecosystems in our living environment and how these ecosystems relate to each other.
Until 20 January, Waldburger Wouters is exhibiting Suskewiet Visions, Van Dingenen’s fourth solo exhibition at this Brussels gallery. Van Dingenen took the controversial Suskewiet tradition, where the number of times a caged bird sings in one hour is counted, and isolated one aspect of it: collective and concentrated listening. Based on the counting stick used in Suskewiet, Van Dingenen, along with Congolese artist David Shongo, developed a kind of sign system in which each environmental sound is assigned a symbol. Listeners can create a sound map of any given area using this system.
In a broader sense, Van Dingenen raises the question of whether we maintain certain traditions compulsively and if we could recontextualise them to pass on a different kind of knowledge from a broader perspective. It is a question that is relevant to various public debates.
Filip Van Dingenen, Suskewiet Visions - Storyboard, 2022, Waldburger Wouters
Where is your studio and what does it look like?
My studio is in Brussels on Rue Montenegro in Vorst. It’s near the Wiels art centre and I’ve been living there for about 15 years. My studio is on the top floor of my house. It’s essentially a workspace where I prepare my projects, a kind of production unit. I share my studio with my partner, Hélène Meyer, who is a painter and ceramicist. Together we have started a project called The Platform on Algae Diplomacy in which we conduct ceremonial tastings and performances, introducing people to seaweed.
What makes a good studio for you? Natural light, ample storage or friends and colleagues nearby?
My studio needs to be a cosy, comfortable space. I can work anywhere. Since I work a lot on location, I don’t have any specific requirements for a studio. It’s a base, a place where I store projects that are on hold. I also collaborate with colleagues and meet with them there. It’s also nice to externalise a part of those projects, so they’re not all just confined to my head. In my studio, they become visible in the form of classified folders against the wall. It’s essential to me that all these projects remain present in that space. Not that I look at those folders every day, but because I can give those diverse projects a place there.
What is a typical day in the studio for you?
It’s likely to be very atypical. I don’t have a typical studio day. My atypical day is quite varied, but like I said, it’s mainly about returning to the place where many different and diverse projects call home and being able to work with them. Sometimes, I’m there briefly to follow up on a project, other times to work on something for a more extended period. My day in the studio looks different for each project. I’m not constantly in my studio, but I do spend time there regularly.
Filip Van Dingenen, in collaboration with David Shongo, Suskewiet Visions, 2022, Waldburger Wouters
Your current exhibition at Waldburger Wouters is entitled Suskewiet Visions. This West Flemish tradition counts the number of times a caged bird sings on a wooden stick. Why was this a logical starting point for an exhibition?
The logical starting point for this exhibition was the protocol of traditional finch singing, also known as Suskewiet. What I found very interesting about it was the collective, concentrated listening to caged birds for an hour. I was interested in examining collective listening and asking the question: what can we learn from listening to birds? As I mentioned, there is a very specific protocol and the counting sticks are laid down after the competition. It’s a very ephemeral movement in the landscape, a kind of score in the landscape. It’s also a very poetic gesture, and that was the starting point for this project.
The press release for Suskewiet Visions begins with the question: Can a folkloristic tradition be re-contextualised and reveal a potential collective intelligence to harmonise our dominant relation towards non-human entities? How does recontextualisation work in this case?
The stick is used to mark when a bird sings a specific song, Suskewiet in this case. For me, it was interesting to use that stick as an interface to listen to a soundscape and register that soundscape on the stick. Along with Congolese artist David Shongo, I developed a kind of sign system in which we assigned a specific symbol to each sound—ambient noise, human sounds, sound effects, natural sounds, etc. People can use the stick as a ‘tool’ in nature. Listening to the landscape, they can use the sign system to mark the sound they hear on the stick and create a ‘sound map’ of an area.
Have you concluded that a tradition can contribute to a more harmonious relationship with flora and fauna?
It wasn’t my intention to draw a conclusion, but rather to explore what we can do with these traditions. Can we reconsider and recontextualise them in a certain way? In this case, it’s about a tradition that is also controversial, namely the caging of birds. How can we confront our own thoughts and feelings about this? There’s also the Black Pete (Sinterklaas holiday) debate and restitution of ethnographic collections in our European museums. How do we deal with these issues and how can we learn from them? That is the conclusion of this project. How can we avoid compulsively maintaining the magic of certain artifacts and traditions from another time – potentially offensive to others – and recontextualise them to offer a different kind of knowledge from a broader perspective?
Filip Van Dingenen, Vinkeniersclub ‘de soeurs de la charité de jesus et de marie’, 2023, Waldburger Wouters
To access the exhibition, you have to go through a small iron gate, as if entering a birdcage. What is the idea behind that?
That’s right, to visit the exhibition you have to go through a large gallery gate on Boulevard d’Anvers on the Brussels inner ring road. Even though it has a grand, majestic gate, you can easily walk or drive past the gallery. I built a kind of entrance to a cage. In recent months, there have been a lot complaints about people not feeling safe in the neighbourhood because of the Yser metro station, which looks somewhat rundown and is frequented by the homeless and drug users. On one hand, that gate is a poignant criticism: the hypocrisy of the European capital where people, including children, live in marginal conditions in many corners of public space. On the other hand, the Suskewiet Visions project is also part of a European project on sustainability within the framework of the European Green Deal, which can also be criticised. Is the European Green Deal as inclusive as we are made to believe? What is Europe’s global stance on extractivism in Katanga-Congo or lithium in Latin America? So, I raise the question: how can we address these topics? The iron cage serves as a metaphor for European protectionism. For this project, I do that very specifically.
Filip Van Dingenen, Suskewiet Visions, Waldburger Wouters
Your previous project was about seaweed and this project explores our relationship with non-humans. Do you already have an idea for your next project?
All my projects, including the seaweed project, are long-term projects. They do not end entirely. Many of my projects revolve around non-human voices, human-animal relationships, our dominant human perception, how we interact with different ecosystems in our living environment and how these ecosystems relate to each other. All my projects ask critical questions about these relationships and try to better understand them.
I understand that a monograph about your work will be released soon. Can you tell us a bit about this?
Since the late ‘90s, I’ve been working on a wide range of projects, such as the project on architecture in zoos worldwide, the seaweed project or a project on the perception and representation of the Rocky Mountains. Some projects are exhibited or available to the public, while others are primarily research projects and have seen very little daylight. With this monograph, I want to provide a platform for such projects. We are currently working on the book, which will be published next spring.
Filip Van Dingenen, Suskewiet Visions, Waldburger Wouters