On work by ELLA DE BURCA


On one of the first warm days this year, I’m meeting Ella de Burca outside of the building at Rue Paul Delvaux, at the back entrance to the shared studio space. This area, located in the very heart of the city, where the Bourse and Marriott side with fast food restaurants and small convenience stores, presents a vivid urban patchwork so characteristic for Brussels. The studio space, located in a postmodern extension of the neighbouring Haussmannian architecture, wants to surprise me with its grandiose scale and central situation. But having learnt from my past experiences with Brussels, I can hardly be amazed; after all, only a few months back, I was visiting artist studios in one of the WTC towers.

Visiting Ella de Burca's studio, March 2018
Photo by Maxime Gourdon

Ella is carrying a vintage side cabinet, its door opening and closing as she walks. We take the back entrance, where the old industrial lift takes us to the 5th floor. The building used to house a governmental unemployment office, and the interior still gives off a discernible office vibe. But the artists who have moved here last January, work hard on making the space their own. There are several artist-run organisations and informal groups residing in the building at the moment; among others, the former residents of the WTC, Overtoon and Jubilee.[1] Ella has moved in with a group of artists formerly based at KISPAS studios – yet another example of groups organising themselves around affordable studio spaces.

Visiting Ella de Burca's studio, March 2018
Photo by Maxime Gourdon

The first thing I notice after entering Ella’s studio is a life-sized silhouette of a man, his hands in his pockets, head leaning slightly forward, his gaze fixed firmly on a point ahead of him (this last part is a guess, since the man has no facial features). His name is Spectator 1, and he is one of the effigies Ella built based on different historical and contemporary artworks. As a part of her ongoing PhD research on the notion of ‘spectatorship’, developed at LUCA Ghent in collaboration with KU Leuven, Ella compiled dozens of reproductions of works of art, in which the artist turns their eyes to the audience. Watching their backs bending and heads bowing, their fingers pointing, and their arms stretching out made me suddenly aware of my own body language, and I quickly removed the supporting thumb from under my chin… Having entered Ella’s studio, I found myself in one of those Chinese boxes, where the voyeuristic act of looking at art becomes looped and reflected back at the spectator.

I’m interested in hearing more about Ella’s PhD research and the ways in which she manages to reconcile the theoretical with the practical. Besides analysing the history of spectatorship and its reception on the artists’ end, she deploys the tactics strongly embedded in her own artistic practice, such as performance and script-writing.

A fragment of Ella's script Aviary Asterism, 2012
The stage directions directly addressing the reader 'break the fourth wall'

In her recent solo exhibition Flat As The Tongue Lies at the Room Gallery, the University of California, Irvine, she explored the precariousness of language and meaning in three acts. Particularly interesting in connection with her research was the second act – a short script about etymology and semantic change, which the visitors could take with them and read in the privacy. Reading, and especially the reading of a script, always entails certain degree of performativity; whether out loud or not, reading connects the surface of the text to the residue of our primary orality. I cannot pinpoint what voice I am using to vocalise Ella’s texts in my mind – hers or mine.

Act 1 of the exhibition Flat As The Tongue Lies at the Room Gallery, UCI: video poems. Using a method close to constrained writing, Ella re-assembles poem around a series of keywords related to her practice

In this and her text-based projects, Ella has intentionally expanded on the early-modern tradition of the so-called ‘closet script’, intended to be read in an intimate environment, in small groups or even in solitary. It was an important turn in the development of playwriting, not only in terms of experimenting with an established genre (classic stage drama) and stripping it off of its institutional attire, but also providing a platform for female playwrights barred from the world of commercial theatre. “Closet drama,” writes Maria Straznicky, “focuses on the tensions and points of contact between public and private realm in a way that simultaneously involves retreat and engagement in public culture”.[2] Such of positions were historically taken by women excluded from the current political debate.

Ella seeks those kinds of unconventional outlets for her work, alternative venues suspended somewhere between the public and private sphere. The same motivation underpinned the choice of the location for the first in a series of Smoking Concerts, organised in collaboration with the fellow artists Fiona Hallinan and Barry Fitzgerald, about a week after our studio visit took place. In Victorian times, smoking concerts were live (music) performances before an exclusively male audience that would engage in conversation and, by definition, smoking. The programme staged by Ella, Fiona, and Barry, revolving around the question of What’s dying out, referred to this tradition, while at the same time subverting its elitist and exclusive character. The Smoking Concert took place in an adequately hazy smoking lounge of L’Archiduc, a legendary bar in Brussels, and was open to all.

In her performances Ella manages to alternate between different, more implicit or explicit, private or public modalities of performativity. In some of her works, she makes use of staging elements, like scenography or sound system, creating a clear division between the ‘spectator’ and the ‘performer’, just to be able to tear it down a moment later. About halfway through the programme, Ella announced she was about to read a poem, but ‘instead’ she embarked on a personal monologue about her relationship with the audience, emphasising the weight of their smallest gestures. For a moment, I was caught off guard, as if all the petty crimes of disinclination or absent-mindedness I committed as an audience member suddenly came back to me. This is why I felt relieved when it turned out that all of this time, the artist had been addressing three effigies – among them the already familiar Spectator 1 – brought along from her studio. Or had she?

This was not the first time that Ella confronted the audience with their power over an artist; in her site-specific performance Choke, a part of the The Grid And The Cloud: How To Connect, graduation exhibition of HISK laureates in 2017, the visitors entering the gallery were faced with an audience installed in the space and staring back at them.

Finishing this text at home, as I look back at Ella’s works and remind myself of the content of our long conversation, I feel that there is definitely is a method to this madness (which I wish I could say about my narrative techniques).
In her own words, Ella’s practice “focuses on how art pieces perform their job as artwork (…) and how we perform as spectator, observing the unwritten rules for audience engagement”.
Traditionally, each performance is based on an artist-audience contract and the commitment of respective parties to fulfil it. Ella’s work explores how different institutional and non-institutional settings may change the conditions of this social contract, and how the position of the public may change accordingly – shifting between a passer-by, a spectator, a participant, and a labourer. Most importantly, she doesn’t believe in one right position or a prescribed way to engage with her work. “It’s not a game,” she tells me, “nobody wins”. WORD OF MOUTH is a series of mediated encounters, unwittingly initiated with the article Notes from Brussels’ WTC that premiered in GUEST ROOMS in December 2018. Through a series of texts and photo-documentation, this series explores different modalities and temporalities of a studio visit, trying to convey the very experience to the readers. While discovering the practices of individual artists, it also reflects on different ways in which they organise themselves in (collective) studio spaces. This series was initiated by GR's editor Romuald Demidenko and realised by Alicja Melzacka (text), and Maxime Gourdon (photography).


Acknowledgements to ELLA DE BURCA for allowing us to see her new studio space in Rue Delvauxstraat, Brussels

[1] You can read more about those and other organisations based on the ‘Level Five’ in this article by Flanders Art Institute and on the website of That Might Be Right

[2] Marta Straznicky, Privacy, Playreading, and Women’s Closet Drama, 1500-1700, Cambridge: CUP, 2015
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