Curator Joachim Coucke over Kortrijk Art Space Dash

Joachim coucke

Since March 2014, artist and Kortrijk native Joachim Coucke has been run­ning art space DASH, one of the very few places for con­tem­po­rary art in his Belgian home­town. We had a chat with him about what it’s like to oper­ate out­side of the usu­al art epi­cen­ters, DASH’s recent­ly pub­lished anniver­sary book, and being con­fused with wash­ing soap…

The word dash” has many mean­ings. Which one are you refer­ring to? 

It has indeed many dif­fer­ent mean­ings, which was one of the rea­sons why I chose it as a name for the project. What attract­ed me the most was its use as a punc­tu­a­tion mark: a dash as in con­nect­ing, bring­ing togeth­er. The dash is also an in-between space, and by doing shows there you place some­thing unex­pect­ed in it and cre­ate a zone for thoughts and reflec­tions. It’s a brand of wash­ing soap as well, and one day I got a phone call from an old lady to com­plain about a pro­mo­tion she didn’t receive for her bot­tle of wash­ing soap!

How did it all start?

DASH is part of the Kortrijk Academy, an art school for peo­ple of all ages who attend cours­es dur­ing their leisure time. There are dif­fer­ent class­es on offer such as paint­ing, sculp­ture, or pho­tog­ra­phy. There’s a large num­ber of stu­dents but most of them are not in touch with the con­tem­po­rary art scene. The direc­tor of the Academy asked me if I’d be up for orga­niz­ing exhi­bi­tions and bring con­tem­po­rary art to the school and its stu­dents. I found this an inter­est­ing start­ing point, espe­cial­ly because there was no oblig­a­tion to be didac­tic. I got carte blanche and a small bud­get. I liked the pos­i­tive inten­tion: intro­duc­ing con­tem­po­rary art and spark­ing a dis­cus­sion among stu­dents and vis­i­tors by mak­ing good exhibitions.

Do you think you suc­ceed­ed with your mission?

Partly, I feel. I can see that our stu­dents are tak­ing in a lot. For exam­ple, the way they present their works has improved a lot since they get the oppor­tu­ni­ty to wit­ness so many new ways of using a sin­gu­lar space. It’s a long process but after a while it pays off. The exhi­bi­tions were most­ly well-received. Some have the courage to come in and ask ques­tions while the artist(s) are at work, and that opens up new dia­logues. As many of our stu­dents are not into emerg­ing con­tem­po­rary art, it is fas­ci­nat­ing for artists to get their feed­back. It can be con­fronting but also very pos­i­tive. Sometimes, I had tough and heat­ed dis­cus­sions with stu­dents or col­leagues. For me, it’s ok to dis­agree with a work of art or an entire show, but the cri­tique has to be sound. Then we can all learn from these dia­logues. Through the years I got quite a thick skin and pre­fer to direct my ener­gy towards pos­i­tive things. And you can’t expect a block­buster exhi­bi­tion with a tiny budget!

Kortrijk is not an obvi­ous choice to run an art space. What’s it like to be sit­u­at­ed out­side of the art epicenters?

The Academy and the exhi­bi­tion space, which is a very large cor­ri­dor (28,59m), are locat­ed in the build­ing that was a police sta­tion before World War II. Upstairs there’s beau­ti­ful day­light, which gives the impres­sion of a German Kunstverein. From the start, there was an audi­ence from the school, but in the begin­ning of March 2014, I made the choice to oper­ate under the name DASH and not the Kortrijk Academy. Unfortunately, there is still some stig­ma attached to this type of insti­tu­tion as being out­dat­ed and old-fash­ioned (in the sense of paint­ing flow­ers and draw­ing nude mod­els). By call­ing the project DASH I cre­at­ed a con­text and an autonomous unit with­in a larg­er ecosys­tem. I believe that the geo­graph­ic loca­tion is not that rel­e­vant any­more in times of Internet and social media. It mat­ters for foot traf­fic and get­ting large crowds at open­ings and events, but we have a steadi­ly grow­ing audi­ence in Belgium as well as abroad. Kortrijk is well-known for col­lec­tors of con­tem­po­rary art. The audi­ence is very diverse, which is interesting.

Can you tell me more about the book you recent­ly published?

At the end of last year, we released the book 5 years of DASH”, a col­lab­o­ra­tion with Pati Petrykowska from Pony Press. It’s 136 pages strong, print­ed in col­or by Die Keure in Bruges and mea­sures 20,525,7 cm. The cov­er fea­tures a hand­made silkscreen print of the DASH logo. I had been look­ing through the dig­i­tal archive of the project and noticed how many great images we had accu­mu­lat­ed over the years, tak­en by the pho­tog­ra­ph­er Alexandra Colmenares. I want­ed to do some­thing with them. A sim­ple overview would have been bor­ing, so after a lot of talks we came up with the cur­rent con­cept of the book: the first part con­sists of spreads which always jux­ta­pose two artists from dif­fer­ent shows. All the artists we worked with are rep­re­sent­ed in the spreads at least once, and it lets you see con­nec­tions between dif­fer­ent artists and exhi­bi­tions. The sec­ond part includes a dense overview of the shows from the most recent to the open­ing exhi­bi­tion in 2014. At the end there’s a text by SMAK’s Philippe Van Cauteren and an after­word from Petra Flamand, the direc­tor of the Academy Kortrijk. It’s a nice doc­u­men­ta­tion for the art world and in a way also a learn­ing instru­ment for the students.

It’s not easy to keep a project like this run­ning. How does the financ­ing work?

If you have to finance a project like this your­self, it’s going to be very hard – espe­cial­ly in the cur­rent cli­mate in Belgium with all the gov­ern­ment bud­get cuts. But as the space is free and there’s a small bud­get from the Academy to pay the artists and the pho­tog­ra­ph­er, it’s a fan­tas­tic start­ing point. I also have access to some facil­i­ties of the city: a van, tech­ni­cal equip­ment etc. It asks a lot but you get even more back and it’s fun to do.

What were your favorite moments in these five years?

Probably mak­ing the book, which gave me so many flash­backs to great moments I got to share with fel­low artists.

What were the biggest chal­lenges you encountered?

When you try to do some­thing pos­i­tive and show the work of artists I strong­ly believe in, it’s some­times hard when peo­ple don’t (want to) under­stand these choices.

You’re also an artist your­self. Does the gallery project inspire your own prac­tice or can it also hin­der it in the way that you have less stu­dio time because of it?

During the hard­er stretch­es of this five-year run I was always fuelled by the ener­gy fel­low artists would bring to the space. And yes, find­ing the right bal­ance between curat­ing and stu­dio time is not always easy. But after every show I notice how I’ve learned sev­er­al new things about mate­ri­als, how to approach a space, or about how oth­ers con­tex­tu­al­ize their prac­tice. It’s very inspir­ing and adds anoth­er angle to my own practice.

What about curat­ing fas­ci­nates you? Is it help­ful to be an artist yourself?

You can bring a cer­tain vision or idea to life. I think many artists have awe­some ideas for great shows but nev­er dare or have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to see the project real­ized. That’s what DASH feels like every time. It’s a big learn­ing curve of many things all at once. In the begin­ning it was very stress­ful but now I’m com­fort­able with print­ing the floor plan while the first vis­i­tors are already arriv­ing! Also, it helps to be an artist as well; peo­ple tend to be more vul­ner­a­ble and open with their thoughts and doubts.

What’s your curat­ing approach? How do you work?

I like to use my gut feel­ing instead of approach­ing a cura­to­r­i­al project in a too the­o­ret­i­cal way. Most of the time I have a basic idea or top­ic in my head and then work around it. Or I get struck by cer­tain works from an artist and just want to see how he or she deals with the space. The space plays a role as well but noth­ing is impos­si­ble and good artists are always very inventive.

Do you see the art world with dif­fer­ent eyes after this experience?

There are many ver­sions of the art world; I try to be pos­i­tive and not wor­ry too much about it as I can’t con­trol out­side parameters.

What is good art for you?

A piece that touch­es me, sur­pris­es me, or makes me laugh. Probably very cliché but so true! Also the match between the char­ac­ter of the artist and the work itself tells me a lot.

What advice do you have for those dream­ing of open­ing up their own art space?

I can only encour­age any­one to go for it! You meet so many dif­fer­ent peo­ple, from fel­low artists and cura­tors to art enthu­si­asts and col­lec­tors. If you do it well it’s very ben­e­fi­cial for the artists, the com­mu­ni­ty and even for your own practice.

What’s the sit­u­a­tion like for you now dur­ing the lock­down? Do you already know what’s com­ing up next for you? 

The school is of course closed right now, and it prob­a­bly will be until June or even September (at worst but lets hope not). We were invit­ed to par­tic­i­pate in a new pho­to fes­ti­val in Kortrijk and to host a show with­in this frame­work, but at this point I’m not sure the fes­ti­val will hap­pen. 2020 could be a lost year for DASH. What I do know is that we’ll kick off 2021 with a solo show by Dutch artist Bob Eikelboom.

Dashexpo Dash mit fenster 2
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