"In a way, it’s a choice of prioritizing meaning in place of materiality. A good old friend once told me: “You’re probably crazy, but where would we be without the irrational being?”

Last month you opened a new space for HLP. Rare event during those days. Was it a natural consequence of the development of the HLP since 2011 or a jump to build a new strategy?  

Yes. We’re very happy to have recently opened our new space – HLP 1080. 1080 houses our second exhibition space as well as the workshop/offices of design Studio Khachtryan and the new atelier of Emmanuel Van der Auwera. It’s a large space that provides both challenges and opportunities to artists we collaborate with and is located in an area with a rich recent history for artistic production. There are no other galleries around, but plenty of leading contemporary dance companies like Ultima Vez, Damaged Goods, and Needcompany are all nearby, as is the Philippe Vandenberg Foundation, Jozef Wouters’ “Decoratelier” and too many artist’s studios to count including those of Laure Prouvost, Marcin Dudek and Sean Crossley. We have been working towards this seriously for three years now, though Winnie and I have been dreaming about it since the start of our project. We opened the space with an exhibition by Marcin Dudek, who also inaugurated our location on the other side of the city six years ago.

In Brussels this year, there have been no less than 5 new spaces opening or perhaps closer to 10. I think our specific case and approach are perhaps “rare,” but against the forecasts of spring 2020, the opening of spaces in Brussels has proven predictions of experts and journalists wrong and isn’t as uncommon as one might have thought.

Emmanuel Van der Auwera, View of the artist’s studio, Installation view, Harlan Levey Projects 1080 (Brussels, Belgium). Courtesy: Marcin Dudek, Harlan Levey Projects Photography: Damon De Backer
Emmanuel Van der Auwera, Open Skies, 2019. Installation view, WIELS (Brussels, Belgium). Courtesy: Emmanuel Van der Auwera, Harlan Levey Projects Photography: Alexandra Bertels

You collaborated with the global policy makers (United Nations, European Commision). What place does the HLP occupy in those collabs? How does it affect your business strategy? 

The collaborations you refer to were in the early phases of our project. These happened in 2012 and 2013 and prior to applying for Art Fairs, working with museums or even knowing many people who bought art. These were our first clients, and at that point we were still figuring out our program and model. We acted as exhibition designer, event coordinator and host in those projects. It was basically agency work. Doing projects like this provided small revenue streams to produce exhibitions without the need to sell artworks to cover overheads like an exhibition venue and utilities. It taught us a lot and allowed us to be bold.  

While we haven’t done a job like that in a long time, we do continue to work outside of the market context and remain engaged with research and consortium style projects.  I’m currently part of a research project called “MindSpaces” and recently closed another called “Caveat” that was a collaboration between several local organizations. The way such collaborations have matured allows access to knowledge and opportunities for our artists that provides all sorts of input without commerce via sales. We are no longer service providers, but partners in these projects, which ensure that we’re active in all aspects of the contemporary art conversation. People often discuss commercial vs non-commercial in the arts, but it’s much more nuanced than that. One might be surprised at just how commercial non-commercial needs to be. It’s another grey topic too often discussed as being black and white. 

This week has been an exceptional one away from the gallery. I was working again as a visiting lecturer at the HISK in Ghent, had several online visits with Manuel Ciraquoi related to projects with STARTS, Fundamental Research, EINA IDEA and MICA, we hosted an outdoors workshop led by Jeroen Jongeleen, and spent a reasonable amount of time researching for a project with DJ Hellerman that we’ll realize together next year.  All of these other activities feed the work we do with and on behalf of artists while reiterating an attitude of cross-pollination and collaboration.

Marcin Dudek, Slash & Burn II, 2021. Installation view, Harlan Levey Projects 1080 (Brussels, Belgium). Courtesy: Marcin Dudek, Harlan Levey Projects Photography: Damon De Backer

What are the main challenges HLP faces now from the social and political context? Should the gallerist be civilly sharp and active? 

It is not my place to say what a gallerist or an artist or any person for that matter, should be. I however do tend to appreciate people who are sharp and active, which are qualities that can manifest in all sorts of ways. What bothers me most about the social-political context and the challenges it poses to my business? Phew. That’s a big one. I’d say that these topics are on my mind as a person and that in this area of activity the personal and professional always overlap. 

Why does the interdisciplinary perspective become the essential focus for HLP? What differences do you see between awareness of urgent issues the museums are developing and the optics of the galleries? 

I can only speak to my perspective as a gallery owner, not to the perspective of galleries, because there are many models. The interdisciplinary approach is one that leans towards autonomy, experimentation and inclusivity. As for the other questions, I would propose you to have a look at the exhibition of Marcin Dudek, ask me about the project we’re developing with Jeroen Jongeleen for September, or about Ella Littwitz’s timely exhibition at the Center for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv for example. Then have a look at current exhibitions at the museums around us and we can have a frank discussion on topical urgency, agency and awareness. 

Just as there are many different approaches to running a gallery, there are also many different types of museums. A key difference between what we do and what a contemporary art museum does, is perhaps that we work at the service of artists and they work at the service of society. A key similarity is that we both act as public educators and artistic interlocutors. Galleries have a huge educational role to play in the cultural ecosphere and hopefully it is one that helps museums by nourishing practice, possibilities and places for artists to sharpen their work. It is wonderful to live in a country that has so many outstanding contemporary art museums and institutions, wonderful to live in a country where art and culture make up a significant part of the region’s DNA.

There is a clear overlap and moments of evident alliance between our work and that of art institutions, which demonstrates shared interest in types of research or production. For example, in 2019 we exhibited a large installation by Emmanuel Van der Auwera at Art Brussels. Curators from the Wiels Center for Contemporary Art saw this work at the fair and included it in an exhibition months later. It should be noted that the work was not for sale at the time we presented it at Art Brussels. We used this space to introduce curators and institutions to the artist. I use this incident with Wiels as an example, because they do an exemplary job of engaging a wide audience with exceptional programming and energy. The visibility and conversation they create for artists, the platform they provide, is outstanding. Our job is different. It’s to accompany the artist and work across platforms, before and after such great opportunities. I was in the studio with Emmanuel on a weekly basis for years, discussing both conceptual and practical elements of this work and developing strategies to produce, exhibit and place it. This includes the booth at Art Brussels.  In the past two years, this work has been shown in Europe, the US and China. It is an edition of two plus one exhibition copy. One edition is in the permanent collection of the Dallas Museum of Art. The other is owned by a private collection in Belgium.  The exhibition copy is currently returning from the first Jihan Biennale and then heading to Paris where it will be part of the NEMO Biennale.

Another local example is a project called “The Wind Egg Experiment” that we developed with Haseeb Ahmed. Part of this project was a trilogy of exhibitions. The first took place at the Von Karman Institute for Fluid Dynamics. The second iteration was in our gallery. The third iteration was at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Antwerp and curated by Nav Haq. I loved the project’s meta-narrative: an experiment hosted in a research center struggling to maintain funding is moved into the laboratory context of a young gallery, and then results are exhibited in the museum. While the research center and museum aided the artist at specific moments, the gallery accompanied him throughout the entire process. In other cases, like a recent project from Amelie Bouvier, the trajectory is reversed: works were first exhibited at “Galeria Arsenał” in Białystok as an initiative of curator Przemyslaw Strozek, and then will be the subject of an exhibition in the gallery later this year. What doesn’t change is our full-time involvement in aiding the artist on the path to such achievements. So clearly there are similar approaches, or as you say “awareness” of issues art may take on, but also different roles to be played in the same conversation.

Noro Khachatryan, 2021. Installation view, Studio Khachatryan (Brussels, Belgium). Courtesy: Studio Khachatryan
Studio Khachatryan, View of the studio, 2021. Installation view, Studio Khachatryan (Brussels, Belgium). Courtesy: Studio Khachatryan Photography: Damon De Backer

You have worked with the HLP artists for decades (like with Marcin Dudek). Is it the result of a well-detailed business strategy or the example of a friendly relationship you have with artists? How do you choose “your people” to collaborate for long term projects? 

Our project is still just less than a decade old. We have been growing and developing the business with our artists and try to think short, middle and long term together. It’s a true partnership and our program has remained pretty much consistent though there have been a few cases where we brought in an artist into the team too quickly and our personalities or approaches didn’t gel. A good fit is not only a question of perceived quality of work, but more of the trust established between gallerist and artist. 

A gallery must be inspired by artists it works with and I believe the artist must also be inspired by the vision of the gallery and the context it creates. This question of inspiration is an intuitive one kindled through practice, time and trust. 

Amélie Bouvier, Where The Sun Goes to Sleep, 2021. Installation view, Galeria Arsenał (Białystok, Poland). Courtesy: Amélie Bouvier, Harlan Levey Projects Photography: Maciej Zaniewski
Haseeb Ahmed, IN SITU: Haseeb Ahmed – The Wind Egg, 2018. Installation view, M HKA (Antwerp, Belgium). Courtesy: Haseeb Ahmed, Harlan Levey Projects Photography: Christine Clinckx

How could you define the balance between “perspective art” and economical effects on business? 

As we finished renovating the new space we jumped straight into installation and the two activities overlapped for several days. One of the guys painting had just finished and stepped into the courtyard when Marcin Dudek baptized the space with a smoke grenade, destroying some of his work (and giving us a hell of a job to get things back to scratch when the show comes down). The painter was initially shocked, but then laughing and having a good time. He realized quickly that we’d need him again soon. Economically, it seems irrational, but artistically not at all. On the walls Marcin scorched was also his work “Tablica,” which had taken him over six months to complete.

In a way, it’s a choice of prioritizing meaning in place of materiality. A good old friend once told me: “You’re probably crazy, but where would we be without the irrational being?” We don’t show what we think we can sell or what we believe the market desires. We show what we are inspired by, believe in and work to develop a network of interest and allies around it. I think our interest in social issues beyond art, and vast experience in art and theory, have helped us carefully select artists with more than serious potential and relevance towards topics that will remain crucial to civic wellbeing. While we are the first gallery partner of almost all of our artists, we actively look for new collaborations for them and have been fortunate that every single one has had her or his work brought forward under the roof of museums around the world. Our hopes and attitude have always been that cultural confirmation from academics and institutions would lead to market confirmation instead of the other way around, though of course sometimes it takes the lights of market and media to bring work to a museum’s attention in the first place.

Ella Littwitz_A High Degree of Certainty, 2021. Installation view, CCA Tel Aviv (Tel Aviv, Israel). Courtesy: Ella Littwitz, Harlan Levey Projects Photography: Eyal Tagar
Jeroen Jongeleen, Running a shared circle at Ninoofse poort [Circle@1080], 2021. Brussels. Belgium. Courtesy: Jeroen Jongeleen, Harlan Levey Projects Photography: Olivier Scheffer

You’ve participated in art-fairs in North America. What are the main differences between the old-European art market and American one? 

A general reflection would be that there is more economic mobility in North America, but also less time for things. In Europe, people tend to have more time and take more time to study and think. Things move slower. Money moves slower too. I often have the impression that while the US runs in the future without looking back at the jaws of the past, Europe tip toes ahead terrified that tomorrow might look like yesterday or be more difficult than today. For better and worse, change comes much slower on this side of the Atlantic. Back to the question about museums and galleries, while it’s been common for us to make institutional placements at fairs in the US, until now we haven’t sold work to a European museum at an art fair over here.  Looking at our program, I would have imagined it would work the other way around, but that hasn’t been the case so far.