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How does Belgium begin its shift towards immersive creation?

Article author :

Adrien Cornelissen

Through his experience, Adrien Cornelissen has developed an expertise in issues relating to innovation and digital creation. He has worked with a dozen French magazines, including Fisheye Immersive, XRMust, Usbek & Rica, Nectart and Revue AS. He coordinates HACNUMedia, which explores the changes brought about by technology in contemporary creation. Adrien Cornelissen teaches at higher education establishments and in the creative sector.

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With growing global interest for immersive art, numerous initiatives have been undertaken in the domain of digital creation. The structuring of creative sectors nevertheless requires important financial support in the areas of creation, production and distribution. Whilst certain countries seem to be investing massively in the immersive (France is an example, with the France 2030 programme), how do things stand in Belgium? Several indicators would suggest that it is lagging behind other countries. An overview of the Belgian ecosystem and an investigation of possible trajectories.

The term ‘immersive’, which has become a kind of portmanteau word, needs to be handled prudently. What is it that we are actually talking about? Is it that, on the one hand, there are the immersive technologies (VR/AR, fulldome, sound spatialisation, etc.), and then immersive experiences on the other? When all is said and done, a theatre play, a film or a book can be more immersive than a high-tech device. Let us here restrict ourselves to works created through the deployment of technologies such as XR (AR/VR/MR) or video mapping. The subject also remains a complex one to untangle owing to the heterogeneity of the Belgian territory. Is it really possible to talk about Belgium in a uniform, across-the board manner?

A complex three-pronged territory

In fact, Wallonia, Flanders and Brussels are relatively different territories. Nevertheless, together they allow an overview of how the impact of Belgium’s weight is currently trending on a chessboard where immersive creation is henceforth internationalised (co-productions, distribution networks) and international (competition between XR festivals, venues). A diversity of issues exists in Belgium, starting with a multilingualism/culturalism, a complex administrative division and creation support mechanisms which are distinct and not very permeable.

Thus, as far as Flanders is concerned, the Kunstendecreet (decree for the arts) supports artistic creation via a system of subsidies and grants, without necessarily making a distinction between artforms. ‘We operate on the basis of self-profiling, and it is therefore up to the artist to define themselves and choose the commission which will assess their case. Nevertheless, there is also a digital and transdisciplinary arts (experimentele mediakunst) category which includes all of the digital dimensions. Our approach looks to promote cross-pollination,’ explains Lissa Kinnaer of the Kunstenpunt / Flanders Arts Institute, an expertise and support centre for the arts in Flanders. Concurrently, the VAF – Vlaams Audiovisueel Fonds (the equivalent of the CNC in France) – offers a ‘game fund’ which supports immersive gaming production and an ‘innovatielab’ more focused on extended cinema. For Wallonia, the Walloon Region supports VR coproduction via Wallimage, whilst Digital Wallonia is more engaged in the development of a technological sector (with no aid provided for the creation of immersive works).

Concurrently, the Wallonia-Brussels Federation supports digital creation through its plastic arts commission and offers several types of aid (the conception of a work; aid for production; aid for promotion; aid for distribution; aid for events, etc.). A budget (around 700,000 Euros annually) is allocated with a strategy to support on-the-ground operators such as KIKK in Namur and iMAL in Brussels – in particular for their production and distribution hosting missions. ‘We have made the decision to endorse established in-the-field actors to ensure greater efficiency. Automatically, that means a smaller budget for artists who apply directly for our support systems,’ explains Anne Huybrechts, the digital creation support manager at the Wallonia-Brussels Federation’s Contemporary Plastic Arts Directorate.

Brussels thus finds itself straddling the Flemish and Walloon systems. ‘The Brussels artists can benefit from the aid provided by the Wallonia-Brussels Federation and the Flemish Region’, points out Anne Huybrechts, before continuing: ‘in terms of the ways and means, the superimposition of mechanisms is not always easy to understand when you do not know the ecosystem.’ Another resource: the Screen.Brussels funds offers support for the production of VR creations, with several tens of thousands of Euros possible (provided the outlay is used on its territory). But the budget of 3 million Euros per year, all projects taken together (fiction, documentary, series, podcasts and VR), all the same leaves little leeway.  A thousand sheets of complex financial paperwork for the project owners, as is attested to by the article ‘funding in obstacle course mode’, as told by Delphine Jenart on the Régional-IT site.

Direct consequences for the XR sector

This multi-layered organisation to some extent has other effects. Beginning with the absence of a scalable strategy to foster the emergence of significant actors, notably in terms of production-distribution. Although several structures such as iMAL, OHME, Constant, Gluon or KIKK (and TRAKK) are carrying out remarkable work and have international reach, certain domains of creation such as XR creation cannot really be invested in.  Marie du Chastel, the artistic director of the KIKK festival, testifies: ‘It remains complicated to start up a VR project. 3D, texturing, game engines; these are skills which have a price on the market. KIKK previously tried to provide aid for a VR project mixing art and science. We very quickly had to call a halt to our aid because it was necessary to find half a million Euros for the production of the work. It is a financial reality which is beyond the means of our organisation.’ An assessment which is especially damaging as the most interesting VR works are often hybridisations of installations conceived of by artists already on the radar of contemporary and digital arts bodies. ‘KIKK could play this bridging role, but for the moment the budgets won’t allow this type of creation to be assisted. We have already tried to launch VR workshops with TRAKK to acculturate audiences, but the activity was stopped when a certain backing we were receiving was brought to an end,’ continues Marie du Chastel. It is obvious that Belgian XR creation exists (Christophe Monchalin, Muted or Sunken Worlds / Yanne Deval and Marie-G Losseau, Atlas VR / Aurélien Merceron, Cloud dancing  / Léa Rogliano, Sur le pouce have for example all benefited from Wallonia-Brussels Federation support), but it remains very sketchy when compared to the offer originating in Great Britain, France and Canada. And the argument pointing to the size of the country is not necessarily a valid one, as the case of Luxembourg attests, the country demonstrating a real political will to support XR, with support being provided to studios and the Lux Film Festival. And once again, the resources to be implemented to equip exhibition sites or assist mediation initiatives (on-boarding / off-boarding) may also be open to question.

Should we be expecting any changes to the funding policy? Doubtless no, in light of the current trend in aid for creation. Proof of this is seen in the strike action carried out in Wallonia by the members of the digital arts commission. Marie du Chastel, also a member of this commission since 2014, takes up the story: ‘we note that the Ministry is not displaying obvious interest in digital creation. This year there has been a cut of over 150,000 Euros in the Wallonia-Brussels Federation support budget. For example, Ohme has received less money than anticipated. The new exhibition projects are no longer being supported, simply because cuts need to be made to the budgets. Research grants for artists also have all been cut’ *on 06/04/2024. The demands of those on strike bear on the maintenance of annual budgets called into question in a pre-electoral context.

Optimising international reach and developing training

Belgian’s triple-headed dimension also has consequences for international development. ‘The reality of Belgium is that it has three administrative regions. When we want to embark on a Belgian project internationally, we have to present Wallonia, Flanders or Brussels rather than laying claim to a “Belgium focus”. From the perspective of foreigners, it is not necessarily easy to decipher,’ assesses Lissa Kinnaer. In the same vein, the distribution of works at times appears dispersed: ‘the francophone digital scene is better known in France. The Flemish scene is more distributed in the Anglo-Saxon and Germanic countries,’ adds Lissa Kinnaer. A consequence of multilingualism/culturalism? Doubtless, but there is no reason to become defeatist: Belgium could on the contrary turn it into its strength and benefit from multiple connections to optimise its distribution strategy internationally.

Another weak signal to be taken into account is the lack of training dedicated to digital creation on the Belgium territory. Whilst several schools include digital options (St-Luc, LUCA , KASK or the ERG), there seems to be an absence of training programmes specially dedicated to creation in immersive environments. And if that is evolving positively for technical training (animation, gaming, etc.), the digital arts are still in their infancy in this respect. On this latter point, numerous digital artists living on Belgian territory have carried out their studies in France, and in particular at Fresnoy, the National Studio for Contemporary Arts at Tourcoing. ‘On the Wallonia-Brussels territory, French artists without a doubt account for a third of the requests for aid. They seem to be better trained, they express their objectives and their needs better,’ testifies Anne Huybrechts. 

Undeniable assets

And yet Belgium has at its disposal many assets to become a key international actor in immersive creation. First of all, there is its financial attractiveness. Marine Haverland, the co-founder of Fomo.Scene and a specialist in virtual reality, explains that ‘the audiovisual Tax Shelter (Editor’s note: a federal tax incentive to support the production and creation of European audiovisual works) is now open to VR, which will accelerate things for majority, and also minority, foreign productions in Belgium. Combine this Tax Shelter with a regional fund, and it all starts to look promising.’ (source, Cinergie)

Belgium’s multicultural character could also be considered a lever. ‘Brussels is a multicultural land with artists of European, South American, Asian origin,’ points out Anne Huybrechts, before continuing with an anecdote. ‘In 2019, for the Transmediale festival in Berlin, the Wallonia-Brussels Federation had organised a collective exhibition of the artists from its territory. There was Felix Luque Sanchez, who is Spanish, Todor Todoroff, who is from Bulgaria, LAb[au], a Belgo-German trio, and Julien Maire and Pierre-Jean Giloux, who are French. What may appear astonishing is representative of Belgium; it’s a cosmopolitan and surprising city.’ Belgium has numerous globally recognised artists (Romain Tardy, Joanie Lemercier, Michèle Noiret, LAb[au], Yannick Jacquet, Crew, etc.) and a talented new generation (Alex Verhaest, Stéphanie Roland, Laura Colmenares Guerra, Claire Williams, Emmanuel Van Der Auwera, Okus Lab, etc). And whilst it is not possible to distinguish a ‘Belgium touch’ amongst this talent pool, Marie du Chastel remarks that ‘many of them espouse a critical approach. The subjects they tackle are very frequently linked to environmental or social issues.’ As is the case with the Studio Lemercier, which has made the decision to adopt an activist and transversal approach. A mindset which is especially valuable as the countries which invest massively in immersive creation rarely explore its environmental and political impact.

Finally, one last argument, and a good one at that. Belgium benefits from a fertile ground of structures committed to digital creation: in addition to those already name-checked, let us mention Werktank, Kanal, STUK, Komplot, Fomo.Scene (which in particular recently co-organised, together with Arty Farty, the Reset Immersive event), Les Halles de Schaerbeek, BOZAR or Musica/Klankenbos. Further proof of a pronounced taste for immersive creation is the growing number of light shows such as the Bright Brussels Lichtfestival Ghent or in other cities such as Namur, Mons, Anvers, Hasselt, Courtrai, Bruges, etc. With increased means and ambitions, Belgium could take advantage of an exceptional network.

Opportunities to come?

Another important point: ‘Unlike KIKK, which is funded by the economic sector and the creative industries, the digital arts in Flanders are not backed by funding for the development of the creative industries. Which means that they have less firepower available,’ assesses Lissa Kinnaer. The solution may therefore lie in a more hybrid economic model. All the more so given that several actors from the private sector (producers, Tech solutions, creative studios, such as InMersiv Tech, Magic Loom, Atomic Pic, Poolpio, UFX Studios, The Pack, Dirty Monitor, Hovertone or Dogstudio) are already visible in the Belgian digital ecosystem and could contribute to the structuring of the sector via other economic levers. Marie du Chastel assesses this option: ‘that could be kick-started thanks to the economic sector, but it would have to be implemented by means of a collective initiative.’ An especially relevant comment in the light of certain projects – whose artistic plus-value is questionable – such as Van Gogh Immersive (Exhibition Hub / Fever) or Planet Happiness (Beyond.Culture / Studio Irma).

Opportunities may also emerge depending on the calendar of the coming years. In the event of being nominated for the European Capital of Culture 2030, Namur is counting on exploring the full potential of XR. ‘We will be delighted to host immersive projects, or ones which incorporate VR. On this specific subject, the question which will need to be looked into is enabling “distanced” people to live the “Namur 2030” experiences. The evolution of the technologies and their democratisation should quite naturally transform this type of experience into partners of the first order… to allow the adventure to be experienced remotely,’ argues Laura Latour, the project manager for the Namur city’s candidacy. 

As it is, let us hope that Belgian creation may all the same fully express its potential in the years to come. But let us be clear, it is first and foremost an issue of the resources available and therefore one of political choices.

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