Enter 2016: the military and non-state actors are sporting balaclavas. Everyone else is using apps to melt their faces onto banal objects at their disposal – often people in the immediate vicinity. Following the advent of the front-facing mobile phone camera and ensuing selfie campaigns, the modern crusade for individuation has reached its inevitable point of fatigue. In March, I unwittingly find myself on an art residency in Brussels, the heart of the European project and NATO headquarters, at a moment when the tenability of both has come under fundamental scrutiny. Caught in the eye of the supranational perfect storm, and in true generational fashion, my experience would ultimately bring me face-to-face with none other than … myself.
The Villa Empain, bordering Bois de la Cambre just outside of Ixelles, an inner suburb of Brussels, where I was stationed as an inaugural guest of its ‘Inhabitation’ residency programme, is far away from my mom’s house in Harlem, where my childhood bedroom functions as a cramped live/work studio. In a much-needed change from New York City, where stagnating labour reserves are cramped into modular storage, I would be able to stretch my legs for a while on the villa’s hallowed grounds. First commissioned as the home for the son of Baron Édouard Empain – the Belgian-Congolese industrialist responsible for the Paris Métro – Empain abandoned the project, entrusting it as a contemporary and decorative arts museum to the -Belgian state. Later a Gestapo prison under Nazi occupation, then an embassy for the Soviet Union, and finally a Belgian TV station, in the 1990s it was populated by squatters. A decade or so later, the Boghossian Foundation, my hosts, restored the villa with the mission of creating a ‘centre of art and dialogue between cultures of the East and the West, … of shared emotions and wonderment open to all.’ If only the spectres of history could learn to play together so nicely.
Like Deogen, the child-eating ghost that is said to haunt the Bois de la Cambre outside, these phantoms didn’t bother any of my co-resident artists and curators. But the atmosphere in Brussels – following the Paris attacks of November and subsequent fruitless terror raids in the region – all intensified after the capture of alleged Molenbeek ‘rent boy’-turned-terror mastermind Salah Abdeslam. Abdeslam’s arrest seemed to trigger some peculiar occurrences within our compound as well. An impromptu 72-hour ‘bicyclist’s rave’ transpired in the forest, which entailed the incessant playing of Drake and ABBA on repeat through loudspeakers. The Tinder dates of some of the girls in the house, seemingly ‘nice guys’, suddenly began to reveal themselves as grumpy sadomasochists. Spooky talismans from nearby flea markets suggested impending doom. Echoes of distant gunshots awoke several of us late one evening, too early in the year to be attributable to rehearsals for the annual re-enactment of the Battle of Waterloo. Despite the increasing state of tumult, I tried to remain dutifully conscientious about deadlines for upcoming shows, clocking in long hours in the studio.
22 March: My fellow American-in-residence, Sahra Motalebi, wakes me to unfolding reports of terrorist attacks, confirming that everyone we know is safe. With one eye open I check my phone: suicide bombs at the airport and metro station. I watch a live-leak style clip but it proves too difficult to follow before my morning coffee. I text my mother to preemptively assuage her freaking out after hearing the news, and fall back asleep. I dream that the villa is under siege: terrorists break in through the windows with crowbars and I escape with the other residents. Our residency coordinator is hurt and furious that the villa is destroyed. I note his unwavering vocation and heroic passion, and we are relocated to an apartment to watch television just as I wake. In my camouflage pyjamas, I walk into the common room where Sahra is sitting with curator Nicola Lees. Both follow the developing news on their phones and laptops. I attempt to recount the dream while reaching for a mix of flavoured Nespresso cartridges to prepare for the long day ahead. While Mariana Tellerina joins us in our makeshift command post, fellow artist Janine Harrington triggers some panic: alive but not present, she has been evacuated with her French class downtown just blocks away from the scene at the Maalbeek metro station. I remember that Asad Raza, the Villa’s artistic director, who first invited me to Brussels, is also due to fly in from Australia that same day. On Facebook, I am prompted to ‘check in safe’: a feature I engage with novel enthusiasm. Belgium proceeds to close all of its borders. Mass transit comes to a halt. I proceed to eat my breakfast waffles, gnawing unrepentantly at the fried dough lattice and lulled by the factual hum of the BBC.
Later that afternoon, Belgium raises its terror threat to the highest level. As the deadliest terrorist attack in Belgium’s history, the events of the morning quickly become a global trending topic, triggering the usual swarm of micro think-pieces authored by end-users turned geo-political experts and some solidarity graphics by empathetic creatives. Much to everyone’s relief, we are spared the cringeworthy flag profile pic overlay this time around (introduced to much chagrin during the Paris attacks last year). While scrolling, I notice a random Facebook friend, also in Belgium, netting over two hundred likes on her safe ‘check-in’, compared to my mere thirty or so. Who is this girl? Could this be due to the saccharine, expository anecdote she included with her check-in? Or do people simply not care that I didn’t die? With my ego now taking some serious flak I begin to tabulate a mental list of absent follow-ups – people I expected to hear from by now. Hmmm. Not a single ex-boyfriend of mine thought to message. And the defence contractor from back home who’s usually blowing up my phone nonstop, whining about his feelings ... where is he today?
Finally, in the periphery of my screen appear some of my current crushes. I delight in the idea of cute boys approving of my survival, while some of the girls in the house receive dick pics – call-of-thirst responders. Like reports in the New York Times late last year that the Brussels police had engaged in an orgy during their search for the Paris attackers, the sense of virtualized turmoil was putting everyone in the mood. Amid the necropolitical reality of the situation, I spend the rest of the evening ‘not letting the terrorists win’ by playing a few rounds of Call of Duty: Black Ops (2010) on the French servers.
The following morning, images of terror suspects Ibrahim and Khalid El Bakraoui, Najim Laachraoui and Mohamed Abrini begin to circulate in the news, with the more dapper Abrini – beige bucket hat, matching overcoat – still at large. An additional nail bomb and an ISIS flag are discovered in a police raid, but only after ISIS has publicly claimed responsibility for the attacks. Curiously, however, the incidents were condemned by Al-Qaeda over Twitter. Perhaps their style is more symbolically aspirational than the attacks perpetrated by the Belgian and French nationals, most of whom were described as radicalized middle-class millennials, with penchants for heroin and marijuana. The attacks near Maalbeek station and at Brussels Airport lacked the figurative intent and meticulous design of Al-Qaeda pursuits. Missing too was the hallmark ‘shock and awe’ of ISIS’s campaigns in the Middle East, characterized by ruthless beheadings, crucifixions and dazzling lower-third graphics, above all underscoring the indispensability of the media apparatus in their operations. The Brussels attacks seemed to better fit the profile of American mass shootings: their perfunctory design and execution felt reminiscent of the homespun, reactionary violence perpetrated by terrorists in the US. In contrast to the calculating reserve and poised certainty chronicled in 9/11 ringleader Mohamed Atta’s final days, an angsty suicide note recovered from Ibrahim El Bakraoui’s computer described feelings of being ‘stressed out’ and scared of eternity. I could definitely relate.
25 March: a ‘March Against Fear’ is scheduled. Authorities are trying to postpone the march amid security concerns – doing little else to reassure the terrified public of their safety. The city, now the subject of a lot of political finger pointing, is focused on conducting thorough terror raids in the adjoining neighbourhoods. Sahra and I watch footage of an alleged suicide bomber sniped-down in Schaerbeek: the suspect wriggling helplessly on the floor of a tram stop like an asphyxiating octopus, shot in the leg yet clutching his suspicious package. Slowly, he is approached by a bomb disposal robot, the already bizarre scene now reading somewhat like an animated clip from Futurama.
A memorial for the victims materializes at the downtown Place de la Bourse, the Brussels stock exchange. I find this oddly appropriate since terrorism is inextricably linked with liberal democratic capitalism. This fact is under-acknowledged back home in the USA, where it is discussed as some sort of isolated phenomenon: in fact we are all its victims. A thick layer of candles and flowers, flags and handwritten notes line the shadow of the Place de Bourse. The ‘March Against Fear’ persists despite police orders, evolving from a peaceful ‘kumbaya’ into a stand-off between a far-right group: self-proclaimed ‘hooligan’ demonstrators advocating for ‘fascism against terrorism’ versus the local police force. The fascist group’s spectacle effectively upstages the looming threat of an ISIS attack at the memorial, until they are eventually sprayed away by water cannons to the roaring cheer of the crowds.
Reports surface that the Chief of Police appears totally wasted at a security briefing. Several other deputies resign in the aftermath of the attacks. I get the feeling that the European attitude toward terrorism is just too laissez faire to deal. Allegedly, they interviewed Abdeslam for an hour about the Paris attacks. I imagine that in the States he would be held in a dark cell in a dark hell, with a plunger in his asshole, five CIA interrogators ejaculating onto his quivering body with the accompaniment of a death metal soundscape and read-aloud passages from Deleuze & Guattari, the rights to this scenario eventually sold to a third-party porn distributor who markets to liberal American college students.
Following an episode of viral gastroenteritis I am starving so I order pizza and beer delivery through some aggregate takeout website. Much to my alarm, I notice the Bitcoin payment option at checkout. Could this be the same service used by Abdeslam, like a good millennial, in the months following the Paris attacks? The suspicious volume of pizza delivery to his flat was instrumental in tipping off police to his whereabouts and leading to his arrest. I would imagine payment through cryptocurrency is an attractive feature to a terror-funded expense account. We spend the remainder of the evening discussing fashion while I inhale the bulk of my pepperoni pie.
The city recuperated from the attacks, resuming business-as-usual in the shadow of a new normal: heightened security screenings and the presence of soldiers in armoured cars with machine guns stationed around the city. Growing up in New York in the wake of 9/11, I partly had the advantage of such preconditioning. It was just the other week that I missed a car bomb in Berlin by an hour, and it was only a few buildings’ distance in New York that spared me from a deadly gas exposition a year ago. So long as life imitates art and art parallels networked, neoliberal capital, I guess I’ll always be standing too close for comfort.
First published in Issue 24