Things I've Learned Before 30
Inspired by project credits, I’d like to credit those in my surroundings who’ve been paramount to the development of my own work as administrator, producer, initiator.
When I was 24, I started out with a lot of principles that reflected the self-made practitioner’s dream, where all successes are thanks to your own skills and motivation. Now, looking back 6 years at the chain of people vouching for me, helping, supporting and teaching me, I’ve come to terms with my outdated principles. Time for some good old reflection, before I turn 30.
Be aware, there’ll be lots of namedropping and cheesiness in this text. It’s been on my mind for quite some time, so here we are, starting with a stream of gratitude. I’ll take a trip down memory lane, in a chronological fashion, and reminisce on the situations and people who shared their energy, experience and genuine support with me.
Let’s take a dive back to 2016 when I was ‘almost graduated’, starting to volunteer and ‘make a name for myself.’
These were the principles and beliefs I held:
● The more you work, the more people will appreciate you
● If you don’t (over)work, you’re lazy. Laziness is to be scorned
● A burn-out, (and continuing to work through it) is a qualification of a hard worker
while at the same time
● Mental health issues are a danger to your career and the perception of your abilities
● Everything you achieve, you’ve earned and worked for yourself
● The quality of work determines the value of you as an individual
● Failure is your own flaw, overcompensation is always the answer
Don’t ask me how precisely I built these principles. Probably a combination of the golden nature/nurture mix, including background, peers and institutions. Maybe ‘Samson en Gertje’ have secretly brainwashed me with these silly notions of individualism.
With this awesome and confident set of beliefs I entered a varied series of collaborations as volunteer and KVR (without a kunstenaarskaart, I had no idea what that was) in the Antwerp music and stage-arts field.
My first ‘real’ job was as a production collaborator at SKaGeN for the theater show ZEESTUK (2016). Korneel Hamers vouched for me and ‘took me in’ for my first experience during a theatre creation process and going on tour with the crew. I even got to participate in parts of the show - oh the fame! This process allowed me to witness the artists preparing and shaping a show, and to support dramaturgically here and there. Most importantly, it gave me the opportunity to understand logistic and technical planning.
A while before ZEESTUK, I actually got to know Korneel Hamers during a theatre workshop 2015-2016 at the Antwerp University. There I had my first interaction with the dopamine rush that is ‘producing’, or at least what I thought that meant. In that setting it meant being both ‘the keeper of overview of planning and budgets’, and being the first one up and the last one to go to bed, aka ‘the loser of sleep’. The week leading up to our premiere, we worked more than 12 hours a day, and did not sleep a lot. One might say, a pace very common to students. Sure, and did we love it! To be fair, I also thought this was being excellent at working hard…
It was by working alongside Saskia Liénard, at that time the business coordinator of SKaGeN, that I started reflecting on the balance of time and work. Before that my calendar was just absorbed by ‘giving it my all’. Saksia shared with me her views on what was fair or not, in terms of paying people: which statutes and conditions actually mean ‘fair’? I often consider her to be the first mentor in my work. I remember us sitting next to each other in DeStudio, looking at a logistics budget sheet, trying to work out my calculation errors. Might sound very simple, but the fact that somebody persists in helping you until you resolve the work, was really nice. Anyhow, she has been so kind and cool to me, and to this day I never skip an Instagram Story, as I value her unfiltered criticism a lot.
However, the beginning of what I see as my professional start, is not marked by a lot of mentors, but by a lot of discovering and DIY’ing. In 2016 I began working in Bâtard as the business coordinator. Apart from starting to study ‘cultural management’ I had no experience in running a vzw and the whole administration galore that comes with it. In that time, I had a lot of support through camaraderie with my colleagues Eva, Leen and Jara - The Bâtard Gang. As it was all quite chaotic and untransparent, we simultaneously were understanding what was actually expected of us. By figuring that out, we learned how our different roles could facilitate each other’s work. Please, do not underestimate the importance of venting amongst colleagues or peers, it might be petty sometimes, but is necessary. Shake it off.
Like Korneel Hamers, also Dries Douibi, at that time artistic director at Bâtard, vouched for me and urged me to enter a job application at SPIN. Et voila, a few intimidating job interviews later, I got * the * job *. When starting my current job in 2017 at SPIN, I noticed a shift in the setting through which I gained knowledge and skills: from a more learning-through-doing to a more relational process.
So there I am, a fresh, green not-yet-graduate getting ready to take over SPIN’s office management. In one month Ingrid Vranken, coordinator of SPIN at the time, taught me the ins and outs of the organisation - through which I had so many ‘aha’ moments that I could’ve used before, doing my work at Bâtard. Honestly, I learned more in that one month (and later on at SPIN) than one year uni, on how to actually manage a non profit arts vzw. And long after she left, her support towards me extended far beyond official time frames, for what I can only guess is truly caring about my well being and that of the organisation.
People, I have to tell you, I feel so spoiled and uplifted by the structure of our organisation. Some board and general assembly members were appointed my ‘red phones’ and guides in the transition of work. We call them Mega Members for a reason, and it’s my time to give mega thanks. Big up to Bie Vancraeynest, for being a great soundboard and mediator. Thank you, Katrien Reist for including me in your networks and sharing important developments of the past. All these conversations create a better, more informed orientation in the field. Other relations are not always about transferring knowledge or being a guide, sometimes it is mutualising work in our precarious time conditions. Hanne Doms, another Mega Member, and I have combined work processes of our own organisations and did some parts together. Much gratitude for taking on these bureaucratic quests with me!
Another relational segment of SPIN is the co-direction, which is run by Diederik Peeters, Hans Bryssinck, Kate McIntosh, and since 2019 also Sarah Parolin and myself. I love being in the co-direction, I think it’s a good system to combine skills, perspectives and time. Through working with seasoned spinners I picked up on a lot of the history in the Brussels and international performing arts field, but also witnessed different styles of working and communicating.
Dear colleagues, I appreciate you all so much. ❤️
Kate has been a treat, to witness her strong coordination, analyses and argumentation skills. When working with her I learn a lot just from seeing the connections she makes, and not having made them myself. Very often I connect dots as she is speaking. That’s one of the perks of working with these artists, their mind sharpness is admirable and it sometimes rubs off on you.
There is also space for emotional intelligence at SPIN, the love is brought to you by Diederik, who reminds us all of the importance of the fact that the human that works, also feels. He makes sure there is space for subjects that I would not have deemed workplace discussable before, because of the taboos and fear that accompany emotions sometimes.
As with Hans, I get to delve into communal interests: learning and (de)colonialism. Talking with him actually makes me understand abstract theories a lot better, better than me reading a book by myself. Next to that, an important part of our relation is our shared schizophrenic geographical situation: we live in one country and work in another. We can find support with each other, recognition and space to vent, space to think.
Finally, I get to introduce the person that made me realise I wanted to write this piece, Sarah Parolin. Where to begin? For those who don’t know her, she’s an independent performance and visual arts producer with experience in the context of contemporary artistic creation and distribution. That’s the tagline, right? Here’s what she’s not mentioning in her bio now: she’s a teacher. Yup! Well, maybe not in that classical sense of the word, but she very talented at making her knowledge transferable. I am speaking from experience.
From practical guidance to actual deepening the principles of professional practice, like: work processes, team coordination, labor ethics, financial management and even professional (international) etiquette. The latter is funny to me, coming from a mostly Flemish background where we often address our opposing views and discomfort wrapped in questions.
There are a lot of insights I gained, while working with her, that create a break with my 24-y/o principles: the importance of setting out conscious work-methodologies, then assessing and improving them. That sounds really simple, but to me it was not self evident. When you come from a rat-race pace, you are more concerned with staying in motion and getting shit done, than actually crafting your practice, even when it’s ‘just’ executive tasks. Through this research-y approach to work, failure - as a concept and as an inherent flaw of the individual - got a whole other meaning.
Now, I set up methods and boundaries. If they don’t work (versus if I fail), I change them or ask for advice. It’s a relief, to be separated from this failure internalisation and this constant perception projection. It makes my head so much more clear. And a lot better at work too. (In 5 years I will tell you I did not get rid of this work importance for selfworth, BUT I truly really like to work. It is important and meaningful to me).
So, I have talked a lot about the Brussels and professional arts field. This is not the only field or bubble I navigate through. I also live (and love) a lot in Rotterdam. The queer social fabric of that city is so precious to me. Thanks to the Gender Bending Queer Party members, like Non van Driel and Olave Nduwanje, many of us new Rotterdammers found a community. Not only by organising parties themselves, but also by transferring this party ethics onto new groups, sharing their activism wisdom and wishes for the community. Non, aka genderclown, has put so much effort in creating intentional spaces and practices of care. I have learned a lot of skills through Non (and Lu)’s training sessions for support group leaders. Also, they have been important in teaching us - fair(l)y new organisers - about the queer history of the city, the ‘traps’ of activism, work and personal boundaries in community organising and how to deal with conflict. I can fill a whole other text on the importance of this person’s actions, which I might do later.
Another important figure in my Rotterdamian shenanigans is Rae Parnell. He is a ballroom organiser, zine maker and programmer for the Pirate Bay at WORM. He is Queer Rotterdam’s liaison to the institution (WORM), and has been there from the beginning of the platform’s development. He helped us by thinking along, proposing ideas and opportunities and reflecting on our practice with us. He is so great at balancing all his grassroots community roles and working at a big institution, while staying close to his beliefs and principles. Through working and collaborating with him on numerous occasions (parties, experiments, talks) I’ve come to really appreciate the way he finds and transmits nuance in complex issues, filling the echo chamber with new insights. To be fair, our community is not a kumbaya setting where everybody agrees and understands each other. Often we fall into a trap of instagram performativity where we seemingly agree (or act outraged) about the same issues. Which does not really help to progress ideas and understanding between people. He has always been a caretaker and calm teacher for many in the community, in a way we don’t get to really appreciate in constant vigilant and whistleblowing culture. Let’s opposite-cancel (appreciate) those around us more who are doing “behind-the-scenes” work.
While talking about work and learning, it’s hard to not talk about personal life as well. Like many things in life, a support system is also important for personal development. As you might have noticed I (did) struggle with failure issues and feelings of inferiority. I have highlighted these in a professional context, but of course, they’re not limited to those environments only. In a work context it has been about people vouching for me, or sharing their knowledge and time with me. In a personal context people have advised and supported me, and occasionally shook me, to knock some damn sense into that brain!
And one of those shakers is Iso Hoomans, my best friend, voice of reason and partner in life. As I’ve said before, we cannot underestimate the importance of venting, but also of somebody witnessing you while you work. A good thing to know is that I usually work by myself, it’s very rare that SPIN meets in real life, or shares office time. So, I’ve gotten used to being by myself and working by myself. Since the pandemic hit, Iso was home too. For the first time ever I had a ‘colleague’ in my ‘office’. They have been able to notice when I am in overdrive or when I am taking no breaks. And they made sure to let me know that this was happening. Beyond stating what they notice, they also helped on an emotional and cognitive level: to figure out distinctions between rational doubt (about methods of work f.i.) versus intrusive thoughts (“I will never be able”).
A good outside perspective really helps to acknowledge your mental state sometimes.
And in case you are wondering, yes I am fine, I am more than my intrusive thoughts, believe me.
To have such solid support system is a great privilege. Not only personally, but also all the connections with people I have mentioned above, be it big or small interactions, did contribute to my (professional) development.
To finish, I want to end in the same fashion as how I started this text: with some lists.
Things I’ve noticed after writing this text
● It is actually only when I had the chance to work somewhere longterm, I had the peace (after 1,5 years) to learn more about the actual processes and practice of working, rather than the results, the effects and the perception thereof.
● Two interesting ‘career development’ dynamics can overlap in the same space. On the one hand, gaining access to environments and opportunities that grant you discovery and learning-through-doing. And on the other hand working with peers (colleagues who are experienced in the work that you do).
● A lot of knowledge-sharing labor is structurally unacknowledged and rendered invisible - probably because it aims at collective achievement rather than individual achievement or recognition. Also problematic is that in my experience it has often been men in the visible position to give me opportunities or vouch for me in places where they have access, and often women and queer folks who do the ‘sharing’, ‘listening’ and‘supporting’. This is not an epiphany of course, it’s no secret that men fill the seats of ‘director’ and ‘curator’.
● I wonder what to do about the fact that the ‘Newbie proving myself race’ was effective in a way. People were vouching for me and connecting me. Would that have happened if I didn’t go above and beyond my own limits? Would they still have? Does the vouching for someone facilitate the principle of proving yourself through overdrive and over working?
I am curious to see how I will look back in yet another 5 years from now. I know many new people will be part of my personal development, and I would be thrilled if I can also share those methods, experiences and knowledge with others someday.
Korneel Hamers, in the role of ‘Opportunity Provider’
Saskia Liénard, in the role of ‘First Mentor’
Eva, Leen and Jara, in the roles of ‘Comrades’
Dries Douïbi, in the role of ‘Advocator’
Ingrid Vranken, in the role of ‘vzw coordination Tutor’
Bie Vancraeynest, in the role of ‘Red Phone’
Katrien Reist, in the role of ‘Red Phone’
Hanne Doms, in the role of ‘Partner in bureaucracy quests’
Kate McIntosh, in the role of ‘Sharp Mind’
Diederik Peeters, in the role of ‘Bringer of Love’
Hans Bryssinck, in the role of ‘Class mate’
Sarah Parolin, in the role of ‘the Teacher’
Non van Driel, in the role of ‘Genderclown’
Olave Nduwanje, in the role of ‘Conversational Educator’
Rae Parnell, in the role of ‘Translator’
Iso Hoomans, in the role of ‘Lief’