On the trail of a crime

Olivia Ardui, March 2016

translated by Patrick Lennon


A series of 24 perfume bottles gives off scents that blend with one another, exciting and confusing the sense of smell. Even if the whole comes from 24 well-defined ingredients, each of which is assigned to its own respective container, instead of emitting the fragrance of an aroma in particular, each one of them exhales the sum of the 23 other ingredients, with the exception of that one which has been assigned to it. Barely perceptible to our senses, their singularity resides in a principle of exclusion and dispossession of their essence. The difference between these fragrances is subtle since they share common ingredients with the other bottles. The difference resides in the detail.

Corporate Scents (2016) is an olfactory installation that marks a turn in the evolution of Various Artists (VA), a project initiated in 1995 by Trudo Engels, an open and constantly evolving mechanism which challenges the requirement of singularity of the artist and of his/her oeuvre in the system of contemporary art. Before delving into this new phase in the deconstruction of the artist’s individuality, it is worth going back over the different steps that have punctuated the career of Various Artists, a complex and at times hermetic body of work which continually seems to be playing tricks (on itself).

I - Various Artists: work in progress

Various Artists defines itself as an open structure composed of a collective of 24 fictive artists. As Catherine Bompuis (1) suggests, like heteronyms, each one of them has a distinct personality and a specific background, and has developed an individual body of work in a field of action which, for its part, is well and truly real: the art world. If, for Fernando Pessoa, who was the first to theorize this concept, it was a question of experimenting with subjectivity by adopting other forms of language and other styles of writing, Various Artists proposes a system that challenges the figure of the artist, but also and especially the mechanisms used to legitimize and highlight his/her name and work.

This answer to a system based on the notion of creative capital emerged in the wake of Plateau, a contemporary dance and performance lab founded in 1989 by Trudo Engels and Ida De Vos. When this space was officialized in 2000 and began receiving subsidies, Plateau made way for nadine. Co-founded by Ferdinand du Bois, this initiative continued to research the new media as well as the performative arts. By stimulating a production that is often immaterial as well as a poetics of the ephemeral, nadine is not easily assimilable by the art market and deliberately chooses to distance itself from the latter in order to retain as much as possible its independent status. However, this resistance to the art system still remains attached to the notion of art object, its originality and that of its creator. 

In a first stage, the figure of Trudo Engels proliferates, multiplies into a collection of individuals which make up Various Artists. Progressively, the background, personality and work of each of these characters are elaborated. It is at this moment too that the internal functioning of the artists was established, indebted to the rules of an enigmatic game. This group forms itself into a kind of sect, an imaginary secret society, so to speak. A certain mystery surrounds these fictive, intangible artists, sometimes omitting even the traces of their oeuvre. This is the case, for instance, of Morice de Lisle, whose performances are generally undocumented, existing only in the memory of those who witnessed them or in the form of rumours. (2)

This is also the case of the interventions that derived from Boucalais. This is a fixed journey to be made on foot, from Boulogne-sur-Mer to Dunkirk via Calais and which, since 2005, has become a mobile and itinerant studio that the different members of Various Artists have travelled. In the course of this journey, they review, revisit their artistic practice and propose new creations that grow en route. These works take the form of minimal interventions in the landscape, of assemblages of objects collected on site or of minimal objects or objects with only an ephemeral existence, which do not last beyond the journey. Once again, these expeditions often only survive in the form of a record and generally blend with their documentation. More than material traces, Boucalais is a performance in progress that updates itself with each journey, gaining an additional layer each time a member of Various Artists journeys along it. (3)

The multiplicity of voices and the ephemeral character of their proposals mean that the Various Artists initiative is difficult to delimit and define. It seems that the very title of the project challenges any desire to demarcate and describe it with precision. Indeed, although it synthetizes the terms of the project – i.e. the profession of artist and its proliferation into a number of individuals, both as a strategy and a subject – the name ‘Various Artists’ is extremely generic and vague. Thus, resorting to the vast category of ‘various artists’ confounds whoever is looking for traces of Various Artists. When we search for ‘Various Artists’ on Google, for instance, most results refer to collective exhibitions that in no way concern the actual project. 

Besides this generic name, there is also the use of a secret language, Innumerat, conceived by Innumerat Roselare in 1999. Used for the internal communication among the fictive artists, it consists in replacing letters by numbers. Does the discourse masked by the Innumerat language hide a true revelation on the hidden intentions of this group of potential artists, or is it itself a farce to stimulate the imagination and to generate hopes around these ghost artists? If Various Artists deliberately positions itself as an artificial collective, it is likely that the secret that is so well hidden by the Innumerat language and the other enigmas posed by the creation of this family of artists is not that of the project’s fictional nature. What could be the real occult motivations of the game master and of the secret society he has conceived?

Fiction and reality mix and merge in Lettres d’Ixelles, a project initiated in 1989, when Trudo Engels moved to this commune of Brussels and discovered a map by Albert Saverys (1886-1964) locating a series of postboxes acting as points of contact between this world and the underworld. A member of the third group of the Laethem-Saint-Martin, Saverys allegedly dreamed that Victor Horta had pointed out to him the presence of these passages towards another dimension. Engels in turn allegedly dreamed that the artist Cildo Meireles encouraged him to explore this information that had been abandoned by the Flemish expressionist. Based on the locations identified by Saverys, Engels’ research feeds an electronic archive. Other artists can join the team of researchers in their exploration of these openings into this parallel world and thus feed this constantly changing archive with (more or less artificial) stories of the area. 

Regardless of whether these allegations are true, this initiative could function as a metaphor for pondering the very project of Various Artists. First of all, the discourse that justifies – or appears as a pretext to? – the establishment of this collaborative archive seems to be that of the transmission of a secret, from one generation to the next, from one dream to the next. The truth seems to reside in the abyss. Do these fissures of reality, in the depths of these postboxes, refer to a series of points of contact with this group’s hidden intentions? In any case, Lettres d’Ixelles seems, at the very least, to be a self-referential project as regards the modus operandi of Various Artists: an open and ongoing structure, activated by a series involving the postboxes, a trivial element that blends into the urban landscape. The key to the mystery is inaccessible on the surface and resides, once more, in the detail. 

It would seem that we can also detect, between the lines and in the paratext surrounding the projects of Various Artists, subtle clues regarding these feigned personalities. Does the list of Various Artists that includes Sufferice and Albert Savereys evoke – notwithstanding a change in spelling – the Flemish artist Saverys, who underlies Lettres d’Ixelles? Is it a coincidence that the family name of the inventor of this common tongue which cements communications and which ensures secrecy between the different members of Various Artists (Innumerat Roselare) is – notwithstanding a change in spelling – the name of the town in West Flanders where Trudo Engels was born (Roeselare)?

There was a dramatic turn of events in 2009 when Trudo Engels announced his death as an artist and decided to no longer create works in his own name. The 23 other heteronymic artists would take over the production of artistic objects from then on, haunted by the spectre of Wijlen (the late) Trudo Engels. Or perhaps it is the case that this new direction given to Various Artists, characterized by these 23 ghostly presences that gravitate around and in him, was in fact an emanation of the many characters in a role play of which he was the master. Whatever the case may be, from that moment on, Various Artists no longer presented itself as a collection of 24 individuals, clearly delimited and outlined among them, but as a collective of well-defined roles, which can be embodied by the Various Artists among them, but also by artists that were, initially, external to the project.

This broadening of the Various Artists project took place, first of all, during the sessions of the ‘Being an Artist’ workshop, which consisted in making the Various Artists available to other artists, so that they could rid themselves of the habits and vices specific to their own artistic process. The characteristics and works of the different characters of Various Artists are gathered in digital manuals and presented during workshops so that they can then be implemented. The unity of the Various Artists thus dissolves in the practice of any individual that participates in ‘Being an Artist’. The role play outlined in the first phase of Various Artists broadens to include new external contributors.

From 2011, the extent and participatory scope of Various Artists broadened even further, when those ‘initiated’ by the ‘Being an Artist’ workshops, the Various Open Artists (VOA), could suggest real or fictional collaborations with the Various Artists, rethink their past or future, and thereby revise the very instructions that had been passed on during the workshops of the preceding phase. This new turn of events required that the master of ceremonies, as it were, no matter how ghostly, delegated the decisions to third parties, thereby losing in a sense the monopoly of how the game unfolds, all the while remaining its initiator. 

A key example of the constant deconstruction of Various Artists is Le Château, which took place in 2012 at Galeria Luisa Strina in São Paulo, and which for the first time presented itself as a collective exhibition around a common theme. It proposed a reflection on the contradictions and ravages of overproduction in the food industry on a global scale, the avidity of consumption which generates desire for a product to be consumed, but which is founded on a precarious dynamic and an unequal distribution of resources. Le Château presented coherently the work of seven Various Artists but interpreted by five different artists who could superpose roles and play, simultaneously, two or three Various Artists. (4)

Another key event was the double solo exhibition Q&A, made with Cildo Meireles and which took place at Galleria Continua, San Giminiano, between 25 September 2015 and 16 January 2016. The project was structured around four themes: water, excrement, value and mathematics. As the title suggests, Q&A being an abbreviation of ‘Question and Answer’, for each of these themes, Various Artists proposed a response to a work by the Brazilian artist, all the while establishing duos among its own members. The classification of the exhibition as a ‘solo show’ is intriguing, since it involves a genuine interaction between the works of Various Artists but also a dialogue with the Brazilian artist. The ambiguous identity of Various Artists and of this type of proposal conflicts with the demands of the market, (5) leading to a new step in this long-term reflection: the different artists defined previously by Trudo Engels, and modifiable by the Various Open Artists, function as roles to be played and reinvented by other people, and who make collective exhibitions among Various Artists and with other artists, whether Various Open Artists or not. 


II. The death of the fictive personalities, the ultimate crime?

If Q&A was a decisive phase in the evolution of Various Artists, the exhibition also showed the limits of the rules that governed the project so far. Constantly establishing a series of formulas to deconstruct the originality of the artist and his/her work by an autonomous internal mechanism, the individuality dissolved in a collective of non-existent artists organized and arbitrated by Trudo Engels, as well as by occasional external collaborations. If each of the 24 roles could be played among themselves or by Various Other Artists, each of these fictive individuals constituted a singular personality that produced a very specific typology of works which, despite the variables introduced by the one who embodied it at a given moment, followed certain previously defined lines of conduct. The next step would then be to dissolve these clearly defined characters of the earlier phases of the project, and to progressively destroy them following a broader reflection on the constitution of subjectivity in the current context. 

According to Giorgio Agamben, any identity is the result of a relation to an ‘apparatus’: ‘There are therefore two classes: living beings (or substances) and apparatuses. Between the two, as third parties, there are the subjects. A “subject” is what results from the relation and, so to speak, from the clinch between the living beings and the apparatuses.’ (6) Broadening the notion introduced by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish, the author defines them as bodies that repress ‘anything which has, in one way or another, the capacity to capture, orient, determine, intercept, model, control and assume the gestures, behaviours, opinions and discourses of living beings’. (7)

Nowadays, there is ‘not a single instant of the life of individuals that has not been modelled, contaminated or controlled by an apparatus’. (8) Unlike traditional apparatuses, contemporary apparatuses incite a dispossession of the self and the transformation of citizens into spectral subjects (9): ‘It is less a question of the disappearance or exceeding [of subjectivity] than a process of dissemination that pushes to the limit the dimension of masquerade that has continued to accompany every personal identity’. (10) This fragmentation of subjectivity is not repressive as such, but it limits and frames the individuals in an insidious manner, that is, by working on ‘the creation of docile but free bodies that assume their identity and their freedom as subjects in the process of their subjection’. (11)

This false impression of free will increases when the Internet invades – on a global, ubiquitous scale – all the spheres of public and private life. (12) As Boris Groys claimed in a recent article, individuals have the impression that they retain a certain control over their data by a system of passwords that screen them from total visibility and exhibition. The contemporary subject would thus be, not only a spectral subject, but in the first place a keeper of secrets: subjectivity has become a technical construction indebted to a series of access codes. (13) If this information is hidden from some indiscreet eyes, it is accessible to the algorithms used by Google and the NSA that collect and give us information which we appear to select but which in reality is transferred to us through a predetermined filter. But if personality resided in this principle of exclusion, supported by allegedly secret information, kept private from third parties, but subjected to a barely veiled surveillance, where could any factor of originality still reside?

Far from providing definitive answers to these uncertainties regarding contemporary subjectivity, the new step of the Various Artists project underlines them. Certainly, the Various Artists are personalities that exist in the field of fiction, but they can be understood as a metafiction that makes it possible to approach these reflections on the place of apparatuses, normative principles and algorithms on the elaboration of our individuality. Indeed, the next projects were marked by a logic of exclusion and negation of the self: the work of each of the 24 Various Artists being the result of the sum of the contributions and opinions of the 23 others. The personality and creative capital of the Various Artists exist by default and result from the absence and the dispossession of the self, perhaps even by the fragmentation of their subjectivity. The free will, unicity and originality of their work are replaced by an arbitrary choice imposed from outside, by a collective which is itself subject to a new rule of the game.

Before Corporate Scents (2016), briefly described in the introduction of this article, Corporate Colours (2015) is the first illustration of this new principle that will orient Various Artists in the coming years. It involves two colour charts. The first (i) consists of a wide range of 24 colours, clearly contrasted from one another, attributed respectively and a priori to one of the fictive members of the collective. Each member thus has his/her own colour, his/her own clearly identifiable identity, so to speak. A second colour chart (r) presents itself as a range of 24 tones of grey, very close to one another, but which present a very subtle difference. Each tone of grey of the second diagram (r) corresponds to the mix of 23 colours of the preceding diagram (i), with the exception of the colour attributed to that Various Artist in the first chart (i).

These two proposals mark the adoption of this new modus operandi, based on exclusionary, impersonal formulas, as it were. This new path underlines the gap between the socially constructed and nominal criteria that constitute our identity and an alleged individual essence. It is a question of finding out who controls the identity of an individual and who establishes the social taxonomies and the mechanisms of identification and the hierarchy between these different pre-established categories. (14) In other words, what apparatuses are at the origin of the construction of the idea of the artist, of the aura that surrounds him/her and that consecrates his/her work? In what way would s/he be led to proceed, produce, discuss and exhibit his/her work? If the categories are defined beforehand by instances and apparatuses, the biographies and works could just as well be conceived by algorithms or an automatic generator that meet certain basic criteria which are seen as important (nationality, media used, type of subject around which the work of the artist revolves). The two examples given seem to suppose the failure of a profoundly human longing for the recognition of originality, of differentiation with regard to one another.

A paradox emerges in the evolution of the Various Artists project. Initially, the creation and elaboration of different fictive artists broke with the idea of the work’s singularity by developing the conception of a manifold artist, first as a group of individuals, then as a collective. Following this proliferation of personalities, the project tended to revert to a uniformity, both in Corporate Scents and in Corporate Colours: the colours or scents blend once more to form one and the same chromatic or olfactory task with subtle nuances, blurring the boundary of the different ingredients. Once more, the difference resides in the detail, at times minute, almost invisible and intangible. This absence of an ingredient, this absence of a voice and of free will is the only indication of the personality and constitutes the only difference with regard to the other. The artist is reduced to a void, to the annihilation of the self and his/her secrets, to his/her own disappearance. Perhaps therein lies the originality: a group of individuals dispossessed of themselves, of the ghostly presences that emerge between the lines and in the details, and whose singularity comes down to a subtle difference of nuance of greys or of scents contained in phials. Or: perhaps this paradox – between the proliferation and annihilation of Various Artists – is only a false trail concealing the indelible signature of Wijlen (the late) Trudo Engels.

  • (1) Various Artists, Best of, São Paulo, 2012, ifa.
  • (2) Various Artists, Best of, São Paulo, 2012, zo.
  • (3) Various Artists, Best of, São Paulo, 2012, ibehey.
  • (4) Various Artists, Best of, São Paulo, 2012, zo.
  • (5) “NQdine - Home.” NQdine - Home. N.p., n.d. Web. [http://www.various-artists.be/].
  • (6) Giorgio Agamben, , Qu’est ce qu’un dispositif, trad. de l’italien par M. Rueff, Paris, 2007, p. 32.
  • (7) Ibid, p. 31.
  • (8) Ibid.
  • (9) Ibid.
  • (10 Ibid, p. 33.
  • (11) Ibid.
  • (12) Boris Groys, “The Truth of Art”, e- ux journal, [http://www.e- ux.com/journal/the-truth-of-art/]
  • (13) Boris Groys, “Art Workers: Between Utopia and the Archive”, e- ux journal, 45 [http://www.e- ux.com/journal/art-
  • (14) Boris Groys, “The Truth of Art”, Ibid.