Art & Design

April 28, 2016

Leo Gabin on the Art of Appropriation

The Belgian art trio talk authorship, social media and stalking

  • Written by Benoît Loiseau

The Belgian trio, Leo Gabin bring a digital approach to the artistic tradition of found objects, appropriating online content into their films, prints, paintings and sculptures. Their obsessive use of amateur footage in recurring patterns creates a social commentary on surveillance culture, discomfort and the notion of ‘publicness’. “Appropriation art is something we were always interested in,” said Leo Gabin, when Amuse caught up with them at Independent Brussels. “The abundance of imagery today makes the process of selection and reuse even more relevant.”

Lieven Deconinck, Gaëtan Begerem and Robin De Vooght became friends at secondary school in the 1990s in their native Ghent, Belgium. They grew up in a pre-internet era; dominated by Hollywood productions, mainstream TV and hip-hop music, which brought about a fascination for American culture, or the way it was portrayed.

Leo Gabin, Girls Room Dance, courtesy of the artists and Elizabeth Dee Gallery 2010

The group started their artistic collaboration in 2000, while attending the local art academy. “We studied graphic design, but we quickly realised that we wanted more freedom,” say Leo Gabin. “We bought a silk-screen printer which we installed in our parents’ attic.” When the internet properly kicked in, the Belgian collective largely moved to the digital sphere – though they only moved out of their attic a couple of years ago. “With social media, we suddenly had access to the daily lives of young Americans, including unglamorous, suburban sceneries,” they explain. But it’s not all about the internet. The group also like to get stuck in at their studio, “We’ll watch material and send links to each other, but we also like to use our hands and make things. We’re interested in transferring the digital into physical forms.”

In their video work girls room dance (2010), the artists investigated what had become a trend on YouTube: young girls filming themselves booty shaking in a domestic backdrop, mostly their bedrooms or parents’ living rooms. The anonymous clips were edited together, creating a compulsive repetition of movements. “The project was pre-smart phones, so you see these girls awkwardly setting up their camera then walking away to position themselves,” Leo Gabin says. “It’s very uncomfortable, but there’s also something quite poetic about it.”

Authorship in art is a controversial topic, which always makes for a good scandal. Only last year, influential Flemish artist Luc Tuymans—who frequently uses photographic imagery as a starting point to his paintings—was found guilty of plagiarism after he’d used a photo of a right-wing Belgian politician published in a local newspaper. The case generated outrage in the artistic community, who largely argued that the work was a parody and completely different from its source. “We don’t want to think about it too much, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to work,” explain Leo Gabin. “We find it interesting to place the material in another context and create a different narrative; it becomes something else. People are so obsessed with sharing and getting more views, our work is about those boundaries, between public and private.”

Although Leo Gabin have spent some time working from New York, they feel more at ease in Ghent. “New York is great but is somehow too close to our source of inspiration. We like to keep a little bit of distance!” And with a prolific local art scene and increased international interest, now seems a good time to hang around Belgium, “Independent is a good thing for Brussels and the art world in general. It’s not a traditional fair, it’s more open, with less galleries – it’s easier to digest.”

Leo Gabin, A Sedan Leaving the PETCO Parking Lot, 2016, Lacquer and acrylic on aluminum

At Independent Brussels, the Belgian edition of the edgy New York fair, Leo Gabin revisited Exit/Entry, an installation jointly displayed by Elizabeth Dee and Peres Projects and consisting of a film as a central element, in dialogue with four new large prints on aluminium. While browsing YouTube, the artists came across Bonnie, an American woman whose prolific portfolio of self-produced video clips documents her journey of being a victim of gang stalking, a form of organised community surveillance. “We found her material interesting and decided to approach her,” explain the Belgian collective. “She is very introverted and didn’t want to meet us but she agreed to send us some recordings to tell her story.”

It starts in Newburgh, New York, when a fireman moved in next door to Bonnie and started throwing leaves in her front yard. The relationship quickly soured and the neighbours grew increasingly hostile, leading Bonnie to feel bullied. The film Exit/Entry builds up an ambiguous narrative in which Bonnie obsessively documents everything and everyone around her to demonstrate that she is being gang stalked. A fascinating element of the footage is the prevalence of the colour red – cars, trucks, objects, lights, clothes – bearing symbolic references to the fireman and the nature of his intentions, as experienced by the protagonist. “The reason why she focuses on red things is open to interpretation,” say Leo Gabin. “What was interesting for us is that Bonnie is never on camera, contrarily to our other projects, where people are their own subjects. With Bonnie, you don’t see her – she is surveilling the surveiller.”

Leo Gabin portrait, courtesy of the artists

Leo Gabin Video Retrospective runs from 30 June – 9 July at Lima Independiente Festival, Internacional de Cine, Lima, Peru


Leo Gabin, Girls Room Dance, courtesy of the artists and Elizabeth Dee Gallery 2010
Leo Gabin, A Sedan Leaving the PETCO Parking Lot, 2016, Lacquer and acrylic on aluminum
Leo Gabin portrait, courtesy of the artists


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