Art and cities

Artists occupy a red light district

By Kris Verdonck, photographer, Antwerp, Belgium

Artists and prostitutes. Throughout history they have a common bond. Think of the inspiration, love and warmth Picasso, Bukowski, Bacon, Tom Waits and many many others found in whorehouses.

So when I found out that the city of Antwerp closed down its red light district, without giving something in return for its owners, its inhabitants and the girls working behind the window, I called some friends-artists. "We're going to occupy the district until the city comes up with a social plan." I gave our plan a catchy name. Bordello.

That was at the end of December last year. Soon other artists and the media found out about it. Apparantly and unwantedly, we gave a lot of people something to think about. Prostitution, sexuality, empty buildings, closed down houses, people. We became unexpectedly a political power. The only thing we didn't have and still don't have is money. The three art-festivals were paid by ourselves, potential sponsors liked our ideas, but didn't dare to have their name on our posters.

There was a hidden agenda behind the closures of the whorehouses: the investment-companies wanted (and still want) to buy these houses, tear them down and erect brand new offices that die every day after officehours. At the Bordello's - in total there were more than threehundred artists involved - we protested in a very subtle way against this agenda. We didn't use any slogan. The fact that there were empty whorehouses where art was exposed, said enough.

The art that was shown was very varied. Film, painting, music, literature, even stand-up comedy. One funny thing I noticed: the photographers and filmmakers avoided images of explicit sexuality. The painters on the other hand ...

Four months, three expositions and a few hundred articles in the press, I finally had a talk with the mayor and the involved cabinets. We got what we demanded: a social plan for the neighbourhood.

Not bad for a photographer who thought that art alone cannot save the world. But I found out that if you assemble enough art and have the media at your side something can change. We've proven that. And now? Well, we'll stay in the red light district, keep on organising things so the political pressure remains.

Our next project is a documentary on the district Kreuzberg in Berlin. While visiting some friends over there, I noticed the same tactics that the city and the investment-companies use as in Antwerp was the case: drive the people out of their houses by any means. Take no prisoners seems to be their adagium. Since I am a big Lou Reed fan, I cannot let this happen.

Kris Verdonck
Kronenburgstraat 84
2000 Antwerp-Belgium

kris @

Poster Bordello, created by Astrid Mentzik

Painted brothel by Dennis Tyfus

Dirk Braeckman photo and guard in brothel

Some atmosphere

Ellen Goovaerts

Ellen Goovaerts - Installation in closed brothel

Installation in brothel

Videoprojection on bed in a brothel by Elke Vandermeerschen

Shot down hare installation in brothel by Anna Fasshauer

Wall in brothel

Alex Jagy, fire performance

More Bordello atmosphere

Sarah's whorechapel

Sarah's wishing well

Vital & Serge Baeken, comic