Bart Lodewijks - New Neighbours Part 1 (English)

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Part 1


Bart Lodewijks New Neighbours

Bart Lodewijks New Neighbours Chalk drawings in and around a new prison in Brussels Part 1

Rising up on a site that was farmland not long ago is the newest and most humane prison in Belgium. I have been granted the honour of making chalk drawings in this secluded world. But since there are as yet no inmates, I descend upon the street fronting the prison first. The houses are pressed up against the prison wall, and their inhabitants are not all equally eager to receive their new neighbours. I do one of the first drawings along Witloofstraat on what is popularly known as a ‘pig’s back’ in Flemish; it’s an elongated, semi-circular concrete slab that acts as a wheel stop and sticks up some six inches above a new parking space.


Witloofstraat Seven cranes hover over the prison construction site. Their long necks move concrete slabs through the air as if they were feathers. Adjacent to the site is a messy plain about the size of five football pitches, flattened under construction rubble and gravel. Next to that lies a giant pool of water, reflecting the grey sky on this chilly late November day. The reclaimed parts of the plain contain a hundred or so cars parked head to tail, with construction workers coming and going in their white hard hats. You can hear hammering and knocking sounds coming from the building site and the frequent beeping of the slowmoving construction vehicles. I too am moving slowly. My first meeting with the ‘director’ of the prison has just been postponed an hour. We have not officially met yet, except for emailing back and forth, and technically he’s the director’s advisor, but because he’s so high in the pecking order and my only contact, I consider him to be the boss. I’ve been invited to do a mural with blackboard chalk in a cell block in the newly built prison, an invitation that didn’t come from him personally but from a select group of which he is a member. For my part, I’ve already indicated that I don’t want to start on the drawing until there are prisoners residing in the facility; an empty prison holds almost no meaning for me. I think drawing among the inmates would be much more inspiring than drawing amidst a crew of construction workers going about their business. A full prison must almost certainly be overflowing with stories. What effect might watching me draw have on the inmates? I can’t imagine it would make them worse people… But let me not get ahead of myself. In just under an hour I have my meeting with the director in one of the white containers stacked in a long row along the edge of the building site for office space. You reach them via a system of aluminium footbridges


and ladders and wooden duckboards that help prevent the workers’ feet from getting wet. Between the wall of containers and the worksite is a narrow street. So, to kill the time, I decide to check it out, curious about who might live there. The wind is blowing through a row of poplars along an earth embankment, and from above the clouds I hear the incessant roar of planes landing at and taking off from Zaventem Airport, the smelly armpit of Brussels. I have the usual box of chalk in my rucksack and am holding a long, yellow spirit level that serves as my ruler. Not that I had planned to lay down the first lines of chalk today. I’m not even allowed to enter the worksite yet in my artistic capacity; that would only be permitted in a hard hat and I don’t have one. Plus, I don’t know which cell block I will be assigned. It’s just that I always carry chalk and a level with me, out of habit; they give me the appearance of a workman. A group of construction workers is walking ahead of me; they’ve taken their hard hats off. Spirit level in hand, I amble behind them. What an honour it is to have been chosen to make a mural in a prison! What will it be like to move among the convicts? I imagine myself standing in line for dinner like one of them and wondering whether to nick something. As I casually ladle my soup into a bowl ‒ the guards don’t suspect a thing ‒ the prisoners glare at me with looks that could kill, making me feel completely out of place. They smuggle in tobacco and plot elaborate escapes and I don’t even have the courage to steal a spoon. How long will I last in there? At the end of the building site, the street is set off with a barrier gate. Pedestrians can get around the barricade easily, but any drivers coming from the street side need to turn around. This is where the neighbourhood starts: terrace houses from the nineteen eighties, a detached bungalow, an abandoned building from the early


twentieth century, a warehouse under construction and a cluttered industrial building. People’s cars are parked in their front gardens. In front of a triplex, a roadman is driving concrete pavers with brute force into a driveway levelled out with yellow sand. A rotund man leans nearby on a shovel, checking that the pavers are straight. ‘Witloofstraat,’ I read on the street sign. It’s no more than half a mile long. Between two detached homes and a small power station is a fallow plot of land set off with fence posts. The poles bear laminated signs indicating that this is a water catchment area. A tough-looking girl of about twelve, with freckles and dark-blonde hair flapping in the wind, passes by carrying a much-tooheavy school bag and shouts out a greeting. Farther down the street, a neatly clipped boxwood hedge prevents snoopers from peering into the garden of a renovated farm-style home, which looks like the fanciest property on the street. The garage is completely consumed by a shiny SUV. Witloofstraat ends at Haachtsesteenweg, which runs between Brussels and Aarschot. I see a column of cars with dark-tinted windows speed by, flanked by police motorcycles with their lights flashing and sirens blaring. It’s probably some important military officer, diplomat or prime minister racing to the political and administrative headquarters of NATO just a mile up the road to address the escalating tensions in Ukraine. I had passed this North Atlantic nerve centre on my way here, a hermetically sealed complex which looks a bit like the scaled armour of a pangolin. When I stopped to take a photo of the building, a security guard sent me away, telling me I had better skedaddle because he wasn’t in the mood to report me. I walk back to Witloofstraat. Up ahead near the barrier gate, I see the young girl who had greeted me so amicably earlier talking to the roadmen. She then goes into one of the triplexes. I think about how nice it must be to grow up here because of the lack of traffic on the street; the barrier gate has turned Witloofstraat into a


dead-end road. The water catchment area is overgrown with weeds and abuts a young birch grove. There is a dirt path that leads to the middle of it, then ends abruptly. The land here is boggy. I notice a dilapidated shed built of concrete slabs, with a mouldered framework on top that once held the roof tiles in place. Next to it, I see a plump orange tomcat slinking out of a sweet, well-built wooden mini house complete with cat door, a safe little crate nicely finished off with tarpaulin, now covered in a thin layer of moss. The house even has an extension, like a mini garage for a cat. That part of the building is completely consumed by a porcelain bowl with some kitty kibble floating in a layer of milk. The living quarters are furnished with a velvet cushion covered in orange cat hair. And it all sits high and dry on a perfectly sized wooden pallet. If it weren’t elevated like that, it would have quickly become uninhabitable due to the moisture and mould. Judging from the food left in the dish, this little fatty gets plenty to eat. He’s almost certainly given up the mouse hunt. I call out, ‘Here kitty, kitty,’ but he is no people pleaser and just peers at me hostilely from behind a thin birch. It makes me feel shunned, unwelcome in his domain. And, indeed, what am I doing here? I turn my eyes nervously towards the shed and wonder whether the concrete sheeting might be worth drawing on in chalk. But why would I draw something in such a desolate location? A fugitive hiding in that shed could stay there as long as they needed until the coast was clear, I think to myself. I personally wouldn’t be caught dead here, but it would make a good hideout: easy to reach, well hidden in the overgrowth and patrolled by a furry companion. The shed is an extension of the prison that no one knows about. There’s something to be said for drawing on the shed; it’s a world that exists out of view, just like the prison. But there’s not much to be gained from drawing


on the cat house. For one thing, chalk doesn’t adhere to plastic, and the presence of the stoical mutton chops puts a damper on things. ‘Kitty, kitty,’ I try once again, crouching down, but it’s like water off a duck’s back. I walk away in disillusionment, and when I turn around I see him trudging back to his dwelling. What to call his shelter? A cat house? The caretakers quarters? A warder’s house? It’s the first place in the whole surroundings that caught my eye. The orange sourpuss inspects his abode with an almost human suspiciousness to see if I’ve taken anything; to make sure the ceramic food bowl – his greatest possession, his SUV – is still in the garage; to check whether any of the milk-softened kibble is missing. Or did he expect me to leave him a treat? Who is it that feeds him anyway?

In the bushes I find a well-kept cat house. The annex is dominated by a half-full food bowl.


Half an hour has passed and several more feet of pavers have been laid on the driveway. Upon seeing my spirit level, the fat guy throws me a look of acknowledgement. Is he winking at me? Inviting a chat? What isn’t this level good for? There’s always someone around who comments on it. It befell me last week that this rude guy grabbed my level and stuck it between his legs like a penis. Then he hopped around with it acting all horny, to the great amusement of his mates and some of the bystanders. I didn’t know where to turn my eyes; that wouldn’t have occurred to me in a million years. I walk up to the fat fellow and ask, ‘Could you guys use a spirit level?’ The person laying the pavers continues slogging away. ‘The ground is already level,’ he answers, waving aside my offer. ‘This is a lovely place to live, nice and quiet,’ I continue. ‘It used to be quiet, but not anymore. I was born and raised here. I was a chicory farmer.’ I look at him in astonishment. It seems like a crazy coincidence that the first random person I speak to was employed in the business of growing the very item for which the street is named, but I do have a nose for these things. ‘Do you still live here?’ I ask with interest. ‘No, I moved to De Panne, but I own these terrace houses,’ he says, gesturing to the triplex. ‘There’s too much noise here from the aeroplanes. Years ago I visited a friend in De Panne and noticed how accustomed I had become to the noise. That’s when I thought: it’s time to move.’ ‘I don’t think it’s that bad; I find it fairly peaceful here,’ I contradict him. ‘It depends on the wind direction,’ he responds. ‘Sometimes the planes fly overhead with a deafening roar, so low you can see the passengers inside. This used to be a through road. But since it has been blocked with that barrier gate, the cars and lorries have to turn around in my driveway. It’s less busy, but with all that manoeuvring back and forth, they’re destroying everything. That’s why I’m paving it all over.’ ‘Smart,’ I say. He looks dubious. ‘I have to pay for it all myself, pal,’ he answers. I bite my tongue and regret not having come


to that conclusion myself. Reinforcing a driveway must cost loads of money; it’s not something you do on a lark. ‘How do you feel about the prison coming?’ I ask. ‘It’s always the same,’ he bemoans. ‘No one asked our opinion about it, but now we are left to deal with the consequences. Our cellars are flooded. There’s concrete rot in the foundations. And I’ll give you three guesses why that is.’ I shrug my shoulders and say, ‘No idea.’ He leans heavily on the shovel. ‘This terrain is extremely marshy, which you will have noticed when you disappeared into that row of birches,’ he explains. ‘There are a lot of underground water springs. The prison is basically a gigantic concrete slab pressing down on the water table. So, the water seeps into our cellars. We’ve all gotten a free swimming pool under our house.’ A cynical smile forms on his face. ‘And the water brings the vermin, right? Not far from here you have the Keelbeek, “Throat Stream.” Appropriate name, that. This prison is being rammed down our throats. And once it opens, there goes your peace and quiet. This then becomes a busy, heavily guarded street,’ he predicts. I empathize with how the street’s inhabitants will have to watch as prisoners, guards and prison staff, and visitors and prosecutors, all come and go, while never getting to know them. ‘They sent some inspectors out who concluded that the cellars should have been modified thirty years ago. In other words, we can kiss any compensation goodbye and have to pay for all the damage ourselves, when it’s all because of the prison being built.’ I don’t even know how to respond. ‘That’s terrible,’ I say. But he’s not done yet. ‘Last week the inspectors returned to take sound measurements – not for us, mind you, but for the comfort of the convicts. It’s not a prison they’re building over there, but a hotel, a luxury resort. It’s mind-boggling. And they don’t give us, who have done nothing wrong, a second thought. What about you, are you also here to perform measurements?’ he grills me, looking hostilely at my spirit level. ‘No, no,’ I blurt out.


‘I have a meeting soon with the prison director about an artwork, a chalk mural that I’m going to do on the inside.’ ‘Well, tell mister director that he shouldn’t be thinking so much about the convicts’ well-being but about ours,’ he concludes. The other roadman joins us. His face is flushed red from the hard work and beads of sweat drip down from his sandy, short-cropped hair, stinging his eyes. ‘Fred,’ he says, by way of introduction. ‘Nice to meet you. I’m Bart,’ I reply, shaking his hand. ‘I’m Jean-Pierre, by the way,’ the big bloke tells me. ‘Is something wrong?’ Fred asks, clearly unnerved by my presence. ‘Everything’s fine, Fred. This gentleman is affiliated with the prison. He’s an artist who draws with chalk. Right? He’s going to set some things straight over there with his spirit level,’ Jean-Pierre quips, waving towards the prison with his hand. Fred smiles awkwardly, not in the least reassured, and prepares to get back to work on the driveway. It looks like he could use some help. What if I laid out a few reference lines with chalk on the parking space? The girl who greeted me earlier suddenly comes charging towards him. ‘Hey, Laurence. Not now,’ Fred says, catching her. ‘Ay, sweetie, careful or I’ll get a crick in my back.’ ‘Do you live here too?’ I ask her. ‘Yeah, and he’s my stepfather,’ she replies with a French accent, wrapping her arms lovingly around him. ‘Don’t you have homework?’ he asks. ‘She’s in Year 7,’ he tells me. ‘Is it fun to live here?’ I ask her. ‘Yeah, really fun,’ she beams. ‘There are a lot of animals and we play outside a lot.’ ‘Are you the one taking care of the orange cat in the woods?’ I guess. ‘Yeah, papa built a little house for him, but the cat doesn’t have a name. We still have to come up with one,’ she says sensibly. ‘Do you think the cat would approve if I drew on his house with chalk?’ I ask hesitantly. ‘I think so,’ she replies. ‘Would you be willing to ask him?’ I say quickly. Jean-Pierre and Fred shoot me a questioning glance, but she skips off towards the birch grove without giving it a second thought. ‘I’ll be right back,’ I say to the two men and follow after her. 10

The tomcat is lying on the cushion in its living room and stretches out lazily towards Laurence. She squats down, whispers something in his ear and waits patiently. He keeps lying on his plush throne, quasi-uninterested. ‘And...?’ I ask impatiently. She says something to him a bit louder, almost commandingly, and he suddenly twitches his whiskers. ‘He says it’s okay,’ she announces, turning to face me with a smile. Relieved that it has been arranged so easily, I plop down beside the two of them, though the creature still wants little to do with me, and I don’t dare try to pet him, scared he’ll lash out. I leave the chalk in my bag. It wouldn’t stick to the tarpaulin anyway, even though the plastic is weathered enough to give it a try. But I don’t have time for try-outs, I have to head to the director – and soon. I scramble hastily to my feet. ‘Maybe it’s better for me not to start on the drawing right away and give the cat some time to get used to me,’ I say by way of excuse. ‘Yeah, that’s better,’ she agrees. ‘He would scratch me in the beginning.’ ‘What do you think about the prison being built?’ I ask her once we get back to Fred and Jean-Pierre. ‘It’s cool but also a bit scary,’ she replies. ‘Scary?’ I repeat. ‘If the convicts escape and try to flee through the street… I mean, my bedroom is on the ground floor, and I leave the window open a crack at night when I sleep to get fresh air. The convicts could come right in. That’s kind of scary,’ she explains. I nod in understanding. A shiver runs down my spine at the thought of the poplars casting man-size shadows on her childhood wallpaper at night. ‘Sweetie,’ Fred says, ‘if they escape out of the jail, there’s no way they would come through our street. That’s the dumbest thing they could do. They’re going to get as far away as possible as fast as possible, to Thailand or Alanya, where we went on our last holiday. That’s where they’ll head, to relax on the beach. Not here. Witloofstraat is the safest place in the world.’ ‘I have to leave,’ I apologize. ‘Oh, wait a second,’ Fred says, detaining me. He rubs the palm of his hand


nervously. His head is even redder now. ‘I’d like to get into the prison. I mean, not, uhm... If they’re looking for people there, please let me know. I have restaurant experience. Right now, I’m working for a packet delivery service, but I’d rather work in the prison.’ The late-afternoon sun is shining through the row of poplars as I pass back through the barrier gate. A job in the prison kitchen as compensation for a flooded cellar may sound bizarre, but it’s not all that crazy. It’s easier to swallow our suffering if it leads to work. The fact that Fred built such a nice shelter for the tomcat does him credit. Someone who builds a platform for a cat house in the wettest spot of the street when their own cellar is a soggy mess is a good person. I’m grateful to Laurence for wrangling the cat’s permission for me, though I have to admit I’m not entirely confident. The orange tamarin may well have indicated his acquiescence with his whiskers, but it remains to be seen how fast that holds upon a second encounter. And I’m happy to have made contact with the neighbours. Given a chance, I certainly plan to do right by the people living on Witloofstraat. Who knows? Maybe I’ll be able to get Fred a job. I’ll pitch the idea to the director. I arrive at the white containers with all these good intentions racing through my head, grateful the meeting was postponed an hour. ——— Via an improvised staircase I climb up to the container unit where the meeting is to be held. Inside, I see five people huddled over a topographical map spread out on the table. The stuffy smell of work jackets and freshly brewed coffee hangs in the air. ‘Ah, the artist. Take a seat. Coffee?’ says one of the men cheerfully. He takes off his white hard hat and introduces himself as Henk. The other four remain bent over the map; he introduces them as his colleagues.


Henk is the exact opposite of a stiff manager in a suit. He’s a sandy-haired fellow of about my age, midway through life, someone who knows what’s up and whose authority I instantly accept. He is calm and kind, almost certainly a take-charge guy who is also a good listener. It’s as if we’ve know each other for years and need few words to communicate. He pushes up his sleeves and picks at his arms. ‘I was thinking the drawing could go in the Ocean,’ he says to get the ball rolling. ‘Ocean?’ I say in surprise, roused from my musings. ‘We’ve adopted gentler names for the housing blocks, removed the harshness from prison speak. It makes the environment and interactions more humane. The Ocean is the name for Block 9. It’s a word that has positive associations for both the incarcerated individuals and the guards. We don’t call the units “cells” anymore but “rooms.” And it’s been shown to work,’ he assures me. I keep to myself the fact that to me, the ocean has always been a fairly inhospitable environment, unsuited for humans, a fathomless body of water with tempestuous waves and deep-sea monsters. ‘The Ocean will be the first block to go into operation but that won’t be for a year,’ he continues. A year’s wait; that’s a long time, I think to myself. ‘I’ve been given to understand that you would like to do your drawing with the prisoners here, so you can’t start yet,’ he further explains. We are seated across from one another with the topographical map between us. ‘I need time to think about what the drawing is going to look like,’ I say. ‘Oh, see, that works out well then,’ he proceeds, ironing out the creases in the map with his hand as if calming the oceans. His colleagues leave the room. ‘This is where your drawing will go, in the common room of the Ocean. But we could also put it in the Mountain House,’ he hastens to add. ‘See: here.’ He points with a pen to a block fittingly coloured pine green. The idea of inmates viewing my drawing from an imaginary sea or mountain gives me a thrill. The breaking of waves on a shell beach,


the rustling of the treetops, the sweet scent of resin, the shiny pine cones, the floating pollen… I take a deep breath. The gentler language is working. But maybe the inmates have so much to worry about that beauty actually pains them. Maybe they will have no regard for my chalk lines. Still, the intention I imbue the drawing with could have an unconscious effect on them, and perhaps that could provide them some consolation over time. ‘Is five weeks long enough?’ he asks. ‘I can get it done in five weeks,’ I answer, thinking to myself that I’ll have to work like the devil. His words feel like a court sentence I need to learn to live with. It dawns on me that I am soliciting for a form of detention. He studies me attentively. ‘The walls in the prison are treated with a chemical substance that nothing sticks to, including chalk,’ he continues. I think of the cat house that nothing would stick to and which I rejected as a drawing location for that very reason. If nothing adheres to the prison walls, then maybe I’ll have to resort to the ceiling. Unless the ceiling is also treated with the stuff. Drawing on ceilings is a hellish job, one that takes its toll on life and limb. Every time I’ve drawn on a ceiling I was completely knackered afterwards, but the results were always worth it. I look at him with some concern. Although I’m not looking forward to a grinding slog, it seems cowardly to spare myself right off the bat. My thoughts turn to the brute force with which Fred bashed the concrete pavers into the ground. Fred is the one in a tough position, unable to get the kind of work he wants. Meanwhile, I get to decide for myself what and where I draw, in the ocean or the mountains. ‘Do you already have an idea of what kind of drawing you’re going to make?’ asks Henk, interrupting my thoughts. ‘Yes,’ I reply shortly and let out an unintentional sigh. Maybe I’d be able to draw on the street first and start in the prison after that. The street and the prison are interlinked whether they like it or not. It sounds plausible. I push up my sleeves and pick nervously at my arms, just like Henk


did at the start of our conversation. ‘I never know exactly what I’m going to draw on a wall ahead of time,’ I hear myself say, then confide, ‘The excitement that precedes a drawing is too great for that.’ Right at that moment his cell phone rings. As I wait for him to finish his phone conversation, a new fear strikes me. What if I’m not allowed to take my ladder and the spirit level inside the prison? Has anyone thought about that? The chalk sticks shouldn’t present a problem − it’s hard to imagine a more innocent drawing material – but a level can serve many other purposes. It could be used as a crowbar, or a weapon. Someone who’s been cornered or is feeling violent might grab the level from me and start whacking it around. Surely the guards won’t allow such a tempting object within reach of the prisoners… And it would be pretty hard for me to smuggle in a four-foot spirit level, let alone something as conspicuous as a ladder. It seems to me the most honourable thing to do is to take the prison beast on with chalk alone. And I will concede that lugging the ladder and the level around everywhere I go is getting a bit old. In point of fact, I’ve been holding on to the level for too long now. The time has come to throw off the shackles and draw unarmed, to chalk as chalking was intended. Freedom beckons from behind the bars, on the other side of the wall; there, in the jail, in the clink, imprisoned myself, I will draw freehand. ‘Can I take my spirit level and ladder inside with me?’ I ask Henk as soon as his phone call is over. ‘No problem,’ comes the answer from the other side of the table. I plant my elbows on the shiny Formica. You’re joking, I want to say. Are there to be no obstacles thrown in my way? But I keep mum and instead return to the matter at hand: ‘I was just talking to one of the locals and he contends that the prison is some kind of hotel, a luxury resort.’ ‘We will have twelve hundred incarcerated individuals and seven hundred staff. That makes us the largest prison in the country, or the best-guarded resort


for miles around,’ he tells me with a sense of humour. Twelve hundred prisoners: that’s a dizzying number. I shift and fidget in my chair. How many people might live on Witloofstraat? Fifty, sixty, eighty? They’re getting over a thousand new neighbours, but will they ever actually see those people? Henk wants to know what the drawing will look like. ‘The people on Witloofstraat feel unseen,’ I say, evading his question. ‘With the construction of the prison, their cellars have flooded.’ Henk frowns and asks, ‘What exactly does that have to do with drawing?’ ‘As long as I can’t start in the prison, I’d like to draw along Witloofstraat,’ I throw out. ‘A year should be enough time to finish. One of the residents has already given their permission.’ I omit the part about the permission coming from a forest dweller, pried out of him by a twelve-yearold girl. ‘I’d like to concentrate on the residential part of the street,’ I continue, ‘the section off Haachtsesteenweg that ends at your barrier gate. Once the prisoners move in, I’ll continue on your side of the gate.’ My thoughts are racing. If I want to help Fred get a job, now is my chance. ‘I need to set something straight,’ I continue, with some gravity. ‘One of the local residents would like to come work in the prison. He has restaurant experience. Could you guys use someone like that, maybe in the kitchen?’ ‘He can certainly apply,’ Henk responds. ‘We have a procedure for that: it’s all on our website. I think it’s a noble plan to draw on the street; you have my blessing. But are you sure? You’re letting yourself in for a whole lot of extra work.’ ‘I find the name of the street funny,’ I mention as we are taking our leave. ‘How’s that?’ he asks. ‘Growing up, witloof chicory was served at our house with a sauce of comforting words: “White love,” my mother would say.’ ‘That is funny,’ he laughs. ‘This has historically been a marshy region, with many ground springs, which is good for growing chicory. In order to build the prison here, the farmland, pastureland and patches of forest


were reclaimed and levelled out. That business with the swimming pools under the houses, the battle against the water, that’s an age-old problem.’ This densely veined land of water weeps, I think to myself as I walk back into the street. With a box of chalk in my hands and a spirit level under my arm, I plan to set things straight.

When I get back to Witloofstraat, the driveway is paved and Fred and Laurence are gone. Only the overseer, Jean-Pierre, is still hanging around. ‘How was your meeting with the director?’ he inquires. ‘I repeated your words,’ I reply. He looks at me in surprise. ‘You said I should set something straight and I did.’ ‘And?’ he asks. ‘Fred will need to follow the application procedure,’ I say.


Jean-Pierre holds forth on his former work as a chicory farmer and shows me a photo of an old-fashioned chicory boiler that now adorns his front garden in De Panne. It’s a red metal drum held up by a stovepipe. The boiler looks comically a little like Jean-Pierre. I suppress my laughter and continue listening to his explanation. ‘The stovepipe was connected to a system of pipes and buried in the ground. This circulated warm water through the rows of chicory. Chicory is grown underground or in a greenhouse; it cannot be exposed to daylight. If you grow it above the ground, it gets sunlight and becomes escarole.’ I decide to gently change the subject. ‘Is it okay if I do a chalk drawing on this house? It’s kind of part of laying the new driveway, otherwise it becomes escarole,’ I say, breaking off his chicory lecture. The allusion makes no sense but he smiles anyway. I go on, ‘Chalk drawings might be considered a small part of the work taking place in the street.’ I’m worried for a minute I’ve taken things too far, but then he says, ‘If you make something that looks nice then it’s part of that, yeah. How could I be against that? Escarole, ha ha, that’s a good one. Shouldn’t you be drawing in the dark? In my days, chicory was a luxury product. The average household only ate it about three times a year. But after the 1960s, the common man started enjoying it more.’


I draw a horizontal rectangle waist-high on a beige stuccoed wall sandwiched between two sets of windows. The sand that has just been strewn over the pavers crunches under my feet.


After being kept away for a week due to dismal weather, I head over to the triplex to examine whether the drawing on the facade has survived the downpour. I’m reassured to see that the wind and the rain have inflicted little damage, except for aerosolizing the chalk somewhat. Without my being fully conscious of it, I tend to choose places for drawing that are on the dry side and in the lee of a building, out of the wind. The rain can’t touch them. Twenty-three years of experience with chalk has driven me to quarters where the rain is sidelined, even though I settle upon a location just as blithely as ever. Almost recklessly, I start drawing at about the height of the front door canopy, on what is in my estimation the driest side of the house.


Gilberte is surprised to see the chalk drawing on her front wall. ‘I saw you talking to Jean-Pierre and assumed you were working together,’ she says. ‘But is that the case?’ ‘Jean-Pierre and I are in cahoots; we understand one another,’ I say. A while later she offers me a steaming cup of coffee. ‘Would you mind not backing up too much when you’re parking the lorry so that I have enough space for drawing?’ I ask Fred that evening as he’s pulling into the new parking space in his camion.


‘Is that allowed?’ Fred asks when he notices the drawing next to his front door. ‘Jean-Pierre said it was okay and your neighbour just served me a cup of coffee, but you have the deciding vote,’ I reply. ‘Doesn’t matter to me,’ he says. ‘I get up at four in the morning and never know what time I’ll be home. I simply have too much work to bother.’ ‘The lights in the prison burn all night long,’ Gilberte says. ‘It’s so wasteful. I can’t understand it. We have to conserve energy and they’ve got all the lights on like it’s no big deal.’ ‘I think they already have prisoners staying on our side of the building,’ Fred says. ‘But when they go to bed, it must be lights out, just like with us, right?’ Gilberte asks. He looks at her doubtfully. ‘Do they sleep with the lights on, Fred? Or can you hear them sleeping or something?’ she asks. ‘Dreams,’ he says, ‘nightmares, those kinds of sounds. I hear them early in the morning. By keeping the lights on, they try to keep the nightmares at bay.’


Gilberte comes by and notices that more and more of the house is disappearing under a layer of chalk. ‘I wish you all the best, but I’m not quite sure what I’m supposed to think,’ she says to me.



Fred has brought Gilberte a souvenir from Alanya in Turkey, where he holidayed with his family last month. It’s a decorative plate with a wooden stand that can be placed on a cupboard or table. I draw chalk lines on one of the pig’s backs on the driveway. It’s like a gift for the neighbourhood, a souvenir in honour of the new driveway. ‘For you,’ I say to Gilberte.



‘Looks like a sliced loaf of bread,’ says Laurence, who’s been following the drawing process intently.


‘How’s it going with the cat in the woods?’ I ask Laurence. ‘Not so great,’ she says with a pout. ‘He scratched me in the face again.’ Only now do I see the scratch on her cheek. ‘Be careful,’ I say. I notice some scratches on the palm of her hand as well, but those could never have come from a cat. ‘What is that?’ I ask, pointing to her hand. ‘That’s for school,’ she replies. ‘Crib sheet?’ ‘No, absolutely not. They’re characters. Our teacher is Chinese and she’s teaching us some of the characters.’ I decide to draw on two concrete letter boxes in the style of the sliced bread. ‘They remind me of the good times, when chicory was still being grown here,’ Gilberte says. ‘Those letter boxes aren’t being used anymore, but removing them would take some doing.’




When Fred gets home from work, he parks the lorry in such a way as to leave enough room for me. ‘Do you think the drawing’s nice?’ I ask. ‘Nice… not exactly. Parts of it have faded in the rain and I don’t get what it represents. You get it, but we don’t,’ is how he sums up his discomfort. ‘Did you apply for a job at the prison?’ I ask. ‘The kitchen is fully staffed and now I’m applying as a guard. Examination on Monday. But the test is really difficult. It’s a whole lot of circles and stripes you have to put together on paper,’ he replies. ‘Not my thing at all and it has nothing to do with keeping guard.’



Drawing is a form of standing still, except for the big strokes, like swipes, I make with my drawing arm over and over again. Standing still makes me dependable. The residents know where to find me. I’m never far away.


Every now and then the stench of kerosine settles upon the street from Zaventem Airport. Military transport aircrafts fly low overhead twice a day. ‘It’s all for the war in Ukraine,’ says Fred. ‘I don’t have any views on the subject.’ ‘And… how did the application go?’ I ask, curious to hear how he did. ‘It didn’t work out,’ he says, turning red. ‘I got sick in there. They could see what kind of shape I was in.’ Coughing, he continues, ‘I studied three weeks for that. That test is worthless, it works differently. It’s a shame, though. It would’ve been so easy to work so close from home; for them, too.’


‘Papa isn’t working as a parcel delivery man anymore,’ Laurence says. ‘He’s looking for another job, but that’s not so easy.’ Then she adds, ‘Maybe you should make the entire house white all at once; that’s less work than doing a bit here and a bit there.’


The paint on the facade of the dilapidated building at the end of the street is peeling. The windows have been bricked up with reddish masonry blocks. It’s a shame the owner let it reach this state. I draw long, even chalk lines on the lowest bricked-up window.


The person living across from the ruin, in a nicely renovated farm-style house known as a ‘fermette,’ an imitation of the farmhouses that once populated this region, looks disapprovingly at me as he cleans his SUV. I’m guessing he fears that I have now set my sights on his house.


To get a good look at my drawing, I walk across the street towards the fermette. The man backs away and gets ready to close his garage door. ‘You know that orange tomcat?’ I ask in passing. ‘Yes,’ he says, ‘we know it. Why?’ ‘I was wondering who takes care of it,’ I reply. ‘Some girl from the neighbourhood,’ he says. ‘We had the animal for a while as a kitten in our house, but it had fleas and eventually went off to live on its own.’


‘That house you’re drawing on, it’s inhabited,’ he says, making a dirty face. ‘It’s the most disgusting, most densely populated bit of land on the street. When it’s quiet, you can hear them.’ In the silence, I hear thousands of gnawers feasting on the derelict house. The large, plump tomcat lives next door but he won’t even look at me. Despite his presence, I start drawing on the concrete shed next to the hovel he looks out onto.


Laurence saunters up with her heavy school bag. ‘I’m in a great class, but I still haven’t gotten all of my textbooks. I have to hurry home to tell them about school. Your car’s indicators are still on, by the way,’ she says. It’s amazing how perceptive she is. ‘Are you still feeding the orange tomcat?’ I ask in haste. ‘Not every day anymore, but I usually do,’ she says. ‘He’s in a bad mood,’ I say. ‘Maybe he needs you.’


The owner of the fermette is sweeping out the gullies. ‘People throw away so much stuff,’ he grumbles. ‘All that rubbish attracts vermin. They should install some of those rubbish baskets. Then people could throw their refuse in there.’


The border between the Brussels-Capital Region and the Flemish Region runs along the street’s longitudinal axis.

Free fibre optic is being installed for residents on the Flemish side of the street. ‘Since the other side of the street is part of the Brussels Region, they have to keep using the old network,’ says the guy from the fermette smugly.



A well-groomed, if unshaven, man in his seventies walks down the street with a despairing tread. I’ve seen him walking by like that before. ‘Do you live here?’ I ask. And then, since he seems to not have fully understood me, I repeat my question in French. ‘I live next to the house without a roof,’ he answers in Dutch, pointing towards the only bungalow on the street. ‘You can pronounce my name in both French and Dutch, but I don’t make any money off it,’ he says. ‘And you?’ ‘I’m working on an artwork,’ I say. ‘No, that’s not true,’ he asserts. ‘They’re going to build a prison here. They don’t plan very well. Yesterday there was a lorry that had to turn around, you see. The ground is soft, so with a heavy load like that you get landslides. I’m ready to believe they’ve arranged everything tip top on the inside, but not for the outside. They’ve neglected everything surrounding the prison. I’m sure they’ll keep the men apart on the inside, but they haven’t thought about the exterior. There are three walls that they will never be able to finish in time.’ Our conversation is interrupted by the low-flying air traffic of Zaventem. When the silence returns, he has difficulty picking up the thread of the conversation. ‘It’s a disease,’ he bemoans and points to his head. ‘Forgot what disease is called.’ ‘Doesn’t matter,’ I say, and ask, ‘How long have you lived here?’ He thinks long and hard and shrugs his shoulders. ‘Sounds like quite a while,’ I say. ‘That’s right. It’s a real long time; I think I’ve lost track of how long. I’m creating something beautiful, but there’s no erasing reality,’ he muses and continues on his way.


Jean-Pierre points out a narrow path behind Fred’s house. It leads to a chicken run and kitchen garden. ‘There used to be a whole network of paths here, but nothing’s left of it,’ he sighs.



As I’m drawing on the other end of the street, past the prison, along the only section where the cobblestones have not been covered in asphalt, a happy young man in a yellow T-shirt passes by. He’s innocently bouncing a metallic gold ball on his foot. When I return to the inhabited part of the street, Laurence comes up to me. ‘Have you seen anyone with a gold ball?’ she asks. ‘Some man just picked up our football off the street and stole it.’ ‘I saw him,’ I say. ‘We have to catch him and get the ball back,’ she declares. ‘He looked like someone who was just happy he found a ball,’ I say in defence of the lad. ‘He wasn’t making off with it like a thief.’ But she protests, ‘The ball was on the pavement; he just took it; it’s a good ball; I mean, you’d ask yourself first who the ball belongs to, wouldn’t you?’ ‘I’ll enquire about it in the prison,’ I reassure here. ‘Criminals tend to work in networks and they all know each other. Wouldn’t surprise me if the ball turns up.’


The drawing frames the brown, knobbly stems of a vine. ‘It would look better if you removed the dead branch,’ Laurence advises. ‘That’s how you could make it beautiful.’


Instead of following her advice, I give her a piece of chalk. She immediately starts drawing on the road. From up on my ladder I can see how she becomes completely absorbed in it. The purity with which she draws is moving. It’s unfortunate that the arrival of the convicts frightens her. ‘The police vans are filled with actors,’ Laurence shares with me. ‘They’re holding a general rehearsal in preparation for the arrival of the real convicts. Kind of a shame, though, that the police officers aren’t real either, but actors. Because I want to be a police officer when I grow up.’ She draws the names of her classmates on the road in chalk, wreathed in floral patterns. ‘The convicts in the police van weren’t actors after all, but real,’ she exclaims with a knowing air.


Next to the house with the dead vine stems is a man from Portugal named Lino.


‘My wife wonders whether what you are doing is art. I told her that you are drawing lines and thus honouring my name. That’s right, isn’t it?’ he asks. ‘I practice the art of the line in its purest form,’ I say in response.



‘I’m happy about the prison. Anything’s better than an emporium or recycling centre or an incinerator,’ says Lino, who works in construction. When I mention that Fred is looking for work as a guard, Lino is immediately interested in doing handyman work for the prison.


A Turkish gentleman named Avci often comes to talk with Lino. The two get along very well. Avci’s son is in his last year of secondary school and wants to study dentistry, and his daughter is a law student doing an internship in Bologna. Laurence observes me from a distance as I draw. ‘Hello, policewoman,’ I say. ‘What do you mean?’ she asks. ‘I thought you wanted to join the police force when you’re older,’ I reply. ‘No, I want to join the army,’ she says. ‘And you? What did you want to be when you were my age?’ ‘I became what I wanted to be,’ I profess. ‘Is this your job then?’ she asks incredulously, as if she can’t believe what she’s hearing.



I start on an ambitious chalk work on the facade of the Avci family residence, but the weather gods are not in my favour.


Along the road plates in front of the prison gate is a row of ochre-coloured boulders, as corpulent as sea lions. Surprised that the sleepyheads are not roused by my approach, I draw on a boulder that has a piece broken off. The damage probably resulted from a careless placement, judging by the fragments lying on the steel plates.


In a few days the first group of prisoners will be brought in through this entrance. Right now, though, there is no one in sight – with the exception of the driver of a mini-bulldozer that’s coming and going, the operator himself enclosed in a kind of cage with bars.


Every time the little bulldozer drives past, the steel plates bounce up and down, causing the boulders to tremble down to their foundations and creating a small sandstorm. Progress on the drawing is excruciatingly slow. ‘Are the stones here permanently?’ I ask the driver when he climbs out of his vehicle. ‘No idea,’ he says. ‘I just put them there and that’s the sum of my knowledge.’ ‘The chalk lines draw attention to the interior of the stone, accentuating the soul that’s always there,’ I philosophize. He looks at me dubiously. ‘Tch,’ he huffs and clambers quickly back into his cage.


Henk shows me into the brand new prison. The entrance is a narrow hall with a wall of key cabinets; everything is spick and span. Five uniformed counter clerks are sitting behind a thick wall of glass. ‘Did you have fun out on the street?’ Henk asks. ‘Yes, it went well. It’s just a shame that Fred didn’t pass the test for becoming a prison officer,’ I say. ‘We’re currently running at just a third of our capacity,’ he responds. ‘And that’s due not to a lack of convicts but to a lack of guards. Maybe your friend Fred should take the application test again,’ adding in the same breath, ‘You, by the way, will be a free agent.’ He introduces me to his colleague Christoff, a wiry fellow with a fist-long beard and a mischievous, intelligent look in his eyes. ‘You’ll be given a badge and can choose which block you want to draw in,’ Christoff explains to me. ‘We have three different regimes here: the closed, semi-closed and open cell blocks, subdivided into the Mountain House, Ocean House, Arctic House, Lake House, Forest House, Tropical House and Monkey House. Terrorists are kept in the high-security facility; you are not allowed to go in there.’ One of the counter clerks checks my ID, as well as those of Henk and Christoff. It feels as if that makes us equals. ‘This is an artist,’ Henk announces through the intercom, as he unbuckles his belt like an old pro. ‘It’s just like going through security at the airport,’ I say and follow him in. ‘We don’t walk around with a bunch of keys like in the old days; everything’s very high tech now,’ he says. I deposit my belt and keys in a grey plastic tray designated for that purpose, which gets put onto a conveyer belt and sent through a scanner. We walk through the metal detector one by one. I find myself feeling particularly safe between these two seasoned jailers. ‘Have you worked in prisons for a long time?’ I ask Christoff. ‘A very long time; I’ve never had another job,’ he replies. The conversation stalls for a bit. ‘I’m straight from the middle ages,’ he jokes. I look at him and feel there’s something to be said for that.



To be continued... You can subscribe here for the mailing list:


Colophon Drawings and text: Bart Lodewijks Photography: Bart Lodewijks Translation: Nina Woodson Image correction: Huig Bartels Design: Roger Willems Publisher: Roma Publications, Amsterdam Commissioners: Flemish community and Cafasso This project was made possible by: Prison of Haren, Brussels Quasi Museum Thanks to: Anouk Focquier, Ief Spincemaille, Henk Mortier This publication is part of Quasi Museum, a project led by Ief Spincemaille in partnership with Berserk Art Agency/Anouk Focquier. © Bart Lodewijks, 2023

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