Club to Cloud

Every day, hundreds of pedestrians pass through the corridors of Galerie Horta, which connects the Marché aux Herbes square to Brussels Central Station. Most of them are unaware that by taking this path, they are treading on the floor of C12, a polymorphous club that has been hosting international projects as well as local flavours for the past few years, and gathers the night owls of the Belgian capital in a meeting point well aware of the aesthetic and social issues of its time. Journalist and scenographer Axel Simon met two members of the organising team to try and understand what makes up the DNA of this club.

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Author: Axel Simon

Photo Credit: Sarah Choner

Who created C12? What is the history of the creation of the club?

Tom Brus: I’ve been organizing the Deep In House party series since 2012 with Mathieu Serra. A few years ago, we started using more warehouses or atypical spaces. We did an event in the Galerie Horta (where C12 is located, ed. note) for the 2017/2018 New Years Eve.

The gallery owners, who are friends of ours, later suggested we do something more permanent, and from there came the idea for C12. We opened it in February 2018 with our third partner Kevin Huerta. Originally it was supposed to last a year, but as it worked out well, we’re still here. Today the project is co-produced by Deep In House and Galerie Horta.

Adrien Audrain: We thought of C12’s activity in the Horta Gallery as a multipurpose space activation. A space in which we would do just about everything: theater, performances, audio-visual live shows, film and documentaries screenings.

Tom: We wanted it to be more than just a club. We wanted to bring in other cultural events besides clubbing. For us, clubbing is culture, but it’s not the case for everybody. And so from the beginning we tried to set up exhibitions, concerts, performances, live audiovisuals, etc… It developed and we received a grant from the city to develop these activities. We also opened one of the gallery’s spaces, C5, to dedicate it to contemporary art, with a curator who is specifically responsible for this space.

Now the idea is to develop the cultural project and to hire programmers for the C12 who are responsible for such and such areas. And to open up the activities during the day: as we have the spaces available all the time, we might as well leave them to other people.

C12 ©Jeremy Gerard
©Jeremy Gerard

What drew you to Galerie Horta?

Tom: We already wanted to do an event there in 2015. The space is central, it’s big enough, you can be loud. In Brussels it’s rare to have so many square meters and to be able to play such a loud sound in such a central place. It’s a very dense city. We were already thinking of opening a venue before setting up C12, but rather on the outskirts, because it’s less expensive and the noise pollution is more manageable. The fact that it is central, connected to one of the railway stations, is very practical for people who come from outside Brussels, from Flanders or elsewhere.

What is Galerie Horta, historically speaking?

Adrien: It was a gallery that was designed by Victor Horta, a famous Brussels architect, in 1954. Originally it was just a central rotunda and a large gallery space that formed a passage for commuters between the historic center and the Central Station. During the major urbanization of the area, there was a desire to make it more “modern” and turn it into a shopping mall. The part of the entrance with commercial premises was added. The whole gallery is a kind of patchwork.

The project never really worked out and the place fell into disuse around the 1990s. The first rave parties in Brussels took place in this abandoned space. These archives can be found in a book on the history of design and club culture in Brussels written by Katarina Serulus. Then the space was renovated in 2008 by an agency called Architectes Associés, with a very large budget. Shops were set up for a year and a half, but then disappeared. There are other galleries in the center of Brussels that have suffered the same fate.

Kevin Huerta, who is part of the C12 project, moved in with his father in 2017. At the time the city lacked a multi-purpose hall in the center, and at their request the space began hosting events of all kinds. There was originally a plan to convert the gallery into a museum but the administrative procedures were quite lengthy, and although events were not the primary purpose of the project, the location was particularly well suited to it.

Originally, C12 was housed in the entire gallery. Then the space was shared between the club and the exhibition space next door, which led to a new version of C12. There have been developments every year and there will be more.

Where does the name “C12” come from?

Tom: On the gallery’s map, each space was called “C1”, “C2”, etc… This stands for “Commerce 1”, “Commerce 2”, etc… The largest room is “C12”. We thought that the name would work in French as well as in Dutch and English. Given that we are in Brussels and that there are people from all over, it’s an advantage.

Adrien: It’s a bit timeless too. Like a code with a letter and a number. It’s not linked to anything fixed in time.

Tom: There is also a smaller clubbing room, “C11”, which is part of the overall project. And the contemporary art space in “C5”. It’s just the declension of the spaces in the plan.

Adrien:  People have no idea that this is where it comes from. They always ask “why C12?” and nobody ever really got the answer.

How does it work, the gallery by day, then the club by night?

Tom: During the day, Galerie Horta is open to the public from 9am to 8pm, in order to have access to the Grand Place and the interior of the Central Station, as well as to the exhibition spaces of the neighboring museum. At 8pm it closes, and then we can set up the entrance, the lines for the queues and the chill-out area. And the next morning, everything has to be clean to reopen the passage. So the C12 appears and disappears, like a cloud!

Adrien: A lot of people know that they have been to the C12, have already been to this gallery, but don’t make the connection between the two. It also goes with the idea we have of the club. We want it to be a place out of sight, where everyone can be the person he or she wants to be during the night, without judgment. What happens at C12 stays at C12, and during the day, as the club disappears, there is no trace, no evidence of it.

Tom: It’s something we hold dear! This intimacy. Moreover, for the club’s communication, we never show the interior clearly. We use the photos of our photographer Jeremy Gerard who works with old film cameras and does a real artistic job as well as constituting the club’s memory. We really capture the atmosphere and the essence of the C12 through his photos. That sort of misty dream. We decided to publish a book about it!

©Jeremy Gerard

What would you say is the primary musical aesthetic of C12?

Tom: Electronic in the broadest sense. From EDM to drum and bass. From ambient to hard BPM.

Adrien : There are a lot of emerging artists as well as old and respected ones who play at C12. There are always one or two guests per night, but otherwise it’s mostly local. We promote the local scene a lot. C12 is also committed to developing this scene. There’s a great local scene in Belgium, we have to take advantage of it.

There is a lot of talk about the musical quality of Brussels. What people in other cities don’t know much about, but they talk about a lot. It’s an up-and-coming scene, very eclectic, like what’s happening at C12, or at the Horst Festival for example.

Is there a mix that represents C12 well?

Tom: I’m thinking of a Kafim mix from December 2019. He was closing after Donato Dozzy who had played for several hours while Omar S was playing in the C11. There was magic in the air that night, something really special. Something we all remember.

Does the C12 carry a form of social, political or militant commitment?

Adrien: C12 was set up with the idea of carrying a certain vision of clubbing. That of people who meet in the same place with the same values. A club is also about getting together in an enclosed space. The people will share this space during the night, and are therefore both actors and spectators of the evening. Each evening is therefore different depending on the people present.

The people who come to the club are mostly gathered around electronic music, with all that it brings. And particularly musical openness, which for us goes hand in hand with cultural openness in general. This cultural openness towards all electronic music communities is the first commitment of C12.

The main thing that has been put in place is the care of the public. We have nurses on site, who we hired directly, in case of problems. We give out bottles of water and fruit. We have set up a system to prevent violence in the nightlife environment.

Tom: We want everyone to feel good here. At the entrance, after every 8 to 10 people pass through, our “Host” Robin gives a speech about the C12 and its values, the notion of safe space, and the rules inside. Inside the gallery, a help desk is prominently displayed.

Adrien: There is also a “care” team. These are people who walk around with walkie-talkies and earpieces and are connected to the rest of the team, to prevent behaviour that might be complicated. Some are easily identifiable, others less so. The purpose of the latter is to be a bit undercover to monitor problematic behaviour. They are people who could be part of the public, and who pass incognito in the club.

They know the place, the spirit, the atmosphere. They can also put on a specific T-shirt so that people can easily spot them and come and talk to them. This team was set up so that there would be a direct link between the public and us, and so that it wouldn’t necessarily go through the security system, which can sometimes be intimidating. And there’s a Smurf watching you at the entrance! (ndlr. A human-sized smurf figurine is present near the entrance of the club, explanations about its presence come below).

© Jeremy Gerard

Would you say that C12 has an impact relative to Galerie Horta, and more widely in Brussels?

Tom: C12 brought people back here and gave the place a new dynamic. That’s what brought back the project next door called “Exhibition Hub”, a place that changes exhibitions every six months. At the moment it’s an exhibition about Frida Kahlo. And on level -1 there is the MOOF, the Museum of Comic Book Figures. The big challenge is that everyone can live together.

Adrien: The presence of C12 brings night owls back to the center, from the various municipalities in the Brussels region. But also from other Belgian cities, especially the Dutch-speaking part, such as Antwerp or Ghent. It’s quite special in Brussels to have places that bring together the French and Dutch-speaking communities.

Tourists don’t necessarily come to C12 because it’s a bit more hidden. At night, if you don’t know it, you only see the big smurf in the middle of the hotels, but you don’t come. So the club keeps this alternative side, even though you’re right in the center, a stone’s throw from the Grand Place, and it’s supposed to be the non-alternative spot.

How would you describe the different spaces of C12?

Tom: The gallery part is very mineral, with materials like marble and stone. There is a lot of lighting too, including a large LED wall. The gallery floors are connected by a wooden escalator, one of the oldest in Europe in use. The chill corner is installed at the top of this space. The club rooms, C11 and C12, are raw black boxes. There is a strong contrast between these spaces and the gallery.

Adrien:  People don’t dance in the gallery. When we had the whole space, we sometimes put the stage in a big circular space in the middle, and the space became quite different. That was really part of the versatility of C12 in terms of installation. It was so that we could do whatever we wanted at any given time. Whether it was putting in a big podium to do a cabaret club, or expanding the room because we had a lot of guests and it was a very big night.

©Sarah Choner

What makes up the scenography of C12?

Adrien: Anthony Huerta (Kévin’s father) who took over the gallery, is a scenographer. He created seats in the shape of cubes that can be stacked like legos and placed on wheels. They were handmade and correspond completely to the constraints and conditions of the place. Everything has to be stackable and modular, so that it can be reinstalled every evening and dismantled every morning.

As the C12 was only to remain for one year, we could not invest in durable elements. Furthermore, the philosophy was always that the scenic elements created should be able to be taken over for all other subsequent uses, to be able to make a performance hall, for example. He also designed the mobile cubes that make up the bar, and the cubes above the bar, which are used for lighting and decoration, but which will soon be used for sound.

Tom: Everything is on wheels. The cubes, the seats, the podiums, the fences. So we change the configuration very often. We compose the space according to the projects and the parties, it’s a permanent rethinking. All the soundsystem is stacked on the ceiling, so we can easily modulate everything inside.

Adrien: The lighting identity of the C12 is low lights on the posts and smoke. The lighting is quite static, contrary to other clubs that are very eye-catching. This general atmosphere, in the smoke, gives the impression of being in a kind of mist, as in a dream. This corresponds well to the fact that the place appears and disappears. You have this sort of misty memory.

Tom: The C12 is a surreal place. Like Belgium. It’s a patchwork of many things that live together.

What are the future developments of the C12 scenography?

Tom: We’re going to try to make the big room more user-friendly. It’s very big and it’s a bit raw. We’re going to segment it. It’s a very big space, and we can accommodate 800 people for big parties, but it’s not necessarily that full. We also want it to fit all our projects, which change as we go along.

Adrien: The junction between the gallery and the dancefloor is quite abrupt. We put up black PVC curtains, but you go from one universe to the other very directly. We would like to install a palisade at the entrance to the C12 space, which will be modular, so that people can walk around it. So that you’re more on the dancefloor and you don’t have any interference with what’s going on outside, so that you can really be in your own bubble and enjoy the sound.

We’re also going to move the booth forward so that people can dance around it. The booth is on wheels, and we wanted to keep it at ground level, so as not to put the DJ on a pedestal. We wanted people to concentrate on the moment between them. We’re also going to build a new wall behind it, to improve the acoustics and send out even more noise.

© Sarah Choner

In what ways does the C12 scenography integrate current sustainability issues?

Adrien: C12 is lucky to have a large storage space as well as a workshop. It was perfect for the DIY spirit of the beginning but also to develop elements of scenography especially for the place. These elements are simple and reusable for many projects. When we don’t need them anymore, we dismantle them and keep all the materials, like wood, fabric, metal…which will be reused for other projects. We also keep the different elements of less regular projects such as exhibition frames, projection screens that we build in order to reuse them. We are always on the lookout for a good plan to recover basic materials such as wood. The C12 is clearly part of an upcycling approach. 

Do the organization of the spaces and the scenography of the C12 allow to achieve more inclusive and safe spaces?

Tom: The toilets are gender neutral, which is not the case for all clubs. After the renovations of September 2021, we added a large number of cubicles, which reduces the queue. People go to the cubicle they want to go in and there is one person who looks after this area at all times. That person keeps an eye on whether everything is going well.

Adrien: An example of an answer to your question is when we had the whole gallery, we located the “chill” area in the gallery, and we arranged all the seating modules in cubes in the shape of small lounges, all connected to each other. They found themselves in a kind of cosy lounge, a little “VIP” area, the C12 way. People felt closer, exchanged more, you could feel a kind of communion. The layout of the chill out in the evening influences the social exchanges that take place there.

Tom: People also come to the club to socialize, not just to dance, so it’s important that there is a space dedicated to that, a chill out space where they can share.

© Jeremy Gerard

What desirable futures would you like to see emerge for clubs, especially in Brussels?

Tom: We started the Deep In House events in 2012. Ten years on, there is a good improvement in the relationship between clubs and public authorities. Clubs are still seen as places of entertainment, but they are slowly starting to be respected culturally. The actors in the clubs are taken much more seriously. Clubs are also part of the range of what cities have to offer.

I would say that a desirable future would be even more inclusion. For security companies to be more aware of the LGBTQIA+ communities. When people who work in these companies come to certain clubs, with such communities, the connections in terms of values are not always achieved.

Adrien: We are very proud of the Brussels music scene, which is eclectic and has a lot of talent, and we want it to develop on a national and international level. There is a good dynamic thanks to the various specialists and the work of public institutions such as Wallonie Bruxelles International or the Wallonie Bruxelles Federation, which are very much behind the scene. 

We’d like this scene to keep that “no pressure” vibe. When you come to party in Brussels it’s always cool. Electronic music is expanding rapidly and we would like the new people who arrive to adhere to the values we advocate. That we don’t fall into total industrialisation and become disconnected from the values and history of clubbing and electronic music. That people are aware that they are participating in something and that it is not just consumption.

And more generally, for the electronic scene, we would like to see a re-focusing of the clubs towards their local scenes so that they develop. We would like to see a set of musical identities emerge according to the cities. And that the big festivals relay this dynamic and promote the local and emerging scenes more.

Can club scenographies contribute to a change in the way clubs are viewed and to their recognition as cultural places?

Adrien: We are profoundly convinced that clubs are cultural places, we could say that for the music. We have to open up the offer in terms of programming, propose different formats and things so that the public authorities understand this. This is where scenography comes into play because it can be the aesthetic and technical reflection of this desire to mix all types of culture within these spaces, such as visual art, live performance, etc.

©Jeremy Gerard

There are clubs that do this very well, like La Station in Paris, but these are dynamics at work in several cities. This is more or less what the new generation of clubbers want. We don’t just want a spot where you go, pay and have a party. We want them to have an experience, to bring something to the table. The architecture and the history of the place itself can then bring a particular symbolism. Galerie Horta allows the public to reconnect with the architectural history of the city, but also with the history of electronic music as the first Brussels raves took place there.

How do you see the future of the C12?

Tom: We hope to stay here! It’s a nice place and well placed. We hope to do more culture, more events during the week. We’d also like to C12&Artists, which is designed to support the development of Brussels artists.

Adrien: In the long term, we would like C12 to open branches in several sectors, always linked to music. We could have an agency, a label… We also organize the Atomium festival in September, which is free.

Tom: The aim is to make Brussels shine at European level.

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