Further into Banality - an interview with Elien Ronse

By Maria Martens Serrano - Saturday, January 9, 2016
Further into Banality - an interview with Elien Ronse

Belgian artist Elien Ronse sleeps in a different place every night. Since 2015 she abandoned her hometown of Ghent to undertake a project that delves into domesticity. Overwhelmed by the monotony of her own life, she chose to escape into the lives of others. Her project has taken her through hundreds of houses in Berlin, Vienna, Taiwan, and now Athens.

Further into Banality - an interview with Elien Ronse

Belgian artist Elien Ronse sleeps in a different place every night. Since 2015 she abandoned her hometown of Ghent to undertake a project that delves into domesticity. Overwhelmed by the monotony of her own life, she chose to escape into the lives of others. Her project has taken her through hundreds of houses in Berlin, Vienna, Taiwan, and now Athens. Through word of mouth Elien finds a different place to sleep every night, and every day she thoroughly documents her experiences in each private space. Her observations range from the funny and superficial (“the dog drinks coffee”) to the depths of the personal (“maybe she doesn’t want to marry him”).  

Elien compiles these observations in writing, film, and illustrations within the spaces of the art institutions that provide her with a temporary base. At the moment, the walls of Athen’s Metamatic:taf art foundation present a compilation of all the bedsheets she has slept in during her weeks in the city, accompanied by her written and spoken observations. Her methods of documentation are constantly evolving and adapting as her project takes shape during her travels. We met with Elien in Athens to talk about her work and her constant state of flux.  

Artdependence Magazine: What makes for a good nights sleep? I imagine that by being every night in a different place some nights you sleep better than others.
Elien Ronse: Maybe most important for me is when there are a lot of objects or things inside the house that are very specific to the person. But apart from that, it’s also very important if I can have a good conversation with someone, especially if it’s someone who is not inside ‘my world’ , someone who is outside the artist world.

AD: What stands out the most from the dynamic of meeting people for the first time in their own homes? 
ER: For sure it’s completely different than when I would meet them in a public space, because they are at home and they also feel calmer, I noticed. Mostly they are calm and they are wearing slippers, comfortable clothes, and they are not that nervous to meet me. So that’s very important. And, apart from that… it’s always different. Some people immediately start talking a lot, telling me about their life, other people are very silent and then I need to ask some questions. But I never prepare questions - it just comes by itself. I think in most houses, I first go have a look around, and this is something that people tend to say to me: have a look around.

AD: Do you feel like there is a double introduction happening? House and person?
ER: Yes, it is a double introduction. And it is also a very good introduction to have a conversation - because you see things in the house, and I start talking about that. Things that are strange, or new, to me…

AD: Do you sometimes find that there are cases in which the house and the person don’t really seem to fit? 
ER: Well, mostly it really fits together. What I sometimes have is that I feel that the house is not fitting me, personally. Perhaps this house has - what seems to me - old fashioned or strange furniture or objects. But when I start getting to know the people from those houses, I notice that we have much more in common than I would think when I see their house, or when I see them in person. By talking, we always find things in common, and that’s also something very important to find. At the moment in which you find something that you have in common, then you can go further and find differences. 

AD: So, you would say it’s easier to relate to a person, but you don’t relate to every space?
ER: Yes. I don’t relate to every space, but even spaces that I don’t relate to can also be very interesting for me, because it shows me such a different way of living, and it evokes questions in me, sometimes much more than when I see a house where I could live in myself. So, it’s good to have both - houses where I feel immediately at home, and houses that are completely not my style.

AD: You've mentioned a few times coming across the same Ikea table, or chair, or cutlery holder. Is it discouraging when you see these kind of things?
ER: Yes, for me it is really discouraging. I promised myself already never to go to Ikea again. But of course it’s not only Ikea, but it’s the whole idea that - this is modern furniture and this is what you need to have in your house - and you can find the same things in different shops in different places… But this is something that, again, has two sides. On one side, it’s really ugly that every house is exactly the same all over the world, and that people have Ikea. We have the feeling that we choose how our house looks like when we shop in Ikea, but in fact it’s the opposite. This is a pity because you see very cultural objects disappearing. And that’s also why I want to do this project: to find those, sometimes lost, traces from culture, from politics, inside houses, inside objects. 

On the other hand, things like Ikea, or in general the globalisation of consumption, also has something very positive. Because Ikea provides quite nice furniture, with accessible prices, and it also brings people together, in a way - if you have the same lamp here in Athens that I’ve also seen in Taiwan, then those places and people get connected in a way.   

AD: With this project, through visiting these private spaces you're getting to know a massive public space, which is all these different cities that you're visiting. Do you feel like you’re engaging in a kind of anti-tourism? 
ER: In a way. For example, in Vienna I intentionally did not go into the Ringstrasse, what is considered to be the inner city centre. Also in Athens I have yet to see all the ‘must see’ attractions. The only things I see are the inside of peoples houses - and this brings me to neighbourhoods where I would never go otherwise. Some neighbourhoods have a specific feeling, such as more students, more bars, sometimes I go to very suburban areas with huge houses with a swimming pool… and all these public spaces surrounding the houses have an influence in how I see each house. Sometimes in the journey to a house I will see things that I will also note in my observations - like seeing a couple having sex in an alley, or how in Taiwan everyone on the metro is busy on their smartphones.

AD: Is it the case that you see similarities between all these different cities in terms of class, age, family status?
ER: Yes, it is like this. Same class families are having the same things all over the world. What comes to mind also is age…young people, 25 years old, 30 years old. .. and people who are working in artistic fields. Because these people are close to my circles I get invited easily to their homes, and for sure their houses look quite the same. And that’s also strange, because sometimes it is exactly these people - and I'm also one of them - we feel or we try to be a little different, to do things differently than other people, but in fact we also all have the same homes and the same objects… Maybe the differences are found more according to classes than where you are in the world. Class and age. But it’s impossible to generalise in this project, and that’s also what I want to do with my work…to go very personal

AD: And how is the difference between the night before and the morning after, usually?
ER: Mostly in the morning people are more quiet, and it’s also different to see a house when it’s dark outside or when it’s light outside. In the morning it’s more alive, in a way, and at night you feel this sensation of winding down. But it can also be very cozy in the evening, because it’s dark and people burn some candles sometimes, and we drink a glass of wine with a good, and long talk, and some music. While in the morning it’s starting the day, it’s light outside, there’s just enough time to have a coffee together. It’s more quick… and then I leave. 

AD: So the morning is a moment of routine? 
ER: Yes, more than the evening. I definitely see better in the morning what their routine is than in the evening. Because in the evening they make time for me, mostly, while in the morning they do what they need to do in order to start the day. What they would do normally. 

AD: Do the titles of your project ("Between 23:13 and 11:59") refer to the times in the evening and the times in the morning?
ER: Yes, the title is the earliest time I went to bed and the latest time I got up during my stay in one city.

AD: Simultaneous to this project, you are also doing a sort of ‘chewing gum report’ - can you tell us what that is about?
ER: I started with that some months ago, but I think this project will go on much longer, in my life I mean. The story is like this: I'm eating a lot of chewing gums. Since I was a teenager my friends were always making jokes about it, how I always seem to have some chewing gum. So, at a certain point I wanted to have a sort of structure - I am always searching for a certain structure because I am travelling so much at this moment, and my life is so chaotic that I really need some structure. Everyone needs structure, otherwise it’s too hard to survive. So I was searching for a banal structure for myself, and I also wanted to report the things that I am doing and where I am. So I decided: I will write down where I am and with who, at what exact time I start chewing gum and when I stop. And that becomes a report, or a diary. 

But, for me, this chewing gum report is also important because of what I think of social media. When people let me know on Instagram or Facebook  - here I am at this moment doing this with this person -  I am asking, why do we do this? It’s ridiculous, in a way. It’s not necessary. It doesn't add anything to life. So I decided: ok, I’ll go further and make it even more ridiculous, more useless.

AD: But I thought you were trying to escape the monotony or banality of your life, and actually it seems that you’ve created a much more structured life than you probably had before?
ER: Yes, it is like this. It’s, again, very double. I’ve created a structure, a very banal structure. It’s so very useless. But I think most structures in life, as in my previous structured my life, are in a way useless. If I look at it from far away - we are so unimportant in this world, we are so small, we only live a very short time, and what do we do? So many people go to their jobs from 9 to 5 every day, I also do it sometimes, or I used to, and why do we give ourselves these stupid structures? Why don’t we use other stupid structures to survive? So this is what I’ve created, an even more stupid structure.  

AD: Would the difference, then, be that now you're following a structure that you chose, even though it doesn't have any more or less significance than the one before?
ER: I think so. The difference is that I chose to have it. And the difference is that it is going even further into banality. 

Thank you Elien! 


Maria Martens Serrano is a Dutch-Salvadoran writer. She studied under a liberal arts program at University College Utrecht, going on to graduate with an MSc in Sociology from the University of Amsterdam. Exploring a broad range of interests, Maria previously worked with a news website and a human rights NGO, before becoming involved with several art fairs in the Netherlands. She now writes on topics of arts and culture. In early 2015 Maria joined the team of Artdependence Magazine as editor and contributor.

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