Transgression/Transition: an exploration of the Zenne and its surroundings

artistic research

Source Zenne
One of the two sources of the Zenne, Naast (Soignies), 2015
Zenne Steenkerque
The Zenne in the surroundings of Steenkerque, 2015

Transgression/Transition, an exploration of the Zenne and its
is an ongoing research project on the Belgian Zenne river. The project started in April 2015 and has known several moments of exploration and presentation since. In August 2015, as part of the project, I initiated a field research along the Zenne by walking the 103 km course of the river.

The Zenne has its source in Soignies (Wallonia) and flows into the river of the Dijle at Heffen (Flanders) from where it finally reaches the Schelde and the North Sea. The Zenne flows through the three Belgian regions -Wallonia, Brussels Capital Region and Flanders- and passes the city of Brussels and some thirty villages. The river has no existing trail that follows its course. At certain points it flows underground or along private property.

Zenne and my route
The Zenne and my walking route
Map of Brussels, 1745

Even though the Zenne is a small and unnavigable river, it has had a very eventful history. It is an undervalued river, much maligned and rather tucked away than seen. For centuries, the Zenne has been used as an open sewer where not only the excrement and waste water of thousands of families flowed away, but also heavy chemicals from adjacent factories.

In the nineteenth century, the city of Brussels recognized that the Zenne as open sewer increasingly endangered public health. The water was contaminated and because of regular flooding epidemics were easily spread. In 1867 large-scale activities started to fully canalize and tube the Zenne in the centre of Brussels. On the ensuing north-south axis, Parisian-style avenues were constructed: the Boulevard Emile Jacqmain, the Boulevard Adolphe Max, the Boulevard Anspach and the Boulevard Maurice Lemonnier. The vaulting of the Zenne meant a radical intervention within the urban fabric, profoundly changing the historical centre in the name of its progress, hygiene and beautification. In the 1970s the Zenne was to move again. This time because of the construction of the pre-metro that followed the north-south axis and was built in the tubes of the Zenne. Today the Zenne makes an underground curve around the city centre following the inner city ring road.

Brussels is not the only city where the Zenne disappeared. Also in Soignies and Vilvoorde the Zenne disappears underground.

The Zenne in Brussels, view from Pont des Vanniers, ca. 1865.
The Zenne close to Plattesteen, ca. 1865
Implementation plan for the central boulevards, Brussels ca. 1867
overwelving Zenne
The canalization and vaulting of the Zenne, Brussels 1867

Because the river has been diverted, polluted and forgotten, its surroundings became a site for all kinds of informal use. The decades-long absence of a comprehensive and inter-regional planning policy, fuelled by the ostrich politics of the three Belgian regions, has made the river into a ‘non-place’ or ‘fringe’. The Zenne manifests itself as an area of transgression, meandering through city and countryside. The Transgression/Transition project explores the river with these considerations in mind and tries to see how its surroundings today offer room for that what falls outside the norm.

However, there appears to be a growing consciousness among planners and politicians for the revaluation of the Zenne valley. Today the transgressive space of the Zenne is in transition: in view of the potential economic and commercial interests parts of the river and its surroundings are being (re)developed. In such a situation of valorization all the facets of the space come to the fore: the use and its users, the stakes and those who hold it.

By taking the river as its directory the Transgression/Transition project wants to explore the surroundings along the Senne in order to visualize and outline the traces of both formal and informal spatial use.

Zenne Tubize
The Zenne is still polluted, wastewater is discharged in many places, Tubize 2015
Zenne Machelen
The Zenne in a canalized half open tunnel, Machelen 2015
Garbage dump Soignies
Garbage dumped from a bridge across the Zenne, Soignies 2015
park Halle
Implementation of a new park, Halle 2015
Fence blocking the path that leads to the Zenne, Brussels 2015
Zenne behind hedge Tubize
Zenne hidden behind a hedge, Tubize 2015
Informal path between the Zenne and the canal, Vilvoorde 2015
Sleeping place, Brussels 2015

Together with interested local parties, issues concerning the Zenne, such as ecology, polution, land politics, and formal and informal use, were discussed in a workshop. This workshop took place at Enough Room for Space in Drogenbos, where I also presented the first artistic results of the project.