Nonnarrative or Noncomics?
(with some notes on Holz by Olivier Deprez and Roby Comblain)

Jan Baetens (Leuven)


Abstract: This article deals with the concept of ›nonnarrative‹ in comics. It first discusses pros and cons of the current terminology, and then moves to a semiotic approach (structural as well as tensive semiotics) in order to propose a new take that aims at reintroducing narrative in contexts that seem to exclude it. The second part of the article is devoted to a brief discussion of the work of Oliver Deprez, an experimental woodcut comics and book artist, whose magazine HOLZ illustrates some of the most interesting tendencies in today’s storytelling.

»Narrative is avoided«

Narrative is not only a textual feature or property, more or less lacking or present in certain works.1 It is also a universal and subjective desire, inextricably linked with our human need for meaning – and thus also the need to make meaning when it seems missing, unsatisfying or incomplete. In that sense, the search for narrative is a property of our human mind and behavior: we are made to tell stories and to frame our perceptions and experiences in narrative ways in order get a better understanding of the environment we live in as well as in our interaction with it over time.2 Narrative from this point of view is as basic an impulse as other cognitive mechanisms such as identifying (what is really a ›sign‹ and what is not?), simplifying (of which summarizing and stereotyping are necessary aspects), classifying and interpreting (which includes a lot of guessing and trial and error work), liking or disliking (theory of mind approaches are certainly right in stressing the importance of empathy), etc.

At the same time, narrative is also a danger, for its power may create certain forms of misreading. Narrative is so overwhelming a framework that it tends to make us blind toother aspects or elements of reality. This is the warning given by Frédéric Salmon in his much-discussed essay on storytelling as a means of political manipulation. However, the suspicion toward narrative’s hegemonic power is also at the heart of many writers eager to bring to the fore other aspects of language. As was famously stated by Stéphane Mallarmé in his 1897 Preface to A Throw of the Dice, a seminal work in modern poetry but also a major reference for all those trying to avoid the hegemony of narrative (and by the way also a work that has been appropriated by artists such as Marcel Broodthaers, whose ›erased‹ version on transparent paper of the Mallarmé poem deserves to be seen a prefiguration of what we would call today abstract comics):

The literary value, if I am allowed to say so, of this print-less distance which mentally separates groups of words or words themselves, is to periodically accelerate or slow the movement, the scansion, the sequence even, given one‘s simultaneous sight of the page: the latter taken as unity, as elsewhere the Verse is or perfect line. Imagination flowers and vanishes, swiftly, following the flow of the writing, round the fragmentary stations of a capitalised phrase introduced by and extended from the title. Everything takes place, in sections, by supposition; narrative is avoided. (quoted from the EPC page edited by Charles Bernstein, 2016; original quotation in Mallarmé, 455)3

Narrative here is seen as something that blinds the reader or the viewer, if not the listener, the implicit model of A Throw of the Dice being a musical Gesamtkunstwerk, something that wipes out all elements that do not matter to the narrative canvas of the work (see Baetens 2017).

Yet authoritative as it may be, narrative’s impact is never absolute. In the comics field, often accused of fostering mere reading for the plot, one can notice the possibility to read against the narrative grain in the critical stances of readers as different as Fredric Wertham, the infamous anti-comic books crusader best known for his campaign against the violent and racist content of comic books which eventually gave birth to the self-censorship of the Comics Code (1954), and Jochen Gerner, a contemporary avant-garde comics author and visual artist who frequently appropriates existing narrative comics in order to critically transform them into noncanonical versions of the original works. In Wertham’s analysis of comic books, one notices that he stubbornly interrupts the narrative flow of juvenile comics to lay bare dangerous images hidden underneath the apparent meaning of their narrative representations, reading for instance a close-up of pubic hair in what the story treats as a purely decorative detail (Wertham). As far as Gerner is concerned, one can notice that the artist ›reads through‹ the images and stories of mainstream comics in order to unearth allusions to or even variations on key works of modern painting (see Gerner; for an analysis, see also Carneiro). Any study of narrative in any medium whatsoever has to take into account this fundamental ambivalence: the pressure of narrative is universal, but it is never absolute, and as any hegemonic form it also engenders its own counterhegemonies.

Nonnarrative or Abstract?

The growing awareness of nonnarrative aspects of comics shouldn’t make us conclude that comics, speaking in general of course, are not a narrative medium per se. Denying this conventional stance is not only counterintuitive, it is also historically false. Even if it is possible to rewrite the history of the medium through another lens than that of narrative, the bulk of what has been and continues to be published is clearly narrative comics. Besides, although the focus on nonnarrative may highlight the existence of all kinds of nonmainstream work, it does not say anything on what is actually meant by this other (›alternative‹, ›experimental‹, ›avant-garde‹, ›abstract‹...) production. When it comes down to actually defining nonnarrative comics, one often finds references to three different possibilities: metafiction, poetry, abstraction.

The first case, metafiction or self-reflective fiction, is a term used to designate works, generally brief ones within the larger tradition of the gag strip, that exploit the narrative layer of a work in order to achieve a different goal, namely the thematization of a formal or semantic characteristic of the medium. A simple and widely used example is the literal clash between the fictional body of a character and the material border of the frame – a blatant case of metalepsis, the paradoxical transgression of the boundaries between narrative levels or logically distinct worlds, which we know to be key mechanism of metafiction (Kukkonen, Thoss). Narrative is still present here, but it becomes secondary, a mere instrument in the pursuit of an aesthetic agenda that aims at unveiling the medium instead of just telling a story.

The second case, poetry, that is a form of comics that aims at offering the comic counterpart of poetry in literature, is also not a matter of discarding or ignoring the narrative dimension of comics. It rather redefines the classic hierarchical relationship between form (as a tool) and content (as a goal). In graphic poetry or more precisely comics as poetry – not to be reduced to the sole exercise of transposing an existing poetic text to the medium of comics – what dominates is the poetic function as theorized by Roman Jakobson, that is the aesthetic strategy that invites or forces readers to attend to the signifier in linguistic signs, away from the signified (see Surdiacourt and Bennett). As one immediately notices, the relationship with narrative is not really different from what characterizes the work being done under the umbrella of metafiction, although the features foregrounded in comics as poetry are at the same time broader and more linked with the materiality of the work, covering the whole spectrum of the ›plastic‹ sign as described by the Groupe Mu (1992).4 Contrary to the features processed by metafiction, those underlying the poetic mode of comics are not necessarily medium specific in the narrow sense of the word. Another difference with metafictional comics is that comics as poetry are often close to other media and formats. The line is very thin for instance between graphic poetry and illustration as well as visual art in general (it will be necessary to return to this point of medium trouble later on).

The third case, finally, that of abstract comics, is without any doubt the best known and most frequently applied in this domain. Here as well, however, narrative is anything but absent, on the contrary, as stressed by both authors and critics who all concur in stressing the narrative dimension of visual rhythm and thus to suggest a kind of nonfigurative narrative, not via the events and transformations of real or fictional characters but with the help of material forms and features (see Molotiu and Wolk). A less expected, for generally considered ›literary‹ and not comics, example would be the sequential drawings by Henri Michaux, who called his graphic notations (wordless) ›signs‹ and who emphasized the rhythmic effects of their accumulation. This kind of graphic series does not tell a story, yet its rhythmic pulse has the look and feel of something that expands in time (Michaux).

As this short overview makes clear, the possible identification of a nonnarrative corpus remains unsatisfying from a theoretical point of view. True, it helps gather a certain number of works, all clearly detached from the common trunk of mainstream narrative comics, yet it does not specify in any way what nonnarrative actually means. A more theoretical framing is therefore needed, and semiotics can prove a helpful instrument in this regard.

Semiotic Intermezzo

With the help of a semiotic square5 it is possible to get a better grasp of the semantics of non-narrative.

In semiotics, the term nonnarrative is, technically speaking, the contradictory term of the term narrative (›contradictory‹, since it is logically impossible to be at the same time x and non-x). It is placed on the so-called ›subcontrary axis‹ (that is the lower horizontal axis ›-S2/-S1‹ in the figure above) and forces us to specify what is generally bypassed or discarded when we stick to the sole opposition between narrative and nonnarrative, namely a definition of what is the conceptual contrary term of narrative at the level of the so-called ›contrary axis‹ (contrary and not contradictory, for it is possible to be both at the same time):

At first sight, it is tempting to argue that the term ›abstraction‹ qualifies as the best possible solution to define the contrary term of ›narrative‹. However, such an opposition is based on a typical category mistake: abstract is not the contrary of narrative but of figurative, and both abstract and figurative are perfectly compatible with narrative as well as nonnarrative (Baetens 2011). As a matter of fact, the opposition abstract vs figurative refers to the (higher) level of the units or elements involved in larger narrative structures. It should therefore not come as a surprise that there exists something we intuitively might define as ›abstract narrative‹ (the emphasis on the sequential and thus narrative dimension of nonfigurative elements is a key argument of Molotiu in his defense of abstract comics), just as it is perfectly understandable that figuration does not suffice to produce narrative in the traditional sense of the words (as shown for instance in major figurative comics such as Martin Vaughn James’s The Cage (1986) that escape all forms of traditional storytelling).

Another opposition is therefore necessary and the best possible candidate is narrative vs descriptive – perhaps an old-fashioned terminology, but actually a fundamental and simply unavoidable instrument of any kind of narratological analysis. By the way: another and I think very important argument in favor of this proposal is that it liberates the analysis from endless and thus sterile discussions on the various synonyms or parasynonyms of nonnarrative: anarrative, antinarrative, postnarrative, counternarrative, paranarrative, dysnarrative, pseudonarrative, etc.

The two initial contrary terms, narrative and descriptive, don’t need much further explanation (and it is always a good thing to start a semiotic analysis with an elementary opposition such as day vs night or man vs woman). The two subcontrary terms, which serve as intermediary positions when a given term morphs into its contrary term (when man becomes woman or the other way round, for instance), can be understood as follows: nonnarrative refers to narrative structures that are losing their narrative dimension; nonnarrative is, if one prefers, narrative running out of steam. Nondescriptive refers to descriptive mechanism that progressively develop a certain narrative dimension (see Ricardou 1973 for an analysis of this back and forth between narration and description).

The conceptual mapping of the semiotic square is of course a very general one, which merely frames, but does not explain in detail what happens during specific, always subjective, and context sensitive interpretations. In a second step, one has therefore to introduce elements of context and subjectivity and examine the way in which questions of nonnarrative are actually received by sign users. Tensive semiotics (Fontanille, Hébert), which analyzes the embodied reactions to a given sign (in this case nonnarrative signs) describes this reaction along two axes: a quantitative one (which is the ›extent‹, big or small of the perceived sign) and a qualitative one (which is its impact or is the ›intensity‹, high or low?). The combination of these two axes gives a first but nuanced idea of the way in which a sign is interpreted, and its structure is generally presented in a four quadrant square whose point of departure is the perceiving body:

A more detailed use of this scheme also includes a temporal dimension, since the initial position of a certain sign can move from one quadrant to another over time. As far as non-narrative is concerned, the notion of extent has to do with the relationship between part and whole. Works can be totally nonnarrative, from A to Z, at all possible levels, or just partially nonnarrative, with only details or fragments escaping narrative and moreover with the possibility of having a mix of narrative and nonnarrative aspects or dimensions within each detail or fragment. The notion of intensity presents other types of nuances. Nonnarrative qualitative signs can have a stronger or weaker impact, according to a wide range of textual and contextual features: a nonnarrative image or passage at the beginning of a work may provoke a strong reaction in the case or readers who are expecting a traditional narrative, but when confronted with for instance long descriptive passages in the middle of a work the same readers may be tempted to simply skip these passages so that the intensity of the nonnarrative signs remains very low, etc.

What definitely comes to the fore is that there is never an essentialist reading of nonnarrative. Nonnarrative is not just a property of certain signs or sign clusters, it is also a matter of interpretation. This act of interpretation is however neither purely subjective nor totally arbitrary. Any subjective interpretation involving the personal preferences, background, education, etc., of the reader is always counterbalanced by institution and contextual factors (peer pressure, influence of reading environment, time and space of reading, previous experiences, for example). At the same time, any interpretation is also dependent on objective properties of the work, although never in a strictly determinist way (see Eco). Hence the necessity to carefully examine the elements that make nonnarrative possible. As already mentioned, narrative is an influential cognitive mechanism that humans gladly apply in their role as meaning-making beings. Narrative in that sense is more natural than nonnarrative: it is the default option, whereas nonnarrative is the alternative one.6 Nonnarrative can thus only appear if certain elements allow it to do so.

Roughly speaking, two textual strategies, regardless of their makers’ intentions and functioning either separately or in combination with each other, can help understand the appearance of the alternative, nonnarrative reading (see Ricardou 1972, whom I am reinterpreting here in a free, but I hope, relevant way). First of all, there is the strategy of narrative failure, if not active sabotage of the narrative dimension of the work. When something turns out wrong, narratively speaking, these insufficiencies may trigger a nonnarrative reading. This is for instance what can be observed when the story is clumsily told or too complex to be understood, when it is boring or sillily formulaic, etc. Second, there is also the emphasis on nonnarrative mechanisms and procedures, which can reinforce the impact of the first strategy of failure or sabotage of the narrative itself, but which in certain circumstances proves strong enough the tackle the narrative and figurative elements that are present in the work. This occurs for instance when the aesthetic qualities of the drawings of a comic are so rich and intriguing that the reader can prefer to ignore the story, which is then no more than an alibi for something else, for instance the exhibition of beautiful or ugly bodies. A good example here is the already mentioned graphic novel The Cage (Vaughn-James), where the foregrounding of the basic components of drawing (dots, lines, ink, position on the page etc.) are so powerful that readers may tend to disregard the actual figurative and narrative content of the book, which displays the metamorphoses of such elementary forms as much as it tells the story of a building. The combination of narrative failure and nonnarrative achievement can suspend or even block the natural narrative deciphering of a work, but here as well it should be repeated that both suspension and blocking are processes that take place in time: they can be either temporary or final, while rereading can lead to different interpretations – all phenomena that are perfectly in line with the already mentioned refusal of any essentialist interpretations of nonnarrative signs.

Nonnarrative Comics as a New Medium

However, the semantic analysis put forward thanks to semiotics brings us only halfway. Comics are material objects and no analysis should overlook this fundamental given. As material items, comics are not a genre, but a medium, that is a materially based social practice that relies on a network of tightly knit – and according to some theoreticians such as Stanley Cavell even ›automatic‹ – relationships between three aspects. First, a host medium, that is the material channel that structures and conveys the message: in comics, the host medium can be analog (print) or digital, but also two-dimensional or three-dimensional, such as in the case of an exhibition (though a book or a newspaper is no less a 3D volume!). Second, a type of signs: comics generally bring together words and images, but their intermediality is much broader than the mere interplay of verbal and visual: ink has a smell, screens are to be touched, for example. Third, a special distinct content: traditional comics tend for example to ignore autobiography, whereas contemporary graphic novels heavily concentrate on self-narratives. It is the awareness, conscious or unconscious, of the links between these three elements (host medium, sign, content) and its subsequent application and use (even if it is always possible to try to ›break the rules‹) that constitute a medium as social practice (see Baetens 2014).

If nonnarrative has to be a structure that exceeds the sole function of rhetorical device or aesthetic gadget (and there is of course nothing wrong with that), it should appear that it has a real impact on how the comics medium is defined, reworked, transformed, in short remediated. Yet this is exactly what nonnarrative comics is all about.

As argued by Sébastien Conard in his introduction to a remarkable volume of practice-based and theory-oriented contributions in the field of experimental comics (here called ›post-comics‹):

So, what are post-comics? As several contributors in this volume show, they are not only related to the formal aspects of (alternative) comics, but they generally reflect an outspoken artistic take or even a full-fledged avant-gardist vision on the graphic novel. They also entail a good deal of abstraction, without necessarily fitting into the ›genre‹ of abstract comics. If anything, these post-comics extrapolate the artistic potential of ›the ninth art‹ towards new objects and practices: one can call them transmedial, interdisciplinary, meta-medial... depending on what is being stressed. These objects are often books but not the kind that are easily identified as comics or graphic novels. Akin to artist’s publications, post-comics question the boundaries of what is a comic, an illustrated book, a piece of visual storytelling and so forth. Post-comics also come as expositions, installations, performances or participative designs. (Conard, 9; emphasis by the author).

The key word of the argument is deterritorialization, as one easily imagines, and I have quoted this text at length because it displays with utmost clarity what is at stake. Post-comics are not simply ›other‹ comics, be they alternative, abstract, avant-garde, experimental, etc., but a form of comics that dismantle media boundaries, inviting users, that is creators, intermediaries, and readers, to radically rethink what comics can be (and thus not only what comics are) and even more what they can do (the being of comics is defined by comics’ practices, not the other way round). It also applies to comics: meaning is use.

Holz: Noncomics’ New Narratives in Time and Space

A lifelong author of the Belgian avant-garde comics group Frémok (aka FRMK), Oliver Deprez is a key reference in the study of nonnarrative comics (Baetens 2011 and 2019). His recent production, often in collaboration with Roby Comblain, represent however an important new phase in the exploration of nonnarrative comics in an expanded field that departs from comics without being limited by it. One of the perhaps paradoxical results of Deprez’s experiments is that the work on noncomics produces opportunities for new forms of narrative and storytelling. These new narratives may be surprising and unconventional, perhaps light years away from what is normally understood as narrative, but they can in no way be reduced to an aggression toward the idea and the practice of narrative.

Deprez’s commitment to the domain of noncomics is not a denial or negation of comics. It is instead a foundational work that aims at displacing the major components of the medium (host medium, sign, content) as well as their integration into a new medium, comics-based but not exclusively comics-oriented. This work and commitment are a process of trial and error, and it may therefore be useful to remember some previous attempts and experiments by Olivier Deprez before giving a brief presentation of what currently represents the most advanced step in his creative practice, Holz, an ongoing project in collaboration with visual designer Roby Comblain, which is at the same time a performance, an exhibition and a publication (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Performance HOLZ#1/i Printing of the woodcuts of HOLZ during the Post-Comics event at KASK Ghent (22 October 2020).

From the very beginning of his work, Deprez has critically questioned the traditional automatisms of comics and comics making. The most noticeable aspect of this endeavor was of course his choice of a less conventional type of signs: woodcut engravings instead of drawings. This choice did not also enable him to establish new connections with an almost forgotten but nowadays once again quite visible and present tradition, that of the silent woodcut novel of the 1910s and 1920s (Beronå). It also helped him ask questions on the very status of the image in comics. On the one hand, and this is an important contribution to the woodcut novel tradition, Deprez’s work does not shy away from abstraction (in the sense of the nonfigurative). This acceptation of abstraction is a strategy that is efficient and meaningful. It exceeds the field of the single image (where abstraction has now become mainstream and totally aseptic) in order to occupy that of the sequentially arranged images (and here abstraction can reclaim once again its critical potential, certainly in combination with images that remain partially or totally figurative). On the other hand, Deprez does not treat his woodcuts as ›original‹ engravings: they are not meant to be exhibited as artworks in a gallery or a museum, but to be reproduced in print format. The real work is not the woodcut, but the book, a significative difference with the status of woodcuts in the institutional sphere of gallery and museum art.

Next to his work on the comics ›sign‹, there is also, and from the very start, a strong attempt to explore a wider range of ›host media‹. The material channel of Olivier Deprez’s comics art is not only the book, but it can take very different forms which show that print, which remains a fundamental dimension of his creative work, is not necessarily limited to print on paper and print for books.7 Other forms of print and other forms of publication (in the literal sense of making available for the reader or the spectator) are systematically explored. This is shown, for instance, in the print performance blackbook-black, where Deprez, in collaboration with Miles O’Shea and Alexia De Visscher, performs a life event, the output of which is the manual printing of a totally black book to be exhibited (and eventually archived) by a commissioning library.8 Designed and staged by Roby Comblain, the exhibition WREK NOT WORK at the Bibliotheca Wittockiana in Brussels (29 Sept. 2019-20 Jan. 2020)9 is a further step in this effort, which attempts to blur the boundaries between the artist’s workshop (including his personal library and an overview of his literary and pictorial influences), the actual production of woodcut prints (all ›recycled‹, that is unoriginal but subjectively redrawn images, as a creative variation on the found footage aesthetics) and the montage of these results in a work in progress setting serving as a laboratory for an eventual (and at the moment of the exhibit still hypothetical) publication in book format.

Finally, Deprez’s work also innovates at the level of content, more precisely in the way narrative works. The ambition of the artist is not to produce images that are totally new. Instead he gives a strong priority to the reuse and recycling of already existing material, such as for instance the documentary movies by Dziga Vertov (a director who shows that it is perfectly possible to make something new out of material that is already there) and Ernie Bushmiller historical comics serial Nancy (a character whose ordinary activities – picking up rubbish in the street and providing it with a new life and meaning at home – can be read as a metaphor of Deprez’s creative intervention in the found footage aesthetics). But these ›old‹ images give birth to completely new forms of narrative, hovering between pure standstill, each image becoming a world in itself, and sequential variations, each set of related images triggering open narratives that are both different from the series that precede or follow it and similar to them in that all these series foreground rhythmical correspondences between the images that compose them.

It is perhaps the untranslatable and polysemic French term dispositif (Ortel, Hanna) that is most appropriated to bring together these different aspects of Deprez’s work and, more generally, of all comics that aim at going beyond the traditional way of making and reading comics. The notion of dispositif (should we say ›setting‹ or ›staging‹ in English?) refers to the fact that a text, and in this case a comic, cannot be separated from the many forms and levels of the material and institutional context in which it appears or is performed. All works by Olivier Deprez have clearly such a dispositif as their horizon, but it is perhaps with the journal HOLZ that the link with both the classic world of comics in print and the expanded field of noncomics finds it most challenging venue (Baetens 2021).

The principle of Holz (the German word for wood) is very simple. Holz is a journal with no strict publication schedule that distinguishes itself from the general field of magazine and woodcut art by the following material features: a small number of pages (between twelve and sixteen), a very large (almost poster) format, an extremely thin paper (10 grams per square meter, whereas the usual paper weight varies between 90 and 120). Yet this singular materiality, which make the object difficult to produce (in practice, it is only made ›on demand‹, that is when there is a private or institutional buyer) is part of a larger project that can be seen as the provisional synthesis of Deprez’s progressive move from nonconventional comics to real noncomics art (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2: Installation HOLZ at the exhibit Un pied dedans une main dehors, studio Roby Comblain, Brussels, October 2020.

Four elements come here to the fore. First of all, the craving for a book presentation that is itself an installation, that is the transformation of the pages on display into a new work of art. The scenography by Roby Comblain succeeds in doing so, by creating an overall montage that transforms the juxtaposed and transparent pages into a single image that establishes a dialogue with the characteristics of the hosting environment. Second, the attempt to enlarge the act of reading, which acquires here a strong visual as well as haptic dimension: the words and images of the printed woodcuts are not only there to be read and to be seen, but the delicate materiality of the host medium, which is not fixed on the wall, but freely floating in space, like in ›cordel literature‹, becomes a substantial part of the experience. Third, a more elaborated fictional thematization of the processes of making and reading. In Deprez’s work, several characters are printmakers, woodcut artists, but also readers (reading is no less important than writing and drawing; reading becomes almost a kind of curation), and the various pieces of HOLZ put a strong emphasis on that metafictional dimension (Fig. 3). Fourth, the increasing presence of narrative, be it in the individual texts and images or at the level of the trajectories and paths that lead the reader from one silk page to the other. Although radically distant from any form of beginning, middle, and end, preferably in that order, HOLZ makes a substantial contribution to the flowering of a new narrative mode. This mode merges micronarrative (in certain cases perhaps even nano-narratives) and subjectively associated meanderings starting from well-known historical themes, figures, and icons. All viewers can decline and appropriate these associations according to their own interests and concerns, while never losing touch with the Great Canon (provided one includes both high-brow and low-brow items and networks).

Fig. 3: Woodcuts HOLZ#2, p. 20-21, Brussels, 2020.

Holz, an example of nonnarrative comics? Yes, without any doubt. At the same time, however, the project also demonstrates that the prefix ›non‹ has to be seen as a springboard, not as an enterprise of undermining and rejection. It opens the path for new forms of storytelling, where the boundaries between process and result, writing and drawing, making and experiencing, tend to vanish. Deprez’s noncomics are definitely examples of new forms of narrative.



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Table of Figures

  • Fig. 1: Performance HOLZ#1/i Printing of the woodcuts of HOLZ during the Post-Comics event at KASK Ghent, 2020.
  • Fig. 2: Installation HOLZ at the exhibit un pied dedans une main dehors, studio Roby Comblain, Brussels, 2020.
  • Fig. 3: Woodcuts HOLZ#2, p. 20–21, Brussels, 2020.