Brussels’s Catclub takes abandoned buildings in the capital and turns them into venues for unforgettable parties. It’s just one of a number of alternative nights out that are taking place in unusual corners of the city.
“Clubbing culture is mainstream now. Everyone does it. Before, it was more secret – not everyone knew where the parties were,” reminisces Haesen.
As a veteran of Brussels’s secret club scene, Haesen has always known where to find a party. Since 2002, she has been the brains behind Catclub, an itinerant club night that, like any stray worth its whiskers, has found its way into the city’s most unique, often derelict locations.
By occupying buildings marked for demolition or redevelopment, she has put on nights in abandoned supermarkets, postal depots and even a 19th-century bank vault, and in doing so has left an indelible mark on Brussels’s nightlife.
In many ways, Catclub has been prescient. Gentrification has seen most alternative venues kicked out of the city centre in recent years. Some have disappeared altogether, and others, such as iconic music and arts venue Recyclart and Laeken’s punk club Magasin 4, have found new, short-term locations.
Temporary is the new permanent, it seems. But it’s also led to a lot of creative solutions, such as Deep in House’s C12, which colonised the Horta Gallery under Central Station in 2018, turning it into a club and exhibition space as it awaits renovation. Haesen, it appears, was ahead of the curve.
Catclub was forged in rebellion, as a response to photo-fit clubs and Brussels’s techno-heavy scene. Haesen, who then worked in fashion and DJed on the side, wanted an LGBTQ-friendly night that reflected her circle’s passion for the Chicago house scene.
“When you go to a club, it’s the same every time, only the DJ changes. I want to create something different every time, something with soul,” she says.
Back then, Brussels’s secret party scene looked very different. Laws were lax and townhouse squats were rife. “They’d build a bar in a front room and guests would put their name in a book, so it was classed as a private party and the police couldn’t shut it down,” Haesen recalls.
Catclub’s ambitions were always grander. In the earliest days, she took over African bars in Matonge and transformed rooms above galleries, at times squeezing 600 people onto a sweltering dance floor next door to a police station in Molenbeek.
But with unique venues hard to find, she started working with local building promoters instead. “They’d buy abandoned buildings to develop, but while they applied for permits to tear them down, these places would just sit empty.”
It’s an elegant solution. But turning a shell of a building into somewhere that may be used only two or three times is as much an act of masochism as it is a labour of love – especially in Brussels.
“You need the right insurance, permission, police approval – I send the plans to the firemen myself. Each of the city’s 19 communes has its own law; some don’t even have an event department, and there’s no one to do it for you, so I taught myself.”
Financially it’s a gamble, too. Some venues take just a week to turn around; other renovations drag on interminably. One abandoned supermarket cost around €60,000 (£50,500) to transform and took three months of solid work.
“The toilets are the worst part,” Haesen sighs. “When a building is left empty, the piping gets blocked. There’s shit in the bowl and no water. You have to mix it by hand and try to flush, but the pipes are all dry.”
The results are worth it, though. The supermarket had a tiled floor that Jane turned into a roller disco rink for one night. For another project, an old postal depot in Canal Wharf, the building itself became the canvas.
“They’d ripped out all the machinery and left the piping exposed. I put all the lights in big tubes filled with air, so the whole ceiling was lit up, to accentuate the industrial look. All the electrics and the pipes looked incredible.”
After 17 years of battling local bureaucracy and crumbling buildings, some people would call it a day. As we part, I ask Haesen if she’s ever tempted to stop.
“No. It’s getting harder, but I still like discovering new venues. It’s very creative. It needs a lot of know-how to get all the permits, but when the party’s there and 2,500 people show up, it’s worth it. And I don’t need to stay until the end any more.”