(Deservedly) famous for its chocolate and bankers, Switzerland is otherwise quite unknown to the majority of the non-Swiss people. Despite its super central position on the European map, is often perceived as a blurred never-mentioned territory, to the point that my mum asked me “Do you have Coronavirus in Switzerland?”
We do, and we also have a self-organised art scene, which is struggling with that.
But, let me tell you more about that through the help of a recent issue of OnCurating, a paper and online journal that recently dealt with the topic of project spaces.
First of all, in Zurich, and with Art Basel close by, the extremes of contemporary art come together pretty visibly, and in close proximity: on one side, the high art products of the art fair, which are often still painting and sculpture, through conservative consumer decisions. On the other side, the lively scene of off-spaces, curators, and artists working for very little money.
The clash is there, even if a precarious situation is relative in Switzerland, since most people have some sort of social security and most have health insurance; nonetheless, the culture sector financial support is clearly dedicated to the big institutions. The numerous, lively, buzzing independent spaces are surprisingly underfunded in comparison to other cities with a busy cultural scene.
The unpaid work of artists (and curators) are in the end producing a surplus that ends up exclusively in the high art market with billions of dollars in revenue circulating in art fairs and big galleries. Art workers are therefore deprived of a surplus they are working for. What function does this seeming surplus play in the production of art world values estimated by some in the billions of dollars in sales? asks Gregory Sholette in the book Dark Matter 1 (a topic that I would like to deepen in a separate moment).
A vast majority of artists, this so-called “dark matter”, are ignored by critics and this broader creative culture feeds the mainstream with new forms and styles that can be commodified and used to sustain the few artists admitted into the elite. Sholette writes: “In brief, artistic dark matter refers to the marginalised and systematically underdeveloped aggregate of creative productivity that nonetheless reproduces the material and symbolic economy of high art.” It provides “essential energy and ideas to the broader art world discourse and practice.” 2
Switzerland, and Zurich, has a profound neoliberal system: especially in the arts. Short-term project work is common, though compared to other European countries the living expenses are exorbitantly high. Employment contracts are easy to dismiss (from personal experiance), parental leaves are short, and there is no job security for disabled individuals whatsoever. Of course, on the other hand, there are also very low taxes, but who will benefit from them?
The political system is built on a concordance system, which means, often in the parliaments, one has to come to an agreement with everyone, also with the very right-wing parties. Eva Maria Würth, former Zurich Cantonal Councilor in an interview with Dorothee Richter explains that since Switzerland has no opposition policy, the task is always to find political solutions that are supported by a majority. Alliances between the parties can change from business to business and the center parties are courted by both the left and the right. About 30% of the population of Zurich do not hold a Swiss passport, many of them working in finance, medicine/pharmacy, service industries, and creative industries, but these people do not have the right to vote.
This cannot be determined by a political left-right scheme but requires a fundamental cultural understanding of pluralism. It is not clear to many people that cultural work is not a hobby but a profession. When I was trying to “enroll” in the Zurich unemployment programme I had many difficulties in explaining a.) the job I was doing before being fired after three years, b.) that my curatorial projects were to be kept in my curriculum under “work experience” -and not under “ohers”(!!)-. Anyway, now the same lady I had on the phone told me she sent my cv to a Swiss private bank looking for an event manager.
Until the mid-1980s, there was no professional training in fine arts at any public institution throughout Switzerland. In Zurich, anybody willing to start a career in fine arts attended the division for art teaching. This continuously cemented the status quo that artistic practice is basically a leisure time occupation of gifted art teachers. A private art school with roots in the School of Arts and Crafts already existed. In 1965, the experimental art class “Farbe und Form” (color and form) was founded. Inspired by the concepts of Bauhaus and Black Mountain College, transdisciplinary courses in public social engagement and teamwork were taught. This open teaching à la Joseph Beuys was increasingly perceived as an attack on patriarchal structures as well as on the design school’s reputation as a stronghold of the “Good Form” introduced by Max Bill. The experiment ended in 1970 in an unsolvable conflict. But, as soon as the global art market increased in the 1990s (spoiler alert) the artistic profession became part of Switzerland’s official education system and BA in Art Theory popped out. At that time the city authorities had major problems to confront, above all the heroin epidemic, with hundreds of dealers and addicts flooding into Zurich and heading to the infamous “Needle park”, home to Europe’s biggest open drug scene 3.
But what about today? I might be wrong was a discursive and explorative series of events taking place at the OnCurating Project Space. Initiated in 2019, the program invites people from different disciplines to shed light on moments of impulse, doubts, and experiments that one comes across in life. Challenging the standard talk format, this discursive project aims to become more rhizomatic and inclusive by inviting the audience to be part of the conversation. This happens (I’m not sure it’s achieved though) by scaling down the environment’s hierarchies (no pedestal for the speaker(s); no linear chair disposition; more proximity between the speaker(s) and the public; but especially by talking about difficulties and challenges rather than achieved successes and opportunities.
Resonating with the melancholic Radiohead song of the same name, I might be wrong is about the motivations and events that went ‘less right’; the doubts and insecurities; the unusual situations and how to adapt to them, among other and aim to generate honest exchanges and learnings from each other, in an endeavor of care. The focus is on the Zurich art scene and what it means to run an independent space in the city. Geographically, independent spaces are spread all around the city like snow, as illustraited by Art Space Guide - http://www.artspaceguide.ch. In contrast, commercial galleries are located in the Löwenbräukunst Areal, like one of the many Hauser & Wirth(s), the public (but I would rather say “mixed” ) funded institutions like Kunsthalle, supermarket giant Migros Museum for Contemporary Art. The rest of the commercial galleries, which didn’t feel like moving to the old brewery, are to find in the Rämistrasse.
Within independent and project spaces, there are huge differences: some are quite in line within distinctive fine arts procedures and operate structurally close to galleries, while others are more in favour of discourse and are built around an artist community and special shared interests. Others still are more culturally driven or closer to entertainment and partying. They differ immensely in scale, infrastructure, personnel, and ambition. They are big enough to form groups but not big enough to be entirely separate from each other. So, these separate groups collide, but unfortunately they rarely mix. At the same time, they (mostly all) compete for the same funding from a very small contemporary art budget, which has stagnated for years. Funding—despite what one might assume after hearing “Zurich” and “Switzerland”—is not an easy task for the independent art scene.
What is missing in Zurich, ironically, is support both in terms of network and finance. The density of high-end galleries in Zurich, given the size of the city, is probably higher than New York, Hong Kong, etc. So, everyone who is in the arts, new graduates, students, see all these super high-end galleries all around and dream of becoming part of this gallery system. It is easy to get in touch with people working in these galleries, compared to other cities, yet it is a whole different story to be part of these galleries and work with them.
In Switzerland artists as a group of professionals tend to lack organized political and economic representation. Up to a certain degree, it appears intuitively logical, as artists are usually self-employed, exploiting themselves and their resources seemingly by choice and therefore amiss of an entity, institution, or subsumable industry other than themselves to which demands could be addressed. At the same time, the only organization in Switzerland which self-identifies as a national interest group for furthering artists’ economic and political standing, Visarte, has missed out on the past few decades, completely oblivious of new generations, new circumstances, new urgencies, and new situations regarding the accessibility to all kinds of resources. The database of the Swiss unemployment agency doesn’t include “artist” in the professions (which makes sense, since I couldn’t explain who a curator is). While there are several layers of safety nets and welfare support systems in case of unemployment or distress in Switzerland, none are prepared to handle a logic of labor not based on a fixed, monthly income, or in the case of self-employment, realities which are based on a principle of paying forward, with incomes oscillating annually 4.
Artists with day jobs are rarely looking for a career in their salaried occupations, which leads to them taking on employment in low qualification and informal settings which are therefore also low-income and often paid by the hour or per gig. Industries like gastronomy and the event industry are often the go-to for artists looking for jobs with flexible working hours and the possibility to adjust frequency and involvement with respect to their individual work and projects. You can see where I am going with this: amongst the first branches that were shut down in most countries and for obvious reasons were all things eating, drinking, partying, and entertaining. So, there you are, thinking for a brief moment “Well, I might as well just go and put in some more salary work for the time being,” before quickly realizing that your employer has already sent you a text message saying that you’re out of work for the foreseeable future, and because you’re hired on an hourly or freelance basis, they don’t see any possibility to keep you on as long as the company can’t generate income.
“Swiss-made” freedom of artistic production though, always functions under the institutional framing of concern, solidarity, and security. At its meeting on March 16, 2020, the Federal Council of Switzerland declared that an “extraordinary situation” in accordance with the “Epidemics Act” now existed and introduced more stringent measures to protect the public, such as the closing of all entertainment and leisure facilities. To provide economic assistance in Switzerland, the cultural sector applies the established rules of a “life before corona”: “Compensation is regulated in accordance with the Income Compensation Act and applies also to freelance artists. It is paid as a daily allowance.
While the majority of this important creative sector (institutions, companies, freelancers) is able to quantify their losses, doing so is difficult for artists. They usually have completed most of the workload before contracts or financial agreements find a way onto their desks. However, the granted compensation is based on either short-term cancellations or on the most recent tax return. Whoever has mainly produced in the studio during that period is unlucky and receives either nothing or just savings for a rainy day. A part-time job lost at short notice is recognized by the Income Compensation Act and is compensated accordingly, while the main occupation as an artist leads to a dependency on state. Such conditions put artists directly into a stigmatized position of neediness 5.
On March 14, 2020 the artist-run space Hamlet released a call for donations in order to build a fund to offer artists in dire need support and relief and set up an online platform for a benefit auction. The support from within the art world itself was impressive and many artists in need could be helped. There are ways of unlocking empathy, understanding, resources, support, and solidarity, but they rely, in Switzerland like all over the world, on the initiative of the art network. On the state-side a syndicate consisting of a variety of organizations representing cultural workers’ interests in Switzerland, mostly musicians, was tasked with developing a strategy for processing the applications and paying out the “immediate relief ” [Soforthilfe] funds to artists in need. Unfortunately the actual “immediate help” aids only came a couple of months later 6. (I know someone could argue “It came!”, fair enough.)
Artistic engagement is not seen as systemically relevant. Since Swiss cultural politics is merely an administration within a system of neoliberal capitalism, the opportunity to consider artistic work as a benefit for society as a whole and to free it from the dependency on secondary employments was not taken. In Switzerland, the fine arts are understood as part of the value chain of the creative industry and are strongly promoted as such. Marina Vishmidt in “The Aesthetic Subject and the Politics of Speculative Labor,” 7 sees in the case of Zurich the connection between the contradictions of the social development of artistic labor in capitalism and the formation of the aesthetic subject in modernity as the displacement of labor from the category of art. Capitalist accumulation of surplus from the arts, dealing with high-priced art, underfunded free artistic and curatorial work, and new formations of subjectivity that enable the economic system of neoliberalism. Art is now concerned with generating an aesthetic judgment, and the labor of art projects with the “speculative” modes of accumulation. “Art seems to strangely mirror the speculative mode of hypercapitalism of the neoliberal system in which we are now living. Artistic work becomes more and more immaterial or more and more “speculative,” as a logical development of the separation of handicraft and artistic work in a contemporary understanding.”8.
The experience of running an independent space–is somehow speculative, about the ‘process.’ It is about the process of trying and failing. It is about ‘learning by doing’ and about the courage to take risks. The aesthetics of failure resonates with a certain school of thought, but the problem is that it doesn’t resonate with receiving funding, not in a sustainable way at least. One can launch a project based on experimentation and trials but hardly convince the city council that a systematic program based on doubt and uncertainty will bring anything else then doubt and uncertainty. But it is important! Really!
So, yes mum, we have Corona and we feel it. Switzerland has a functioning social system but this is embedded in its economic system, in which art is for the rich kids or for starving artists, paradoxically, maybe even more than somewhere else. The virus teaches us that in a very short time, familiar settings can become super flexible. The pandemic crisis challenges our community through complicated conditions such as solidarity through social distancing or the “shared burden of guiltlessness.” 9, on the other hand this “virus so subtle, that no one will notice its slow and transformative essence” 10 might open up an even wider space for experimentation in art in a gentle way, finally allowing the concept of curating to comprehensively meet its roots: curare.
I might be wrong.
(1) Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture, Gregory Sholette, London: Pluto Press, 2010, reprinted 2011, and 2013.
(2) ibid. pp.13
(3) Today still busy but with families thanks to the very Swiss - Swiss National Museum.
(4) From “Failure Is A Possibility: Interview With Cathrin Jarema and Clifford E. Bruckmann”, oncurating, 2020
(5) Suisseculture, Corona emergency aid for cultural workers, accessed May 26, 2020, www.suisseculture.ch/index.php?id=207.
(6) Statement on the Covid Situation by Cathrin Jarema and Clifford E. Bruckmann, oncurating, Issue 48, 2020.
(7) The Aesthetic Subject and the Politics of Speculative Labor Marina Vishmidt, oncurating, Issue 48, 2020. (8) ibid. pp.66
(9) Simon Maurer, in “Helm(zu)haus,” Zurich Department of Culture art newsletter (May 2020), accessed May 26, 2020, https://www.stadt-zuerich.ch/kultur/de/index/ institutionen/helmhaus/hintergrund/Helmzuhaus.html.
(10) (CAN I WORK LIKE THIS? In Search of Presence in Pandemic Times by Tanja Trampe).
Image: I might be wrong, album Radiohead, Parlophone, 2001
Giulia Busetti - MAR 2021
The Reflecting on... series takes situations, objects, artworks, articles, texts, podcasts and anything else really as starting points for reflection on artist-led and self-organised (AL&SO) practice.
Ephemeral Care focuses on ethics, practice and strategies in artist-led and self-organised projects.