A lecture at Batofar, Paris, May 2002
Some ideas about "colored" art in Switzerland
Switzerland, the unknown creature a complex creature, the head of Medusa.
What is Switzerland? Who knows it? Does it disclose its identity?
In 1992 Swiss artist Ben Vautier drafted the provocative sentence "La Suisse n'existe pas" for the Swiss pavilion at the World Exhibition in Sevilla. Today, ten years later, displayed in the "Money and Power"-pavilion by Harald Szeeman in Bienne at the Swiss National Exhibition Expo 02 the sentence reads: "La Suisse n'existe pas sans argent".
Is this the new self-knowledge of Switzerland? Is this how the new Swiss self-knowledge is proclaimed?
Money in Switzerland.
There is. A fact everybody is aware of and loves to profit from, which last but not least was again brought home to us uncomfortably by the discussions about Nazi-gold and dictators' numbered accounts worth millions of Swiss Francs.
Question : which country does exist without money?
Question : which country establishes its identity through money?
Rather Switzerland could be an example for the coexistence of different cultures, if it wouldnt always stand in its own way. Questions of identity should rather be discussed internally instead of being constantly employed - to evoke the image of a Swiss national and uniform protection shield, to be used externally.
Consciousness of the fragility of the national endeavour to conquer an identity could be the beginning of a clear-up of delusions, and consequently lead to the acceptance of new and hybrid phenomena and to the implementation of a correspondent, meaningful and transparent co-operation.
The fact that in Switzerland, people who regard themselves as true, and "real" Swiss have grandparents who immigrated from Germany, Austria, Italy, former Czechoslovakia is mostly ignored.
There is no REAL Switzerland in the sense of the national and uniform protection shield mentioned earlier. Furthermore, the cultural differences between regions are still very strong. Anywhere and given the occasion, people attach great importance to manifest and enumerate the differences in order to disassociate from each other, to be diverse.
The different cultures and their different languages, unified to "be Switzerland" are not getting along that well: the Swiss French in western Switzerland are attracted by France, people in the Italian speaking part, the Canton Ticino in the south and some villages in the Canton Graubünden, feel closer to Italy, the Romansh, also in Graubünden, feel isolated and Swiss German speakers are being reproached for hatching delusions of grandeur and omnipotence.
Perhaps, this is exactly the reason why the longing, the veiled awareness for a putative unified identity is so strong - because of the little difference you find behind the next mountain where they speak a different language, in the next valley, where people sing other songs and in the next village, where a different language is spoken.
This is a picture Switzerland loves to show and give itself, supporting and allowing these external projections as well. But for a long time the situation has become substantially more complex.
In the urban centres, traditionally and all over the world more multicultural-minded in their general approach, discussions, international exhibitions take place, people from abroad operate restaurants and shops, as distinct to only working there, while in the countryside the foreign languages of the "others", people from Turkey, Sri Lanka, the former Yugoslavia, Russia and various African countries are often perceived with a different attitude.They are discernibly "other", the colour of their skin, their hairdo, clothes, gestures and language are clearly not of "Swiss" origin. Irritations, embarrassment seem predetermined. Where do you come from? But a good deal of these "others" have been born here, are naturalized and look upon themselves as Swiss, have decided to be Swiss citizens problems and over-assimilation included. Many Swiss still can't figure this out they know exactly which way someone ought to be in order to belong to them what for is a question most of them can't answer.
It is clear, who the others are: the others bring problems to an ideal world named Switzerland, they make trouble, and they traffic with prostitution, guns and drugs.
First signs of dialogues are to be seen only marginally. The tendency is rather, that everybody likes to stay for themselves. Also on an intellectual level, where nowadays these subjects are discussed, there is nearly no contact or joining together. Between Cultural Studies and migrant organisations is hardly any contact. Mostly the discussion is smothered by the embaressment of Swiss people, who sink into their own shame and their bad conscience.
The tendency is rather that different groups prefer to keep to themselves.
And even though such topics are discussed, also on an intellectual level, there is hardly any true cooperation, no contacts e.g. between Cultural studies and migrant organisations.
Often discussions are smothered by the embarrassment of Swiss people who are engulfed by shame and a bad conscience.
The actual National Exhibition Expo 02 certainly is an attempt to bear the Swiss complexity in mind.. It takes place in the Land of the Three Lakes, at the border of the Röstigraben where the German and French part of SwitzerlandIn the run-up the Ticino felt excluded, the scene of the exhibtion is far away from southern Switzerland, the Romansh couldn't realize their projects for lack of funds and the western Swiss of the French speaking part felt dominated by the Swiss Germans.
Nevertheless each text at this large-scale exhibition is published in the three main languages of the country, French, Italian, German;. There are translations into English but only a few Romansh ones. Of course guests from all over the world have their platforms: culinary specialities and music are offered throughout the six months at the Expo.02 a colossal celebration. Foreign artists and architects were invited, too emphasizing openness and integration a real stocktaking of Switzerland..?
This is just a brief introduction as a background for the following observations in the field of art, which can be better understood with this excursion into the social relations.
For a long time already we have been discussing global art but its representatives come from the West, from the USA and Europe. Artistic productions from other cultures are perceived from an ethnographic point of view and exhibited in museum of anthropology.
In Switzerland these facts are not different. As one of the few European countries without a colonialist past Switzerland takes a rather reserved and uninterested position in the discussions about post-colonialism and eurocentricity, even if big missionary movements, especially from Basle, as well as intensive economic relations to dictatorships and the non-participation in economic boycotts against e.g. South Africa are known. The discourses were rejected as imported, imposing difficulties, with ignorance towards those, who live in the Diaspora in Switzerland and whose voices are still not strong enough to really gain attention.
The art scene is no exception.
The nomination of Okwui Enwezor as director of the documenta XI, who gave a decisive fresh impetus to the arts already in the run-up, and who openly named social and historic associations similar to the way in which Catherine David situated the documenta X as well as the victory over the Apartheid regime in South Africa have possibly led to an opennes for these complex subjects, which demand a lot more sensitivity and self-scrutiny than the mere adoption of a hype.
But this is a long process and Switzerland stands only at the very first beginning.
During the last three years there have been a few exhibitions and events in the German part of Switzerland, independent of each other, which supported this development. They all had in common, that they refrained from the usual concept of comparison between and juxtaposing non-western and western art, a programme, which today is heavily critized when for example the 1989 exhibition "Magiciens de la Terre" at the Centre Pompidou is discussed.
1999 "change directory" at the Kunsthalle Bern started the series of exhibitions initiating the discourse on a different approach to non-western art.
. The initiative came from the organisation Kultur und Entwicklung" (Culture and Development), which was established in 1985 by six Swiss relief organisations. Since 1990 "Kultur und Entwicklung" has conducted a documentation and mediation agency for artists (musicians, theatre-people and visual artists), who were born abroad and now live in Switzerland. With this exhibition the organisation wanted to get rid of the charity stigma and at the same time lounch a discussion in Switzerland, which was long overdue.
Together with Bernhard Fibicher, the director of the Kunsthalle Bern, 13 visual artists were chosen out of over 80, who are represented in the archives of "Kultur und Entwicklung". The exhibited works, executed in diverse medias were, as was to be expected of different standard. Roundtables were organized. Simon Njami, curator and editor-in-chief of "Revue Noire", came especially from Paris to participate in the discussion. It turned out that only few artists in the Swiss Diaspora succeed in finding appreciation or score a success. Some of the participating artists criticised that they were invited to this exhibition under the label foreign artists in Switzerland, but otherwise got no or only little attention for their work.
The other in the own garden is rather uncomfortable as its positions evoke unintended and unwanted reflections on one's own". It seems to be less dangerous to use the foreign from a distance, as it can be put far away anytime and contents and questions can be put aside as "applicable to us, to our society".
Also at this exhibition the uncomfortable feeling arose of having been used and paraded by those who want to gloss over their bad conscience with well-intentioned gestures, particularly because the duration of the show, a mere nine days, reduced it to a token-exhibition.
Not the artists work and its contents were at the centre of attention, but the fact of their being foreign in Switzerland". Accordingly this exhibition got little response in the art scene and was dismissed as a benevolent social act.
There are also artists, who preferably avoid "Kultur und Entwicklung" not wanting to live and work constantly overshadowed by being "different", and because it is of great importance for them that their work is taken seriously, stands for itself , without being excentuated only because they come from somewhere else.
In 2000 the Kunsthalle and the Historical Museum in Bern realised an exhibition with 22 artists from West and South Africa, first shown in the Ghanese capital Accra. So it was an African confrontation and integrated also artists who originally came from this continent, but are now living in London, Paris, Amsterdam or New York. Some of them already had a reputation, for example Kendell Geers, Jane Alexander, Yinka Shonibare, Zwelethu Mthethwa, who participated in international group shows. Now new names made an impression on our mind: Tracey Rose, Minette Vari two among many others. Some of the participants of this exhibition could also be met at the Biennale in Venice.
As heterogeneous as the contents were also the means of expression: videos, installations, woodwork, paintings, sculptures, and photography.
The exhibition was followed by an international symposium with experts in art and history. The African artists got very edgy and tenacious during the discussions, when they felt pushed into the corner of the poor Africans. The audiences expectations to hear typical African statements were disappointed; still the participants of the discussions tried to hear more about the political situation instead of talking about the exhibited art, which was frustrating for the African artists The participating artists were fighting for an attitude which would take their situation for granted as it is the case with western artists. Very soon it was clear how difficult it is to transmit other political realities and their influences on artistic work, without manifesting reciprocal prejudice. Injuries and insecurities stemming from the times of a mentality intent on conquests and missionarising discovery run deep. Swiss people were offended, that their efforts got no attention, the Africans were angry because they had to fight against being caught in a system of dependencies.
The Central European ignorance, the domination of set frames of reference and the lack of imagination for different concepts of history and art, which do not fit with the linear understanding of the west, reveiled themselves. Accordingly it was only marginally possible to develop a really constructive discussion. Both sides were hardened against each other. The Swiss Goodwill, the willingness and interest to discuss these delicate subjects, was received with suspicion and the dialogue failed at last because of an indiscriminate language. The exhibition was also criticized why yet another exhibition which functions like a ghetto and why not an exhibition which shows competent art, no matter where the artist comes from ?
The western approach to art was criticized and questioned as well as its practice.
Although the situation looked pretty complicated, it still advanced the discussion about dealing with art.
It became evident that art and ethnical groups are no natural models, but models for certain ways of behaviour , which can be demanded and used by certain groups of interest. Culture legitimates social structures and supports the development of symbolic rules, which shape the individual development as well as psychic systems and social behaviour culture is not a concept free of interests, but bound to economic realities and their immanent power.
The last exhibition in this context was "belonging", which took place in November 2001 at the shedhalle Zürich. Young artists were invited who are living in the diaspora in Switzerland or another country, who in their works examine "affiliation", and "home".
I was amazed by the naturalness and unwavering attitude of the work; video installations and photographic series.
Music and songs played an important part in the video installations music and songs as a connecting link to the cultural identity of childhood, music as sentimental support of the loss, of what was voluntarily or involuntarily left behind, of what might be rediscovered anytime, of what we are always looking for.
These works easily reach beyond cultural, national boundaries and arouse cognitive moments (memories) for many visitors sound, music, singing seem to have other possibilities than visual expressions - in these works home and assimilation are conveyed by longing, the expression of which could be understood through sound and songs, independent of cultural knowledge about a certain country - the voice of longing seems to be the same everywhere and can therefore be recognized.
It was an interesting experience which at the same time explained the success of the so-called World Music, which seems easier to be perceived and shared than expressions conveyed with the "heavy material" of the fine arts.
In the last years the Swiss cultural and educational policy tried hard to polish the bad image of Switzerland. Pro Helvetia, a federal foundation for the propagation of Swiss culture abroad, also supports local cultural projects in southern countries and the former Eastern bloc, where they keep so called aerials.
The exchange between artists, who are offered the possibility to get to know each other and to learn from each other, is certainly very precious. However, again and again projects such as these make evident that culture only manages vague attempts at dissolving constructs built with solely political and economic interests in mind. Unfortunately, culture is easily used as an extension of these interests - on the other hand it is also a possibility to set other ideas against the dominance of supposedly global structures.
Instead of giving way to the illusion of a homogenized culture, we should rather keep our view free for fragmentation and difference. Culture cannot and should not re-establish colonialism by other methods and acquire hegemony strategies.
The apparently human tendency to subject the other to the self and project onto it that, which distracts from the self must be opposed with more radical and open considerations and practices. It is a long process, which demands a lot of everybody in view of the incrusted historical influences and the idealisation of globalisation.
Repeatedly this development stagnates, is subject to regressions, reminiscent of times before the Enlightenment.
Yet even though the outlined impressions of the above mentioned exhibitions might sound negative, every encounter of this kind, the effort to engender a mediatory discussion is and remains a step, an advance if only thanks to it it becomes obvious that things don't really work this way, or if two, three persons meet and get to know each other, exchange ideas and begin to develop emanicapated and emancipatory ideas and practices.
As an example for a successful approach to another culture I would like to present the work of Mo Diener.
In Mo Diener's work the use of video - and performance art are of the same importance, the two techniques mutually support each other. I would like to present a piece, which originated in the course of an artist-in-residence-program in South Africa. Mo says about it in her own words:
"...this is a work based on my artistic researches for a possibility of a white European cultural identity appearing in a context of today's South African culture. The work is linked with general contemporary South African cultural identity-debates in Cape Town's art communities. One of the hottest points of encounters is discussion around subjects "of contemporary appropriations of black culture by white artists".
In the video you see her clad in a traditional dress of the Xhosa, formerly called Kaffirs It is a copy she made of the original dress, which is on permanent display in the South African Museum in Cape Town. By her wearing the copy she reintroduces the dress into the daily circuit as a fragile and controversial artefact within a controversial intellectual territory. While being filmed moving through everyday Cape Town she is walking backwards, only a little more slowly than the "normal" walk-abouts. On the video she has reversed the motion so that she appears to be moving forwards whereas the people on the streets seem to be walking backwards.
The use of slow motion emphasises the impression that she is coming out of a dream, out of history, following a certain direction, whereas the people of the present seem to move back into the past at the same time facing a part of history looking at a part of the past.
This piece of art is very poetical in it's dealing with a topic bound to raise aggression and possessiveness, especially as it is done in a very unostentatious and sensual way.