February 4, 2020, Part 1
Alina Baldini and Tea Virolainen Jordi: We start with the background—what is your professional background?
Christoph Doswald: I was doing history, art history, and political science with a degree from University of Zurich. And already during my time at university, I was organizing exhibitions—sometimes together with friends. I was living in a house in Baden in a Wohngemeinschaft [shared apartment] with Paolo Bianchi, who now is a lecturer at the ZHdK. We organized exhibitions in our house; today, you would describe this as an off-space. At the same time, I was active as an art critic for Swiss and international media—special interest and general interest. And then I also had in parallel a journalistic career. I was working for newspapers, like Weltwoche (at this time it was a very interesting newspaper, not as it is today), Neue Zürcher Zeitung, and Tagesanzeiger, mostly on art, design, and architecture. Sometimes also political issues.
I was one of the founders of Shedhalle, the exhibition space in Zurich's Rote Fabrik. At that time, in the Eighties, everything was highly politicized, and we were activists, thinking about cultural centers not only in the classic terms, but with a political twist. Culture at that time meant literature, opera, theatre, and museums. And we all missed a platform with a contemporary approach. This ignorance for our needs was the main reason why the Eighties riots in Zurich started.
AB+TVJ: Do you think today this is happening again—that art is getting more political again?
CD: I would not say so. Politics and social issues have always been part of contemporary art after World War II. So, it's nothing new. I would say since the beginning of the 20th century, art and culture have had a strong political and social sideline. And as we do quite intensely discuss gender and postcolonial questions today, it is clear that artists are focusing on it. But art has also formal qualities, deals with the media-discourses. Picasso's Guernica is a political statement, indeed. But it would not be as important as it is without the formal qualities of the painting itself. Should artists define themselves as political artists? I don't know. But I know that Barbara Kruger or Cindy Sherman are dealing with feminist issues and that they are good artists.
AB+TVJ: What about your current position and role?
CD: Before 2006, there was no public art program in Zurich. Which means there was public art, but there was not a systematically developed strategy of how to deal with it. The ZHdK and the city of Zurich collaborated in the early 2000s and worked on a research project, a study on the state of art in public space in Zurich. It was Christoph Schenker, together with students, who did a field study about what had been done in the past, and what could be done better, how this could be developed specifically for Zurich. The full report, published in the book Kunst und Öffentlichkeit, recommended establishing a permanent work group—not a commission but a work group that is constituted by 50% of members of the administration, people who are involved with the public space like Grünstadt Zürich, Tiefbauamt, Amt für Stadtentwicklung, Hochbauamt—five city departments are involved today, including the cultural department. And then there are five members from outside. Chairing should be always an external specialist not employed by the city. In the work group, we develop strategies and projects for the city of Zurich together. We make proposals/suggestions to the city council and the parliament. We do not have a budget which is defined; they have to raise the money.
AB+TVJ: But the art commission has a budget?
CD: Yes—they have a defined budget for buying art for the art collection. They have also a budget for grants. But the KiöR job is completely different. As the city's development is quite dynamic, we have to react to permanently changing contexts. I’ll give you an example: when the city and SBB, the Swiss railway company, started to develop Europaallee, the work group had a discussion about this issue—this was in the time before I was the chairperson—should they consider starting a program there? As Europaallee defines a completely new form of public space in Zurich, the work group suggested to the city council of Zurich to do a curatorial program in the Europaallee for ten years. The city council agreed to this, and with this commitment the project was able to start. The financing of the project is split between the city and the Swiss railway company. From then on, the work group was no longer involved in direct operations. The Fachstelle is coordinating the project. Sometimes members of the work group are invited, when there is a competition. There was an open call for curatorial teams at the start in 2010 to present their projects for Europaallee. More than seventy teams applied for it on a general basis, which means they have to send in their portfolio. A commission—experts from the working group, people from SBB, and the city's administration, external experts—went through the portfolios and made a pre-selection. There were all different kinds of curatorial teams: couples, female/male, young and old curators, there were people from Vienna, Berlin, Paris, London…it was completely diverse and international. We stated in the briefing that we were not looking for artworks, but we wanted a curatorial masterplan for the next ten years instead. The winning project is titled Space and deals on a general level with the notion of urban space. The early phase was during the construction period—and it was titled Under Construction. Patrik Huber and Evtixia Bibassis, the curators, invited artists to do interventions during the construction process—Kerim Seiler’s installation 118-11, for example, created a huge light wall which marked the moving frontline of the railway station and the Europaallee, which was always transforming during the period of the construction. One of the lecturers at ZHdK, Heinrich Lüber, is a performance artist, and he did a performance called Hub. There were also music interventions—like the one by Big Zizz. So, there were all kinds of artists involved during this construction process.
Actually, the second phase is running, which is titled Constructed, and there are two directions in which they work. One is with light interventions, and the other one is sound interventions. This will be realized in the next two or three years.
AB+TVJ: This was realized by these curators that applied for the competition?
CD: Yes—that won the competition. Out of those seventy teams, we invited seven and paid them 8000 CHF to work out a concept. So, they were paid for the proposals. There was a wide variety in the proposals, and it was interesting for us to see how they dealt with it.
AB+TVJ:teams are quite a lot, isn’t it?
CD: You know, it is not a small budget, and at that time it was four million CHF before it was reduced to two million CHF, due to the financial crisis. And for this size of project, you really want good input. My experience is that when you invite just three or four, you may get maybe one good proposal—maybe…
AB+TVJ: Your role was to supervise or coordinate the activities of this curatorial team?
CD: I was the head of the selection committee. There were external experts, e.g. Jacqueline Burkhardt, at that time she was editor-in-chief of Parkett; there were young artists, there were also people of the railway company…it was quite a variety of people. We had people from the art scene but also people who are not in the art scene. The role of the chair is to moderate the process and bring those diverse opinions to a decision.
AB+TVJ: So, the curatorial team was free as to which artists they could invite?
CD: At that time, the winning team did not even say with whom they would work in the future. Their proposal was just a general concept. Of course, they gave examples like, “We could think e.g. of Pipilotti Rist for a light intervention,” and so on. When you’re in such a process, you have to question those proposals in order to find the best one.
AB+TVJ: Is there any specific curatorial line or concept that KiöR follows, or does it change from one project to another?
CD: Working in public space means that you have to work with the context, and the context can have a wide variety: a dense neighborhood in the historic heart of the city; industrial areas in transformation; a park or a place with social problems; or a place where the rich people live. The context is pretty essential for our work. And the diversity of the city as a stage for art. 450,000 people live in Zurich, 35% of them are foreigners, so our context is very multicultural. We have young and old people—so we are quite challenged by this diversity of people, attitudes, interests, and I would never put my personal taste or curatorial focus over the whole program. As a chairman of the working group, my role is more the function of a moderator than of a curator. But there are exceptions when I'm the curator of a specific project. Maybe you had the chance to experience Art in the City or New North Zurich or Art Altstetten Albisireiden—a series of nomadic projects on different sites and connected to the city development. There, I act as a curator, and I have to make my choice. But I would be a bad curator if I chose only male artists over sixty or only people doing sculptures. These exhibitions have between thirty-five to forty-five artists, and you will find everything—from participation art to drop sculptures, from video to neon, from Los Angeles to Beijing.
AB+TVJ: How are the places for the Gasträume found? And how did you decide where in the city?
CD: Gasträume is another format. It invites people, as the names says, to be guests on a specific site. It is a concept that KiöR developed, because we have almost daily proposals for an artwork to be installed in town. It's great to see that people care about their urban neighborhood, that they want to be involved. They come, for example, with requests for monuments for Köbi Kuhn (a national football trainer) or the last Äbtissin in Fraumünster or the Guru XY. And it's our job to help, to support or say no. That's why we started a discussion in the working group, how to react to all those requests. As public spaces are very limited, we have to focus on quality. We do not want an “anything goes.” This is essential for the credibility of the KiöR project, and we must spend time on helping people understand what quality is. But how can we do that? At the end of this discussion, we developed the Gasträume: once a year, during the summer period, we offer in an open call to everybody in and around Zurich for a selection of public spaces—e.g., Paradeplatz, Basteiplatz, Sigi-Feigel-Terrasse, Turbinenplatz, Maagplatz. And then you can apply and present your proposals to a selection committee. This process is completely transparent, including a written report on the discussions. The people in the committee change every year—this year, for example, there is Ines Goldbach from Kunsthaus Baselland, Lionel Bovier from Musée d’art moderne et contemporain (Mamco) of Geneva, two members of KiöR, and me. It is essential to rotate the selection committee every year. But it becomes more and more challenging to find the sites for the artworks, the Gasträume. As a lot of construction work is happening, as many manifestations and parties are celebrated, the public spaces are under high pressure. If you compare photos from 100 years ago with the situation today, you will see that the city is completely overdefined—crowded not only with people, but covered with many signs and information: signaletic, commercials, traffic signs, infrastructure buildings, and many more things.
AB+TVJ: Often, it’s actually not public space but instead belongs to someone—it belongs to a company or is private…
CD: Yes, some of the Gasträume are privately owned indeed. But Paradeplatz, for example, the Gessner Allee or Basteiplatz belong to the City of Zurich. And it is important to provide the artists, the galleries, the off-spaces, or the institutions with attractive sites, as they have to finance the projects themselves. We do not support the production of the artworks, we only enable the sites, we do the marketing and communication, we support the installations if it's necessary and as far it is possible for us. The job can be very “hands-on,” as young artists are not at all experienced in the urban space. Public space is not easy to work with; it's not just hanging a picture on the wall, you have to consider security issues, the weather during the three months, vandalism, and so on.
AB+TVJ: Do you have a specific audience in mind?
CD: International specialists and professionals are 10% of our audience. People who are curious to discover art in Zurich, coming from Zurich itself or nearby, as this is often an opportunity for discovering places in their city that they did not know, make up 40%. They come to visit new neighborhoods in their own town like it happened with Art and the City. And finally, we have people coming from all over Switzerland who are attracted because they know that the exhibitions in public spaces in Zurich are pretty spectacular.
AB+TVJ: What is the role of art in public spaces?
CD: The renaissance of urban life in the 21st century is quite an exciting and a challenging phenomenon. We experience a sort of a new Gründerzeit, comparable to the late 19th century. Art can and must be part of this new city development. The architecture in the 21st century has a pretty homogeneous style, as it's very related to economic decisions. The surfaces of the buildings are pretty monotone. And worst of all, this style has been globalized. What could create a difference is art. Art can support the creation of specific identities in the urban context. If we do not invest now in public art, the people of the future will not know the history of their city, as everything is going to be very homogeneous. We have to invest in culture in order to create urban identity for the future.
AB+TVJ: Is there a way for people who visit art in public space to understand what is installed?
CD: Information on public art in Zurich is accessible in many ways. There are guided tours for the summer projects; there is a very detailed information system connected directly to the artworks in German and English; we work on social media; and we have a classical catalogue.
Zurich is very rich in public art; when I started to work with it, we were lacking essential information on these artworks and had to build up a database from scratch. With that homework done, we are able now to publish this information. We plan to use QR codes and additional information systems that will guide the visitor to identify what is exhibited nearby. But this takes time and is expensive. I'm not complaining, but the operational work with public art at the city's administration is done by two people working 150%.
AB+TVJ: How do you promote your work?
CD: We use all kind of web platforms: Instagram, Facebook, YouTube videos. We have our own platform [www.instagram.com/kioer/; www.stadt-zuerich.ch/kioer ]. We have a publishing series, dealing with public art issues, like, for example, how to de-install sculptures.
AB+TVJ: How many women and men are exhibited?
CD: Diversity is an important topic: we represent the city of Zurich, which is very diverse. In Gasträume, we still have a majority of male artists. Female artists do not even apply. When I do curate projects, I invite half male and half female artists, but it's really much harder to convince women for an exhibition project. So, in the end we have two-thirds male artists.
Gender statistics for open-call projects, like Gasträume, are even worse. In 2019, there was activity by women on Facebook asking why we had only 20% women. I went through the applications. Six came from female artists, five of them were accepted for the exhibition. The refusal ratio of male artists was much higher. We do everything possible to have a fair representation. But we need more female applications if we want to avoid the 12:5 gender gap we had last year.
As you might know, I also work in the artist association of Switzerland where we try to improve the conditions of female artists. We just invented a special program for mother artists with children, creating a studio exchange program customized for artists with kids... Other countries are more advanced in this sense (France and Germany, for example).
Alina Baldini is an Italian psychologist, she has lived and worked in Basel (CH) since 2017. For the past couple of decades, she has been working in corporations addressing topics like company culture, coaching, and personal transformation. Following her passion for contemporary art and her curiosity to discover the curating aspects in what she experiences, she decided to begin the Postgraduate Programme in Curating, MAS at the ZHdK in 2019.
Tea Virolainen (b. 1970, Asikkala, Finnland) is a graphic designer, based in Switzerland near Basel. After completing her training as a typographer, she switched to advertising. During this time she continued to educate herself as a multimedia designer. In 2002 Tea Virolainen ventured into self-employment and in January 2013 she founded together with Tina Guthauser KOKONEO GmbH, a studio for visual communication. Her interests in social arts led her to the Postgraduate Programme in Curating, CAS at the ZHdK.