Eva-Maria Würth (Zurich), artist from the duo Interpixel (together with Philippe Sablonier), lecturer (Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts – Design & Art, study course Art & Mediation), and politician (Co-President, Pro Kultur Kanton Zürich) interviewed by Dorothee Richter.
Dorothee Richter: You are a politically engaged artist with projects such as Disarming the Children’s Rooms, and now you are in real politics, how did that happen?
Eva-Maria Würth: The art system is partly a rather closed social field. For some years now, there have been increasing efforts to open up cultural institutions and make them more permeable, and also to adapt cultural funding accordingly. But this was not enough for me. I was interested in becoming active in further fields beyond Interpixel's own transdisciplinary and art-system-breaking art projects. It is true that our artworks had social and political effects in and outside of the art field. I didn't just want to take up topics and bring them into the social discussion, but to get involved in a very concrete, factual political way. In politics there are other possibilities for action than in art. In politics, decisions are made effectively—depending on political majorities—which have implications for Realpolitik. The language in the art system and in Realpolitik are different. In some respects, the spheres are mutually dependent; in others, there are hardly any points of contact.
DR: You were a member of parliament in the Canton of Zurich, and you were a member of parliament in the City of Zurich. Did the work in real politics influence your artistic work, and if yes, in what ways?
EMW: Art and politics are both formative areas of society, in which an idea is developed in long processes from the initial idea to its implementation. A large part of the political work takes place in exclusion of the public in the form of intellectual work, discussions, and the working out of political proposals. This is similar to artistic work, in which a large part of the work—in the studio or elsewhere—is also carried out in the background. Only a small part of the political work becomes visible to the public. Political work is an intellectual marathon run, i.e., highly strategic work, whose craft—similar to making art—is learned through action and doing and requires a great deal of endurance. The acquired skills can be used very well for making art and for mediating activities, especially on a linguistic and content level. Realpolitik takes a lot of time if you want to get seriously involved. That's why in recent years, I have increasingly focused on political work and put the purely artistic work at the back. In addition to my parliamentary work, I have been involved at a national level as a member of the central board of the Swiss Visual Arts Association (Visarte). Currently, I am a founding member and Co-President of Pro Kultur Kanton Zürich and am active outside parliament as well.
DR: For an outsider, the way in which decisions are made in the art and culture department and, of course, in politics is very dubious for me. It is not that easy to find members of a cultural committee. Is it that all the decisions are made by the whole parliament? And is it because of this that politics look so tame in some respects?
EMW: In Switzerland, the principle of publicity applies to state authorities. This is intended to make the actions of the authorities and offices comprehensible and transparent for outsiders. On the one hand, it obliges state authorities to make information of general interest available to the public on their own initiative, i.e., to pursue an active information policy. On the other hand, every person has the fundamental right of access to information held by government agencies. Requested state agencies are obliged to answer such requests.
Since Switzerland is organized on a federal basis, the authorities in each of the twenty-six cantons and in the more than 2,000 communes are structured differently, both organizationally and politically. As a result, the political processes are very different and so is the way information is disseminated. In some cantons, for example, all cultural tasks are concentrated in a single office, while in others they are distributed across various offices or departments. This means that cultural practitioners, curators, etc. have to obtain information about public cultural promotion directly from the public authorities in the respective canton. Unfortunately, there is no standardized system. This makes it both demanding and time-consuming for cultural operators to bring together the funding of cultural projects that go beyond the cantonal borders. However, thanks to the principle of publicity, the information is accessible to everyone. In the canton of Zurich, for example, the state agency for culture publishes an extremely transparent annual activity report, which is also available on the website as a PDF file, where it shows its activities and who has received cultural funding. It is important to know that the main responsibility for public cultural promotion in Switzerland lies with the cantons and municipalities, not with the federal government. This means that this is also where the most funding is available across the country.
Ideally, politicians define the framework conditions for cultural promotion (law, finances, etc.), and independent cultural promotion commissions do the substantive work. In many cantons, however, the policymakers also want to have a say in the content of the awarding of grants. Thus, there are certain decisions that are made solely by cultural promotion commissions and others where the government body or parliament has the final say. In other words, cultural promotion always interacts directly or indirectly with politics. That is why it can be said: the more open-minded a state (canton) is, the "better" its cultural promotion is structured.
DR: Switzerland is one of the first European countries in which the right-wing party had a higher percentage of votes? In what way does this influence the cultural sector?
EMW: Across Switzerland, public cultural budgets came under pressure, especially at the cantonal level. In some cantons, they have experienced drastic cuts, which have been painfully felt by the cultural scene. These are not purely due to the strengthening of the SVP (Schweizerische Volkspartei/ Swiss People's Party). All in all, it can be said that the liberal and, to some extent, the bourgeois forces have increasingly lost the awareness and self-conception of promoting and supporting culture. As a result, majorities that are necessary for financing culture have been and are increasingly breaking away. The big debate revolves around how much public support for culture is needed, whether art and culture should be financially self-sustaining, and who should fulfill the cultural mandate guaranteed in the constitution. I advocate a democratically legitimized art that also allows for uncomfortable questions and that is not oriented towards neoliberal profit for the individual. Blockbuster culture and box-office hits must be oriented towards the mainstream and thus towards the economic power of an artistic or cultural work. However, the promotion of art and culture and their content must not be tied to whether they are financially profitable. The culture of a country also consists of small and fine tones, which in their diversity form the cohesion in our country. 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 and that those who work in the cultural sector, those who mediate culture and all those involved must also be decently rewarded. Above all, it is also not clear to many that art and culture play a decisive role in creating identity.
DR: Does the concordance system also make it necessary to find an agreement with right-wing parties?
EMW: 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. Politics in a democracy means convincing with arguments. The middle parties are the most important players. They are courted by both the left and the right because they are the tip of the scales. Switzerland is a country of consensus. It is always a matter of finding solutions that are at least accepted by everyone. This makes Switzerland somewhat slower in political processes than countries with an opposition system, but also more stable.
DR: What is the next big challenge for the cultural sphere?
EMW: The cultural scene in Switzerland is acutely threatened by the COVID crisis. It is essential to ensure that cultural diversity with all its niche productions can be preserved. Switzerland has co-signed the UNESCO resolution on cultural diversity and is obliged to implement it. Culture contributes to our quality of life. It is the backbone of Switzerland: apart from its ideal cultural values, it is the basis of a long economic value chain. It is often argued that culture only costs. Studies[i] prove the opposite. It not only creates jobs, but also provides innovation and impulses. Culture is relevant to the system in various respects: for society, for the individual, for the economy. It is important not to be deceived by numbers. Economic reasons are never decisive for cultural activity. Ultimately, the question is what it takes for people to be creative. The aspects of the precariousness and fragility of cultural production are important here. This is something that must be discussed after COVID. We must have a discussion about the value of culture and consider what a contemporary, liberal, democratic society needs in order to provide a good life for all members of society. For that we need a well-functioning cultural sector.
DR: What does the association Verein Pro Kultur Kanton Zürich do in Switzerland and especially in Zurich?
EMW: Pro Kultur Kanton Zürich[ii] is the community of interest of the cultural producers, cultural institutions, and cultural mediators in the Canton of Zurich. The organization is the common voice of all sectors for city and country, for both broad and high culture. It is politically committed to the comprehensive, future-oriented, and sustainable promotion of art and culture in the Canton of Zurich and its communities. The aim is to maintain and strengthen the Canton of Zurich as an important cultural location. To this end, Pro Kultur Kanton Zürich, as a political lobby organization, tries to convince political decision-makers of the importance of public cultural promotion and of an active and broad concept of culture.
The organization does everything in its power to ensure that public cultural promotion is maintained and that new tasks are neither compensated for by cuts in the current free cultural promotion nor that the legally enshrined operating contributions for large cultural institutions are reduced in order to safeguard other cultural promotion. After all, in order to fulfil its legal mandate, public cultural funds need not less but more resources if cultural support is not only to continue to make the existing possible, but also to offer courageous and innovative scope for the emergence of new things and thus secure Zurich as a cultural location.
In concrete terms, Pro Kultur Kanton Zürich is calling for more support for professional cultural production and mass culture in the municipalities and regions. The strengthening of non-commercial areas in art and culture creates democratic negotiation spaces for all age groups and all parts of societies. Decentralized structures are to be used to bring professional cultural practitioners more closely together with other fields of work and society in order to benefit from mutual impulses through exchange. Funding provided by the canton and communes must make it possible to pay cultural practitioners the fees recommended by professional associations so that their social security can be improved. New sectors and areas should be promoted and the narrow boundaries between sectors and between high and mass culture should be reconsidered. Cross-generational cultural projects to strengthen the joint cultural participation of children, young people, and adults should be given greater weight. Cultural education and the promotion of cultural projects in primary schools, vocational schools, technical colleges, and universities should be expanded. Inclusion is also to be promoted: more attention should be paid to projects by other cultures and by cultural workers with a migration background in order to stabilize, democratize, and secure social peace in our society. The aspect of gender diversity and gender issues should also be increasingly included. In addition, greater weight must be given to the inclusion of people with disabilities. Then cultural reporting must be ensured. The visualization and reflection of cultural creation must be ensured by means of an independent platform or by promoting media cultural reporting, which also takes into account smaller projects, exhibitions and performances as well as unknown persons.
DR: For me, it is rather strange that an extremely rich city like Zurich neglects the open scene, the “dark matter” of the art world in such an extreme way. All in all, the open scene gets a very small part of what each bigger institution gets; this sounds dubious and rather strange, since the Zurich art scene has many off-spaces and a manifold cultural scene. So, in the end does this mean that the art in Zurich can be only done by rich kids?
EMW: If it goes on like this, yes… The economic pressures are getting worse and worse. Everything is getting more expensive, especially rents, which are an ever-increasing share of household costs. So, the pressure on freelance and self-employed cultural workers and off-spaces is increasing. In the city of Zurich, tax money is invested in cultural promotion. Playing the cultural institutions off against the independent scene is not conducive to achieving the desired results. Rather, the question should be asked whether the available money is sufficient for the density of cultural workers in the city and canton of Zurich, or whether more should not be demanded, as Pro Kultur Kanton Zürich suggests. Because the funds are far from sufficient for project funding and small operating contributions... pressure would have to be built up from the scene.
Zurich, as the largest Swiss city, is a magnet. The Zurich University of the Arts has an additional charisma: many students stay in the city after completing their studies because they have built up a functioning network here over the years. In my opinion, the city and canton have a responsibility to do more for the independent scene and to raise more money. Because only if the independent scene has enough money and space at its disposal can it develop sustainably and carry out essential work in terms of content. Everything is a system that builds on itself. The independent scene is a breeding ground for the big houses. And here it needs more effort that the independent scene is not just a heater for the graduates, but that this scene has its (niche) justification and existence parallel to the big houses and lighthouses. If this is lost, the cultural diversity in the city of Zurich will wither away. The (self-)exploitative situation that prevails will create a new precarity in the long run.
DR: How could the cultural scene support the fight for a much steadier situation in the arts and culture?
EMW: The cultural actors must join forces and stand up for their interests and concerns in politics and society. The relevant organizations exist: from professional associations to trade unions, political parties and interest groups for culture. Everyone is free to become a member of Pro Kultur Kanton Zürich or of a professional association and to actively participate in political discourse. Without commitment, there is no culture.
Eva-Maria Würth was born in St. Gallen, lives and works in Zurich and Lucerne. She studied fine arts at the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts and has been working as an artist under the name Interpixel together with Philippe Sablonier since 2000. As a lecturer, she teaches at the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts – Design & Art. Together with the artist duo Interpixel, she artistically thematizes social and political phenomena with the means of visual art. Their methods are oriented towards the production of social communication in the form of interventions and playful actions. With its strategies, it questions the perception of reality and rethinks it with those involved in the discourse. Würth is involved in cultural policy as Co-President of Pro Kultur Kanton Zürich, which she initiated and built up in 2017. From 2007 to 2017, she was a member of the central board of the professional association for visual arts (visarte.schweiz). In the past, Würth has held other political posts, such as Zurich Cantonal Councilor from 2016 to 2019 and Zurich City Councilor from 2012 to 2014.
Dorothee Richter is Professor in Contemporary Curating at the University of Reading, UK, and Head of the Postgraduate Programme in Curating, CAS/MAS Curating, which she founded in 2005 at the Zurich University of the Arts, Switzerland; She is director of the PhD in Practice in Curating Programme, a cooperation of the Zurich University of the Arts and the University of Reading. Richter has worked extensively as a curator: she was initiator of Curating Degree Zero Archive, Curator at Kuenstlerhaus Bremen. She is Executive Editor of the web journal On-Curating.org.
[i] "Culture as an Economic Factor," study by Bank Julius Baer 2013; see BAK Basel: https://www.bak-economics.com. Study on the Swiss value added of the creative economy in Switzerland by the ZHdK; see Creative Economies Reports ZHdK: https://www.zhdk.ch. "SALZBURGER FESTSPIELE—Motor for the Economy, Infusion of Excellence for the Location. Value Added Analysis of the Salzburg Festival" study by the Salzburg Chamber of Commerce 2016; see Salzburg Festival: https://www.salzburgerfestspiele.at/daten-fakten.
[ii] Its members are the cultural institutions in the Canton of Zurich as well as political communities, cultural associations, cultural mediators, cultural workers, and interested persons. They are active in the visual arts, film, literature, music, opera, dance, theatre, museums, and other fields.