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Giovanna Bragaglia, Miwa Negoro, and Camille Regli

I might be wrong: Focus on Off-Spaces—Unravelling Success in a Discursive Series

I might be wrong is 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. It is not about pinpointing the mistake but rather understanding the experience as a transformation, a passage, or a learning curve that is essential to one’s growth. Taking place on weekday evenings, I might be wrong sets a safe and intimate environment in order to pursue alternative and nonhierarchical ways of sharing and producing knowledge.

The project started from a desire to increase engagement at the OnCurating Project Space, an independent non-profit and experimental space at the heart of Zurich that fosters cross-disciplinary and multi-formatted projects. While developing the programming for the space, a new conversational format arose. A program that would increase debates among visitors, as well as a bridge to art and curatorial practices with other disciplines—such as design, architecture, food, science—to trigger dialogues beyond the field of contemporary art. The idea is to propose a format that does not follow the traditional discursive model of speakers in front of an audience, but instead breaks this binary presence by creating a more integrated setting.

Challenging the standard talk format comes with the understanding that its dynamics mostly function in a unidirectional way, establishing power relations in knowledge production. In an attempt to disrupt the unilateral gesture of the ‘conference,’ this discursive project aims to become more rhizomatic and inclusive by inviting the audience to be part of the conversation in a more spontaneous and organic way. This is achieved 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; no silence regulation, etc.) and scaling up accessibility and the horizontalization of the setting (by sitting on the floor; offering drinks and snacks; toning down the lighting and toning up the music; also by formulating open questions; and talking about difficulties and challenges rather than achieved successes and opportunities, etc.).

— I feel there is often little interaction between the persons that speak and the audience during a talk. It’s usually about one’s success and its effects. Not a lot is given on the things that explicitly or implicitly go wrong, the ‘failures’ you know. It’s hard to speak about failures.*

— I agree. It reminds me of this song from Radiohead that goes, “Think about the good times and never go back, what would I do, if I did not have you, open up, let me in, let's go down the waterfall, have ourselves a good time, it's nothing at all…”

These events are called I might be wrong. Resonating with the melancholic Radiohead song of the same name, the program of conversations addresses moments of vulnerability. It is not only about expressing accomplishments, but more about the motivations and events that went ‘less right’; the detours and lessons learnt over time; the risk-taking experiments; the doubts and insecurities; the unusual situations and how to adapt to them, among other. These conversations explore our sense of genuineness, and aim to generate honest exchanges and learnings from each other, in an endeavor of care.

Diving deeper, these reflections quite subtly resonate with the situation of the OnCurating Project Space and the precariousness, the struggles, and the learning that come with it. After some thorough conversations among the curatorial board of the space, it felt natural to make the uncertain yet vibrant landscape of independent art spaces the starting point of this discursive program. Indeed, there are notable conversations to initiate and insight to share among spaces’ initiators, curators, and cultural workers, ranging from the amount of emotional and free labor involved in the process; the competitive landscape towards funding; the relationship with artists and with institutions. A field of numerous complexities.

— How do you understand the term of ‘independent art space’ or ‘off-space’ as such? It’s quite difficult to frame, isn't it?

— To me, there are different modus operandi, conditions and structures of running an art space. For instance, they can be artist-run, curatorial-led, or project-based. Speaking of the OnCurating Project Space, I would say that it emerged from the need to have a physical site to experiment: going from research to practice.

— It also cultivates emerging practices by encouraging the new generations of artists and cultural practitioners.

— There is this book,[1] for example, that introduces Sara Ahmed’s observation on unconscious habitual behaviors in institutions. It reads, “To institutionalize is to become routine or ordinary.” So, in order to escape such structure, one should act in other and unordinary ways.

— Yes, and that’s what makes it ‘off,’ an outsider of the institutional structures. It’s ambiguous, but perhaps that’s what an off-space is: a non-definition. 

— Somehow, the presence of a side art circuit or rather an autonomous circuit that develops in parallel to the public and private institutions allows one to counterthink the system set in place and to question the discourse. In my view, the independent art spaces, both physical locations or nomadic projects, are freer in articulating new and creative ways of exhibiting. They endorse a self-reflective attitude towards their role in the wider cultural context.

— So, in other words, they are not substantially driven by monetary goals nor do they satisfy market demands. They are tendentiously experimental, self-determining, and essential in channeling the currents and the voices of tomorrow.

— That’s right. And now I push it further, how can one challenge the preconceived ideas of an off or project space, if there are some?

Many questions are to be raised, and many answers and opinions to be listened to. Narrowing the framework, the program of I might be wrong kicked off with a focus on the Zurich art scene and what it means to run an independent space in the city. Overall, to question how different spaces position themselves in the city’s artistic map and how their presence shapes the cultural topology of Zurich. The first events invited space representatives that are established in Zurich and nurture the local artistic panorama.

The first event was hosted at the OnCurating Project Space in November 2019 with Kulturfolger, la_cápsula, and Kein Museum (some of them are featured in this issue) to discuss the specificities and difficulties in managing an independent space in the city, addressing the stakes involved when looking for funding; the scarcity of team members and the management of tasks; the concerns and necessities of engaging with diverse audiences, to mention a few.

I might be wrong, at the OnCurating Project Space, November 2019.

I might be wrong, at the OnCurating Project Space, November 2019.

Petra Tomljanović from Kulturfolger founded the project space in 2016 with her former professional partner, Lisa Lee Benjamin. The space works as a cross-disciplinary environment, dealing mostly with topics of digital information and philosophy. Kulturfolger is interested in the edges and frontiers of the world and is committed to exploring new modes of inquiry, through indexes, definitions, concepts, and experimentation. Besides the exhibition program, Kulturfolger offers one-year-long residencies and talk programs which reach out to scholars from transdisciplinary fields to share input on various topics.

— One has to be constantly active. The residency is one of the formats that extends the physical space at its most. It brings back fresh blood and constantly changes perspectives because it’s totally out of my curatorial power. It actually happens outside of it, and that’s somehow how I can put myself down. It’s part of the practice. It’s important to have a certain structure and then change the formats within it.

— That’s interesting. For us with la_cápsula, we started without a space, so it was difficult to call it a space or a project. To what extent are we open? How do we want to program? We started without a space and did projects nonetheless. But now we have a space, so it's about what we do with it.

Adriana Domínguez and Elena Rosauro founded la_cápsula in 2017, an independent and experimental curatorial project that bridges dialogues between artistic and cultural production between Latin American and Swiss/local artists. It started up as a pop-up project in a garage, which brought up the name “the capsule.” It collaborated with different art spaces in Zurich until the opening of its own exhibition space in December 2018. Since the very beginning, the curators have been promoting cross-national dialogues and tackling topics such as environmental issues, feminism, geopolitics, gender issues, and decolonializing exhibition discourse, informed by the context of Switzerland.

— Our cross-regional approach led us to create a community of people that are interested in the Latin-American related events. This community is something that keeps us going.

To think of a space as a collective act is undoubtedly what brings the various invitees to believe in their projects and aspire to their community. In those terms, the initiative of Kein Museum emerged from friendship. Represented at the event by Carla Peca, Cristiana Stella, and Wanda Honegger, the collective is formed by seven members from diverse disciplines and studies, such as graphic designers, art historians, photographers, editors, those with backgrounds in cultural analysis, psychology, philosophy, literature, and gender studies. As an independent exhibition space, Kein Museum offers a platform for young artists, scientists, and other cultural producers to realize projects and examine cultural phenomena through the lens of institutional critique.

— We named the space ‘Kein Museum - Raum für Experiment [space for experiments]’ because at the University of Zurich we were trained in reading society and analyzing culture. So, for us to have a space is an approach to try out research.

— Also, it’s not like we are the curators and that’s all. We include people who want to work with us. Our team is always growing. 

— Exactly, as a structure we are flexible. We organically share the organizational tasks, meaning that each of us take a certain role and specialty. Our collectivity brings us together and fosters a space of gathering… also made of fun and parties.

A couple of months after the first event, the second edition of the series took place in January 2020 at the OnCurating Project Space, inviting Last Tango alongside Art Empowers. The conversations ranged from the practicality and criticality of having a physical space, including the location and positioning, to the legal procedures of dealing with artworks and the DIY techniques in art-handling and production—especially facing efforts in thinking sustainable and non-wasteful. Indeed, both spaces expressed struggles in maintaining their space, which eventually allowed them to think more creatively about their own aesthetics, curatorial and experimental exhibition-making.

Setting up I might be wrong at the OnCuratingProject Space, January 2020, in the site-specific installation of Israeli artist Hilla Toony Navok

Once a space, Art Empowers runs as a nomadic project by Fabienne Ott. It uses exhibition formats as a means of participation and artistic strategy, blurring the roles of curators and art mediators/educators. Trained as a schoolteacher, Fabienne Ott initiated her project space and research during her master’s in Curating at the ZHdK. While doing educational tours in art institutions alongside her studies, she realized that, in order for kids to face the complexities and holistic nature of society, they needed more active reasoning and enhanced stimulations, beyond entertainment. With Art Empowers, she creates workshops in collaboration with artists that are activated by children to trigger self-empowerment and to develop a more creative and reflective understanding of the world.

— I combined the role of the curator and the art mediator from the very beginning. That makes the whole process of curating really participatory. I use participation as an aesthetic strategy.

Founded in 2016 by Linda Jensen and Arianna Gellini, Last Tango is an exhibition space currently located in Kreis 5 in Zurich. Its curatorial agenda is mostly based on—but not restricted to—two-person exhibitions, coupling contemporary artists working with either similar or contrasting positions. The nature of the project is to look for empty and abandoned spaces in Zurich and to occupy them until the lease runs out. So far, this method has brought Last Tango subsequently to three different locations, all three with a different architectural space. Choosing the “right” space is a characteristic and an essential criteria of their curatorial practice.

— Until now, we have been interested in locations that have a strong architectural identity.

— We have also been interested in mixing different artists’ positions. For instance, by having one from the more mainstream art scene and the other who has shown less in the last years, or comes from different scenes and backgrounds in order to see tensions. In our first group exhibitions, we showed duos in each room, so it still relates to our ‘tango’ in a sense.

The series of I might be wrong continues, involving more spaces, more collectives, more projects, and eventually more disciplines to express thoughts and experience in an environment of intimacy and confidence. The immediate impact of the program has generated positive outcomes from the participants. Not only for the audience, but also for the space’s representatives who have acknowledged the lack of crossovers and awareness of each other. It resulted in a necessity to listen to each other, shaping a heterotopic setting for reflections and debates among peers.

— It reminds me that William Kentridge opened an incubator for artists to fail, called the ‘Centre for the Less Good Idea’ in Johannesburg. He says “in the process of making, a meaning will emerge”[2] and basically there are no good solutions. The only thing that we have is the need and the will to produce things.

— It’s very Beckettian, “try again, fail again, fail better.”

— So, our only certainty in the world of uncertainties is to keep believing in our projects as they themselves create meaning.

— And, to accept an unfinished or incomplete state of it.

The beauty, and perhaps the absurdity, of these conversations is found in the absence or lack of conclusions. The experience of going through these debates–as much as the experience of running an independent space–is 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 school of thought and a practice of attempts. It is the act of seeking to undo what is considered standard by exploring and transcending existing boundaries. In a nutshell, I might be wrong is about opening up the realm of possibilities and looking at a future that holds the benefits of doubt.

 

*The dialogues and quotes inserted in the text have been retrieved from internal conversations, emails, Whatsapp and personal documentation of the events. They are purposely anonymous, in order to respect the intimacy of the conversations.

 

Giovanna Bragaglia is an independent curator living in Zurich. She holds an interest in issues dealing with identity politics and encounters in particular in relation to deterritorialized geography. She curated the exhibition Processos Públicos, at Paço das Artes, Alice Brill: Impressões ao rés-do-chão, at Instituto Moreira Salles, as well as Decolonizing Art Institutions, Say the same thing, and Silvan Kälin: Homo Viator, at the OnCurating Project Space. She has published texts for the OnCurating.org journal, Revista ZUM online, and in exhibition catalogues. Bragaglia is an alumna of the MAS in Curating, ZHdK.

Miwa Negoro is a curator and researcher currently based between Berlin and Zurich. With interests in the discourse of performativity, decolonial thinking, and re-narration of histories, her curatorial practice aims at reconfiguring cultural representations and hegemonic social mechanisms to encourage a fluidity of transcultural, non-binary conditions in the global present. She works as a curatorial research assistant at various institutions and international projects, and is a curatorial board member of the OnCurating Project Space in Zurich. Negoro is an alumna of the MAS in Curating, ZHdK.

Camille Regli is an independent curator and art professional. Her curatorial research focuses on ‘small’ (as opposed to overarching) narratives that sustain alternative means of knowledge production. She holds a Master’s in Cultural Studies at King’s College London and MAS in Curating at the Zurich University of the Arts, and gained experience working in communications for institutions such as the Swiss Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève, and the Istanbul Biennale. She is part of the OnCurating Project Space’s curatorial team, is a regular contributor to the OnCurating.org journal and has taken part in the Young Curators Residency Programme at the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin. Regli is an alumna of the MAS in Curating, ZHdK. She is appointed together with Kristina Grigorjeva as curatorial team for the exhibition space „Alte Krone“ in Biel/ Bienne.

 

Notes

[1] Binna Choi, Annette Krauss, Yolande van der Heide, UNLEARNING EXERCISES: Art Organizations as Sites for Unlearning (Amsterdam: Valiz, 2019). (Its glossary of terms “Habits” suggests further readings: Gayatri Spivak, An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization, 8; Sara Ahmed, On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life, 21).

[2] William Kentridge, cited in Harry Swartz-Turfle, “Failing Better: William Kentridge’s Drawing Lessons,” Hyperallergic, April 8, 2010, accessed online in March 2020, https://hyperallergic.com/4985/william-kentridge-drawing-lessons/.

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Issue 48

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