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Interviewed by Patrycja Wojciechowska

Karma International

Patrycja Wojciechowska: Thank you again for agreeing to have this talk. We are very excited at the opportunity to speak with everyone active on the Zurich art scene and would like to contribute in putting together this publication. Could you please briefly describe your professional background? I know that you [Karolina Dankow] and Marina met during your PhD studies at Zurich University, and I am interested how your partnership started.

Karolina Dankow: I studied literature, linguistics, and art history at Zurich University, and during my studies I was working for Neue Zürcher Zeitung as a critic. I began my association with the newspaper by an internship, and afterwards I began to work there as a freelance art critic.  Marina, at the same time, was working at Kunsthalle St Gallen for Gianni Jetzer while also studying. We used to meet at events, all contemporary art-based, because of those jobs that we were doing. I wrote for many publications at that time, like Artforum, Frieze, and more.

And as we wrote our PhDs, we already had started to run Karma International as not-for-profit project space. We ended up running it for two years.  After we completed our PhDs, we decided to change the profile from a not-for-profit formula to a commercial art gallery.

So, I have never done anything else. I only did freelance journalism and once I worked for six months in the museum in Biarritz.  Marina actually went to New York, and she completed internships at two galleries, Gavin Brown and Anton Kern. She also worked for a little bit for the gallery in Zurich, but truly, we didn’t really know how to run a gallery. So, from being a not-for-profit space for two years and having jobs on the side to sustain it, we sort of slowly learnt how to run a commercial gallery.

There was one thing we did from the very beginning, we went to art fairs even though we were not-for-profit. We did not really go to sell, we went with this mindset of giving our artists an international platform and for us to network, to talk to more people and a wider demographic then just to those who visited the space. It was actually a great learning process for us to learn how to run a gallery.

PW: How would you describe your curatorial concept of the space, especially at the time when you stared to to run Karma International as non-commercial site?

KD: We had two main ideas. One was to show mainly international artists.  At the time, there was no not-for-profit  space in Zurich that would do that. There were a few really great, long running non-for-profit places, but they all would have shown predominantly local artists. I understand why. It doesn’t make sense, it’s much too expensive, there are artwork shipping costs, and this is usually not in the budget for not-for-profit spaces.

Our idea, from the very beginning, was that we would fly the artists in, and they would stay with us during production and set-up time and make whole show on the spot. There was an emphasis on international artists, and at the beginning they were all our generation.

Ida Ekblad was same age as we are, the first show was by LA-based artist Chris Lipomi who was more or less our age.  Somehow, they were all people of our generation, and they all worked with the space. They were all invited to stay and really create something unique at the site. It was such a nice bonus because of this concept.

PW: So, there was a process-based aspect to it as well?

KD: Yes. I mean, because they all created most of the work on the site.

PW: I find Karma International  a relatively young, but very successful gallery. It was established only in 2008, but it has very good visibility, high recognition, your artists do important shows and you do shows at big art fairs, you are a recognized gallery and were instrumental in establishing visibility for a lot of your artists. My question is, would you think that the beginnings of the gallery that the non-commercial, curatorial-driven aspect helped with that?

KD: It definitely helped, because we didn’t start from zero as a gallery. However, we had different challenges when we morphed into a commercial space. We had no idea how to sell art whatsoever, we had no client base, but at least we already had a kind of like fan-base, people who knew who we were. We had a recognizable name.

I think what we already had, what was the main thing that actually came out of the non-commercial period. We had all those ties that we were able to build with artists. People that we showed at the beginning, like I said: Ida Ekblad, Tobias Madison, Pamela Rosenkranz, people that we showed when we were not-for-profit became a core of our represented artists.

PW: They still are, aren’t they?

KD: Yes, they still are. And the nice thing is that we didn’t have to come up with a list of some sort, that just feels forced. Representation came out organically, through the relationship with this artist that you see, that you like working with, and they like to work with you, who do not have representation. When it grows organically like this, I think for us, it is an ideal beginning.

PW: You mentioned (in an Art Basel video) that your decision was prompted by a commitment to better representation of the artists. So, the reason behind the decision was not purely because of how difficult it is sustaining a not-for-profit organization, but also in order to improve the visibility of the artists?

KD: As a non-for-profit, most people show artists just once, so one can’t really help them grow.

That’s why I think non-for-profits are great, but they are not meant to be forever, because it’s so tiring, to always have a job on the side, to always look for funding, so in a way it doesn’t grow.

When you have a gallery, you have this deal with your artists, that you are meant to show them every two years, that you bring them to fairs, that you pay for their storage, take care of their inventory, of course, take money from their sales, but I still think then you can really build something.

PW: Do think you still retained some of that original characteristic, the relationship with artists, not only in term of sales, but more nurturing, with support for longer projects? Do you think is it still possible to maintain that sort of balance in the commercial world?

KD: Yes, definitely. What also gave us a new spin was opening the new space here, in Los Angeles. At the beginning we were doing everything ourselves.  Everything was us, us, us.  With time, luckily, we were able to be much more professional, on different levels and could have some help. At the same time, that removed us from process a little bit, but that was, in a way, also the goal. But when we opened a space in LA, it was a little bit like going back to the roots.  An artist would come, some of them would stay a month.

Sylvie Fleury stayed over a month.  She did all the works here. And she really used the resources of the city. She said, “Find me a motorbike from the Seventies.” We tracked down all those motorbike sellers, dealt with the price, arranged the transport of the motorbike, and figured out the way how to get it into the gallery. The space here refreshed a bit our original idea. Artists really come, and they want to spend time here, and they want to do something special with the city.

PW: So, it is different compared to Zurich, isn’t it?

KD: Completely, yes.

PW: What exactly are your roles (I mean you and Marina) in the responsibilities of running the gallery? To what degree do each of  you get involved, how do you split decisions with developing the shows?  And does one of you focus on one of the sites? Or do you really balance everything together?

KD: No, we really balance everything together. I am physically more here in LA, she is obviously more running the Zurich space, but I don’t think that there was ever an important or crucial decision that we made without each other. It never has been the goal. We really thrive on working together, and now that we have figured out good times to talk (because there are issues with communication, with the time difference), we try to talk almost every day and keep the dialogue alive.

PW: You worked together as curators, and now together you run a gallery. To me, and please correct me if I am wrong, it is a little bit like you are more of a collective than just two owners of a commercial gallery, with the collaboration and friendship that started at the beginning showing through. How important do you find your professional relationship for the profile and the success of the gallery?

KD: I think it is everything. I think I wouldn’t be able to run a business by myself, or not this one.  It’s too...it’s so nice to be able to bounce off ideas, to share the good parts together, and then when a problem comes up, you have someone to be a partner in crime. For me, it’s the perfect constellation. For Marina, too. In some ways, we are very similar, and in others we have different strengths, so it’s a good combination, and yeah, we have the same taste, which is also great. I think it’s 90% of everything, this relationship.

PW: With two sites now, how do you select the artists, how do you balance out the proportions?  Is it always an intuitive choice to take on new artists? Do you think in a sense about the different characters of the sites?

KD: It has always been quite intuitive, I have to say. Also, we have had so many women artists from the beginning. It was never really strategic, or by deliberate choice. It was always more about what we like. Also, in the beginning, no one was really talking about this issue and that we have a lot of women artists. Now, we have a lot of requests for interviews, because it is a topic that all of the sudden has become “hip,” you know. For us, it was how it has always been; we were always gravitating towards these artists and wouldn’t say we have a strategy when it comes to gender or age, or any of this. Now, in LA we have shown three guys, one after the other, and sometimes we think: “Oh, is that a good choice?” Then we say that it doesn’t matter.

It is problematic, but for us it is not problematic, because we represent so many female artists. We can balance it out. If we were the gallery that represents mainly white male artists, then I would think we should change something, but we always have been showing so many women. Vivian Suter, Simone Fattal, Judith Bernstein—when we took them on, they didn’t really have any significant careers. They were all in their 60s or even older. Now, we are doing a show with Elisabeth Wild who is the mother of Vivian Suter. She is 97. And now lots of things are happening for her. She has a solo show at MUMOK. And we in way have been instrumental in re-discovering a lot of these women.

So, three guys in a row, so be it, because the next one is going to be a woman again.

PW: In the OnCurating issue statement, we mention the notion of “Dark Matter” in the context of the visibility of artists as described by Gregory Sholette. How do you see it, and more importantly, how do you see your role as a curator and gallery owner in giving visibility to art and art practitioners? As I understand it, your decision behind the change of the gallery profile was partially prompted by this need for visibility? And how do you see participation of the art world, and especially its commercial side, in sustaining the Dark Matter situation? Keeping it unchanged?

KD: There has been this big trend of discovering artists for, I would say, more than five years. I think some of these artists, they are undiscovered for a reason. I mean, it has become a little bit of a trend in some ways. On the other hand, so many women artists have been really undervalued. I think it’s very necessary to change it, and as I said before, I think we contributed to that in some ways. But it shouldn’t become just like a global trend, to discover, to re-discover everyone.

PW: What would you consider the most successful or the most interesting project you have completed so far?

KD: I can’t just pick one. For example, now we have a lot of press about Vivian Suter, and I really think that her story is so very extraordinary. She was born in Buenos Aires as a daughter of Swiss and Austrian immigrants. Then she briefly lived in Basel. She married Martin Suter, the famous Swiss writer. Later she divorced him, she left Switzerland, travelled, and she settled in Guatemala for thirty years. And she was really painting in the rainforest, completely secluded. Nowadays, people are saying artists have to be entrepreneurs, have to work for themselves, have to be outgoing, be seen at all these events. And she did the opposite. She had the luck of being discovered. And now, she is preparing her show at the Reina Sofía, she has a lot of museum shows, she just opened show at the Camden Art Centre, and at Tate Liverpool. She came out of nowhere and completely unexpected. This is amazing! I think it is an amazing story.

But I think there are so many; I mean I have been working with all these artists and all of their stories.

PW: Can you talk a little bit about financing the gallery? Do you support the gallery expenses solely from the commercial operations?

KD: Yes, it has to be.

PW: Which of the sites is more challenging from the expenses point of view? LA or Zurich?

KD: LA used to be cheaper when we moved here five years ago, but now it has become more expensive.

PW: In terms of working process, how large are the teams for both galleries? How do you shape the working process?

KD: We share the artists, but since we also have a space in LA, we have taken on a few LA-based artists, which is great, because you need to show some local artists. And there are so many. It is a good resource for us. In terms of working, in Switzerland we have two people full-time and one part-time, and here we have one-person full-time and two part-time. But the main operation is in Switzerland. We have the bigger storage there. When we prepare for the art fair, we build the model over there. We have the operation here in LA, but I would say, the main focus is still there.

PW: How do archive the projects?

KD: Everything is online. In the beginning, we would do a little publication for the show, but those were also more the non-for-profit days. It is a sad reality of gallery days that we don’t do these publications anymore. It was a super nice thing; I think now you almost have to be globally active and with all the fairs, and the artists having more and more museum shows, and travelling to all these places, we are not able to do this anymore. In the beginning, we had like a little book that was a publication for each show. Now it’s all online.

PW: Do you also do editions?

KD: If the artists decide to do editions, then yes. Mostly video and photographs, also some sculptures are multiples. But it is up to the artist. It’s not something that we influence.

PW: I am aware that you put emphasis on a high number of women artists represented by Karma International. You and Marina mentioned your awareness of a tradition of strong women, the presence of creative women in Switzerland. You are two female art professionals running a gallery. How do you see the gender issue? You said your representation of a large number of women was intuitive. I find it kind of interesting, when you were talking about Switzerland and strong females, you sounded definitely more optimistic than I feel myself. Firstly, Switzerland joined women suffrage very late in Europe. And I am wondering how it feels from this perspective, when you are working in Switzerland as a female professional. Would you say it is still a problem?

KD: In Zurich, we grew up with a lot of strong women figures who at that time were leading the art scene, like Bice Curiger, Eva Presenhuber, Heike Munder, Jaqueline Burckhardt, Pipilotti Rist. They were all such different personalities. When I was in my formative years, I say, there were a lot of women present. To be honest, I think we need to work a little harder to prove ourselves. I think that is exactly the case, but I never dwelled on that too much. I consider it a waste of energy. For me, as long as it works for us, I am fine.

For example, I work with Judith Bernstein, who in her seventies is finally getting the recognition that she deserves. It still happens slowly, and her prices are quite low, if you compare with male artists of the same stage, but she told me she never became bitter, that she never lost her humor, because then in a way everything would have become tainted.

PW: What role did your project space play and, now, does the gallery play in the city of Zurich?

KD: The move to commercial operations changed extremely the whole situation. First of all, we became something else than we were before. But also, the whole landscape has changed. Five years ago, they were so many galleries of our generation around, everybody was doing something else, everybody had their niche, and now a lot of these spaces have closed. I think it is a bit sad for Switzerland. For the Zurich art scene, I hope it will rejuvenate. I mean, there is still energy; for example, Bernstein moved to Ramistrasse, which I think is fantastic. Galerie Bernhardt is already there, but at the same time there are fewer young galleries around, and the older ones also don’t seem to have so much verve anymore. I think is bit of a sleepy moment, and we really try to counter it. That’s why, for example, our dinners are very inclusive. We don’t do these tight, very exclusive dinners. We go to a pizza place that is close by and make sure we have artists with us, that we have collectors, that somebody out of town can also come, just to keep the scene going. I think it is important.

PW: What would you consider your main connections within Zurich art scene?

KD: I think because Zurich is so small, you are always talking to everybody; you are always in a way in dialogue with everybody, but at the same time we have to say everybody has their own niche. Everybody is very unique if you think about it in their program. In terms of museums, we have a super good relationship with Kunsthaus. Cathérine Hug, who is a curator there now, studied with us, so it has been a really nice relationship, and she has shown several of our artists. Then Alexandra Blättler, who is also a curator, has shown a lot of our artists. It’s mostly with curators like Heike Munder that we have more of an ongoing stronger dialogue.

We have collaborated with Company Gallery in New York, which is a younger gallery that has a lot of feminist, a lot of queer art. I think they really have a special program, and we are collaborating a lot with them. We worked together on shows in Paris. Taylor Trabulus, who works there, curated two shows, here in LA and in Zurich, for us. So, we have these alliances, but they are mostly with people from other cities.

PW: What made you specifically interested in Los Angeles as a second site for the gallery?

KD: It was five years ago, and the art scene in LA started really happening; however, all these museums that now are here weren’t around. You could sense that something was happening. You could see artists were moving in. We were thinking about various sites, which city was not saturated. In LA, there was a space to do something, but there was also already an interest. There was already ground to build something, which was great.

PW: I also read that you’re considering expansion in Asia? Is that still happening?

KD: We are not pursuing a space. We have a representative, a young woman, who has been living in Asia for seven years. Currently, she is based in Taipei; previously she was in Beijing and in Hong Kong. She comes not only to fairs with us, but, for example, now Pamela Rosenkranz has a project in Japan, so this woman can go. Similarly, Vivian Suter was in the Taipei Biennale, and this way, we had somebody who was already local and could go. She is also actively working on promoting our artists within the region. She will come here to LA, because many Asian collectors are around. It’s a nice addition to the gallery, but we are not thinking about opening a space there.

PW: What is the relation between real space and digital space? You have already spoken about publications moved completely online.

KD: We are not very on the forefront with these things, but also by choice; I really believe that art has to be experienced, has to be seen. We know about all of these possibilities now.

I think I am still very old-school about these things. A lot of it is about the people behind the space and the artwork.

PW: What type of audience does your exhibition space attract? And again, do you think it has changed?

KD: The prices increase, you attract different people, then the new program develops. So, definitely the crowd has changed. What has stayed is that artists still like to come and see the space. This remained somehow, but in terms of collectors, it has changed a lot.

PW: Does the crowd present at the beginning still come to the PV?

KD: The openings are social events—collectors, art students, and the general public. The usual thing.

PW: A lot of commercial galleries these days have inserted activities into their program traditionally assigned to public cultural institutions. You moved from a non-profit to a commercial operation but have a strong curatorial tradition. Do you still find it present and important in your gallery? And I am interested, what do you think about this trend in general?

KD: I think it’s great, important, and very valuable. We are asked a lot by schools, universities, and various organizations to open a space on certain days, sometimes outside opening hours, we can sometimes give a talk. We are always happy to do it.

When it comes to a more organized program, for example, in LA we had screenings, workshops, concerts for two months. We had a whole program set up for the summer, especially because we have a garden. We put together a workshop where one of the artists worked with kids. There was also a talk with Frank Gehry and Charles Arnoldi. We definitely like these activities and are trying to organize them when we can.

PW: How do you see Zurich as an art hub in a global network, and how do you think it is going to evolve?

KD: I think Zurich is very interesting globally, because it is so small and yet has so many institutions. It is also in such close proximity to Basel and the fair. There is the Zurich Art Weekend that really attracts more and more people. I think Zurich has a very unique position, because if you compare it with cities the same size, even if they have as many museums, they are not exactly as contemporary as the ones that we have. I think it’s a very rich place in that way.

PW: It has quite a strong cultural scene overall.

KD: Yes, in all fields. Now, Schauspielhaus has taken on visual artist to do programming. There are always a lot of not-for-profit spaces that still pop up. It also has to do with all these amazing funding opportunities that Switzerland has.

PW: What do you see as the role of art in the contemporary world?

KD: On the one hand, the art market is now so important and active. On the other hand, sometimes it is a bit discouraging to see that people lack vision, people bring the same stuff to fairs, put the same spaces up.

At the same we really believe in it. If I go around, for example, and see fantastic shows, I still get to discover amazing things. This type of inspiration, I think it’s why we are all in it. Otherwise, you could just do a different job. For me it’s worth it. I have never considered doing anything else. I think it is a very lucky position to be surrounded by artists, by their creativity, by the collectors who also open up new worlds for us, by the curators. And again, it is a whole universe. That’s the nice, the wonderful part of it.

One good show makes up for twenty mediocre ones. I see one good thing, and it can keep me going for a while.

KarmaInternational, Pamela Rosenkranz, 2018. Photo: Gunnar Meier

KarmaInternational, Simone Fattal, 2019. Photo: Stefan Altenburger

KarmaInternational, Sylvie Fleury, 2019/2020. Photo: Annik Wetter

KarmaInternational, Judith Bernstein, 2020. Photo: Stefan Altenburger

Karma International was founded by Marina Olsen and Karolina Dankow in 2008. After two years of curatorial activity in a non-commercial space, the gallery transitioned to a commercial space to better represent the artists of the original program: Pamela Rosenkranz, Ida Ekblad, David Hominal, Carissa Rodriguez, and Emanuel Rossetti, among others. Each of them represents the generation of artists challenging art-world norms and continues to do so as their career develops. These artists have been crucial in building Karma International’s identity. As time has gone on, more artists from different generations, such as Judith Bernstein, K8 Hardy, Vivian Suter, Simone Fattal, Sylvie Fleury, Urban Zellweger, Ser Serpas, and Markus Oehlen, as well as the estates of Meret Oppenheim and Xanti Schawinsky, have joined the roster of practices in conjunction with the original grouping of artists. In 2015, Karma International opened a second space in Los Angeles that has established itself and found a strong position within the city’s landscape of art venues. The created dialogue between Europe and the US brings a new quality to the program that allows Karma International to experiment even more actively with an ongoing parallel exhibition program.

Patrycja Wojciechowska is a curator based in London. She is graduate of the Postgraduate Programme in Curating, CAS in University of Art, Zurich, Switzerland. She co-curated the exhibition games.fights.encounter at the OnCurating Project Space, Zurich. Her research focuses on identity, postcolonial studies, non-human intelligence and forms of communication, and position of the body in art experience. She currently works on an interdisciplinary online platform.

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Karma International