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Interviewed by Tea Virolainen

Kristina Grigorjeva, curator at BINZ39

For twenth years, the BINZ39 foundation has been the initiator and supporter of an extensive program of artist residencies, exchange programs, exhibitions, interdisciplinary events, and networks for artists and cultural professionals in Zurich, Switzerland and abroad. This means not only that over 400 artists have been able to enjoy the infrastructure and subsidies of the foundation, but also that the project and all the people involved have made an important contribution to the production of culture in Switzerland and in the numerous countries, in which they operate.

In November 1982, Henry F. Levy, founder of the BINZ39 foundation, signed the first lease for studios which the foundation wanted to make available for artists in Zurich under subsidized conditions by the foundation. In the past twenty years, the number of studios has increased up to a total of forty-two studios in Zurich at the locations Sihlquai 133, Binzstrasse 39, and Räffelstrasse 45.

The BINZ39 foundation was never limited to artist residencies: the exhibition space at Sihlquai 133 is one of the most important and active exhibition spaces in Zurich for the presentation of the current art in the city.

A basic principle of the foundation is to enable freedom for artistic practices, but also to support interdisciplinary projects between various art disciplines.

Tea Virolainen: Thank you for taking your time for the interview. Please tell us a little bit about yourself and the foundation BINZ39.

Kristina Grigorjeva: I’m very new to the foundation—I started in January 2020, but I’ve been helping here and there since October 2019. The former curator—Gioia Dal Molin—has moved on to the Istituto Svizzero in Rome. The foundation BINZ39 is an artist residency, there are seven ateliers and an exhibition space. The residents can stay in the ateliers for the duration of two years, and they are completely free to do whatever they want in there (except for using it as housing, of course). At the end of the residency period, they can have an exhibition in the space. So, that’s mainly what the foundation offers.

TV: What’s your background, what did you do before getting this job, and what has your journey been like up to here?

KG: Originally, I studied architecture and worked as an architect for a couple of years after graduating. At some point, I became a little bored of working 9 to 5 and became a little more critical, I guess. So, I started with the MAS Curating at ZHdK and realized I was more interested in questions relating to public space, rather than architecture or architects who “create” it.

TV: And how did you get involved with BINZ39? How did it happen?

KG: Last year, we started a series of exhibitions with Marco Meuli where we try to offer a different mode of perception of exhibitions. We called it “détours.” The last edition of the exhibition series was with one of the residents of the foundation, and at the time and they were looking for somebody to follow Gioia (the curator at the time) as she was leaving for Rome, and I got the opportunity to send in my portfolio. They were specifically looking for a female curator, I think. I believe there has always been a female curator in the BINZ39.

TV: Can you define your role in the exhibitions and your main responsibilities?

KG: As the curator, I am involved in the selection of the artists, as well as providing support with the exhibitions of the residents. In fact, we will have a jury in a week to choose the next couple of residents.

TV: Can you tell us something about that? How do you choose them, do you search for them or do they approach you?

KG: There is an open call, and anyone can apply for an available atelier. For example, this year we only have one atelier that is available, and we’ll be choosing an artist for that. The deadline was in January, so now we have received all the portfolios. We now have to go through all of them together. I think there are about 24 or 27 artists who applied this year. The jury itself consists of Lucia Coray, Gianni Garzoli, me, and an external curator. This year, we will have Elise Lammer—she is a curator and writer based in Basel. She’s really great. We’re very happy she could find the time.

TV: Is the decision consensus-based or is it democratic?

KG: Well, it’s the first time I’m doing it—I don’t really know what to expect. I don’t want to look at the portfolios beforehand, I would prefer it if we would just go in, look through them all together and decide spontaneously during the discussion.

(Afterthought: before the jury, I was asked to do a first screening and put aside the portfolios that did not fit at all, to narrow the selection down. I think I couldn’t put more than two aside. The rest we laid out on the table and took half an hour to look through all of them. Then each of us talked a little about our favorites, and after a long discussion round we narrowed the selection down to six artists, whom we invited for interviews.)

TV: Are there any criteria you have to make your selection? Like the one you said, for example. They’re always hiring someone female.

KG: Well, you have to live in Zurich or have some ties to Zurich. Because as I understand the foundation has been an important part of the Zurich art scene. So, I really find it important that the residents are based in Zurich. They can also use the space more efficiently; it doesn’t stay empty.

(Afterthought: We were mainly looking at young artists, at the very start of their career or just out of school that live in Zurich or around. To help in the process of the selection, we also tried to make sure that there is a variety to the media that the artists in the BINZ and an important criterion was their ability to be integrated in the life of the BINZ, to be part of the BINZ family. The female/male balance was also an important issue.)

TV: Are you supporting more young artists or is that not the case?

KG: Yes, mainly younger artists at the start of their career or just out of school. But there is no age limit, I guess.

TV: But on the website, they say young.

KG: How do you define young? In England it’s up to 26, here I think it’s up to 40, it depends on how you define a young artist. As soon as you start having regular shows in galleries I guess, you become a more established artist, right?

TV: If you want to describe the exhibition, the curatorial concept of it, how would you define that?

KG: It’s a little hard to define because they are always very different. Last year, for example, there were a couple of exhibitions that were curated by the resident Sarah Burger. There were two exhibitions that she did. It was very collaborative; she invited many people to participate from other parts of Switzerland as well. Maya Rochat did a performance, for example, and there was a concert that followed as well, if I’m not mistaken. But there were also artists from Zurich. In her last exhibition, she just invited some people to perform in the exhibition itself who she got to know the week before. It’s just very on the spot. It really has this kind of off-space feeling, but at the same time, it is not.

TV: I mean there’s a foundation behind it. It is kind of organized but still seems very open.

KG: Exactly. Henry’s (Henry F. Levy/founder) idea was to offer a space to artists where they can have the freedom to do what they want. They even have a little kitchen over there so they can cook. I think it’s very cosy.

TV: What did the president have in mind when they first came up with that kind of an idea? Do you know? Because it’s an interesting concept, and it’s really supporting the artists to do whatever they want and show themselves in an authentic way.

KG: So, the Stiftung BINZ39 was founded in 1982. And I think at the time there weren’t spaces like this in Zurich, but Henry grew up in the UK and saw the residencies in London. He was inspired by them, got together with a couple of other people, and they thought that it would be nice to have something similar particularly at that time in Zurich. Everything was flourishing, Zurich was very active in the ‘80s. So, at the time, it was fantastic that he could do something like that. The spaces at the time that they were looking at were in the Binz, it’s this industrial area of Zurich. That’s where the first studios actually were, at Binzstrasse 39, and that’s how they came up with the name. It was not only there; it was also on Räffelstrasse, the neighboring street. In the ‘90s, they had an opportunity to move some of the ateliers to Sihlquai here on the river. And they still have studios in the Binz, which they rent out.

TV: Do they own the properties where the studios are?

KG: In the Binz, I think they own the property, and this one on Sihlquai is “Zwischennutzung”—that’s why the rent is very cheap.

TV: So, it’s going to be torn down at some point but can be used until then.

KG: Exactly, and this has been going for ten years now, and you never know when it happens. And we have to understand that eventually we will have to move to a new location. That will be the next chapter.

TV: How do you finance the exhibitions?

KG: I can’t tell you where the money comes from because at this point I don’t know yet. What I do know is that every exhibition gets a certain budget from the foundation. Together, the artists and the curator can use it however they prefer, and when the exhibition needs more money, then the curator has to rely on other sources and organize external funding.

TV: Can you tell us about how you define the role of the venue in the Zurich art scene and how it differentiates from the other ones, and what is unique about BINZ39?

KG: Well, the Binz is neither a gallery nor an institution. Or it is both. I guess that is its beauty, it’s flexible, but it’s an artist residency with an exhibition space. It works more on a project-oriented basis, I guess.

TV: They can also bring somebody in?

KG: Of course! The artists have a lot of freedom and flexibility for their exhibition and are welcome to choose their collaborators. That also invites more visitors, which is always nice. I almost feel that the foundation is not as known as it has been before. I’ve lived in Zurich for five years now and have only been to one or two exhibitions.

TV: So, it’s not so well-known? Is that a communication issue?

KG: I think it’s both. It’s definitely a lack of communication on the part of the foundation, but only because they haven’t updated their media outlets, I think. Mediation is the main problem—we are working on some changes right now. We’re changing the website; it hasn’t been touched for ten years, and one of the residents, Johanna Kotlaris, is doing the graphic design. So, we are hoping it will get a little more attention.

TV: So, you are going to enhance the communication? You can hardly find more information than what is on the website.

KG: That’s exactly my point; it isn’t easy to find any information about the foundation. I was looking for a book just recently, and I just happened to find this book with the entire history of the foundation; it’s not on the website, and nobody knows about it. So, it’s a little bit hidden, and I think the reason for that is lack of communication. But I’m not sure how it worked up until the ‘90s. I think ten or twelve years ago they started the website when the Bitniks were here; they work with the digital medium. They haven’t changed it since then. And, of course, the Bitniks can’t consistently keep working on it, so there’s always a different person who changes things or posts something for the exhibitions. It’s always a little bit of a mess. Now, everything will be organized and mediated by one person.

TV: So, there was a kind of a lack of visitors and spectators in the exhibitions?

KG: I think it also depends on who is exhibited. But I feel that the foundation is less open to the public than it should be. That’s what we’re really working on this year.

TV: Who would you like to attract as an audience?

KG: I don’t know. I was hoping that we could in general have a more open structure, and people would understand more how the foundation works—who is there, what work is being done. I think this is very important.

TV: I was in art commission for several years, and we did studio visits; that was the part I really loved because you usually never get the chance to go to the studio of an artist and get so close to their artistic practice.

KG: I think that’s very interesting, but also very invasive and I wouldn’t want to impose this on our residents.

TV: What is the role of art nowadays from your perspective?

KG: I haven’t been in the arts long enough to answer that. From my personal point of view, it’s the ability to move you, and I see artists as those who manage to stand and look at society from the outside or a different angle. They shed light on this problem or point to that interesting fact and are basically pointing to things that we normally don’t notice. The power of art, I guess, is to potentially make you think that something can be changed or should be changed.

TV: It changes your perspective.

KG: Exactly. This is also why for me public art is interesting. Because it’s there, but you don’t tend to notice it so much. It should make you think differently of the public space or of how we are using the environment.

TV: Do you think art is changing? Is it changing from object-based to more digital art because we use a more and more digital language? Is the old kind of art vanishing?

KG: I think it just changes its form, but it is still the same thing. The form changes with the time, but the issues remain the same.

TV: So, you think it’s kind of a reflection of our lifestyle?

KG: Absolutely. But I think the idea of what the artist is trying to communicate still remains the same. Whatever the form or the medium is, it doesn’t change much as long as the idea behind it is the same.

TV: I think it changes its form and becomes more dynamic, because it’s getting digital. Suddenly it’s gone, it’s not like a painting that’s there on the wall for hundreds of years, it’s more in the moment.

KG: Everything is more spontaneous. But I think it’s not even about content for me; it’s more about the gesture and the way you make people think about something else. That makes you change your point of view.

TV: I love that moment! It makes a twist in your head.

KG: It’s that “wow” moment.

TV: The last point: What do you wish for the Zurich art scene? And what’s your vision for it?

KG: To be a little more open and for the city to give more funding to off-spaces or public projects. They are already doing so much work for this, but it seems like they also rely a lot on the institutions or the commercial galleries. I think they should support the off-spaces more.

TV: Thank you very much for the interview.


Kristina Grigorjeva (b. 1990, Tallinn, Estonia) is an independent architect and curator based in Zurich. After her studies at the Academy of Architecture in Mendrisio and at the University of Arts in Zurich, she worked for Caruso St John Architects, where she combined her architectural practice with various international curatorial projects. Her collaborations include the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale (2018) and Gasträume (a KiöR project for art in public spaces commissioned by the City of Zurich, 2019 and 2020), as well as institutions such as Architekturforum Zürich and Kulturfolger. She has also recently been appointed curator of the Stiftung BINZ39, following Gioia dal Molin, where she has set up a brand new program and worked with the residents to establish a new identity for the iconic foundation since November 2019. She was recently appointed (together with Camille Regli) as curatorial team for the exhibition space „Alte Krone“ in Biel/ Bienne.

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.

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